The Chosen - S8 Logo

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Willow was riveted in her seat, features locked in a torturous swirl of too many feelings to properly articulate. Her emotions were caught in a deadlock, battling for supremacy. Her bottom jaw worked soundlessly in a weak attempt to give voice to some broken syllables, but nothing escaped save a solitary pitiful whimper. Driven, Willow stumbled to her feet, almost knocking her chair backward in the process but not sparing it a single glance. She had eyes only for the figure across the street.

Like Willow, the blonde was equally fixated. People passed between them on the pavement. Cars whizzed by at random intervals on the road. But neither woman noticed the occasional break in their gaze. Now their eyes had met, it seemed the rest of the world had suddenly ceased to exist – everything began and ended with that look.

The blonde was wrapped in a nondescript dark coat. Made from a thick, coarse material, it was more than sufficient protection against the cold outside. Despite this, she had enveloped herself with her arms, hugging tightly for warmth or comfort – possibly both. She watched Willow from beneath heavy lids, eyes radiating sadness, but she made no motion to move either closer or further away.

For all intents and purposes, she appeared to be as Willow had named her.

For a moment Willow was frozen in place. Then she began to move, a shuffling gait toward the door. They were blind, clumsy, sideways steps, the redhead being either unwilling or unable to tear her eyes from the blonde. Almost fearfully, she continued to stare as she blundered for the doorway, as though to glance away, to even blink would reduce the figure to nothing more than an apparition that would vanish forever in a heartbeat.

A slight misstep sent Willow lurching into a passing customer, a young man approximately her own age. Steaming hot coffee sloshed out of the oversized mug he was gingerly carrying, and he swore loudly. Shifting the cup to his other hand, he flapped the injured appendage in the air, all the while shooting daggers at the redhead. She neither looked at him nor apologized, nor did the fact that she had nearly tripped seem to register. Footing regained, Willow continued her excruciatingly slow quest for the exit.

It wasn't long before an impasse was encountered. The window ended abruptly before it reached the door – a solid, impenetrable wall extending for several feet cruelly isolating the outside world. It displayed cheerful, colorful framed pictures that, had this been a normal day, Willow might have stopped and admired. But this was anything but a normal day, and all she could do was consider the wall nervously from the corner of her eye. She remained wracked with indecision for a minute, but the needful pull was stronger than her fears. Taking a deep, steadying breath, Willow blinked, severing the connection, and sprang instantly into action. Before two seconds had passed, she was standing on the sidewalk outside the coffee shop, her eyes immediately zeroing in on the figure she had dubbed Tara. The moment their gazes reconnected, Willow gratefully let out the breath she had been holding and tentatively inched forward.

The blonde's body posture changed only in the sense that she appeared to withdraw even further. Her arms tightened around herself as Willow approached, slowly but steadily, inexorably seeking her goal. Still though, she did not move, save to follow the relentless progression.

All around them, drivers and pedestrians continued about their business, heedless of the fact that the small redhead's world was falling apart and rebuilding itself with every step.

Willow's expression had settled into a mixture of resolution and disbelief. She clearly did not know if what she was facing were true, but no power on earth was going to prevent her from finding out. By now, she was at the edge of the sidewalk, her pace quickening imperceptibly as she neared her desired destination. There was no hesitation, no pause to check for traffic; fueled by will alone, she could not be stopped.

A speeding car, thankfully manned by an attentive driver, slowed in plenty of time, finally reaching a complete stop. Willow, unconcerned, took her time crossing. One foot fell in front of the other, setting a steady and determined pace that was, the driver plainly felt, far too slow. He leaned on the horn, a blast of dissonant noise echoing down the street. Neither woman seemed to hear it, and Willow did not increase her stride. The moment she was clear, the driver tore down the road, glaring darkly and muttering to himself.

Having reached the sidewalk opposite the coffee shop, the redhead's breath began hitching and shuddering in her chest. First one step, then another, and after the lifetime it took to reach her, Willow found that all too soon she was standing before the spitting image of her Tara. As the blonde looked at Willow, it was painfully obvious that neither had the slightest idea what to do next.

Willow examined the familiar face while her own dissolved into even more intense turmoil. But as blue eyes filled with tears and a hint of something Willow couldn't even begin to dream for, the redhead's prevailing emotion became the most dangerous of all – hope.

A slow, dream-like shake of the head accompanied a yearning expression as Willow swallowed hard, trying to find her voice. "Tara?" she whispered, her tone rising to end on a pleading note.

The other woman said nothing, hugging herself tighter as she regarded Willow with an even greater sense of sorrow.

The silence only served to make the redhead more frantic. Tears coursed unnoticed down her cheeks, and she took another tiny step forward. "Tara? Is it–? Are you really here?" She reached out but hesitated, unwilling to shatter the illusion, if that was indeed all she had left. Willow swallowed again and tried to search the blonde's eyes for the truth. "Is it you?"

Yet again, there was no answer, and the other women looked stricken at her own lack of response.

Immediately, Willow picked up on the distress. She shivered as a tinge of fear snaked along her spine, but still she moved closer. "Baby?"

The uncertainty was apparent, and understandable, but even stronger was the love. It infused the word, almost breathing life into it, and its power seemed to jar the blonde from whatever mental loop had captured her. She shook her head, an act of denial. "I ca- I can't do this," she declared in a soft, broken voice, and then turned to leave.

Willow's expression had burst into one of delight as soon as she heard the blonde speak, as though the voice and not the message it delivered was the only thing of importance. It wasn't until she moved – moved away – that the words seemed to sink in and Willow's eyes widened fearfully. "No, wait!" she exclaimed, and in a flash of blinding speed ensnared the blonde's hand with her own.

The exact moment their fingers made contact, both women jumped, trembling slightly as something passed through them. The blonde gasped for breath, panting as though she had just run a marathon. Willow's breathing was equally as ragged, and she stared, wide-eyed at her fist, still clasped tightly around its prey. Neither made any move to break the new connection between them, both fixated with awe at their joined hands. Marveling, Willow squeezed the obviously solid, warm and living flesh, repeating the action as though confirming to her mind that the data being received was correct. It was indeed real.

Simultaneously, both gazed up, eyes locking once again. The blonde, though still obviously confused, was unable to hide anything in a face that was far too expressive by nature. Willow recognized the love there, and it was enough.

Tears soaked her cheeks now, more spilling out to join those already fallen. "Tara!" cried Willow, no longer questioning, no longer wondering. There was only truth and certainty. Stepping forward, Willow suddenly found her legs unable to support her and they folded. Still she held tight to the hand in her grasp, extending the other and clutching the blonde's arm. The redhead sank to the cold, damp pavement, unable to do anything but sob Tara's name repeatedly between shuddering breaths, uttering it like a benediction.

Tara watched Willow fall and her own tears silently welled. She hesitated as Willow knelt before her, but the pain was too raw, too overwhelming, and Tara was helpless in its wake. She joined Willow on the ground, both unaware of the strange looks they were receiving from the nearby pedestrians who were giving them a wide berth.

Tara gathered Willow into her arms and Willow clung to Tara desperately as she shed tears of released pain and renewed joy.

The banner over the main entrance to the Lucian Museum proudly announced that "History of the Judicial System" would be "available for viewing soon". Glossy flyers sat in a neat pile on a small table just inside the door. The brochure promised such antiquated delights as authentic replicas of the amputation saw, drunkard's cloak and the Corpus Juris Civilis, "which became the basis for all modern civil law". A group of teenagers, presumably students given the "Question/Answer" pages clutched in their hands, were gathered in the foyer listening, with bored expressions for the most part, to a peak-capped guide who droned monotonously on the merits of the various galleries they would soon have the pleasure of touring. The chaperoning teacher standing nearby was clearly in her element as she nodded enthusiastically at every descriptive word and made copious notes in a loose-leaf binder, while still keeping a guarded eye on her restless flock.

On the fringe of the congregation loitered four youths who looked to be about 17 years old, sniggering at each other and obviously in the mood for mischief. Waiting until their sharp-nosed custodian was engrossed in her scribbling, they slipped away from the herd.

"I didn't think she was ever gonna take her eyes off us, geez," breathed one with a sigh of relief, lisping slightly through his braces.

"Yeah, well," proclaimed another, a ginger-haired boy whose face was covered with freckles. "When you look as hot as me, can you blame her?" He grinned and ran a hand through his red mane with an exaggerated preening motion that resulted in statements of derision and mocking accusations from his three friends.

With well-aimed punches to ribs and head-swipes that missed by a mile, they moved down the deserted western corridor of the Museum, arriving at a wing which was barred by a red velvet rope, complete with a "Do Not Enter" sign. The room immediately beyond was dark but spotlights illuminated its treasures – artifacts and items carefully positioned on pedestals, some of which were draped with a black cloth. The boys took note of the marquee above the entrance to the wing as they hopped over the rope.

"'Justice Through the Ages: 16th Century'," mused the smallest of the four, a blond whose features, despite his size, were classical and very handsome. He sighed. "When are they gonna get the 'Porn Through the Ages' tour?"

"That desperate for a whole new era to make you feel inadequate, huh?" scoffed Ginger.

"Screw you, Jeffreys," was the blond's response as he grabbed Ginger's shoulders and violently shoved.

Stumbling backward, Jeffreys threw out his arms to regain balance and succeeded in toppling a nearby pedestal. It fell with a heavy thud, sending its prized exhibit skidding across the polished surface of the floor. Unable to break his fall, Jeffreys descent soon followed and he let out a groan as his rear end met solid marble. Scrambling to his feet, he nervously looked around before throwing an accusing "Ass!" in the blond's direction.

The four huddled together defensively, anxiously watching the entrance with guilty expressions, waiting for security to come thundering through, blackjacks swinging indiscriminately in beefy fists, demanding to know if they were the destructive vandals.

"Aw, man," whined the fourth member of the quartet, wearing a 'Pergatorious Limbo' sweatshirt, "if Ms. Fornside catches us in here ..."

"What if they got silent alarms or something?" queried the lisper uneasily.

"Shut up a minute!" snapped the blond.

There was an eerie silence for several seconds, but no threatening thump of approaching footsteps could be heard. In unison, they started to relax and Jeffreys began to gather together the scattered items which composed the fallen exhibit.

The lisper appeared rather disappointed. "Dude," he complained, "they should have silent alarms or something."

Sweatshirt retrieved the placard that accompanied the exhibit. "Hm," he read, "'Dubbed "Aspetto da Verità", these pince-nez spectacles were worn by Constantin Gesualdo, governor and judge of the fiefdom of Calitri, Italy. Under his leadership and guidance, the town was considered a jewel of peace and virtue for over twenty years.'"

Jeffreys sneered, "No style, though." He thrust out his chest in a pompous manner and peered through the spectacles which were now perched precariously on the bridge of his nose. The frames were fashioned crudely from some type of unvarnished wood and the lenses were thick and very round in shape. Lacking side pieces, they looked to be decidedly uncomfortable. His three friends snickered.

"I, the Right Honorable Super Deluxe Chief Head Judge James E. Jeffreys," announced Jeffreys arrogantly, "do hereby pass sentence on one Aaron Harper." He pointed to the blond who was openly smirking. "You have been judged and found to be a colossal jacka—"

Suddenly, he stiffened mid-sentence and stared at Harper through the glasses. Flinching, he blinked as a flash of light momentarily obliterated his vision. When he could see clearly once more, the scenario before him had changed and he was no longer in the dark and musty Museum. It was as though he were viewing everything through the wrong end of a telescope. Every detail was quite small but very well defined, the edges sharp and outlined with clarity. The scene was obviously a party – couples dancing and teenagers sprawled on the couch munching on popcorn and Chex Mix. Harper was there with a girl about his own age. They were standing by a wall, chatting happily.

Jeffreys flinched again as the picture flashed and changed. This time, Harper was persistently pushing a glass into the girl's hands. She looked uncertain, but he smiled charmingly and nodded his encouragement. Still unsure, she tipped the glass to her lips as Harper smiled broadly.

With another flash, the picture changed again, this time showing the girl staggering, unable to stand upright. Her hand was braced against Harper's shoulder for support, and she looked as though she might pass out at any moment. She swayed and almost fell, but Harper caught her easily. Wrapping one arm around the girl's waist, he led her away, her head bobbing from side-to-side and her eyelids fluttering weakly.

Yet another flinch and blinding flash, and the vista transformed into a darkened bedroom. Harper was kneeling over the unconscious girl with a leer on his face. Her blouse was partially unbuttoned and her skirt had been pushed up to her thighs. With a frown, he quickly got up and went to the open doorway. Looking into the hall first left and then right, he closed the door with a small click and turned back toward the bed.

A final blinding flash and Jeffreys was back in the Museum once more. He blinked and shook his head, obviously trying to make sense of what had just transpired, but had little time to dwell on the phenomenon before being assaulted with yet another explosive flash of light.

This time, Harper was on a public bus. Already crowded, it became almost suffocating as it stopped to take on more passengers, one of whom was an elderly lady carrying several plastic shopping bags. She tottered as she tried to juggle the bags and maintain her balance while the bus pulled away.

Another flash of light enveloped the scene. When it cleared, the elderly woman was apologizing profusely as her overstuffed bags thumped into knees and jostled elbows. She sighed heavily as she tried to avoid the disapproving glares and looked around in desperation for a vacant seat but could find none. Jeffreys blinked as the scenario shifted slightly to reveal Harper getting up and gesturing for the woman to take his seat, which she accepted with a most grateful smile.

In an almost trance-like state, Jeffreys withstood the following flash with barely a flicker. His face bore a distant expression, his eyes focused beyond the walls of the Museum. Mystified, his three companions regarded him with frowns and puzzled looks. With a shake of his head, Jeffreys straightened his back and directed his gaze toward Harper.

"You have been judged," he pronounced, his voice flat and unemotional.

Suddenly, the spectacles began to glow – first a dull orange, then becoming more and more bright until the reflection from the lenses was as dazzling as the sun's rays. Harper, Sweatshirt and the lisper looked at each other in total confusion. Then, a vivid beam blasted from the glasses and quickly licked its way around Harper's silhouette. The blond screamed out in agony but was unable to move. Surrounding him, the entire area was also radiant with amber energy. In panic, the lisper and Sweatshirt began to move toward the entrance, their eyes affixed on the engulfed figure of Harper. Slowly, the glow faded, as did the blond's shrieks. What remained was a charred husk. Despite the damage done to Harper, the wall that had surrounded the blast remained untouched, save for the large scorched circle outlining where the energy had been contained. A strange glyph could be seen burned into the plaster directly behind where Harper had been standing – an arrow pointing upward.

The lisper gagged at the sight of Harper's smoldering corpse and the stench of roasted flesh. He grabbed Sweatshirt, momentarily stunned into immobility, by the arm and pulled him toward the entrance. With a final look behind, they dashed from the room.

Jeffreys regarded the smoking remains icily, his expression devoid of either compassion or regret. "You have been found guilty," he uttered with finality.

The Common Grounds seemed a mundane, almost inappropriate location for a reunion, but neither Willow nor Tara were offering much commentary on where they had wound up. Willow's jeans were still wet from her time on the ground outside, and she absently pressed a damp, crumpled and obviously already used napkin to the material. If she noticed that the upper absorbency threshold of the paper had long since been reached, Willow obviously didn't care. Her attentions were only for the blonde sitting across the table.

Tara had removed her coat and draped it over the high-back chair she had claimed. She was dressed in a plain, fairly unremarkable peasant top, similar to but much less colorful than those she had demonstrated a preference for back in Sunnydale. Still, the outfit lent the witch an air of normality that was nothing less than incongruous with the situation. Much like their surroundings, however, neither woman was bothering to take the time to discuss fashion.

Glancing down at her pants, the redhead seemed to finally notice she had been rubbing the exact same spot for some time, and it wasn't getting any drier. What's more, the napkin had begun to disintegrate, leaving bits of itself all over the black fabric. Willow blinked at it for a moment, only barely comprehending, then balled it up in her fist and placed it on the table with one hand while the other absently brushed the torn pieces from her jeans. The wet denim clung to the shreds possessively and refused to let go without a fight, and Willow soon gave up and instead turned her attentions to the now stone cold mocha. She didn't make a pretense of drinking it, instead tracing her finger around the rim of the cup, her eyes glued to Tara but distant and locked in her own thoughts.

As the awkward situation threatened to become unbearable, Tara frowned her concern at Willow. It appeared very much as though the redhead might become a permanent fixture of the coffee shop, trapped somewhere in her mind – provided that Tara herself never moved. Whenever the blonde so much as shifted positions, Willow's eyes would widen and panic would creep in around the edges, vanishing only when Tara once again settled and demonstrated no further actions that could possibly be interpreted as leaving.

"Are you okay?" Tara finally inquired when it seemed as though Willow might never speak again.

And indeed, Willow didn't speak this time either. She laughed. It was a sound that conveyed genuine amusement at the question, though without derision or cruelty, but there was a note of something else much more indefinable.

Almost immediately, Tara shook her head, her brow creasing as the full implication of such a simple question occurred to her. "I mean ..." With a harsh sigh, the blonde chastised herself, "Dumb. That was ... That's a dumb question."

Her self-irritation was only too evident, and it provided all the motivation Willow needed to break out of her internal reverie. Tenderly, Willow laid her hand on top of Tara's, giving it a reassuring squeeze. "It's not," she insisted. "And no. I'm— I've never been so okay about not being okay, you know?" Willow smiled again, her fingers reverently stroking the skin beneath them. "This is just so ..."

Willow trailed off, her mind unable to put feelings into words. She soon realized she didn't have to. Nodding slightly, Tara indicated her understanding, and the redhead beamed ecstatically. Her enthusiasm melted somewhat, however, as she became aware that not only was Tara not sharing in it, but had averted her eyes and refused to meet Willow's gaze. A flash of guilt swept over the redhead and, although reluctantly, she retracted her hand.

Another tense moment of uncomfortable silence settled between them until Willow asked, "What about you, you're not ..." Swallowing hard, her voice was barely a whisper. "Are you hurting?" The blonde witch shook her head, and relief flooded Willow's features. "Good. That's good."

No further words seemed willing to make themselves heard. Willow's hand snaked across the table of its own volition and her fingers once more grazed the back of the other woman's hand. Tara watched as the digits moved slowly, tracing abstract patterns over her flesh, but there was no visible reaction otherwise. Eventually Willow pulled back her arm and busied her wandering hands with a stray coffee stirrer, eyes fixed on the blonde.

"How did—?" The redhead's voice broke, ending that sentence. She tried again. "You're back."

As soon as the declaration had been spoken, the miracle of what it meant seemed to touch her all over again. "You're back," repeated Willow with awe, but the questions were too many and far too important to remain ignored for long and she frowned in confusion. "But I don't understand, how...?"

Tara sighed deeply, and turned toward the window. Outside, a few new flakes had begun to fall, but the blonde didn't seem to see them. "I ... I don't know. Not the specifics." Her eyes found Willow's once more, as the redhead waited patiently, seemingly prepared to wait however long it took for Tara to tell her story. "I was brought back, sent here to fight an evil. Something big. Something ..."

Her voice lost its strength, and the blonde's head dropped, her hair falling to cover her eyes. Willow immediately recognized the gesture. As Tara pulled her hands from the tabletop, retreating even further, Willow snatched one and held it tightly.

"It's okay," she stated with conviction. Tara cautiously glanced over to Willow, who smiled as their eyes reconnected. Assurance and complete acceptance poured from the redhead. "It's okay," the witch reaffirmed. "It doesn't matter. You're here. You're here and I'm here and nothing else matters."

Tara tried, but her echoing smile was a weak effort at best. Slowly, she began to ease her hand away. The movement clearly pained Willow, but it was evident for only the briefest of moments and she returned to the abandoned coffee stirrer with zeal.

"A lot's happened," began the redhead conversationally, then laughed at herself. "Big ‘duh' there, huh? Almost two years. A year and eight months. I could go into weeks and days, but that'd probably freak you out. Because I'm pretty freaked out right now myself, and I've actually been here for all that time." Gesturing with the plastic stirrer to the world outside, she continued, "Still, we're a long way from Sunnydale. Which is itself a long way from being anywhere at all. It's sort of a big hole in the ground now. Did you know that? Do you know ..." New emotions began to seep into Willow's voice now; caution and just a hint of fear. "What do you know? About ... about after you were ... After you left?"

The blonde had been unconsciously smiling as she watched Willow's mouth run at top speed in a desperate bid to keep pace with her brain. But the question sobered Tara instantly, and her blue eyes locked onto the other woman with a piercing gaze. "Why don't you tell me?"

For a moment, Willow didn't respond. Then she nodded, and the action looked to be exponentially more difficult than simply moving her head up and down. After another heartbeat, she nodded again, the motion easier this time as her jaw set in a firm, determined line. Willow took a deep breath.

"When you di—" Faltering, the redheaded witch let out the remainder of the breath she had taken and closed her eyes tight. She inhaled deeply once more and restarted. "After he—" The word was spat from her mouth, like something vile and loathsome, and Willow ground her teeth together in a snarl that was out of place on her usually cheerful features.

Tara flinched as she looked at Willow, as though physically assaulted by whatever she saw there. Her expression softened as the other woman turned toward the window, and on impulse, she extended a comforting hand. Almost immediately, the blonde caught herself, and quickly pulled back.

Missing the gesture, Willow sighed wearily as she reined in her emotions and glanced back to Tara with an apologetic expression. "I don't think I can talk about it now. I need to, a-and I want to. But I can't now." She chuckled. "Guess we both have a lot to talk about, huh? Maybe we should make a list."

"It's long," replied Tara with a smile.

Willow nodded her agreement. "By the time we go through everything? Probably."

"No, your hair," Tara clarified. The redhead craned her neck back, impossibly trying to see it from the other woman's perspective. "You let it grow out. I've never seen it that long. It's nice."

Blushing, Willow dropped the lock of hair she'd grabbed and had been scrutinizing from the corner of her eye. A moment later, Tara too flushed with embarrassment, but quickly cleared her throat and tried to move on. "Dawnie's is still longer though, right?"

At the mention of the younger Summers, Willow's expression became peculiar. Trying to make light of the sudden tension, Tara smirked, "Tell me you didn't let her actually go through with one of her bad hair day threats." She regarded the redhead with exaggerated admonishment. "We agreed to hide the scissors when she got like that."

"Dawn," Willow stated, sounding distant. "Buffy ..."

All attempts at making light vanished, and Tara's face became etched with frightened concern. "What, they-they're not ... not— They're okay, right?"

The redheaded witch focused again on Tara, and her expression did nothing to alleviate concerns. "They're fine, but ... How am I gonna tell them you're back? What are they gonna say?"

"There's no way," stated Buffy with certainty. "It's impossible. It's a crime against god and man and little fishies and—"

"Fishies?" interrupted Kennedy with a frown.

Buffy shrugged. "It's a thing."

The meeting was taking place in Giles' office. The Watcher, his throat still exhibiting yellow and purple marks from the recent encounter with the Herculean intruder, was perched on the edge of his desk. Buffy, Kennedy and Faith were seated in front of him, the blonde Slayer occupying the center chair. Aside from a few rather ugly bruises lingering on her neck, Kennedy exhibited no other outward battle scars, although she gingerly nursed her ribs each time she stiffly changed position. Faith's arm remained in a sling with her dislocated shoulder bound by tape.

"Impossible or not, B," stated Faith with a nod of her head, "he's serious."

"It's not so unreasonable," protested Giles. "You're each injured. This will be a good opportunity to test the leadership abilities of some of the other girls. The European facility will be fully functional within six months or less, and we'll need a team of strong leaders to head that branch. Teaching your classes is a good first step."

Buffy puffed with derision. "There's no way you can even be thinking about putting Sasha in charge of my class. Today we're talking about restraint and moderation. The only moderation in Sasha's world is her not going for that eleventh facial piercing."

"Long as I get to sit in," chuckled Faith, "I'm all for it. I want Haze runnin' mine, though."

"Hazel is gonna teach your class the best technique for smashing a bottle in someone's face?" asked Kennedy with a grin.

"She's gonna try," came the smirking reply. "Should be good for a laugh."

The Watcher sighed heavily. "It's just for a few days while your injuries have a chance to heal."

Kennedy rolled her eyes. "Unless Buffy falls out of bed again and jars her pinkie or something."

She waggled her little finger in the air and snickered at Faith who snickered right back. Buffy, however, was less than amused.

"I was fighting evil, okay?" insisted the blonde with a pout before adding as an afterthought, "Stupid hunky guy."

"Speaking of evil, any news about our mystery demon bitch?" spat Kennedy.

Faith sneered contemptuously. "Just point me. Got an 8-ball with her name on it."

A frown creased the Watcher's forehead as he slowly moved to stand behind his desk. "Unfortunately no," he admitted ruefully. "There's precious little to go on. There are- are dozens upon dozens of humanoid demons, but none match our attacker, either in appearance or powers. It could have been an advanced human – a- a witch or- or some sort of magickally enhanced individual, but for those levels of power ... it would take an extraordinary spell. Even more troubling is that when Willow came to examine the battle scene, she was unable to detect any residual energies."

Puzzled, the Slayers looked at each other, obviously failing to appreciate the implication.

"Formally requesting a dumb-down," said Faith, leaning forward on her injured arm and then wincing as a sharp pain prickled through her shoulder.

Giles regarded each of the three faces seriously. "If the attacker was magickally enhanced, it's via an extremely powerful and cohesive spell. Something crafted so finely that it is virtually impossible to detect. Spells of that level should be spilling excess energy, which would have left traces behind. There were none."

Kennedy considered this information thoughtfully. "So it's not a spell then," she concluded.

Thrusting his hands into his pockets, the Watcher began to pace. "All that means is it's not a spell we're able to easily detect. It could be a spell, it could be a demon—"

"It could be a Cabbage Patch Kid on steroids," interrupted a frowning Buffy. "Whatever it is, really not liking the idea of a super-strong whatever barging in here and beating the crap out of everyone, Giles. We're lucky no one got killed."

Giles walked back to his desk. "I know," he acknowledged. "I'm looking into some sort of magickal defense we can establish around the facility, but without knowing exactly what it is, our options are limited." His tone was somewhat defeatist and the Slayer trio exchanged bewildered glances.

Faith leaned back in her chair. "Givin' up not really your style, Oxford," she told him with a hint of accusation.

"Giving up?" queried the Watcher defensively. "No, no, far from it. This entire situation is just extremely ... irksome. I just wish—" He paused mid-sentence as the phone began to ring. "Excuse me one moment," he muttered, turning and picking up the receiver.

Buffy looked first at Faith and then at Kennedy. "So your guys' opinion – how bad was this thing?"

"Bad," replied Kennedy before Faith could answer. "Incredible fighter, and sounded creepy as hell, too. Not liking the ‘we' part either. If there's more than one of them ..."

"One took everything we had an' walked away," grumbled Faith, her features twisting with anger. "Pisses me off more'n I can say, but truth is, don't think a few punches is gonna win this."

"Of course not. It can never be that simple." Buffy's sigh was laced with resignation. "Today is turning out ... really crappy."

The Slayers regarded Giles sharply as he remarked into the telephone, "Oh dear."

"And in keeping with the theme ..." continued Buffy as all attention was focused on the Watcher, three faces eager for information.

"Thank you very much," the Watcher was telling his caller. "No, you did the right thing, absolutely ... Make sure to bring those notes to me as soon as you can ... All right."

Thoughtfully, he returned the receiver to its cradle and began to clean his glasses with a white handkerchief.

"I don't suppose," he began without any true conviction as he vigorously polished, "that anybody has extensive knowledge of the 16th century justice system, do they?"

The front door to the Scoobies' house was tossed open carelessly as Dawn entered, her backpack slung over one shoulder. With a shrug, she deposited it on the floor and pushed the door shut behind her. She glanced around, but saw no trace of any other occupants.

"Hey, I'm home!" she announced, pausing for the expected greetings to make their way into the foyer. Hearing none, she tried again. "Hello?" Receiving only silence, Dawn's expression became sullen and she strode into the living room. "I finally have something interesting to share about school, and no one's even here. I think they do it to spite me," she concluded as an afterthought.

She reached the stereo that rested against the wall and pushed a couple of buttons. Music immediately filled the room, a loud, vaguely synthesized beat. The teenager considered it thoughtfully for a moment, then shrugged and allowed the CD to continue playing, turning the volume up a few notches for good measure.

Spinning around with a dramatic flair, Dawn danced toward the kitchen, thoroughly enjoying having the house to herself. Her bopping around lengthened the trip by at least three times, but she obviously was in no great hurry.

Finally reaching the kitchen, Dawn headed immediately for the pantry, flinging the door open and dancing into its depths. She vanished from sight for several moments and the occasional sound of items being shoved around joined the music that filled the house. When she reemerged, her arms were loaded with a disturbing array of items: graham crackers, a box of Ritz, a can of aerosol cheese, a jar of peanut butter, and a bag of marshmallows that dangled from her mouth. The burden only slightly impeded the teenager's dancing, and she made it to the refrigerator without dropping anything or missing a beat.

It took a minor scuffle, but Dawn eventually managed to get the icebox open, whereupon she fished out a family-size bottle of Hershey's chocolate syrup that swung precariously from her pinkie. Kicking the door closed behind her, she just barely made it to the island counter. With a grand gesture, Dawn unloaded her swag, dumping it all into a cluttered pile. Still she wasn't done, and – swaying her hips to the new beat as the CD moved to the next track – the teenager scooped up a banana from the fruit bowl on the far counter. She placed it next to the other items, and stood back, surveying the raw materials with anticipation. "Mm. This is gonna be great," she enthused with optimistic certainty.

Anxious to dive in, Dawn popped open the box of Ritz crackers and pulled the clear plastic cap off of the syrup, but before the inevitable culinary disaster could progress further, sounds of the front door opening cut through the energetic music.

"Hello?" Willow called out.

Her voice brought a smile to Dawn's face. She placed the box back on the counter, and bounded into the foyer. "Willow, hey." She jabbed her thumb over her shoulder. "I was just about to invent a new snack, wanna join in?"

The witch began to shake her head, but Dawn missed it as she moved to turn off the stereo. The silence seemed unnaturally loud in the void left by the thundering beat, but the teenager ignored it and rejoined Willow, excited to share her news. "Oh, and you just will not believe what happened today! We got out of 7th period because – and this is according to Leslie St. Claire so you know that that means –" She didn't wait to see if Willow actually did or not. "– but apparently Ms. Fornside's humanities classes were on a field trip to the museum and—"

Her captive audience wasn't so captive, however. Willow's attention was spotty at best, and she'd been looking around anxiously throughout Dawn's monologue. "Yeah, that's great, Dawnie," she commented dismissively. "Anyone else home?"

Initially Dawn looked as though she was planning a scathing retort at the interruption, but as she took in the redhead's obvious agitation, she let it pass. "Nope. Just you, me, and a new snack sensation waiting to happen. What's up?"

Glancing around again, perhaps seeking final confirmation that it was indeed just her and Dawn, Willow wrung her hands and gnawed at her lower lip. "I ... You should ..."

Concerned at the redhead's strange behavior, Dawn's previous light tone disappeared. "What is it?" she asked fearfully.

Willow remained uncertain for just a moment longer, then appeared to reach a decision. Her voice was strong and resolute as she told Dawn, "There's something you need to see."

With that, she crossed to the door and placed her hand on the knob. The teenager stood just behind her, frowning in worry. Willow took a deep breath and tugged the door open.

Tara's head jerked up at the sudden motion. Her hands were shoved deep into the pockets of her coat and she looked for a moment like a deer caught in headlights. That soon died away as her eyes rested on Dawn. Tara smiled.

Dawn on the other hand could do nothing but gape. Her jaw hung open and her eyes blinked rapidly, as though trying to process far too much information all at once.

"Oh my god," she gasped.

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