Willow pushed the door to her bedroom and held it open for Tara. From the hallway, Tara could easily see the redhead's desk, complete with its cluttered, scattered system that to the outside observer might represent an incomprehensible, chaotic mess. Whereas the familiarity could have brought the blonde comfort under different circumstances, it was only too obvious none was being drawn at that moment. Taking great care to avert her eyes from room's owner, Tara stepped over the threshold and entered. She soon sighted the bed against the far left-hand wall, and crossed toward it. Her gaze loitered briefly upon the framed photograph residing on the nightstand. Hesitating, she seemed for a second to harbor a desperate desire to dive deep into its depths and return to happier times. But such was impossible and reality was lurking. Tara tucked a lock of still-damp hair behind her ear and seized the nearest pillow. Clutching it tightly to her chest, she settled on the bed in its place, leaned back against the headboard, and looked to Willow. Waiting.
The redhead hadn't budged from the doorway, although she followed Tara's every movement. Now though, it was her turn and momentarily, Willow's muscles tensed. She looked as if she might turn and run back down the stairs but instead, she inhaled deeply and then slowly exhaled. Although the breath shuddered in her throat, her jaw had set in firm resolution and there would be no backing down. Following Tara's path, Willow stepped into the room and pulled the door closed behind her. The click reverberated in the silent hallway like a gunshot.
Hovering by the foot of the bed, Willow made no motion to join Tara – rather, the redhead stood several feet away, as though to touch the bed would send a bolt of electricity coursing through her body. She wrung her hands nervously and stared at the coverlet.
Whereas before, the blonde witch had focused on anything and everything that was not Willow, now her attentions were directed nowhere else. Her face was a mask however; a tight restraint, which held not even the faintest trace of emotion. She looked every bit a porcelain doll – save for the protective manner in which she clung to the pillow.
Neither said a word and Tara continued to wait patiently. Then, without warning or preamble, Willow began to speak. Her stare remained locked upon the bedspread although her expression was equally as blank as Tara's, even as she gestured absently toward the window and then at her shirt, like an unenthusiastic tour guide pointing out ancient but still lingering scars and stains.
Willow began to pace, walking toward Tara and then pivoting in a constricted circle before slowly returning. But she never encroached closer than about the mid-point of the bed, stopping each time at some finite barrier visible only to her, being either unable or unwilling to move beyond it. She continued to shy away from the bed itself, keeping herself confined to a small rectangular "safe zone" while stalking its length repeatedly. The redhead's fine control had begun to slip and tears threatened to spill. Her speech, however, had not slackened and her story persisted relentlessly.
Face still impassive, Tara said nothing. But whereas before, her gaze had been aloof and detached, the blonde's brows were now furrowed and her eyes shone as she watched and listened.
Standing rigid, Willow had ceased her restless pacing. Her gaze was fixed on a spot to the right of Tara, but it was clear she wasn't seeing the wall. The words tumbled, as though now the tale had come this far, it could not, would not be halted. But it was her face that was most disturbing. Ensnared in moments past, Willow appeared almost like another person. Her expression was cold, but infused with unyielding drive and determination. There was no trace of anything human or compassionate about the redhead.
Tara stared in disbelief. The change in Willow, although in attitude only, was undeniable and the blonde was clearly shaken by it. No longer even feigning detachment, Tara had become a living, breathing part of Willow's narrative. She clutched the pillow tightly, seeking a solace she could not feel.
Rooted to the spot, Willow remained trapped within events long since passed, but awareness had gradually returned. Restively, the redhead's eyes darted back and forth, but she did not meet Tara's piercing gaze. Instead, she chose to stare at her feet as her arms came up to hug herself. The story resumed, without the earlier fervor, and then abruptly ceased. Willow's head dipped even lower.
Several seconds passed as Tara waited. When it became clear that Willow had no intention of continuing any time soon, the blonde regarded her carefully. Then for the first time since entering the room, Tara spoke. Questioning, prompting.
There was little force behind the interrogation, but Willow obviously heard. Still, another long moment passed. The redhead didn't lift her gaze when she next spoke, but the words could not have carried a more powerful impact.
Horrified, Tara violently recoiled as the blood drained from her face. She thrust a hand out toward Willow, as though to ward off any further details, as the other clamped across her mouth. Launching to her feet, Tara rushed past the redhead on her way to the open bathroom door across the room. She fumbled for the light switch, finally managing to locate it, and the interior was soon bathed in an unnatural florescent glow. As the door slammed shut, Willow was left standing by the bed, head bowed and shoulders slumped in defeat, alone with nothing but her thoughts and memories for company.
Perched tentatively on the edge of the bed, Willow was seated directly opposite where Tara had initially placed herself. That spot, however, was now vacant since Tara was on her feet, stomping back and forth angrily as she listened.
The redhead's eyes drifted to the photograph on her nightstand as she spoke. The picture showed a cluster of familiar faces, captured in a moment of perpetual happiness. Giles stood in the center, smiling indulgently with one arm draped around a grinning Buffy and the other hugging a gleeful Dawn. At the rear was Xander, mugging for the camera as he held two fingers in a "V" just behind the unsuspecting Watcher's head. Standing at the carpenter's side, Anya tried to stifle a giggle with only moderate success. At the front of the ensemble, apparently oblivious to the attentions of the camera and with eyes only for each other, sat Willow and Tara in profile, their fingers intertwined.
As Willow's focus shifted from the photograph back to the enraged blonde, her cheeks were drenched with tears that had fallen unchecked and unheeded. But Tara offered no comfort. Willow resumed talking, her body shuddering as her breath came in staggering gasps, but then Tara interrupted with a furious exclamation. With a raised voice, the blonde threw her arms in the air and then gestured sharply to the door leading to the rest of the house. Willow simply folded her hands in her lap and remained quiet, volunteering nothing to aid in her defense.
Arms wrapped around her knees, Willow huddled on the bed, rocking slowly back and forth. Her eyes were transfixed solely upon the image of Giles. Countless emotions played across her features as she continued to speak.
Tara stood several feet away. There were no remnants of anger remaining, only deep, profound pain as she watched the fragile redhead. Willow stumbled briefly over her words, choking back a sob as she clenched her eyes and shook her head violently at the images which assailed. Immediately, Tara stepped forward. She reached out to the redhead, but then hesitated and pulled back, wrapping her arms around herself instead. She contemplated Willow carefully, head tilted and gaze narrowed. Searching desperately, the blonde appeared to be trying to find something very specific, but it was impossible to tell from her expression whether she had been successful.
As a sense of relative peace settled over Willow, her crying slackened to only the occasional tear that managed to sneak free and trickle down her cheek. Glancing once more at the photograph, the redhead turned toward Tara, her feet dangling over the side of the bed and resting lightly on the floor. Suddenly, her hand lashed out, fingers curled into cruel talons that sliced at the air. She considered the digits curiously, as though they belonged to someone else, then lowered them to her lap. Smiling with a tinge of affection, Willow shook her head slightly before resuming, and after a moment began pummeling with all her strength into the empty space before her. This too lasted only briefly. After a few more words and a shuddering sigh, she permitted herself to unravel, becoming limp and seeming incredibly tiny seated as she was, alone on the edge of the bed.
Hands clasped beneath her chin, Tara's body also relaxed, yet she continued to remain apart from the scene before her. Fearfully, Willow glanced in the blonde's direction, allowing a tiny glimmer of hope to creep into her eyes at the softer expression she found.
But still, Tara stood nearby and said nothing.
Willow gazed blankly at the floor. For better or worse, her story was done and she steeled herself for the consequences. There was nothing more she could add, nothing further to explain, nothing else left to say. She simply waited. Tara stared at Willow's bowed head. She frowned and her forehead became furrowed. Her fingers were laced, palms pressed downward as the knuckles showed white. Her shoulders were hunched and her eyes veiled. Neither uttered a word. And Willow simply waited.
The question with which Tara shattered the silence roused Willow from her abstract reverie. Continuing to stare at the floor, she responded, but her voice was low and faltering as she radiated waves of guilt and shame. The blonde shot another question and, after a brief pause, Willow nodded almost imperceptibly. Tara looked helplessly around the room in search of guidance before clenching her eyes shut tightly. Turning her back on Willow, she began to pose another question, but choked on the words. Swallowing hard, Tara tried again, succeeding this time, although the tone was rasped and barely audible.
Willow's head jerked up as though she'd been punched in the gut. Crying heavily, her bottom lip quivered even as she vehemently responded in the affirmative. So much strength was forced into the reply that Tara was compelled to face Willow again, just as the rush of emotion fled and left the redhead drained. Wilting once more, shadows obscured her features. But as she bitterly added another comment, the self-hatred was only too evident.
Tara could endure no more. Her face crumpled and she dashed to Willow's side, gathering the broken redhead into her arms. Eyes scalded by blinding tears, Willow collapsed into Tara's open and forgiving embrace. She clung to Tara fiercely, body convulsing in soundless anguish. The redhead refused to relinquish her hold on sanctuary as Tara, unable to stem her own outpouring of tears, whispered words of solace and showered the top of Willow's bright head with a rain of comforting kisses.
Buffy wearily entered the house, dragging her injured foot and looking as though she were only a few heartbeats away from falling asleep standing up. Automatically, she closed the door behind her and locked it, stripping off and hanging up her coat even as she was in the process of heading for the stairs. Before reaching them, however, she glanced into the living room and was surprised to see Willow there. The redhead, obviously awake but looking every bit as exhausted as the Slayer, was bundled in her plush forest green robe and sitting Indian-style on the couch. Both hands were wrapped around a mug of untouched coffee. Her eyes were distant and lost in thought. For the briefest of moments, the earlier irritation resurfaced, then Buffy sighed, relenting, and ducked into the kitchen. She emerged seconds later with a steaming mug of her own and joined Willow on the couch.
The action jarred Willow out of her reverie and, smiling gently, she looked over to Buffy. "Hey."
"Hey," Buffy echoed, blowing on the coffee to cool it.
"How'd it go?"
At that, Willow raised a surprised eyebrow. "Evil glasses? That's new. What was it, some special offer from Lenscrafters? Your glasses imbued with evil in about an hour?"
"Something like that," agreed the Slayer, still not entirely relaxed.
With a 'tsk', the witch shook her head. "What kinda world are we livin' in?" she lamented.
"The kinda world where you can come home from a hard day's work to find a friend who's been dead for a year and a half sitting at your dining room table eating the last egg roll."
Willow blinked at Buffy mutely for a moment, then turned away and sipped her coffee.
Clearing her throat, the blonde tried again. "So. I'm surprised you're down here and not up with—"
"She's asleep," Willow interrupted with a glance at the ceiling. "We were talking for hours." She paused for a moment before adding in a quiet voice, "We had a lot to talk about."
Buffy flashed her friend a sympathetic look. "Did you tell her everything?"
The answer didn't come right away. Willow stared into the depths of her mug, as though it held some crucial, hidden secrets. "Yeah. Everything," she replied with a sigh.
"God," breathed the blonde, her eyes drifting away in contemplation. "How'd she ... How did she take it?"
Shrugging with a nonchalance she clearly didn't feel, Willow tried to smile. "Well, you know. Some parts better than others. She took the news about Anya's death pretty hard."
"I can imagine," Buffy commiserated. She hesitated briefly before asking, "And what about the ..."
Willow picked up where the Slayer's voice had trailed off. "The flaying? Harder. She ..." Setting the mug on the table in front of them, the witch searched for the words. "I dunno, Buffy. She couldn't even look at me for a while there, she was just so devastated. Which I get, totally," she hastened to add. "And she says she forgives me, which is just ..." Again Willow tried to vocalize her feelings, but she could find no words to describe them and shook her head, abandoning that thought. But an edge of fear crept into her expression as she returned her gaze to the blonde. "But I have to wonder ... can she ever look at me the same again? Will she ..." The redhead swallowed the lump in her throat. "Can she still love me after everything I've done?"
Without hesitation, Buffy also set down her mug and covered Willow's hand with both of her own. She stared into redhead's scared eyes, holding her friend fast. "If there's one thing I can be sure of in this world, it's that Tara loves you and always will, no matter what."
Blushing slightly, Willow favored her with a smile. "Thanks, Buff."
"But Will ..." continued the Slayer. "Whoever or whatever's upstairs ..."
The witch pulled back her hand as her smile vanished. "Tara, Buffy. It's Tara."
Keeping her tone level and as full of understanding as possible, Buffy responded, "I know you think it's Tara, but—"
"I don't think it, I know it," Willow insisted. "I know it like I know my own name. It's Tara."
Patience with the day clearly shot, frustration was beginning to seep into the blonde's voice. "After all this time? How is that even possible?"
"What, you hold exclusive resurrection rights or something?" came the snapped retort. "You just fought a guy who was killing people because of his evil glasses. After all we've seen, how can this even surprise you?"
"Okay, I grant you that it's not outside the realm of possibility," the Slayer quickly conceded. "But Giles says she won't tell us how she's back, she won't tell us exactly why she's back ..." Taking a deep breath, Buffy tried once again to make Willow see reason. "I know you want it to be her, Will. I do too. But with all this bad juju out there, with super-strong baddies busting heads and Slayers disappearing, it's just ..." The blonde's own fears began to swim to the surface and she fixed Willow with an imploring expression. "You've already been attacked once. How can you trust her?"
Willow's answer was simple. "I trust her because she's Tara. That's enough for me, and it should be enough for you, too."
The moment of calm rationale passed beyond the two women like the eye of a hurricane. "Willow, you are letting your feelings for Tara cloud your judgment!" Buffy all but yelled.
"Oh, and you wouldn't know aaanything about that," the redhead countered derisively.
Immediately cautious, the blonde eyed Willow warily. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"When Angel came back from hell, you were convinced that he wasn't evil. We knew nothing about why or how he came back, but he did. And despite what he had done, or what he could do, you asked us to trust you, because you just knew."
The Slayer stiffened in her seat. "That was different, Angel—"
"You're right, it is different," Willow cut off, her voice thick. "When Angel died, he was trying to end the world after a joyful spree of murder and terror. When Tara died, she'd done nothing, Buffy. Nothing." Brushing a hand angrily across her eyes, Willow leapt to her feet, putting some distance between herself and her best friend. "Tara's never hurt a living soul in her entire life, but you're so quick to just assume that she must be evil." Willow spun around, glaring at Buffy furiously. "Where the hell do you get off judging her?" she demanded between gritted teeth.
"I just don't want you getting hurt!" Buffy exclaimed, her tone incredulous.
"Then just be happy for me," pleaded the witch. "Be happy that I finally have back the one thing I need to make me complete again." She took a step closer. "I trusted you, Buffy. Despite what Angel had done, when you asked me to, I trusted you." Willow rested a hand on her chest. "Trust me. It's Tara."
Buffy stared at Willow for a long time, taking in the entreating expression on the redhead's face. But then she dropped her gaze and looked away, saying nothing.
With a fatigued sigh, the witch moved toward the entranceway. "I'm going to bed. I don't wanna wake Tara up, so I'll be in the guest room." Before exiting the room, Willow stopped, although she didn't turn back. In a soft voice, she told the blonde, "I know it's hard. I know you think you always have to be the Slayer. But try, just for a little while, to be plain old Buffy Summers and you'll know it's her." Glancing over her shoulder, Willow looked her friend in the eye. "She's come back to me, Buffy, and I won't let anything take her away from me again. Not anything."
Their gazes remained locked for a heartbeat, and then without another word, Willow turned and walked away.
Story by: Jet Wolf and Ultrace
Written by: Jet Wolf
Additional Material by: Novareinna
Tireless support and mucho de editing assistance by: Novareinna
Original Airdate: Tuesday, 7 September 2004, 8pm EST
The door to Willow's bedroom creaked as it opened and Tara winced at the sound, over-loud in the silent darkness of the house. She remained still for a moment, hesitating to move for fear of disturbing the slumber of the residents, but when there were no further signs of life, she stepped into the hall. The jogging pants she wore, being at least one size too big and likely borrowed from Xander, dangled over her feet and gave her the impression of shuffling along the ground, despite her attempts at stepping lightly and being quiet.
Yawning hugely, Tara made her way down the stairs and into the foyer. She looked around with some confusion, still disoriented by the unfamiliar house, but soon located the kitchen. The room was nearly pitch black, lit only by the soft blue glow of the microwave clock, which proclaimed the time to be 2:57AM. Fumbling in the dark, Tara managed to find the stove, and she clicked the switch to turn on its light. It was dull, but had the added bonus of not blinding sleepy eyes.
Tara reached for the nearest cabinet and pulled the door open, peering into its depths but finding only assorted boxes and packets of dried food. Closing that door and moving to the next revealed stacks of plates and bowls. Again Tara shut the cabinet. She turned to try the next, but a startled gasp ripped from her throat, and she took an involuntary step backward. Buffy stood not five feet from Tara, her arms crossed and a look of cold steel on her face. The Slayer's hair was mussed and she, too, was wearing baggy, comfortable clothing that was rumpled and left no question that she had come straight from bed.
As though her heart would leap from its usual home without her hand there to block its escape, Tara clutched at her chest and fought to regain control of her breathing. Buffy had no sympathy for the other woman's alarm and her gaze remained narrowed and suspicious.
"Need something?" inquired the Slayer with a casualness that was so obviously false it was almost insulting.
"I w-w—" began Tara, tripping over the words in her frazzled state. With a deep breath, she lowered her hand and tried again. "Just a glass. For water. I was thirsty."
Not allowing her eyes to drift away from the other blonde for even a moment, Buffy reached to open the cupboard by her head, retrieved a glass and handed it over.
Tara accepted it with a quiet "Thanks," which received no response. Carrying the glass to the sink, she filled it quickly with water and drained it within a few deep gulps before ducking it under the steady stream to fill it again. Buffy's scrutiny never ceased, and her subject was only too aware of the attention. "You know," Tara advised in a gentle voice without glancing at the Slayer, "if you ask, maybe we can get past it quicker."
"What are you?" was the immediate demand.
Twisting the knob by the faucet to shut off the water, Tara turned to face her accuser. "Just a girl, like you."
"I am not 'just a girl'," responded Buffy defensively, the underlying warning clear.
"You used to be." Tara's eyes dropped to the glass in her hand. "So did I," she added softly.
The Slayer remained unmoved. "I don't believe you're her."
"So were you, once."
Anger steadily rising, due in no small part to the fact that she could glean no reaction other than calm from the woman in front of her, Buffy took a step forward. "I'm not going to let you spit on her memory." Her tone was harsh and resolute. "I won't let you hurt them."
For a moment, there was no response. Then Tara's lips began to curl upward in smile that, were she in a more generous mood, Buffy might have described as affectionate. It did nothing to improve the Slayer's mood. "What?" she spat, almost challenging the blonde witch to speak her mind.
"You learned to live again," replied Tara, her smile growing wider. "Buffy, that's wonderful. I'm so glad."
The reply was startling, and for a moment Buffy seemed unsure of how to respond. But it was the briefest of stumbles, and the Slayer quickly regained her composure. Her lips pressed into a thin, hard line. "You don't fool me," she growled, her voice low and dangerous. "With your smile and your words and your ..." Almost abstractly, Buffy waved her hand as though to encompass all of Tara, although her tone was nothing but certain. "You can't be her."
Tilting her head slightly, Tara frowned at Buffy, like she was trying to unravel a complex puzzle. "Why are you so afraid?" she wondered aloud.
"Afraid? Of you?" The snort was almost mocking. "You wish. I've done the evil counterpart thing a couple times now. Believe me, you don't even rank."
Still frowning, Tara shook her head. "No, afraid that I'm telling the truth."
Buffy's mouth opened immediately to retort, but the action was reflex and no words emerged. Appearing to not notice, Tara sighed heavily and, clenching her eyes tight, pinched the bridge of her nose. She suddenly looked bone-weary, as though a strong gust of wind could knock her to the ground. "Maybe we can finish this tomorrow?" she implored. "I'm really tired."
"Sure," agreed Buffy with ease, stepping to one side and sweeping her arm out in a grand, welcoming gesture. "Coming back from the dead takes it outta you, I know." She didn't make even a token attempt at faked sincerity.
Choosing to simply let it go, Tara walked past Buffy, the full glass gripped firmly by both hands. She was nearly out of the room when the voice reached her.
"I'll be watching you." It wasn't a threat; it was a promise.
Tara glanced over her shoulder at the Slayer. "I know you will."
The bright morning sunlight streamed into the house as Giles pushed open the front door, a white pastry box resting neatly in the crook of his arm. "Hello?" he called out, stepping inside and closing the door behind him. There was no return greeting, and Giles' brow furrowed as he set the box down and pulled off his coat. Sounds of life soon drifted into the room and, reclaiming the package, he followed the noise into the dining room.
"Good morning, everyone," he announced pleasantly. "I've brought ... bagels?"
The reason for the slight falter in his arrival quickly became only too apparent. Tension levels in the dining room were steadily approaching unbearable, and already Xander was shifting uncomfortably in his seat. Everyone was situated around the large oak table that occupied the bulk of the room's available space; it gave the scenario an odd civility that seemed at odds with the open hostility that was only just being constrained by the tiniest of threads.
Willow sat at the head of the table farthest away from Giles and directly across from Buffy. For all intents and purposes, the Slayer appeared unaware of the furious glares directed at her from Willow and Dawn, given that the totality of her attentions were focused on Tara who was seated next to Dawn on Willow's right. Plates of food had been served to each person, but while Willow and Dawn had already emptied theirs, and Xander was clearly well on the way to eating more than his fair share as well, Buffy's helping remained untouched and ignored. A fact that had clearly not escaped Dawn's notice.
"Dawnie, it's okay," assured Tara, anxious to diffuse the situation. "Buffy doesn't have to eat them if she doesn't want them."
The teenager was less forgiving. "Yeah, well, she doesn't have to be such a bit—" Every eye turned to regard Dawn, cautioning her with their expressions. "...such a big dork about it," she hastily amended.
"I am not being a 'big dork', or anything else beginning with 'B'," Buffy protested.
"Apart from 'Buffy'," responded Xander with an overly large smile. "Can't really escape that one."
But Buffy was ignoring him. "I'm just not interested in hearing everyone fawning over 'Tara''s pancakes," she explained somewhat less than patiently.
Unobtrusively, Giles entered the room and slid into the vacant seat between Buffy and Xander. He set the bagels on the table and glanced over, meeting Buffy's concerned gaze.
Consequently, neither noticed Willow turning a deeper shade of red. "Wouldja quit that?" she exclaimed, her irritation pure and undeniable.
"Quit what?" an exasperated Buffy responded.
Xander leapt in, his attentions flitting nervously from Buffy to Willow and back again. "With the food wasting. Right Will? Cuz, y'know ... starving kids an' all. My mom always used to—"
"The way you say her name!" the redhead interrupted, as though Xander hadn't even spoken. "Like ... like you-you're doing ... this—" Willow wiggled two of her fingers on either side of her head in the universal symbol for quotation marks, "only you're not doing this—" Raising her hands, she repeated the gesture, "a-and ... it's irritating!"
"Sure it is," Xander readily agreed in a light and cheerful tone that was painfully forced. "It's been scientifically proven that 98% of the world's population finds that—" he echoed the motions, "irritating."
"Really?" Buffy shot back at Willow, paying no attention to Xander's attempts at levity. "Well we can always ask 'Tara' if she thinks it's irritating."
An accusing finger was thrust at the Slayer from across the table as Willow's mouth opened and closed of its own volition. She looked at the others for support and confirmation, as if to say, "See??"
Tara offered neither, however, as a flash of pain crossed her features. Pushing to her feet, she mumbled, "I'll ... I'll just clean up," and grabbed the nearest two plates before hurrying into the kitchen.
Tracking her every movement, Buffy even went so far as to pivot in her chair and lean over to keep an eye on the blonde witch, once again causing her to miss the look of complete disgust on Dawn's face.
"God, what is wrong with you?" Dawn all but yelled. Her chair was slung back with a loud scrape and the teenager snatched her backpack. "And I'm the immature one?" she boggled as she stomped out of the room without glancing back. "I am so filing this."
"Hey, how about those funnies this mornin', huh?" asked Xander almost immediately. "Oh, that Cathy and her quest for a swimsuit." He held his hands up in a lame parody of shock. "Ack!"
Willow was too busy scowling at Buffy from across the table to respond. "This can't go on," she stated flatly.
"You're right, it can't," agreed the Slayer with the same note of finality. "And I'll see that it doesn't."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
Her tone softening, Buffy regarded the redhead compassionately. "Will, you're already way too caught up in this to see straight. Please, let's just—"
Buffy's pleas fell on deaf ears. "I can't see straight? I'm not the one acting like the ... the bitch queen of ... Bitchonia!"
Xander leaned forward, extending one hand to each of the women. "Okay gal pals, let's take a breather," he suggested firmly with no lingering traces of good humor, forced or otherwise.
But the Slayer's world had narrowed to include only herself and Willow. All else was strictly background noise. "If you'd stop and think for like two seconds, you'd know I'm right," she countered with almost reserved self-assurance.
"Oh, yeah, sure, of course," scoffed Willow bitterly, "Buffy the Great can't ever be wrong. You're such a—"
Xander shot to his feet and grabbed Willow's arm. "Okay, you an' me, outside, now," he ordered, tugging the redhead out of the room.
Finding herself alone with Giles, Buffy sighed wearily and ran a hand through her hair. She glanced at her Watcher, clearly unhappy with the recent turn of events.
Giles offered her the white box. "Bagel?"
Xander and Willow walked side-by-side at a determined pace set by the fuming redhead. The neighborhood street was mostly deserted and despite a setting that was otherwise picturesque, Willow was deeply engrossed in thoughts that were – judging by her expression – anything but pleasant and sunny.
With his attentions solely on Willow, Xander must have been trusting to blind luck that he wouldn't run into anything. His face betrayed deep concern as he watched his friend stomp next to him. In a tender voice he asked, "Don't suppose you wanna talk abou—"
"Who does she think she is?!" burst out the witch. "Oh, no, wait, we know who she thinks she is ... Boss of the whole gosh darned universe, that's who she thinks she is!"
"Okay, guess you do wanna talk about it," Xander smiled.
Her lip curled back in a sneer as her tone became nasal and mocking. "'You don't know what you're doing, Will. You're letting your emotions cloud you, Will.' But when it's someone she's got a yen to smooch? Then suddenly it's all about ... chains and souls and basement dwelling."
The answering shrug carried a defeatist, 'what can you do?' air. "It's the Slayer Reflex. We've all fallen victim to its obsessively protective charms at one point or another."
"I wanna keep Tara chained in the basement too!" protested Willow. A small frown crinkled her forehead. "And that didn't at all come out like I meant."
"Filing away that rather interesting visual for later, I know what you mean," the carpenter commiserated, although he quickly became stern. "But I think Buffy has a point. We still don't know for sure that Tara's come back, and if she has – why? How? The resurrection mojo's bad stuff, Will, we know that firsthand."
Choosing not to respond, Willow continued her relentless pounding of the pavement. "She just can't get it through her thick little blonde skull that maybe, just maybe, we can get a happy ending now and then too." She raised her hands, as though to defend against an imagined verbal assault. "But god forbid it happen to somebody not her."
Disapproval appeared in Xander's expression for the first time. "That's not fair," he countered. "Nobody wants you to have a happy ending more than us, and that includes Buffy."
"Buffy," the redhead spat, viciously kicking at a rock in her path. "With her big threats and her big martyr complex and her, 'It's for your own good, Will.' I'll show her my own good!"
"You know you stopped makin' sense about five minutes ago, right?"
Like a balloon, Willow suddenly deflated and her shoulders slumped. "I just want her to be happy for me," she explained, her voice thick. "For us. I know Tara's dea— ... I know it really hurt her too. So why can't she just be happy? Why does she have to be so ... Buffy about it?"
Xander's expression softened immediately and appeared to want nothing more than to wrap the witch in a huge hug that would make everything right with the world. "She does want you to be happy. Safe-happy. That's all any of us want," he assured her with a sad smile. "We just need to all sit down and talk about stuff, all rational-like without the shouting and the nasty, muscle-cramping tension." As he spoke, the carpenter became more confident. "We're best friends, we'll get through this. If you two can talk to each other as well as you've been talking to me, then—"
For the first time, Willow turned to regard the man next to her. She blinked in surprise. "Xander, you're still here?" Stuck in mid-speech, Xander's mouth dangled open, but the redhead was too busy taking in her surroundings to notice. "Whoa, total space out," she marveled with a shake of her head. "Look, I'm gonna get back, I don't wanna leave Tara alone too long with you-know-who. Especially not when weapons are in easy reach. You're good, right?"
Not really waiting for an answer, Willow turned and began to jog away, leaving Xander to call after her. "Oh, sure, no problem. I'll just head to Banan's, I got some work waitin' for me. So that's where I'll be. If you, y'know ... need me."
But Willow was already out of earshot, leaving Xander standing alone on the quiet sidewalk. With a sigh, he continued walking away.
Inside "The Bazaar," Xander was putting the finishing touches to his latest project for Henry Banan – a series of oval shelves nestling within a tall cabinet crafted from polished Asian Rosewood. The appearance of the store had improved significantly thanks to the carpenter's skill with his tools of the trade. It was now stocked with a multitude of intriguing imported objects d'art and assorted fascinating knick-knacks, all tastefully arranged and displayed to their best advantage. The wide bow-fronted window currently exhibited an impressive collection of unusual Egyptian curios: an amulet of lapis lazuli engraved with a snake devouring its own tail; a large communal bowl carved from haematite bearing a circlet of ibis heads around its rim; a green jasper scarab beetle; a bronze statuette of Ptah; and a dazzling variety of ankhs fashioned from copper and silver, some encrusted with tiny splinters of cornelian or onyx. No sham effigies of King Tut's sarcophagus or busts of Nefertiti found their way into The Bazaar's elite inventory.
The interior of Banan's emporium might have seemed over-crowded were it not for the cunning positioning of the cabinets, each one designed to hold specific treasures and reflect the culture of the ethnicity represented. Fierce dragons of jade crouched ready to pounce from their bamboo shelves, while milky-white elephants of shola pith could almost be heard to trump from within their neem tree homes.
In front of the Rosewood cabinet, Xander tilted his head and then nodded with satisfaction as the bubble in his spirit level found its perfect center on each of the shelves. His complaining voice, however, held no such tone of that satisfaction.
"I just feel so torn, y'know? On the one hand, I'm totally with Buffy. Somethin's not kosher about this."
The carpenter returned the level to his toolbox and began to vigorously polish the satiny wood with a soft cloth. "An' if it's not right," he continued, "I don't see this endin' in anything but pain and misery. And that's best-case scenario."
Disgruntled and muttering to himself as though he were engaged in some inner argument, Xander stuffed the duster into his toolbox and snapped the lid shut. He grabbed it by the handle and carried it over to the seemingly uninhabited marble-topped counter.
"But then," he stated, voice loud and audible once more, "you start talkin' to Tara, and ... god, it's like nothing's changed. Well, you know, apart from the obvious, but ..."
From behind the counter where he had been docketing a new shipment of wares, Banan suddenly appeared. His mode of dress was as sophisticated as ever, pale yellow silk shirt tucked into a pair of deep brown trousers whose creases were knife-sharp. Puffing a little, he hoisted a rather large cardboard box onto the counter while his darkly intelligent eyes regarded Xander with puzzlement.
"And what IS that 'obvious' again?" queried the owner of The Bazaar.
The carpenter blinked. "Uhh ... that Tara ... left. Two years ago, she left Willow. All of us. She didn't really have a choice, but ... Anyway, now she's back, but she won't really tell us anything about it. It's all very suspicious." He paused and pointed to the box. "This the stuff?"
"Yes," Banan confirmed as Xander took the container to the newly installed shelves in the Rosewood cabinet. The shopkeeper gazed thoughtfully at the carpenter's retreating back. "So," he added, "she has secrets. Secrets are sometimes necessary, you know."
"Oh sure," Xander readily agreed. "Take my secret stash of Twinkies and other fine Hostess snack foods. But for the most part, secrets kept between friends? Pretty much bad news."
The carpenter set the container down on the floor and began sorting through its contents. They were mostly unique little oddities and various other curiosities that fell into no particular cultural category. With a keen eye, Xander leisurely placed them on the oval shelves made especially to hold these diverse pieces.
"What about your other friend, Willow," said Banan in his refined tone which bore just a trace of some unidentifiable accent. "What does she think?"
The carpenter let out a mighty sigh. "God, Will's been up and down like a yo-yo. Believe me when I say that for me to even notice is a huge comment on her emotional state. She seems to be levelin' off a bit now, but totally settling into 'Protect Tara' mode ... which leads to lots of sparky joyous fun with the Buffster. And I'd like to Biggie Size my sarcasm."
The Bazaar's owner pushed the point. "But does she seem happy?"
Xander contemplated the question for a moment as a small frown creased his forehead. "Well mostly at the moment she seems pissy, but ... yeah. She's got a sort of peace that I haven't seen her have in ... a really long time. Longer than I'd like."
Banan's tiny smile was inscrutable. "She must have loved this Tara very much."
The carpenter's eye grew very wide. "Oh yeah. It was your typical ill-fated, opera-type, tragic romance." He paused for a moment and considered his statement. "We've had a few of those, actually," he added as an afterthought. "They never end well."
Banan's smile widened a tad. "Maybe it's time one did. If your friend is happy, isn't that the most important thing?"
Xander treated the storekeeper to something of a skeptical glance. "Unfortunately in our world, things are kinda not that simple."
Banan shrugged his shoulders. "It seems to me that you, for the most part, are understandably cautious and concerned for your friend, but that the majority of the conflict comes from Buffy and Willow. Maybe you should just step back and let them resolve it for themselves?"
The carpenter laughed bitterly. "Might not have much of a choice on that one. I might as well have been reading the heating instructions on a package of Pop Tarts for all the listening they did this morning."
He reached into the cardboard box and retrieved an item wrapped carefully in tissue paper. "I want the power..." he began, gazing into empty space as he absent-mindedly unraveled the tissue from a clear quartz crystal alicorn. The tip of the alicorn began to pulsate with a sapphire glow – a subdued blush that flowed swiftly around the fluted spiral before spreading out to cover his entire hand. Xander sighed in his reverie and placed the alicorn, its crystal now a dark blue, onto the shelf, before continuing. "The power to, y'know ... Really make 'em sit down and talk to each other."
Banan, delving back behind the marble counter to retrieve another box of assorted trinkets, offered what he could by way of comfort. "With your help, I'm certain they will. But sometimes these things must get worse before they can get better."
Xander ran his fingers restlessly through his hair. "Yeah, but we sorta tend to raise the bar on 'worse', and I'm really not keen on going there any time soon..."
The carpenter's voice trailed away as he became lost in private contemplation. Almost without thinking – as though on automatic pilot – he continued to unpack the boxed items and position them on the Rosewood shelves.
Retreating into the living room, like it had somehow transformed into her private sanctuary, Dawn did her best to block out the angry sounds behind her. Both Willow and Buffy's voices were easy to discern, though exactly what they were shouting at each other became lost in the noisy chaos. Distress was etched into every line of her face, but she brightened considerably upon spying Xander slouched in his chair in front of the television. Dawn tossed herself onto the nearby couch. "Fifteen minutes straight now," she moaned. "I swear they haven't stopped to even take a breath." The single laugh was completely devoid of humor. "It's like Mom and Dad, The Reunion Special."
Xander grunted, his eyes riveted to the TV screen. "Yeah. Sucks."
As though he had just voiced his complete and unerring agreement rather than two non-committal syllables, Dawn enthusiastically responded, "It totally does!" Wide-eyed, she watched the carpenter expectantly, puzzlement appearing when he displayed no further reaction. "Maybe you should ... go in? Help separate 'em before we lose that side of the house?" she prompted.
"What d'you expect me to do?" he replied in a bored tone, not bothering to glance her way.
The question seemed to take Dawn by surprise for a moment and she was unsure how to answer. "I dunno, that ... that thing you do."
He waved his hand at the television. "I'm doin' a thing."
"Yeah, no," the teenager replied with a furrowed brow. "I mean that you thing do where you make them stop fighting. I don't think ..." She studied the program closely. "...'CSI' is gonna make them stop fighting." After considering it for a few seconds, she added, "At least not the crappy David Caruso one."
Unmotivated, Xander simply commented, "I don't think much of anything's gonna get 'em to stop fighting." Seeming to believe that the conversation was now at an end, he shifted into a more comfortable position in his chair and said no more.
Dawn obviously felt otherwise. "You don't mean that, right? I mean, they can't keep fighting forever, right?"
"Oh, no," he agreed, and Dawn visibly relaxed. "They'll probably kill each other before too long."
"Which at least means we'll get some peace and quiet around here," added the carpenter mostly to himself.
Dawn's eyes nearly popped out of her head. "Oh my god! Has everyone gone insane?"
"All these interruptions are definitely bookin' me a one-way ticket on the Crazy Train."
Holding her hands rigid in front of her, the teenager seemed to want desperately to do something physically, but couldn't quite figure out what. Instead, she settled for gaping at Xander. "I can't believe you're talking like this!"
Letting out an exaggerated, put-upon sigh, Xander rolled his head toward Dawn. "Look, I tried to help out this morning. They ignored me." He shrugged. "What else am I supposed to do?"
"I dunno, maybe try again?"
Clearly unimpressed by her suggestion, he returned to the television. "Not much in the mood for runnin' headlong into brick walls."
Uncomprehending, Dawn stared at Xander's profile. "But they need you!" she insisted.
The sound of feet pounding up the stairs cut off any possible reply. It was soon followed by the faint slam of a door from the second storey, and then the much louder slam of the front door. The silence that descended seemed oppressive and unnatural in the wake of the seemingly endless arguing.
Xander glanced up at the ceiling. "Think the fight ended all on its own," he observed. Sounding genuinely surprised, he pointed out, "And hey, without violence! Go fig."
Dawn was not sharing in the wonder and the carpenter sighed again. "I'll try again tomorrow, okay?" he attempted to placate, but the teenager was having none of it. She eyed him suspiciously, and Xander leaned his head further back into the soft cushion of his chair. "Look, I'm sorry." The apology seemed strained, but heartfelt. "I had a long day, and the constant tension has me on edge. I'll talk to them tomorrow."
She had started to relax, but hearing this caused Dawn to sit upright again and glare, just a little. Xander threw his hands into the air in defeat. "Fine! I'll go up tonight and talk to whoever stuck around."
Finally Dawn had the answer she wanted, and a sunny smile spread across her face as she leapt to her feet. "Yay! You're the best. You'll make it better, I know you can do it." Bouncing over, Dawn kissed Xander's cheek with a loud smack, then hurried upstairs, presumably to give Xander plenty of time to work his magic.
But there would be no magic done by Xander that night. Alone once again, he rolled his eye at Dawn's antics and settled back into a comfortable position, clearly having no intention of moving any time soon and caring little for what was going on around him.
The unpleasant atmosphere in the dining room was becoming an all too common occurrence. It was breakfast time once more, and tempers had not improved any overnight. Again, food had been prepared, with a tower of pancakes and other items in the center of the table within easy reach of whoever wanted them. However save for Xander's small stack – which he was devouring with great relish – nobody seemed to be much in the mood for eating.
"I am not the bad guy here!" asserted Buffy, pointing at herself angrily.
Blowing out a puff of air, Willow snidely remarked, "You're obviously checkin' a different 'Who's Who' guide."
"At least mine makes sense!" was the retort.
Dawn rubbed her forehead painfully. "Nothing about this conversation makes sense."
Like a starving dog with a porterhouse steak, Buffy refused to let the matter drop. "Willow, you need to—"
"Alright, just calm down," Tara interjected, a note of irritation finding its way into her tone. "If you're bound and determined to be mad at someone, Buffy, it should be me."
"Oh don't worry, I'm savin' up plenty of mad for you, too," assured the Slayer. "Unless, of course, you plan to finally stop making with the cryptic and actually, you know ..." She gave an exaggerated shrug. "Explain something."
"I will," the blonde witch agreed, trying to soothe frayed nerves and tempers. "I promise, I'll tell you everything I know. But ..." Unable to hold Buffy's intense, penetrating stare, her eyes dropped. "I can't. Not right now. It's ... hard."
It wasn't going to be that easy. "You wanna know hard? Hard is sitting here watching you not tell us a damned thing and getting screamed at every two seconds because, hey! Actually remembering we're on the Tri-Mouth here, so mysterious returning dead friend who refuses to answer questions? All signs point to evil."
"She's not evil!" Willow's defiant exclamation came mere moments before the redhead leapt to her feet and moved to stand behind Tara's chair, resting her hands protectively on the blonde's shoulders.
For just a second, it looked like Tara might duck away, allow Willow's hands to fall to the side and break the contact. But instead, she closed her eyes and seemed to draw strength from the connection. "This isn't ..." she began, then sighed and shook her head. "Maybe I should just leave. Go to a hotel or- or something."
Finally, everyone seemed to find a topic they could agree on. "No!" cried Buffy, Willow and Dawn in union, then they began to talk over each other.
"This is your home!" Dawn insisted, reaching out and tightly grasping Tara's hand.
Buffy was nowhere near as comforting, but every bit as adamant. "I want you right here where I can keep an eye on you."
Willow looked the most pained, as though she'd been kicked in the stomach. "Baby, no!" she entreated, squeezing Tara's shoulders. "I need— You should be here. With ... everyone." A flash of anger overtook the redhead, and she glared furiously at her best friend. "How can you be like this?" she accused between clenched teeth. "When you came back, it was, like, a month before you told us anything about what happened to you!" Unconsciously, Willow began to rub Tara's shoulders in a soothing back-and-forth motion. "You more than anybody should understand how hard this is."
The outburst did nothing to sway the Slayer; her arms were crossed and absolutely everything about her was unyielding. "And you more than anybody should know that just because she's back doesn't make it all bunnies and cotton candy."
Frustrated almost beyond words, Dawn exclaimed, "You know, I'm actually looking forward to school!"
With emotions running so high, nobody noticed as Xander sighed heavily and speared another three pancakes. Rising, he snatched the nearby bottle of syrup along with his plate and left the room without a backward glance.
At Slayer Central in the large training room, Faith helped Xander to zip-up his puffy suit. It wasn't an easy task considering she was still operating with only one arm, but she managed well given the circumstances.
"Thanks for doin' this, Xan," Faith told the carpenter. "'Preciate it."
Xander nodded briskly in response as the Slayer moved in front of him, checking to see that all was safe and secure.
Faith waved her injured arm and grinned. "Doc says this'll be off in a couple days. Can't be too soon for me. This wounded chicken routine got old two days before it started." Her grin broadened but then she looked into Xander's expressionless face.
"Hey, you sure you're up t' this?" she questioned with concern. "I can make the girls run never-ending laps instead. Almost as fun."
The carpenter simply grunted his reply. "Let's do it."
Faith half-turned to the small crowd of assembled Juniors. "Gotta love a man who's direct." She beckoned with her forefinger. "Alright, you heard the man. Haze, you first."
"Yay!" declared Hazel with much enthusiasm as she took a confident stride forward. "Beating on Xander! So much better than laps."
"Never too late to change my mind," warned the Slayer.
Hazel tucked one arm into her, folding it like a wing. "Buh-cawk," she taunted in an enunciated tone accompanied by a sneaky grin. Faith was not amused and treated the Junior to a threatening frown. Wisely, Hazel lowered her arm and cleared her throat.
"Okay, done," she promised in a small voice.
"Damn straight, you're done," the Slayer told her with certainty before focusing her attention on Xander. She narrowed her eyes at his air of apparent boredom. Normally, such an exchange would have incited at least a chuckle from the carpenter but his jawline was set tight and his lips held no trace of a smile. Faith shrugged and turned to address the gathering.
"Today," she began in a business-like tone, "we're focusin' on precision and recall. You'll come up here and execute a series of punches exactly as I'm pointin' 'em out. An' I mean exactly, I don't want you so much as a centimeter off or you do the whole thing over again from the beginning. Now pay attention."
The group formed a semi-circle in order to better see what was about to transpire. Snagging a ruler, Faith started to prod at various points on the carpenter's puffy body, hitting at a dozen or so seemingly random locations in rapid succession.
"Got that?" she inquired. The Juniors appeared to be far from certain, but Faith declined to wait on a response. "Good. Let's go."
With that, she took a step backward – out of the line of fire but still in close enough proximity to have a perfect view of the upcoming exercise. Hazel shadowboxed as she hopped lightly from one foot to the other while throwing Xander a mischievous smile. The carpenter looked down at her, his mouth drawn into a silent and mocking sneer. Confused, the Junior dropped her arms and tilted her head to one side.
"Sorry, am I speakin' some weird language where 'let's go' means 'stare at the target'?" clipped Faith.
Hazel jumped slightly and vehemently shook her head.
"Then let's go," ordered the Slayer sharply.
Hazel instantly burst into action. The first few blows landed squarely on their intended targets and Faith nodded with satisfaction. But the following sequence called for an initial jab to the shoulder then one to the chest, followed closely by two successive punches to the shoulder again and this time, the Senior Slayer was far from impressed.
"Stop stop stop," she called, waving her good hand. Hazel promptly obeyed and turned to Faith who was rapidly approaching the solidly set figure of Puffy Xander.
"Hit him here." Faith indicated the fleshy joint beneath the suit located between the carpenter's chest and his shoulder. "Not here," she instructed, pointing to the bony section. "You wanna break your hand?"
The Junior smirked and Faith sighed as she took a step backward. "Do it again."
Hazel gave a small click of her heels. "Jawohl mein fuhrer."
"An' if you're gonna insult me," stated Faith dismissively, "do it in American. Go."
Still amused, Hazel began the routine over again. Xander shuffled restlessly at the sequence of jabs and appeared to be getting aggravated by the constant poking.
"Hold it," commanded Faith.
Sighing, Hazel dropped her arms and turned to the Senior Slayer with a furrowed brow. "I thought I nailed it this time."
"You got the shoulder," Faith told her, "but you zoned on the stomach."
Pursing her lips, Hazel replayed the exercise in her mind for a moment. "Gah," she muttered. "I did."
"'Course you did," assured Faith with a touch of mock arrogance. "I'm always right." She grinned at Hazel's open-mouthed gape. "An' you're gonna agree cuz you don't wanna get stuck on kitchen duty with Andrew for the next two weeks, right?"
The Junior's mouth snapped shut like a steel trap. "Boy Faith," she hastened to reply. "You're so right, there's nothing left."
With a smirk, the Slayer ignored the barb. "Again."
Hazel feinted once or twice before pummeling into Xander, who fidgeted and began to look decidedly peeved.
"Wait," came the order for a third time. Hazel's shoulders slumped as she turned to Faith and so, was totally unprepared for Xander's reaction.
With a snarl of, "That's it!," the carpenter forcefully thrust out his arm and with incredible ease, ripped through the puffy suit. Balling his hand into a fist, he swung viciously and caught the Junior squarely on the jaw, lifting her off her feet. With a tiny groan, Hazel landed heavily in a rack of weights and fell to the ground, where she lay apparently unconscious. Before he could wreak any more damage, Faith sprang into action. Seizing Xander's arm, she twisted it behind his back. Operating one-handedly, the Slayer did an excellent job of restraining the carpenter but it was obviously only a matter of time before he broke free and the struggle for power was not destined to be a long one – although, for the moment, Faith was the victor.
In the meantime, the remainder of the Juniors had rushed to Hazel.
"She okay?" puffed Faith, jerking Xander's arm higher.
One of them nodded and shot the Senior Slayer a quick glance. "She's starting to come around."
Faith indicated the exit with her chin. "Get the doc up here, I want her checked out." She stood on tiptoe and gritted in the carpenter's ear. "Okay, what the hell's goin' on?"
Xander ceased his struggling for a second and shrugged as well as possible. "She was irritating me."
"So you thought you'd act like Superman the Wife Beater?" queried an angry Faith. "An' how'd you bust outta this suit?"
"Don't know," admitted the carpenter casually. He regarded Faith contemptuously over his shoulder and pulled his arm from her grip. "Don't much care, either," he added in the same tone before unzipping the remainder of the puffy suit and tossing it aside. He strode purposefully toward the door.
"Hey!" yelled Faith at Xander's retreating back. "You coulda really hurt Hazel!"
The carpenter paused and turned to face the Slayer. "Then I guess next time she'll get it right first try." A small mirthless grin formed on his lips as he left the room.
Faith dug in her pocket and whipped out a cell phone, swiftly punching numbers. She tapped her foot impatiently as she waited for a response.
"Hey, Oxford?" She glanced over at Hazel who was now sitting up and gingerly probing at her jawbone. "Think we got a problem ..."
"You'd think there'd be more paperwork," remarked Tara, unable to keep the frown out of her voice.
Tara sat half on the left-hand cushion of the couch and half on the middle as she leaned over to peer at the screen of the computer balanced on Willow's lap. The redhead's eyes stole the occasional furtive peek at Tara, obviously delighted by the other woman's close proximity but managing to maintain a cool façade.
"Well before Sunnydale became Craterdale, there woulda been," Willow explained. "But the paper part of the paperwork was in some clerk's office, an' that's pretty much non-existent now. These days, people stick more to digital anyway. Which is, you know, an open-doored Nirvana to little hackers like me." Grinning, she wiggled her fingers in the air, then executed a few more keystrokes. "And there we go."
With an air of satisfied completeness, Willow sat back against the couch and both women considered the open database displayed on the laptop screen. The header read "Vital Records, Sunnydale, CA" with the sub-header of "May 2002". One row in particular had been highlighted: "Maclay, Tara L. DOB: 10/16/1980 DOD: 5/7/2002". Several options underneath the selection offered the user the opportunity to choose – among other items – a coroner's report, police report, and death certificate. All had been highlighted, but none were open.
Willow glanced to Tara and twisted the laptop toward the blonde. "You wanna do the honors?" she asked with a gentle smile.
Reaching out slowly, Tara's finger hovered over the delete key for a minute, but was then retracted. "I dunno. It just feels ... wrong."
"Wrong?" echoed Willow, sitting up straighter. "Tara, the only thing wrong here is the fact that these stupid documents had to be made in the first place. We're putting it right, making it the way it should be." Holding Tara's hand between both of hers, Willow locked her eyes with the blonde. "You. Here. Alive. The way it should be." Her tone grew firm and resolute, her words etched in stone. "And nobody will be able to say otherwise."
The smile she received was heavy and seemingly burdened but genuine; still though, Tara slowly pulled her hand free. Willow didn't try to stop the action nor did she choose to dwell on it, instead returning their focus to the laptop. "Now c'mon," she encouraged with a charming, full-toothed smile. "Exercise the power of the Internet, and laugh at a state that hasn't bothered to significantly upgrade its security in ten years."
Nudging the computer just slightly toward the blonde, Willow waited with barely contained excitement. There was just another second or two of hesitation, then Tara's finger shot out and decisively punched the delete key. A progress bar suddenly appeared and quickly filled as they watched with anticipation. Soon it flashed the message, "Files Deleted".
"Whoo-hoo!" crowed Willow, pumping her fist in the air and beaming at Tara.
"I feel so ... so ... Matthew Broderick," Tara decided with a grin. "You know, from Wargames?"
Nodding her complete agreement, the redhead added, "Only without all the nuclear holocaust, and much less tic-tac-toe."
Their enthusiasm was infectious and each woman fed off of the other like a field of dry grass before a wildfire. In that moment, it seemed as though the past few years and countless hardships slipped away, leaving only old feelings and precious memories. But it was fleeting at best, and Tara quickly appeared uncomfortable. She looked away, shattering the moment.
Unwilling to let it so quickly disappear, Willow pretended not to notice the abrupt change and instead turned the laptop back toward herself. "Okay," she continued in an upbeat tone, "so I'm thinkin' next up on our to-do list is gettin' copies if your college transcripts, so you can maybe re-enroll in the fall? You, uh ... you didn't get to ... take finals that year, so I-I'm not sure how they marked ... that." The redhead faltered for just a brief moment and then quickly recovered. "But no problem! We'll find out, and if it's something bad, we'll just fix it."
Turning back to the computer, Willow began typing away at full speed. Like a month irresistibly drawn to a flame, Tara seemed unable to keep from leaning over and watching the hacker at work, and Willow's face split into another wide grin at the nearness. "Hey, we can even maybe see about fixin' up a few things?" Willow suggested, waggling her eyebrows for emphasis.
Tara brought her hand to her chest with an exaggerated gasp. "Willow! Are you actually suggesting that we be less than 100% honest with my grades?"
"No! No, of course— Well yeah, okay, maybe just a little." The blonde shot her an incredulous look, but Willow could only grin in response and nudge Tara with her shoulder. "C'mon! Wasn't there ever at least one grade that you just know was completely unfair?"
Crossed arms seemed to bring that line of conversation to a screeching halt. "No, we absolutely can't do this. It's immoral and it's wrong and no."
"No, no, you're right," Willow readily agreed, turning back to the screen with a disapproving frown. "Wrong. Completely wrong. I metaphorically slap my wrist for even mentioning it." As her tapping resumed, she grinned and watched Tara from the corner of her eye.
The blonde was deep in thought. "Though you know," she drawled, "there was that one project ... for Professor Ashmore?"
"You worked really, really hard on it ..." nodded Willow sympathetically.
A line appeared between Tara's brows, the faintest hint of irritation. "... and she still gave me a 'B' ..."
"... brought down your whole grade in the class. Oh, and remember Francine Sloane?"
"She bragged for the rest of the term about how her project only took her one night – a night of no small amount of drunken revelry – and she got an 'A'." The faint irritation had become a full-blown case.
Willow sighed and shook her head ruefully. "Such a travesty."
All negativity vanished as Tara grinned at the redhead. "You—" she poked Willow in the shoulder "—are a temptress."
"Just wait until we get to your math classes," responded Willow in a low, alluring tone.
Again they both began to laugh, but as Tara glanced up, she spotted Buffy standing in the doorway. Despite the fact that the Slayer was leaning against the wooden frame, her posture was anything but relaxed. With crossed arms and a thin, narrow stare, it was only too painfully obvious Buffy was not happy. Not in the least.
Her presence in the room immediately caused Tara's own demeanor to slip, and the light, playful atmosphere from mere moments before evaporated. For just a heartbeat, their gazes locked, but Tara quickly averted her eyes.
Seemingly oblivious to all but her own good mood, Willow continued working on the laptop. "So after this," she bubbled, "how about we see what we need to getcha some official, 'Hi, I'm Tara!' ID...?"
"We have to do something."
Giles glanced up – the phone clenched in his hand and his finger poised in the middle of dialing – to behold Buffy stomping into his office, her face like thunder. "Buffy! How serendipitous. I was just about to ring you," he informed her, gesturing with the handset.
The Slayer wasn't interested. "Keep your dippity-doos," she dismissed, "we don't have time for that."
Her turn of phrase earned a frown, but Giles chose not to pursue it as he returned the phone to the cradle. "No, I suppose not. We need to—"
"We need to find out what it is," Buffy interrupted, her tone decisive as a general planning a final assault.
To his credit, Giles tried his best to figure out where she was coming from all on his own, but it was futile. "I'm sorry?"
"The thing," she explained unhelpfully. "The thing in my house cozying up to my best friend. The thing that keeps making these friggin' homemade breakfasts. It's evil and it's dangerous and I want to know what it is."
Nodding his head, the Watcher mouthed a silent 'Ah' as he moved around to perch on the corner of his desk. "Well that's something of the real problem, isn't it? I mean, we can always force Tara—"
Buffy glared. Hard.
"—or- or the ... the 'thing', as you say, that looks like Tara," Giles hastily backpedaled. "We can always force her to submit to- to examinations, but ..."
"But...?" the blonde prompted impatiently.
Fishing out a handkerchief from his back pocket, Giles tugged off his glasses and began to clean them. "Well I'd say that's distasteful at best, wouldn't you? I mean, have you actually sat down and had a talk with her?" With his unaided vision, Buffy's blurry scowl was easy to ignore. "The similarities are ... quite convincing." His task complete, Giles stuffed the cloth back into his pocket and regarded his Slayer carefully. "I would really rather we get her cooperation before succumbing to more drastic measures."
"Don't tell me she's got you fooled too."
"Far from it," he refuted, moving back behind the desk and sorting through the mess of papers strewn across its surface. "However I'm also prepared to consider all possibilities." He glanced up, regarding Buffy from over the rim of his glasses. "Something, which I must confess, in your ... rather agitated state, you seem reluctant to do."
"Agitated?" she echoed, tossing her hands into the air in frustration. "Yeah, you could say that. Giles, every second Willow spends with this Attack of the Clones wannabe is one second more that she gets totally sucked in! I mean, you should've seen it. I just spent ten minutes watching them, and Willow's acting like ... like ..."
"Like Tara's back."
Buffy jabbed her finger at Giles. "Exactly! And that—" Cutting herself off, Buffy rubbed her aching forehead. When she spoke next, her anger had given way to concern and more than a little sadness. "Giles, it's gonna break her when we find out what it really is. We just got mostly-whole Willow back." The Slayer threw him beseeching look, appearing almost to beg him to make everything okay. "I don't want to lose her again."
Once more the Watcher stepped around the desk, this time moving next to Buffy and placing a comforting hand on her shoulder. "I know. I understand. And we will get to the bottom of this, whatever it takes."
Searching his eyes, Buffy seemed to find enough reassurance, and she nodded, relaxing considerably. "So, where do we get started?" She gazed around the room expectantly, as though the answers were simply waiting there for her to find them. "Point me at a book, I'm all geared up for being Book Girl."
"Well, we don't. Not yet."
"But I was all geared up and stuff." Buffy's bottom lip was sticking out in definite pout formation.
"Yes, and believe me, I'm marking the day down in my calendar," responded Giles dryly. "But we have an issue at hand that's rather more pressing."
Buffy raised a skeptical eyebrow.
"It appears that Hazel has received an unscheduled stay in the infirmary. Mild concussion."
That got the Slayer's attention. "The wicked strong first-person plural girl?" she asked, in possibly the most convoluted way possible.
"No, no, not our attacker," replied Giles, his face grim. "Though I suspect you'll never guess who it was."
In the dining room of Slayer Central, Xander sat alone at one of the smaller tables, a plate of spaghetti and meatballs in front of him. Absentmindedly, he twirled the pasta around his fork and then untwirled it again until it landed with a plop back on the plate. Holding the utensil in the air, he turned it back and forth, regarding it with great interest. The room was, for the most part, rather empty except for a couple of groups of girls chatting animatedly at some of the other tables and three Juniors sitting close to the carpenter. They had commandeered a nearby table and, obviously under orders to seek out and maintain a good vantage point, were trying in an unobtrusive fashion to keep tabs on Xander. To the informed eye, their purpose would probably have been all too apparent, given the furtive glances being constantly cast upon the carpenter, coupled with the air of apprehension and devotion to duty that surrounded the trio. But Xander was blissfully unaware of the scrutiny as he continued to ponder the fascinating merits of pronged silverware.
From the area of the kitchen, Kennedy emerged bearing a huge sub sandwich. Surveying the room, she spied Xander sitting by himself and sauntered toward him.
"Hey," she greeted, putting her sandwich on the table and pulling out a chair.
The carpenter declined to reply, simply nodding and then grunting an indecipherable acknowledgment. The lack of enthusiasm didn't seem to discourage Kennedy as she sat down and critically examined her sandwich.
"I wonder why they call it a 'hero'," she mused. "I don't see much particularly heroic about it, do you? Besides just the stones needed to mix no less than seven different kinds of pork."
With a shrug, Kennedy took a huge bite and began to chew. She glanced at Xander's plate of mangled spaghetti and then at the carpenter himself. "Not hungry?" she mumbled through a mouthful of bread.
"Had a big breakfast," was the surly response.
Kennedy licked a smear of mustard from her finger. "Whole box of Eggos?"
Xander gave a curt nod. "Something like that."
"Cool," replied Kennedy, seemingly oblivious to the carpenter's sour attitude. "So what's up? Will doesn't have classes today, and Buffy's in the clear for another day or two because of her foot ... Figured you three musketeers would be ... musketeering."
Xander stabbed brutally at an innocent meatball. "I couldn't take the yelling anymore. I figured anywhere else was better." He waved the impaled sauce-sodden glob of meat at the room in general. "Even here," he sneered.
"Yelling, huh?" questioned Kennedy taking another bite. "What happened, someone machine-wash another of Buffy's 'dry clean only' shirts?"
"Nah," replied Xander, shaking his fork until the meatball found a home within a mound of spaghetti on the plate. "It's just been crazy since Tara came back. Buffy and Willow just will not shut—"
Kennedy tried valiantly to swallow the half-chewed portion of sandwich in her mouth and nearly choked in the process. "What? Wait, what?" she spluttered.
"Buffy. Willow," reiterated an irritated Xander. "Screeching like harpies."
"Tara's back?" the Slayer repeated as though she couldn't possibly have heard correctly.
Xander nodded nonchalantly. "Then there's that."
Kennedy was clearly stunned by the news. "Tara. Willow's Tara."
The carpenter regarded his warped reflection in the handle of the fork. "Uh-huh," he confirmed in a bored tone.
"Willow's precious 'so good she should be sainted' Tara."
"Yup," Xander affirmed with equal disinterest.
"Willow's dead Tara," continued an incredulous Kennedy.
A frown of irritation creased the carpenter's forehead. "Yes," he snapped. "The Tara you think it is, that Tara."
Kennedy swiveled in her chair and addressed Xander as though he were a very simple child. "But she's dead."
"Apparently that doesn't really mean as much as it used to." Xander shrugged in dismissal.
"But how? Why now?" Her grip on the sandwich was becoming so tight it began to fall to pieces in her hands. Wrinkling her nose in disgust at what was now a totally unappealing hunk of bread and meat, Kennedy dropped it on the tabletop.
"Which brings us back to the screeching part," sighed the carpenter. "Tara won't exactly say and Willow won't push, which means Buffy's got her Slayertude on at full force. Buffy's convinced that Tara's really some evil demon creature thing sent to kill Willow."
Kennedy body snapped to attention. "Creature, sent to ..."
Without uttering another word, she sprang to her feet and, with great purpose, marched out of the room – a woman with an urgent mission. Xander watched her for a mere split second and then immediately lost interest in the entire scenario. He focused his attention once more on the captivating fork. Raising it to eye level, he tilted his head and closely examined the now twisted tines. Holding it between his thumb and forefinger, he applied pressure until the handle bent toward itself forming an upside-down 'U'. He studied the mutilated utensil with great interest and then gave a delighted grin.
"That," he stated with much satisfaction, "is very cool."
Willow seemed insistent upon maintaining her light and cheerful mood from earlier, clutching it with both hands and refusing to let go. She followed a much more sedate Tara down the stairs, chatting happily all the while. "I'm thinking maybe something in a nice light blue? To compliment your eyes?"
The redhead couldn't see it from her vantage point, but Tara's smirk was audible. "It's a room, Will, not a blouse."
"No, no, I know," she agreed, taking an extra large hop at the final step to land in the foyer. "Just thinkin', blue's good. Or-or orange. Or green, or ... whatever you want."
Together, they made their way into the kitchen and the blonde crossed to the refrigerator, tugging the door open and peering inside. "I just think it's a little early to be redecorating," she explained, her voice muffled slightly as her head all but disappeared.
Hovering nearby, Willow wrung her hands uncertainly. "Well sure, okay, only ... It's your room. And I want it to feel ..." She waved, searching for the right word. "...roomy."
"The room's fine," assured Tara with a glance over her shoulder before returning her attentions to the icebox. Her tone was somewhat disapproving. "There's not a whole lot in here."
The eye roll was almost required. "Yeah, Buffy's a pig."
"Want sandwiches then?"
The redhead nodded with excessive enthusiasm, giving the impression that she would've been just as happy had Tara suggested grilled kitten-kebabs. "Sure, sandwiches are great. Yummy. Bordering on delish, even." Slinking into a nearby stool by the center island, Willow settled back to watch the sandwich-making process.
Lettuce, tomatoes, and a block of cheese in tow, Tara emerged from the refrigerator and deposited the items opposite Willow. She glanced around with a furrowed brow, obviously searching for something, and wordlessly Willow pointed to an unobtrusive box behind the blonde. Tara smiled her thanks and retrieved a loaf of wheat bread.
As the sandwiches slowly began to take shape, Willow picked absently at a frayed edge of her long-sleeved shirt, her eyes downcast. "You know," she stated in a nervous voice that tried very hard to be casual, "if you don't like that room, you could always ... stay in mine."
The knife in Tara's hand slipped, and the thin slice of tomato she was so carefully cutting became bloated on one end. Quickly regaining her composure, she spoke kindly but firmly. "I really don't think that's—"
"Alone!" Hands came up, as though to ward off the mere suggestion of impropriety. "Oh, totally alone. Without me, I mean. Switching. We can switch rooms, in that my room would become your room, and the guest room would become my room, and i-it's cool that way." Stronger, more thoroughly convinced, she continued with confidence, "It's better, it's like we're back in college again! You know, separate dorm rooms down the hall, only it's thankfully less communal in the showering sense and has thicker walls, which can be really good when Dawn goes on one of her late night study binges."
Smiling lightly, Tara bent back to the task at hand. "The guest room's fine," she assured. "It's nice."
Willow nodded just the once, the matter seemingly settled in her mind. "Okay. But then it's not the guest room anymore – it's the Tara Room." Green eyes widened as a brilliant idea suddenly occurred. "Oo, and we can make a little sign for it and everything! With little gold stars and sparkly rainbow stickers..."
"We'll see," the blonde said indulgently as she returned to the refrigerator. "Turkey or chicken?"
A response was partway formed, but cut short by the explosive bang of the front door being hurled open, followed immediately by Kennedy bellowing, "Willow?!"
Jumping nearly a foot off the stool, the redhead leaned back to peer out of the kitchen entrance. "In here!" she called. "Geez, what's goin' on?"
In less than a second, Kennedy had rushed into the room and was standing at Willow's side. Her hair was disheveled and wind-blown, and although the Slayer was in far too good a shape to be panting, she was breathing heavily, giving the impression that she'd run the entire way to the house. Any possible physical tiredness did nothing to her mental state of being, and her eagle-like gaze swept first over Willow, assuring herself that the witch was uninjured, and then the rest of the room.
Tara stood blinking in surprise by the open refrigerator, a packet of lunchmeat dangling from each hand. Confusion was evident on the blonde's features, increasing exponentially as Kennedy's dark eyes zeroed in and locked onto her. There was no comprehension in Tara's expression, no understanding – but Kennedy knew. Recognition flared on the Slayer's face and she began to stalk forward, placing herself between Willow and the blonde as she radiated unspoken threats.
Immediately Willow was on her feet. "Kennedy, wait!"
The confusion lasted only a moment longer, then the name sank in and suddenly, Tara understood. Nodding slightly to herself, she made sure to move in very smooth, easily telegraphed gestures. She closed the refrigerator door and returned to the food-in-progress, placing the meat next to the other ingredients. That done, she looked over to Kennedy, meeting the Slayer's smoldering glare. "We were about to have lunch. Would you like something?"
"Sure. I'll take an extra-large explanation, hold the rhetoric, and a side order of what-in-the-hell."
"Kennedy ..." Willow cautioned, moving to stand by the Slayer.
Incredulous, Kennedy turned to her ex-girlfriend. "Will, what are you doing?" she asked, absurdly sounding like she'd just caught Willow sneaking an extra cookie before dinner.
Tara gestured to the spread on the countertop. "Sandwiches?" she offered with a weak half-grin.
Kennedy was not amused. "I've heard all about your story," she snapped, whirling on the blonde. "Or, rather, the fact that there conveniently is no story." She spun back to Willow. "With all the crap going down right now, how can you just trust this ..." Lacking an appropriate descriptive word, she settled for waving a hand in Tara's direction.
"I know this is hard ..."
"Hard? Try impossible. Try shouldn't be."
Willow had been handling Kennedy carefully, like an explosive that might blow up at the slightest jar. But now, her own irritations surged to the forefront and her temper became lost somewhere along the way. "Is this some sort of shared Slayer gene that prevents you all from seeing only in shades of black and slightly less-dark black? The stuff you guys fight every day, you just accept it, no problem. But suddenly something good happens that, yes, is a little on the wonky side, but you- you don't even wait to find out what's goin' on, you immediately assume it's bad!"
"Because it usually is!" retorted Kennedy. The 'and you know it' was unspoken, but very much implied.
"Look, this hasn't been a- a pleasant stroll in the park for me either, y'know? I mean, hello!" Willow tossed her arm out, and the motion brought the redhead back into visual contact with Tara. Throughout everything, Tara had remained silent, simply standing back and quietly observing. Her calm presence acted as a soothing balm for Willow's frustrations. Despite everything, she found herself smiling as she turned back to Kennedy. "It's her," she confirmed with quiet assurance. "I just know it. I can feel it."
The change in Willow's attitude was obvious, and Kennedy's was suddenly struck by an unpleasant realization. "She's already sucked you in, hasn't she?" the Slayer stated in a flat, matter-of-fact tone. "I mean, just like that, she walks in the door and you're—"
With a pained expression, Willow laid a gentle hand on the other woman's arm. "It's not that simple. It's ... We'll talk later, okay?"
Like someone opening a dam, anger flooded the Slayer. "Sure. Later. Later, when this thing's put a knife in your back or something." Imploringly, Kennedy grasped the redhead by her shoulders, unable to completely resist giving her a slight shake, as though it would somehow make her see reason. "Will, this is the perfect way to get to you, don't you see that?"
Willow's response was tender but firm as she reached up and pried the brunette's hands away, holding them in her own. "Later. She can't hurt me unless I let her, you know that. I'll be fine."
For a long moment, Kennedy simply held Willow's eyes, but she eventually relented, albeit reluctantly. "Fine," she sighed, then turned to the blonde behind her, affixing Tara with a glare usually reserved for demons and vampires. "You so much as even think about hurting her," snarled the Slayer, "– any kind of hurt – and I swear, you will regret the day you decided to reclaim that face."
Tara stared into Kennedy's unflinching, unyielding gaze, absorbing the words. Then she nodded her understanding.
This seemed good enough, and Kennedy's entire focus returned to Willow. "I'm holding you to later," she promised, and then dropped her voice down low as she stepped closer to the redhead, peering at her intently as they stood mere inches apart. "I don't like this. On so many levels I've lost count. But ... be careful. Please."
Accepting Willow's nod, Kennedy shot Tara a final intimidating look over her shoulder and exited the house as suddenly as she had entered.
It seemed almost as though the Slayer had taken all the air with her, and an awkward silence blanketed the room. "So," Tara finally broached, rubbing her arms subconsciously. "That was Kennedy, huh? She's ... fiery."
"She's a good person," replied Willow, then she smirked. "Kinda like a badger on PCP sometimes, but her heart's in the right place."
"I can tell." The blonde's gaze dropped and she seemed to find the lettuce absolutely fascinating. "She loves you very much," she softly observed.
There was nothing judgmental in the statement, but Willow shuffled uncomfortably from one foot to the next. "We ... I mean ..."
"I-It's okay. You already told me. About ... you two. Seeing her, though, that's ..." Trailing off, Tara took a deep breath. "So, was that turkey or chicken?"
Unprepared to simply let it go at that, Willow went to the other woman, ducking her head to catch Tara's eyes as they darted away. "Hey ... Are you freaked?"
With a tiny shrug, she admitted, "A little. But it's okay." Straightening, she flashed the redhead a smile, filled with sincerity. "I'm glad you had someone. Really."
"Do you wanna talk about it?" Willow lightly inquired.
Tara mulled over the question. "Later," she finally replied with a nod.
"Wow, 'later''s gonna be pretty busy," concluded Willow, boosting her tone back into upbeat mode. "Better make sure my schedule's clear. Now," she clapped her hands together, "how about the appropriate drinks to compliment this fine meal? I think Dawn decided to experiment by mixing three or four vastly different Kool-Aid flavors, feel daring?"
Willow's efforts earned her a grin that she was compelled to return.
Buffy and Giles moved at a brisk pace through the halls of Slayer Central. Buffy's limp had all but disappeared now and seemed to be giving her next to no trouble. They soon arrived at the training room where Faith was waiting for them.
"'Bout time," she snapped. "What'd you do, give her the Pictionary version?"
With a small sigh, the Watcher chose to ignore the jibe. "Where is he now?"
"Got a few girls tailin' him, they'll ..." Faith paused and frowned at the approaching three figures, "be comin' this way without the X-Man in sight." With a determined stomp, she moved toward the cowed trio of Juniors. "What the hell are you doin' here? I told you to stick to him like glue. This ain't glue. This is some generic Elmer's crap."
"We ... Uh, we ..." began the first Junior, glancing quickly at the girl following close behind. "It's Richelle's fault."
"What?!" demanded the offended Richelle.
"Oh, yeah," added the third Junior. "Richelle's fault, totally."
Richelle gritted her teeth. "Oh, you two are so gonna get it."
"Well they'll have to wait their turn," promised Faith. "Now what the hell happened?"
Richelle clasped her hands behind her back and hung her head. "Andrew came over and started saying how Darkman was Sam Raimi's best movie," she offered reluctantly. Bitterly, she added, "I mean, hello? Evil Dead?"
"Niiiice," murmured Buffy rolling her eyes.
Faith jabbed a thumb over her shoulder toward the blonde Slayer. "Now you've given that one somethin' to use against me," she stated threateningly.
"Oh don't worry," Buffy cheerfully assured. "I had plenty."
"Okay," Faith grudgingly admitted, "somethin' else to use against me. Rapidly shootin' past 'not happy', ladies. What else you got for me?"
The first two Juniors looked toward the third. She nervously cleared her throat. "He was in the cafeteria, not really doing much. He was talking to Kennedy, then ..." Drifting off, the Slayer let her hand flap back and forth.
Clearly irritated, Faith tapped her foot. "Uh-huh."
"Have you seen Darkman?" Richelle persisted in a lame fashion.
The trio of Juniors took a defensive step backward as Faith glowered. "Here's what's gonna happen," she told them firmly. "You three are gonna go to your dorm rooms an' you're gonna stay there until I come get you. Then we're all gonna learn what it means to stick to an assignment and not get distracted by stupid crap. Got it?"
In unison, they nodded gloomily.
"Then why do I still see you here?" asked Faith, her tone deceptively calm.
No further hint was needed. They immediately took to their heels. Spinning around, Faith jabbed a finger at Buffy. "Not a word," she warned.
Buffy regarded her with wide eyes. "Not at all."
Faith returned the blonde's innocuous gaze with a menacing glare for a moment, but Buffy was the perfect picture of innocence. The dark Slayer then turned to Giles but before she could utter a word, Buffy opened her mouth.
"Personally, I liked Army of Darkness," she stated with conviction and then, before Faith could provide any type of comeback, the blonde fixed her attention on the Watcher. "So Giles, what's going on? Besides Xander rather uncharacteristically demonstrating male PMS, last I checked, he couldn't fling Slayers around like ... easy flinging things."
Giles thrust his hands into his pockets and looked nervously from Buffy to Faith and then back to Buffy again. "I'm not certain," he began hesitantly. "I suppose research is our best course of action."
The two Slayers immediately recoiled, as though the Watcher were infected with some contagious disease.
"Sounds good," confirmed Buffy taking an additional step backward.
"Yeah," Faith agreed, following Buffy's lead. "Good luck with that."
"We'll just go find Xander," continued the blonde. "Clean up Faith's girls' mess."
And with that, they both turned and headed down the hall.
"Just had to get the last dig in, didn'tcha?" Faith niggled as they walked away.
Buffy pouted. "Ahh, I'm having a bad day."
Giles watched them walk away, muttering darkly at each other as they went. With a huff of exasperation, he rubbed a hand across his forehead before disappearing in the opposite direction.
As Dawn rounded the stairs leading to the second floor of her home, the first thing she noticed was that the ladder to the attic had been pulled down, leaving a gaping hole in the ceiling. She raised a quizzical eyebrow until Tara emerged from the guest room with a box in her arms.
"Moving in for good, huh?" Dawn smiled.
"Oh, hey Dawnie," replied Tara, peering over the top of the box.
Willow's head suddenly poked down from the attic. "Hey," she greeted cheerfully, disappearing again after the teenager wiggled her fingers in response.
Still waiting for an answer, Dawn eyed the box, prompting a response. "Moving in, yeah," Tara confirmed, shifting the armload into a more comfortable position. "Though I don't have much ... so I guess it's more like moving sideways."
The redhead reemerged at that point, and Tara handed the box up to her, holding her arms in position to catch it, just in case, until it had been safely dragged out of sight.
"Well whatever you call it, I'm in complete support," stated Dawn with a decisive nod of her head. Casting her eyes toward the attic, making sure Willow wasn't visible, the teenager edged closer to Tara. "Though I guess I sort of figured you and Willow ..."
Tara's expression fell, but just for a moment. "That's ... It's complicated."
"I get that. And you know, it's okay." On an impulse, as though her arms had suddenly developed a mind of their own, she hugged the blonde tightly. "You're back again! And just in time for term paper season!"
That earned her a hearty chuckle, although as Willow descended the steps, she regarded Dawn indignantly. "I see how it is," she accused in a faux wounded tone. "Use up my math and science and just toss me aside." Reaching the bottom of the ladder, she sniffed haughtily and jutted out her chin. "Fine. I'll remember this next time you have trig homework, missy."
Rather than panic and rush to soothe things over, Dawn smiled her most hopeful smile. "Actually there's something I need your help with now. Both of you. It's really important," she emphasized.
"Sure, of course," Tara responded instantly. Laying her hand on Dawn's arm, she led the teenager into the room previously billed as 'guest'. It was almost starkly bare, the boxes that had simply been left there out of laziness over the past several months had been mostly relocated, and a set of clean, folded sheets and blankets rested on top of the bed, ready for use. Tara sat down on the edge of the bed and patted the space next to her invitingly. It was all the encouragement Dawn needed, and she dropped down, bouncing once on the mattress.
Willow joined them, leaning back against the nearby wall. "What's up?"
Steeling herself, Dawn took a deep breath. "Okay, so you know how I mentioned I wanted to ask Grip to Buffy's birthday party, right?"
Tara nodded. "Right ..."
Dawn tossed her hands out, like her words had been presented to those assembled. "So that's the problem."
"He turned you down?" a disbelieving Willow asked.
"Oh, sweetie ..." Tara draped her arm over the teenager's shoulders, rubbing them comfortingly. "You'll find someone else."
Willow was in complete and total agreement. "Someone better. Someone with ... taste!" Considering for a moment, she added, "And- And a normal hair color!"
"'Normal' hair?" The blonde's eyebrow twitched upwards. "What color is it now?"
Glancing from one woman to the next, Dawn dragged out, "Not really the issue, guys ..."
Willow mouthed the word "blue" at Tara, causing the eyebrow to scale further upward, but Dawn quickly reclaimed their attention. "I didn't ask," she confessed.
"He turned you down without you even asking?" The redhead's indignity on Dawn's behalf knew no bounds. "Pfft. Rude much?"
"You haven't asked him yet?" prompted Tara.
"No," the teenager replied simply, though she soon degenerated into a full-blown pout. "I mean, I keep trying, but it's, like, every time I get up the nerve, I've got a two-second window, then it fizzles and dies, and I'm just sort of standing there."
The look on Willow's face said she knew only too well where Dawn was coming from. "Empathizing, right here."
"He can't say 'yes' if you don't ask him," Tara pointed out.
"And he can't say 'no', either," insisted Dawn. "What if he did? What if I finally ask him and he just stares at me like I'm just some stupid kid?" Her anguish at this hypothetical scenario was only too evident.
Willow gave a little self-effacing smile and shrugged, seeming to already accept that her answer was going to sound lame to the frazzled teen. "That's the risk you take sometimes. There's a chance for bad, sure, but ..."
"But sometimes you have to go through the bad stuff," Tara picked up smoothly. "It's the only way the good stuff has any meaning, you know?"
Dawn huffed, her shoulders slumping in defeat. "I'm just a big chicken."
Quick to try and dispel any negativity, Tara gave her a reassuring squeeze. "No, no. Not big. Tiny. You're a very tiny chicken."
"A cute little fuzzy yellow chickie. And you know how irresistible those are," Willow noted knowledgably.
Despite herself, Dawn found a smile forming. "Okay. I'll ask him tomorrow." Off of the witches' look, she amended, "Or possibly tonight."
"There you go," agreed Tara supportively. She made an arc in the air with her hand. "Dive through that two-second window."
Keen not to be left out, Willow eagerly contributed, "Yeah, and if he turns you down, we'll sic a Slayer on 'im!" Dawn and Tara turned to regard the redhead skeptically. "C'mon, it's the perfect plan! What self-respecting 17-year old boy is gonna admit he was beaten up by a little girl?"
Without warning, Dawn erupted into a broad grin and she wriggled happily next to Tara, unable to fully contain herself. "I'm so glad I talked to you guys. I was gonna go to Xander at first. This was much better."
"Xander?" Willow sounded surprised. "Why Xander?"
"Oh, well, I figured ..." She shrugged. "You know, he'd maybe be a bit more up on asking guys out. ...Not like that!" she hastened to add in light of the bemused expression on both women's faces. "I mean, you know, being a guy and all."
The redhead openly scoffed. "The closest Xander ever got to being asked out involved Anya and ... and a story he can tell you when you're older." Willow cleared her throat nervously and glanced away, a blush appearing on her cheeks.
Dawn chose not to dwell on the untold tale. "Anyway, I haven't seen him since this morning, and he was acting pretty out of it last night."
"Out of it?" inquired Tara with concern. "How so?"
"Just sort of ... I dunno. Almost ... mean. Like he didn't really care about much of anything, and just talking was this huge pain."
"That doesn't sound like Xander," frowned Tara, glancing over to Willow.
"No, it doesn't," she agreed. "Hm." Any further speculation was cut off by the faint but prominent strains of a digitized "Rule Britannia" coming from Willow's room. The redhead rushed out to answer her phone, leaving Dawn and Tara to puzzle over this new development.
"It's probably something evil," the teenager concluded pragmatically.
"Maybe it was just a bad day?" suggested Tara. "Things have been kinda stressy lately."
"Maybe." After a moment, she added, "Probably not, though."
Tara's expression was somewhere between amused and perplexed. "When did you get all cynical?"
Rolling her eyes, Dawn replied, "C'mon. I'm, like, a thousand-thousand years old."
"And yet you're afraid to ask a boy to a party."
"I'm cynical, yet wimpy?"
At that point, Willow appeared in the doorway, cell phone pressed to her ear. "Uh-huh ..." she spoke into it, listening intently. "Uh-huh ... huh ... okay." She snapped the phone closed and regarded the others. "Something evil's happened to Xander," she announced without preamble.
Dawn thrust her finger at Tara, victory shining in her eyes. "Ah-ha!"
The pace Buffy was setting as she all but ran through the halls of Slayer Central seemed to make it impossible for her to notice anything. Such was not the case however, as her head was in constant motion, checking down corridors and in empty rooms in her relentless search.
As she passed by one of the windows that faced the front of the building, she spied her target. Running now, she quickly burst into the main entrance hall and threw open one of the oversized double doors. "Xander!" she called immediately as she jogged outside.
The carpenter was several yards from the front steps when the voice reached him. Although accompanied by a sigh and eye roll that to incidate boredom, he did stop and start to backtrack. He had moved only a short distance before Buffy joined him and, guiding him by the elbow, began to direct him toward the building. He raised his eyebrow at her hand on him, but seemed content for the moment to let it linger.
"Are you okay?" asked Buffy as she all but dragged Xander along.
"Fine," he responded tersely. "Never better."
Pushing the door all the way open, she led him inside, finally coming to a halt in the empty foyer and releasing her hold on his elbow. She spun around to face him, concern warring with aggravation. "You wanna tell me what's going on?"
"You brought me here, how should I know?" he shot back.
The Slayer had clearly reached her limit and decided on the direct route. "Okay, fine. You know you put Hazel in the infirmary? You could've really hurt her!"
"Did I?" inquired Xander, though he didn't seem to particularly care what the answer would be.
"Nooo, that would be the 'could have' portion of our program."
"Then what's the big deal?" he shrugged. Not bothering to wait for a response, the carpenter moved toward the exit.
Buffy's hand lashed out and tightly grabbed his arm. "Okay, I don't have the time or patience for this right now. What is wrong?" she demanded, giving him a shake.
"How about you bein' Miss Grabby Hands, for a start?" he rejoined. Xander tried to yank his arm away, but found the Slayer's grip to be too strong. "Let go." It wasn't a request.
"No. Not until you tell me what's going on. You're acting like a first-class jerk," Buffy told him almost confidentially, like this was a big secret that absolutely could not get out.
"Oh, so now you wanna listen? Well sorry, 'Buff'." The odd emphasis he placed on his nickname for the Slayer made it sound like a dirty word. "I suddenly find myself with nothing to say to you." Once again, Xander tried to twist out of her grasp, but it was too strong. "Now let go."
Ignoring the demand, Buffy considered Xander's statement. "Is this about...?" she began, then her expression softened, though her grip did not. "Look, Xand, I'm sorry about that. This whole Willow thing, it's making me crazy. I know I'm coming off kinda ..." She sighed heavily and regarded him with an expression that, had Xander been acting normally, would have caused him to drop everything and settle in for a long session of talking that would have done the best girl-type friend in the world proud. "I just—"
But things with Xander were anything but normal. "Not. Interested." Violently, he jerked her arm back, and much to Buffy's astonishment, managed this time to break away. Like a natural-born fighter, Xander took advantage of the Slayer's complete surprise and pushed her from him as hard as he could. The blonde went flying until the wall rather jarringly stopped her short. Colliding with it face first, Buffy hit the wood paneling with a dull thud that elicited a small groan before she crumpled to the ground.
Dispassionately, Xander surveyed the prone, unmoving body of the Slayer. "Well thank god for the sound of silence. Now," he decided, clapping his hands together and rubbing them eagerly, "where's a guy gotta go to get some fun around here?"
With a purpose usually reserved for Christmas shoppers, Willow power-walked along the downtown street, slowing down only long enough to verify each shop's identity as she passed and then speeding up again. "I know it's down here somewhere. I brought him lunch one day," she called over her shoulder.
Tara and Dawn were following close behind. "Are you sure that's where it happened?" the blonde asked after double-checking the business they breezed past.
"Well not 'bet a zillion dollars' sure," confessed Willow without breaking her stride, "but pretty sure. He was fine when we spoke yesterday morning, but Dawn said he was acting strange that night. He spent the bulk of the day at The Bazaar, so whatever happened to him, it was probably there."
"Do we even know what we're looking for?" inquired Dawn, dubiously eyeing a nearby display window.
Willow pulled a face, though it was lost on those behind her. "Not so much. Hopefully we'll know it when we see it."
"And if we don't?" the teenager pressed.
"I dunno," the witch replied. "Panic, maybe?"
This was not the answer Dawn was hoping for, but before things could get out of hand, Tara smiled reassuringly. "We'll find it ... or who, or whatever. We'll fix it.'
"Here!" Willow suddenly shouted, recognizing the shop and running full-tilt for the door. Tugging it open, their entrance was heralded by several strings of cheerful but exotic-sounding bells tied to the handle.
"I'll be with you in a just a moment!" Banan's voice reached them from somewhere within the depths of The Bazaar.
Alone for now, the girls took the opportunity to catch their breath and observe their surroundings. Looking slowly from shelf to shelf, from display case to display case, it soon became painfully clear that the number of artifacts available in the shop was reading well into the multi-hundreds.
Wide-eyed and completely overwhelmed, Dawn asked, "Do we panic yet?"
"Wow," remarked Tara appreciatively. "It's like looking for a needle in ... a stack of a whole lot of needles."
"We'll never find it this way," groaned Willow. Raising her voice, she called out, "Mr. Banan?"
As though on cue, Banan emerged from the back room behind the counter, impeccably dressed in a green silk shirt and black slacks. He smiled winningly at his customers as he approached. "Yes, may I help you?"
"I'm Willow Rosenberg," greeted the redhead as she stepped forward, "a-a friend of Xander's?"
Recognition flashed across the shopkeeper's features and he extended his hand. "Ahh, yes. I've heard so much about you."
"I hate to say it, but it's probably all true," she admitted with a self-effacing grin as she accepted the handshake.
Banan turned his attentions to the other women. "And these are friends of yours?"
"Uhh, yeah." Shifting her weight from one foot to the other, Willow tried not to let her impatience show through. "Yes. This is Dawn—" She gestured to the teenager. "—and this is Tara."
Turning to the younger Summers, Banan regarded her with intense interest. "Dawn ..." His gaze lingered for just a moment before drifting to the blonde, seeming to find her equally as interesting. "...and Tara."
Just as his scrutiny threatened to become uncomfortably awkward, Banan's smile returned full-force and he spread his arms wide. "Welcome to my shop. How may I help you?"
Anxious to get to the matter at hand, Willow asked, "You last saw Xander yesterday, right?"
"Yes, that's right. He was installing some shelves I had him custom build," the owner replied, indicating the front of his store.
"Did he seem ... okay to you?"
Banan frowned at the redhead's question. "Okay? Well, yes, he seemed fine. Distressed by some friction at home, but nothing particularly abnormal. Why?"
"We were afraid he was coming down with ... the flu," answered Tara, "and we wanted to see if he'd maybe looked sick."
"That's very considerate of you," an approving Banan noted. "But no, he seemed fine. He came in, installed the shelves, helped me rearrange some inventory, then left."
"And about what time was that?" Willow asked, wanting any detail that could help them find out what was wrong with the carpenter.
"Right before closing, so ... about 7pm?"
Dawn glanced from Tara to Willow. "I saw him not long after that, he must've come straight home."
"Which means it was here," the blonde concluded.
Not quite following along, Banan questioned, "Which means what was here?"
"Well, we're ... kinda looking for ..." After a false start, Willow tried again. "See, there's this thing that ..."
As the redhead's second attempt threatened to stall, Dawn pulled through in the clinch. "Xander was telling us about how he saw something. This doohickey that he might've ... I dunno, played with or touched or whatever. Anyway, he seemed to really love it, and with his ... birthday coming up soon..."
The teenager's lie was smooth and easily bought. "A gift!" exclaimed Banan with the kind of enthusiasm possible only by those in retail. "Excellent idea!"
Extending his arm, he escorted them to the front of the shop, to items on their right where Xander had been so diligently working the day before. There were four of the custom-built shelves and two large display cases; each filled to capacity with assorted items, artifacts and curios, numbering well over a hundred in total.
Willow, Dawn and Tara met the deluge of possibilities with disheartened expressions.
Their dilemma went unnoticed by the cheerful shopkeeper. "Feel free to peruse at your leisure," he invited. "If you have any questions at all, please don't hesitate to ask." With that, and a final parting smile, Banan returned to the back room.
Several seconds passed without motion or comment by any of the girls. Transfixed, they simply continued to stare, entirely unsure of where to begin. It was Tara who finally broke the silence.
"...a whole lot of needles."
All was dark. Inky and black. Devoid of light. A blanket of total darkness – until a voice penetrated the somber veil.
"Miss Summers? You okay?"
"Maybe she's dead," a second voice ventured.
"She's not dead," yet another voice – a third one – assured.
"She could be dead," speculated the second voice. "I hear she suffers from that a lot."
"It's death, it's not a cold," sneered the third. "You can't suffer from occasional bouts of death."
"Well she does. Kinda," the second voice said defensively. This sentiment was echoed by a few other voices, too muted to be distinguishable.
"Well she's breathing," confirmed the third voice – apparently considering herself the voice of reason. "So not this time."
Within the darkness, Buffy stirred and moaned a little.
"She's coming around!" the first voice announced enthusiastically.
Buffy blinked and cautiously opened her eyes. A sea of faces assaulted her vision, indistinct and fuzzy around the edges, all peering down at her curiously. She blinked again and concentrated until everything swam into focus. The faces belonged to five Junior Slayers and judging from their positions, she was presumably lying on her back on the ground.
"Did you die again?" Buffy recognized this voice to be the one that had already offered such a suggestion.
A hand, which could safely be assumed as belonging to the voice of reason, thwapped the pessimist upside the head. A gesture that was met by a glare from the thwappee directed at the thwapper.
"What ..." groaned Buffy, trying to clear her confusion. "How long...?"
"Uhm, we don't know exactly." The owner of the first voice to penetrate the darkness smiled shyly. "We've been here for a few minutes, but ..." She quickly stepped backward as Buffy suddenly sat bolt upright.
"Xander! Giles ..." exclaimed Buffy, scrambling to her feet and sprinting from the room. She paused momentarily before heading toward Giles' office.
"You're welcome," proclaimed the indignant voice of reason to the vacant doorway.
Things at The Bazaar were no longer quite so pleasantly organized. The girls had taken great care with each item as they examined it for some sort of evidence that it was what they were looking for, but in the efforts of keeping themselves organized, the artifacts had moved from the safety of their display cases and shelves to any other available surface – predominantly the floor. The three of them stood now in the center of a knick-knack hurricane.
"I'm not sure we're going to find it like this," said Tara, casting a doubtful eye at the chaos surrounding them. "Maybe you should call Mr. Giles, see what he knows?"
"Sure as heck can't hurt." Willow pulled the cell phone from her back pocket and took a step away as she punched up the appropriate number.
Meanwhile, Dawn continued to examine the multitude of items around them. Picking up a wooden box, she cracked open the lid and jumped in surprise as light, tinny music emerged, accompanied by a tiny ceramic ballerina who began twirling on a mirrored surface. Grinning in delight, Dawn showed the music box to Tara. "Maybe he was infected with the spirit of a really temperamental dancer."
Tara wrinkled her nose as she considered the theory. "I hope not. I'm not sure I'm ready to see Xander in a tutu." The two dissolved into giggles that were quickly silenced as Willow returned, waving her hand angrily at the scattered curios.
"I'm pretty sure the answer's here," she stated into the phone, "but we're talkin' a 'buy one, get 50,000 free' sale on options here, Giles. Have you found anything?"
Giles' office appeared to have seen an explosion of books, with volumes scattered all over the spacious room. Still though, the Watcher wasn't satisfied. With the phone clamped precariously under his chin, he balanced an open text in one hand and moved toward one of the many bookcases that surrounded him. "Now that we know we're looking for an artifact of some kind," he replied, tracing his finger down the spines of the books in front of him and selecting one, "that certainly narrows the possibilities."
Her eyes drifting skeptically around the shop, Willow muttered, "If you say so."
Shifting the cell phone to his other ear, Giles poured over one of the many open books on his desktop. "I think we're looking for ... hmm." He fell silent for a moment as he read a seemingly random passage. "I assume you already checked for magickal properties?"
"First thing, both me and Tara," confirmed the witch as she stepped over a particularly fragile-looking effigy. "But just about everything in here's got at least a touch of mojo. Nothing leapt out, so we figured it probably needed something special to activate it. A- a charm or a keyword or something."
"I think we may be going about this backward. Try ..." A few pages were turned and he quickly scanned the new information. "Try the detection spell again, only this time pay close attention to the items that possess either no or very little mystical power."
Willow frowned as she continued her pacing. "Huh? But wouldn't—"
Although still unsure, the redhead relented. "Alright. Hang on a sec." She dropped the phone to her side and glanced over her shoulder toward the others. "Hey, Tara? Giles wants—"
The sentence would forever go unfinished as Banan emerged once more from the back room. "Ah, you're still here," he observed pleasantly. "How is the search...?"
As the shopkeeper stepped out from behind the counter, his question trailed off and he was able to see for the first time the state of compete and utter disarray that had enveloped the front of his store. "What is this?" he demanded, his voice rising both in pitch and volume. "My displays!"
All three girls suddenly looked guilty, as though they'd been caught snooping around in their parents' closets for Christmas presents. Dawn, being perhaps the one most accustomed to such situations, recovered first. "We're ... having trouble finding just the right thing," she explained in what she hoped was a confident, calming tone.
Willow was less calm, though she tried her best. "But everything's totally fine, Mr. Banan, promise. A-And we'll put it all back when we're done."
"Some of these items are centuries old!" Banan cried, looking aghast at the cluttered floor. "They deserve to be cherished and protected, not ... cast aside like a day-old newspaper!" For the first time, the shopkeeper seemed angry and he leveled a glare at the fidgeting redhead. "I thought I could trust you to understand and respect my treasures, but—"
"Is that a François Boucher?" Tara interrupted in a curious voice.
"—clearly you ..." Blinking in confusion, he turned to the blonde. "What did you say?"
She indicated to the picture that hung on the far wall. "The painting. It's by François Boucher, right?"
Turning around, Banan stared at it for moment as though seeing it for the first time, then he regarded Tara with pleasant surprise. "Why yes. Yes it is."
"It's very beautiful," she admired. "His 'Loves of the Gods' series is just breathtaking, don't you think?"
"Yes, it's always been among my favorites," he replied, still sounding dazed. After a second of contemplation, he considered Tara approvingly. "You have a very good eye. It's rare to find someone of your age with an appreciation for anything more than a week old."
"Oh, I don't know. I think the true classics are timeless." Moving next to the shopkeeper, the witch threaded her arm through his and, with a charming smile, began to lead him toward the picture and away from the others. "Which do you prefer," she asked in a soft, interested voice, "his paintings or tapestry designs?"
Quite absorbed now, Banan ceased paying any attention at all to Willow and Dawn who were watching the situation unfold.
"She's good," commented the teenager with admiration.
"And she used to say an art degree was worthless," grinned Willow in response. With a deep breath, she prepared to take advantage of the opportunity. "Okay, here's to hoping for a detect-y spell and not a boom-y spell. I gotta hunch it'll take more'n a chit-chat about art styles to calm him down if his collection goes poof."
Inhaling deeply again, Willow closed her eyes and let the air out slowly. She muttered a few words under her breath and then opened her eyes. "Everything's still here," she noted, sounding relieved. "Good. Great first step."
Starting on the left, the redhead narrowed her gaze and stared intently. "Okay, so the stuff without power ..." She pointed to an item and said, "Grab that one ..." Dawn snatched it quickly and set it on a now-empty shelf as Willow allowed her eyes to drift over everything. "...and that one ... and that one ..." Cocking her head to one side, the witch considered something carefully. "And that one too," she finally decided. The teenager added it to the small gathering of artifacts.
Nothing else attracting her attention, Willow whispered, "Eindig." Her eyes flared orange for a brief moment, then returned to normal. As she focused her attentions to the phone still clutched in her hand, Dawn began to examine the selected items.
"Giles? Still there?"
"Yes," the Watcher immediately replied. "Buffy's here as well. It appears she had a bit of a run-in with Xander. I think it's safe to say that his condition is not improving."
"Except in the 'Amazing Colossal Jerk' category," the blonde huffed from where she was slumped in one of the leather chairs. "Perfect tens across the board on that one after dropping the high and low score."
Pressing on with the issue at hand, Willow told him, "We've got four candidates here. The first is ..." She accepted the wooden box from Dawn and opened the lid. For a moment, she simply stared at the slowly twirling ballerina before closing the box and setting it aside. "...probably not it," was the conclusion. She took the next offered item, turning it over curiously in her hands. "This one is a kind of ... a yellowy glassy box-thing. I don't see any way to open it, though."
Furrowing his brow, Giles tried to call up any knowledge of the described item. "Hm. It doesn't ring any bells. Can you be more specific?"
Willow considered the box critically. "It's a pretty yellow?" she offered.
"What's this?" inquired Dawn, holding up the alicorn with great interest. "It looks like a big blue Bugle corn chip."
Unable to hear the teenager properly, Giles asked for clarification. "What was that?"
"The next artifact," replied Willow, holding it up and rotating it around for a better view. "It's a crystal, all blue, looks like ..."
"Like a unicorn's horn?" The Watcher was so excited he nearly dropped the book he was hastily retrieving.
Willow shrugged, despite the fact that Giles couldn't see the motion. "I was gonna say like one of those giant twisty slides at a carnival. But yeah, okay, unicorn horn."
Having found the passage he was looking for, Giles tapped it repeatedly. Buffy lifted the book, twisting it around so she could read the new information while the Watcher continued with Willow. "Excellent, I know what's happened. Quickly, you must find Xander," he urged.
At Willow's gestures, Dawn, hurriedly began to pick up everything they had moved to the floor, doing her best to rearrange them in their original displays but mostly resorting to simply putting them wherever they fit best.
"Is it gonna hurt him?" Willow asked, worrying at her bottom lip.
Giles plucked the volume out of Buffy's hands, earning him a glower that he altogether ignored. "No, not as such," he confirmed, glancing over the passage once more. "But while he's under the influence of the alicorn's power, he has next to no conscience. He is the power and his desire for the power, nothing more." Almost unconsciously, he thrust the book back into the Slayer's hands, earning him another glare that was given as much attention as the first. "It will wear off once all the energy has been expended, but he runs the risk of causing serious damage to others. He won't care about that now, but when the effects dissipate ..."
"Urg, yeah," the redhead agreed with a wince.
Wearing a much more friendly expression, Banan approached with Tara alongside. "Thanks again for letting us look around," she told him politely as she stepped away to join Willow and Dawn. "We really appreciate it."
"Think nothing of it," dismissed the shopkeeper. "Having fellow connoisseurs appreciate my collection makes it all worthwhile." He smiled easily, with no lingering traces of his earlier anger.
Clearly eager to get going, Willow and Dawn headed for the door. Tara went to follow them but cast an apologetic glance toward the displays which, although safe and secure, were obviously not left in the arrangements they had been found. "We can maybe come back tomorrow, help put everything back in the right order?"
Banan clearly appreciated the offer, but dismissed it. "Oh, that's all right. I wasn't entirely satisfied with it anyway. I'll sort it out later. But if you ever want to stop in for a chat, I'd like that very much."
Tara smiled warmly at the invitation then waved her goodbye as she joined the others, hovering on the sidewalk outside. Initially, Willow seemed unsure of where to go, but then decided to keep walking in the direction they had originally been heading. The phone had never wavered from her ear, which was just as well since Giles continued to speak.
In striking similarity, Buffy was waiting for Giles, although with considerably less patience. She stood by the open door to his office, staring at him with wide, expectant eyes as she bounced up and down on the balls of her feet. Her restlessness did nothing to help him juggle the task of keeping the cell phone in place while slipping on his coat. Still, through it all, he managed to keep talking.
"He must've somehow called upon the gift of the alicorn. It transfers a charge of its power into the wielder, but it's completely overwhelming." The Watcher grinned as he added, "Quite a rush, from what I understand." Noting Buffy's harsh look, the grin vanished and Giles pulled his other arm through the coat sleeve. Now ready, he followed after Buffy, already moving at a rapid pace. "It was thought lost for centuries, Amazing that it should end up in a curiosity shop," he mused.
"Yeah, amazing," grumbled the Slayer over her shoulder. "Can we go stop Super Xander now?"
"We rather have to find him first," Giles crisply replied.
The sound of a huge, thundering crash echoed down the phone line, causing Giles to jump in surprise. With her excellent hearing, even Buffy caught the noise and turned with a questioning expression.
Willow's voice came next through the phone. "Found him."
Buffy and Giles rounded the corner to confront a mostly empty downtown street. They quickly spotted two figures not far away and swiftly jogged toward them.
"What's going on?" the Slayer demanded as soon as she was within earshot.
"Mucho destruction, mostly," Dawn told her. Everyone visibly flinched at the sound of a huge crash. "Or, at least, that's what he's aiming for," the teenager continued. "Whatever else this power boost thing did, it sure increased his appreciation for breaking stuff."
"Willow, Kennedy and Faith are trying to keep him distracted, make him use up his power like you said, Mr. Giles," added Tara.
Buffy rapidly surveyed the area with keen eyes. "No rubber-neckers? Don't tell me people are actually getting smart and running away from the craziness."
"Not quite," Tara replied as she pointed to the mass of people some distance away. "Kennedy brought a bunch of Slayers with her and put them to work as crowd control."
Despite the pandemonium, Giles beamed his approval. "Excellent. Now all we have to do is keep Xander from hurting himself or anyone else. I can't imagine the charge will last too terribly much longer." The Watcher tilted his head to one side. "Especially not if he keeps lifting cars."
"Nice form," agreed Buffy favorably before frowning and turning to her sister. "Hey, why don't you go help the Juniors keep everyone away from here? I know how much you like bossing people around."
"Oh no way," protested the teenager, "and miss Xander swinging around a streetlamp? C'mon, I'm only gonna get to see that, what? Once, twice in my life?"
Buffy's expression became disapproving. "I don't like you being here, it's dangerous."
But Dawn was insistent. "Nah, I'm all kinds of good. Tara whipped up this nifty little barrier spell. She'll keep me safe from the big bad carpenter."
Obviously far from convinced, the Slayer's eyes narrowed as she looked to Tara.
"It's not gonna stop a building falling on us," offered the witch with a tiny smile, "but we can run fast, too."
Buffy blew out a puff of air. "I don't have time to argue. Giles...?"
The Watcher nodded his confirmation. "We'll be fine."
Although not happy with the situation, Buffy reluctantly acquiesced and sprinted toward the action. She assumed the fourth point in a square surrounding Xander just as the carpenter effortlessly picked up a full trashcan and hurled it at Willow.
The redhead thrust her hand at the rapidly approaching can. "Umsiedeln," she intoned.
The projectile shimmered for a bright moment while still in flight and then vaporized into thin air.
"You guys are a real drag," sneered Xander, curling his upper lip. "Anyone ever tell you that?"
Faith was the only one who felt obliged to respond. "New one for me, but I been called so much stuff, what's one more?" She shrugged nonchalantly which seemed to infuriate the carpenter. He took a few steps forward and threw a right hook, but she easily avoided the jab.
"Not so good when someone sees you comin', huh?" Faith taunted.
With a threatening stance, Xander's eye took on a belligerent glint, and Kennedy swiftly moved to Faith's side. The two Slayers stood shoulder-to-shoulder, ready for whatever the carpenter might have up his sleeve.
"Big comic geek like you," baited Kennedy, "I figured you'd be all up on the 'great power, great responsibility' crap."
Xander relaxed a little. "Nah, Spider-Man's a pansy," he chuckled, but the sound lacked true mirth. "I'm thinkin' the Hulk had the right idea."
And with that, he tugged violently at a bench embedded in the concrete walkway. It was something of a struggle and the strain showed visibly on his face, but the carpenter managed to wrench it free. Using the bench as a baseball bat, Xander took a mighty swing at the two Slayers, but both were able to nimbly evade the attack.
Kennedy rolled her eyes. "How much more power you think he's got?" she asked Faith, feigning a yawn. "Boredom's setting in."
With a yell of frustration, the carpenter swung again – with no more success than the initial attempt – but this time, as the bench completed its arc, it slipped from his grasp and hurtled toward where Tara, Giles and Dawn were standing.
"No!" cried Willow, but Buffy was the first to positively react, taking off without a second thought to protect the others from danger. Her immediate response, however, proved to be unnecessary.
Stepping forward, Tara positioned herself in front of Dawn and Giles. Extending her hand in much the same way as Willow had done, she muttered soundlessly under her breath and the airborne bench came to an instant stop, almost as though it had collided with a brick wall. There, it hovered briefly before dropping harmlessly to the ground several feet away. Glancing toward Buffy, Tara's eyes widened as she noticed something over the blonde's shoulder. At almost the same time, Kennedy and Faith were heard to be bellowing a warning.
"Willow!" shouted Tara, her body tensing.
Having been utterly distracted, the redhead had turned away from Xander. Now, directing her attention back to the carpenter, she saw that he had hoisted another car and was holding it high above his head. With a detestable grin, he hurled it toward her. Acting on instinct, Willow began to draw upon her magickal knowledge, but it was all too apparent that time was of the essence and the chances of her being able to complete an incantation prior to impact were virtually non-existent. In addition, the vehicle was barreling toward her at a speed that appeared to be impossible to avoid.
For a moment, Xander simply stood, the cruel and delighted grin etched on his features. But then he blinked and the mask seemed to give way to complete horror. "Will ..." he whispered in desperation. Then, running at top speed – traveling so fast that he was no more than a blur – he tackled the redhead, catching her shoulders and sending them both flying toward the ground. Spinning around in mid-air, Xander situated himself so that his back took the brunt of the fall. Almost simultaneously, the car crashed to the concrete – an explosion of jagged metal and splintered glass – in the exact spot where Willow had been standing only moments before. Bouncing along the pavement, Willow and Xander finally skidded to a stop.
Clutched to his chest in a death grip, Xander hugged Willow tightly but displayed no other signs of life. The redhead heard footsteps pounding toward them, but her concerns were solely for her best friend.
Her voice trembled as she said his name. "Xander?"
Slowly, he cracked open his eye and treated her to a feeble smile.
"This ..." he stated weakly, "has been a really weird day." He threw her another faint smile and then slumped.
The redhead loomed over him, her eyes wide and fearful. "Xander??" Her tone verged on panic.
Giles placed a comforting hand on Willow's shoulder. "It's all right," he assured her. "He's just passed out. The depletion of energies leaves the host body drained. He'll be fine after a good night's rest."
"So how much of this is his fault?" queried a curious Faith, glancing around at the property damage.
"Well none of it, in the strictest sense," the Watcher informed her. "He had no conscious control over his actions, at least not until the influence of the power had waned enough for his natural self to come to the forefront."
"Somehow I doubt that guy's gonna care much," said Kennedy, pointing down the street where an enraged man was only just being kept at bay by a couple of Junior Slayers.
The man's face was beet-red as he hopped up and down in an extremely agitated fashion. His mouth was moving rapidly and the sound of his shrieking could easily be heard although he was some distance away. "My car! That's my car!"
Giles removed his glasses and scrubbed at his eyes. His tone was weary. "Oh dear."
The following morning, Xander slowly made his way down the stairs, moving cautiously as though every muscle ached. He stopped as he entered the kitchen and was greeted almost immediately by the now-familiar sounds of an argument in-progress streaming out of the dining room. Sighing heavily, Xander hung his head in defeat, but after a moment of this his back straightened and a look of determination appeared. He took a deep breath and stomped into the room yelling, "Okay, that's enough!"
Both Willow and Buffy stopped in mid-bicker, their mouths dangling open stupidly. Striding into the room, Xander crossed first to Willow and tugged her to her feet. The redhead was so stunned she offered no resistance. Repeating the process with Buffy, he received identical results.
"We're sitting down and we're gonna talk," he informed his friends, his tone making it abundantly clear that this was not a topic open for debate. "Note I said talk. Further emphasis on talk."
Like a switch had been flipped, both women broke out of their astonished stupor and launched into loud protests, speaking over and drowning each other out.
But neither matched Xander's volume levels. "That's not talking," he asserted and then proceeded to drag them out of the dining room without further objection.
Seated in their usual chairs were Dawn and Tara, who both watched the proceedings with all the interest of a patron at dinner theater. "I guess things are back to normal," stated Tara, then she cast a glance at herself. "Well, relatively speaking," she added.
"Xander'll get them straightened out," nodded Dawn with unwavering confidence. "It's what he does." She breathed a long, thoroughly contented sigh. "Willow and Buffy will stop fighting, we have you back ... we'll be one big happy family again in no time, right?"
Considering her question to be rhetorical, Dawn beamed sunnily at the blonde then returned to her breakfast. Consequently, she completely missed the dark, uncertain shadow that stole over Tara's features.
"It's like one big happy family reunion. A few more broken bodies at the end and stuff, sure, but it's like a homecoming. Sort of gets ya right here, don'tcha think?"
Madrigan looked at Robespierre expectantly, as though the older man would enthusiastically support his observation, but no such overwhelming endorsement was forthcoming. The mage's yellow eyes darted over to Seneca, only to find the hulking man engrossed in the word search book he held in one beefy hand, its cover folded over. His other hand was propped thoughtfully under his chin while a pencil hovered magickally nearby, poised and ready to circle at a moment's notice. Madrigan sighed the sigh of the perpetually under appreciated.
"I was not ... unimpressed," Robespierre conceded with some reluctance after consideration.
"And that's the best we're gonna get outta you, isn't it?" Madrigan's complaint held a good-natured tone, but it earned him a glare nevertheless and he thrust his hands in the air defensively. "Fine, fine. But you gotta admit, taking on ... what was it? A dozen? Two dozen?"
Without eyes drifting from the word search, the pencil turned toward the others and drew a large '8' in the air. It then smoothly swooped back to the book and circled something diagonally. Seneca chewed on his thumbnail as he continued his intense concentration.
Not allowing his jovial mood to be deflated by such silly things as facts, Madrigan corrected, "Okay, eight Slayers at one time." He shrugged and waved dismissively. "It rounds up to a dozen. So yeah, eight of those little Council brats at once, including two Indian chiefs, plus all those she knocked out ahead of time ... Just sayin'—" Leaning back in his chair, the mage spread his arms wide. "—cool stuff."
Completely unaffected by Madrigan's exuberance, Robespierre's face remained stony. "When will the next be ready?" he coolly asked.
"Geez, never a rest for you Assemblage-types, is it?" asked Madrigan with an eye roll. "Always gotta push push push."
A crack appeared in Robespierre's carefully crafted demeanor, and he rubbed his forehead, fighting to maintain composure. "Madrigan, I have been waiting over thirty years to set things in motion." As he glanced up again and began to speak, a rare thing happened; an emotion other than anger or irritation appeared in the Assemblage leader's expression. A passion could be seen burning there, growing more intense with each word. "The world is heading toward an inevitable self-destruction, and every day sees it move closer and closer to a reality. What is needed is one hand to guide it – a hand of logic and order, a hand of strength and certainty, a hand of—"
"Dude, that's, like, three hands – y'only got the two," Madrigan pointed out. The mood completely shattered, Robespierre quickly defaulted back to anger, his face turning a deep crimson that only made the scar that ran down his cheek stand out all the more vividly. But before he could voice a protest, Madrigan rolled his eyes again and got down to business. "Version two-point-oh will be ready soon. Pretty sure before the world implodes," he couldn't help but add with a hint of derision.
Stiffly, Robespierre responded, "I look forward to seeing it in action." With that, he got to his feet, nodded just once to Madrigan, and swiftly strode from the room.
Madrigan watched him exit without comment, then once the other man was quite safely out of range, he turned to Seneca. "God I hate him. I will be so glad when we no longer need his scraggly 'logic and order' ass."
Seneca gestured and the book in his hands rose of its own accord, turning toward Madrigan. The pencil floated over as well, and then began to circle a word. Madrigan leaned close to see what had been marked: a thick line had been drawn around the letters forming "MACLAY".
The mage grinned broadly and sat back, looking very much like a cat that eaten a few mice and a healthy serving of goldfish along with the canary. "She's a star, no doubt," he said excitedly. "Any day now, we'll see just how bright she shines."
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