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.
Story by: Jet Wolf and Ultrace
Written by: Jet Wolf and Novareinna
Tireless support and mucho de editing assistance by: Novareinna
Original Airdate: Tuesday, 31 August 2004, 8pm EST
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.
The scene was like a frozen tableau. Dawn could only stare at the impossible sight before her, not believing the information her eyes were receiving. Unable to tear her gaze away from Tara, the teenager addressed Willow in a hushed voice filled with horror. "What did you do?"
"I didn't do anything," the redhead replied with a shake of her head. "It wasn't me."
Dawn spun around to the witch, narrowing her eyes but saying nothing. She searched Willow's features for some evidence, the slightest hint that she was being lied to. Without flinching, Willow met the unspoken demands. A moment of intense scrutiny passed. Then Dawn's expression softened and she turned back to Tara, her eyes shining. The blonde hadn't moved. She continued to soak in everything about the teenager, a loving and tender smile ghosted on her lips.
Her words wavering, Dawn somehow managed to speak her fears. "Is it ... Is she like ... Mom?"
"I don't think so," replied Willow, then she chuckled. "If she is, she's the most well preserved zombie ever." Obviously not finding anything at all amusing in the statement, Dawn shot the redhead a dark look, and Willow glanced away, looking embarrassed at making light. "She's not a zombie. If she was ..." The witch shook her head, then with steady, unfaltering confidence, assured the teenager. "She's not. I'd know."
The continued affirmations were beginning to take their toll on Dawn, and her voice was becoming thin and strained. "It's her?" she asked, unconcerned at the note of desperate need that crept into the question.
"It's her," confirmed the redhead, her own emotions swimming to the surface in response.
The center of Dawn's attention once again became Tara, who had still not moved. It seemed as though the blonde might be content to spend the remainder of the day standing on the porch, simply staring at the teenager, committing every detail to memory.
Despite Willow's assurances, Dawn turned her fierce examinations to the woman in front of her. If there was anything malicious present, it was clear that she had every intention of finding it. "Then why won't she say something?" the teenager demanded, glancing to Willow, but she didn't wait for an answer before facing the blonde once more. "Say something ... please."
Tara swallowed the lump in her throat and tilted her head to one side. "Look at you," she whispered as she reached out to stroke a lock of the teenager's long brown hair.
"Tara?" asked Dawn, her voice cracking.
"You're almost a woman now." Tara's hand dropped to cup Dawn's cheek. "I'm so sorry I missed you growing up."
The gentle apology appeared to shatter whatever uncertainty remained. Dawn flung herself into the blonde's arms, crying openly. Without hesitation, Tara's arms wrapped around the sobbing teenager and she murmured words of calm and assurance.
Willow stood to one side, hugging herself as she watched the reunion, her own tears trailing unnoticed down her smiling face.
Every table in the library was littered with research volumes, some haphazardly tossed to one side and others left open at what appeared to be crucial pages. A dozen or so Watchers hovered around the tomes, listening intently and standing to attention as Giles addressed the congregation. Buffy lounged in one of the more comfortable chairs, another having been commandeered as a place for her sprained ankle. To her left, Faith was sprawled on the floor, leaning on her good arm, while Kennedy seemed to have simply thrown herself onto one of the overstuffed couches, leaving little room on either side for company. Xander stood behind Buffy, resting a hand on the back of her chair.
"I received a phone call a short time ago from three of our Slayers who were at the museum as part of their school field trip," the Senior Watcher was informing his audience. "Apparently there was some sort of incident involving several classmates that resulted in the death of one. It appears as though he was burned alive. As to what caused the fire, that's a little more uncertain."
Xander bent down to whisper in Buffy's ear. "Suddenly I feel like I'm back in high school. Like I should be cuttin' class or somethin'."
"I knew there was a good reason I dropped out," remarked Faith. "Glad he reminded me." She smirked at nobody in particular.
Either failing to hear or choosing to ignore Faith's barb, Giles persisted with his report of the event. "The two witnesses were understandably upset, but our Slayers were able to eavesdrop on their accounts. They claim that one of their friends had put on a pair of spectacles that is to be part of an upcoming exhibit when he began to act strangely. They brought home some of the exhibit brochures, which contain a picture of the artifact."
He folded back one of the brochures in his hand, pointed to the appropriate photograph and then handed it to a Watcher standing stiffly on his left. The Watcher in question snapped into action. He promptly took the proffered booklet and quickly scanned the page before passing it along. Moving toward Kennedy, Giles gave her a similar brochure. She studied it carefully before tossing it over her head to Faith. "Thank god for contacts, huh?" she remarked.
With a disinterested glance and a cursory nod of her head, Faith almost immediately handed the booklet to Buffy. Xander peered over the blonde's head.
Giles gave a small cough and all the Watchers instantly refocused their attention. "We'll use the information in the brochure as a starting point," he instructed. "One additional fact to be aware of ..."
He walked to a whiteboard behind him and, selecting a black dry erase pen, drew an arrow-shaped rune upon its surface.
The carpenter regarded the symbol with a grin. "You are here?" he suggested.
Faith snickered, obviously enjoying the joke. Xander's grin grew broader. Looking up, Buffy eyed the marking and shrugged before reaching for the nearest book as Giles glared sternly at the carpenter through his glasses. Grin slowly fading, Xander's gaze traveled toward the ceiling, ostensibly finding something of great interest in its architectural design.
"Yes, well," continued Giles. "This marking was found on the scene. According to the witnesses, it wasn't there before the attack, so it must be linked to whatever happened." He replaced the cap of the pen with a quiet click and then made his way back to the front of the group. "Our research will be difficult. The colloquial name of the artifact isn't one that's listed in any of our records, so we have no specific starting point. Unfortunately time is very much of the essence. The young man and the artifact have been missing for several hours now. It may take a considerable amount of—"
"Found it," declared Buffy waving her hand.
"—diligent ... What?" The Watcher turned to Buffy in amazement.
Xander leaned over the back of the blonde's chair to get a good look and then ducked as she held up a volume opened to an illustration of the desired spectacles.
"Here they are," she declared somewhat smugly. "They're the ..." she paused and brought the book down to her face, frowning at the words. "'Uhtskit skajohn'. Or something. The ‘o' looks like a little ‘don't' sign." She beamed at Giles.
Extending his hand, the Watcher swiftly took the book. He skimmed the text and then pronounced with perfect diction, "‘Utsikt Skjønn'."
"That was my second guess," Buffy nodded in agreement.
His face registering unbridled astonishment, an astounded Giles asked, "How did you find this so quickly?"
The blonde shrugged. "In the index under ‘glasses'." The blonde shrugged nonchalantly. "Duh."
"Eight years of researching," huffed Xander, "and we're only now checking the index? We are very dumb people."
Eyes moving rapidly from left to right, Giles perused the entry. "According to this," he read, "the glass in the ‘Utsikt Skjønn' is believed to have been crafted from an orb of the same name dating back to the time of the Vikings, around the 9th century. The orb was said to have been blessed by the god Tyr and would grant the holder purity of sight and invincibility in battle."
"Great," announced a sarcastic Kennedy, "just what my ego needs. Another baddie we can't kick the crap out of."
The Watcher glanced up from the text only briefly. "Given that its original owner was killed in a minor skirmish off the coast of Greenland, I'd say the orb's qualities were somewhat exaggerated."
"Shoulda sued for false advertising," scoffed Faith.
"The orb changed hands from there, becoming a war treasure," continued Giles. "It then fades out of history, reemerging again centuries later as the glass was incorporated into the artifact pictured here." He held up the pertinent page for all to see.
One of the Junior Watchers posed a hesitant question. "Sir, does it say how ..." he quickly checked the brochure to ensure his facts were correct, "... Constantin Gesualdo came to possess it?"
Giles consulted the tome once more. "No, it doesn't," he admitted. "I'd guess a trade, or- or gift or something along those lines. I suppose once the Italians acquired it, they changed its name."
"Big surprise there. Renaming it is the first thing I'd do," Buffy confided to Xander with an exaggerated eye-roll.
The carpenter grinned. "Alright," he began, "so final question, for the big money: What does it do?"
Frowning, Giles again referenced the volume. "It doesn't say," he replied with some disappointment.
Kennedy stretched and then grimaced at the pain in her side. "Anybody else feeling the anti-climax?" she asked irritably.
"There's a translated passage, a poem of some sort regarding the original orb." The Watcher's expression brightened considerably as he balanced the book in one hand and thrust the other into his pocket. He read as he paced back and forth:
"'Two are shown, both sides emerge
From darkest shadow and brightest light
If judged thee ill, my wrath will purge
If judged thee well, no harm from sight.'"
"Very pretty," said Buffy pointedly. "And it means ...?"
Giles closed the tome with a snap. "Yes, that is rather the question, isn't it?" he acceded. The comment was greeted with several frowns.
"We'll split up," he urged, attempting to infuse the suggestion with enthusiasm as he gestured toward the team of Watchers. "You all continue with the research. Now we know the artifact's original name, we can perhaps learn more. Call me as soon as you discover anything new. The rest of us will gather all the available Slayers and begin searching for Mr. Jeffreys."
Giles indicated a yearbook propped open on one of the tables. "We must isolate him as quickly as possible. There's no telling who may be hurt next."
Faith, Kennedy, Xander and Buffy crowded around the yearbook for a better look. The youth in the circled photograph, hair neatly combed and round face peppered with freckles, regarded them shyly with an almost self-conscious smile.
Jeffreys walked unsteadily along the pavement of an unremarkable neighborhood street. His pace was unnatural and hesitant. He paused every few steps as though obliged to make a decision regarding each scene that presented itself. Nevertheless, he failed to notice the figure pedaling a bicycle which squealed to a stop at the curb.
"Hey, you okay?" asked the rider, a young boy with tousled brown hair and a scratch along his cheek.
The question immediately attracted Jeffreys' attention, and he turned to gaze at the boy, scrutinizing the bicyclist with an unemotional and flat expression. Suddenly, his eyes began to widen and ...
With a flash, the scenario changed to a darkened bedroom, the only visible light coming from the flickering screen of a television. Laying atop the bed, a man and woman were sleeping, presumably having dozed off while watching a late night show. With a small creak, the door opened and the young bicycle rider entered, expression somewhat guilty but determined. He crept quietly and slowly toward an open purse set atop a nearby dresser.
To the accompaniment of another flash, the vista shifted slightly. The boy was now standing in front of the dresser. Stealthily, he reached inside and pulled out a wallet, extracting several bills while checking over his shoulder to ensure that the occupants of the room were still fast asleep.
Yet another flash and the young boy could now be seen coming out of a shop whose window display proclaimed it to be a store which sold video games. The sun was shining as brightly as the smile which adorned the boy's face. He had a package in his hand.
Jeffreys staggered a little as the following flash brought him back to the street where the cyclist was now peering anxiously into his face. Jeffreys twitched and prepared himself for what was sure to come. He was not disappointed as the expected flash showed him a vision of the rider, hands-free, pedaling down the middle of a road.
With the second flash, the boy was getting off his bicycle and tilting his head curiously as he warily approached a ring of bushes surrounding a brick house. Cowering within the depths of the foliage was a tiny pup, its back leg mangled and blood caking the white fur. Probably the victim of a hit-and-run, the wounded animal had crawled to the nearest sanctuary – red streaks, wet and glistening, had stained the concrete pavement. The eyes of the small dog were dull with pain as it licked feebly at its injury.
The next flash, the scene changed once more. This time, the boy was riding at full speed down the street, weaving from side to side as he balanced a box containing several blankets on his crossbar.
Another flash preceded a switch in panorama to what must have been the bike rider's room. He was searching desperately under his bed for some hidden treasure, periodically glancing anxiously over his shoulder at the box on the floor. After several desperate moments, his questing hands lit upon an unimpressive shoebox. Pulling it free, the boy sat cross-legged on the floor, leaning back against his bed. He yanked the lid off the shoebox and dumped its contents onto the floor. Crumpled bills and hundreds of coins tumbled onto the carpet.
Flash. The scenery had changed to the interior of an veterinary office. Over a long counter, the dog, back leg sporting a splint and enveloped in bandages, was being delivered to a young mother and her daughter. The pup struggled within the woman's arms in a furious attempt to reach the little girl. Cradling him gently, the child snuggled the pup's soft fur as the small dog showered her with slobbering kisses and emitted tiny yelps of delight. By the entrance stood the boy. He shuffled his feet, sniffed, and then scrubbed at his nose before opening the door with a huge grin and quietly exiting.
The final flash restored normality as Jeffreys stared with intensity at the bike rider. In return, the boy regarded him with unabashed confusion.
"You have been judged," came the pronouncement.
Becoming nervous at the severe tone, the cyclist leaned back in his seat, away from the piercing gaze.
"You have been found innocent," was the verdict. With that, Jeffreys turned away from the rider, as though he no longer existed.
The youngster watched Jeffreys shamble shakily along the street. A puzzled and rather derisive expression crossed his face. "Dude," he muttered to the retreating figure as he pedaled in the opposite direction, "you are wack."
The early evening was becoming quite dark as Giles and Xander searched the streets.
"It's annoying," stated the carpenter grumpily, "that's all I'm saying."
Giles made an attempt to instill confidence. "I'm finding it ... assuring. This is precisely what we've been training them to do – to be swift and efficient in the face of a crisis."
"Well they're swiftly and efficiently irritatin' me," snapped Xander, "so bravo."
Kicking at some imaginary and annoying obstruction in his path, he followed the Watcher as Giles turned at a street corner.
"There's this alleyway a block down," said the carpenter, brightening just a tad. "It's a shortcut to an abandoned construction site that's destined to be another fine parking lot some day. Kinda outta the way, so maybe he—"
Two Junior Slayers emerging from an alley about a block away cut Xander short. He audibly groaned as they waved and jogged toward him.
"Hi guys," the first to arrive greeted. "If you're going to the Dunn construction site—"
"You've just been there," a sardonic Xander finished for her.
"Uh-huh!" confirmed the second Slayer cheerfully.
"No sign." The carpenter's tone was flat.
"Nope," the first substantiated.
Xander blew out a puff of exasperated air. "And now you're on your way to ..." He glanced at Giles who was taken somewhat off guard.
"Oh, uh ..." stammered the Watcher, "we were planning to investigate Mueller Park next."
"We're not going there," the first Slayer told them. The carpenter allowed himself a tiny smile of gratification. "Kelly and Lynn already checked it out," she continued. Xander's face fell as he hung his head in something akin to despair. "We're heading to—"
Xander immediately held up his hand, palm outward. "No," he urged, "don't tell me. It'll ruin the surprise when I get there too late."
Amid expressions of total confusion, the two Juniors turned to Giles.
"Ignore him ... if that's physically possible. Continue your sweeps, and make sure to keep in contact with your group leader," the Watcher instructed, treating the pair to one of his more charming smiles.
Nodding, the two Junior Slayers sprinted into the gathering darkness.
Watching them go, Xander crossed his arms. "I'm startin' to think the middle-aged librarian and the one-eyed carpenter were not the best people to send on a search mission."
"Surely there's a better phrase you can think of to describe me," insisted an offended Giles. The eyes behind his glasses displayed a hint of annoyance.
"Oh sure," Xander agreed. "None so good at makin' you give me that look I so adore, though." This time, the Watcher openly glared. "That's the one," the carpenter smiled.
With a heavy sigh and a defeated shrug, Giles gave up the ghost. "Faith and Buffy's groups probably haven't completely finished searching their area, we could give them a hand."
"I think I've had about enough reminders that I'm easily outpaced by 15-year old girls," Xander stated firmly. "I say we do the only smart option left to us: give up."
Giles was obviously shocked at the proposition. "Xander, I can't believe you are suggesting we simply ... turn our backs on- on a lethal force walking arou—"
The carpenter violently waved both his hands in denial. "Whoa, back up there," he hastened to clarify. "I don't mean call the whole thing off. I mean just you an' me. If we were all we had, you know I'd be out here all night, no problem. But we're not all we got, an' compared to the human bloodhounds, you really think we're doin' anything more'n wastin' our time?"
Removing his glasses, Giles dug in his pockets for a handkerchief. Not finding one, he redeposited the unpolished spectacles on the bridge of his nose and frowned. "Well ... no, I suppose not. We could always return to the facility, assist with research."
"Sure," grouched Xander, "trade one failure for another, sounds great. How about this instead: we leave, go get dinner, and feed our hungry women at home." He eyed the Watcher with hopeful anticipation.
Giles was far from convinced. "I hardly think that's appropriate course of action, considering."
The carpenter's voice adopted a most persuasive tone. "Sure it is," he encouraged. "We all gotta eat. This way we're providing a valuable service to Willow and Dawn, and feeling less like complete losers in the process." Xander returned the Watcher's level stare with a sheepish grin. "Okay," he admitted. "I'll feel less like a complete loser, and you'll be helping. Plus you know Buffy's gonna be starved once this is all over, so by getting her dinner, you're fulfilling your Watcher duties."
"I'm fairly certain I did not study for years to become a pizza boy to a Slayer," responded Giles snippily.
The carpenter was instantly placating. "Of course not."
Giles considered Xander carefully for a moment, then sighed in resignation. "Oh all right, but I don't want to be gone for very long. I'll just call Buffy and let her know."
Fishing in his pocket, the Watcher extracted a cell phone and held it dubiously under a streetlight. Hesitantly punching random buttons, he cursed under his breath as he tried to find the stored numbers. The device emitted a chirpy farewell 'beep' as it turned itself off. Xander whistled quietly and examined the night sky. Muttering, Giles punched again and then smiled proudly as the contraption came back to life. This time, his efforts met with reward as Buffy's number, a sequence of bright neon-green digits, appeared on the tiny screen. With a deep breath, Giles cautiously depressed another button and held the phone to his ear. A satisfying ringing tone could be heard.
"Pizza boy," murmured the carpenter. "Pfft. Tonight so clearly calls for Chinese."
Willow leaned back and flipped on the floor lamp next to the couch, driving away the encroaching darkness left behind by the steadily setting sun. Straightening again, she jostled herself into a more comfortable position. She was sitting at an odd angle on the couch, half-turned toward Tara and Dawn. This provided her with a clear view of both, while having the added benefit of allowing her knees to periodically brush against Tara "accidentally". On the opposite side of the blonde sat Dawn, who obviously harbored no concern about remaining subtle. She had grasped Tara's hand between both of her own, and was holding it tightly as she talked with great enthusiasm.
"Oh, and then?" bubbled the teenager, nearly bouncing in place as she spoke. "We went out for ice cream. Ice cream, can you believe it? My teeth were chattering and it's, like, twenty-below or something, but off we go to Marble Slab."
Grinning broadly, Tara was lapping up every word. "What did you get?" she prompted, paying dutiful respect to the time-honored traditions of girl talk that insisted every detail, no matter how small, must be obtained.
"We shared a double dark chocolate on a white chocolate cone. Grip said he appreciated the dichotomy."
"Sharing ice cream already?" Tara favored Dawn with a teasing half-smile. "Sounds like true love."
At this, Dawn blushed wildly and Tara laughed, a delighted sound that immediately brought an expression of pure rapture to Willow's face. It took some doing, but somehow the redhead managed to shuffle even closer to Tara, verging very dangerously on the borders of her personal space but not quite crossing them.
Having regained her composure, Dawn confessed, "I'm thinking about inviting him to Buffy's birthday party on Friday." She squeezed Tara's hand tightly and gave it a small shake in her excitement. "I can't wait for you to meet him. I think you're really gonna like him."
"If you like him so much," the blonde witch agreed happily, "I don't see how I can't."
But Dawn had already moved on. "Oh, and then? I get home and I'm on the phone for, like, hours to Jackie and Brenda – Jackie has three-way – and they're all with the third degree. Which is, you know ... kinda cool but irritating at the same time. And it's like, all they can ask is, ‘Did he kiss you?', which is so totally none of their business."
The full-speed babbling came to a screeching halt as Dawn took note of the raised, questioning eyebrow she was receiving from Tara. A glance over the blonde's shoulder told her that she had even managed to wrest Willow's attention.
Flushing, the teenager laughed nervously. "I guess ‘It's none of your business' doesn't really work here, does it?"
Neither woman deigned to provide a verbal response. Tara simply lifted her eyebrow further while Willow waited expectantly.
"Okay, okay, there was a teeny little peck. On the cheek. It was very chaste," she hastened to assure them.
"Meeting him has no longer become optional, you realize that, right?" Tara pointed out in her best authoritative voice.
The teenager simply grinned widely in response and wrapped herself around Tara's arm, hugging it tightly as she leaned her head on the blonde's shoulder. With a fond smile, Tara rested her head on top of Dawn's, both content to simply enjoy a moment that neither thought they would have again.
Next to Tara sat Willow, watching the rebonding occurring before her eyes. She fidgeted in her seat, clearly wanting nothing more than to join in, but she hesitated. Doubt and apprehension filled her, and she hovered on the fringes, clearly feeling as though she didn't have the right to take part. It didn't stop her from wanting, however, and slowly, she extended her hand toward Tara's. Her eyes were riveted to the blonde, ready to pull back at the first sign that she was unwelcome, but the sound of the front door opening caused her to jerk away in surprise.
All three heads turned toward the living room entrance. The sound of keys being placed down and the rustling of plastic bags accompanied coats being taken off and hung up. "Ladies of the house," Xander announced grandly, "get ready for a surprise. We have returned and we bring moo goo—"
Followed closely by Giles, Xander entered the living room. Each man was carrying several bags of Chinese takeout, and neither was paying much attention to the room's occupants. Until Tara stood up and turned to face them. Almost immediately, Willow followed suit, standing just behind the blonde supportively.
"—gai—eeyaah." Xander jumped, paling as though he had just seen a ghost. His eye was opened wide in complete shock, but he uttered no further exclamation, nor made any additional movements.
Giles, on the other hand, narrowed his gaze. He took a few more steps into the room, leaning forward as he stared at Tara and tilting his head to one side in concentration. After a moment, he seemed to convince himself that he was in fact seeing what he first thought, and he straightened, blinking in amazement. "Good lord," he muttered to nobody in particular.
For several heartbeats, no one moved.
"Okay, your surprise wins," conceded Xander.
Bouncing to her feet, Dawn moved to stand next to Tara. In complete contrast to the stunned and cautious expressions worn by Giles and Xander, the teenager was grinning broadly, like she'd just been given everything she'd ever wanted for Christmas. Clinging to Tara's arm, Dawn announced, "Look who's home!" She beamed at the two men, waiting for them to join in her celebration.
Giles continued to peer at Tara as though she were a specimen for study under a microscope. All previous traces of shock had vanished, leaving behind only cool, detached examination. His eyes traveled over the blonde's features, no detail escaping the Watcher's keen observation.
Calmly, Tara bore the scrutiny. Hands clasped in front of her in a non-challenging posture, she waited patiently. It was obvious that she had no intention of backing away from the inevitable confrontation, but she was in no particular hurry to get started.
It seemed as though Xander had taken all of Giles' emotions into himself. His head swung back and forth in a seemingly infinite loop, looking from Tara to Willow to Tara and then back again. Before his brains could become permanently scrambled, Xander settled his gaze on Willow. Swallowing hard, he croaked, "Will ... Did you...?"
Despite Dawn having asked a similar question earlier, pain lanced Willow's expression, and she shot Xander a wounded look. Becoming defensive, she opened her mouth to answer, but before she could, Giles spoke. "Willow wouldn't have done this," he told the carpenter. The Watcher's tone made the words indisputable fact and stated clearly that the matter was closed as far as he was concerned.
Surprise flashed briefly in Tara's eyes at Giles' vehemence, but it was for only a second. By the time attentions had returned to her, it had vanished without a trace.
Keeping a wary eye on Tara, the Watcher asked Willow, "Who is this?"
It was the blonde who answered. "Tara," she responded, speaking clearly and with assurance. Rather than reply, Giles chose to continue staring suspiciously at the woman. There was no doubt it was going to take far more than that to convince him, and Tara smiled with understanding, as though she had expected no less.
"Tara Maclay," she added almost cheerfully, as though she was being asked to stand up on the first day of school and introduce herself. "I'll be 22 this year, I love cats, Mercedes Lackey is a guilty pleasure, and last summer, we would stay up way too late after patrol, drinking chamomile tea and debating the merits of modern music."
Her presentation complete, Tara smiled again, but the atmosphere in the room had become oppressively quiet. Frowning in confusion, no longer even remotely at ease, the blonde glanced from one person to the next in an effort to find an explanation.
"You ..." Tara turned towards Willow as the redhead spoke in a quiet voice. "You'll be 24 this year."
It wasn't the answer Tara had been expecting, and her mouth formed a silent "oh" as she blinked rapidly. Her previous confidence was ripped away, and she was left staring at her feet, suddenly looking unsure and very alone.
Without thinking, Willow took a half step toward the shaken blonde, her hand extended and ready to offer comfort. Before she could move any further, however, Xander was there. Latching onto her elbow, he held her in place. "Will, maybe we can talk? Over there?" Gesturing with his head toward the back of the living room, the carpenter didn't wait for her to agree before steering her away. Willow dragged her feet and cast a worried gaze over her shoulder at Tara, but despite her reluctance, she didn't fight Xander's grasp.
The blonde had almost entirely withdrawn now, but she glanced up and smiled gratefully as Dawn slid a comforting arm around Tara's shoulders. She soon returned to her examination of the carpet, and consequently missed the furious, accusing glare the teenager was leveling at Giles.
Unphased by the open animosity, Giles absorbed Dawn's gestures. The teenager's stance was unmistakable – she was protecting Tara, and from her bearing, had every intention of continuing to do so. Turning his head, he observed Willow, standing several feet away in front of Xander. Despite the animated, obviously impassioned speech from the carpenter, the redhead wasn't listening. She spared no ounce of attention for Xander – it was all directed at Tara.
Giles frowned. He didn't like what he was seeing. Not one bit.
Despite the encumbrance of her injury, Faith easily navigated the sharp corner. With the agility of a sure-footed alley cat, she leapt onto a stack of conveniently placed crates and peered into the darkened storage facility. Convinced nothing was untoward, she nimbly hopped back into the street, crossed to another building and repeated the maneuver. Still finding nothing remarkable, she hit the ground again and made ready to move on. Then, a thought seemed to occur and she glanced behind, but nobody was there. Perching upon the edge of one of the crates, Faith sighed and waited expectantly, drumming her fidgety fingers against the rough wood. After a few moments, she was still alone and a flash of restlessness crossed her features. She dug in her jacket pocket for cigarettes. Flipping open the box, she discovered it was empty. "Crap," she muttered, tossing the pack to one side. "Crap," she said again, only louder this time, as the action jolted her sore shoulder.
All patience now expended, the Slayer got to her feet and jogged back toward the corner she had recently turned. Just before reaching it, however, a hobbling Buffy came into view. Limping badly, the blonde was obviously exerting far more than her usual amount of energy just to maintain the hurried pace she was attempting so valiantly to sustain. Apparently, Faith didn't consider the rate of speed to be quite that impressive.
"Christ, B, this guy could've slaughtered half the town by now."
"If he did, it'd probably make it a little easier to find him," puffed Buffy.
"And here I thought I was the dark one." Faith grinned at her own comment, but it soon became a frown at the blonde's hobble. "Seriously, you might wanna call it a night."
"No way," protested Buffy determinedly. "It's just a little pain. I'm fine."
"I'm not worried about the pain so much as the fact that you're slow as hell," Faith told her.
Buffy crossed her arms. "Y'know, just because you're good now doesn't mean you can't lie," she stated with a huff.
"Aww, sorry," responded the dark-haired Slayer, her tone lacking any hint of apology. "Next time I'll dip the truth in honey first, make it go down a little easier. But since I already screwed that up, I'll come straight: go home."
Buffy's mouth grew tight and she vehemently shook her head. "There's something running around my town immolating people—"
"Our town," said Faith pointedly.
The blonde frowned. "Grover's Corners? What?"
"No, Trillium," insisted a confused Faith. "What's this Grover thing?"
"Nothing, never mind," murmured Buffy. She regarded Faith with wide eyes. "You were saying?"
Faith sighed, not particularly overjoyed at the prospect of having to repeat herself, but doing her best to be understanding. "That it's not just you that's gotta run around – or limp around – an' keep everyone safe. Y'know that garbage you're always spoutin' off to the girls, ‘bout bein' a team or whatever? Well works for us too."
"No, I know that. See?" The blonde gestured at herself and then at Faith. "Look at us. All team-y."
"Good," grinned the dark-haired Slayer. "Then listen when I tell you to go home. Rest that thing or you'll be hurtin' for weeks."
In response, Buffy stared blatantly at Faith's arm. Following the blonde's leveled gaze, Faith shrugged with her good shoulder, ostensibly unphased.
"If I was walkin' on my hands, I could maybe see your point," she informed Buffy with conviction. "But tell y'what – if we get into some really crucial filing situation, I promise I'll sit out. Just for you."
Buffy narrowed her eyes and treated Faith to a fake smile. "You're so sweet," she said flatly.
Faith jammed her hand into her pocket. "Plus, you really are holdin' me up here," she said with sincerity.
"I retract the ‘sweet' comment," Buffy retorted.
"Thought you might." Faith smiled and hers was genuine. "Want me to call the X-Man, get him to come pick you up?"
"Are you kidding?" scoffed the blonde. "It takes a force of nature to keep Xander away from his kung pau chicken. I'll hoof it. It's a final act of defiance." She paused and looked at Faith with a grave expression. "As soon as you find anything ..."
The dark-haired Slayer presented her phone. "I'll call," she promised. Then, noting Buffy's dejected face added, "Hey, bright side: you get to go to your nice, comfy home while we're searchin' for the bad guy. Can't be wrong, right?"
It had likely taken some doing, but Xander had finally managed to claim the bulk of Willow's attention, although given the displeased look she was displaying, it had probably been a hostile takeover. Admirably, the carpenter wasn't backing down either. He stood his ground and pinned his best friend with a gaze that brokered no room for anything but the absolute truth. "Will, what's goin' on here?" he demanded.
"What do you mean, ‘what's going on'?" countered Willow defensively. "I think it's pretty obvious." She tossed her hand toward the blonde standing several feet away. "Tara's back."
Xander glanced over. "Well yeah, I can see that something's here, but—"
"Not ‘something'," the redhead insisted. "It's her."
Inhaling deeply, Xander ran a hand through his hair and let the breath out slowly, calming himself. "I know you want it to be her," he said in a soothing, empathizing tone. "God, I do too. But—"
Willow would not be placated. "No buts, Xander."
"But how can you be sure?" the carpenter questioned, his voice becoming harsh again in his agitated state. "I just—" He sighed and steadied himself once more, regarding Willow with an almost desperate expression. "I don't want you getting hurt over this. Not again. I'm outta crayon-breaky stories, y'know?"
Glowering darkly, the witch crossed her arms over her chest. "That's not funny."
"I know, and I'm sorry. But this ranks pretty high on my freakometer. I mean, one second my big worry is whether I got enough egg rolls, and the next, it's dead friends in my living room and—" Xander's eye widened as a new thought occurred to him and he dropped to a rasping whisper. "Oh god, what if it's the First?"
"It's not the First," Willow responded emphatically. She grabbed Xander by the chin and turned his head toward the main living room. "You can touch her, see?"
Sure enough, Dawn was standing next to Tara, tightly hugging the blonde's obviously corporeal arm.
"Okay, so not the First," he agreed with a sharp nod as he refocused on Willow. "But what about a zombie, or a robot, or vampire double from an alternate universe, or—"
"Or it's Tara."
The statement was made with such finality that Xander couldn't help but gaze at his friend with bottomless pity. "Tara's dead, Will," he reminded her gently.
Willow stared at Xander for a long moment then turned to watch Tara from across the room, saying nothing further.
The tension between Giles and Tara was palpable. The blonde had recovered somewhat from her momentary falter, but was obviously beginning to feel the strain of being under the Watcher's unrelenting, unyielding observation. Not that he was being overly aggressive or threatening – quite the contrary, Giles was the picture of utter formality. He remained polite and attentive, and was very clearly not allowing himself to entertain even the slightest notion that the young woman in front of him was who she claimed. And Tara knew it.
"This is quite a shock," stated the Watcher almost casually, though by no means offering that as an excuse or apology.
Tara nodded. "I know," she replied. Her eyes, like her tone, were full of understanding.
Tilting his head slightly to one side, Giles considered the blonde carefully then asked, "What happened? Why are you here?"
Instinctively, Tara glanced away, and although it was for the briefest of moments, the gesture could not escape Giles' keen notice. The frown that had become a permanent fixture increased, even as she answered his question. "The ones who brought me back ... they sent me here." Her eyebrows furrowed closer together as she searched for the words. "They told me I was needed, to- to ... I'm supposed to stop something evil."
"Something evil?" he repeated curiously. "What?"
Tara hesitated. "It's ... very bad."
"Yes, well, evil tends to be," retorted the Watcher dryly.
"Yes," a somber Tara agreed. "It does."
And with that, the blonde offered no more. Giles waited, somewhat less than patiently, and while there was no way Tara could not have known what he wanted, she would say nothing further.
Her silence only served to disturb the Watcher even more, and his lips pursed in a hard line as his eyes grew colder. His voice became harsh and carried with it the vaguest note of dangerous warning. "Well if you don't want to discuss why, perhaps you're more inclined to—"
"Look, what does it matter?"
Both Giles and Tara turned to Dawn, blinking at her in surprise as though they'd forgotten for the moment that she was there. Anger remained the current prevailing attitude Dawn had toward the Watcher, but exasperation had begun creeping in as well.
As though unsure he had heard correctly, Giles politely responded with, "I'm sorry?"
Dawn threw her free arm into the air – the other still preoccupied in clinging to Tara – and dropped it against her leg with a slap. "All these questions ... who, why, how ... Who cares? Tara's here, Giles. She's back."
The teenager thrust Tara's hand toward Giles. "Feel her," she insisted, her throat tight. "She's here, and she's real, and she's alive." As though suddenly exhausted, Dawn allowed Tara's arm to lower, then hugged it tightly like a security blanket. For a moment, she looked and sounded more like a scared three-year old than a girl on the verge of adulthood. "And I don't care why."
Clearly the extraordinarily trying situation was taking its toll on the Watcher, and his patience was wearing thin. Giles' mouth opened, preparing to issue forth any manner of chastisement to the younger Summers, but he never got the opportunity, as Tara stepped in first.
"Dawn, look at me," the blonde said sternly, her tone making it clear her request was not to be denied. Complying, the teenager did so, not bothering to hide the tears in her eyes. Tara was unmoved; her expression remained grave. "Mr. Giles is right. Something's unknown ... I'm unknown. Unknown is dangerous."
"You're not," Dawn vehemently protested, dismissing the very suggestion without even a moment's thought. "We know you, and you're not dangerous. You could never hurt any of us."
"He just wants to keep you safe," the blonde explained patiently. Dawn's head dropped, and Tara lifted the teenager's chin with her finger, not speaking again until their eyes connected once more. "And I need you to be safe too, Dawnie." Drawing her into a hug, Tara rested her chin atop the teenager's head and looked over at Giles, steadily meeting his gaze. "So whatever he needs to do ... it's okay. I understand."
The Watcher frowned, taken aback by Tara's words, but she'd already turned all of her attentions to the upset teenager cradled in her arms. He observed them with a puzzled expression, but seemed unsure of what to say next.
Willow glared furiously at Xander, her face flushed red and her jaw clenched shut. The carpenter took a step backward, his hands raised in front of him in a feeble effort to deflect some of the venom being shot in his direction. There was no returning anger as he spoke in a smooth, low voice. "I just don't wanna see you get hurt Will."
The confession was simple but sincere, and it seemed to get through to the witch. Willow sucked in a lungful of air and closed her eyes tightly. She held the breath for a long beat, then let it out slowly and opened her eyes again, calmer now. "I know," the redhead responded. "And I love you too. But ..."
Trailing off, Willow's gaze once more sought out Tara. She spared Xander a final glance, seeming to plead with him to understand, then turned and walked away.
Having reached Tara's side, Willow stood as close as possible without touching the blonde. She watched Dawn's quiet crying begin to subside as Tara stroked the teenager's hair, whispering words of comfort. A brief spark of longing danced across Willow's features, but it was fleeting and still she moved no closer.
As Tara began to break the hug, Dawn sniffed loudly and rubbed at her face. The teenager didn't seem to feel embarrassed at her emotional display – rather, the experience provided a greatly needed catharsis, and Dawn now looked tired, but much more relaxed and together. Glancing over her shoulder to Willow, Tara smiled. It was small and tinged with sadness, but the redhead's face lit up like a Christmas tree in immediate response regardless. Xander's approach, however, shattered the moment.
The usually jovial carpenter displayed none of his typical good humor. He stood just over Willow's shoulder, hovering there as he eyed Tara with confusion, wariness, and more than a little hostility. Almost like a soldier, he was at attention. He looked ready to pull Willow clear at the first indication that the blonde was going to transform into a slathering hellbeast, sent there to rip the redhead's still-beating heart from her chest.
Despite the fact that she was quite obviously the target of his enmity, Tara smiled affectionately at Xander's protective stance. Then she appeared to see him – really see him for the first time. She tilted her head to one side, raking her eyes across his face, taking in every detail and seeming to measure it against the image she held in her mind. Uncurling her arm from around Dawn's shoulders, the blonde moved slowly, unthreateningly, toward Xander, finally coming to a stop when she was standing before him.
Hostility had given way to discomfort, and despite towering over the blonde witch by at least a head, Xander shuffled uncomfortably under the sudden attention. Still though, he didn't move, and bore Tara's investigation with only a brief worried glance at Giles. The Watcher seemed more curious than alarmed, however, so Xander visibly tried to relax and watched the blonde with interest.
The final detail to receive Tara's examination was the most obvious, and her gaze eventually rested on the carpenter's eye patch. She reached out a tentative hand toward his face, causing Xander to blink. He seemed almost locked in the moment and it was unclear if he could have backed away, even if he'd wanted to. Ever so lightly, with the most featherlike of touches, Tara's fingers brushed against surface of the patch. As soon as she made contact with the material, her expression melted into one of profound sorrow, as though she hadn't quite believed it to be real until that tactile moment.
The touch didn't last long. She lowered hand and shifted her focus from the patch to Xander's lone brown eye. His gaze was no longer filled with either anger or suspicion – merely confusion.
"I've missed so much," she said sadly.
Xander didn't know how to reply to that. Nobody did.
All eyes were focused on Faith as she sprinted toward the abandoned warehouse. The assembly of a dozen or so Juniors parted as she approached and, without missing a beat, the dark-haired Slayer entered the building. She swiftly assessed the situation, noting every detail – Jeffreys at the far end of the structure, having backed up as far as he could go, and Kennedy, together with approximately thirty more Juniors, all hovering in a semi-circle near the middle of the room, apparently giving the boy a very wide berth. Faith glanced quickly to the right of Jeffreys and noticed a circular scorch mark bearing a runic symbol in the center that was cauterized into the wall. Faith's eyes widened in recognition as Kennedy left the group and moved closer to her.
"Did we lose anyone?" was Faith's first question.
Kennedy shook her head. "No. Not for lack of his trying, though."
She indicated a Junior Slayer off to one side being treated for minor burns and singed hair by her colleagues.
Kennedy turned back to Faith. "All we could make out was him saying ‘guilty', then the barbecue started. If she hadn't had Slayer reflexes ..."
Impatiently, Faith dismissed the "what if" with a wave of her hand. "So do we know yet what sets him off?"
"I called the Watchers," Kennedy told her. "All I keep getting is the damned stupid rhyme. I told them we need MacArthur, not Mother Goose." She inclined her chin in Jeffreys' direction. "Least he's quiet for the minute, but he could start moving again any time. We need answers, fast."
Faith nodded her head. "‘Bout time we get ‘em, then," she stated with deceptive quietude, her eyes never once straying from the motionless figure at the far end of the warehouse.
A weary and irritated Buffy opened the front door and limped inside. Final act of defiance or no, the walk home had obviously been a difficult one for the Slayer – but the physical discomfort paled in comparison to her pervading air of indignity. She threw her keys onto the table by the door where they joined their brethren.
"I'm home!" she called out, taking off her coat and tossing it onto the last vacant rack hook. The blonde moved into the kitchen, complaining bitterly the entire time. "Lemme tell you, I've had one of the weirdest days. Faith sent me home from patrol. Faith sent me home." The lingering offense apparently still stung. Buffy sighed and entered the dining room. "Can my day get any more surreal?"
The Slayer came to a dead halt in the entranceway. Her family was seated around the table, clearly in the middle of dinner. Open boxes of Chinese food were scattered here and there, and generous helpings had been distributed to the surrounding plates. A neat pile of fortune cookies waited patiently in the center. It looked like any other typical suppertime, save for the presence at the head of the table.
Buffy stared at Tara, blinking in shock. "I had to ask," she muttered to herself.
At Buffy's appearance, all heads turned toward the dining room entranceway. Tara was at the head of the table, directly in the Slayer's line of sight. On either side of Tara sat Willow and Dawn, with Xander and Giles seated closest to the kitchen. The Watcher was the first to regain his senses, and he opened his mouth to formulate some sort of explanation, however inadequate it may have been, given the circumstances.
He didn't get the chance. In the time it took Giles to even think about speaking, Buffy had seen enough. Like a veil falling into place, the surprise she felt at her unexpected visitor was replaced with grim determination, and the Slayer knew what must be done.
"Dawn, come away from there," she commanded in a calm voice, but with absolute authority. Never once did the blonde's eyes flicker from what she perceived as a threat.
Frowning, Dawn tried to calm her sister. "No, Buffy, it's okay. It's—"
"Get away from it!"
The teenager was already on her feet and had taken two steps before she realized she had moved. Smoothly, ensuring he made no sudden gestures, Giles rose and went to Buffy's side, where he nodded for Dawn to come closer. Glancing from Tara to Buffy, Xander left his seat next to Willow and also joined the Slayer. His brow was creased with concern, but Buffy paid it no mind. Instead, she watched Tara like a hawk, tense and prepared for anything.
Willow gawked at her best friend as if she'd never seen Buffy before. Tara, however, did not appear surprised at the Slayer's reaction. Muted but calm resolution was apparent on the blonde witch's features as she absorbed Buffy's fierce response, but that was all. No other emotions could be determined. By and large, Tara was utterly unreadable.
The stunned compliance had completely worn off for Dawn, and now the teenager was fuming at her sister. "What is your deal—Hey!"
Now that she was within reach, Buffy seized Dawn's arm and none too gently yanked her close. Deliberately, Buffy placed herself between Tara and Dawn, ignoring the spluttered protests behind her. Dawn jerked her arm out of the Slayer's grasp with an accusatory, "God!"
"Buffy ..." Giles tried to calm her, resting his hand on the blonde's rigid shoulder.
She ignored both of them, never allowing her gaze to waver from Tara for even a fraction of a second. "Willow, move away," Buffy ordered in the same calm tone she had first used with her sister.
"What? No." Willow shook her head for emphasis, frowning at the Slayer with confusion. "Buffy, it's Ta—"
"It's not," interrupted Buffy with certainty. "She's dead, Willow. I don't know what that is, but you need to get away from it. Now."
"No," the redhead repeated as she rose to her feet. Resting her hand on the back of Tara's chair, she tried her best to explain the complicated situation. "Look, I-I know this is a huge shock, but it's ..." Willow turned her gaze down to the blonde witch. "Tara, tell her—"
"Now, Will," Buffy barked, and the demand left absolutely no room whatsoever for questioning.
Unlike Dawn, however, Willow did not move. Quite the opposite, the spat command served no purpose other than to infuriate the witch. Her back became stiff and her eyes narrowed to thin, angry slits. The air around her almost seemed to crackle with energy, and in that moment, Willow was not a person to be crossed.
And neither was the Slayer. Buffy was every inch as unwavering, and the already thick tension in the room skyrocketed to nearly choking levels.
Entirely uncomfortable, Xander glanced nervously from Buffy to Willow. Swallowing hard, he took a brave step forward, not completely getting between them, but positioning himself so that both women would certainly see him, even as their glares were fixated elsewhere. He repeatedly tapped the palm of one hand onto the fingertips of the other, forming a "T". "Oooo-kaaay, I'm callin' time-out before these lovely dining room chairs get smashed into many less-functional pieces," he announced.
Nobody reacted. Buffy continued to glare at Tara, almost shooting out a challenge, daring the blonde to make a move. Tara met Buffy's eyes steadily, but her expression remained impassive. Willow was by far the most outwardly emotional of them all, her hands having balled themselves into fists that were shaking slightly at her sides.
"C'mon guys," Xander attempted to cajole, "there are plenty of crab puffs to go around, no need to degenerate into violence here."
Despite his valiant efforts, the carpenter was obviously being ignored, and Giles stepped in to try again. "Buffy. It's all right." Radiating calm, the Watcher addressed his Slayer in a low, soothing voice.
"Giles, what is it?" Buffy rasped back in a stage whisper, unable to spare him a glance.
"I'm not yet certain," he confessed. "For all intents and purposes, it appears to be Tara."
That finally did the trick, and Buffy swung her head around to gape at Giles. The deadlock broken, Xander took the opportunity to draw Dawn away from behind her sister, placing a comforting arm around the frazzled teenager's shoulders.
No longer bothering to even try and be discreet, an incredulous Buffy stated, "You can't seriously be telling me that ..." She flung her arm out at the blonde. "...whatever-the-hell is Tara."
"I'm telling you we don't yet know who or-or what that may be," the Watcher patiently explained, still keeping his voice soft and low. "But what I can tell you is that she's been alone with Willow and Dawn since early this afternoon and both are fine. If she wanted to hurt them, she had ample opportunity to do so. I know this is an ... extraordinary situation, and we'll find out what's going on. I promise you." He offered her a slight smile. "But let's do so without destroying the house, hm?"
Effort was necessary on Buffy's part, but she managed to compose herself, even if just a little. As token a gesture as it may have been, Xander and Dawn embraced it wholeheartedly, and they both sagged in relief. Willow, however was unmoved, and her fists remained tightly clenched.
Buffy returned her steely attentions to Tara. "I want answers," she insisted to Giles in a clear voice that very easily carried to everyone in the room.
"We'll get them," he promised. "Now come on, your sesame chicken is getting cold."
Steering her gently by the shoulders, Giles escorted Buffy to the nearest chair, but a digitized rendition of the theme song from "Cops" filled the air. The blonde pulled away and reached into her pants pocket, fishing out her cell phone and flipping it open.
"Yeah?" she snapped, then fell silent as she listened. Briefly, she glanced to Giles. "Yeah, he's here. ... Where? ... Okay, we'll be there in 15 minutes. Don't let him leave." Snapping the phone closed, she shoved it back into her pocket and addressed the Watcher. "That was Faith. They've tracked Jeffreys to a warehouse downtown but they're having some trouble getting to him. They need us."
Nodding his understanding, Giles turned to leave. Before he could take a step, however, Buffy grabbed his arm. Xander approached the pair to listen in.
In a harsh whisper, Buffy asked, "What about...?" She jerked her head toward Tara.
"We can't bring everyone with us, not without putting them at risk," Giles replied. "As I said before, if she wanted to hurt them, she could have. I don't believe they're in any danger from her. At least not right now."
"I'll keep my eye on her," volunteered Xander. "The good one, even." He smiled at his joke, but it was weak and faded quickly, his heart clearly not behind the effort. The carpenter gave Buffy an uncertain, worried look. "You really think Tara would hurt them?"
"Our Tara? No way. But I am far from convinced that this thing is anything more than some cheap made-in-Taiwan knockoff, and I will not stand by and watch it destroy Willow and Dawn all over again."
The Slayer watched as Dawn, having reclaimed her original seat, scooted closer to Tara. Very slowly, Willow sat down again as well, but not once did the redhead's angry, mistrustful eyes slip away from Buffy.
Outside the warehouse, the group of Junior Slayers turned as Giles' sports car came to a screeching stop. The gathering quickly parted to allow the Watcher and Buffy to enter the building. Once inside, Faith and Kennedy soon joined the pair.
"What's the sitch?" asked the blonde Slayer, her eyes swiftly adjusting to the relatively dim interior.
With a twitch of her head, Kennedy directed Buffy to the far end of the building. "Our boy here's being only slightly less entertaining than a Jim Carrey movie. He's barely moved a muscle since he tried to fry Melanie."
Buffy glanced at the injured Junior in question. Melanie appeared to be in good shape, except for the fact that a huge hunk of hair was missing and there were makeshift bandages wrapped around her arm. The girl was openly glaring at Jeffreys, her expression enraged but still wary. She made no move to venture beyond the point where she was standing. Jeffreys had now positioned himself atop a stack of crates. He somewhat resembled a presiding judge seated behind a lofty bench, all the better to peer down at those beneath him. His eyes, however, were closed.
"Is anyone else injured?" asked the concerned Watcher.
Kennedy shook her head. "No. After he Flamed On, I pulled everyone back."
Giles treated her to a small smile of approval. "Mm, best course of action. Wise decision." He moved further toward Kennedy in order to be brought up to speed on the current situation as Faith motioned Buffy to one side.
"So much for rest and relaxation at home, huh?" said the dark-haired Slayer with a grin.
Buffy puffed angrily. "You have no idea."
Faith blinked in surprise at the snipped response. "Dawn plaster your room with sparkly stickers again?"
"In comparison? That, I would welcome," stated the blonde.
"Even the 'Blue's Clues' ones?" Faith asked with a snicker. Buffy nodded just once, it was a sharply executed move. Faith whistled under her breath. "Damn, it must be serious. What's up?"
"Later," the blonde told Faith, noticing Giles and Kennedy coming toward them. She regarded the dark-haired Slayer seriously for a moment. "Actually, if this is as bad as I think it is, I may need your help."
Faith was equally serious. "I got your back," she said earnestly.
Buffy gave her a quick but sincere smile before turning to Giles and Kennedy. "Let's make this quick, Giles, I don't want to leave—" she stopped mid-sentence and glanced in Kennedy's direction, apparently reluctant to continue along that particular track of conversation. She hastily switched gears. "I want to get home quick."
"I understand," the Watcher nodded in agreement. "Unfortunately, additional research appears to have turned up precious little in the way of information. The Utsikt Skjønn is mentioned in only a small handful of texts, and those with any substantial information only point back to the translated rhyme. If we're to find an answer, I suspect it will be there."
"Since Giles was born without the ability to interact with any sort of mechanical device," stated Kennedy, blatantly ignoring Giles' wounded glare, "I got the Council to text message the poem." She waggled her Palm Pilot for all to see and then began to read, "'Two are shown, both sides—'"
Faith began to pace restlessly back and forth. "For real now, I had enough. He ain't moved in like an hour now an' I think he's catchin' some Z's." She narrowed her eyes and stared at Jeffreys. With a sudden movement, she started toward him.
Giles reached out and seized her arm. "Faith, wait!"
The dark-haired Slayer easily shook off the Watcher's grasp. "You can stick to Poetry 101," she told him. "Me, I always did better with contact sports."
Her stride was confident, brash and almost nonchalant as Faith made her way toward Jeffreys. He did indeed appear to be sleeping, but after she had taken a few paces, his eyes snapped open. Fixing her with vacant stare, his gaze was unfocused for a mere second before it visibly cleared.
"Crap," muttered Faith. She rapidly quickened her step, but Jeffreys was even speedier than the fast-approaching Slayer.
"You have been found guilty," he accused dispassionately.
His glasses flared, and the area around Faith ignited. With a nimble leap to the side, the dark-haired Slayer rolled to the ground, cursing profusely as her shoulder made contact with the bare concrete. Continuing to rotate, she returned to her feet, none the worse for wear save that her hair and clothes were smoking a little. The area where she had been mere seconds before blazed brightly for a moment and then died with a hissing splutter, leaving behind the same runic mark that already decorated the walls. As if in slow motion, Jeffreys head swiveled to where Faith was now standing. Quickly, she backed away and rejoined the others in what was presumably the "safe" zone beyond Jeffreys' range.
As casually as possible, she turned to Giles and her fellow Senior Slayers. "Okay, so ‘Two are shown' ..."
Kennedy smirked but apparently decided to keep any remarks to herself. She turned her attention back to the Palm and opened her mouth to speak. But before she could utter a single word, Giles snatched at the device.
"Just a moment," he said with some excitement. "I think ..." He read quietly to himself as Faith kept a guarded eye on Jeffreys, who had now settled back into his inertia. "I think I have it!" the Watcher declared, continuing to inspect the small computer but saying nothing further. The three Slayers standing nearby looked at each other.
"Earth to Giles," prompted Buffy. "Remember us? Slayers, here to fight the bad guy? We'd like some info to fulfill our purpose now."
At the sound of his name, the Watcher was roused from his ostensible revelation. Somewhat absently, he regarded each of their faces. "Oh! Oh, yes, sorry," he apologized, straightening his glasses and taking a deep breath. "From the information I read earlier on the orb, it was a fascinating instrument. Though the Vikings were much less interested in its judiciary properties as compared to its supposed prowess on the battlefield, early leaders would use it to—"
Faith rolled her eyes as Kennedy tapped her foot impatiently. Sighing, Buffy gestured at Giles in manner that very obviously said "come on". With a frown, Giles handed the Palm back to Kennedy and tried again.
"I believe that when the wearer gazes upon an individual, they are shown both the best thing and the worst thing that person has done in their life. The wearer passes judgment on what they're shown. When found guilty ..." he paused and indicated the marking on the floor that had remained after the attack on Faith.
"And if they're not guilty?" asked Kennedy curiously.
The creases in Giles' forehead deepened. "Nothing happens, I'd expect."
"You'd expect?" Buffy questioned dubiously. "Not a ringing endorsement."
Giles removed his glasses and began to vigorously polish. "As with all theories," he told her, "it needs testing. Someone must get close enough to Mr. Jeffreys to remove the artifact. All we need do is find someone who has committed no evil in their lives."
Faith immediately retreated a step and held up her good arm. "That's me out."
"I'll do it," announced Buffy without hesitation.
Faith scoffed very loudly.
"What?! " snapped the blonde, whirling to face her jeering colleague. "I'm not evil. I've never been evil. I haven't even had an evil twin that might get it all confused. My twin was a vampire's overly perky sex toy - which, I'll grant you, is icky, but not evil."
Faith shrugged. "No evil. Huh. And here I seem to recall you tryin' t' feed me to your undead lover – who just happened to have a kill count in the triple digits – leadin' to eight months of the least amount of fun I've ever had on my back." She looked at Buffy and tilted her head expectantly.
The blonde turned to Giles, "Right," she said perkily. "So who else we got?"
"Me," proclaimed Kennedy, as all eyes focused on her. "No big. The most evil thing I've ever done was get a friend to print my half-sister's diaries in the school paper. And that wasn't evil so much as, you know ... funny."
The others seemed unconvinced.
"Look," Kennedy assured, "things get nasty, I'll jump out of the way. Worst case, I forcibly get a new hairstyle."
Buffy glanced incredulously at Giles who returned the glance and then said, "I'd feel better about Kennedy trying rather than one of the girls."
"Alright," the blonde reluctantly agreed with a heavy sigh. "But eyes open. Second you start to feel even a little warm, get clear."
With a sharp acknowledging nod, Kennedy began to walk toward Jeffreys. Giles swept all the Juniors back a few more feet, well out of harm's way, as Buffy and Faith watched Kennedy intently, both ready to provide assistance if need be. Though tense and cautious, Kennedy's stride was certain. As before, Jeffreys' lids snapped open as she came closer. The brunette momentarily froze, ready to dive to one side at any given moment if necessary. Behind the spectacles, Jeffreys' eyes glazed for a second. Then, he blinked. Kennedy crouched slightly, prepared to spring in a heartbeat if such were called for. Both Faith and Buffy visibly stiffened as Giles took a step forward, but it was obvious that Kennedy had no intention of being caught unawares.
Jeffreys' voice was laced with authority as he spoke. "You have been found innocent."
Kennedy straightened and smirked. "Tell that to my first girlfriend."
Still wary, but more confident now, Kennedy swiftly crossed the floor to where Jeffreys was perched upon his stack of crates. The youth's eyes had closed once more and his expression was one of almost total exhaustion. With agile movements, Kennedy quickly scaled the small mountain of wooden boxes. Then, fast as a bolt of lightning, she shot out her hand and snatched the spectacles from his nose. Almost immediately, Jeffreys toppled and slid down the crates. By the time he hit the floor, he was already unconscious.
Waving the glasses in the air, Kennedy executed a nifty victory dance. "Aww yeah," she crowed, "who's karmically superior?"
Turning their backs on the self-appointed champion, both Buffy and Faith rolled their eyes before shuffling out of the warehouse.
With a weary motion, Giles flipped the light switch as he and Buffy entered his office. The room was immediately illuminated with a soft yellow glow. The Slayer, exhaustion showing plainly on her face, limped to the nearest chair and sank into it with much gratitude, heaving a sigh of relief to be off her feet. The Watcher, a small brass box tucked under one arm and several books under the other, crossed to his desk and carefully placed the metal container on its surface. He then proceeded to return the volumes to their appropriate shelves.
"I'll only be a moment," he told her, lifting his glasses and rubbing his eyes, "then I'll drop you home."
"Good," muttered the blonde, obviously not in the best of moods but trying to be civil. "Thanks."
"It'll be all right you know," Giles told her over his shoulder.
"Will it?" queried Buffy doubtfully. Her tone was strained. "Crazy Ford-tough girls busting in and nearly killing everyone, something in my house wearing the face of a dead friend, and now ..." She waved her hand at the box on Giles' desk, "evil kids and their evil glasses."
Filing the last book in its rightful position, the Watcher turned. "They weren't evil. Neither the glasses nor Mr. Jeffreys."
The blonde regarded him with skepticism. "And yet, they managed to kill and destroy. See what can be accomplished when you work together?" She quirked an eyebrow.
"How sententious of you," replied the Watcher sarcastically. Buffy's face adopted a blank expression as she looked at him quizzically, but Giles declined to offer an explanation, instead perching on the edge of his desk. "Still, neither were evil, per se," he continued. "The- The artifact simply showed Mr. Jeffreys two sides of a person. The best that they had accomplished, and the worst. Then it ... compelled him to make a choice. To weigh in on- on the person's achievements, based upon two defining moments at opposite ends of the spectrum."
"It, or he ... Someone killed, Giles," the Slayer stated with all seriousness. "That makes it pretty evil in my book."
Considering this, Giles retrieved the brass box from the top of his desk and deposited it carefully into a cabinet at the rear of the room. Closing the door, he turned back to Buffy, his tone thoughtful. "I suppose it's all a matter of perspective."
The loud, continual splatter of water from the showerhead was cut back to a few thin trickles as knobs were twisted down and finally off completely. A fine mist hung in the air, clinging to every surface in tiny beads of moisture. The shower's lone occupant pulled the back curtain and reached for a towel, securing it in place and stepping out onto the bath mat.
Approaching the clouded mirror, a hand reached out and brushed a swath clear. Bracing her arms against the sink, Tara stood and stared herself in the eye. She paid no attention to the marking over her heart – an eye atop a key, only partially concealed by the towel wrapped around her. Her face stony and unreadable, she continued to regard her reflection without expression.
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