Buffy blinked at the darkness as she shuffled cautiously along in her bunny slippers of mint green fake fur. She tugged the faded long-sleeved man's shirt back onto her shoulder and peered into the gloom with searching eyes. "Hel-looo?" she called out hopefully. Carefully sliding a step to the left, she realized an illuminated circle of light was following her every move, rather like she were the star performer on stage. Noticing the beginnings of a small hole in the knee of her ancient jogging pants, she grimaced – hardly the most suitable costume for the apparent headliner of the show. "Hel-looo?" she ventured again, but there was no answer save the response of her own echo.

The Slayer wrinkled her nose thoughtfully. "Will? Are you playing the brain game again? Cuz if you wanna talk you can just, you know, come down the hall." She tilted her head, straining for the welcome sound of a reply but again, the cupboard was eerily bare.

"Okay," she muttered, looking around warily. "Some sort of hint would be nice here. Vacation photos from the void, not really doing much for me."

She glanced down at her feet. Captured in the bright beam, the bunny slippers no longer exuded a fluffy mint-fresh appeal. Instead, the fur had turned black and the teensy button eyes now sported a wicked red glint. As Buffy stared, the little mouths opened wide to reveal a gleaming matched set of miniscule fangs. They snapped spitefully but were really rather cute in their diminutive malevolence. The Slayer audibly tutted and rolled her eyes.

"Great," she sighed, "now I'm wearing Bunnicula."

Cautiously, she looked behind and whispered into the vast empty space. "Okay, I get it. Big dream, creepy stuff, blah blah blah. Can we get this over—"

As if in deference to her request, the area was instantly bathed in a warm soft glow. From countless sconces and candelabras of highly polished onyx – some positioned on the floor, others seeming to float independent of any form of support – flickered hundreds of ruby candles. Slender plumes of smoke coiled in a ribbon formation before mingling into a hazy ceiling overhead. The spotlight engulfing the Slayer began to evaporate, beginning at her toes and spiraling upward. Its movement was slow and deliberate and somehow intrinsically sensuous. It lingered for a moment like a nimbus on the blonde hair before dissipating entirely.

Buffy shivered as a tingle prickled at her spine and her demand was completed in a whisper, "—with?"

The void had now adopted the shape of a room. Upon a low dais of gold-veined black marble, a four-poster bed dominated the center, its canopy and hangings fashioned from the palest of gray voile. The quilted comforter and plumped pillows were of deep scarlet shantung, one corner of the coverlet invitingly turned down to reveal a single American Beauty Rose nestled upon the satin sheets. The walls were draped with dark crimson velvet that swayed rhythmically as they gently brushed the stone floor. Surprise registering on her face, Buffy absorbed the transformation and waited. The wait was not long.

Emerging from between the curtains at the far end of the room, a tall shadow appeared. His features were difficult to discern, but his demeanor radiated charm and animal magnetism. As he casually sauntered closer, Buffy could see that his hair was short and dark – even a little spiky. His shirt of midnight blue georgette, unfastened except for at the cuffs, billowed as he walked, displaying magnificent pectorals and a washboard stomach. The fitted jeans, top button left open, skimmed his narrow hips and followed the long muscular lines of his legs to fine boots of alligator skin.

Buffy's eyes opened wide. "Angel?" she whispered, her tone disbelieving yet expectant.

Heels tapping an unhurried tempo upon the flagstones, the figure failed to respond as he moved closer, his features now more fully illuminated by the candlelight. His lightly tanned skin glistened as though coated with a thin layer of oil. He looked at the Slayer with heavy-lidded eyes. "If you want me to be." The tone of his voice was like fine Napoleon brandy – smooth and intoxicating.

Initially a deer frozen in the headlights, Buffy was unable to move until he was within arm's reach. Then, she involuntarily stepped backward. Undeterred, he followed, a small smile playing about his lips. "No," stammered the Slayer, "No. No, that's okay. Really not wanting to go down— There. Go there."

Closer and closer he came as Buffy stumbled backward, stopping only when the backs of her knees made contact with the edge of the coverlet. Worriedly, she glanced behind and, realizing she could retreat no further without actually getting onto the bed, her neck swiveled first left and then right, seeking an escape, but the filmy hangings had descended, enveloping her in a cocoon with the mysterious stranger. The Slayer tried to move but suddenly found that her personal space had been totally invaded and she was now staring directly into the interloper's imposing chest. Buffy swallowed hard.

"Wh- Who are you?"

His hand reached out to stroke her cheek as the enigmatic smile broadened. The movement was agonizingly slow and Buffy held her breath. Her eyes darted from side to side as though indicating a desire to run but, almost as if mesmerized by his mere presence, she remained rooted to the spot, allowing her lids to slide closed as she waited for the touch of his fingertips. She inhaled deeply and was immediately assaulted by the scent of musk – masculine and overpowering. Suddenly, an insistent beep sounded in her ears and her eyes snapped open to a blinding flurry of red velvet. She blinked.

Upon opening her eyes once more, her vision was met with a room bright and filled with sunlight filtering in through the window. Huddled under the covers of her bed, she tugged the faded long-sleeved man's shirt back onto her shoulder and stared blearily at the nightstand. The image of herself, a smiling Willow and a grinning Xander beamed from the nearby picture frame. Her fist hammered at the snooze button on the alarm clock and she peered angrily at its digital readout – 8:00AM.

"You couldn't have waited another ten minutes?" she groaned.

"Loves, Labor, Lost"

Story by: Jet Wolf and Ultrace
Written by: Jet Wolf
Additional Material by: Novareinna
Tireless support and mucho de editing assistance by: Novareinna

Original Airdate: Tuesday, 20 July 2004, 8pm EST

Act One

Buffy entered the dining room to the usual breakfast scene. Willow was sitting at the head of the table farthest from the entrance, a mostly ignored plate of toast and a glass of orange juice shoved to the side to make way for the giant organizer that lay open in front of the redhead. Next to her sat Xander, alternating between inhaling strips of bacon and shoveling forkfuls of waffle into his mouth.

A stack of papers clutched in her hand, Willow leaned in close to Xander, very excitedly sharing their contents with him. Neither paid much notice to Buffy as the Slayer, bags under her bloodshot eyes, poured a glass of orange juice and quickly downed it before pouring another and taking a seat across from Willow.

"Oh, but this one," enthused Willow as she turned to the next section in her organizer. "I'm so excited about this one, I can't even tell you." She pulled free another thick wad of papers from the divider's pocket and placed them before Xander, leaning over so she could look at them too.

Xander gave the pages a quick scan with a dubious expression before he read the heading. "'Theory of ... automata'?" He glanced at Willow, checking to see if he pronounced the word correctly, and she nodded at him, beaming all the while. Turning back, Xander continued, "... languages, and compatibility."

"Computability," the hacker corrected.

"And now we see why I never went to college." Xander waggled his bacon at Willow. "I would've flunked not only the written, but the verbal." He took a savage bite from the greasy strip.

Glancing back at the papers, Willow nodded. "It's a mouthful, I know, but the professor, he's so funny! He made this joke about context-free languages that just—"

"Will? This early, about as much mental challenge I can stand is figurin' out what kinda syrup I want." He gestured to the pages she was gathering together. "Your class titles are a puzzle to me. Please don't make my tiny brain explode."

"Sorry. Sorry," she apologized, still beaming. "A new term just gets the ol' ticker pumpin', you know?" Clearly Xander did not know anything of the sort, but the redhead's enthusiasm would not be dampened. She breathed deeply, as though savoring the aroma of a fine cognac. "The allure of a brand spankin' new notebook, spending way too much money on an assortment of textbooks with frequently irrelevant covers—"

Xander blinked at her. "Mmm, maple," he remarked pointedly, jabbing his forkful of waffle in Willow's direction.

A stuck-out tongue was her only retort, and Willow turned her attentions to the half-asleep Slayer. "So how's Buffy today?"

"Tired. Grumpy," the blonde replied with a huff.

Wrapping a protective arm around his breakfast, Xander eyed Buffy warily. "She's degenerated to one-word responses. Hide everything breakable."

"Whassa matter?" a concerned Willow asked instead.

With a groan, Buffy rubbed her bleary eyes. "Dreams. Really ... intense. I'm still having trouble waking up."

"Dreams?" gulped Xander through a mouthful of waffle. "Bad dreams? Slashy, deathy, evil dreams?"

"No, more ..." Buffy searched for the right words. "Satiny, candle-y, romantic dreams."

The carpenter relaxed instantly. "Ahh." He nodded sagely. "I know of these dreams only too well."

"Maybe you just need a—" Willow broke off, and she turned to Xander with an expression of complete befuddlement, as though she could not have possibly heard him correctly. He neither retracted his statement nor saw fit to further expound, however, instead only giving Willow a nod of encouragement for her to proceed.

Glancing from one to the other, Buffy clearly had no idea what they were talking about. "A what? I need a what? And don't say psychiatrist, because so no."

But the momentary certainty had been fleeting, and now the redhead was clearly nervous. "Well, see, we've been ... There've been talkings, a-and Xander an' me ... or is it ‘Xander and I'?" She frowned. "I never remember that grammar rule, and really, either one sounds right. I think you'd drop the ‘Xander and' part though, and whichever makes the rest of the sentence grammatically correct is the right one, so in this instance I think—"

"You need a date," interrupted Xander, leaning forward and ignoring the irritated glare from Willow.

Buffy stared, her red eyes having difficulty focusing. "I need a what?"

"A date," he repeated.

"And not the fruity, sugarcoated kind," added Willow.

"You know, that social interaction thing that two people do when they're trying to find out if they can stand being alone together for more than five seconds at a time?" Xander jabbed his finger decisively at the Slayer. "You should have one of those. A normal one of those. With someone whose body is above room temperature."

The blonde was instantly defensive. "I've had a normal date!"


Flustered, Buffy searched her memory. It took several seconds, but finally she settled on one that was perfectly crafted to make her point. "With Riley. Riley and I, we went to see a movie." A firm, single nod of her head indicated to all that as far as Buffy was concerned, the battle was won.

"Riley," echoed Xander with a note of disbelief. "Your last normal date was a guy who was drugged, chipped and semi-brainwashed as part of a secret government-sponsored monster hunting squad, who then later let himself be drained by vampires for fun before running off into the jungles of where-in-the-hell."

For a brief moment, the words simply hung there.

"Okay, I grant you, Riley sort of raises the bar for normalcy," she relented, "but ... but there's ... I mean ..."

"I think it was Scott Hope," muttered Willow mostly to herself with a contemplative expression, as though she were working out a highly complex logic puzzle.

Buffy's expression fell as she realized her friend was most likely painfully close to the truth. Soon, however, she shifted to irritation. "You two have been discussing my social life?"

"What social life?" countered Xander, remaining brave in the face of the Slayer's impending wrath. His tone softened as the carpenter attempted to plead his case. "Look, Buff, we just think you, you know, could do with meeting a nice guy an' I think maybe your dream-filled subconscious agrees with us." Immediately Buffy's mouth snapped open to retort, but Xander hurriedly pressed on before she could, raising his volume in anticipation of the protest. "So to aid in this, we—" he gestured to himself and an uncomfortable-looking Willow, "—have some fine candidates in mind."

The blonde didn't react to the news, save for narrowing her gaze at Willow, glaring openly.

"He's a good guy!" the witch exclaimed, searching for some way out of this mess with all four limbs attached. "And cute, in that slightly geeky-yet-endearing Hal Sparks kinda way."

Xander's smile was encouraging. "C'mon, Buff. New year, birthday just around the corner ... It's a time of new beginnings."

The Slayer continued to glare flatly at the conspirators. "I'm guaranteed to not get even two minutes of peace about this unless I agree, am I?"

"Or your money back," Xander cheerfully confirmed.

The answering sigh was long and very pained, and when Buffy spoke, her tone was coated with unenthusiastic resignation. "Fine." She rubbed her forehead painfully. "Date me up, Scotty."

Dawn, her bright pink backpack slung over one shoulder, entered the room. Without hesitation, she crossed to Willow's side and scooped up the uneaten piece of toast. Taking a huge bite, she glanced at her sister with a smirk. "Date? You're dating now?" The teenager tipped her head to one side. "Awww."

"'Awww'?" Buffy echoed with a frown.

A lesser person might have experienced fear at the hint of warning in Buffy's voice, but Dawn was no such person. "It's just, you know." she shrugged and popped the last morsel of toast in her mouth. "Cute. Like when you see little ol' gran'mas getting ready for their beaux."

For some reason, Buffy didn't seem to find the comparison a favorable one. "I'm glad you think so, since that's as old as you're going to have to be before you can date."

Rolling her eyes dramatically, Dawn readjusted her backpack and strode toward the kitchen. "Jackie's outside, gotta get to school. Later guys."

Willow and Xander called out goodbyes while Buffy simply glared at the retreating back of her sister, particularly when Dawn started singing.

"Buffy and some random guy, sittin' in a tree ..."

"... k-i-s-s-i-n-g." Virginia's voice was hushed and she leaned forward toward her friends, as though imparting military secrets that threatened world security.

Dawn and her circle of friends had commandeered one of the picnic tables on the front lawn of the school. Snow still covered the ground, but the sun was out and despite the brisk chill, the temperature was relatively mild. The girls were soaking up as much sunlight as they could.

Virginia sat on the far end next to Meghan and across from Jackie. Brenda was between Jackie and Dawn, and all were staring with a peculiar expression at the petite blonde.

"Why are you spelling things now?" inquired Meghan, pausing momentarily in the consumption of her PB&J repast.

Unable to do more than blush, Virginia ducked her head, prompting an eye roll from Jackie. "Oh spare me. There is simply no way that Gina Parisot would be caught dead making out with Lars Noxon. It's just not happening."

Somehow Virginia found her voice and vigorously defended her gossip. "But Melissa said that Abby said that—"

Thrusting her hand into the air as though to create a barrier between herself and the words, Jackie refused to be swayed. "Don't care. Didn't happen. End of discussion."

"Yes, please," Meghan agreed. "Some of us are trying to eat."

Mostly oblivious to the intense debate, Brenda's attention was focused on Dawn. The brunette's elbows were resting on the tabletop and her forehead was pressed against open palms. Dawn's face was scrunched in pain as she rubbed at her temples.

Brenda leaned over to get a better view of Dawn's face. "You okay?" she asked, concerned.

The question attracted everyone's attention, but Dawn's eyes were closed and she didn't notice. "Yeah," she breathed, turning slightly toward Brenda, her lids slitting open. "M'okay."

A worried frown was evident on Virginia's features. "Another headache?"

"It's becoming chronic, Summers," Meghan pointed out, wearing a similar expression. "You should tell someone."

At this, Dawn's head came up, still moving slowly and cautiously, but with a burst of relative speed. Her eyes opened fully; pain was still evident, and it was obvious she was making a concerted effort to appear better.

"No. I'm fine. Two Advil and they just disappear. No problem."

Looking from one girl to the next, it soon became clear that nobody was convinced. "Seriously guys. I'm fine." Dawn decided to jump topics. "Now, who's making out with who?"

Reluctantly, her friends let the matter drop, Virginia picking up the threads of her conversation. "W-Well, according to Abby, Gina Parisot—"

Brenda wasn't paying any more attention the second time around. "Hey, Dawn? Don't look, but I think someone's checking you out."

So, of course, four heads all turned immediately to look in the direction Brenda had indicated.

"Smooth, guys," she muttered.

Across the yard stood a small contingent of four males. The group had an intentionally casual air, as though they were collectively working very hard to show how laid back they were. Standing out somewhat from the group was Grip, who had staked his claim on a bare tree and was leaning his shoulder against it. Despite the snow-covered ground, all were in possession of a skateboard, playing with them idly as they talked. Their attention was focused on Dawn and her friends.

Dawn spun around to Brenda, her eyes wide. "What? No. Nuh-uh. They could be looking at any of us."

"They probably heard Ginny's degeneration into a three-year old earlier and are stunned beyond words," commented Meghan wryly. This earned her a dark glare from Virginia, but Meghan didn't seem to be overly intimidated.

Jackie picked up her soda and took a swig. "Well I guess we can ask ‘em ourselves." She pointed slightly with the can. The others turned back to look, and saw Grip striding toward them, his destination clear. Brenda and Virginia began to giggle, but at the glares from the other two, were able to get it quickly under control. Grip came to a stop before Dawn, who for her part, gaped up at him, frozen.

Grip took in the situation with a quick glance and smiled. "Coke, huh?" he asked Dawn.

Dawn's reply was deep, thoughtful and provocative. "Huh?" Grip pointed to the soda can in her hand, and Dawn dumbly stared at it for a second. "Oh. Oh, yeah. Coke. Coke is good. I like Coke." Involuntarily, Dawn winced at her own colossal lameness.

The skater didn't seem to mind, however, and he smiled. "I'm a Dew man myself. Gotta keep up the stereotype."

"I would've guessed Surge," bantered Dawn.

"I like the classics."

Unnoticed by either, Dawn's friends were looking from Grip to Dawn and back again, glancing at each other and shrugging.

The pleasantries apparently determined to be out of the way, Grip settled in to business. "So, there I was, over there with that group of losers I call friends," he jerked his head in the direction of the trio of guys across the yard who were watching the scene with interest, "and it suddenly hit me: I could spend Friday night at Doug's house playing Grand Theft Auto or something, or I could maybe spend it with you. And while the prospect of driving a tank down the street and being chased by the FBI is undeniably appealing, somehow I think I'd like this better."

The brief moment of cool composure Dawn had managed to drudge up from somewhere abandoned her completely. "A- Are you— Me and— The—"

"I'm socially inept," apologized Grip with a self-effacing grin. "Is that a yes, you'll go out with me tomorrow? Please say okay. Seriously, there are only so many times you can make the bazooka enjoyable. And I lie when I say that," he added immediately, ‘but please say okay anyway."

Dawn continued to do a very admirable impression of a deer confronted by large, glowing headlights. "O-Okay," she managed to stutter.

Grip's grin became a full-fledged smile. "Great. I'll come by and pick you up about 7?"

"Okay," replied Dawn in the same vaguely lost tone.

"Excellent. See you then."

"Okay," she repeated.

Still smiling, Grip began the return trip to his friends who, upon seeing the look on his face, started whooping and high-fiving each other. Dawn watched all of this without really seeing it, a blank expression on her face.

As soon as Grip was out of earshot, Dawn's friends erupted into chatter.

"Wow," sighed Virginia, looking like she might clasp her hands together and swoon at any moment. "That was just ... wow."

"I'm so jealous!" Brenda exclaimed without malice, pleased for her friend.

With a tilted head and appraising expression, Meghan nodded approvingly as she watched Grip walk away. "Damn," she summed up, then turned to Dawn. "You go, girl."

"Now you realize that complete details are mandatory," Jackie insisted sternly, without room for disagreement.

"Okay," Dawn repeated, her record clearly stuck. After a moment, however, life began to return, and she spun around to her friends and grinned. "I got a date! A real date!" As soon as the words left Dawn's mouth, a thought occurred and her enthusiasm dimmed. "Ohhh ... I really hope Buffy wasn't serious this morning about the gran'ma thing ..."

Two figures – one wearing a winter coat and the other almost literally buried under layers upon layers of clothing – entered the Student Union. The bundled individual tossed back the hood of her parka, revealing a teeth-chattering, rosy-cheeked Willow. She aggressively rubbed her hands together and blew on them, attempting to hasten their warming up.

Her friend Erin watched with extreme amusement, tugging off her ball cap and shaking it free of any lingering snow. Willow caught the smirk, and glowered for a moment before deciding to expend her energies on chasing away the lingering chill.

"This cold is gonna kill me," she complained bitterly. "I was born and raised in southern California. The world just shouldn't get this cold."

Shaking her head, Erin simply said, "Wuss."

The comment was ignored. "Warmth. Need warmth. Need the warmthy goodness possible only through coffee."

With that, Willow grabbed Erin by the arm and dragged her toward the Union's nearby coffee shop. As they took their place in line, Erin yawned hugely, throwing a stretch into the mix for good measure.

"Sounds like you could use some too," Willow observed. "Late night?"

Erin frowned. "No, actually. I went to sleep really early. And I slept straight through to my alarm this morning." She rubbed her eyes, trying to blink them further apart. "But it's weird, I don't feel like I slept a wink. Maybe it was the dream."

The line shuffled forward and Willow stepped up to the counter to place her order. "Large mocha, extra chocolate. Ooo, and a cream cheese danish, because – why not?" The redhead paid the indicated amount and moved to the pick-up section.

"Espresso," Erin ordered, unable to stifle another yawn. "Better make it a double." She, too, paid and rejoined Willow as they waited.

"What was your dream about?" asked the redhead, grabbing a small handful of napkins from the nearby dispenser.

An odd look crossed Erin's features as she reflected on the events of the previous night. "It was pretty ..." She searched for the best adjective. "Well, strange. It was—"

The arrival of their orders curtailed any further immediate explanation. The girls took their cups and found an empty table near the back, settling down before Erin again tried to describe her dream.

"It was all candles and red silk. Sort of like, if you could climb inside the cover of a Harlequin romance?" She appeared pleased with that analogy. "Like that. With less Fabio."

Willow smirked as she sipped her mocha. "Well count your blessings then."

Her friend nodded enthusiastically, obviously in complete agreement. "Oh, I did. But still, it was ... intense. And the guy in it ... whoa. We're talkin' Playgirl centerfold."

"Trouble with Bryan?" grinned the redhead in a joking tone.

Erin, though, remained somewhat serious. "No, not at all, which makes it even weirder." A frown appeared on her features as she gave the dream more thought. "And it was like I really didn't wanna wake up. Like it was a fight to turn off the alarm." Erin's untouched espresso sat on the table, cooling and forgotten.

Setting down her own cup, Willow thoughtfully tilted her head to one side. "Huh. You know, it sounds a bit like the dream Buffy had last night. Maybe someone put some Smoochie Juice in the city's water supply."

"Maybe," agreed Erin, though in a doubtful tone. "Hope it was a one-time deal, though. We've got that huge report for Steiner to work on this weekend. And my aversion to having projects this fast into the term aside, I need my beauty sleep." She smirked. "Else all I'm gonna have are the hunky guys in my dreams."

Willow lifted her pastry and took a huge bite, murmuring appreciatively. "But you'll still have danish," she noted, lifting it into the air, "and with that, you need nothing else."

Erin mulled over the platitude. "You know, I don't quite buy that."

Taking another bite, Willow concurred. "No, me neither, but it's still yummy."

Hannah rapped briskly upon the door to Giles' loft before thrusting her hand back into the deep pocket of her brown leather bombardier jacket. She rocked back and forth on her heels while waiting and then checked her wristwatch – 7:15PM.

The door opened, and she glanced up. "Ah, Hannah," said the Watcher, standing aside and gesturing for her to enter. "I appreciate your coming over so quickly."

She shrugged. "No problem. I wasn't far away, actually. I discovered a charming little antiques store a few blocks down. I'm considering purchasing a 15th century Chinese leather lacquered box to decorate my new apartment. It's quite charming, and only $895." She stared at him with innocent blue eyes.

"What? Eight hundred and— Why on earth would you want to pay almost a thousand dollars for- for a box?" Giles' tone was incredulous.

"Mostly to see that expression on your face, Ziggy," replied Hannah with a chuckle, removing her jacket and tossing it carelessly over the back of a chair.

"Yes, well," flustered Giles, "if you're quite through finding amusement in my reactions—"

"Guaranteed to never happen," the blonde assured.

Ignoring the barb, the Watcher sternly regarded his ex-wife, "—then we can get to the really important matters."

Hannah flopped down into an over-stuffed recliner and threw one leg over the arm. "You taking me out to dinner tonight?"

Giles persisted with his snubbing. "The Sunnydale issue," he stated firmly.

Hannah set her swinging leg on the floor and leaned forward, elbows resting on her knees. The teasing posture was instantly discarded, as was the element of flirtation. Immediately she was strictly a woman of business. "It's been almost two months," she said quietly. "I thought perhaps it was a false alarm." She watched Giles' face for his reaction.

"No such luck," he sighed. "It's simply taken them this long to- to untangle the mess left behind."

Hannah's eyes narrowed speculatively. "What did they discover?"

The Watcher removed his glasses and polished them with a white handkerchief. "Well nothing definitive. But they've confirmed it's safe to investigate now."

The blonde pursed her lips. "Not really ‘untangling' then, is it?" she stated.

"No, I suppose not," agreed Giles. "But regardless, we can now see what's been going on. And that's why I wanted to talk to you." He took a seat on the couch across from Hannah. "The Coven's seers have been able to take a look at Sunnydale and the surrounding area. What they've seen is ... surprising."

"The Hellmouth?"

The Watcher continued to wipe away imaginary smears from his glasses. "No. And perhaps that's the surprising part. What they observed was a- a sort of ... excavation. Only not quite so organized." He paused at Hannah's confused expression before attempting to clarify. "From how they described it to me, it's as though someone scaled into the Sunnydale crater and then simply ... shifted aside the rubble to create a path."

"A path to where?" Hannah cupped her chin in one hand and tapped a finger thoughtfully on the tip of her nose.

"That's part of the problem, they can't tell," the Watcher relayed, replacing his glasses and frowning as though they were still smudged. "It goes underground and the residual mystical energies are preventing them from probing further. And while they have agreed to investigate if necessary, given my rather ... familiar knowledge of Sunnydale, they're urging the Watcher's Council to take action."

Hannah threw her leg back over the arm of the chair. "How kind of them," she remarked with a wry grin.

"Indeed," replied Giles, acknowledging the irony in her tone. "Though honestly, I think this may be the safest course of action. A dozen or more powerful witches teleporting into the area may exacerbate the situation. Whatever it may be."

Hannah nodded. "Okay, I've got the exposition. What's next?"

"Well ... how do you feel about spelunking?" The question was posed reluctantly.

An amused and knowing look crept into the blonde's eyes. "You want me to check it out."

The Watcher shuffled in his seat, as though unable to find a comfortable position. "I'm loathe to send anyone, really, but we must find out what has been disturbed. There is any number of lost artifacts or- or ancient tomes that seemed to conveniently find their way into Sunnydale over the years. And the dimensional walls were weak there to start with, something might have come through, or be going back ... There are simply too many unknowns to ignore something of this magnitude."

His ex-wife dismissed the implied concerns with a casual wave. "Rupert. It's all right, I agree with you. Besides, I never did get the opportunity to visit while you were living there, this should be a pleasant experience."

Obviously still nervous about the mission, but a little calmer than before thanks to Hannah's self-confidence, Giles smiled at her pensively. "I doubt most people who ever spent a great length of time in Sunnydale could sum it up with the word ‘pleasant'."

With a toss of her head, the blonde smirked, "Well, I'm not most people." Then, taking stock of the Watcher's serious expression, she asked, "Do you want me to go alone?"

"Good lord, no," declared Giles with authority, "although I do think that the smaller the force, the greater the chances for success. There's no way of knowing what, if anything, may have been left behind as a- a ward, or-or alarm system of some kind. Though if there's anything, it's likely not been triggered to react to simple human exploration. Which is why I'm sending just you and Robin."

She nodded her satisfaction at his choice of partner. "Sounds good. When do we leave?"

"Early Monday morning," he told her. "That gives both of you a few days to get whatever equipment you may need and to make your plans. I booked you both plane tickets to Los Angeles and arranged for a rental car. From there ... well, however you see fit, I suppose."

Hannah pondered the situation for a moment. "If the damage done to the town was as extensive as you say, it could take us a few days to make it through and gather as much information as we can." She smiled encouragingly at Giles' rather bleak expression. "Well, I suppose a trip to the sporting goods store is in order. And what's even better, I have plenty of time still."

Giles appeared startled. "Time?" he queried. "Time for what?"

Getting to her feet, she retrieved her jacket from the back of the chair and dangled it in front of him. Instinctively, the Watcher jumped up and took it, holding it out as she slipped her arms into the sleeves. In typical gentlemanly fashion, he made sure it was settled upon her shoulders and then pulled the fur collar snug around her neck. She stayed his hand before he could fasten the zipper.

"I think I can mange that part." She winked, "You were always better at sliding them down than sliding them up anyway."

An embarrassed flush crossed Giles' face. "Um ... yes. Sorry ..." he mumbled. She patted his cheek.

"Anyway," she continued, obviously relishing his discomfort, "back to your question about time. Time for you to take me to dinner, Rupert. I did mention it already, do please try to pay attention. And don't even bother with the ‘it wouldn't be proper' line of reasoning, because I'm frankly sick of it."

Considering the proposition for a moment, Giles extended his arm. "Hannah, would you do me the honor of accompanying me to dinner?"

She slipped her hand into the crook of his elbow with a smile. "I would be delighted," she replied, leading him toward the door. "There," she told him, "see how much easier life is when you give in to my every whim?"

"Ahh yes." Giles gave a mock sigh of resignation. "How silly of me to have ever forgotten."

Hannah tutted and treated him to a squeeze. "I suppose I'll just have to keep on reminding you."

Buffy tossed and turned beneath the bedcovers, unable to find a comfortable position. Grumbling under her breath, she rolled first to the left and then to the right before groaning loudly and opening her eyes, a look of intense irritation invading her face. Without moving her head, she apprehensively took stock of her surroundings – the expression of annoyance quickly dissolving into one of surprise. The scarlet shantung quilt was cool to the touch and Buffy bunched the fabric between her fingers, noting the voile hangings which surrounded her on all sides, virtually making her captive within a gauze prison. Raising herself on one elbow, the Slayer peered through the thin material. The ruby candles flickered as before, casting shadowy shapes – indistinct and vaguely disturbing – upon the flagstones.

The Slayer took a deep breath and squeezed her eyes tightly shut in concentration. "Okay, hormones," she instructed firmly, "this is Buffy speaking. Consider this your cease and desist notification."

Hopefully, she squinted open one eye but everything remained exactly the same. "Somehow, I think it'll take more than a date to clear all this up," she murmured nervously.

An almost imperceptible shifting within the dim light to her left caught the Slayer's attention. For a moment, it appeared as though she might part the translucent curtains in order to see better but instead, she remained very still and watched with fascinated eyes as a distinctly masculine form began to materialize. She bit her bottom lip as the faint but unmistakable scent of musk assaulted her senses.

"Look," she whispered, "this is starting to get kinda stalker now."

The figure declined to comment as he strolled deliberately forward, heels tapping lightly upon the stone floor. Circling the bed, his fingers trailed over the gossamer drapes. They rippled at his touch but remained unbreached.

Buffy followed his every move. "Would you at least say something?"

"Words are really unnecessary, don't you think?" he replied.

"Oh, I dunno," the Slayer responded. "Lot of good stuff comes from words. Sentences. Paragraphs. Prepositional phrases. Dangling participles."

The figure chuckled. It was a rich and throaty sound.

"Okay," said Buffy slowly, "so you're going to take everything as innuendo, which, to be fair, does sort of plead your case against words."

Reaching the foot of the bed, the figure slowly turned and began to circle in the opposite direction, his touch still threatening to break through the delicate barrier of voile. Buffy found it hard to inhale, almost as though the air itself were being stifled. Her eyes never wavered from the moving figure although he wasn't always easy to see, weaving in and out of the fluctuating shadows.

"Buffy," he breathed, his voice so close that the Slayer's head whirled to the right, believing him to be mere inches away, but he was lingering beyond the fringes of the marbled dais. "Why must you make this so difficult?"

"You know who I am?" she asked warily.

He chuckled again. This time, the soft laugh seemed to be laced with an intimate knowledge. "I know everything about you."

"Advantage you, then." The Slayer's tone was verging on irritation. "Look, can you at least tell me your name?"

He hooked his thumbs into the belt loops of his jeans, palms resting upon his hips. "You can call me whatever you wish." His silken shirt fluttered in a light breeze that seemed to exist only beyond the confines of Buffy's veiled entrapment.

"You keep this up, I'm gonna call you 'dead hunky guy'— Not that you're hunky!" she hastened to add.

She sensed rather than saw the amused smile which crinkled his features.

"How long as it been?" he asked suggestively.

Buffy felt her cheeks begin to burn and she pulled her knees up to her chin, in an almost protective gesture of defense. "God," she mumbled with embarrassment, "personal much?"

He took a step closer, candlelight images reflected in his brooding eyes. "How long as it been since you've allowed someone to take care of you?" he inquired, tone dripping with tenderness and concern. "To love you?"

"I- I don't need ..." faltered the Slayer.

He smiled knowingly. "That may be what you tell others. What they may think. But I know you, Buffy. I know everything about you. I know things about you that you yourself have yet to realize. And I can teach you."

"Teach me?" she queried, wary but seemingly unable to stop herself from falling further into the web of entrancement he was weaving with an expert skill. She leaned forward expectantly, straining to discern his form through the hazy fabric enveloping the dais, but he was no longer there. She started suddenly as his figure emerged through the hangings on her left. He parted the drapery with one hand and quietly approached, moving to sit on the perimeter of the coverlet. Pulling the sheets to her chin, Buffy instinctively shuffled away, but appeared to entertain no thought of true flight.

He edged closer. She was now able to fully appreciate the well-toned body – broad shoulders and firm muscles gleaming with a thin layer of oil. There was not a single ounce of excess fat to be seen and every inch of visible flesh had been tanned to a delightful shade of Crème Brûlè. Unconsciously, Buffy moistened her lips, as though wondering if his skin might taste equally as delicious as it looked.

"Oh yes," he murmured, venturing even closer. "I can teach you so many wonderful things. So many pleasurable things. You need only ask me. Ask me to show you, Buffy."

Buffy's eyes darted from left to right and then back again. "I—" she stammered.

With the ease of a snake slithering through soft sand, he slipped across the quilt and extended his hand. The Slayer hesitated, but only for a brief moment. Then, closing her eyes, she inched toward him, her breath coming in rapid gasps.

"Ask me," he commanded, his voice low – a seductively purring baritone. "Beg me."

"Please, I—"

With an unexpected jerk, Buffy was wrenched in a violent motion which left her sitting bolt upright in the bed. She looked around with bloodshot eyes – eyes ringed with purple circles, giving every indication of an insomniac who hadn't slept well in days. Nearby, Xander quickly retracted the hand which had been aggressively shaking her shoulder.

"Geez, Buff," spluttered the carpenter. "You were sleepin' like the dead. I've been tryin' to wake you up for over five minutes!"

The Slayer blinked several times, still dazed and extremely disoriented.

Xander grinned. "That must've been some dream!"

Narrowing her eyes, Buffy could only frown in confusion.

Act Two

Another morning, another breakfast, with even Dawn in attendance this time. A newspaper lay next to Willow, mostly forgotten, and nobody was actually eating – instead, all attention was focused on the scowling contest between combatants Dawn and Buffy Summers. Buffy was winning, in spite of the fact that she was clearly exerting three times the normal amount of energy simply to keep herself awake.

"Doesn't matter," Buffy stubbornly insisted, her arms crossed over her chest. "I want to meet him."

Anxious for some sort of escape route, Dawn looked to Xander and Willow, but she found no support for her case. Instead, both seemed to be in complete agreement with the Slayer. Quickly realizing she was being forced into a corner, Dawn glanced back to Buffy nervously. "Okay, fine, but ... Don't scare him off? Please?"

"I promise only not to maim."

Dawn began fretting on the spot.

"Visibly," Buffy added, sending her sister straight down the path to a nervous breakdown.

Xander was quick to jump in and soothe the frazzled teen's nerves. "She's joking." Dawn turned back to the blonde, finding nothing at all of a jovial nature in the expression there. With a whimper, Dawn cast a pleading look at Xander, who patted her hand assuringly. "She's joking." Buffy simply huffed audibly and sipped her juice as Xander continued. "We just wanna meet the guy who's claimed our little Dawnster's heart."

Dawn obviously felt secure enough again to be snarky. "It's a date, not a betrothal, geez."

"And make sure it stays that way," Buffy grumbled.

Willow leaned forward, settling into the tried and familiar mode of girl talk. "So where's he gonna take you?" she inquired excitedly.

"I don't know," replied Dawn with equal excitement. "He said somewhere different." Catching Buffy's look, she added, "Though I'm sure it's well lit and chaperoned."

Clasping her hands together, the redhead gazed at Dawn with a loving expression that was leaning heavily on the ‘overly dramatic' side. "Our Dawnie's first date! You're growin' up so fast!" With a gasp, Willow suddenly exclaimed, "Oh! Pictures! We have to have pictures! Lots of pictures!"

The teenager's eyes flew open, and she looked as though she was trapped by insanity on all sides. She completely missed the huge wink Willow shot at Xander, instead doing her best to shift the focus of attention away from her and the numerous ways she could be humiliated. "What about Buffy? I'm not the only one with a date tonight."

"Don't worry. I'll be snappin' pics of her and Jacob too," confirmed Willow.

The expected onslaught of protest never arrived, as Buffy was too busy nodding off at the table to pay the conversation any further mind. Her cheek had slid halfway down her arm, but something inside finally snapped her back to attention, and the Slayer sat up straight in her seat. She blinked her eyes wide, trying to force them open.

Dawn leaned over to Willow, speaking in a whispered voice. "Can you get one now? It might make good blackmail material later."

Willow grinned and shooed Dawn toward the doorway.

"Fine, school for me. Jackie'll be here any minute." With a final semi-glare at her sister, Dawn left the room. Buffy's head was once again perched on her hand, her fist deeply embedded into her cheek and she was making every conceivable effort to remain conscious.

Xander studied the blonde carefully for a moment. His eyes still riveted on Buffy, he said to Willow, "You realize this is probably a sign of some sort of evil."

"Yeah, figured as much," agreed Willow with a nod. "Probably has something to do with this." She flipped the newspaper to the front page, revealing a headline that read, ‘Three More Victims of Mysterious Sleeping Sickness'. "There are seven cases reported total," the witch relayed, checking the paper to verify her facts. "It looks like it's localized to Trillium – of course – and so far it's only women who are affected."

Also reading the paper, though at an awkward angle, Xander huffed. "That's just discrimination. I want equal napping opportunity!"

Ignoring him, Willow continued to summarize the article. "The victims are falling into a coma-like state, but their vital signs are strong. They just aren't waking up." Sparing a glance at her watch, the redhead suddenly became alarmed and hurriedly began to gather her books together, shoving them deep within the confines of her backpack. "Anyway, I'll check it out later, do some research. We should probably mention it to Giles, just in case."

"On it," he replied.

Willow sprinted for the door. "Cool gotta run can't be late for class have a nice day I'll see you after school bye!" she shouted over her shoulder in one breath.

This left only Xander and Buffy. "So, Buff," the carpenter began. "Big dinner date with Willow's friend tonight ... Big lunch date with my friend Kyle tomorrow ... I bet'cha just feelin' the excitement."

He turned to Buffy. She was indeed feeling the excitement. She was feeling it so much, her head had slipped down and her face was resting mostly on her toast. She snored lightly.

Reaching out, Xander clasped a hand on Buffy's arm and shook, first gently, then with more gusto until the blonde jerked her head up. The toast remained stuck to her face for just a moment, then slowly peeled away and landed back on the plate with a crusty ‘thunk!' She was clearly disoriented and looked around in confusion.

"The main message I'm getting outta all this is ‘buy stock in No Doze'," commented Xander, giving her arm a concerned squeeze. "You okay?"

"Yeah," Buffy replied simply. "Tired."

"Wanna maybe go back to bed?"

Buffy shook her head then rubbed the bridge of her nose. "Uh-uh. Not in the mood for more scenes from an after-hours Lifetime movie."

"Maybe it's like A Nightmare on Elm Street," Xander suggested helpfully. "Only with more silk and less murder."

"I think I'd almost prefer the murder," replied Buffy grimly. "At least that I'm somewhat familiar with."

"Most interesting."

Giles was seated behind his desk, carefully reading over the article that Willow had pointed out that morning. In one of the chairs across from him, Xander played with a miniature sword that doubled as a letter opener, pretending to be a foot-high Errol Flynn.

"Yup," the carpenter agreed, parrying an imaginary attack. "Very Sandman. What'dya think it is?"

"I'm not entirely sure," replied Giles with a frown. "It could be any one of a number of causes. A curse, a magickal creature, a late-night marathon of old ‘Twilight Zone' episodes ..." Grinning at his own small attempt at humor, Giles turned to Xander, only to find that he was alone in his merriment. Giles cleared his threat and returned to the article. "Right, well, at least the young ladies affected don't appear to be in any immediate physical danger. I'll get some of the staff on it right away."

"Okie-dokie." Xander finished his ‘battle' with a dramatic flourish, returned the letter opener to its proper place and rose to his feet. "If you need any help, just lemme know. I'll be in my workshop."

Setting the paper down, Giles glanced to Xander. "I've been meaning to ask how that was working for you. Do you have enough room?"

"Oh, yeah, plenty. I'm like Bob Vila in there. Only with no beard. Maybe I should grow one. What do you think?" Reaching out, Xander snatched the bushy black scarf that was draped on the coat rack by the door. He held it up to his chin and smiled charmingly, looking every bit a reject from ZZ Top. "Thick manly beard? Might be the key to a soaring victory or crushing defeat when I get the business goin'."

"I'd, uh ... I'd recommend holding off for the time being," advised Giles with a smirk. Shrugging, Xander returned the scarf . "When do you think you'll be ready to start?" the Watcher inquired.

Xander chewed on the question. "Ohhh ... A month or three? I'm workin' on some new designs now, buildin' up an inventory – Heh. I have an ‘inventory'. How cool is that?" The carpenter grinned at Giles like a little boy on Christmas morning, and Giles couldn't help but smile in return at Xander's enthusiasm. "Will's puttin' in double time on the website, so that'll actually be ready before I am. That's what happens when you draft an over-achiever, I suppose. But it's exciting."

"You know if you need any financial backing, or—"

"No, thanks." The reply was quick, but Xander held up his hand and explained. "Not that I don't appreciate the offer, G-Man, cuz I do. But ..." Shuffling his feet, Xander appeared embarrassed by his admission. "This is somethin' I wanna do myself. Web site aside, of course."

"Of course," Giles smiled understandingly.

"Gettin' the money together, makin' it all fly ... it'll be somethin' I can really be proud of, y'know?"

Studying Xander for a moment, the Watcher nodded, and Xander relaxed as he realized his rejection hadn't offended. Giles regarded Xander fondly. "Well I know that I'm certainly proud of you, so it stands to reason that you should be too."

Grinning again, Xander ducked his head, and it was apparent that he was all but bursting at the seams at Giles' approval. "Thanks," he said, smile evident in his voice. He reached for the knob behind him and pulled open the door open. "Anyway, I'm gonna head on over. Got a rockin' chair that can't rock yet, an' that's just sad."

Giles lifted the newspaper to read the article again, when Xander's spoke once more. "Oh, yeah, an' you might wanna stop off in the training room an' see Buffy."

"Buffy?" The Watcher frowned. "Why, what's wrong?"

"I think she may be comin' down with this ‘sleeping sickness' thing. She said she's been havin' some pretty strange dreams the past few nights, though. Might be linked."

The information was mentally filed away. "Yes, it may at that. Thank you, Xander."

"Sure thing." As the carpenter left the room, his voice trailed back, chatting to himself. "Maybe ‘The Wooden Nickel'? Hmmm ..."

The door closed with a soft click, and Giles studied the newspaper once more.

Giles strode into the private training room, obviously on the hunt for something or someone. He soon spotted his target. Buffy lay on a workout table designed for helping with sit-ups. Her positioning was perfect – feet underneath the provided supports, hands tucked behind her head. She gave every impression of an individual about to begin an intensive work-out. Were it not for the snoring.

Concerned, Giles crossed to his Slayer, peering down at her, but the blonde showed no signs of waking any time soon. "Buffy." No reaction. He tried again, louder and more forceful. "Buffy!"

With a start, Buffy jumped awake, managing very quickly this time to ascertain her surroundings. She immediately executed a sit-up. "Uhh ... one! ......hundred and sixty ... four." She coughed and cast a sidelong glance at Giles, as though checking to see if he was buying it, then performed another. "One hundred and sixty-five ..."

"Yes, I'm tremendously impressed," commented Giles dismissively. "Now what's going on?"

Sighing, Buffy laid back down, pulling her arms out from behind her head and lacing her fingers over her stomach. "I'm keeping in shape?"

"Xander tells me you're not sleeping well." Giles took a seat on the nearby weight machine and waited expectantly for an answer.

Buffy scoffed. "And you believe everything Xander tells you? So you really think that Furbies were demonic instruments of everlasting terror?"

"I've not entire discounted that theory," the Watcher replied dryly. "But regardless, when it comes to you, I believe Xander can be trusted."

Exhaling heavily, Buffy relented. "I've been having trouble sleeping the past few days. There've been dreams."

Giles leaned forward, his brow furrowed. "Prophetic dreams?"

"I don't think so." Brightening considerably, she added, "But now that you mention it, I wouldn't mind a prophetic dream or two revolving around a Blaine Wilson knock-off instead of pain and horror. Would make a nice change."

Things were still a little too vague for Giles to follow. "I'm not sure I understand."

"The dreams. They haven't been ... terrible or threatening. Not in the typical sense, anyway." She emitted a short, humorless laugh. "Personally, that's a whole ‘nother issue." Giles shook his head, still not getting it, and Buffy flushed with embarrassment. "They're ... those kind of dreams. Sort of ... seductive."

"Oh." A moment passed, then Giles' eyes widened. "Oh. I see." Within an instant, his glasses had been whipped off and were being intently polished.

"Yeah," Buffy agreed, fighting her discomfort in her own way. "Anyway, Willow and Xander seem convinced that it's just Repressed Buffy, and if I become a contestant on 'The Dating Game', all will be well."

"Their solutions are certainly ... inventive," responded Giles, replacing his glasses.

The Slayer crossed her arms, though the gesture lost some of its forcefulness given her odd position. "And pushy. They've already fixed me up." Turning to Giles, Buffy glanced at him hopefully. "I don't suppose now's when you could sort of regress back to your old hair-pullingly frustrating ways and forbid me from dating because it conflicts with my sacred duty?"

Giles smirked. "No. But I'm very much appreciating the irony of you asking me to do so."


"Speaking honestly, however, I think this is a good idea. Now that you no longer have to bear the burden of being the only Chosen One, you should feel free to enjoy life outside of this place," advised Giles, waving his hand to indicate Slayer Central.

Buffy raised a skeptical eyebrow. "Just like you, oh workaholic?"

Puffing himself up, the Watcher adopted an air of exaggerated indignity. "I'll have you know that I had a dinner engagement just last night."

"Okay, so now you're dating more than me?" she boggled. "My lameness must be stopped."

"That's the spirit," he encouraged, then frowned as all the words sunk in. "Sort of."

"Besides," Buffy continued, turning her head toward the ceiling, "even Dawn has a date tonight. I can't let my little sister become more social than me. The need to kill her would become unbearable."

"Dawn is dating now?"

Pushing herself upright, Buffy turned to face Giles with an incredulous expression. "Oh, yeah, totally. Some guy from school asked her out and everything. Doesn't that just blow your mind? It seems like only yesterday we were on the run from an insane brain-sucking hellgod who wanted to use Dawn to bring about the apocalypse." She sighed wistfully. "Is this the little Key I carried?"

This seemed to cement a further concern for Giles, and he regarded Buffy carefully. "Are you certain these dreams aren't more serious?"

"As certain as we ever can be. Which, I guess – no." Buffy shrugged. "But I feel fine. Just that I've been cast as Rip Wan Winkle." She flashed her most reassuring smile at Giles. "I'll take a little siesta this afternoon and I'll be fine. Now come on." Reaching out, the blonde playfully nudged his knee with her foot playfully, a wicked smile appearing on her lips. "Help me think of ways I can embarrass Dawn tonight."

Xander's workshop was a fine specimen of just what a workshop should be. If it had it parents, they would have been very proud. The wall opposite the door was laden with tools of every possible variety, and the right-hand corner was inhabited by all manner of electric devices that would have come with warning labels. Workbenches were scattered around at easily accessible intervals, each dotted with wooden treasures in various stages of completion. Just to the left of the entrance was a long table that contained rows of finished items, all varnished to a beautiful sheen. Above them, on a shelf that was undoubtedly homemade, rested a small stereo currently blaring a strong but odd beat into the room.

Before the wall o' tools, Xander was working on carving a design into the rudder for the not-yet-rocking chair that stood nearby. Engrossed, he sung to himself as he carved. "Know your chicken. You got to know your chicken," he intoned with an outrageous and probably insulting accent.

He failed to notice as Sonja, the Junior Slayer who had arrived not long ago from Sweden, entered the room. "Hey Xander," she greeted cheerfully.

Startled, Xander jumped and spun around to the door. "Sonja! Hey there."

The blonde indicated the work-in-progress with her chin. "Am I interrupting?"

"Nothin' vitally important," the carpenter assured. "Little bit of carving. Just giving it my awl." With a pleased grin, Xander lifted the tool into sight, but rather than echoing amusement, Sonja simply frowned in confusion. Hastily, Xander shoved the awl into his tool belt. "Tool humor. It's specialized now, but just you wait – it'll be sweeping the country any day now." He spoke with complete authority, and that finally managed to net him the smile he was seeking. Crossing his arms in satisfaction, Xander asked, "So, what can I do for you?"

She stepped further into the room before answering. "Well, I have a little problem. I was hoping you could help." Her face was serious. "It's kinda important."

"Sure," responded Xander instantly. He reached to the side and grabbed two unvarnished stools setting one down in front of Sonja. He patted it invitingly. "Have a seat and tell the Xan-Man what he can do for you. I've got my ‘attentive and concerned' face all ready." Sitting on the other stool, the carpenter proceeded to demonstrate said face, his chin resting on his fist as he leaned forward.

Giggling, Sonja also sat down, folding her hands in her lap. She affixed an intent stare at Xander. "It's like this ... There's this movie out that I really want to see, but I don't want to go alone. And I was thinking you could help. By going with me. And we could get dinner, too, because food is important," she added almost as an afterthought.

Initially, Xander only blinked. His face was still locked in ‘attentive and concerned' mode, which only made the puzzled look in his eyes all the more absurd. He summed up his reaction with, "Huh?"

Deciding that the direct route was the necessary one, Sonja cut straight to the chase. "Do you want to go out? Tonight? With me?"

"Oh." Xander straightened, an unreadable expression on his face. "That's ..."

Then he said nothing, choosing instead to consider the request. Which he did, very seriously, mulling it over and tilting his head to one side. Sonja waited patiently, her own features mostly blank, save a tinge of hope.

Finally, after what seemed a too-long stretch of time, Xander smiled, but it was regretful. "I don't think so. Not right now."

"It's my hair, isn't it?" queried Sonja as she grabbed several strands and then let them fall back onto her shoulder. "I knew I should've gotten it styled first."

"No, your hair's fine. It's nice. And it's nothing to do with you. It's all me." Sonja shook her head, not understanding. Settling further on his stool, Xander attempted to explain. "Not too long ago there was ... someone. Someone who meant a lot to me." He smiled fondly, and as he continued speaking, it was clear he'd forgotten for the moment that anyone else was in the room. "An' even though she was demanding, an' greedy, an' outspoken to the point where the word loses all meaning ... I loved her. I loved her up to the day she died. An' the part that gets me is, I don't think she knew."

Blinking his lone eye, Xander again became aware of his surroundings, and he smiled ruefully. "Anyway," he said to Sonja, "bottom line, I'm still workin' through some stuff. An' as much fun as dinner and a movie sounds, I'm just not ready."

Accepting this, the blonde rose, nodding her head in sympathy. She took a step toward the door, then turned back. regarding Xander thoughtfully. "I think she must've known," Sonja told him compassionately. "It seems quite obvious to me."

With that, she favored the carpenter with a pleasant smile, and then left him to his thoughts. Xander remained seated and contemplative for a moment, then stood and returned to his workbench. Instead of continuing to carve the rocking chair, however, he reached toward the back and brought forward a half-finished picture frame. Staring at it for a moment, Xander began to carve.

Once more, the carpenter became so engrossed in the task at hand that he failed to notice his new visitor. Almost anxiously, Andrew entered, looking perturbed. "Xander! I was looking for you everywhere!" the blond exclaimed, almost accusatorily.

"Well that's part of your problem, Andy, I can't be everywhere," came the smooth reply.

Andrew simply blinked, uncomprehending.

The answering sigh was weary and quite obviously lamenting a world that could never truly understand. "Unfunny Humor Brigade: 2; Xander Harris: 0." Shaking his head, Xander set down the picture frame and regarded Andrew. "What's up?"

"I have this little bitty problem. You're my only hope."

"I should start chargin'," grinned Xander, "I'll have enough money for this business in no time." Gesturing to the still-arranged stools, Xander reclaimed his seat. "What'cha need?"

Settling himself down, Andrew perched on the edge of the stool, his expression grave and serious as he steeled himself to deliver news of utmost importance. "I made a vow to myself that I would see Return of the King every third day until the movie was no longer being shown at a theater near me, and today's just such a day but ..." The blond was clearly distressed, and his voice took on a slight whine. "I don't have anyone to go with. I checked with the girls, but they're either not interested or seem to think that ‘I've seen it already' is a valid excuse." The dismissive wave of his hand indicated that in Andrew's world, such reasoning was nothing short of an incredible, unspeakable copout.

"You could, you know ..." Xander shrugged, "just go yourself."

"But that's so lame!" protested a vehement Andrew. Gnawing his bottom lip, he added, "Plus, I want someone to be there with me when Sam begs Frodo—" In a thoroughly unconvincing accent, overwrought with emotion, he delivered, "‘Don't leave me here alone. Don't go where I can't follow'—" He dropped the accent and ducked his head, embarrassed. "—because ... because I sometimes cry."

Xander was powerless to do anything but raise an eyebrow.

The blond quickly pointed out, "But mostly because it's lame." He cleared his throat, and sat up straighter. "So, will you go? Tonight? With me?"

Suddenly struck with an unpleasant parallel, Xander leapt to his feet. "Okay, now I'm officially disturbed." Smiling congenially, the stool safely between them, the carpenter shook his head. "Sorry, Andy. Got plans tonight. Big plans of the utmost importance."

The living room at the Scoobies' home was abuzz with frantic energy. Xander quickly strode in from the kitchen, carrying with him one of the high-backed, stiff-looking dining room chairs. He set it on the other side of the coffee table, across from the couch, twisting it by varying minute degrees to ensure its arrangement was just right.

Nearby, Buffy stood with her arms crossed, surveying the chair's positioning with equal scrutiny. Satisfied, she glanced over at her accomplices. "Now, do we have everything? It's got to be perfect."

"It will be," Willow reassured from her position on the couch.

Gesturing grandly, Xander indicated his handiwork. "Interrogation chair at the ready."

"Intimidating, baleful glare armed." To prove this statement, Willow performed the glare, just managing to pull it off.

Nodding her approval, Buffy continued to run down her mental checklist. "The tests?"

"Vampire's easy," replied the carpenter. "An' Will's cooked up some demon-energy testing thing."

With a smile, Willow held up a clear quartz crystal. "Right here. We just have to touch him with it," she explained, her tone showing she was pleased with her solution. "If he's rollin' in demonic energy, it'll zap him and glow this really pretty pink color. Sort of like- like a cross between flamingo and a nice fuchsia with juuuust a hint of orchid." The witch beamed.

Buffy reached out and took the offered crystal. "So ... pink, then," she summarized.

"Remember that spell," requested Xander of Willow. "When I start dating again, I think I'll need a few dozen."

Quickly moving things along, Buffy addressed the next item at hand. "Dawn?"

"She started gettin' ready about 45 minutes ago," Willow reported. "So if she's like you, we should be good for another half hour at least."

Xander absorbed the entire scene, then waved his hand at the coffee table. "D'you think we should maybe move that? Leave him open and defenseless?"

"Good idea." Effortlessly, Buffy lifted the table and everything on it, shifting it to the side of the room and out of the way. There was now only a vast empty space between the couch and the chair. Xander nodded his approval.

Just as Buffy turned around again, there was a knock at the front door. "Okay, he's here. Assume your positions," she commanded.

Willow straightened in her seat, tucking her hair behind her ears and adopting the glare she'd been practicing earlier. Xander took up residence on the opposite end of the couch, his features shifting into one similar to the redhead's. Buffy inspected the duo, and when she considered them sufficiently prepared, she strode to the door and tugged it open.

Grip stood on the front porch. His appearance was clean but casual with a pair of very baggy jeans that appeared new and a gray t-shirt bearing an unrecognizable design over a long-sleeved thermal shirt. He smiled charmingly at Buffy.

"Hey, Ms. Summers?" he greeted questioningly.

The Slayer simply stood there, very obviously appraising him.

"I'm Agrippa. Grip." At the complete lack of reaction, he cleared his throat nervously. "I'm, uh ... I'm here to take Dawn out?"

"Your hair," Buffy said flatly. "It's blue."

"Well blue's a pretty color," was the smooth response, followed by another charming smile.

Buffy was not charmed. She continued to level a stare at the boy as she held the door, her arm a barrier to the inviting warmth and comfort of inside.

Speaking with utmost politeness, but an undeniable touch of confusion, Grip asked, "Can I come in?"

"I don't know, can you?" the Slayer immediately challenged.

"Oooookay," he muttered amicably, and as Buffy took a step back, he easily crossed the threshold. Fully entering the foyer, he glanced around, and his gaze rested on Willow and Xander seated on the couch to his left. Once more Grip smiled, and entered the living room. "Hey." He lifted his hand in a half-wave. "I'm Grip."

In unison, Willow and Xander nodded, just the once and very stiff and formal. Grip frowned slightly, but remained in good spirits.

He jumped as Buffy appeared suddenly at his elbow. "Sit. I insist." Her tone brokered no room for discussion.

As he moved to the dining room chair, Buffy – keeping her eye on the boy at all times – took her place in the center of the couch. She, Willow and Xander sat shoulder-to-shoulder, a united front, each staring openly at Grip.

Grip, by contrast, was extremely isolated and looked small, despite the fact that at a little over six foot, he was not a tiny person.

Regardless of the unfamiliar oddness of the situation, the teenager was taking everything in a calm, easy-going stride. "Dawn's told me a lot about all of you," he began. Nodding to the redhead, he offered, "Willow, right?"

Rather than answer, Willow lifted an eyebrow, gazing at the boy with a haughty ‘maybe I am, maybe I'm not' expression, despite the fact that he was obviously correct.

Grip let it slide without comment, instead turning to the carpenter. "And Xander. We've met," he added. "How's your wood stuff coming along? I heard you pretty much sold out at the fair."

Smiling pleasantly, Xander was obviously pleased to have the topic broached. "It's doing really good, thanks. I'm workin' on savin' up money for my own bus—"

A sharp jab in the ribs, courtesy of an annoyed-looking Slayer, signaled the end of that conversation. Xander winced, and it took every effort for him to not clutch at his side. When he spoke again, it was obviously pained. "I mean—"

And with that, Xander said no more, simply taking on an unreadable expression similar to Willow's.

"So. ‘Grip'," began Buffy, placing an odd emphasis on the boy's nickname. "Where are you taking Dawn? My little sister Dawn?"

The inflection was obvious, but Grip was clearly becoming used to the tense atmosphere in the room by now, and was unphased. "I was thinking mini-golf," he replied.

Whatever plans the trio had been expecting to hear, this was clearly not it.

"Isn't it, like ... thirty degrees outside?" Willow questioned with a frown of complete disbelief.

"Yeah. I thought it'd make the water obstacles easier," the teenager replied with a straight face.

Once again, his response seemed to take the Scoobies off-guard, and they glanced at each other, uncertain of how to respond. As the situation threatened to lose momentum, Willow nudged the blonde, eyeing the crystal Buffy still had clasped in her hand.

Snapping to attention, the Slayer turned back to her sister's date. "Grip – Think fast."

With that, Buffy pitched the crystal straight at Grip's chest. He hands came up instinctively, and managed to snap around the crystal just as it impacted with his chest.

"Ow!" he exclaimed, and the three Scoobies leaned forward expectantly, tense and ready for his true demonic visage to unveil itself. They were unprepared for him to chuckle appreciatively. "That's some arm you've got, Ms. Summers. You should try out for our baseball team. With you around, maybe we wouldn't suck so bad."

With one hand, Grip rubbed the sensitive spot on his chest where he'd been struck, and with the other, he tossed the crystal back to Buffy. The Slayer checked it over, despite the obvious lack of glowy action, and quickly glanced at Willow. The witch shook her head, confirming that Grip was not demonic.

This didn't seem to afford the boy an easy ride, however, and Buffy leaned forward, resting her forearms on her knees as she stared at Grip. "Make sure you take good care of her." The Slayer's voice was harsh, and the unspoken threat very plain. "She's very, very important to me."

Deliberately being as casual as possible, Xander handed Buffy a thick magazine, a left-over Sears' Wishbook from Christmas. Exercising the same nonchalant attitude, her gaze locked completely onto Grip, Buffy lifted the catalog and began to effortlessly rip it in two, spine first. "I like to keep the things important to me safe and in one piece," the blonde explained over the sound of slowly tearing paper.

"Guessing the magazine didn't make the cut, then," commented Grip in an attempt at levity.

The demonstration over, Buffy let the two halves drop to the floor and as she leaned back, Xander leaned forward, taking his turn. "See this patch?" he demanded, jerking his thumb towards the left side of his face. "If you think that looks all scary and macho, you should see what happened to the last guy that messed with Dawn."

Buffy twisted her head to stare at Xander as Willow peered around the Slayer to do the same. Both were entirely underwhelmed. Xander gave a little shrug, as though to say it was the best he could come up with. Grip watched the entire exchange, making a very obvious effort to stifle his rising amusement, and when he notice Xander's attentions returning to him, Grip very solemnly nodded his understanding.

All four looked up as the front door swung open, and Giles dashed into the house. "Am I late?" he panted anxiously. "Did I miss it?"

Glancing around, Giles quickly spotted the intimidation-in-progress, and his gaze narrowed upon sighting Grip. Whipping off his glasses, the Watcher strode forward, his demeanor changing with every step. The typical warm, comforting gentleness of Giles was replaced by something cold and harsh. His blue eyes frosted to steel, and when he stood next to Grip, he very literally towered over the boy. The Watcher had become someone to never, ever be crossed, and despite himself, Grip gave a small gulp.

"Dawn is very precious to all of us," Giles informed him. His voice was low and the tone soft but sharp as a knife's blade. Despite the volume, however, it was only too easy to hear both what was said and unsaid. "We love her like she were our own daughter." Giles took another step forward and while he smiled, there was nothing friendly in the gesture. "I suggest you treat her as though your life depended upon her happiness and well-being."

To his credit, Grip managed to not shrink away, but his eyes had widened slightly and it was evident he was taking Giles very, very seriously. For a moment, the Watcher continued to loom over the teenager, his point being made undeniably clear. Satisfied, Giles took a step back and turned to the others, slipping his glasses back onto the bridge of his nose.

"Can't stay, must dash," he told them, sounding every bit a bumbling ex-librarian. "Have a meeting and I'm already late. Have a good night everyone, enjoy your evening, Buffy."

Amidst smiles and waves, Giles made his departure as suddenly as his entrance. Again, Grip watched the odd scene unfolding before him, faint traces of a smile touching the corners of his lips. As soon as the door had clicked closed behind Giles, the Scoobies whirled back to Grip, their faces stony and devoid of emotion once more. Fully playing his part now, Grip's amusement vanished as well, and he turned expectantly to Willow as the last one left.

Pulling herself up straight and with an air of importance, the witch summoned forth her best daunting glower. "Don't make me angry. You wouldn't like me when I'm angry."

Grip nodded somberly as the sound of feet clomping downstairs echoed in the room and within seconds, Dawn appeared at the entrance. Eyes wide, she took in the scene before her, and instantly connected the dots. "Oh my god!!" she cried, aghast. "Why don't you just bring out naked baby pictures to show him?!"

"Nah. I was an ugly baby," dismissed Xander with a wave of his hand. "Wouldn't wanna scare him."

Willow leaned over to Buffy and whispered, "Hey, she's early. Guess she's not just like you after all."

Dawn was locked in her worst nightmare, her eyes clenched tightly shut as though to deny the reality of the situation. "I could die. Right here. Right now. I could just die."

Smiling, Grip glanced over to Dawn. "I'd like to formally request you not," he said in a jovial tone, "since I got a hunch they might turn it into my fault."

Her eyes opened once again, but much to her dismay, the earth had swallowed neither her nor her family whole. "We are so out of here," Dawn announced, crossing her arms. "And then when it's time to come home? I think I'm gonna stay out there and become a street urchin."

Rising, Grip crossed to Dawn, but before he could reach her, she spun on her heel and stomped toward the door.

"We love you, Dawnie," chorused Buffy, Willow and Xander in a sing-song voice.

From the foyer, Dawn's dark muttering could only just be heard. "I could die," the teenager was insisting.

"Have fun," Buffy called out, knowing her sister could still hear her. "Be home by midnight. Be careful."

Dawn's answering grumble was inarticulate. As Grip went to join his date, he stopped in the living room entrance and turned back to the Scoobies. "It was great to meet you all. You were very intimidating, nice job."

The trio nodded and beamed at the compliment. Meanwhile, Dawn threw the door open and stamped into the night. Grip quickly followed, closing the door softly behind him.

From the couch, Buffy looked at her two best friends. "I think that went well," she declared cheerfully.


Outside, Dawn stood at the bottom of the porch steps, her arms crossed as she stared angrily at the clear night sky. Grip pulled the door shut and joined her. She didn't glance at him, instead keeping her head tilted upward as she closed her eyes painfully. "I can't believe they did that." Her teeth were clenched tightly. "I hate them."

"You shouldn't," commented Grip, his tone making it clear that he didn't consider the experience to be one that would scar him for life. "They obviously love you a whole lot. Polar energies colliding like that?" He shook his head gravely. "Bad juju."

Dawn's eyes drifted toward him, her expression apologetic. "I am so, so sorry. Next time we do this, we'll meet somewhere more friendly. Like, an abandoned building or the bus depot or a war zone or something."

"Next time, huh?" Grip grinned.

Immediately, Dawn began to flush scarlet, and she stammered, "Uhh, uh, I mean—"

But Grip had already moved on. He cast a glance over his shoulder at the house and smiled at his date. "I doubt they'll be like that next time. I tend to grow on people. Like athlete's foot." He paused before adding, "Less itchy, though."

Together, they began to walk down the front path and onto the sidewalk.

"Still," Dawn complained, although with considerably less venom than previously, "they shouldn't have acted like that."

"Nah, it's cool," Grip assured her. "You should see my family." He shook his head wonderingly. "My kid brother does stuff with mashed potatoes you gotta see to believe."


Meanwhile, inside the house, the gang moved efficiently to return the living room back to normal. Xander once again emerged from the kitchen, sans chair this time, and Buffy settled the coffee table back into its regular spot.

"So, you're off then?" Willow asked Buffy as Xander joined her on the couch.

Buffy tugged the furniture into place and sighed as she straightened. "Yeah, I guess so. I told him I'd meet him at 7:30. Don't wanna be late, I suppose." Her tone suggested she didn't suppose that at all, but Willow smiled encouragingly.

"It'll go great," she enthused. "Jacob's a nice guy, really. He's always so friendly and- and interested in everything when we talk." Nodding for emphasis, she added confidentially, "I gotta good feeling about this."

Xander was in ready agreement. "Absolutely! And if for some reason you don't like Jacob, just remember you've got Kyle all ready and willing to sweep you off your feet tomorrow."

Willow glared at the carpenter and he glared right back, both returning their attentions to Buffy as the blonde headed toward the door. Grabbing her coat from the rack, Buffy took a deep, steadying breath. "Okay. It's just a date," she said, giving her pep talk mostly to herself, though loud enough so the others could hear. "I've walked into hell itself. I've faced down some truly freaky stuff. I can handle a date."

Her friends nodded encouragingly, and Buffy whirled back to them with a look of pure panic. "What if I can't handle this?"

"You can handle this," Willow assured her in a calm voice. "You've done it before. It's easy. It's like fallin' off a log."

"Right." Buffy nodded. "Right. Logs. Falling. Okay." With another deep breath, she visibly steeled herself, opened the door and walked out, leaving Xander and Willow alone.

"So," the redhead began after a moment. "You an' me. Dateless in Seattle." She frowned. "Or, well, Trillium, whatever."

"That's okay, though," Xander hastened to point out. "Because we could both have dates."

Willow was in absolute agreement. "Completely. If we wanted them." She sniffed haughtily. "We just don't."'

"Dating scary," the carpenter agreed.

"So instead we'll ... Sit around here and ..."

They glanced around the room, searching for something to entertain. She chewed on her lower lip. He drummed his fingers on his thighs.

"Wanna go see a movie or somethin'?" suggested Xander after a minute had elapsed with no other suggestions.

"Sure as heck beats sittin' around here," Willow acknowledged.

Act Three

The Surf 'N' Turf was a pleasant restaurant with a cheerful atmosphere – not too high-class for a respectable pair of jeans and decent polo, if such should be the outfit of choice. Buffy's date, however, had opted for something a little more formal. He wore a pair of dark twill Dockers and a powder blue linen shirt, complete with patterned silk tie, albeit that such was fastened loosely under his collar. It was apparent that Buffy had made some effort to dress in accordance with "first-meeting-sight-unseen" standards – a rather conservative black sweater with tiny pearls at the neck and cuffs, and matching black wool pants. Her face wore a tired expression but she was trying very hard to appear animated and lively. In one corner, close to the picture window, a piano player tickled unobtrusively on the ivories.

"So ..." said Jacob with a charming smile which lit up his baby-face, "You and Willow. Best friends, huh?"

Buffy nodded with as much enthusiasm as she could muster given her state of utter fatigue. "The best of best. Almost eight years now. I thought about upgrading her to a newer model, but her warrantee had expired." She grinned.

Jacob laughed. It was an honest sound with no hint of pretension. He shook his head in an almost disbelieving manner. "She's really something."

"That she is," Buffy wholeheartedly agreed. "A one-of-a-kind Rosenberg original."

"When she set this date up, she didn't really say a whole lot," mused Jacob doubtfully. "I hope this place is okay."

"Oh yeah. It's great," mumbled Buffy through a mouthful of breadstick. She waved it in the air for emphasis. "Good bread."

Jacob smiled. "Glad to hear it. Do you think it's the sort of place Willow would like?"

"Will?" the Slayer questioned, raising an eyebrow and appraising her surroundings. "If you can convince the piano man over there to trade in his Brahms for some Billy Joel, I don't see why not."

Jacob nodded sagely and seemed to file the information away for future reference. "Did Willow tell you anything about me?" he queried taking a sip of water, eyes watching Buffy over the rim of his glass. "Talk about me? At all?"

Buffy pondered the question for a moment before answering. "Well, she said you were nice and funny, a good listener ... Kinda geeky, but from her it's a compliment, trust me. You two know each other from school, I assume?" She plucked another breadstick from the plate.

"Yeah, we have Differential Equations together," he confirmed, eyes growing wide with wonder and admiration. "She's incredible. I've never met anyone so smart in my life." He threw Buffy an endearing grin. "And coming from the youngest of four egomaniac brothers who all graduated with top honors from either Harvard or MIT, that's saying something."

"I know her brain has rendered me speechless on many an occasion," Buffy chuckled in response.

Jacob rested his elbows on the table and leaned toward the Slayer with interest. "What about you? Where do you go to school?"

"Oh, I, uh ... I don't," Buffy shrugged, hastening to add, "So much. I-I mean I teach school ... sort of. There's lessons and homework ... Not really a final exam and you sorta take it pass/fail, but ..."

"Hey, it's all good," said Jacob encouragingly. "School's not for everybody, I get that. Looks like it is for Willow, though."

Buffy seized upon the change of topic. "Oh, totally. I think once Will graduates, she's just gonna go back and start all over again."

"A career student, huh?" Jacob nodded with approval. "Very cool. What about interests?"

"Oh, I like shopping, bad movies, foot massages, techno music, ice skating ... though I'll deny the last one with my dying breath," she replied in a mock confidential tone.

Jacob smiled indulgently. "I meant Willow."

For a moment, Buffy frowned. Then realization began to set in.

"Jacob ..." she began hesitantly, "you do know you don't really have a shot with Willow, right?"

Disappointment flashed briefly across his face. "But ... I'm nice and funny and a good listener ... And geeky, don't forget geeky," he added hopefully.

"Riiight," Buffy concurred slowly, "but ... you're not exactly her ... type."

Considering the statement thoughtfully, Jacob absent-mindedly rearranged his silverware. Somewhat at a loss for words, Buffy looked around the room. Her gaze rested upon the pianist who promptly treated her to a blatant wink. Rolling her eyes, she turned her attention back to her date.

"You know," she told him, trying to be delicate, "in the ... total package sense." She wiggled her eyebrows, obviously hoping the gesture would get her point across, who still clearly didn’t understand her point.

Confused, Jacob shook his head.

The Slayer blew out a puff of air. "Genderly speaking," she said bluntly.

His expression remained baffled, but only momentarily before the penny dropped.

"Ohhhhhhhh." His face visibly fell. "Damn."

Obviously uncomfortable with the situation of being on a date with someone who had no interest in her whatsoever, Buffy devoured yet another breadstick. She was reluctant to survey the dining room again in case she made eye contact with the piano player. On the other side of the table, Jacob was apparently fully digesting the recent revelation as he watched the ice melt in his glass of water. Suddenly, he brightened considerably, almost as though a delightful thought had just invaded his mind.

"So, you and Willow ... the best of best friends, huh?"

Wearily, Buffy massaged her aching temples and sighed.

Arm-in-arm, Willow and Xander entered The Common Grounds. The place was pretty busy, even for a Friday night, but they managed to locate a vacant spot. With a thoroughly pleased expression, Willow carefully deposited the books she was carrying onto the table. Xander regarded them with a look of faux irritation.

"We might'a made if you hadn't detoured," he grumbled.

"I know, but look!" The redhead gestured gleefully toward the neat stack. "This is vital research material. I had a thought the other day, about hypothetical basement universes and their creation theories? Given what we know about other dimensions and the most popular ideas regarding black holes, it could be possible to—"

"I really wanted to see Stuck on You," interrupted the carpenter grumpily. "A feel-good comedy about an unfortunate physical deformity. It's destined to be a classic."

Willow rolled her eyes and patted his shoulder in commiseration. "We'll catch the next one."

Xander shrugged and then his face brightened. "I got asked out on a date for tonight," he announced.

"Geez, been that kinda week, huh?" Willow grinned and Xander grinned right back. "As you are choosing to spend your time in the company of me and not some fetching young starlet," the witch continued, "I'm guessin' you said no?"

Xander's expression was reflective. "Yeah. I thought about it though ... an' now I feel sorta guilty for thinkin' about it. That make sense?"

Willow could empathize entirely. "Only too well. You're probably gonna feel guilty for considerin' it for a while." She chuckled. "Just wait ‘til you actually go on one. Whoo, and the first-time-after-sex guilt? Yowza."

"Feelin' better about this already," declared the sardonic carpenter. "Glad we talked."

The redhead punched his arm. "Don't be all grouchy, I'm just bein' honest."

"I know," apologized Xander. "Sorry. I'm just ... I don't know what to do. It's like ... I wanna meet someone else, but I don't."

Willow smiled a little sadly. "Anya wouldn't have wanted you to stay alone forever." She noted Xander's mildly accusing look. "She might've said that, but she didn't really mean it, you know that," the witch assured.

Xander sighed. "I suppose."

"No suppose, it's true." insisted Willow. "I'd like to tell you the guilt an' stuff'll just vanish overnight, but it doesn't work that way. It'll get manageable, though. You just gotta remember, they'd want us to meet someone. It's not a betrayal."

"An' you make a convincing argument, still bein' single an' all," retorted the carpenter dryly.

The redhead smirked. "I give good advice, never said I could take it. Seriously, if you wanna date again, you should, Xander. Really. A-An' if you're not ready to yet, that's okay too."

"This social stuff's hard work, isn't it?" He blew out an exasperated puff of air.

"Sorta puts fightin' evil in a whole new perspective. One thing I learned about love, though? It always comes along when you least expect it." Willow smiled encouragingly.

Xander nodded and got to his feet. "Gonna go get us an order. Usual?"

"Yes please," beamed the witch, rubbing her hands together in anticipation.

She watched Xander's retreating back for a moment and then cracked open one of the super thick books she'd just purchased. Quickly becoming engrossed, she swiftly ran a forefinger along the lines of text. Consequently, she failed to notice that her reading material had attracted the attention of a rather pretty young woman seated at the next table.

The woman ruffled her short dark hair and set her gold-rimmed glasses more firmly on the bridge of her nose. Peering through the somewhat thick lenses, she was intent upon the content of the book and then her gaze traveled to the reader. Tentative at first, the brunette took a deep breath and then approached Willow's table, where she stood hesitantly. The absorbed witch didn't realize anyone was there until a soft voice interrupted her study. "Hi."

Startled, Willow looked up and instinctively inserted a finger into the book to mark her place. Her responding smile was friendly. "Oh. Hey?"

"Sorry to bother you," the brunette began. "I just couldn't help but notice what you were reading." She tilted her head to catch the title – Cosmological Physics. "Are you ...?"

The redhead pooh-poohed the implication. "Oh, well, I'm pretty much just a novice. But it's fascinating. I've been toying around with some thoughts, about inflation cosmology and alternate universes. Do you ...?"

The other woman blushed. "It's sort of a hobby of mine. I'm so used to getting blank stares when I talk about it to anyone, it was a complete shock when I saw somebody else in the world actually knew what it was!"

Willow's face brightened with interest. "Really? Oh, wow, that's ... This is high-level stuff. And it's just a hobby?" The brunette nodded. "That's incredible. I bet you could teach me so much!"

The witch indicated the empty seat that had previously been occupied by Xander. With a smile, the woman sat down. "Oh, I don't know about so much," she admitted. "I bet we could learn a lot from each other, though. But if you had questions ...?"

"You betcha by golly I got questions!" Extracting her finger, the redhead shoved the book to one side and extended her hand. "I'm Willow."

"Jessica," responded the brunette. "I ... guess that should've probably come first," she chuckled.

Willow grinned. "Ahh, who has time for such pleasantries when there's knowledge to pursue?" she stated dismissively.

Jessica returned the grin and inched her chair a little closer. "Well now that's out of the way, you said you had questions?"

"Yes, questions o' plenty," confirmed the redhead. "Like ... Okay, so you know about the information loss paradox for black holes?" Jessica inclined her head knowingly. "I was wondering, if time evolution is not unitary, then ..."

At the front of the coffee shop, Xander waited patiently for his order. Turning around, he noted Willow and Jessica talking. The face of the witch was aglow as she gestured with her hands, and the woman across from her was smiling with a bright intelligence as she rested her elbows on the table, obviously entranced by the animated redhead. His eyebrow slowly raised as he watched the pair for a long minute. Then, his expression crinkled with fond affection. He handed over his money to the girl behind the counter who had checked back to confirm what he wanted.

"Bit of a change'a plans," he confided. "Could I get that mint mocha to go, an' the other? Wouldja deliver it to the bubbly little redhead right there—" he pointed in Willow's direction, "—an' tell her Xander said ‘Practice what you preach'?"

The girl smiled in agreement, seemingly happy to comply – a rare customer service person who appeared willing to go above and beyond her job description. She scurried away to complete the order. Xander stuffed his change into his pocket and glanced again at Willow. He nodded his head and grinned.

Xander strolled through the busy streets of downtown Trillium, sipping occasionally on his mint mocha. He was alone, and obviously looked it, but there was no trace of bitterness clinging to the carpenter. Instead, he seemed content for the moment to simply enjoy a pleasant, if chilly, nighttime walk.

"Yo, X-Man!" Faith's voice called out, and Xander turned to spy the Slayer crossing the street and jogging toward him.

"Hey, Faith," he greeted with a smile as she came to a stop in front of him.

Faith nodded, and searched the surrounding area, her gaze sweeping in all directions. Tipping her head to one side, she returned her focus to Xander. "Just you?" she questioned with a touch of surprise. "Friday night, figured you'd be hangin' with the Get Along Gang."

Reaching out, she plucked the mocha from Xander's hands and immediately began to slurp. Xander didn't protest, or even seem to notice as he shrugged. "Usually," he replied amiably. "They all decided to go and get social lives this week though."

"No lie? Without gettin' one for you too? Pretty inconsiderate," she smirked, helping herself to more of his drink.

"True," he immediately agreed, then placed his hand on his chest and sighed magnanimously. "I'm the big-hearted sort, though, so I'll get over it. What about you? Nothing to kill on the slate tonight?"

Swallowing a large mouthful of beverage, Faith shook her head. "Nah. Was gonna hit the ‘Tex with Robin—" she jerked her head over her shoulder toward the direction of the club "—but he's got some big meetin' thing goin' with Oxford and Mrs. G – so tonight, I'm a free agent." With a final gulp from Xander's cup, she handed it back to the carpenter. Again absently, Xander reclaimed his drink without seeming to notice.

Faith glanced around the busy streets, then smiled at Xander. "Say, you wanna hang?" Tossing her hands in the air, Faith began to dance in front of him, enticing but not particularly seductive or suggestive. "Do a little dance, make a little—"

"Light conversation?" Xander finished with a nervous grin.

Halting mid-twirl, Faith socked Xander in the arm, paying little attention to the pained expression as he clutched his new bruise protectively. "'Course. Horn dog," she chastised with a grin. "So, whaddya say?"

Rubbing his injury one final time, Xander glanced at the Slayer with a twinkle in his eye. "That depends. Any plans to try an' kill me at the conclusion of this evening's activities?" he joked.

A nonchalant shrug was her initial response. "Not if you don't give me no lip," Faith bantered.

"As sterling as a guarantee I'm likely to get." He gestured with his hand. "Lead on, MacSlayer."

Together, they proceeded down the street. Xander lifted his mocha to enjoy the minty refreshness. He tipped it to his lips, then tilted the cup further and further still. Finally, with a frown, he turned the whole thing upside down, depositing only a few scant drops onto the damp sidewalk. He glared half-heartedly at Faith, who either hadn't noticed or was studiously ignoring him. Sighing, he threw the empty cup into a wastebasket as they walked past.

With one hand, he pulled aside the voile hangings surrounding the bed. The opening was slight but more than sufficient for him to clearly see the girl, her long ash brown hair spilling across the pillow and skin the color of pale ivory. Muted candlelight caressed her face, lending a blush to her cheeks. Her chest rose and fell rhythmically in deep slumber, although her eyelids fluttered like the wings of a butterfly. He smiled and whispered, "You hear me ..."

He leaned over the sleeping figure, eyes devouring the rounded shoulder and the elegant curve of her neck – skin like Columbian coffee. A tiny topaz stud glittered in her earlobe. Her hair was dark with the gloss of a raven's plumage. Her sigh was almost inaudible as he gently waved a hand in front of her face. She stirred a little in her reverie as he murmured, "You sense me ..."

Lying atop the quilt, one elbow propped against the pillow, his hand traced the shape of the girl beneath the covers, leisurely following the lines of her spine to the nape of her neck. Erin shivered at the intimate touch but her eyes remained closed. He stroked the chestnut hair and its curls encircled his fingers. He leant forward and breathed softly into her ear, "I can feel you ..."

From the edge of the marble dais, he surveyed the girl beneath the covers – virtually shapeless in its huddled form, sheets pulled over the head so that only a glimpse of the brunette's hair could be seen. Parting the gossamer veil, he climbed upon the bed with the agility and grace of a lithe cheetah. On hands and knees, he moved closer as though stalking prey, a tiny smile playing about his lips.

"I can feel you want me ..." he growled, tone low and enticing.

With an irritated groan of exasperation, the figure threw back the bedclothes and sat up.

"Do you mind?" snapped a disgruntled Kennedy. "Trying to sleep here."

A tiny frown crept across his forehead. The expression of confusion was alien to his features and it sat awkwardly upon his face. He paused uncertainly as Kennedy appraised him with a critical eye, noting the open shirt and jeans unbuttoned at the waistband. Resting upon his boot heels, he ran his fingers through his hair and flexed his pectorals, regarding Kennedy with a "come hither" look in his eyes.

She laughed. The sound was demeaning and laced with contempt. "Yeeeeah," she told him in a tone dripping with sarcasm. "That's gonna happen."

Rolling her eyes, Kennedy shook her head in disbelief before laying back down and jerking the covers over her head.

Buffy tossed and turned fitfully, her head snapping to-and fro across the pillow. Her eyes moved rapidly beneath the closed lids and her nostrils twitched at the penetrating scent. Straddling her body, he was slowly lowering himself, inch by inch. The tip of his tongue licked at her neck. His breath was warm like a sultry summer evening breeze. "And you do want me? Don't you?" His voice was husky with anticipated passion.

Eyes still closed, she moaned – a protesting yet yielding murmur. "Ye—"

Spluttering and choking for oxygen, the Slayer sat bolt upright in her bed. She coughed violently as tears streamed down her cheeks, mingling with the cold water that had just been thrown into her face. Willow, Xander and Dawn regarded her with much concern as a forgotten tumbler held in the teenager's hand dripped the remains of its contents onto the carpet.

"I'm sure there's a perfectly good reason for this," gasped Buffy. "I suggest telling me what it is very quickly."

"Waking up. You, and the problems therein," a worried Willow hastened to provide. "We couldn't get you up."

"I must'a been tryin' for a good ten minutes," added Xander anxiously "All of us. You were gone, Buff. Bought a retirement home in the Land of Nod and wasted no time movin' in."

The Slayer glanced at the clock, a stare beginning to widen as she noted the time – 12:19PM. She rubbed tight fists over her eyes – eyes smudged with dark circles and obviously crying out for rest.

"The water was a last resort," Dawn added. "And I was so worried that I didn't even enjoy throwing it on you." This statement drew dubious looks from the others. "Well maybe just a little," she admitted. "But mostly I'm just worried. What's going on?"

Buffy yawned and then stretched. "I'm running late for my lunch date, for starters," she mumbled, but her attempt at humor failed to allay the group's fears.

She sighed. "I'm not sure. I'm officially irritated by it, though. Xander, check in with Giles, see what he's found out about this sleeping sickness thing. Will—"

Willow nodded vehemently. "Hop on the research bandwagon. I have to meet Erin at the library to work on a project, but that'll take a few hours tops. Then it's research mode for me."

"What about me?" Dawn piped in eagerly. "What can I do?"

Buffy scrubbed at her bleary and tired eyes. "Help me get ready for this date," she ordered crabbily. "I'm gonna need more than Slayer powers to make it through this one."

At the brightly lit café, an attractive young man poured sugar into his third cup of coffee and looked hopefully toward the door for the umpeenth time. Setting the canister down on the cheerful red-and-white checkerboard tablecloth, he pointedly looked at his wristwatch again and sighed heavily, not noticing when Buffy finally arrived.

She quickly surveyed the room. It was relatively sparse in the patron department, probably because the hour was way past the customary lunch rush. A figure with short-cropped blond hair – obviously styled with precision to project a boyishly tousled effect – rose from one of the tables. He was wearing a flawlessly pressed pair of black jeans and tucked-in polo shirt of hunter green. He waved hesitantly, calling out "Buffy?" in an expectant tone.

Smiling, she hurried over. He pulled out a chair and waited for her to take a seat before resuming his own spot on the other side of the table.

"Kyle, right? Hi. Sorry," she said apologetically. "I totally overslept."

Kyle twitched an amused eyebrow, "Until noon?"

The Slayer opened her mouth as if to speak and then closed it again. "I work the graveyard shift," she eventually muttered.

Kyle's hazel eyes became animated with interest. "Oh, really? What do you do?"

Buffy paused for a moment and then stated confidently, "I teach." She nodded firmly to herself as if in affirmation of the fact, a pleased expression crossing her face.

Kyle blinked in disbelief. "You teach. The graveyard shift."

"... night classes?" offered the Slayer.

Wisely, Kyle decided to pursue the matter no further, although he wasn't entirely able to wipe the dubious expression from his face.

Buffy swiped a hand across her forehead where beads of perspiration were beginning to form. Bundled as she was in a thick thigh-length mohair coat, the warmth of the café was really quite unbearable. Her date diligently noted the discomfort. "Do you wanna take your coat off?"

The Slayer shook her head. "Not really, no." Kyle regarded her quizzically.

Buffy sighed before continuing, "So, you remember the part where I said I got up late today?" Kyle nodded his remembrance. "Well – see, it's actually a funny story – this led to me being really, really late coming here, and since I've not been sleeping well lately due to ... grading papers ... Well, I sort of got my little sister to help me get ready. And let's just say that her idea of appropriate dating attire means she will never be leaving the house again."

He grinned, displaying a set of incredibly white teeth. "Oh come on, how bad can it be?"

"Bad," groaned Buffy. "Really bad. We're talking played-twenty-times-an-hour-on-CNN bad."

Kyle seemed inclined to disagree. "I bet it's cute," he cajoled, "and fashionable.

"If it is, then I'm really out of touch," huffed the Slayer.

Kyle seemed to be thoroughly enjoying her protestations. "C'mon," he urged, flashing another brilliant smile. "Let's see it."

With a grand sigh, Buffy stood up and removed her coat, revealing a pair of extremely low-riding hip-huggers and a spaghetti-strap baby-doll tank top sporting a huge pink heart impaled with swords and bearing the caption "Bad Girl".

Kyle stared at the apparition. "Uh-huh," he murmured.

Minorly mortified, Buffy slunk back down into her chair. Reaching out for the glass of water in front of her, she sipped it through the straw, her entire demeanor indicating a desire to be anywhere else other than where she was at this moment in time.

With a critical tilt of his head and judgmental frown dominating his face, Kyle continued to examine the outfit. Buffy squirmed in her seat at the intense analysis. Finally, to her relief, he appeared to let the issue drop and returned to the art of conversation.

"So, you and Xander, known each other long?"

Buffy visibly relaxed. "Seems like forever sometimes. How did you two meet?"

"Hardware store," he replied. "I like go there sometimes. You meet the most interesting people."

"I'll bet. What better way to break the ice than over drill bits?" responded Buffy, tugging one of the spaghetti-straps back onto her shoulder.

Kyle regarded her with a strange expression, almost as though her were trying to determine whether or not she was being sarcastic. The Slayer recognized the look immediately, not appearing to know the true answer herself. She swirled her straw around the glass of water as the conversation lulled into an uncomfortable quietude. Taking another sip, she tried again.

"What about you," she asked, attempting to infuse her voice with true interest. "What do you do?"

He smiled sunnily. "I work at Avalon Gym, up on Burns?"

"Oh, wow. So you're, what ... a coach or trainer or something?" This time, Buffy's tone did indeed imply a certain amount of enthusiasm.

Kyle shook his head. "I work the juice bar."

"Oh," replied Buffy, hoping that the disappointment wasn't too noticeable. She searched for something more to say, but found she had reached a dead-end.

Several minutes of awkward silence passed. Tapping a drumbeat upon the tablecloth with his spoon, Kyle began to admire the décor with far more attention than it warranted, as Buffy snatched up the menu and studied it carefully without actually absorbing the words. Sensing concentrated scrutiny, the Slayer peered sneakily over the top of her laminated bill o' fare. Kyle was staring at her, frowning deeply and cocking his head. He seemed to be trying to work through some complex and intricate puzzle. Deciding to ignore the rather rude inspection, Buffy returned to the menu but the letters wavered and she nodded, almost falling asleep. With a jolt, she raised her head and tossed a wayward lock of hair from her eyes. A short gasp from Kyle caused her to look in his direction. He continued to stare unflinchingly as his gaze grew more intense. Slowly, the Slayer turned another page of the menu, almost dropping it as Kyle abruptly demanded, "Again! Do that again!"

Buffy swiveled in her chair to look at him. His face was alight with some type of recognition, his hazel eyes glowing with realization – it almost seemed as though he had just experienced some type of earth-shattering epiphany.

Confounded, Buffy blinked. "Do ... what?"

"That thing!" he said, barely able to contain his excitement. "That thing you just did!"

Buffy adopted an ‘oooookay' attitude but said nothing. Very slowly and very deliberately, she turned the page of the menu back and then forward again.

"No, the ... thing!" protested a frustrated Kyle. "The ... hair thing!" He tossed his own head to mimic the desired motion, although every blond strand remained perfectly in place.

Still wearing an extremely confused but now wary expression, the Slayer did as requested. With narrowed eyes, Kyle studied the movement very closely. Then suddenly, not to mention inappropriately, he began to laugh.

"Okay," responded an irritated Buffy, stuffing the carte du jour back into its holder. "Not getting the joke here."

"Oh my god," he spluttered. "I can't believe it." His laughter grew heartier, if such were possible. "I simply can't believe it!" He gasped for breath.

Buffy's smile was sardonic. "Amazingly, I'm sharing similar thoughts," she snapped. "Care to explain your half?"

The grin on his face was huge, almost ear-splitting. He all but bounced in his seat, slamming his hands on the table in a bright, happy and overjoyed fashion. Buffy snatched her glass of water before it spilled.

"I'm gay!" declared Kyle, settling back down in his chair and waiting expectantly, as though he were about to be honored with some type of extraordinarily valuable prize.

"You're gay," blinked a stunned Buffy.

"Yeah!" he confirmed jubilantly. "I mean ... I guess I always knew, but I didn't realize it, not really, until just now! I started thinking about it when you took your coat off. I mean, there you are, barely wearing anything at all really—" the Slayer grimaced as she looked down at her outfit "—and you'd think that'd do something for me, right? But no! Not a thing! All could think was, ‘I can't believe she had the nerve to leave the house like that'."

At this statement, Buffy's eyes flew open wide in total amazement at his absolute lack of tact. There was no trace of sleepiness now. Kyle failed to notice her look of disdain however, engrossed as he was in an exultant personal reverie of joyous discovery. As surreptitiously as possible, the Slayer slipped back into her coat and pulled it tight around her.

Almost without stopping to take in any oxygen, Kyle continued. "But it all clicked into place when you did the hair flip thing. I mean, for years now, I've dated girl after girl, and sure, those dates have gone okay. They've been gorgeous and we've had fun ... but it wasn't until today ..." He paused and as though actually seeing Buffy for the first time, reached out and took her hand. "It wasn't until you, Buffy, that I realized I'm gay."

"Stop ..." she objected, but he obviously thought she was merely being modest.

"Really," he told her in complete sincerity. "I owe it all to you. If it hadn't been for me finding you completely unattractive, I might have—"

"No, seriously. I mean it – stop," came the clipped retort. She snatched her hand from his grasp, but again, he didn't seem notice. He wallowed happily in the new found revelation, far too wound up in himself to be aware of how insulting he was being.

He inhaled deeply. "I can't get over how good it feels, to finally realize the truth," he stated with conviction. "It's like a whole new world has opened up."

"I know it's doing wonders for me," muttered Buffy darkly.

"So many things make sense now," Kyle added, as much to himself as to anyone else. "So much is clear. So much—" His eyes widened as another thought seem to pop into his mind. He smoothed the collar of his shirt and raised his hand as though he were about the run his fingers through his hair. Then, apparently deciding it was immaculate just as it was, thought better of it. He focused his attention on the Slayer with a speculative gaze.

"So," he questioned with a suave air and blinding toothy grin, "you and Xander, you're really good friends, right?"

With a loud groan, Buffy allowed her head to slump heavily upon the table.

In the rec room of Slayer Central, Kennedy lounged in one of the armchairs, remote at the ready. By the far wall, two Juniors were playing Dance Dance Revolution, volume appropriately lowered to a non-ear-splitting levels. Nearby, three more girls watched the pair of players, but other than that, the area was rather empty.

Upon entering the room, Faith made her way to the couch and vaulted over the back, landing with a solid thud on the cushion closest to Kennedy's chair. She waved a fistful of rolled-up comics at Kennedy before tossing them onto the couch next to her. "S'up?" she inquired.

Kennedy shrugged. "Not much. Planning to clear some stuff off TiVo. I love this thing." She turned her attention to the myriad of buttons, punching first one and then another, delighting in the variety of noises each one made. She grinned at Faith who failed to appear as amused as the younger girl. Kennedy rolled her eyes but ceased the incessant ‘be-doop'.

"Anyway. Great Christmas present to the girls," she told Faith with a satisfied nod. "Gotta hand it to Giles."

Faith settled back against the cushion. "What's on the menu?"

"Got the latest ‘Survivor' to catch up on." Kennedy regarded the other girl with an excited expression. Faith puffed out her cheeks in a disdainful scoff, which Kennedy chose to ignore. "You?" she questioned.

The dark Slayer wrinkled her nose. "Not much. Pretty lazy Saturday. Was out late, so takin' it easy. Do a little readin'." She grabbed one of the comic books and proceeded to curl it in the opposite direction to that which it had already adopted. Satisfied that it was sufficiently flat, she opened the cover and folded it back. Throwing her feet up on the couch, she stretched out to commandeer its entire length and gave a sigh of contentment.

Kennedy grinned. "Andrew'll have an aneurysm if he sees you treating your comics that way."

"Not mine," stated Faith in an offhand manner.

"That's even worse," chuckled Kennedy. "Whose are they?"

Faith flopped onto her stomach and rested her chin on the arm of the couch. "Andrew's," she said with a wicked smirk at Kennedy before rolling to her former position.

Kennedy broke into a burst of laughter. "Remind me not to be there when he finds them." She scrolled through the recorded programs until the title of her 'Survivor' episode was highlighted. Duplicating Faith's contended sigh, she settled in her chair. "Ahh, time for some fake action."

Just as the 'Outwit-Outplay-Outlast' logo appeared on the screen, the dual doors of the rec room exploded open. Fragments of splintered wood were violently scattered as a young Slayer was hurled through the entrance like a fast-pitched baseball. Sailing across the room, she collided with the scoreboard on the air hockey table, but the impact failed to halt her momentum. Like a bolt let loose from a crossbow, her body continued until it made contact with the wall. She smashed into the plaster with a sickening thud, the force creating a huge dent from which jagged cracks spidered their way along the surface. Slumping heavily to the floor, she lay there, immobile but groaning softly.

Almost in the blink of an eye, another Junior followed in the wake of the first. She too slammed into the plaster, just to the right of her predecessor, but the impact was more brutal this time, given the lack of a door and scoreboard to soften the momentum. The girl fell face-down close to her unfortunate companion. Also motionless, she made no sound, her right leg twisted at an unnatural angle.

With the arrival of the second casualty, the DDR game came to an instant stop. Both Faith and Kennedy immediately sat upright, heads swiveling to stare at the entrance. The apparent attacker stood at the threshold of the fractured doorframe. She was young, perhaps 17 or 18 years old with cropped dark brown hair. Lean and obviously fit, her dress was conservative – a long-sleeved black shirt and functional black jeans. She surveyed the room with an impassive expression, hands resting comfortably upon her hips. Her gaze traveled from the Senior Slayers to the younger ones, seemingly struck down with paralysis as they stared at her in shocked amazement. She sneered and gave an ugly chuckle.

"Or, I could settle for the real thing," said Kennedy, leaping out of her chair and rushing toward the intruder.

"Hey," yelled Faith, "I saw her first!" Arching her back, the dark Slayer pushed with her hands and propelled herself off the couch in a backward flip. Landing lightly, she spun on a dime and without hesitation, used her fist to blast the glass cover of a box affixed to the wall. Heedless, of the needle-like shards that erupted, she punched the large button residing within the shattered plastic. Alarm bells began to ring shrilly throughout every corner of Slayer Central, accompanied by steadily flashing red lights placed near the ceiling. Her initial duty carried out, Faith turned toward the real action and raced to join the battle in progress.

Act Four

Buffy flung open the front door to her house with something only slightly less than Slayer strength, which meant that while it was sufficient to alert all inside to her fit of pique, the door remained intact so Xander was free from having to take on any more work. Grumbling angrily, Buffy was muttering only partly under her breath.

Her voice was dripping with disdain, and her sneer twisted every word. "'Oh, Buffy, thank you sooooo much for all your help, just by walking in the room and being repulsive! Let me buy you a meatball sub, it's the least I can do to make up for telling you how unappealing you are for the past 38 minutes exactly!'" Slamming the door closed, it appeared for a moment as though Buffy was planning to follow up with a savage kick, but shied away. Instead, she bitterly spat out, "Stupid dumb stupid-guy."

Shrugging off her coat, leaving her clad only in her outrageous outfit, Buffy jammed the garment onto the rack near the door, nearly toppling it over in her anger. She stomped into the living room to find Willow, Xander and Dawn all seated on the couch, seeming to be waiting for her. Cradled in Dawn's lap was an ancient tome of some sort that very obviously would have been at home in Giles' collection. It was closed, but a piece of fluorescent pink paper dangled from the top to mark a crucial page.

All three wore moderately serious expressions, but Buffy was far too wound up in her horrible afternoon to pay much notice, choosing instead to thrust her finger at Xander. "You!" she accused, then repeated the gesture at Willow. "Both of you! Your friends ... suck!"

"Nice of you to say so, oh friend of mine," smirked Xander, but the association was lost on the fuming Slayer.

"I'm guessin' things didn't exactly click with Kyle, huh?" questioned a disappointed Willow.

The blonde laughed bitterly. "Oh, things clicked just fine for Kyle. Lots of clicking, lost of pieces, just that none of them were Buffy-shaped. They were shaped more like Antonio, our waiter." With a huff, Buffy threw herself into Xander's chair, her anger giving way to an industrial-strength pout.

It took a moment, but then all three seemed to catch on at the same time.

Xander spoke first, his face registering surprise. "You mean Kyle's—"

"Apparently so," complained Buffy. "And it only took three seconds with me for him to figure it out!"

"Ouchie," the redhead winced sympathetically.

"That had to be, like, the most awkward thing ever," marveled Dawn aloud. When she caught Buffy's glare of death, she threw her hands out with an exasperated, "What?"

Xander was still stuck on the afternoon's big revelation. "Huh. So Kyle's gay." He paused for a moment, then jutted his finger out thoughtfully. "You know, that actually explains a lot."

"Have an epiphany when I'm not around, I've had enough of them for one day," griped Buffy. Suddenly overtaken with frustration, she threw her head back in the chair and balled her hand into a fist. "God! I need to beat something up and then take a nap."

Chuckling, Willow leaned forward. "Funny you should mention that ..."

"How about a two-for-one deal?" the carpenter offered cheerfully.

Sighing heavily, Buffy rolled her head to rest against her shoulder and stared at her friends. "I'm tired, humiliated, bordering on depressed, and wearing clothes that better never again find their way into this house. Drop the cryptic."

As though considering that her cue, Dawn leapt in to explain. "Well you know that sleeping sickness thing around town? And your crazy romance novel dreams?" Hefting the book out of her lap, the teenager smiled proudly. "We know what it is."

"Incubus," stated Willow.

Buffy blinked. "Gesundheit."

A snorting laugh from Xander caused the three females in the room to turn toward him. "I did the exact same joke when they told me!" he bubbled excitedly. The glares from Willow and Dawn quickly sobered him, and he added, "It wasn't very funny then, either."

With a final piercing look, Willow focused once again on the Slayer. "It's an incubus. A- A non-corporeal entity, like a spirit, that invades the dreams of women a-and seduces them."

"Can't get a date the normal way?" scoffed Buffy. "I'm so there."

Shaking her head, Dawn responded, "No, it feeds off of sexual energy. And once the woman is entirely under his spell he, uhm ... he- he mates with them." Tentatively, Dawn offered the book to her sister. "It's illustrated if you wanna see."

Instead, Buffy's eyes widened and she flashed an accusatory look at her best friends, both of whom squirmed uncomfortably and averted their eyes.

"Anyway, not the point," interjected Xander, very keen to shift topics. "The point is, we think all the women down with this ‘sleeping sickness' thing are under the spell of the pimp daddy playa of the demon world." He cringed. "And yes, I should be shot for saying ‘pimp daddy playa'."

"You're sure it's this pimp thing?" Buffy asked, pushing herself upright in the chair with some difficulty.

The redhead nodded, though her expression grew concerned again. "It seems to make the most sense. I was supposed to meet my friend Erin at the library today, but she never showed up. I-I went to her apartment and she was completely asleep, I couldn't wake her up. She'd been telling me about these dreams, just like yours. So I went to the Watchers that Giles put on research duty, and they suggested an incubus." She pointed to the book resting in Dawn's lap. "After a bit of research, it all seemed to fit."

Groaning mightily, Buffy struggled to her feet. She stretched backward, almost parallel to the floor, and murmured appreciatively as she heard several rewarding pops. "Good enough for me," she announced, straightening again. "And I can think of worse ways to make myself feel warm and fuzzy than killing the demonic representation of the male libido."

The Slayer received only blank stares in response.

"What, you guys corner the market on keen observations and symbolic parallels?" Still she received no answer, and she rolled her eyes. "So how do I kill it?"

Her family were still stuck in a stupor. The Slayer cleared her throat, irritation evident, and Dawn was the first to respond. "Oh, uh ... usual ways," she replied with a shrug. "He's not really physical, you know, being all incorporeal and stuff. He mostly relies on manipulation to convince the woman to sleep with him."

"Just like a real boy!" exclaimed Xander, receiving another round of baleful glares.

Shaking her head, Dawn continued. "So yeah, just ... kill him in your dream. Once he's dead, you and everyone else should wake up."

"What are odds I won't be able to wake up from this?" the Slayer asked, not sounding concerned but obviously wanting all the facts first.

"Pretty slim," Willow was quick to respond. "In order for his spell to work, you have to want to stay. You're aware now, so unless he's really, really good, your dream-self should remember that. And if he is that good, then I'm upset you haven't shared yet." A pout threatened to burst forth at any moment, and Buffy smirked in response.

Thoroughly enjoying being a primary provider of information, Dawn was anxious to keep going. "You really need to kill him now, though," she stressed, adding perhaps a dash more urgency than was required, but her point was clear. "Once he knows you're on to him, he probably won't show up in your dreams again, and then we'll have no way of catching him."

Nodding, the Slayer headed for the stairs. "Alright then, so nap and ass-kicking."

"Two things you can do in your sleep!" Xander joked. Once again, no one laughed, and he sighed dejectedly.

"See you guys in a bit," Buffy called over her shoulder.

Dawn smiled happily. "Sweet dreams."

Hannah, Wood and Giles were gathered in the Watcher's office. At a small cabinet against a side wall, Giles poured drinks for everyone and then handed them around. "Is everything ready?" he asked.

"Almost," replied Hannah taking a pull on her White Russian. "We still have to stock up on food and such. I'm thinking nothing but jerky and tins of baked beans, you?" She turned to Wood.

"Desperately hoping for some variety," he smirked. "Maybe a nice fruit roll-up."

"And- And everything else?" questioned the anxious Watcher. "You're prepared?"

It was Wood who responded this time. "Well as prepared as we can be, seeing as how we have absolutely no idea what we're going there to look for. Gotta say, didn't think I'd be returning to Sunnydale anytime ... ever. Hey, maybe while we're there, we can stop off at the high school. I never did get to grab my nameplate." He leaned toward Hannah to add, "Sentimental value." She inclined her head wisely.

"I'm pleased you're both taking this so seriously," snapped a sarcastic Giles.

"Oh, I'm serious," Wood told him. "That nameplate was a gift from the school board."

Nudging each other with their elbows, Hannah and Wood shared a chuckle, amused at the beginnings of an aggravated expression creeping across the Watcher's face.

Hannah grimaced. "We better watch out," she warned Wood. "He's starting to get that wrinkly thing between his eyes. Next he'll start tutting."

Wood nodded sagely as Giles did, indeed, tut more than once in a most disapproving manner.

The blonde exhaled a huge puff of air. "See?" she accused. "Rupert, don't confuse banter for a lack of seriousness. Honestly, you've been working with Buffy and her friends for eight years now and you still haven't learned to tell the difference?"

Giles settled his glasses upon his nose. "Sorry," he sighed. "I just ... This whole Sunnydale mess. I don't like it. And I don't like that I have to send you two out there."

"Well personally," Wood revealed sardonically, "I'm anxious for the chance to get away. I've been here for almost three whole weeks. I feel the wanderlust starting to kick in."

The Watcher gave himself permission to exhibit a tiny smirk. "Just allow me my anxieties, please. Sometimes they're all I have."

Hannah shrugged indulgently. "Oh, very well, if you must."

Giles carried his untouched drink to the desk as Hannah hurriedly supplied a coaster. "Though I must admit," began the Watcher, "it would be a nice change of pace to be worried over nothi—"

The strident clanging of bells interrupted his statement. They seemed to be ringing everywhere. Hannah unceremoniously dumped her glass, sans coaster, on the polished surface of Giles' desk and clapped her hands over her ears. Wood's eyes darted to the red emergency light positioned in the corner of the room that was rapidly flashing its urgent message.

"Oh dear lord," muttered Giles, pushing himself up from his chair and racing toward the door.

"What in the bloody hell is that?" Hannah yelled in an attempt to make her voice heard above the incessant clanging.

"Alarms," bellowed Wood, following Giles out the door.

Hannah was no more than a second behind. "Thank you, Sherlock," she hollered.

In the hallway, the lights continued to flash their demand for immediate attention. With Giles leading the way, the trio sprinted down the corridor. As they ran, the Watcher tried to explain in between gulps of air. "Emergency alarms," he panted. "We have them set up throughout the facility."

Hannah apparently felt no such need for additional oxygen. "I remember you telling me," she remarked, easily keeping pace with her ex-husband. "I don't remember you telling me they were this obnoxious, though."

Pulling a small device from his pocket – something akin to a very flat palm pilot complete with a plethora of buttons – Giles depressed one and the grating siren died with a final wail of complaint, although the lights continued to flash.

Hannah vigorously shook her head but never broke stride. "My eardrums thank you," she said with a puff – not from exertion but relief that there had been no rupturing.

"Where's the trouble?" Wood demanded, bringing up the rear. He skidded to a halt as something solid came hurtling out of the recreation room several feet ahead of them. It could have been a body or an object – it was impossible to tell from the speed with which it traveled.

"My guess...?" suggested Hannah, as the three of them sprinted to the shattered doorway. The scene that met their eyes was one of total devastation.

Holes and cracks were visible in every wall. Tables and chairs were broken, and debris littered the floor. The pool table, video games and television remained intact, but given the rate of destruction there was no guarantee they would remain that way. Strewn about were the bodies of four Slayers, in varying degrees of injury - one attempted to get up while nursing a broken arm, another held her side in a way that indicated a few cracked ribs at the least, and the other two were completely unconscious.

In the center of the room, clear signs showed that the worst was yet to come. Faith, Kennedy and three Junior Slayers were confronting a young female, dressed entirely in black and easily holding her own. Her appearance gave the initial impression of an angel of death, and Giles immediately furrowed his brow, attempting to place the attacker. A frustrated shake of his head indicated he was unable to do so.

Although large, the rec room had not been created for battle, and there was insufficient space for all the Slayers to attack in unison. Instead, they were constantly moving, weaving around each other to launch an assault from seemingly random angles and intervals. Their opponent, however, was able to block most every blow. She displayed little concern for the unbalanced odds stacked against her and she demonstrated not even the merest evidence of fatigue.

Faith delivered a straight-on punch that would have demolished concrete, but her adversary easily pushed it away, even as she sidestepped another swing that moved so fast it seemed almost a blur. Kennedy managed to launch a spinning kick from behind the intruder, but even as the heel of her foot connected with the skull, it did nothing more than cause the girl's head to jerk slightly.

Seizing upon a perceived opening, one of the Juniors leapt forward with a blow aimed at the heart, but the invader's recovery had been instantaneous and, with no apparent effort, she trapped the fist within her hand. Exhibiting an amazing fluidity, the black-clad girl circled around and thrust her elbow backward. As it connected with the Junior's face, a sharp crack reverberated throughout the room, followed immediately by a spurt of blood from the Slayer's nose. She collapsed heavily to her knees.

From the doorway, Wood intently watched the ongoing confrontation. His eyes darted from the girls lying on the floor to the figure that had felled them. Glancing at Hannah, the pair seemed to share a wordless agreement, and together they moved to join the fight.

"No," Giles called out quickly, catching Hannah's arm as she swept past.

The blonde gaped at her ex-husband. "No?" she repeated incredulously, her tone matching the expression creeping across Wood's face.

Allowing his hand to fall, Giles explained, "There's too little room in there. You'll only distract the girls." His brow furrowed as he focused on the tireless series of defensive and aggressive moves being made by the assailant. "And there's no telling what that thing will do to a normal human," he added darkly.

The Watcher's logic was undeniable, but still Hannah and Wood were reluctant as they stepped away from the raging battle, able to do little save observe for the moment. Another round of attacks against the invader met with scant success. For her troubles, Kennedy stumbled beneath the force of a blow to her cheek that, had she not rolled with it, could quite possibly have broken her neck.

Summoned by the flashing lights and now-silenced sirens, reinforcements had begun to arrive from down the hall. A handful of Slayers stood next to Giles, taking in the scene before them with gaping mouths. The group was laden with weapons of all shapes, types and styles.

In frustration, Wood turned to his companions. "We can't just stand here doing nothing!" he exclaimed.

Hannah's eyes were fixed on the newcomers and their assortment of gear. Spotting a tranquilizer gun, the blonde seized it swiftly. Verifying that it was loaded, she vowed, "We won't."

With a quick nod of authority, Giles dispatched reinforcements into the room, where they instantly fell into step with those already engaged in battle. As a whole, the platoon of Slayers functioned like a well-oiled machine, despite the unusual circumstances. Giles then turned to the others, tone urgent but expression stoic. "Robin, carefully as you can, get the wounded out of harm's way."

Wood immediately ducked low and, as inconspicuously as possible, worked his way toward the nearest unconscious Slayer. Slipping his arm underneath the injured girl, he dragged her as carefully as he could toward a point of relative safety, where she would not run the risk of being trampled to death in the heat of battle.

Meanwhile, the Watcher had returned the bulk of his focus to the conflict at hand. His eyes squinted behind his spectacles as he observed the dizzying exchange of blows between the dark-haired aggressor and the seven Slayers now defending against her rampage. His eyes glittered with keen intelligence as his mind rapidly processed the onslaught of information.

For their part, Faith, Kennedy and the Junior Slayers appeared to be adapting to the fight. Realizing they were getting nowhere with straightforward punches, they had turned more to speed and combinations in an attempt to overwhelm their enemy. The approach was having very limited success, but it had at least slowed down the rate of their members falling in battle.

Faith moved in nimbly with a right-handed jab that her intended victim easily snatched and held, squeezing the captured fist like a piece of overripe fruit. The dark Slayer's teeth gritted in irritation as her face contorted with pain. Faith quickly followed up with her other arm, but that too was likewise seized and gripped. Reacting so speedily that she must have expected to become fully ensnared, Faith then rammed her boot full-force into the girl's groin, but the impact was negligible.

Believing the opponent's attention to be fully occupied, a Junior lashed out and connected solidly with the targeted temple. Such was the might of the blow that the interloper's head snapped to the right, where her cheekbone was instantaneously met by Kennedy's fist performing an identical move on that side. The whiplash-style assault managed to stun the invader for a moment.

There was no hesitation – Faith took full advantage and wrenched her hands free, cocking her arm back to deliver a strike to the trespasser's throat. But the girl had recovered, and far more quickly than anyone had expected or been prepared for. Once again, Faith found herself in the grasp of her foe, arm trapped in a vice-like grip that was impossible to break. The shorthaired attacker spared a brief moment to grin viciously at Faith before twisting savagely. A wetly ripping sound echoed and the dark Slayer immediately turned pale and ashen as her arm was contorted into an unnatural position. Effortlessly and with no more care than disposing of a used tissue, the invader tossed Faith aside. Crashing heavily atop the pool table, the Senior Slayer landed with such force that it nearly cracked in half.

From the doorway, Giles' voice rang out clearly and powerfully. "She's relying on strength only! Continue to attack together, and use technique!" he commanded.

With the enemy's back turned, Kennedy took advantage of the opening to grab the neck – her obvious intention being to snap it – but the Slayer's eyes widened in surprise when she realized the muscles were rigid as tempered steel and refused to budge, no matter how hard she struggled. Two Juniors, believing that Kennedy's attack had caused a distraction at the very least, moved into position to strike from the front. They were easily swept aside by a roundhouse kick, executed perfectly despite Kennedy's attempts at restraint.

Darting between the pair of flying bodies, yet another Slayer, armed with a sword, swung savagely at her opponent's chest. At that moment, Kennedy released her grip and instead, seized each of the intruder's arms. With a primal yell of exertion, she pulled as hard as she could and managed to pin them back. The veins stood out like chords on Kennedy's neck with the supreme effort, but her endeavors did provide a small amount of exposure and the tiniest of openings. Even so, the dark-haired attacker managed to move enough to deflect the brunt of the swing, which sliced through her shoulder rather than her chest.

While a normal creature – certainly one which was human quite possibly several species of demon – would have lost an arm as a result of the blow, the blade entered no more than a half-inch into the flesh before stopping.

For the first time, the attacker showed anger, and she immediately shrugged off the hold that had temporarily trapped her. Snatching the blade of the now slightly bent sword, she ripped the weapon from the hands of the astonished Junior. Swinging so fast that trajectory of the sword itself was audible, the intruder smashed the hilt into the side of the young Slayer's head. The girl was catapulted off of her feet and collided with the far wall, the impact of her body leaving yet another hole to join the dozen or so that already marred the plaster. Less than five seconds after initiating her assault, the Junior Slayer slumped to the ground, unmoving.

The black-costumed girl tossed the bowed sword aside in disdain as she slammed her elbow backward, connecting solidly with Kennedy's ribs. The jab was powerful enough to elicit a small cracking sound. The blow left the Senior Slayer stunned and she stumbled, only to find herself instantly unable to breathe. The intruder had wrapped her grip around the Slayer's throat and calmly hoisted her into the air one-handed. Fingers began to tighten, burrowing into the flesh of Kennedy's neck as the Slayer scrabbled to get free.

Failing to pry her enemy's fingers loose directly, Kennedy cocked back her arm, channeling every ounce of strength into a blow aimed for the girl's nose. It connected squarely, but was ineffective. Gritting her teeth with determination, the Senior Slayer tried again with equally unsuccessful results. One of the Juniors leapt to her aid, but the aggressor easily swept the would-be rescuer aside with her free arm. Dazed, the Junior found herself being blasted into the wall.

The crack of Kennedy's straining muscles mingled in a sickening fashion with the sound of the intruder's wound beginning to heal. Glancing at the wound slowly knitting together, Kennedy made a desperate lunge, driving her fingers into the raw skin. The Slayer gritted her teeth as she dug deep, clawing, scraping and tearing. While the initial sword stroke hadn't appeared to cause the interloper any great discomfort, her face now reflected agonizing pain. Her eyes clenched involuntarily as she slammed Kennedy to the floor before reaching up to her shoulder injury.

Gasping for breath and only half-conscious, Kennedy was in no condition to take advantage of the momentary lull. Around her lay almost a dozen other fallen Slayers, the least injured of whom were only just now managing to struggle to their knees. The invader was recuperating exponentially, and as she straightened, her unnaturally blue eyes surveyed the scene and the bodies strewn all around the immediate area.

As the dark-haired trespasser moved toward Kennedy with the obvious intent of finishing what she had started, a sharp whizzing sliced through the air and the antagonist jolted to a halt. Her hand flashed to the back of neck. Wrenching out the tranquilizer dark, she examined it curiously before turning toward the doorway, a snarl etched into her features. Hannah was rapidly reloading the gun, even as Giles boggled at the tranquilizer's total lack of effect.

Whatever kind of match Hannah might have been for a Slayer, she was still only human, and consequently no match at all for the interloper. In less than a heartbeat, the dark-haired girl stood before the startled blonde. Almost petulantly, she snatched the gun and crumpled the barrel in her fist with a single blinding squeeze. Before she could do the same to Hannah, Giles moved to intercept. Retrieving a discarded sword, he was already swinging in a masterful arc aimed directly at the intruder's neck. Had the blade connected, it would have been a killing blow, but it was effortlessly parried by the girl's palm. Once again, she constricted her fist and the blade shattered. Although metal fragments fell tinkling to the tile floor, none of the shards appeared to so much as pierce her durable flesh.

Before Giles could even gather sufficient thoughts in order to react, both the sword and the rifle had been carelessly tossed aside and the attacker had him in a death grip about the throat. Gazing into her expressionless eyes, he saw the reflected certainty of his own demise, but then, a blast akin to that of a gunshot crackled. A powdery explosion erupted behind the intruder and chips of ivory-colored debris spiraled in every direction. As the hold on the Watcher's windpipe relaxed, Giles toppled backward.

Head and shoulders caked with a chalky dust, the girl lurched staggering to one side. Momentarily regaining her balance, she spun on her heels to behold an enraged Faith bearing down on her.

"You owe me a cue ball, bitch!" Faith snarled in a guttural scream of fury.

The charging punch contained all the force of runaway train as it landed square across the invader's jaw. Again, she staggered, if only slightly. Faith's momentum carried her past the girl, but by now, Kennedy had managed to regain her feet and was following immediately with a spinning kick that connected with the other side of the attacker's head. Reeling, the intruder twisted clumsily in the opposite direction, off-balance for the moment. It was all Faith needed, and she rammed her fist into the small of the girl's back, rendering her breathless and suddenly nowhere near as invulnerable as she had originally appeared.

Giles ignored the angry red welts already standing livid on his neck and bellowed hoarsely into the room. "She's wavering! Don't let up!"

His observations where indeed proving to be accurate. While the assailant still remained faster than either Faith or Kennedy, she had noticeably slowed. Despite Faith's left arm hanging near useless at her side, she and Kennedy performed with clockwork precision in unleashing a barrage of seemingly endless blows that simply never allowed their opponent a second to regroup. What was more, several of the Juniors were also recovering sufficiently to rejoin the battle themselves.

Without warning, Kennedy called out, "High ball!"

She directed a short kick at the girls' head, but that was avoided with little difficulty by a sharp bob. The move had been a feint, however, and it smoothly transitioned into a leg sweep that should have brought the attacker crashing to the ground. But this too failed, as the girl leapt into the air with deceptive ease. She whirled gracefully as she jumped, turning her defensive move into one of offense that was aimed in Kennedy's direction.

However, what the assailant had failed to notice was Faith launching at her with a spinning kick. Still airborne, she had no means of dodging. Landing solidly, the blow from Faith's foot sent the intruder smacking into the wall – as she had done with so many others. The plaster almost caved inward as a yawning crater formed from the impact and the attacker tumbled to the ground.

Giles wasted not a solitary second. "Everyone on her, now!" he ordered.

Faith and Kennedy, spearheading half-dozen Juniors, rushed forward and threw themselves upon the intruder, who was already in the process of getting up. She dropped like a stone under the weight of eight forceful bodies. Another burst of plaster and dust tumbled to the floor, but no attention was paid. A dog-pile mass of arms and legs formed, pinning the interloper down and pummeling her repeatedly with an array of fists. From his position in the doorway, Giles couldn't even see any portion of the attacker other than her feet, and after several seconds these too disappeared into the mass.

As though possessed by a flash of precognitive insight, the Watcher' eyes widened. "Move away—!" he began, but it was already too late. An explosion of bodies erupted from the pile, where the invader had tucked herself into a tight ball and thrust her limbs outward in one smooth motion. Scattered, the Slayers landed in various sections of the room, all dazed and comparatively slow to scramble back onto their feet.

Not so their opponent. Almost immediately, she was upright, although far from the all-imposing force she had presented at the beginning of the battle. Her clothing was ripped and dusty, her hair disheveled, and her footing unbalanced. She shook her head, as if trying to clear it of a fog, but her eyes were focused sufficiently to glare at Giles with naked hatred.

Her speech was a harmonic melding of what appeared to be several different and distinct voices. "We're not ready yet." Her tone was flat, but the undercurrent of loathing was undeniable. "But we soon will be."

With that promise, she raced from the room, a blur of speed that left dust literally swirling in her wake. Giles, Wood and Hannah struggled to keep from toppling as the gust swept by them. Faith was the only Slayer back on her feet and without hesitation, she pursued.

For a brief moment, the Watcher stared down the hall where the attacker had retreated, but a groan from amid the ruins of the recreation room quickly attracted his attention. Swiftly taking in the scene, he immediately moved to the closest Slayer. She was clutching her ribs and small stream of blood trickled from the corner of her mouth. Despite her obvious injuries, she was making a valiant attempt to sit up. Giles knelt beside her, placing a gentle but restraining hand on her chest. "Stay still," he said sternly, but with kindness. "Don't try to move."

Wood, Kennedy, and the few remaining able-bodied Slayers were likewise tending to their comrades. Only a few moments passed before Faith re-entered the devastated room, her injured arm dangling awkwardly at her side.

"She's gone," Faith spat bitterly with an angry shake of her head. "So damned fast, couldn't even find a trace of her."

Hannah moved to stand next to Giles, violently shaking the debris from her hair. She glanced down. "What the hell was that?" she asked, a note of grudging awe lacing her voice.

Unable to provide answer, the bewildered Watcher could only look from her inquiring eyes to the shattered door, as he continued tending to the wounded.

In the Scoobies' living room, a battle of an entirely different kind was occurring. Dawn, Xander and Willow were all seated on the floor around the coffee table. A river of cards was spread out across its surface, and each participant was holding a selection, guarding them protectively. It was clearly a game of intense concentration, strategy and cunning.

Peeking out from over the top of his cards, Xander eyed Dawn suspiciously. "Any twos?" he rasped.

The teenager beamed and shook her head. "Go fish."

With a ‘darnit!" expression, Xander swiped one from the spread and added it to those already in his hand. Looking much more pleased than she had any real right to be, Dawn turned to Willow. "Any queens?"

The redhead grumbled darkly and, not graciously, handed over two. Dawn managed somehow to look even more pleased with herself, and Willow regarded the smug expression grouchily. She glanced over at Xander, who was busily rearranging his hand. "You know how the monks made us think that when she was ten, we could beat her at Candyland?" She sighed with longing. "I miss those days."

Xander's answering nod was emphatic, but any further trips down false memory lane were halted by the sounds of someone coming downstairs. They watched the living room entrance carefully, their game forgotten. After a moment, Buffy limped into the room, looking ragged but very, very satisfied.

"You did it?" the carpenter inquired.

The Slayer's satisfied expression was eerily similar to Dawn's. "Yup. It's a shame it wasn't a succubus. I thought of so many ‘suck' puns during the fight, but ‘incubus'?" She shrugged. "I got nothin'."

"Wow, you were only gone about 20 minutes," Willow commented after checking her watch, the witch's admiration evident.

With a painful limp, Buffy moved to the couch, bonelessly throwing herself onto it with a huge yawn. "He was a lover, not a fighter," she was finally able to reply.

"How'd you do it?" inquired Dawn turning away from the coffee table where she'd carelessly tossed her cards.

For just a moment, the Slayer hesitated, seemingly uncertain of how best to answer. "I hit him where he lived," she reported diplomatically, and refused to say anything more about it.

Willow bounded to her feet. "I'll call Erin, see if she's okay," she told the others as she left the room.

Buffy only half watched her exit, her eyelids fluttering closed. "Good. Y'do tha' ..." she muttered, her words slurring together. "'m gonna—" A yawn interrupted her sentence and she started to tip over. "—gonna catch a few ..."

Trailing off, Buffy fell the rest of the way over on her side, snoring before she even landed safely on the soft cushions.

Buffy and Xander were enjoying an afternoon stroll, albeit that the Slayer was still limping. She smothered a yawn but was unable to stifle a stretch.

"You sure you don't wanna get a few more Z's?" asked the carpenter. "You just put in over 24-hours, what's one or two more?"

Buffy shook her head. "I'm sure. I was having weird dreams anyway." She noted Xander's look of concern and hastened to add, "Not those kind, thankfully, but still. Weird. Something about a clown car, two rakes and a ball of twine. What do you think that was all about?"

Xander shrugged. "I abstain and distract you with news: Giles checked the hospitals, and it looks like everyone recovered. The blood work done on the girls didn't indicate any unwanted demon buns in the oven either, so there's THAT bit of unpleasantness avoided."

"I approve," the Slayer stated with conviction.

"An' in other reports," continued the carpenter, "our little Willow-the-wisp is – get ready for it – on a date as we speak."

Buffy's jaw dropped. "Get out! I'm asleep for a day and Willow's seeing someone? I'm sorry, sleep is no excuse for me not knowing about this sooner. Who is she, how long as she known her, what's she like?"

Xander pondered the urgent queries. "Well, ‘date' may have been a bit of a strong term," he admitted. "More like a pre-date date. Sort of like the pre-game show, only with less talk of football."

"Questions. I asked them. They are expecting answers." The Slayer peered into Xander's face with uncontrolled anticipation.

"Her name's Jessica," he informed her, "and they're meeting to talk about ... brainy stuff. I don't know what. Will told me, but it pretty much went in one ear and translated into ‘brainy stuff'. They're gettin' coffee before school."

Buffy wrinkled her nose. "When she comes home, I must interrogate then punish."

The carpenter chuckled wryly. "Figured as much. So what about you, ready for another set-up?"

The Slayer visibly shuddered. "Ugh. A bushel of no. Besides," she squared her shoulders and gave a mock swagger, "I don't need a guy. I'm perfectly fine remaining single and independent Buffy. I'm not in the least bit troubled by the fact that the only male who's shown any interest in me of late was chatting up a dozen other women with the exact same lines while trying to trick all of us into sleeping with him." She paused for a moment, considering. "It's sort of like Parker, version two-point-oh."

"Uh-huh," agreed Xander, not sounding in the least convinced. "You actually buyin' any of that?"

Buffy smiled ruefully. "Eh, I'll say it a few more times, it'll stick eventually. Seriously though, I'm fine. It'll happen when it happens I guess, you know?"

Xander nodded emphatically and then turned his attention to Buffy's limp. "Still hurts?" he inquired with sympathy.

The Slayer winced a little. "Yeah. I twisted it pretty bad. Stupid gauze. It was everywhere. I felt like I was a beekeeper. And who puts their bed up on a platform, anyway?"

Xander appeared to be formulating a suitable reason but since it seemed to revolve around scenes of seduction, he regarded her with a puzzled frown instead. "I figured with, you know, super-duper Slayer healing power, you'd be all better by now."

"Yeah ..." responded the blonde, her tone equally as bewildered as the carpenter's expression. "Giles says it's psychosomatic. But I dunno. Maybe I slept on it funny."

He offered a supporting arm. She took it and leaned heavily, straightening her leg and dragging it along the pavement in classic mimic of a member of the walking dead. He patted her hand condescendingly and grinned.

Willow and Jessica had chosen a prime table at The Common Grounds. It was well out of the main lines of the shop's traffic and situated at the center of the large plate glass window, which afforded a perfect view of downtown Trillium. The street outside was busy – it being early afternoon – and the town's citizens hurried about their business.

The two women were paying little attention to the activity outside, however. Both were laughing at something or another, and it was clear they were enjoying each other's company very much. The drinks next to them on the table were still warm, but had hardly been touched, each girl more attentive to the conversation at hand.

Wiping her eyes with the back of her hand, Jessica smiled at Willow and repositioned her glasses. "Is there any branch of science you don't love?"

The redhead mulled this question seriously, and declared, "Biology. Too much carvin' up of dead things." She chuckled again before adding, "I get enough of that in my spare time!"

As soon as the words had left her mouth, Willow appeared to want nothing more than to snatch them back again. But it was too late, and Jessica was already giving her a quizzical look.

"Uhh, I mean ..." Desperately, Willow wracked her brain for something plausible. "With cooking. You know. What with the chicken and the cow, though not so much with the pork since, hello, Jewish, but ... whoo. Chicken."

Jessica's expression had hardly changed, and Willow hastily turned the conversation back to safer topics. "Plus in Biology, they always give you frogs. Now don't get me wrong," the witch held up her hand defensively, "I'll dig on in when I gotta, and what girl hasn't had to farm her own amphibian eyes in an emergency?" Once again Jessica looked confused, but Willow wasn't stopping to justify that one and the brunette shook her head as the witch continued. "But then afterward it's all nightmares and green slimy hoppy things and brr. It's just unpleasant," she summed up.

Confusion lingered around Jessica, but she appeared to be taking it all in stride – or as well as possible. "You know I think I could talk to you for years and never fully know you," she grinned, taking a sip of her drink and studying Willow over the rim of the cup.

"Well that's me, Enigma Gal! Who is that masked redhead?" Willow found the thought amusing, but she soon sobered and shrugged at her new friend. "Ehh, I dunno though. The right people – they wind up knowing you better'n you know you, you know? Just gotta find ‘em."

"Guess it takes time," Jessica responded.

"Usually," agreed Willow, and then slowly, her smile faded. Her thoughts seemed to have shifted, memories seeping into her consciousness, unbidden. When she next spoke, it was wistful and far away. "Sometimes, though ... it happens right away. As soon as you see them, touch them ... you know her, and she knows you. And somehow, it's like it's always been that way."

Jessica blinked, uncertain of what to say and clearly without a similar frame of reference. Almost immediately, Willow realized she'd gone off on a tangent, and she flashed the brunette an apologetic, if somewhat sad smile. "Ignore me," she stated, waving her hand as though to clear away her thoughts. "My brain likes to go wandering around without me sometimes, and all I've got to go on are the postcards it sends home."

But Jessica chose not to ignore it, and tilted her head to one side as she considered what she'd just heard. After a moment, she appeared to reach a decision, nodding slightly to herself for confirmation and encouragement. "I think I'd like to be someone like that. But I guess we should start out slow first," she suggested. "So, maybe ... dinner? Just ... you and me?"

The instinctive reaction was to be flattered, and Willow smiled warmly at Jessica. The brunette began to return the smile when Willow shook her head.

"I can't," the witch said firmly but with an unspoken apology. "Not right now. Some stuff ... I- I'm still getting over a few things." Willow smiled again, but it was self-assured. "I'm not ready yet."

Initially, Jessica was disappointed, but it was only for an instant. "It's okay," the brunette assured her sincerely, not sounding upset in the least. "I sorta figured as much," she admitted.

"Oh, but we can still be friends, right?" Willow worriedly asked, distress woven into every feature. "I mean, you have no idea how hard it can be to find an intellectual conversation that doesn't revolve around the plausibility of ‘Farscape'. And even then I use the word ‘intellectual' loosely." That earned her a laugh, and Willow grinned hopefully. "I like talking with you, I just can't—"

"I understand," she promised. "And I'd really like that." With a glance at her watch, Jessica rose, gathering her books together. "I'll give you a call. Maybe we can go to that seminar on quantum singularities next week?"

"Ooo, my brain's all a'flitter." Willow waggled her fingers near her head and the two women grinned at each other.

Flashing a warm parting smile, Jessica grabbed her coffee and exited the shop. Willow watched the other woman depart, obviously feeling pleased with how their meeting had turned out. Once her new friend was out of sight, the redhead pulled close the nearest textbook from the pile on the table next to her. Cracking it open, she began to read as she sipped her drink, becoming thoroughly engrossed in the text almost immediately.

With a abrupt, violent jerk, Willow bolted upright in her chair, like she'd just been shocked by a cattle prod. Her eyes were wide, confused, and her gaze darted all around chaotically. Taking a deep breath to calm herself, she turned her head and peered over her left shoulder. She examined the scene before her – just customers enjoying their coffee, nothing out of the ordinary. Slowly she began to turn her head. Furrowing her brow, Willow studied each new inch of scenery as it drifted into her line of sight, but could see nothing unusual. Still she searched, her head rotating slowly to the right, to the large glass window that dominated the shop's wall. People walked by outside, cars swished past – nobody gave any indication that something was amiss. Then, Willow's eyes were drawn to a figure across the street, and her breath caught in her throat. All at once she seemed to fixate on too many details.

Long blonde hair. Full lips. Blue eyes.

Willow's face crumpled, a sudden intense and indefinable tsunami of emotion. Her throat was raw and constricted. She could only whisper one word.


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