Buffy, Faith and Kennedy had commandeered one of the larger boardrooms at Slayer Central. Since only the three of them occupied it, the takeover was probably a little excessive but they didn't seem bothered by that fact. Faith in particular was thoroughly enjoying lounging in the plush, comfortable chair and had decided to prop her feet on the obviously expensive meeting table of highly polished solid maple. Grabbing one of the external microphones attached to the conference telephone, she spun it absently by the cord. Slumped in her chair, Kennedy held a yellow legal pad in one hand and a pencil in the other. With a look of absorbed concentration, she was scribbling intently. Meanwhile, Buffy, an expression of fierce determination on her face, was apparently trying very hard to make the discussion group work. However, the tapping of her foot and the drumming of her fingers clearly indicated that patience was wearing thin and tolerance was approaching its limit.
"...then I thought we could bring out those big poofy demony things. You know, the ones that look like giant Pillsbury Dough Boys?" The blonde Slayer paused and waited for confirmation that Faith and Kennedy were following her train of thought, but neither responded and a displeased Buffy frowned. "And then I thought we could dress them in tutus and whistle the theme to 'The Andy Griffith Show' while we watch them dance," she continued.
Buffy's frown deepened at the continued lack of response and she angrily snatched away Kennedy's legal pad.
"Hey!" came the indignant protest.
Scrutinizing the sheet of paper, Buffy's expression turned to one of total disbelief. She dangled the pad in front of Kennedy's nose and then presented it to Faith, who shrugged in a bored manner at the markings.
Buffy jiggled the pad at Kennedy once more. "You're playing tic-tac-toe?"
Kennedy nodded. "Yeah."
"With yourself?" queried the incredulous blonde Slayer.
"I don't like to lose," Kennedy shrugged.
With an exasperated sigh, Buffy tossed the legal pad on the table and began to pace the room. "Giles wants these new lesson plans by next week," she stated firmly. "We have got to get this done."
"All sounds stupid to me," was Faith's comment.
Buffy glowered. "If it doesn't involve beating something to death with your bare hands, everything sounds stupid to you."
Faith gave the statement due consideration. "Nah," she contradicted, "weapons're cool too."
In total frustration, Buffy threw her hands into the air.
"Look," continued an exasperated Faith. "I'm just sayin' – you got your strengths, Brat's got hers, I got mine. We got a system goin'. Why we gotta mess with that?"
"Because we have to teach them how to work together," Buffy told her, obviously trying not to totally lose her temper. "How to blend the things they learn. What happens when you run into something that you can't just pummel into submission?"
"Ain't found nothin' yet I can't make submit," Faith threw out cockily. "An' like it," she added with a meaningful waggle of her eyebrows.
Kennedy puffed. "We've been at this for hours. Can we please just take my suggestion and get the hell out of here?"
With a flick of her wrist, Faith bounced the little microphone like a yo-yo and sneered. "Your suggestion blows."
"Thank you for that valuable input," snapped Kennedy. "I don't see you offering anything besides off-color commentary."
"Don't gotta offer jack to know a crappy suggestion when I hear it," Faith retorted. "Walking on lava? The hell's that all about?"
Kennedy's eyes narrowed with irritation. "It's fire walking. Not lava walking. Nobody walks on lava."
"Oh, sure, all makes perfect sense now," scoffed Faith. "Can't see where I got 'blows' from. My bad."
"My father's had thousands of employees in his companies," Kennedy informed her, "and they all do these team-building exercises every year. He's laid out I dunno how much money to get the best people in this stuff. A million dollars can't be wrong."
"When it's spent on frickin' fire walking, I got a million different points of wrong," challenged Faith with a glare.
Half rising from her chair, Kennedy clenched her fists and Buffy quickly interceded before things could really turn nasty.
"This is getting us nowhere," insisted the blonde. Then turning to Kennedy she added, "I'm with Faith on this one. I don't see falling back into someone else's arms really hitting the point home, traditional corporate team-building whatchamacallit or not."
"Fine, then what's your brilliant suggestion?" questioned Kennedy scornfully. "You've been badgering us for an hour now. Funny how all we've gotten out of you is this micro-manage crap."
"Well at least I'm trying!" accused Buffy.
"I am too!" Kennedy shot back.
"I'm not," interjected Faith. "So can I go now?"
"No!" declared the other two Slayers vehemently.
Faith threw the microphone on the table and swung her feet to the floor. "Oxford wants this done so bad, he can do it himself," she griped. "We're Slayers, we ain't built for all this paper pushin'." She disgustedly tossed a handful of pages into the air. "An' we ain't built for tag-team."
"She's got a point," remarked Kennedy, albeit somewhat reluctantly. "Most of these girls don't even need each other for taking on the majority of the stuff they fight. Slayers were made to go solo."
"That was then. This is now," Buffy asserted. "The rules have changed ... the whole world's changed. We're not alone anymore, and we have to work together. When we don't, people die."
Without undue formality, the broken and bleeding body of an aged man dressed in flowing robes was dumped unceremoniously into the middle of a circle that had been drawn onto a wooden floor with all the artistic grace of a third-grade finger-painting. It seemed likely that blood had been the substance of choice in its creation. The circle was surrounded on all sides by numerous symbols of varying designs, and as soon as the body landed in the circle's center, the many sigla around its perimeter began to glow and sparkle. With a crackle, tendrils slivered from the painted symbols and wrapped themselves around the prostrate figure, dredging the unfortunate victim into its core. The surface shimmered brightly for a moment, then promptly faded to nothingness, leaving behind neither body nor circle.
This grizzly carcass and unsightly circle were not, it appeared, the only disturbing, distinguishing features. The walls of the rather sophisticated one-roomed cabin were lined with miniature skulls, bleached bones, assorted weapons and other dangerous – not to mention exotic – paraphernalia. It was a spacious area, big enough to house a bed, refrigerator, stove and small television set. Sunlight filtered through the windows and a vast expanse of lush greenery could be seen outside.
The cabin's now sole occupant regarded the disappearance of the body with apathy and stared for a second at the bare floor before crossing to the refrigerator. He was a tall and burly individual – approximately six and a half feet of solid muscle. Nonetheless, despite his bulk, the movement was smooth and fluid. Thick sinews extended from his feet to his near-nonexistent neck and his skin was dark, almost an ashen gray. Perhaps his most unusual feature, however, were the eyes. Totally devoid of pupils, it appeared that someone had shoved black shooter marbles into the sockets. With his hand poised over the handle of the refrigerator, he turned and sneered at the empty space previously occupied by the circle, revealing a set of humanoid teeth, but with elongated needle-like canines.
Opening the door, he glared at the interior with disdain before reaching for a can of Coke. Yawning widely, he dislocated his jaw – rather like that of a boa constrictor swallowing its quarry – and tossed the entire beverage, can and all, into his gaping mouth. Bringing his molars together with a sharp snap, he chewed noisily and then spat the crushed and drained aluminum remains onto the ground.
Tapping his foot impatiently, he scowled at the area above where the circle had formerly been until a small rift appeared in the fabric of the atmosphere and the translucent image of a winged imp hopped through fissure. Not bothering to close the refrigerator door, the beefy creature moved toward the tiny rapscallion.
"Unfortunate news," the imp told him. "Your most recent kill was only awarded four points."
This unfavorable information did little to improve the hulking brute's disposition. If anything, it seemed to make him even surlier.
"I was told he was the best warlock in this region," came the snarl. "He only lasted twenty-two minutes, and that's only if you count three minutes of begging for his miserable life." He jabbed a finger pointedly in the imp's direction. "He still should have been worth more."
"Do remember," the imp cautioned, "I am only a messenger. And speaking of which, Zolbrek of the Blohdi Clan was awarded seven points for his latest kill, an atmos viper." This comment failed to help the situation, but the imp seemed unconcerned about the impact of his statement.
With a low growl, the creature slammed his hamhock fist down on a wooden table. It shattered into a myriad of fragments, spewing a shower of splinters into the air.
"This dimension sucks," complained the strapping demon with something of a whine in his voice. "There's no worthy hunting here – the bugs in this sweltering jungle provide more challenge than my prey do."
The imp visibly smirked. "Quite the contrary," it stated matter-of-factly. "For a challenge, you only need to know where to look."
Slowly raising his head, the brute eyed the winged figure with an inquiring gaze. "Go on," he urged.
"Magicians, vampires, demonkind ..." The imp shrugged nonchalantly. "Obviously they're not of your caliber. What you need ... is a Slayer."
The demon grinned with delight, baring his sharply pointed fangs. "Slayer ..." he mused with an affirmative nod of his head. "I like the sound of that."
Story by: Jet Wolf and Ultrace
Scripted by: Jet Wolf and Ultrace
Prose by: Novareinna
Edited by: Jet Wolf and Novareinna
Original Airdate: Tuesday, 21 September 2004, 8pm EST
Buffy and Willow walked down the main hall of Slayer Central. Both appeared to be in a good mood and the atmosphere between them was friendly and light.
"Do you think we should tell him?" asked the Slayer.
"But he seemed so proud," returned a pensive Willow.
"Yeah," agreed Buffy wistfully. "Feels kinda wrong to bust that."
The redhead nodded affirmatively. "It'd be like ... like telling a puppy you bought pre-chewed shoes."
Out of the corner of her eye, Buffy shot Willow an odd look.
"Or something vaguely similar," Willow hastened to add.
The Slayer shrugged. "Well, I don't see any reason why we can't let him keep on believing it was all his doing."
"Still, being Xander and all, you think he'd've noticed we've been sort back to normal-y days ago," the redhead remarked thoughtfully. "Then we could've avoided all this marching into rooms and being shut in until—" Willow dropped her voice an octave and continued in a passable imitation of Xander. "'You two talk it out, remember that you're best friends, an' kiss-and-make-up'."
"Maybe he just wanted to shut us in a room together to see what happens," suggested Buffy.
The women walked in silence for a moment, considering that situation.
"Okay," said Willow tersely. "Disturbing implications, dropping subject."
Buffy quickly concurred. "Seconded. So how about you and Tara, how's things moving on that front?"
A small pout crossed the redhead's features. "No moving. I think the parking brake's stuck."
"She still feels bad, huh?" commiserated the blonde.
"I'm guessing so," replied Willow. "She won't really talk about it." Stopping short, the redhead laid a restraining hand on Buffy's arm. "I'm worried about her. I think she needs to let some stuff out. She shouldn't be Loner Gal on this, but i-it's like she's scared to even talk to me sometimes."
Buffy patted the encumbering fingers with sympathy. "Tara's been through a lot. From what little she's said, it sounds like it was different for her than it was for me, but still. It's pretty much the big perspective-shifting event. Plus ... she nearly killed you, Will."
"Hey, all with the not judging over here," the redhead was quick to state.
"No, and me neither," the Slayer hastily responded. She frowned, "Well, okay, a little judging, but, you know – I kinda have issues with people out to kill my best friend. It's a thing." Together, they resumed their walk. "I'm worried about her too, though," Buffy reflected.
Willow's tone was apprehensive. "Exactly. She needs to open up and let it out. I-If not with me, then with- with someone. But now with her getting her own place, she—"
"Do wha-huh?" spluttered Buffy. "Her own place?"
"Yeah." The redhead confirmed sadly. "She's going out to look for her own apartment this afternoon."
"But why?" questioned the concerned Slayer. "Did she say why?"
"Not really," admitted Willow, her stride slowing to a halt. Buffy too stopped and stared at Willow. The witch's expression was exceedingly troubled. "She's running away, Buffy. From ... me, or her, or- or 'us', whatever the heck that might be, cuz I sure don't know."
The redhead waved her hands in an ineffectual manner. When she next spoke, her voice began to break. "She hates me." She looked at Buffy, tears threatening to fall.
"Hey," insisted the Slayer. "Hey, she does not hate you. This whole mess, with the nearly-killing of you? That was so not about hate. She's just ... There's a lot of stuff going on with her right now. There's no way for us to know what happened to her, or how it changed her."
As Willow glanced away, Buffy moved to catch her eyes. "But there's one thing that hasn't changed: she loves you," the blonde assured with a definite clip of her jaw.
The redhead bit her bottom lip and threw Buffy a grateful if wavering smile. The Slayer nodded encouragingly, obviously wishing to fortify the air of hope, as doubtful as Willow might believe it to be. Then, she frowned. "But I don't like this 'moving out' thing. She really shouldn't be alone right now."
"Agreeing emphatically," stressed Willow.
"We can play the safety card?" Buffy offered as they resumed walking. "I mean, this is the second attempt on your life now, and our pyromaniac friends with the odd tattoo fetish obviously wanted Tara dead as well. That might convince her that moving out is of the bad."
"Maybe," responded the witch uncertainly. "But if she wants to ... leave, then I won't force her to stay. I want her to be happy." Willow's voice was tinged with sorrow. "Maybe she can only be happy if she's away from ... everything."
Apparently of the opinion that any answer at this point would only add fuel to the fire, Buffy simply gave Willow's shoulder a comforting squeeze and threw her a smile that radiated both support and ruefulness. The redhead tried her best to echo the proffered sentiment and seemed truly grateful for the gesture.
They came to a halt in front of a door and Buffy cocked her head. "This your stop?"
Taking a deep breath, the redhead stiffened her back. "Yup. I'm really overdue."
"It'll be fine," assured the Slayer. "Just be honest."
Willow nodded nervously and then turned her eyes to Buffy. "So what about you, what's next on your agenda?"
The blonde jerked her head over her shoulder. "I think I'm gonna go for a jog around the lake. Get outta here for a bit."
"A jog?" Willow quirked an astounded eyebrow. "It's like fifty-below out there!"
"A little exaggerated," the Slayer smirked, "but it'll be ... brisk. I'll be a brisk Buffy." She leaned in toward Willow with a confidential tone. "Besides, I don't think I can handle more time with Faith and Kennedy right now. Sub-arctic temperatures, definitely an improvement." The two women grinned at each other before Buffy turned to leave. "Good luck," the Slayer added, already trotting toward the exit.
"Enjoy the briskness that will be you," Willow called. Then, taking a deep and cleansing breath, she faced the door. Raising her hand, she rapped lightly.
"It's open," a voice responded.
Turning the handle, Willow entered. The room remained largely as undecorated and non-personalized as it was when Kennedy had first moved in. The overall appearance was somewhat generic and even sterile, with none of the "homey" air that enveloped the Scoobies' house. The Slayer, however, didn't seem to be overly concerned about the Spartan ambience. She lay on her stomach across the bed, Sun Tzu's The Art of War open in front of her. She glanced up as the door opened and twitched her eyebrows in recognition of the visitor.
"Yeah," the redhead corroborated. "Hi. It's me. Though I guess you figured that out already, what with the identifying word and all. Hi."
With a rather surprised expression, Kennedy raised herself to a sitting position and regarded Willow expectantly.
"I checked my schedule," the witch told her with a tiny smile. "It turns out that 'later' was approximately now. I-If you're not busy. If you're busy, then 'later' can be ... you know, later."
Kennedy shook her head. "Just reading about some old dead guys. They'll wait." She closed the book with a snap and placed it on a nearby side table. "C'mon in."
Nodding, Willow shut the door behind her. She twisted her fingers nervously – something which the Slayer's penetrating stare did little to alleviate. Nevertheless, she made a determined effort to calm down.
"I had a whole thing prepared," laughed the jittery redhead, "and I've forgotten every single word."
The Slayer shrugged dismissively. "I don't have a class until noon." She paused and regarded Willow soberly. "You will have remembered by noon, right?" Her tone was serious, but there was a playful twinkle in her eye.
Willow allowed herself a small smile. "Let's hope." She frowned before continuing. "So you know about the whole Tara thing, right?"
Kennedy's twinkle dimmed for a second. "This would be the whole thing where, ultimately, I was right, right?" At Willow's level gaze, the Slayer smirked. "Kidding." She shrugged again. "Mostly."
The atmosphere of geniality and good humour began to fade as the gravity of the situation started to settle in.
"You're still in love with her," Kennedy stated. Her voice lacked any hint of accusation – it was a fact, plain and simple.
"Yeah. Yeah, I am."
The Slayer nodded curtly through a sharp exhale, her expression indicating that the news, while painful, wasn't really anything she didn't already know. "So I guess that's that then."
"I don't know," Willow murmured miserably. "I still ... And she ... Tara doesn't want anything to do with me."
"And you're sure she's the real thing?" questioned a disbelieving Kennedy. The redhead gave a rueful nod. "Then unless she was brought back without a brain," proclaimed the Slayer, "she doesn't not want anything to do with you."
Getting to her feet, the brunette crossed the floor to stand just inches away from Willow, peering at her with an intense gaze. "But what does that mean for us?" ventured Kennedy in a low tone.
"I don't ..." Willow began softly. "Nothing's changed. I still care about you, but ..." Her voice was laced with an immense degree of sadness, but it was resolute as though she had no desire to deny the implied truth. "It's Tara."
"Yeah. Tara." The laugh that escaped from Kennedy's throat was harsh and mirthless. "I couldn't even compete with her when she was dead." Then, she seemed to ponder on the possibilities for a moment. "But if she's a big enough idiot to not grab you with both hands and never let go ..."
Abruptly, Kennedy appeared to allow the thought to die a natural death and the room fell into an awkward silence.
"What does that mean?" whispered the redhead.
For a long moment, the Slayer declined to answer. "I'm really not sure," she admitted.
When the first knock at the Scoobies' house went unanswered, there was a moment of silence followed by a second rap. This time, Tara hurried down the stairs and opened the door. She smiled in friendly fashion at the four teenage girls waiting on the doorstep, but it was obvious from her expression that none of them were familiar to her. The blonde's lack of recognition appeared to be reciprocated.
"May I help you?" inquired Tara.
"Hey," greeted Meghan, "is Dawn around?"
"Oh, you're Dawn's friends!" declared Tara, her smile growing warmer. She stepped aside and the girls filed in, their faces locked in frowns and apparently wondering, with no little curiosity, who this person might be. Tara beamed at each of them in turn, making a great effort to be hospitable.
"I didn't think those were very good Halloween costumes," she joked gently. "Plus, I guess it's a little early. Or late."
The visitors stared at her in confusion. Tara's smile faded a little as she began to feel uncomfortable at their scrutiny.
"I'll just get Dawn, then," the blonde added hastily, going to the foot of the stairs and calling out, "Dawn! Your friends are here!"
"Be right there!" came the faint response.
Tara turned to the group. "She should be right down," she told them with an encouraging nod. "Can I get you guys anything? Soda or something?"
With a polite shake of their heads, Meghan, Brenda and Ginny all declined the offer. Looking at them, Jackie rolled her eyes. "I'll take a Coke if you got it," she informed Tara.
"Coming right up," Tara instantly confirmed. "Nobody else?"
There was another threefold refusal, delivered with all due civility. Smiling nervously, Tara made her way to the kitchen. Four pairs of eyes followed her until she disappeared and then, four heads immediately huddled.
"New face," announced Brenda.
"Who do you think she is?" asked Meghan. "Xander's new girlfriend?"
With a strangled gasp, a stricken expression crossed Ginny's face. Meghan rolled her eyes and patted her friend on the shoulder. The gesture was probably meant to be a sympathetic one, but it seemed to come across as more condescending than anything else. Nonetheless, Ginny appeared grateful for the commiseration.
In the meantime, Jackie was apparently deep in thought, given the tiny frown creasing her forehead. "I'm betting Willow's new girlfriend," she theorized.
This statement brought a blush to the cheeks of Ginny and Brenda, but Meghan seemed to take it all in stride and carefully considered the proposition. As one, the four teenagers leaned over a little and peered into the kitchen. Unable to see the object of their speculation, they leaned back into place again.
"You think?" asked Meghan in a tone that clearly said she did not. But Jackie didn't have time to respond as Tara reappeared carrying a can of Coke.
"Here you go," said the blonde cordially.
"Thanks," replied Jackie, studying Tara intently.
"No problem," Tara responded, turning to include all four girls in her friendly smile. It faltered when she noted that they were now regarding her with avid interest. She shuffled uneasily beneath the blatant attention and called desperately over her shoulder with some urgency. "Dawn!"
The answering cry was muffled as it drifted down the stairs. "Just a sec!"
Tara began to squirm at the ensuing pause and further examination of her person. She displayed an uncomfortable grin. "Oookay. I'm gonna be in here if you guys need anything." She indicated vaguely toward the kitchen and then initiated her retreat. Her parting look was confused and puzzled. The girls watched her departure, eyes narrowed and wondering.
"Definitely Willow's new girlfriend," affirmed Jackie with a decisive nod once Tara had disappeared from sight. "Look at her. They're both, like, total spazzes."
"She looks familiar ..." pondered Brenda.
"I think she's pretty," murmured Ginny wistfully, which earned her three sets of quirked eyebrows and a trio of quizzical stares. Realizing she had spoken aloud, Ginny's cheeks burned beet-red with mortification, but Meghan was already moving on.
"I still say Xander's."
Jackie grinned. "Wanna bet?"
"How much?" challenged Meghan, obviously taken with the idea.
Jackie appeared to be weighing her options. "Two weeks of Math homework."
"Guys," objected an appalled Brenda, "you can't do each other's homework, it's wrong."
"Done," agreed Meghan crisply, with a sharp nod in Jackie's direction.
Brenda huffed noisily. "Can't any of you at least pretend to share my sense of morality?"
"I think it's wrong!" Ginny assured cheerfully.
Brenda tried her best grateful smile. "Thanks."
As Meghan and Jackie continued to shoot gainsaying glares at each other, Dawn descended the flight of stairs. She carried an overnight bag in her right hand and a rolled-up sleeping bag tucked under her left arm. Her backpack was thrown over her shoulder.
"Hey," she said sunnily. "Ready to—"
Dawn's chirpy greeting was interrupted by Meghan and Jackie each grabbing an arm and hustling Dawn into the living room. Brenda and Ginny followed close behind.
"—hijack me?" Dawn squeaked, frowning until her arms were released. "What's going on?"
"The new girl," confided Meghan.
Confused, Dawn surveyed the four searching faces. Bewildered, she shook her head.
Jackie took it upon herself to clarify. "The blonde. Who is she?"
"Oh!" smiled Dawn knowingly. "That's Tara."
Brenda snapped her fingers in realization. "That's it! I thought she looked familiar." She glowed with satisfaction as she became the focus of attention and then turned to Dawn. "She's the one whose picture you have on your wall, the one who helped take care of you after your mom died."
Then, Brenda's delighted expression began to dissolve. It was replaced with a look of perplexity, which was soon echoed by Jackie, Meghan and Ginny. As for Dawn, she bit her bottom lip and appeared worried.
"The one who was shot," mused Brenda slowly.
Suddenly, this fact seemed to fully penetrate and all four girls turned to Dawn.
"Uhh ..." she stammered nervously.
"What's going on, Summers?" demanded Jackie.
"She's ... not dead?" ventured Dawn skittishly.
"Yeah," scoffed Meghan. "Kinda figured that part out."
Dawn laughed. It was an overly-shrill, very tight and anxious sound. "It's, uh ..." She scrabbled for a plausible explanation. "It was all a big misunderstanding. She ... She faked her death."
Refusing to be discouraged by the expressions of befuddlement, Dawn pressed on valiantly. "It turned out that Tara was really ... a spy. For the government. A government spy. And she had to fake her own death to ... go undercover. For a really long time." She threw the engrossed quartet a large but uneasy smile. "But she's back now, and not dead, so yay!"
"A spy," questioned Jackie, her voice devoid of emotion.
Dawn nodded in what she trusted was irrefutable confidence, and then crossed her fingers, apparently calling upon Lady Luck for help in selling the story. "Uh-huh?" she offered.
Brenda tapped a thoughtful forefinger against her lips as she processed the information. "For what, the FBI or something?"
"Or something," Dawn readily agreed.
There was a long skeptical pause and Dawn fidgeted restlessly, shuffling her feet, as her friends regarded each other incredulously.
"That is so ... cool," enthused Meghan.
Dawn let out a long sigh of relief, but her friends didn't notice, wrapped up as they were in the total coolness of the revelation.
"She's, like, that guy from '24'!" gushed Ginny. "Only, a- a girl." She turned to Dawn with awe-struck eyes. "Does she wear a tuxedo?"
Jackie too was suitably impressed. "Dude, I bet she can totally kill a guy with her bare hands. I think that's like standard issue spy training or something."
Brenda also oozed with high esteem. "It's like that movie! That one where the guy fakes his death and..." She paused and frowned. "Well, actually, I can't remember any movies like that, but I'm guessing there's at least one! And maybe two!"
"That is so cool," reiterated Meghan.
"Dawnie?" queried Tara softly as she reemerged from the kitchen. Instantly, all enthusiastic chatter ceased and everyone turned to look at the blonde. Tara took a small step backward at the intensity of the attention, though the change in attitude was palpable. Whereas before, the overwhelming impression had been one of curiosity and suspicion, it now smacked squarely of something akin to reverence. Tara felt a slight blush creep into her face – apparently equally as unsettled with the atmosphere of veneration as she had been with the air of bafflement.
"Is everything okay?" queried Tara apprehensively.
"Sure!" Dawn quickly assured. "Everything's fine! We'll be going in just a sec!"
Crossing to where Tara was standing, Dawn slipped her hand into the crook of the blonde's elbow and jerked her out of earshot from her four friends, who promptly began to whisper in animated fashion amongst themselves, while keeping their marveling eyes firmly affixed on Tara.
"Little glitch," confided Dawn. "They sort of asked who you were and then kinda remembered that you were supposed to be all dead and stuff." Tara stared at the teenager with shock. "Oh, but it's okay," Dawn hastened to guarantee. She gave Tara a conspirative smile. "I told them you were really a secret agent who faked her death to go undercover for a couple of years, so it's all good."
Obviously, Dawn's definition of "all good" differed greatly from Tara's, as evidenced by the blonde's expression of complete and utter disbelief. "You what?"
"And they bought it!" Dawn revealed gleefully. "Can you believe that?" She frowned thoughtfully. "I guess it's some sort of Hellmouth thing to buy any explanation. Huh."
"But I'm not ..."
"Don't worry," interrupted the teenager with a wave of nonchalant dismissal. "If they ask you how to kill someone with your hands, just do the Xena pinch on 'em or something, 'kay?"
Giving Tara's arm a comforting squeeze, Dawn returned to her friends. "I'll be back tomorrow," she told the blonde over her shoulder. "Love you, bye!"
"But ..." Tara protested meekly. The mildly-voiced objection had no effect.
All five girls began to troop past Tara on their way to the door. The looks she received ran the gamut from knowledgeable insinuations to open admiration.
Ginny paused for a moment at Tara's side, "The paisley sasquatch shampoos at midnight," the girl divulged in a whisper, winking broadly before following the others.
Tara blinked and her face adopted a lost expression at the comment, but Ginny had already followed her friends out of the house.
As the door closed, Tara still seemed utterly confounded for a moment, then her face changed to one of serious contemplation. "The name's Bond," she murmured to herself. "Tara Bond."
She pondered on this for a second. Then, she wrinkled her nose and shook her head before turning and climbing the stairs.
Inside the corner newsstand, Xander selected several magazines of choice from the racks, including "EGM" and "American Woodworker." On his way to the counter, he stopped to pick up the morning edition of the "Trillium Tribune" and then eyed the candy display with much gusto. "Ooo, Caramello," he enthused.
Grabbing one of the chocolate-coated gooey caramel treats with boyish delight, he proceeded to the checkout. Piling all his items next to the cash register, the carpenter waited patiently as the employee scanned each of the bar codes. Whistling happily, Xander watched people stroll by as he dug in his pocket for money. A familiar figure with dark hair was among the passing pedestrians and Xander's eye opened wide as he recognized her. Gathering up his hoard of purchases, made a dash for the door. "Sera!" he called with a wave of his hand.
Then, remembering he hadn't paid, Xander hurried back into the newsstand and dumped a handful of assorted bills and coins on the counter before he could be accused of shoplifting. The salesclerk closed his gaping mouth and with a suspicious frown began to count the funds. Not waiting for a tally, Xander headed for the exit once more. Looking from side to side, he spied Serafina halfway down the street and sprinted after her. "Sera!" he called again.
The woman stopped and turned around at the approach. A smile crossed her features and then her face assumed an admonishing expression.
The carpenter skidded to a halt. "Uh-oh. I know that look," he said warily. "That's a look that usually ushers in a night of me gettin' yelled at and sleepin' on the couch."
"I don't have any control over where you sleep, sadly," she told him sternly. "I'll have to make do with my imagination." Her eyes closed and she appeared to be considering the various possibilities of insomniac-related punishment. "Mmm," she smiled contentedly.
"It's lumpy, isn't it?" asked a suitably chastised Xander.
"And covered with that itchy material that has no business being on couches," Serafina told him confidently.
"Yup," the carpenter shook his head ruefully. "Pretend Me's gonna be one tired fake guy tomorrow. But he'll hopefully be out of the doghouse?" he tentatively suggested.
Cracking open one eye, Serafina smiled. "I don't hold grudges well." She reconsidered. "Actually, I do. But you're forgiven for running out on me last week anyway."
With a grin, Xander joined her as she continued her walk. "Yeah, about that. I wanted to apologize." His tone was sincere. "This big ... thing came up. Family stuff."
Serafina appeared genuinely concerned. "Is everything okay?"
"Yeah," he assured. "Just another chapter in the Shakespearean drama that is our lives."
"Nobody died in the final act, I hope," she joked.
"Not this time," responded Xander with a warm smile before changing the subject. "So what'd you do with the rest of your night?"
Serafina shrugged. "Oh, well, my boyfriend finally decided to show up not long after you left, so ..."
Xander raised an eyebrow. "This would be the big, hulking weight-lifting boyfriend who could twist me into a pretzel shape with alarming ease. That boyfriend?" Serafina acknowledged the description with a nod and a grin. "Sounds like my emergency was very well timed," he decided.
Serafina waved a hand in dismissal. "Gavin's a big teddy bear; he'd probably just thank you for keeping the vultures away."
"Possibly," pondered the carpenter, "but then we come back to the whole pretzel thing, and suddenly there's just relief bordering on hysteria."
Xander grinned broadly at the earned laughter. "I hope to hear the rest of 'The Serafina D'Alessandro Story' one day," he aspired.
"I should hope so," she told him. "We were just about to get into 'The Preschool Years'. Very exciting stuff. The section on Strawberry Shortcake is not to be missed." She indicated the publications tucked untidily in the crook of Xander's arm. "Hungry for knowledge?"
He held aloft the video game magazine. "Splinter Cell. Man against man, hunters and weapons, life and death ... All in glorious, in-your-face 3D. It's a thing of beauty."
Serafina shrugged off his bold declaration. "I dunno, I'm more looking forward to Halo 2, myself," she dropped casually.
"You realize I could swoon on the spot, and no man on the planet would fault me," Xander pointed out.
Declining to comment, Serafina simply smirked and gestured to the other publications tucked under his arm. "Those can't all be gaming mags."
"No," he confirmed. "The rest ... I have a friend who really needs some help."
Serafina nodded at the vague response and chose not to pry further. The pair walked for a moment in comfortable silence.
"So ..." Xander finally ventured, "Descent or Doom?"
Serafina let out a derisive snort. "Please," she said scornfully. "Quake."
"Oo," returned the carpenter, "you sound like you know a lil' somethin' 'bout that game, missy."
"Frag you," Serafina told him good-naturedly.
In Willow's Sanctum, the two witches were seated across from each other, their eyes tightly closed as they focused all their attentions on the energy that was crackling around them. It was a wildly chaotic flux, bridging from Willow to Tara and then back again. As he circled the couple, Giles studied what was transpiring with keen concentration and no little confusion.
"Most interesting," he observed in an almost detached fashion.
Willow flinched. "Less with the interesting here. More with the—"
"—the ow," finished Tara, her features also indicating a degree of pain.
With a worried expression, the redhead nodded emphatically at the statement.
The Watcher's air of unemotional involvement was immediately replaced with one of concern. "All right, let's ... let's take a moment, shall we?"
Their bodies sagging with relief, Willow and Tara began to relax. The connecting energy field between them subsided until it was completely severed, seemingly reabsorbed by each of them. The flare surrounding the redhead took longer to dissipate, the period of time short but nonetheless noticeable. Even so, it didn't take long for the forceful vibrations to vanish entirely and both witches let out a cleansing breath, appearing drained by the experience. Each gratefully accepted the bottle of juice offered by Giles and took thirsty sips.
"This is all quite extraordinary." Giles' tone held a hint of undisguised excitement intermingled with disappointment. "I'd imagine it would be even more impressive if I understood any of it."
"No closer, huh?" queried Willow.
Regretfully, the Watcher shook his head. "No. Though it's only been a few days, I suppose we mustn't be impatient."
"But'cha wanna know now," the redhead prodded with a slightly teasing tone.
"Yes!" agreed an enthusiastic Giles and then grimaced at his apparent lack of grace. He shook his head. "I-I mean, no. It's all ... very peculiar."
"Do we know what caused it yet?" asked an obviously weary Tara. "The power surges." She paused and glanced from Willow to Giles. "Though I guess it's me."
"But see, that's the weird thing," offered Willow with a frown, "I'm not feeling the surges. Not always. It's ..." She shook her head in confusion. "I dunno. It's hard to explain."
"But there's pain?" pressed the Watcher.
"Sometimes," Tara admitted. "When we try to sort of ... synch up? It's like i-it's sandpaper, sort of grating. It wasn't like that before."
"Maybe it's me," sighed Willow. "All the dark mojo." She grinned at her upcoming joke. "I find it sort of grating sometimes too."
The redhead smirked at her lame attempt to lighten the mood and Tara smirked a little in response, but then she turned back to Giles.
"Is it maybe the bad guys?" The thought obviously troubled Tara. "Maybe the connection's really still there." Absent-mindedly, she fingered the area over her heart, where lay the scar of the Circle's sigil.
The Watcher confidently dismissed the idea. "No, I don't think so. The Coven members wouldn't have left if they weren't convinced you were free from any outside influence." A tiny frown creased his forehead. "I only wish they could've told us more about who brought you back." He looked to Tara. "You can't recall anything more about your experience?"
"Not really," the blonde told him apologetically. "I only saw two people the whole time I was there, and only the one who called himself Robespierre ever spoke. I never got the other one's name. He was a big guy, though. Maybe a bodyguard or something?"
Becoming increasingly perturbed by the conjured recollections, Tara was obviously not relishing having to relive the ordeal, but she struggled to project a brave front and not discourage Giles from continuing to pose questions. Sensing the blonde's discomfort, Willow moved closer to Tara and offered what support she could. The consoling hand she laid on the blonde's shoulder earned her a grateful smile.
Almost reluctantly, Giles forged ahead. "What about this Robespierre, what were you able to learn of him?"
"Not a whole lot." Tara frowned as she concentrated on the memories. "He was powerful. Very powerful. But wherever I was? Magick was all around, me, and I couldn't really focus on him specifically. Still, through all that ... so much power."
The blonde's eyes clouded as she became momentarily lost in the depths of her thoughts, but as Willow gently squeezed her shoulder, she shook herself free from the reverie. Reaching up, her fingertips brushed lightly across the back of Willow's hand, but the touch was fleeting.
"Uhm, Robespierre," Tara pondered as she refocused on the Watcher. "He was kinda old, maybe 60 or 65? And his face ... so cold. And there was a scar, from here to here." She traced a line on the right-hand side of her face from the earlobe to the corner of her mouth and shuddered.
"But his eyes ..." she continued slowly, "there was something about his eyes." Once more, the blonde appeared trapped within her recollections. She wrapped herself protectively with her arms and when she spoke again, her voice was low. "I-I can't remember anything else."
Moving to crouch before Tara, Giles smiled with warm affection. "You've been a tremendous help," he told her gently. "I know how difficult all of this has been for you. I'm very proud of you."
Tara treated him to a thankful smile, which Willow mirrored. Then the redhead gave a small cough, drawing away Giles' attention and giving Tara a moment of solitude to regroup.
"So, who is this guy?" asked Willow quizzically. "The Coven's got their big who's who in the witchy world. If he's got that much power, they musta heard of this 'Robespierre'."
Giles straightened and thrust his hands into his pockets. "No, they haven't. And they haven't found anything, not yet. Nor have they been able to uncover anything about their mark." A troubled frown crossed his face. "Robespierre. I still swear that name sounds familiar to me."
"French dictator?" offered Tara helpfully.
"Overly fond of the guillotine?" suggested Willow with a smirk.
"No," replied the Watcher and then amended his answer. "I mean, yes, but that's not who I'm thinking of. It's ..." He began to pace, his air of annoyance mounting. "No, it's not coming to me," he admitted with an irritated shake of his head.
"We'll figure it out," Willow assured him with optimistic cheer before grumbling, "Though this power thing's really startin' to cheese me off."
Tara nodded her agreement. "It's very strange. It's sort of like ..."
Frowning, Tara tried to put the feelings into words, and her eyes wandered to Willow seated next to her. "Like I can feel there's more out there," she continued in a low voice. Without seeming to realize it, Tara turned slowly toward Willow, who appeared willingly ensnared in the blonde's gaze. "Calling ..." Tara whispered. "Pushing in on me."
Of its own volition, Tara's hand began to move toward Willow's resting nearby. "If I could just ... reach out ..." Her fingers crept ever nearer to Willow's receptive hand until they were no more than a heartbeat away.
The door to the Sanctum burst open and Xander stood in the doorway. He sported a huge grin and had a newspaper tucked beneath his arm. The witches' questing motions abruptly ceased and their hands jerked apart, leaving several feet of separation. At the sudden distance, an arc of perceptible energy flared, but both women were flushed and far too embarrassed to have even noticed. Giles, by contrast, had caught the manifestation, and although he maintained silence, he quirked an extremely interested eyebrow.
"Hey magick babes, babes of magick-ocity!" the carpenter cheerfully greeted. "How goes the search, still proving utterly fruitless?"
The Watcher was visibly peeved. "Xander, this is a delicate process. There are- are a great many difficult and complex questions that we are looking to answer, a-a-and a great deal of- of mounting evidence to support the, uhm ... the continued—"
"Don't have a clue, do ya?" asked Xander sunnily.
"Not as such, no," acknowledged a crestfallen and rather grumpy Giles.
Tara threw the Watcher a sympathetic smile. "But Mr. Giles has been working really hard."
"Yeah!" defended Willow with an abundant amount of zeal. "It's just, you know ..." She gestured between herself and Tara, "us that's all in crazy wonky land." Widening her eyes for a moment, she added, "Whoo. Crazy."
"You guys've been practically livin' in here since those stuffy witchy-types bamfed back to soggy ol' England," declared the carpenter. "We know Tara's got a clean bill of non-possession, and we know that both our resident witches are goin' all spiky-punk with their powers. That's about it, right?"
Removing his glasses, Giles engaged in the ritual of industrious polishing. "In the most banal of terms, yes, you're mostly correct," he confirmed reluctantly.
"Cool. Then I'm bound to be right about this too: break time."
The Watcher returned his glasses to their customary location. "What, now?" he questioned, apparently astounded at the suggestion.
"Yup," corroborated Xander with a definite nod. "I got a date with this little lady."
He moved to stand in front of Tara and extended his hand to help her up. Tara blinked in open confusion.
"A date," she echoed with a shake of her head. "But I don't—"
"An apartment hunting date," the carpenter clarified. "True, you didn't know about it until, oh, now, but still – a date's a date."
The blonde cast a glance at the Watcher. "But Mr. Giles ..."
Giles sighed, a combination of resignation and concordance. "For once, Xander may be correct. We've been pushing quite hard these past few days, and I know you're still adjusting to ... everything. Maybe a break will indeed help." He smiled as he added, "Besides, it'll give me a chance to work with Willow alone. As I'm more attuned to how her powers were reacting and developing before your return, it could help us to learn what's changed."
"Yay, Giles Time!" grinned Willow, before adding in a tone of confidentiality that was laced with a certain amount of pride, "Sometimes he gives me gold stars."
Tara remained unconvinced, although she now accepted Xander's still-outstretched hand and allowed him to help her to her feet. "Okay then, if you're sure..."
"Absolutely," affirmed the Watcher. "And remember what I told you: money is no object."
"I'll pay you back as soon as I get a job," she immediately replied, then she thought for a second. "And some ID first with which to get said job."
"If you feel you must," Giles discounted in all earnest, "but please, don't worry about it. Whatever you need to make you feel more comfortable, that's all that matters."
Tara's smile was grateful and the Watcher returned the gesture one of encouragement. The blonde looked to Willow and raised her hand in a somewhat shy half-wave.
"Have fun!" the redhead told her emphatically, beaming brightly. "I hope you find a- a really cool place that you totally fall in love with!"
As she watched them leave, Willow's radiant expression began to wilt until it faded into non-existence with the closing of the door.
"... so you can move out and be all alone and lonely and not around anymore," she added morosely.
"Willow," Giles chastised gently, "if this will help Tara ease back into—"
"I-I know," interrupted Willow with a sharp nod, "and I want that. I do. Just that—"
Her gaze became transfixed upon the bottle from which Tara had been drinking earlier. The juice began to simmer as miniscule bubbles drifted upward to burst with a tiny gurgle. Within seconds, the churning effervescence increased in speed and volume until the entire contents of the bottle finally exploded with a resounding belch, spewing a spray of fruity liquid into the air like an erupting volcano. Gritting her teeth, Willow's face adopted an 'oh crap' expression and the agitated boil calmed almost as quickly as it had initiated.
With a remorseful grimace, Willow regarded Giles out of the corner of her eye. "So much for my gold star."
Dressed in a warm maroon tracksuit, Buffy jogged in energetic fashion along a rocky path that bordered the perimeter of a lake. To her right was a dense forest of Scotch pine and other evergreen trees. On her left, some distance away, Trillium's taller buildings jutted on the horizon. Small pebbles and sharp stones were kicked aside as the Slayer ran, arms pumping with vigor and puffs of vaporized breath escaping every time she exhaled. The weak sunlight glittered upon the tranquil waters and a brace of Canadian geese paddled contentedly across the lake's surface.
Moving briskly, the Slayer appeared impervious to the chill and sharp snap in the air, but she slowed to an in-place trot as, with a frown, she squinted into the depths of the heavily-wooded area to her right. Craning her neck, she seemed to be listening intently but all was silent. After a few moments of concentrated scrutiny, Buffy shrugged and continued with her physical exercise.
"Paranoia – it's not just for crazy people anymore," she huffed.
The run continued with no indication that anything was amiss until, suddenly and without warning, the Slayer whirled, immediately assuming a defensive stance. Wings flapping, the geese unexpectedly took flight with honks of alarm and Buffy's searching gaze followed their airborne path for a second before returning her attention to the impenetrable area of timberland.
"Okay," she gritted. "Now I really—"
The sound of a polite cough abruptly invaded Buffy's train of thought. It was closely followed by a fast-moving, softly-whistling "phhht!" as a tranquilizer dart embedded itself securely and accurately in her torso. She looked down with some curiosity at the brightly colored feathers poking out from her fleece jacket.
"You know," she theorized drowsily, slumping to the ground as consciousness quickly evaporated, "that just can't be ... good."
In the heart of a forest, a dense overhead canopy of foliage and thick branches blocked most of the light such that it was truly impossible to gauge the time of day with any degree of accuracy. The patches of cloud-covered sky that could be seen enveloped the area in a gloomy and ominous atmosphere.
The motionless bodies of Buffy, Faith and Kennedy, obviously unconscious, were stretched out in the center of some type of small clearing, which was bordered on all sides by what appeared to be impenetrable undergrowth and closely-knitted trees.
Of the three Slayers, it was Buffy who began to recuperate first. Tentatively, she slowly opened her eyes and took stock of the compact greenery looming above. Her hands scrabbled absently at the ground as she grabbed fistfuls of fallen leaves and gritty dirt. The unexpected sensations seemed to spur the blonde in her recovery and she made a determined effort to sit up. The action was successful, albeit a tad unsteady. Through groggy eyes, she surveyed her surroundings and noticed Faith and Kennedy nearby, both ostensibly still out for the count. She struggled to regain total sensibility.
Faith, dressed in a leather jacket and matching pants, was closest and so Buffy chose to crawl initially in that direction. She seized the dark-haired Slayer by the front of her navy t-shirt and began to shake.
"Faith. Wake up," she hissed.
Faith began to stir, but her awakening lacked the rapidity experienced by Buffy. One eyelid cracked and then immediately closed again, like a kid who doesn't want to get up for school in the morning. She swiped at the blonde's hand in an irritable manner.
"—can handle another one," she slurred. "No way you're cuttin' me off, motherf—"
Buffy let loose of the shirt and seized Faith by the shoulders. "Wake up," she demanded with a vigorous shake, causing Faith's head to snap back and forth.
With a vast degree of effort, Faith's eyes squinted open. Her expression was pained and weary, laced with an abundant heaping of grumpiness.
"Where...?" she grunted and then realized she was looking into Buffy's face. "Okay, guessin' there's some really good reason why you're here and why I feel like I just got smacked in the head with an 18-wheeler. 'Sides the obvious." Still dazed, she blinked but by then, the blonde had disappeared from view.
"Not so much," came the reply. "Look around."
Raising herself on one elbow, a bewildered Faith surveyed the area and then focused on the prostrate figure of Kennedy, clad in a denim jacket and jeans. Buffy had gathered a fistful of gray tank-top and was shaking with much the same vigor as she had used on the dark-haired Slayer.
"The hell?" griped Faith. "Damn, that'll teach me to take mixed drinks, no questions asked."
Tight-lipped, Buffy declined to comment. Instead, she gripped Kennedy firmly by the shoulders, presumably reaching the conclusion that what had worked once had a relatively good chance of working again. It did, but with an entirely different reaction.
As her eyes flew open, Kennedy roughly broke Buffy's grasp on her left shoulder and with her right hand, lunged for the blonde's throat. Buffy's response was immediate as she reached out and clamped Kennedy's wrist in a vice-like hold, trying to wrench it free from her windpipe.
"Hey!" accused the blonde with a rasp.
Kennedy shook her head to clear the fog and her eyes registered recognition. She relaxed her fingers as Buffy scuttled backward.
"Sorry," mumbled Kennedy.
The blonde massaged her neck and treated Kennedy to a glare, which went largely unnoticed by the other woman as she sat up and looked around, suspicious and befuddled.
"Nice reflexes," Buffy finally admitted.
"Thanks. I work out," responded Kennedy in a distracted tone. "Now somebody feel up to cluing me in?"
Faith took it upon herself to provide an answer. "You were knocked unconscious and dumped in a forest." The statement was met with a grim glower but Faith simply shrugged. "Now you know what I know," she told her.
Getting to her feet, Buffy brushed at the twigs clinging to her sweatpants. "Cut it out, you two." Her tone was clipped and authoritative. "We need to figure out what's going on here."
Kennedy also stumbled to a standing position. "Boy, it's a good thing you're around," she grumbled. "I might've spent the next five hours sitting on my ass and admiring the lack of view."
"Could you not?" snapped the blonde. "We might be in serious trouble here."
"Suits me," stated Faith, pushing herself up from the ground. "I could do with somethin' more challenging than puttin' up with you two."
"Oh, sure, cuz having a healthy dose of Faith in our lives is always such a pleasure." Kennedy's tone dripped with overt sarcasm.
"That's enough!" cautioned Buffy, obviously running low on patience.
In unison, both Faith and Kennedy delivered a visible eye-roll.
"Sir, yes, sir," sneered Kennedy.
Taking a long breath, Buffy dug deep for composure. "I think we've got enough to worry about right now without you two competing for the 'biggest pain in my butt' award." Before either could protest, she quickly continued. "We don't need bickering, we need answers, and we need them fast."
"Worry not, ladies," a voice comforted. "All will be made clear."
Back stiffening, Buffy released her glower on Faith and Kennedy as all three Slayers whirled in search of the interrupter's location. They eventually found what they were seeking floating just above a nearby thicket. It was a translucent imp, sporting leathery skin and bat-like wings. Its eyes were oddly humanoid, except that the whites were black, causing the green irises to stand out rather prominently. Nonetheless, the extraordinary orbs shone with an intelligence not often detected among demonkind.
"Dude, tell me you guys're seein' that too," muttered Faith, "else I'm all kinds'a new worried 'bout that drink."
Kennedy nodded slowly. "I see it."
"I am no hallucination, I assure you," the imp curtly informed. "My name is Hamaculo, your guide for this hunt."
The Slayers exchanged a puzzled glance. "Hunt?" Buffy repeated cautiously.
"Yes," affirmed Hamaculo with a decisive nod. "You are each guests of Barradon, great hunter of the Ohndi Clan."
Kennedy puffed with disgust. "Tell him his hospitality stinks."
"Didn't even get a mint on my pillow," groused Faith.
"Or a pillow," Buffy added.
Hamaculo waved away the objections with a dismissive claw. "Please, do not interrupt. There is little time. Within a few moments, the hunt will begin. My master has selected you as suitable targets to test his prowess and gain status for his clan. The rules are simple – you need only survive and escape these woods. Do so, and you are free to go. Use any means and methods you desire."
"Wait, we get out of the forest and we're free to go?" questioned Buffy warily. "That's it?"
Faith crossed her arms. "Why'm I thinkin' it ain't gonna be that simple?" She wrinkled her forehead in mock contemplation. "Oh yeah, because it never is."
"Clan traditions prevent the selection of any target more often than approximately one of your dimensional years," the imp continued in a polite and official manner, "and the rules are clear: successful evasion or the termination of the hunter both end the hunt."
"And what if we refuse to play your little game?" Buffy challenged, crossing her arms and glaring defiantly. "I think I read this short story once. I was nowhere near impressed enough to want to act it out."
Cold, emerald eyes affixed themselves to the blonde Slayer, but Hamaculo merely shrugged. "Then this will be a swift hunt indeed. Flee or fight. To do otherwise only seals your fate."
Kennedy was quick to acquiesce. "The gremlin has a point. Not seeing a whole lot of choice here."
"Imp, thank you," Hamaculo corrected Kennedy icily before addressing all three women as a group. "And now, I must take my leave. I suggest you move quickly. My master has not failed to apprehend his target in approximately one hundred and fifty of your years. A record for which he is rightfully proud. My final advice to you: he cannot be everywhere at once. If you dissolve your functional unit, perhaps one of you will survive." He considered the possibility for a moment. "Perhaps. If you are exceedingly lucky."
And with that, the imp began to vanish inch by inch, rather like the Cheshire Cat, until only the fascinating orbs lingered and they too shortly faded into oblivion. The Slayers peered for a brief second at the now vacated spot and then turned to each other.
"Is that thing kidding?" scoffed Faith. "We're not—"
Her words of derision were brought to an abrupt and untimely halt by an arrow whizzing past her left ear. It embedded itself in a tree a little over ten feet away and quivered at the impact. Three heads promptly swiveled in the direction from whence the projectile had initiated, but there was nothing to be seen in the depths of the forest.
"Run," Buffy told the other two tersely, giving the order to retreat.
Faith stood her ground. "No way, think we can't take this thing?"
"We can't fight what we can't see," explained Buffy in haste. "This guy's got the advantage. We have to regroup someplace else."
Still, Faith refused to give way. "You run if you want, but I'm—"
For a second time, she was cut short by the flight of an arrow. Straight and true, the projectile moved rapidly from a distance toward its intended target. Lost in her bullheadedness, Faith never even saw it coming – but Kennedy did. Reacting with incredible speed, she plucked the arrow neatly from the air before it had the opportunity to perform open-skull surgery.
Snapping the lethal missile in one hand, Kennedy tossed the two halves to the ground. "We can make a stand," she gritted, "but not here. Let's get moving."
Faith hesitated, but it was really only a show of stubborn defiance. "Fine," she grudgingly agreed. "Come on then."
And with that, she led the charge as the trio took to their heels – apparently not a moment too soon as yet another arrow sullied forth with wickedly graceful precision, piercing the trunk of a tree which grew mere inches from where its deadly partner had formerly found a home.
Xander and Tara walked down the front steps of an apartment complex and toward the parking lot. The blonde thoughtfully regarded the folded rental magazine held in her hand and then glanced back at the building. It was modest by New York high-rise standards but rather impressive for a small town like Trillium and the area was enveloped within a peaceful atmosphere.
"I really liked it," sighed Tara, disappointment showing plainly on her face. "You're sure about the construction?"
"Really shoddy," Xander told her ruefully. "You're okay while you've got no neighbors, but the second someone moves in next door or above you? You'll hear everything. Very distracting. Sorry," he apologized regretfully.
"No," Tara hastened to assure him. "I'm glad you said. I like my quiet."
As they approached the car, Xander opened the passenger door and, throwing him a smile of thanks, Tara got in. The carpenter moved to the other side of the vehicle and hopped behind the wheel, turning the key in the ignition. Neither spoke for a while, but it was not an uncomfortable silence. Xander seemed to be concentrating all his attention on driving as Tara became engrossed in the magazine, chewing absently on her pen as she flipped over the pages. But then, he threw her a discreet glance and seemed about to say something before apparently changing his mind. For a moment, the carpenter's focus returned to the road but before too long, he glanced briefly at Tara again.
"Something's on your mind," she prompted gently, eyes never leaving the magazine.
"You know it's freaky when you do that," he told her.
Tara looked at him with a smirk. "Sorry."
"Nah, it's cool. And yeah, there is."
Tara waited patiently through the hush that descended once more.
"I got a question for you," Xander announced without ceremony. "An' I know it's gonna sound weird, but it's important."
"Weird but important," repeated the witch, working to keep the atmosphere light despite the obvious gravity surrounding them. "Sounds about right for us."
Xander smirked his appreciation, but soon sobered again. "Where you were ..." he began and then fell quiet, almost seeming embarrassed for wanting to broach the topic forcing its way to his lips.
"It's okay to have questions," the blonde softly encouraged.
"It's just ..." the carpenter shifted uneasily in his seat. "I know it's hard for you to talk about."
"It is," acknowledged Tara. "But you can ask. So long as I retain the right to not answer," she added with a slight grin.
Xander nodded. "Deal."
There was a long pause. The carpenter swallowed painfully as though his throat were raw before speaking. "Was Anya there?" His voice cracked as he spoke the words and the audible note of desperation immediately affected Tara. She watched with a pained and sympathetic expression as Xander's jaw worked silently and his focus remained on the road. Then her eyelids drifted closed as her head leaned back to rest against the car seat.
After several seconds passed without reply, Xander's eye darted anxiously from the traffic to Tara, repeating the motion multiple times and becoming increasingly concerned by her pallid complexion and total withdrawal.
"I shouldn't have asked," he sincerely apologized, upset at the thought of being the source of her apparent distress.
Opening her eyes, Tara turned to the carpenter, eager to offer assurance. "No, it's okay."
She pondered on his question, struggling to provide an adequate answer. "Anya ..." she began haltingly. "I don't really know. I wish I did."
Xander's disappointment clearly showed in his face, but he fought valiantly to maintain a stoic front. It was quite obvious that the last thing he wanted was for Tara to feel badly about the lack of information she was able to supply.
"Wherever I was ..." she continued slowly, "I can't really remember much. If there were other people ..." She shrugged her shoulders in defeat and shook her head. "I was ..." The blonde frowned. "...waiting. I think I was waiting."
A shiver coursed through her body as she fell silent. Then, with a resolute firming of her jaw, she forced a return to the present. "I'm sorry I don't have the answers," she told Xander with regret.
The carpenter acknowledged the statement with a tight nod and then threw her a somewhat self-effacing grin. "I don't think I really expected you to," he admitted. "If it were that easy, we'd all be John Edwards, right?"
"I miss her too," Tara confided.
Xander's commiserating smile reflected a deep sense of melancholy. He settled himself more comfortably in his seat as the pair continued their journey in silence.
Within the Circle Room, Seneca faced the door. In front of him stood a figure, cowl of the robe pulled up over the head. With mages milling around everywhere, the area was a hub of increasing activity and the overpowering atmosphere was one of charged anticipation.
Throwing open the door, Robespierre stormed in unannounced, as he was so often wont to do. Quickly surveying the room, his eyes alighted upon Seneca and he immediately hurried in that direction.
"You!" he challenged. "Where is Madrigan? And don't give me any of this no talking nonsense, I—"
The robed figure before Seneca slowly turned and the infuriated Robespierre found himself face to face with – himself. The double was a perfect match down to the most infinite of details, with the exception of the eyes. They shimmered almost constantly, shifting from the blue of Robespierre's to an unearthly yellow, never quite settling on either. Openly gaping, Robespierre took an involuntary step backward as he took stock of the familiar image.
"What is this?" he growled.
A flawless facsimile of his own voice replied. "What do you think? Do I look dour enough?" The double narrowed his eyes and hunched over, brooding ferociously. The impersonation did little to improve Robespierre's dark mood and he clearly seethed.
"Madrigan," he began, tone overly low and deceptively calm, "what are you doing?"
Madrigan began to circle the older man, maintaining his magnificently accurate persona and heedless of the real thing's furiously blazing eyes that tracked his every move. "Seneca and I were talking about going to one of those LARP things, you know. The real-life D&D stuff?" The mage halted when Robespierre was situated between himself and Seneca, and twirled gracefully to face his unfortunate dupe. He threw out his arms dramatically and looked Robespierre square in the eye. "I'm thinking of going as the irritating know-it-all."
The veins of Robespierre's neck began to pulse as his complexion became a livid shade of coronary purple, causing the disfiguring scar to almost glow white in comparison. "How dare you? How dare you, you insufferable little street magician?"
For the first time, the other inhabitants of the room started to actually pay overt attention to what was transpiring around them, but the only action they took was to favor Robespierre with a wide, wide berth – otherwise, they simply continued about their business.
As for Madrigan, rather than giving way to anger, he raised a hand to his chest at the affront while his expression became one usually reserved for tiny puppies attempting to protect what they perceive to be their territory. Given that he was wearing the mask of Robespierre's face, it was an especially surreal moment. Madrigan spared a glance over the other man's shoulder toward Seneca, who quirked an extremely amused eyebrow.
"You approached the Assemblage with an offer of assistance," Robespierre raged, "and this – this is what you bring? Parlor tricks? Smoke and mirrors? You need us far more than we need you."
Again, Madrigan glanced at Seneca, who was now holding up an unseen hand behind Robespierre's back and moving his fingers in a yapping, 'blah blah blah' motion while rolling his eyes.
Robespierre, realizing he had momentarily lost Madrigan's attention, poked viciously at the mage's shoulder. "Perhaps you need a reminder of that."
Then, seeming to have suddenly lost every vestige of patience that he might have one time possessed, Robespierre blew past Madrigan and stomped his way to the exit. The mage 'tsk'd' and sighed heavily for a second before jogging after Robespierre, the fake visage dissolving to reveal his own face.
He quickly caught up to the older man and, darting in front of him, effectively blocked his escape route. "Robby, Robby!," he cajoled. "It was a joke, man! I was just funnin' ya! You know, 'fun'? That thing you're gonna outlaw when you rule the world? Enjoy it while you can."
"I am not here for 'fun', Madrigan," glowered Robespierre, most certainly far from amused. "I am here for results."
"And I'm here for the ambiance and your gorgeous smile," countered Madrigan, oozing charm.
Huffing, Robespierre made another attempt to leave, but once again, Madrigan barred the way.
Robespierre's eyes narrowed threateningly. "I am the only one who can release the Antediluvian to your possession, Madrigan," he warned. "I suggest you bear that in mind next time you desire ... 'fun'."
Madrigan's tone was also laced with something akin to menace. "Y'know Robby, maybe you're no longer quite as original as you like to think."
Somewhat taken aback, Robespierre blinked and straightened. He scrutinized Madrigan's face, but the pasted smile never wavered – although it did seem rather less jovial now than before. However, the impression was fleeting and in a flash, Madrigan was once again his jocular self.
"Ahh, you're such a grumpy bear," wheedled the mage, beaming brightly. "Now c'mon, ya big lug."
Throwing a companionable arm over Robespierre's shoulders, Madrigan steered the other man toward the casting circle, where stood Seneca and where the other members of the faction had been frantically working. Robespierre regarded the arm very warily, but no longer appeared quite as certain of himself as he had formerly. As the pair arrived at the perimeter, all but the most essential personages scuttled out of the way – presumably to continue their varied and sundry duties elsewhere.
"I got somethin' that'll perk ya right up," Madrigan confided, giving Robespierre's shoulder a friendly shake. Then, as though he were trying to entice a small child, added in a singsong voice, "Guess whose prime weapon we released today?"
Robespierre instantly swallowed the bait and displayed nothing but avid interest. With a grandiose gesture, Madrigan indicated the casting circle and Robespierre eagerly peered closer, pulling away from the mage's arm. Madrigan glanced over at Seneca, who returned the look with an upward twitch of his eyebrows and exceedingly smug grin.
Dead pine needles and damply decaying foliage squished beneath the Slayers' feet as they sprinted through the woodlands. The overhead canopy seemed to be getting no less dense, although there were a few glimpses of a gray sky between the close-knit boughs. With expert agility and an air of urgency, they ducked beneath low-hanging branches and leapt over gnarled tree roots as they ran, but their movements were controlled and there was no sense of terror or panic.
"Can I just say this sucks?" griped Faith.
Buffy glanced in her direction. "You have said this sucks."
"Several times," added Kennedy. "Nobody cared then either."
Clumps of wet mud flew from the soles of Faith's boots. "It's this runnin' crap! It su—"
"If you say it sucks again," warned Buffy, "I will personally make you eat the next solid object I nearly run into."
"I don't like it either," Kennedy agreed, "but with some unknown whatever the hell, where-ever the hell shooting god knows what at us, we need a second to figure stuff out."
"Like, say, where we are?" queried Buffy, checking out the skyline as proficiently as possible given her rate of speed. "I can't see anything through these leaves, but I don't hear any traffic. I think we're somewhere isolated."
"There's a preserve or something not too far outta town," Faith informed her two companions. "'Bout five, ten miles. Pretty dense. I think we're there."
Buffy shot Faith an appraising look. "I guess that's as good a possibility as anything else."
"Do you think there's anyone else here?" asked Kennedy and then clarified her question. "Any other Slayers?"
Buffy appeared doubtful. "I don't think so. Why would he keep them separate but us together? And that goblin thing seemed pretty fixed on just us."
"Really no way to be sure," replied Faith. "Best just to work on what we know."
"Speaking of, what do we know?" Buffy glanced quickly from side to side, waiting for possible theories while simultaneously ducking underneath a thick tree limb directly in her path.
Kennedy spoke first. "Not a lot. Somet—"
"Aw man!" Faith's tone was highly indignant. "Now that's just wrong!"
She slid to a halt and, after going a few more paces, so did Kennedy and Buffy.
"Faith, come on, we need to keep moving," urged Buffy.
Kennedy frowned. "What's the matter?"
"Jerk took my knife! Dammit," spat Faith viciously. "That was my favorite!" She narrowed her eyes and regarded Buffy with some bitterness before adding, "Second favorite."
The blonde sighed. "It was years ago. Get over it."
"Okay, so we're weaponless on top of everything else," summed up Kennedy as she looked around in disgust. "Figures."
"I haven't even met this guy yet and I already hate him," spat Faith.
Glowering angrily, she stomped across the floor of the forest but hadn't gone more than a furious step or two before the area around her suddenly erupted, sending a flurry of leaves flying everywhere. Acting on instinct alone, Faith took a graceful leap to the side, tucked herself into a roll and then landed on her feet again moments later. She focused on the area of former danger – a large net had efficiently scooped up everything in the immediate vicinity, which would have included Faith had she not been so quick off the mark.
"Oh. Traps. Yay," declared Buffy flatly.
"The whole forest's probably wired," remarked a thoughtful Kennedy. She turned to Faith. "You alright?"
"Five by five," nodded Faith. "Be better when I can punch somethin', though."
The squelch of a footfall, approaching steadily from behind caused all three Slayers to reassess their present predicament.
"Come on," was Buffy's recommendation. "Let's keep going."
Neither Faith nor Kennedy voiced any objection as they raced after Buffy, but they had only gone a short distance when Faith rebelled.
"Nah, you know what?" Her tone was firm. "I had enough'a this. We're Slayers. We don't run from scary crap, scary crap runs from us, know what I'm sayi—"
She stopped short as she almost collided with a bulky object directly in her path – the hunter had arrived. Displaying nimble expertise, Buffy and Kennedy also skidded to a stop, flanking Faith who had obviously been startled by the abrupt appearance but, as always, was making a fast recovery.
"Nice trick," she sneered. "Who'd you learn that from? Jason Voorhees?"
Barradon either failed to get the joke or didn't find it particularly amusing. Faith, however, seemed unconcerned at his lack of mirth.
"Guess you're the big nasty guy, thinks he can take on the Slay Team Supreme an' score a few more notches on the belt buckle, huh?" She eyed him critically. "Sorry to disappoint."
The words were barely out of her mouth before she delivered a backhanded punch to Barradon's jaw with enough force and momentum to shatter bone – had he been human. Which he most certainly was not. Therefore, the only visible effect was a slight jerk of his head to one side. Faith blinked in surprise at the minimal reaction.
"You're strong," the demon admitted with a smidgen of admiration. "Excellent. Though I'm guessing you meant for that to hurt this much?"
And with that, Barradon drew back his arm and struck Faith with a blow that mirrored perfectly the one she had delivered to him. This time, the outcome was far more impressive. Lifted off her feet, Faith literally sailed through the air, crashing into – and ultimately through – a small copse of slender trees. She fell in a tumbled heap upon a pile of rotting twigs and pinecones. Instantly, Kennedy and Buffy rushed to her side, but Barradon was in no great hurry.
"This is great," the monster enthused. "When I kill you three, I'm betting I'll get so many points, I'll leave those Blohdi weaklings crying in the dust."
Kennedy glowered at Barradon as Buffy peered anxiously into Faith's pale face. Her eyes were closed and there were the beginnings of a purple fistmark showing on her chin. With a small shake of her head, the blonde opened her mouth as though to speak.
"Don't say it," threatened Faith, her lids still clamped shut.
With a snap of her jaw, Buffy grudgingly complied with the request and then nodded tersely at Kennedy. Together, they hauled the fallen Slayer to her feet, threw one limp arm over each shoulder and then fled the area as swiftly as possible.
Barradon was nonchalant as he watched them go. "Oh yeah," he whispered, black eyes glittering like polished onyx. "They'll be worth so much more then that sniveling sorcerer."
A huge grin crossed his face, revealing the wicked canine fangs. He settled his bow and quiver more comfortably on his massive shoulder and gleefully rubbed his hands together before resuming his relentless pursuit.
In the booth of a small local restaurant, Tara and Xander sat across from each other and watched the waitress deposit their meals on the table: a hungry-man sized burger with a double order of steak fries for the carpenter, and a bowl of vegetable pasta for the blonde. Laying bare his beef patty, Xander grabbed the nearby bottle of ketchup and began to shake vigorously.
"Busts all around," he sympathized. "Big letdown."
"Yeah," admitted Tara with a slight frown. "Who knew that Trillium had such a housing problem?"
Xander grinned. "Well, maybe the sixth or seventh time's the charm."
"Let's hope," sighed the witch.
Unscrewing the cap, Xander held the bottle upside down over his burger and waited expectantly but no glob of tomato-y goodness materialized.
Tara tilted her head. "It's a good thing you're with me," she told the carpenter thankfully. "Who knows what I might've already settled on without you."
"Hey," replied Xander, squinting down the neck of the bottle, "helpin' out my friends? It's what I live for." With a frown, he wishfully suspended the ketchup over his burger again. Still nothing.
Tara stifled an amused chuckle as Xander began to pound on the bottom of the stubborn bottle with his fist. His efforts were suddenly rewarded with a large splooch of red paste that landed partly on his meat patty but mostly on his shirt. With an exasperated puff, the carpenter slammed the bottle on the table.
"Great," he grimaced as he glared disdainfully at his chest. "That's just great. Very manly."
"No, it's fine," the blonde assured with a twinkle. "We'll tell everyone it's, uhm, blood. From a fight."
"Can well tell them I was defending your besmirched honor?" asked a hopeful Xander.
"Absolutely, Tara confirmed. "I'll even clasp my hands together and bat my eyelashes at appropriate intervals." She proceeded to give him a live demonstration.
With a broad grin, the carpenter selected a large fry from his plate and used it to scoop some of the ketchup off his shirt before popping it into his mouth. While chewing happily, he grabbed a wad of napkins and started to scrub at the stain. Tara's expression was one of fond indulgence as she watched the vain attempt.
"Thank you," she told him, her tone sincere.
Xander shot her a brief glance. "For defending your besmirched honor?" Picking up another fry, he waved it dismissively before committing it to the same fate as the first. "Don't mention it. There will be no smirching of any kind, be- or otherwise, while Xander Harris is on the case."
Tara smirked. "Not for that."
"Oh, the apartment thing?" queried the carpenter, still scouring away at the fabric of his shirt. "It was all a clever ruse to get a free lunch and be seen in the company of a pretty lady, think nothing of it."
He regarded the now shredded napkins and then scowled at the stain that seemed to have spread even further. Tossing the used serviettes aside, he seized the bottle of tomato sauce and dangled it over his burger. An expression of delight crossed his face as a thick but cooperative dollop of ketchup fell neatly in the middle of the patty.
"For Willow," Tara stated. Xander glanced into her earnest face and arched a quizzical eyebrow.
"For saving Willow," the blonde clarified. "A-And the world too," she added wryly. "But mostly Willow."
Xander returned Tara's smile with one of his own, but appeared embarrassed by the declaration. He averted his eye and ducked his head. Still squirming under Tara's affectionate gaze, he looked up and shrugged, apparently uncertain of what to say.
"She's Willow, you know?" he finally managed.
Tara nodded, making the carpenter aware that she understood only too well. An awkward silence reigned as Tara absently-mindedly twirled her fork into the pasta and Xander jammed his bun back onto the beef patty. Both seemed at a loss for words.
Eventually, Xander spoke. "I had to sign for you." The statement was made in a quiet, painful voice, and the blonde glanced up, confused. "Your- The body. Dawn was ... " His voice trailed away and he shook his head, reluctant to expand upon that train of thought. "And Buffy was too busy trying to keep Dawn together," he continued. "I figured, hey – not useful for anything else, might as well get the paperwork."
Tara was openly affected by the information Xander had provided – the actions and reactions surrounding her death – but she fought to keep emotion at bay.
The carpenter prodded at his untouched burger. "That was the worst day of my entire life." He rubbed at his forehead. "First Buffy, then you and Will ... The worst."
After a long pause, Tara reached to gently grasp Xander's hand, giving it a comforting squeeze. He engulfed it with both of his own and treated the blonde to a smile of immense gratitude. They remained that way for a moment, then pulled apart.
"She loves you, you know," the carpenter stated matter-of-factly. "She never stopped."
The witch cast down her eyes. "I know."
Silence reigned once more. This time, it was Tara who broke the tense hush.
"But is that enough?"
Barradon moved slowly through the undergrowth, stopping periodically to examine the forest floor and inspect the foliage around him. His air was almost casual, but there could be little doubt that he was engaged in tracking and stalking. Leaning over, he scrutinized something by the base of a tree that had caught his eye and then smirked. He looked up expectantly into the branches, and was met with a solid kick to the face. The impact caused him to stagger, more from surprise than force, although he struggled to regain his footing.
With a perfectly executed flip over the tree limb from which she had been dangling, Buffy somersaulted in mid-air and landed securely on the ground just behind the demon. Still somewhat unsteady, he turned to be greeted by a vicious uppercut to the jaw that caused his head to rock slightly backward. The blonde frowned at Barradon's reaction, obviously hoping that the attack would have been more devastating. Ducking swiftly, she evaded the returning blow.
"You know," she mused, "I was wondering ..."
She paused to avoid a powerful punch.
"... have you considered stamp collecting?"
Balling her fist, she rammed it into his stomach, but the resulting effect was minimal at best.
"All the thrill ..." she continued, refusing to be dissuaded as she carefully aimed another jab which scored no more success than the first.
"... none of the violence."
The ensuing swing caught her a little off-guard, but she managed to swerve out of harm's way.
"Cuz this 'killing people for sport' thing?" Apparently Buffy had no intention of being silenced any time soon.
She leapt nimbly to one side – another near miss.
"Not really socially acceptable."
Springing from her hands into a series of neat back flips, the blonde dodged a flurry of onslaughts.
"Seriously," she added, standing upright once more, "I think you and philanthropy have a promising future together."
"That's 'philately'," corrected Kennedy, watching the fight over the top of a nearby thicket. She looked at Faith with a scornful twist of her mouth and rolled her eyes.
Although the dark-haired Slayers were some distance from the ongoing combat, they had secured themselves a clear visual of the battle area. The pair's posture was virtually identical with legs astride and arms crossed, as were their expressions – a combination of boredom and irritation. It appeared they were less than satisfied with Buffy's valiant attempt at dominance which, given the sounds of shuffling feet and occasional grunt, was still continuing.
"Gotta say, her way? Not impressed," commented Faith.
Kennedy sneered. "What's she gonna do, banter him to death?"
A resounding crack emanated from the entertainment arena, and an obviously blasted Buffy skidded across the ground on her back, coming to a halt at their feet. They peered down curiously.
"Told you we should'a come with," Faith told her.
"I didn't want it to be too confrontational," confided a breathless Buffy.
"He's trying to kill us," Kennedy pointed out with unnecessary emphasis. "Odds are good there'll be confrontation."
Three pairs of eyes drifted toward the former area of altercation, where the sounds of Barradon regrouping could be heard. "Talk time's over," Buffy decided.
"Never thought I'd hear those words outta your mouth," retorted Faith, quickly joining Kennedy in the other woman's efforts to haul Buffy up into a standing position. Mission accomplished, all three promptly disappeared deeper into the forest.
Barradon watched their departure with much enjoyment.
"It's not just a game," he murmured delightedly, "it's a show, too."
Ensconced in the Sanctum, Willow had adopted a lotus position, body relaxed and eyes closed. Giles sat across from her, leaning forward on the edge of his chair, elbows resting on his knees and chin cupped in his hands.
"Imagine a lake," he instructed. His voice was even and low, the tone comforting and calm. "A still body of water. The surface undisturbed, the waters clear. There is peace here. There is you here. There is only you."
The redhead inhaled deeply. Her expression became almost serene as she entered a trance-like state.
"Do you see it?" prompted the Watcher gently.
Willow nodded slowly and her affirmative response held a dreamy quality. "Yes."
Giles inched closer. "Tell me," he urged softly.
"I see the waters," mused Willow. "The magicks."
The Watcher seemed pleased. "Good."
Willow continued. "There's so much. So clean. But ..."
Her voice trailed away as the aura of serenity wilted. A tiny frown of concern followed in its wake.
"There's dark," she murmured. "Just over there. So deep, I can't see the bottom."
Giles was quick to offer reassurance. "It's all right. I'm here; I won't let it hurt you."
The wavering air of distress was replaced with one of tranquility again.
"What else do you see?" encouraged the Watcher.
"There's a channel," the witch told him.
A deep crease established itself firmly on Giles' forehead. "A channel?"
"For the water," Willow explained. "It flows away. It flows to ..."
Her body snapped to attention as the redhead's eyes opened wide.
"It flows to Tara."
She regarded Giles with alarm, but the Watcher simply nodded sagely almost as though he had anticipated such a revelation. His composed reaction, however, did little to soothe the redhead's rattled nerves.
"I'm freaking out," she declared in an accusatory tone. "You're nodding and I'm freaking out. Why aren't you freaking out too? That's totally unfair! There should be a two-part freak out here!"
Leaning back in his chair, Giles smothered a small smile at her peevish recrimination. "I was beginning to suspect as much."
"Well don't!" commanded the redhead sternly. "Stop suspecting bad things! Why can't you suspect things like ... like ... things that aren't bad and scary!"
Giles allowed his smile to emerge. "This isn't necessarily bad or scary, Willow."
"Giles," began Willow firmly. "We're talking about the magick. You know, the magick I have to fight with, like, always? I don't want that for her. She has enough going on."
Crossing his arms, the Watcher carefully formulated a reply. "I'm not sure we'll be able to do much about it. When you severed the connection Tara had to those who raised her, you had to tap directly into her essence. There's no way of knowing exactly how far or- or how deep those spellcasters were linked to her." He shook his head in wonder. "The powers you must have exercised in order to do such a thorough job all on your own would have been tremendous."
Willow shook her head. "I don't really know. I just ... I couldn't let her ..."
"I understand," Giles stated kindly. "But I don't know exactly what this means. This may require considerable study, with both you and Tara."
"I don't want her having to deal with this," the redhead told him with authority.
"Perhaps you should let Tara decide what she does and doesn't 'deal' with?" suggested the Watcher.
Conceding the point, Willow hung her head and appeared a little ashamed at her demand. Then her eyes grew round as fear crept across her features.
"What about the dark magick?" Her tone teetered on desperation. "It can't infect her, Giles."
The Watcher gave the implication some thought. "I'll make some phone calls and double check, but I don't think you should be overly concerned. Tara is a generational witch, she's been brought up to adhere to very strict and specific guidelines when it comes to magick. Even if she is able to access your darker powers, I doubt very much that she would succumb to such impulses to use them."
"I don't want 'doubt very much'," insisted the redhead. "I want 'won't happen ever'." She shook her head adamantly. "It can't happen. Not to her."
Giles stood up and laid a consoling hand on Willow's shoulder. "We'll make every effort to ensure it won't, I promise."
"Okay," agreed the witch, taking a deep breath. "Okay, so meantime – what can I do? I can't just ... sit around and wait and hope for answers. I have to do something."
"I'm not altogether sure. This is new territory, for all of us," Giles said with some hesitancy.
To the Watcher's mild amusement, Willow took it upon herself to assume control of the situation.
"Alrighty then," she stated matter-of-factly. "Let's put the wagons in a circle and figure out how to keep everyone safe. I, for one, am buying extra stock in 'safe' this year."
Deep in the wooded area, the trio was moving low to the ground. Assuming semi-crouched positions, they crept rather than ran with former full-tilt acceleration. Kennedy had taken point with Buffy and Faith on each flank. The posture was deliberate and determined – the Slayers were now stalkers and hunters.
Kennedy's voice was hushed when she spoke. "We've been going about this all wrong. This thing's stronger and tougher than we are, but everything's got a vulnerability. If we gouge out his eyes, he can't see us. Bust his kneecaps, he can't follow us."
"Might be looking at the exception here," Faith told her. "This guy seems pretty solid."
"If you stick to just strength, sure," admitted Kennedy. "What's clearly called for here is finesse." She glanced briefly at her two companions with only barely disguised derision. "Which at least I have." Buffy and Faith glared, but if she noticed, Kennedy didn't appear concerned. "He's got a weakness. All we have to do is find it."
Buffy's cheerfully snide response was overly simple. "Maybe he's a chocoholic!" She snapped her fingers. "Darn, and me without my Whitman's Sampler."
Kennedy chose to ignore the barb. Her eyes narrowed as she spied a figure in the distance. She gestured to Buffy and Faith, instructing them to hold off. "There he is," she whispered.
Less than fifty yards away, Barradon was slowly proceeding in their direction, intently scrutinizing trees and studying the ground as he progressed toward them.
"Alright, stay back and watch," hissed Kennedy. "I'll show you how it's done."
Plainly irked at the aura of suggested superiority, Buffy and Faith simultaneously straightened, took an exaggerated step backward and threw their hands in the air. The action seemed to scream, 'you want it, you got it.'
Kennedy began to creep stealthily toward her target. With a quick glance at each other, Buffy and Faith returned to their former crouching positions, but they made sure to keep Kennedy in their sights. As the predatory Slayer moved out of earshot, Buffy leaned toward Faith.
"Bet you she doesn't last a minute."
"Demon dude must'a stamped 'sucker' on my forehead if you think I'm takin' that one," scoffed Faith. "She ain't gonna last thirty seconds, forget a minute."
Both craned their necks for a better view. Kennedy had just about reached Barradon and he seemed to be as yet unaware of the imminent danger. Drawing back her arm, Kennedy launched a massive punch directed where the demon's kidneys would be located – if he had any, which was far from a sure thing. This certainly grabbed his attention but otherwise, had little effect. Ostensibly, the Slayer had been prepared for such since, by the time Barradon turned, she was already in full swing with a kick that sideswiped his left leg at the patella. Hoping to hear the satisfying crunch of disintegrating bone, Kennedy registered visible disappointment at the ensuing thud, but a degree of triumph snaked into her eyes as he audibly grunted and fell heavily to one knee.
Pressing her advantage, Kennedy followed with a hefty boot to the solar plexus. Still in the process of struggling to his feet, Barradon was unable to effectively counter the well-aimed kick and Kennedy managed quite successfully to knock some of the wind from his sails.
Back at the observation point, Buffy turned to Faith with a smirk. "Maybe you should have taken that bet." Faith shrugged ruefully, but then their briefly jovial air fast dissipated as Barradon snarled at the Slayer who faced him.
Well on the road to regaining his balance, he surged with surprising speed. Executing a forward flip, Kennedy somersaulted over the demon and landed behind him, her feet avoiding his outstretched hands by no more than a centimeter. It had been a close call, but the Slayer remained unruffled. Turning on the proverbial dime, she speedily wrapped one arm around his head while the other gripped as much of the hulking neck and shoulders as was humanly possible.
"Game," she murmured victoriously into Barradon's ear, "set and—"
The muscles of her arms tightened as she delivered a savage twist in opposite directions, expecting to be rewarded with a gratifying snap of the neck. To Kennedy's dismay, the demon's head didn't move – not one solitary inch. A tiny frown crossed her forehead. Gritting her teeth, she made another attempt. Still nothing. Her eyes widened.
Kennedy scrambled to disengage herself, but it was far too late for salvation. Leaning forward, Barradon threw back his head as though it were a wrecking ball. With a sharp crack which echoed through the wooded area, the Slayer soared into the air and traveled for at least a dozen feet before landing like a stone. There was no motion whatsoever – Kennedy was out cold.
Faith blinked at the sharp turn of events. "So much for finesse."
She didn't have time to indulge overly long on the failure, however. As Barradon advanced on the unconscious Kennedy, both she and Buffy sprang into action and hurried to the rescue.
"You grab her, I'll take a rematch," yelled Faith.
Buffy was wary. "Don't do anything stupid."
Faith turned to her with a maniacal grin. "Who me?"
The blonde rolled her eyes. "Right."
At the sound of their approach, Barradon turned to face the pair, presumably deliberating on which one to take down first. Faith made the decision for him. She closed the distance while Buffy continued to move toward Kennedy.
With a narrowed and threatening gaze, the dark-haired Slayer jabbed an infuriated finger in the demon's direction. "We got unfinished business."
"Not for long," came the crisp reply.
Moving in, Faith began to exchange blows with the intrepid Barradon, sneaking in an attack when and where an opening presented itself, while attempting to dodge everything he threw at her. Keeping a cautious eye on the proceedings, Buffy hoisted Kennedy onto her shoulders in a fireman's carry and started to make good her escape.
"You say that now," snorted a disdainful Faith, "but ..."
Hauling back, she clocked Barradon across the jaw, but he wasn't even momentarily stunned. As his beefy fist swung with alarming velocity, Faith barely managed to roll to the ground and scoot safely out of the way. She sprang to her feet with a condescending grin.
"... I learned some stuff since our last fight."
With a quick glance, Barradon turned to watch the retreating Buffy and then, apparently indifferent to the departure, refocused his attention on Faith. Cashing-in on the brief lapse of concentration, Faith seized the opportunity to lunge and plant a balled fist into the demon's chest. She was rewarded with a clip to the head which made her stagger as she successfully skirted the heftily-aimed returning blow.
"First of all," the Slayer informed him with a snarl, "don't trade punches with you."
Her footing now secure, Faith pressed the point home by launching a spinning kick that packed sufficient force to knock the demon's head sideways – the movement was slight but to Faith it held significant satisfaction. She jogged nimbly in place, hopping from one foot to the other. Quite obviously, the Slayer was relishing the moment. As Barradon's neck swiveled once more in her direction, he adopted a crouching position, poised and ready to attack. But Faith was more than prepared.
"An' second?" Swiftly reaching down, she scoped up a large mound of dirt and gravel. Then, with impeccable accuracy, tossed the entire gritty handful directly into his eyes. "The Brat has good ideas sometimes."
Roaring in surprised agony, the demon clawed at his face, desperately trying to clear the particles of sharp grit and stinging dirt.
"But don't tell her I said so," smirked Faith. Glancing over her shoulder, she spied Buffy making her way through the trees, Kennedy still thrown across the blonde's shoulders. Faith favored Barradon with a final, parting sneer, even though he was unable to appreciate it, and ran at full-speed after them.
The Penn State banner in Meghan's bedroom, complete with the head of a Nittany Lion, bore the slogan "I Bleed Blue And White." The proclamation might easily have been close to the truth given that the room had been painted antique white and decorated with bright navy furnishings. A poster of Jeremy McGrath, expertly maneuvering his bike in mid-air and aptly entitled "No Fear," dominated the wall over her bed. On a computer desk, next to the monitor, was the framed photograph of a much younger Meghan, hair in pigtails and sporting a "Mighty Mouse" t-shirt. The image clutched a rod and reel in one hand and triumphantly held aloft a freshly caught trout in the other. Next to her stood a man who, judging from the family resemblance, was probably her father. His face glowed with pride as his arm hugged her shoulders.
The floor was littered with overnight slumber party paraphernalia, as well as several bags indicating that the girls had probably just returned from a trip to the mall. It was a cheerful, typical teenage girl arrangement, the illusion of which was completely shattered by Meghan and Jackie's bickering.
"It's very simple: you don't win because she's not new," stated Meghan firmly.
"But she's Willow's!" Jackie vehemently protested.
Meghan shook her head. "But you said Willow's new girlfriend. You said it, and you said it multiple times at that. Not new, not a win."
Jacked scowled. "But I just meant—"
Much to her dismay, Brenda became dragged into the argument. "Brenda," demanded Meghan, "did she or did she not make the 'new' part very specific."
Brenda shuffled her feet and threw Jackie a rather apologetic look. "You kinda did," she admitted hesitantly.
Meghan tossed her hand at the smaller girl. The gesture screamed 'There you go', but she followed it with, "Thus spake Miss Photographic Memory," just to drive the point home.
Jackie visibly huffed at Brenda. "Thought we agreed that you were on my side on all things?" she accused.
As Brenda made a valiant attempt to splutter some sort of neutral answer, Dawn rolled her eyes, snagged the remote for Meghan's TV and then threw herself into a beanbag chair. Jabbing at the "on" button, she began to scan the channels. Ginny joined her on the floor, sitting with her back against the side of the chair and resting her head on Dawn's arm. She watched the conflict taking place in the center of the room with some distress.
"I hate it when they get like this," she complained.
Dawn continued to flip through the programs. "They're always like this," she said as though it were an irrefutable fact unlikely to change.
"Yeah," agreed Ginny with a pout. "I hate that."
Over the head of an anxious Brenda who was stuck in the middle of the dueling pair – perhaps trying to make peace or possibly seeking a way to extract herself from the fracas, it was difficult to tell – Jackie and Meghan continued to squabble. Dawn glanced up at the shrill voices steadily increasing in volume and then shrugged. The scenario was nothing new and certainly failed to hold her interest.
"I dunno," she confided to Ginny. "Sort of reminds me of me and Buffy."
Ginny's eyes grew wide. "I'm glad my older sister just pretends I was never born."
"Some days, I think that's the preferable sibling reaction," Dawn replied, eyes returning to the television screen.
A bad kung fu movie appeared as she switched to yet another channel. The altercation seeming to have died a natural death for the moment, the three participants crossed the room. Dawn watched with some amusement as Jackie threw herself on the bed and Brenda, with a sigh of relief, flopped down next to her. Digging deep into one of the many shopping bags, Meghan extracted a can of Pizzalicious Pringles. Popping it open, she shoveled a small stack of chips into her mouth before also claiming a spot on the floor.
"World War Three averted?" Dawn ventured cheerily.
Jackie nudged the back of Brenda's head with her foot. "Switzerland abstained," she stated.
With a sheepish look, Brenda attempted to redirect the focus of attention. "Hey, look," she announced pointing to the television. "Fake martial arts."
The ruse was successful. All five girls watched intently for a moment. Meghan continued to munch noisily and then, through a mouthful of Pringles, declared, "No way. That's impossible."
"Which part?" queried Jackie. "It all seems pretty ridiculous to me."
"The thing he did, off the wall?" came the reply.
Ginny at least was impressed with the move. "I liked that a lot, I thought it was neat."
"Neat, yes. Realistic? No," scoffed Meghan.
Brenda felt obliged to set the record straight. "I don't think the point of these movies is to really focus on the realism, Meghan."
"And anyway," added Dawn, "it's possible."
Four pairs of dubious eyes turned in her direction.
"No way," insisted Meghan.
"Really?" queried a marveling Ginny. "You can do that?"
"Well, no, not me," Dawn replied with some reluctance. "But I know some people who can."
"You're full of it, Summers," Jackie told her scornfully.
"No, for real!" defended Dawn. "Kennedy? She's been teaching me some stuff. She can do that. She's, like, a black belt in stuff she can't even pronounce. I'm learning some cool moves, though." Her tone drifted into disappointment. "Mostly defensive." She perked up. "But still. I can throw, like, anybody."
"Anybody?" asked a doubtful Brenda.
Ginny regarded Dawn with no little admiration and some excitement. "Could you throw me?"
"Ginny, an emaciated smurf could throw you," sneered Meghan. "You're, like 25 pounds soaking wet."
Deflated, Ginny's chin dropped to her chest.
"I could totally throw you," Dawn assured her. It was a genuine effort to buoy the smaller girl's spirits, even though the inference itself was less than flattering. Regardless, Ginny's expression brightened considerably and she beamed with delight.
Pleased, Dawn focused on each of the other three teenagers. "I could throw any of you."
"Prove it," challenged Meghan.
Dawn rose to her feet. "Alright, I will."
She began to arrange the beanbag, assorted sleeping bags, pillows and other cushiony items to provide a soft landing place as Ginny moved to the other side of the room, out of harm's way, and Brenda's face assumed an expression of worry.
"Are you sure, Dawn?" asked a concerned Brenda. "Meghan's like twice your size."
Jackie snorted. "Please. Have you seen her inhaling those chips? She's gotta be at least five times Dawn's size by now."
Meghan's eyes narrowed and if looks had the ability to kill, Jackie might well have been six foot under already, but nonetheless, much to Meghan's consternation, Jackie continued to breathe with annoying regularity. Crossing the room, Meghan thrust the can of Pringles at Ginny, who accepted them with great pleasure and tipped out a handful. Meghan made her way to the center of the room and faced Dawn.
"Now come at me," Dawn instructed with a quick glance behind to make sure that the quilted area was sufficient. "But try not to fight it too hard, or you might not land on the soft bits."
With a sharp nod of understanding, Meghan lunged at the other girl. Seizing Meghan's outstretched arm, Dawn took a quick step forward and then deftly flipped Meghan into the air. She landed on the makeshift mat with a heavy thud and her lungs expelled oxygen with a resounding and audible "whoof!" She lay there for a second as the room spun and tilted her head to regard a slightly smug, upside-down Dawn.
Meghan's eyes shone with appreciation. "Wicked!" she puffed.
By now, the other three girls were chatting amongst themselves in an animated fashion, all regarding Dawn with a newfound respect. For her part, Dawn basked in the implied praise until a deep frown crept across her forehead. Raising a hand to her temple, she shook her head sharply just once before the frown increased in its intensity. She stumbled unsteadily to one side, eyes rolling backward, before collapsing in an untidy heap.
As she ran, Buffy puffed a little and struggled to keep the dead weight that was Kennedy balanced equally on her shoulders. Being unburdened in such a fashion, Faith led the way and quickly stole a look behind.
"No sign of him," she told the blonde.
"Good," breathed Buffy. "Excellent. I'm entirely in support of this new development."
Faith frowned. "This the way out?"
"No idea," admitted Buffy. "But the forest has to end somewhere. If we keep going in the same direction ..." She paused mid-stride to shift Kennedy's bulk. "One thing I know, I could run faster if Princess Critical Strike here woke up."
"Want me to take her for a while?" asked Faith, slowing down.
With a sharp inclination of her chin, the blonde urgently conveyed the necessity of perpetual motion. "No time. We've gotta keep moving. That guy could catch up with us—" She huffed and repositioned Kennedy's body again. "—any moment. Last thing we need is something slowing us d—"
The next word was effectively lost in an exclamation of surprise as she and Faith abruptly fell through a camouflage of twigs and leaves. Buffy cursed as she scrabbled to maintain her hold on Kennedy, but to no avail. Slipping from the blonde's grasp, the unconscious Slayer tumbled headfirst into the dismally dank pit. She disappeared into the darkness below, Buffy and Faith not far behind.
On the floor of the pit, approximately 18-foot deep and 10-foot in diameter, the three Slayers lay on the ground. A small amount of light filtered down from the opening. Momentarily stunned, Buffy blinked once or twice and then let out a small groan.
"Your rescue techniques bite," Kennedy complained, ironically having regained consciousness as a result of the fall.
Faith was also beginning to stir. "Next time we'll use more finesse," she croaked.
"You know," remarked Buffy thoughtfully as she rose on shaky legs, "on my remarkably extensive list of crappy days, this one's starting to rank."
Struggling to their feet the trio began to inspect their surroundings. Faith regarded the pit entranceway above with a critical eye.
"Too high," she determined and nobody disputed the fact. She took stock of the pit's length. "And not enough room for a running jump." Again, the statement was met without challenge.
Running a hand over the walls, Buffy delivered her assessment. "Smooth." She pounded on the packed dirt. "And hard."
"We can probably carve some handholds ..." began Kennedy, twisting her neck from side to side and wincing as a muscle protested.
The blonde shook her head. "That'll take too long. This wasn't naturally made. You can bet tall, gray and lumpy will be along any second to check this. I very strongly suggest we not be here when he does."
Faith paced the pit liked a caged panther. Her forehead was creased with concentration. "I think I got an idea," she announced slowly.
Both Buffy and Kennedy followed Faith's gaze as she jerked her head toward the mouth of the pit.
Faith looked meaningfully at Buffy. "B, think you could toss me up there?"
Buffy moved to stand next to Faith and considered the proposition from the dark-haired Slayer's perspective. She nodded speculatively.
"If you're jumping too ... yeah. I think so."
The trio exchanged knowledgeable glances, obviously now all on the same page.
"Let me go first," stated Kennedy. She turned to Faith. "You're the tallest. The few extra inches might be crucial."
With a curt nod of agreement, Faith took a step backward as Buffy moved to stand near the wall. Leaning over, she cupped her hands and then clenched the fingers tightly, holding the human stirrup low so as to provide the most amount of boosting power. She shot Kennedy a quick look.
Kennedy was indeed ready for launch. She planted a foot firmly in Buffy's hands as the blonde gritted her teeth and steeled herself for lift-off. Kennedy first made sure that her balance was sound and then issued the countdown.
"On three. One ... two ... three!"
Amassing all her strength, Buffy tossed Kennedy upward at the exact moment Kennedy executed her jump. Sailing high into the air, she managed to gain a hold at the edge of the pit, but it was a rough landing and for a split second, it appeared as though she might slip back down. But then, she dug deep with her fingers and, legs kicking violently, pulled herself out.
Faith treated Buffy to a good-natured shove of success and the blonde grinned in response. Then, the pair stared with anticipation at the mouth of the pit and waited. The time seemed to drag and there was still no sign of Kennedy. Buffy and Faith turned to each other, each wearing a worried frown.
"You don't think she ...?" ventured the blonde.
But then, Kennedy's head reappeared.
"Did a quick sweep of the area," she informed her trapped companions. "No sign of Nimrod."
With a quick nod, Faith noted Buffy's inquiring glance as Kennedy dug the toes of her boots into the soft ground above and dangled her arms into the pit. No more words were required and none were spoken. Repeating the same procedure as before, Buffy hurled Faith into the air and Kennedy caught the outstretched hands with a smooth and effortless motion.
"Insert your obligatory weight joke here," Kennedy told the suspended Slayer with a grin.
"Ha ha," retorted Faith before shouting down to Buffy, "Get a move on, B. I gotta listen to much more'a Kenn's 'humor', I'm takin' my chances solo."
"Coming right up," was the reply.
The blonde critically eyed the set-up. Even with the combined arm length of Kennedy and Faith's entire body, it was still around a ten-foot jump. Backing up to the far wall, she flattened herself against it and then pressed her palms against the compact surface for extra take-off power. She came out of the blocks with arms pumping and a thunderous stride. Waiting until the last possible second, she gave a mighty thrust and reached out, gripping Faith by the shins. Immediately, Kennedy began to tug but was at a distinct disadvantage, lying as she was flat on her stomach, and she could make no headway.
"I don't have enough leverage to pull us up," she informed them. "You'll have to climb."
"Oh, this'll be fun," remarked the hanging Faith, tone dripping with sarcasm.
The blonde began to scale Faith's torso. "Believe me," she muttered through her endeavors, "when I've had this dream, you were nowhere in it."
Peering down at the spectacle, Kennedy shook her head ruefully. "I totally shouldn't've volunteered to go first."
It was something of a struggle, but Buffy eventually cleared Faith's body. Faith scowled as the blonde planted her foot firmly atop the dark hair to provide a final boost, but then she was gone and Faith looked up hopefully. Hauling herself to the surface, Buffy promptly crouched down next to Kennedy and then relieved the other woman of Faith's left hand. Together, they dragged the dangling Slayer from the depths and then all three collapsed in a breathless heap, staring down into the pit's interior.
"Alright," puffed Buffy, "show of hands: who's sick of this crap?"
Kennedy immediately raised a hand. Faith raised two.
Buffy nodded in agreement. "Then here's what we're gonna do ..."
Hands clasped behind his back, Xander followed Tara as she inspected yet another apartment. This time, it was a loft, similar to one Giles had purchased for himself but less spacious. Nonetheless, it possessed a quaint ambience and the blonde was obviously delighted with what it had to offer. A leasing agent provided pertinent details as she led Tara toward one of the room's many large windows.
"As you can see," the woman pointed out, "the view is second to none." She paused and then gestured to her left. "And only a few blocks from campus." She turned to Tara and smiled encouragingly. "Restaurants and shopping are all within walking distance, and we're right on the major bus routes."
Immensely impressed, Tara nodded with great enthusiasm and peered through the window like a kid window-shopping on Christmas Eve. The blonde's reaction did not go unnoticed by Xander and he began to critically examine the area with something of a frantic expression.
Meanwhile, the woman continued to work on selling the place. "We have our own laundry facilities in the building, and cable is included."
Her pitch complete, the agent stood back and treated Tara to a satisfied smile, ostensibly secure in the knowledge that it was a done deal. Judging by the pleasure that shone in Tara's face, it seemed that the witch was only moments away from claiming the loft as her own, and appeared to be already decorating and personalizing the apartment in her mind's eye. Glancing at Xander, she edged toward him with an air of expectancy.
"What do you think?" she asked excitedly, attempting to keep her voice low.
The carpenter shook his head emphatically, his eye casting about the room wildly. "Uhh ... uhh, no good."
A look of sharp surprise crossed Tara's features as she arched a quizzical eyebrow.
Xander stared at the ceiling as he searched desperately for a reasonable explanation. "Termites," he announced with authority.
"Termites," echoed Tara dubiously.
The answering nod was certain. "Yeah. Insatiable little devils. This place is a magnet for 'em."
Tara frowned and crossed her arms, eyeing him cautiously. "Xander, the building's made out of solid concrete."
"Concrete termites?" he offered with a weak grin.
"Okay, that's it."
Grabbing the carpenter by the elbow, she steered him firmly toward the leasing agent. He complied without protest, rather like a small boy who had been caught with his hand in the cookie jar and knew he was about to get his knuckles rapped for the transgression.
Without loosening her grip, Tara addressed the realtor. "It's a beautiful apartment. I have your card, so I'll sleep on it and let you know."
The woman's features wavered between disbelief and disappointment. Her mouth opened as if she were about to say something, but Tara was already steadfastly dragging Xander from the apartment while leveling him with a somewhat angry glare. They walked to the elevator in silence. Head hanging low, the carpenter watched apprehensively as the blonde jabbed at the 'Down' button. The pleasantly muted 'ding' of arrival materialized much sooner than the carpenter would have liked and he shuffled between the open doors with reluctance.
As soon as the elevator began its descent, Tara pinned Xander with her eyes. "What is going on?"
"I'm being helpful?" The statement was punctuated with a toothy grin that was equal parts hopeful and charming, but the blonde remained immune and unimpressed.
"You have a very interesting definition of the word," she responded in a level voice.
Xander scratched his head. He zealously scrutinized the row of numbered buttons and studied the interior of the elevator with great interest. Tara waited. It was plain that she was well aware he was buying time – whether to articulate the truth or formulate yet another fib was less clear. Finally, the carpenter cleared his throat and jumped in with both feet.
"I don't want you to move out."
The elevator slid to a smooth stop. The pair exited and moved down the hallway.
"You could try, you know ... saying something," rebuked Tara.
"Well I was," insisted the carpenter. "In my special Xander-way."
As they emerged into the street, Tara treated Xander to a penetrating look, indicating that this was far from the end of their discussion.
The carpenter shrugged and dragged his feet as they moved to the side and out of the main lanes of pedestrian traffic. "Look, if I just said, 'Hey, Tara, don't move out', you woulda smiled and said you had to and that woulda been that. Then you're gone."
"I'm just moving out of the house," the blonde replied, her tone much kinder now, "not going halfway around the world."
"Sure, I know that," Xander acknowledged. "Not today, anyway. But ..." With a sigh, he turned toward her, concern pushing into his expression. "I can't even pretend to know what you must be going through. What those scary eye-guys must've done to you. But I'm getting to be something of an expert in 'friends coming back from the dead'-ology, an' if it's one thing I learned the hard way the first time around, it's that you do all you can to support those friends."
"Xander," the blonde assured. "I'm fine ..."
With a violent shake of his head, Xander forcefully contradicted the statement as Tara glanced away and watched the passersby with exaggerated interest. "You're not fine," he insisted. "Now I admit, you're puttin' on a heck of a better show than Buffy did, but you're not foolin' us. You think we don't see the thousand-yard stare?" In all seriousness, he took stock of her profile and then added gently, "Tara, I've heard you crying at night."
Seemingly ashamed at the mild accusal, the blonde ducked her head and turned even further away, but Xander was having none of it. Stepping around to face Tara directly, he raised her chin with a delicate but steadfast finger.
"It's okay." The carpenter's smile was compassionate. "But what Dr. Xander prescribes is at least four hugs a day an' lots of love and understanding from your family. An' that's sorta hard to get when you're hiding across town."
"I'm not hiding," Tara objected, but her tone lacked conviction.
"You are hiding," Xander persisted. "You've been hiding since you got here, an' it's killing you. I may not always be the most insightful Scooby, but I know a thing or two about hiding from painful stuff. It'll get you in the end, one way or another. Trust me on this one."
Tara cast her eyes downward once more. "I just ... I can't ..."
Xander was quick to agree. "I get that too, and it's okay. You don't have to now. But I promise, you'll have to do it sooner or later, an' the longer you leave it, the worse it's gonna get. Until then though, you shouldn't be alone. You should be with us. We want you with us."
"But Willow ..." Tara's voice broke as she spoke the name, betraying her fears.
"Please," retorted Xander, dismissing outright whatever the witch might be thinking. "Willow was the queen of forgiveness before she had a few bad Goth moments, you really think she's gonna hold a grudge now? On you of all people? You nearly did somethin' pretty bad, true. Do you two need to talk about it? Hell yeah. But you know what?" He affixed Tara with an earnest stare. "This isn't about Will. This is about you."
Xander sighed heavily at Tara's uncertain expression before continuing. "If you really, deep in your gut think that moving out is the best thing for you, then okay. We'll go back and look at everything all over again, an' I swear this time I'll be nothing but honest. We can go out and look every day from sun-up to sundown until you find the perfect place, and I'll back you 100% all the way. I'll even happily go furniture shopping—" He thrust a finger in the air at Tara to further emphasize his point. "—an' trust me when I say I'd rather have that brain-weevil thing from Wrath of Kahn in my ear than shop for furniture."
That earned him a tiny smile, and Xander pressed onward, becoming serious again. "But if you've got a doubt, even a microscopic one about leaving, then please – don't go. Cuz I know we're all a lot happier with you around, an' I got a hunch the feeling's mutual."
The blonde maintained her silence for a long moment and it appeared as though she were physically unable to utter any words. Instead, she threw her arms around Xander, enveloping him within a tight hug. Relief flooding his countenance, the carpenter hugged Tara in return, gazing down at her warmly.
"See, lookit that: one hug down already," he cajoled. "What say I take you home and we get the other three?"
With shining eyes, Tara nodded and then broke free from the embrace. The smile she threw Xander's way was one of embarrassment but undeniable gratitude. Together, they walked toward the car. As he opened the passenger door, Tara glanced in his direction.
"That brain-bug thing, always freaked me out," she confided.
"Me too," replied the carpenter with a fierce shudder of repulsion. "Gyiiaah."
"She's awake!" announced a much-relieved Ginny as a groan escaped from Dawn's lips.
"Not too fast," cautioned Brenda worriedly, laying a restraining hand on Dawn's shoulder as the teenager started to move.
Dawn's response was confused and shaky. "What happened?"
Jackie stood up and crossed her arms. "Well, see, we were sort of relying on you for that part." The tone was sharp but relief was also apparent in her face.
"You did the flip-thing, then just ... passed out," Meghan explained. "It's only been for a few minutes, but still. You scared the crap out of us. We were two steps away from calling 911."
"Glad you didn't," breathed Dawn. "Buffy would've had a fit." With the help of Brenda and Jackie, she gingerly adopted a sitting position but almost immediately let out an acute moan, allowing her head to drop agonizingly into her hands.
"It's the headaches again, isn't it?" challenged Jackie.
Dawn winced. "Sort of. Never passed out before, though." She smiled weakly through the pain with forced humor. "That's new."
"New and scary!" twittered a concerned Ginny. "Dawn, I don't like this. What if something's wrong? What if you have a brain tu—"
"I don't," snapped Dawn.
"Sorry," came Ginny's meek response.
Dawn flashed her a feeble smile of apology. "No, it's okay. I just ... I don't think it's that."
"Then what is it?" demanded Meghan. "Because I gotta say ... random headaches, passing out ... It's not normal, Dawn."
"You've been putting this off for weeks," admonished Brenda with a frown, "but you have got to tell someone."
"Yes, please," Ginny practically begged. "Please tell someone."
Jackie was adamant in expressing her recommendation. "Tell someone or we tell them for you."
About to voice a protest, Dawn glanced at the four faces surrounding her. Each, in its own way, was determined and unswayable.
"Alright," she sighed, admitting defeat with marginal good grace. "I guess I've put things off long enough."
"Hey," greeted Tara softly as she entered the Sanctum. Willow and Giles turned at the sound of her voice, both having been lost in concentration as they poured over the open book between them.
The redhead beamed at Tara's unexpected arrival. "Hey!" she returned sunnily. "Didja find lots of great places? I bet you're so excited, with the new place and the moving in, and the—" Willow's eyes lit up and she waved her hands in the air. "We can have a party! A- A house warming party! It'll be like your first official mess to clean up!"
"Sounds like fun," Tara agreed, then added, "Well, the party part. Not so much the messy part."
Willow beamed even more brightly. "I'm sure we can work around it. So." Folding her hands in her lap, she leaned forward encouragingly, anxious for every detail. "Tell us all about it!"
Closing the door, Tara ventured further into the room and took a seat next to Willow.
"Well, it's pretty big," she began. "Nice place. It comes pre-furnished with roommates and everything." Willow frowned in confusion. "It's like it was made for me," continued the blonde. "There's a sign up on my door already. It's in a good neighborhood – just down the hall from where you sleep, actually." Tara smirked a little shyly at Willow, who was now grinning with pure delight, the penny having dropped with an irrefutable 'cha-chink.'
Tara glanced at the floor before raising her eyes and looking directly first at Giles and then at Willow. "And the best part is," she smiled, "it already feels like home."
"You're not leaving?" asked Willow.
"I'm not leaving," Tara confirmed.
It seemed as though the redhead's face might just split into two equal halves if her grin managed to get any bigger. Tara echoed the smile, but she soon glanced away and scooted her chair closer to the table. "So," she declared. "I guess it's time to start working on stuff."
She leaned forward, regarding with curiosity the book which the pair had been studying so avidly. She threw the Watcher a questioning glance and arched her eyebrow. Giles, who had been observing the exchange between the two women with a pleased expression, duly accepted the cue and snapped out of his reverie. He turned the volume slightly so that Tara could better see the text and the notes that had been made concerning its content.
Willow continued to grin for a moment longer, then she too focused her full attention on the work at hand.
Having made a complete recovery from the grit-infested assault, Barradon moved through the trees in a methodical and calm manner, confident that he had not lost the Slayers' trail. Pausing for a moment, he sniffed at the air and then turned his head slowly to the left. With a smile, he strolled leisurely in that direction. His smile widened considerably at the scene that soon met his eyes.
Suspended upside-down, about ten feet above the ground, Buffy dangled from the sturdy bough of one of the larger and more solid trees by a thick wire snare that was entangled around both her ankles. The Slayer looked for the most part none the worse for wear, though she was obviously quite dirty and the jacket of her tracksuit had gone missing at some point. An expression of amusement crossed the demon's face as he approached. Then, very pointedly, he surveyed the surrounding area.
"Abandoned, I see," he commented.
In typical fashion, Buffy didn't seem unduly perturbed by the observation. "I had a plan for taking you out," she sighed, "but they didn't think it would work. Then this happened, and, well ..."
"You're weak," Barradon told her with authority. "They were smart to leave you behind."
The blonde was most agreeable. "That's the conventional wisdom."
She crossed her arms. The gesture painted something of an absurd picture given that she was upside-down. "Now, I'm feeling generous," she stated cordially, "so I'll give you one last chance: give up the whole great gray hunter thing and you can still walk away from this."
The demon paused and stared at the blonde. An odd expression crept into his face. His mouth began to twitch and his nostrils began to flare. Then Barradon threw back his head let loose with a hearty roar of laughter. It was a full-blooded laugh, lusty and brimming with uncontrolled hilarity. The sound reverberated throughout the entire forest. But, as suddenly as the merriment had begun, it ceased and he focused on the Slayer with serious eyes.
"Your part in the hunt is over." His tone was matter-of-fact. "Now you die, and your friends will soon join you."
"Sooner than you think," Buffy rejoined cheerily.
Barradon was confused. "What?"
In less than a heartbeat, the demon was not only confused but also dazed as Faith, who had assumed an attack position behind him, swung a massive tree branch like a club and whacked him squarely in the back of the head. The force would have been more than sufficient to crush the skull of a normal person, but it only served to knock Barradon momentarily off-balance. Nonetheless, he winced with minor pain, although the recuperative period was virtually instantaneous and he whirled to face his assailant.
At the same time, from behind the large tree, Kennedy released the snare wire she was holding and Buffy fell to the ground, unraveling her bonds as she traveled downward. Landing on her hands, the blonde executed an athletic tumble that left her standing firmly on her feet. Shedding her allotment of the snare, Kennedy moved to join the blonde and then both of them rushed to Faith's side.
As Barradon brought his meaty fist down like a hammer to pound on Faith, she deftly used the thick branch to ward off the blow but grimaced as the bough snapped like a twig after deflecting only a small portion of the impact. The remaining force was enough to knock her back several feet into a tree and she hit the trunk with a heavy thud before sliding to the ground.
"A ruse," pondered the demon. His tone was complimentary. "Refreshingly different. It won't be enough to save you, however."
"'Refreshingly different'?" Buffy queried, her hands clasped behind her back. "What are we, a new soft drink?"
The demon declined to answer, choosing instead to advance murderously on the slowly recovering Faith.
Buffy sprang into action. Each of her hands had been sheathed in the material of her missing jacket, and one end of the half-inch steel wire snare was wrapped around each protected fist. With a snarl, she leapt for Barradon's back. Throwing out her arms, she looped the slack length of wire around the demon's neck and planted her feet squarely between his shoulder blades. Grunting with strain, the blonde Slayer gritted her teeth and pulled with every ounce of strength she could muster, trying her utmost to decapitate him on the spot.
Barradon's ebony eyes bulged slightly in their sockets, but not only did his head remain firmly attached, the skin was showing no signs of breaking. The effect was very much like attempting to behead a concrete post.
Attempting to take advantage of the situation, Kennedy entered the fray. "I was gonna follow up with some sort of 'punch' pun—"she smirked, aiming a mighty punch directly into Barradon's solar plexus. "But I think it was pretty obvious, don't you?"
The only outward result from the blow was that Barradon's muscles tensed and he surged against the force Buffy was exerting. With a great twang, the wire snapped, sending Buffy vaulting back through the air. The Slayer had just enough time to utter a small noise of surprise before landing flat on her back and skidding along the forest floor.
Kennedy observed all of this with a trained eye, and as Barradon stumbled forward, she dropped immediately into a crouch. With unerring precision, she lashed out with a brutal sideways kick, directly at the demon's left kneecap. Having already been attacked there once, the area was comparatively sensitive, and the monster grunted in pain. Kennedy allowed herself a satisfied grin as he was knocked further off-balance, and she quickly moved to take advantage. Another well-aimed kick to his side would have seen Barradon tumbling to the ground, but the demon had clearly decided enough was enough and this time he was ready.
As the Slayer's boot sped toward its target, the demon's hand came up and he caught it solidly. Instinctively, Kennedy tried to pull away, but much to her dismay, discovered she was held fast. She had just enough time to register the look of expectant pleasure on the hunter's face before he let loose with a resounding backhand. It was close, but Kennedy was able to pull back far enough to take only a glancing hit on the cheek that stunned her for an instant, and she fell as he released his hold.
Standing unseen at the demon's other side, Buffy was waiting for just such an opening and she seized the opportunity, using the momentum of Barradon's own swing to trip and throw him. For the first time, the Slayers had the satisfaction of seeing their opponent sprawled, flat on his back, on the forest floor. It truly was a Kodak moment and one that inspired Faith to charge.
Rushing to stand over Barradon, she plunged her fist straight down into his face. The direct hit carried much gratification but by now, it was becoming abundantly clear that this demon was not an enemy who could be taken out so easily. Raising an arm, he swatted Faith to one side but lack of leverage left him unable to summon sufficient force to effectively propel the punch.
Like a shark smelling blood in the water, Kennedy zeroed in once more on Barradon's leg, and made her third attempt. Raising her knee almost to her shoulder, she stomped powerfully on the joint. Barradon hissed with pain and Kennedy drove her boot into the demon's throat, but his recovery was so speedy that he seized her entire leg, twisting it too sharply for the Slayer to complete her spin. Consequently, she tumbled heavily to the ground.
Buffy made a valiant effort to restrain Barradon from getting to his feet, but the hunter simply would not be held. Landing a lightning jab to her stomach that knocked all the wind from her lungs, he tossed her aside like a rag doll and pushed himself up from the forest floor.
The only Slayer who had managed to regain firm footing by this time was Faith and she stood ready to go another round, holding her fists in front of her like a prizefighter. Kennedy was on her knees, presumably waiting for the surrounding area to stop spinning before she made her stand. A gasping Buffy, leaning on one elbow and, apparently wondering why every ounce of available oxygen had taken a sudden aversion to filling her lungs, slowly shook her head.
She took careful stock of the scene – and the powerful enemy – before her. Stumbling to her feet, she glanced at Kennedy, who had also now risen and was leaning unsteadily against the trunk of a tree. Buffy shook her head again as awareness dawned that while the three of them were coming up about even with Barradon, they were failing to gain even the slightest edge. Worse yet, the demon didn't appear to be tiring one iota, while the Slayers themselves were showing every sign of fatigue and battle weariness. The realization made her angry and she gritted her teeth, but there was no denying the inevitable. Her eyes darted around the area searching for something – anything that would provide them with an advantage. And then she spotted the very thing: a break in the tightly knit trees. Her eyes widened. It was the way out, she was sure of it.
"Come on!" she shouted. "This way!"
But Faith and Kennedy had engaged themselves once more in the endless exchange of throwing, blocking and dodging blows. Skipping aside to avoid a particularly lethal looking jab, Faith quickly glanced in Buffy's direction. "What?" she hollered.
"We can get out, over here!" Buffy urged.
Kennedy dodged a punch aimed at her stomach. "Buffy, this thing is a killer!" she yelled. "Who knows who it'll murder next?"
"Us if we don't get out of here and get some back up!" returned an impatient Buffy. "Now come on!"
Faith and Kennedy were clearly reluctant to leave but apparently, they too had reached the conclusion that discretion was the better part of valor. Turning, Kennedy sprinted in Buffy's direction. Faith hung around a while longer to get in a parting kick to Barradon's head – though it had little effect – before joining the other two. Then together, they made a run for the exit.
Barradon watched their departure for a nanosecond, weighing the distance between predator and prey. His eyes glinted as he realized, in all likelihood, he possessed the ability to still catch them and he took off with a giant step. His feet pounding the forest floor was akin to a rogue elephant lumbering through the jungle. Then, there was silence; an uncanny and oppressive silence. The Slayers had almost cleared the wooded area, escape was within their reach.
"Oh, shi—" swore Faith.
Barradon had materialized out of nowhere. The trio quickly scattered, only barely avoiding a head-on collision with the demon. With astounding agility, Faith ducked to his left and displaying equal skill, Kennedy repeated the action to his right, while Buffy – in a move that would have made a major league baseball player proud – slid effortlessly between the monster's legs. They united on the other side. Without missing a single beat or breaking stride, both brunettes took hold of one of the blonde's outstretched hands and pulled her to her feet. The entire performance had all the elegance and timing of a well-rehearsed ballet. They never glanced behind them as they sprinted forward, each diving for the forest edge – and each making it.
Blowing out huge gasps of air, the three Slayers scrambled to their feet and turned with defensive postures, shoulder to shoulder, anticipating Barradon's arrival. Quite obviously, they were taking no chances or placing any bets on the notion that he was not, in fact, still chasing them. But, as it happened, he was standing at the edge of the woodlands, making no further move to follow. He regarded them with some respect and inclined his head. Warily, the trio began to relax.
"Well met, Slayers."
"That's your opinion," retorted Kennedy.
"Me," added a scowling Faith, "I'm goin' for somethin' a few more shades of pissed off."
"This isn't over for you, is it?" asked Buffy. "The hunting and killing thing, I mean. Don't suppose we can convince you to retire to the Old Demon's Home and exchange stories of the good ol' days over chess."
The demon puffed out his chest. "I am Barradon of the Ohndi Clan," he told them, as though this statement were the only logical and acceptable answer.
"So that'd be a no, then?" questioned Buffy acidly.
Barradon's face assumed something of a smirk. "That'd be a no," he confirmed.
"Then you know we have to stop you," Buffy said flatly.
"I know you can try," he conceded.
A strained silence descended - Buffy staring at Barradon staring at Buffy. In unison, the Slayers began to step away, still not trusting the demon enough to turn their backs on him, but he made no move toward them. They hadn't gone too far, however, when Barradon's voice reached them.
"As Hamaculo said, I am forbidden from pursuing you again as targets until one of your years has elapsed. Should you attack me, however ... then as you say, 'all bets are off'."
Choosing to ignore the implication, all three Slayers turned around. No longer backing away from Barradon, they concentrated on moving forward.
"They always gotta throw out the parting shot," muttered Kennedy, mostly to herself.
"An' I'm comin' back for my knife!" Faith threw over her shoulder, loud enough so he could hear.
Barradon continued to smirk as he watched their departure.
Faith glared angrily at absolutely everything within her line of sight. "Bring 20, 30 of the girls, make a day of it. Smug bastard."
"We'll bring a bazooka too," said a determined Buffy. "I find that usually works best against tough, oddly colored demons."
Barradon nodded sagely at their retreating backs. "Next year, Slayers. Next year."
Then suddenly, without the slightest hint or warning, a single hand shot out and seized the demon by the neck. With a savage jerk, there was a loud crack as the cervical vertebrae shattered, severing the connection between brain stem and spinal cord. Barradon's body immediately went limp and the hold was released. The corpse fell heavily to the ground, eyes wide and staring. The toe of a black leather boot prodded the head that rolled back and forth with nauseating flexibility.
Feet stepped over the lifeless body and legs, sporting black pants, stood astride the fallen demon. The turtleneck was also black. Indeed, the entire outfit was strikingly similar to the one worn by the unknown intruder who had initiated the devastating assault on Slayer Central – with one noticeable difference. Even through the dark thick fabric of the sweater a throbbing blue light could be seen, just above the area of the heart. It pulsated in the shape of the Circle's emblem.
Crouching, with forearms resting on her knees, Judith stared in the direction that had been taken by the Slayers. They were still visible, but barely. She seemed to have changed little since her battle with Buffy, and bore none of the expected scars or marks that should have lingered after being engulfed by the magickal inferno. Her eyes, however, were vastly different; they now glowed with blue power – the exact shade of the sigil, which pulsed with precise regularity upon her chest. The effect lent her face an eerie and otherworldly look.
As she straightened, her lips curled in a cruel smirk and when she spoke, it was with the same reverberation heard in the voice of Slayer Central's anonymous assailant.
"For them, there won't be a next year."
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