In a slightly busier, more bustling section of town, the two witches chatted amiably, each carrying several books. Tara had selected a small volume of poetry and an old novel whose title was impossible to discern, while Willow had settled on four over-large, ancient-looking texts with foreign titles. The blonde laughed at something Willow had said, then tilted her head to one side as she watched a tall brunette cross the street with a big bag in her hand.
"Is that Dawn?" Tara wondered aloud as the girl moved further away from them.
Willow studied the figure as well then, after sharing a glance, both women called out, "Dawn!"
Several yards away, Dawn jumped – as did several other nearby pedestrians – and looked around in confusion. She soon spotted her friends, however, and rapidly approached, swinging her bag happily.
"Hey guys," she greeted. "Out and about, huh? Snagging some quality time?"
The question was innocent enough, though tinged with the faintest hopeful note, and the meaningful lift of Dawn's eyebrows added a layer that caused the witches to share a quick embarrassed and absurdly guilty look.
Raising her purchase slightly, Tara replied, "Just checking out an old book store. You guys've had almost a year to get possessions and stuff, I feel all behind."
"Hey, don't have to justify shopping to me," dismissed the teenager, turning and heading back in the direction she had been walking before her detour. Tara and Willow followed, exchanging a concerned glance.
"How y'feelin', Dawnie?" queried the redhead.
"Better now I'm out of the house for a bit." Her eyes rolled dramatically. "I swear, it was starting to feel like Oz up there. As in, ‘Penitentiary of', not ‘Wizard of'," she clarified.
"I'm surprised Buffy let you out of her sight," Tara admitted.
Audibly huffing, Dawn let it be known that she felt much the same, but with less wonder and more irritation. "Well she's gonna have to do it eventually, right? I mean, I've had, like, every test known to man, and a few that I swear came from this demon dimension I read about one time. And nothing. The doctors give me a clean bill of health." She laughed, but it came out a tight and bitter sound. "And it's not like doctors can be wrong, right? So I must be fine."
Another look passed between the two witches, and their shared thought was clear – Dawn was anything but fine. Neither seemed certain of what to do, when Tara spied the answer across the street in the form of an ice cream shop. Smiling, she threw an arm over Dawn's shoulders. "You know, it just occurred to me that I must owe you something like 50 shakes. If I'm ever gonna break even, I should probably get a move on."
Dawn's expression was equal parts delight and gratitude, and she willingly allowed herself to be steered back across the street. Hanging behind, Willow took in the conflict of emotions Dawn continued to exude, and seemed to reach a decision.
"Oh, hey!" she announced brightly. "Th-There's this fabric shop, just a few stores down. I'm gonna head on over, see what I can find to fill all our Renaissance-y needs."
"You don't want anything?" The mere notion of someone turning down a frozen treat was clearly outside of Dawn's capacity to reconcile.
"I think I'm gonna pass. You get a double and drink some for me, ‘kay?"
The redhead grinned assuredly, and Dawn nodded. As she moved into the store, Tara threw Willow a ‘thank you' look that Willow returned with a smile. Handing over her books, she left Dawn and Tara to have a good talk and bonding session.
Heading immediately for a table by the large window facing the street outside, Dawn situated herself comfortably in the chair and handed Tara a menu as the blonde joined her.
After a few moments, a young man dressed smartly in the traditional "soda jerk" outfit without all the embarrassing extras greeted them. "Good afternoon, ladies. What can I get for you?"
Still buried in her menu, Tara was reading through her choices. Finally she came to one that gave her serious pause. "Vanilla Coke?" she questioned, clearly unsure where she stood on the matter at first glance. "That's new."
"It came out a couple years ago," Dawn explained easily, then her eyes widened and darted fearfully to the patient waiter. "You ... must've missed it. Being ... overseas."
Peering at the teenager over her menu, Tara replied, "Yes, what with my hectic secret double life and all."
Embarrassed at the gentle poke, Dawn dove back into the safe depths of her menu as Tara placed her order. "I'll try a vanilla Coke. It sounds ... interesting."
"It's a true flavor sensation," he replied dryly, then grinned to take the bite out as he turned to Dawn. "And for you, ma'am?"
"I'll take a large chocolate-raspberry shake," she ordered with authority, then added, "Can you make it with banana too?"
The waiter blinked.
"Speaking of flavor sensations ..." Tara commented.
"I think the guy in the back will balk at the idea," confessed the waiter, "but I'll make sure it's done, just for you."
Dawn beamed sunnily as the waiter left to place their order, leaving her and Tara alone.
"It's scary, huh?" the blonde finally broached.
Shrugging, Dawn replied, "Not really. I like banana a whole lot."
"The other thing," smirked Tara, before continuing in a more serious tone, "The head thing."
With a small nod, the teenager allowed her gaze to drift out of the shop window. "Sort of." She paused then, and Tara continued to wait patiently. "But at the same time? Not really." Turning back to the witch, Dawn sounded less introspective and more like herself. "I mean, it's scary because Buffy's so obviously freaking out, which I totally knew was gonna happen. And it's like ... Wow, hey, now I know what a CAT scan is, and I could've lived my whole life with that big question mark."
Once again, she became silent, attempting to gather her thoughts. "I dunno," Dawn shrugged. "It doesn't feel ... bad? Apart from the pain, that's bad. The rest though? It's weird. But not scary."
And with that, she seemed to be at a loss for what else to say. Tara absorbed Dawn's words silently, allowing the teenager to pick absently at one of the napkins she'd tugged free of the nearby dispenser. The waiter arrived with their drinks, and Tara smiled her thanks, but still Dawn remained locked in contemplation. The tall, frothy shake went untouched.
Tara regarded Dawn for a moment longer, then claimed one of the straws that had been delivered to their table. She peeled it free from the wrapper, placed it in the drink and sipped, all the while watching as Dawn's hands deftly mutilated the napkin. The taste of the vanilla Coke was obviously a surprise to Tara, and she started at the flavor. After a moment's consideration, she shrugged and sipped some more. Dawn, meanwhile, had barely moved.
"So, what's in the bag?" inquired the blonde, clearly having decided that things had gone on long enough.
Dawn blinked, her confusion plain now that her reverie had been disturbed. ‘What?"
With her head, Tara indicated the package that was resting at Dawn's feet. "The bag. The big ol' bag of surprise and intrigue."
"Oh!" Finally the teenager smiled again, and she seemed to notice for the first time that her shake had arrived. Devoting the bulk of her attention to the ice cream, she responded simply with, "Birdcage."
This answer obviously made little sense. "With Nathan Lane?"
"No, silly," corrected Dawn with a chuckle, working enthusiastically on the drink before her. "A birdcage. The kind that houses actual birds?"
"You're getting a bird?" Tara asked, still perplexed.
Dawn opened her mouth to answer, but was suddenly distracted by a movement outside of the window. Both she and Tara turned to behold Willow standing on the street, holding up a large bolt of nauseatingly bright bubblegum pink material. She'd unraveled one end and was holding it out, presenting it with great enthusiasm. Eyes wide, the redhead grinned and nodded to the fabric as if to say, ‘What do you think?' Ever so slowly, Tara's eyebrow crept upward, and she shook her head. Willow's face fell, just a little, and she headed back toward the fabric shop.
"What was that all about?" inquired a highly amused Dawn.
"Willow wants to go to this Renaissance festival that's coming to town, and have us all get into it, with a booth and costumes and everything. She seems ... very enthused."
A laugh in her voice, the teenager glanced back in the direction Willow had taken. "How did she get the fabric, did she just walk out with it?"
"I think some questions are best left unanswered," Tara chuckled. "So what now, you're getting a bird?"
"Kinda." Pulling her straw free from the thick mass of shake, Dawn messily slurped on the bottom, completely ignoring the spoon that had been provided for that exact purpose. "There's this baby bird, in the tree outside my room."
Tara regarded her with some surprise. "Dawn, you can't keep a wild bird as a pet."
"No, I know that. I don't want it as a pet, I want to help it."
Once more the conversation was interrupted as Willow could be seen running into view. In her arms was another atrociously colored material, this one a hideous radioactive green. Whatever region of the redhead's mind that dictated good sense had clearly checked out for the day, and she smiled expectantly at her latest discovery. Tara's eyes widened at the sight, and she shook her head back and forth in tiny, almost fearful motions. Her bottom lip jutting out, Willow visibly deflated but hurried back to the shop.
"Whoa," Dawn breathed, "bridesmaid flashback."
But the momentary disruption had already passed, and Tara focused on more important matters. "What's wrong with the bird?"
Returning to work on her shake, the teenager explained, "I've been watching it for days. Not a whole lot else to do under house arrest, you know? It's up in the tree outside my room, and ..." She glanced up at Tara, simultaneously certain and unsure. "... and it needs someone to take care of it."
"Well that's what mama birds are for," the blonde replied with a gentle smile. "She'll take care of it."
"That's just it, she's not." There was the faintest hint of accusation in Dawn's voice. "I keep watching and waiting, but the mother's not coming." Her expression became one of determination. "It's crying for her and she just won't come back. Someone has to help it."
Both pairs of eyes drifted back to the window as Willow reappeared. This time she had two bolts of material, one in each arm. She nodded to the first, a sky blue color, then motioned with her chin at Tara. The second was a dark purple, and after lifting this fabric, she raised her eyebrows. Her meaning was clear – ‘this one for you, that one for me'.
Dawn watched Willow's pantomime then, tucking a stray lock of her hair behind her ear, leaned over to enjoy more of the shake. "We all need a little help sometimes, you know?"
Tara tilted her head to one side and, with a smile, nodded her approval at the selections. Willow's face split into a grin, and she hurried back toward the fabric shop. The blonde watched her leave, still smiling, then regarded Dawn once more. "But the mama bird might come back for it, Dawnie," she pointed out.
The possibility was given due consideration, but Dawn eventually shook her head. "I don't think so," she replied. "When moms leave, they don't come back."
Giles observed Buffy as she lay sprawled out on her couch, one arm thrown over her eyes. He leaned forward in Xander's chair, looking for the moment not unlike a psychiatrist with a patient. Certainly, his concern was similar.
"You should relax. Too much stress is bad for your blood pressure." Mostly to himself he added, "Believe me, after eight years of dealing with you lot, I've become something of an authority on the matter."
Raising her arm, Buffy rolled her head to one side, regarding Giles with a flat expression. "Relax. We have unknown people out there somewhere trying to kill Willow. We have absolutely no idea who they are or how to make them stop. There are super-strong girls just waltzing in the front door and continuing with our ‘who the hell are you?' theme. We get our asses handed to us by a block of concrete with feet and when we go back to dish out some serious payback, we find he's already dead, so I don't even get that satisfaction. And to top it all off, my little sister has mystery headaches without an apparent source and I can not stress how much I hate mystery headaches." Obviously feeling she'd said all she needed say on the matter, Buffy allowed her arm to fall again, shielding her eyes from the outside world.
The Watcher took in all this impassively. "Yes, well, I did advise against too much stress, I didn't suggest you eliminate it entirely."
Drink in hand, Xander entered from the kitchen. "We'll sort it, Buffy," he encouraged. Without looking, Buffy raised her feet from the end cushion, and Xander settled into the now vacant spot. Almost immediately she plonked her feet back down again in his lap, remaining otherwise motionless.
Xander took this in as par for the course and he smoothly continued in his efforts to improve Buffy's dark mood. "We just gotta take it one step at a time. It's like building a house, or a new high school on top of a Hellmouth. Sure, it all looks really scary and imposing at first when you just look at it big picture, but when you break it down, it's not so bad." He shrugged before adding, "Well, apart from the Hellmouth part. That pretty much stays scary."
"What I presume Xander's trying to say," Giles translated with a sigh, "is that while there are some undeniably worrisome issues at hand, fretting over all of them constantly only muddies the waters."
Buffy gestured with her hand, although her arm stayed in place. "So un-muddy them. I'm all for clean, suitable-for-swimming waters. Make me fret-free, please."
"Well, there's ... there's the mark," began the Watcher, forcing his tone to become light and almost optimistic. "The eye marking that was present on both Tara and Judith. We have some more information on that front."
Peering out from underneath her limp appendage, a pleased Buffy regarded Giles hopefully. "You know what it is?"
"No, not at such," he confessed. As the blonde groaned lightly and her eyes disappeared from sight again, Giles hastened to put a positive spin on the information. "B-But we do know that there is no mention of it at all in any texts both the Watchers Council and the Covens have researched."
"And that's yay?" inquired Xander uncertainly.
Settling back into the chair Giles answered, "Well it helps narrow the field somewhat. Given the amount of power clearly at their disposal, it's extremely unlikely they are new. We've thoroughly researched back through the past 500 years with no success, and between the two groups, we're covering remarkable ground. So this person or- or persons is—"
"Is really powerful and really old," Buffy summarized in her own words. "That's always a recipe for fun. Oh yeah, feelin' better already."
The Watcher appeared slightly crestfallen. "We're still looking," he pointed out in meek defense.
Not much in the mood for the giving of comfort so much as the receipt of same, Buffy moved to the next item on her agenda of disquiet. "What about Power Girl, anything?"
Quiet fell over the room as Giles and Xander exchanged a glance that Buffy was voluntarily too blind to see.
"Since her attack," Giles began with some reluctance, "there's been no sign of her. Anywhere. It's as though she disappeared."
If the news was meant to be reassuring, it failed miserably. "But she said she'd be back, right?" The Slayer didn't wait for an answer. "And when bad guys say that, they have an alarming tendency to mean it."
"So we'll be ready for her," responded Xander without hesitation, then hastily amending, "Or, well, you guys'll be ready for her. I'll be ready with quippy remarks and upbeat commentary." Grabbing one of Buffy's feet in both hands, he gave it an enthusiastic and encouraging shake. "But here's a thought that'll lighten the Buffy brainload: Dawn's headaches. Have you considered that maybe they're just ... y'know, headaches?"
The blonde lifted her arm and leveled a dubious look at her friend.
"I'm serious," he defended. "You insisted the doctors do every test under the sun ... I think we have roadmaps for every inch of Dawn's brain now. They didn't find anything wrong. The Wonder Wiccas did their magickal vanderwhatsit test—"
"Ven Dentro," Giles corrected with a long-suffering sigh. "Honestly, I do wish you'd at least try to remember these things."
Not bothering to correct himself, Xander was content with waving in the Watcher's direction. "They did that thing, and still nothing."
Jumping in, the Watcher added, "Should Dawn experience another headache, we'll want to cast the spell at that time." More gently, he again tried to quiet his Slayer's anxiety. "However it's been over a week and she's had no more attacks."
"Which brings us back to the ‘just a headache' theory," reinforced Xander, resuming control of the conversation. "My cousin Carol, her second ..." His brows furrowed in thought. "Or was it third?" Shaking his head, he dismissed the detail. "Anyway, one of Carol's extensive trail of in-laws has headaches too. Really bad ones, knocks her out of commission for a day or two at a time. But they're just headaches, that's it."
Buffy continued to fix Xander with an unblinking gaze. "When has ‘that's it' ever explained anything that happens to us?"
Neither man seemed to have a response to that, and both were saved from trying by the front door opening and a conversation-in-progress drifted into the living room.
"—little bits of parchment a-and – oh! Amulets! Little fake ones, with faux-mystic symbols! We can make up stuff that they mean an' everything!" Willow eyed Dawn enthusiastically as she slipped out of her coat.
Dawn's own excitement was building to match the redhead's. "This'll be so cool!"
Upon hearing Dawn's voice, Buffy leapt to her feet and quickly appeared in the entranceway. She gave Dawn a quick but thorough mental evaluation as the three women deposited bags – including one rather large one from "Fabric World" that Willow was carrying – and their other items by the door.
"You okay?" Buffy asked her sister, unable to entirely hide her concern.
Dawn rolled her eyes a little, but smiled regardless. "Yeah, just fine."
"Nope, none at all."
"She didn't even get an ice cream headache," Tara supplied. She nudged the teenager playfully with her shoulder. "Though I think I got one just watching her."
"It was good, okay?" retorted Dawn. "And Willow did say to get two."
Reclaiming her bag, Dawn entered the living room. She smiled greetings to Xander and Giles, then settled on the floor with her purchases. Buffy followed and hovered nearby, reaching out to stroke the teenager's hair. "Good," she said affectionately. "I strongly cast my vote for no pain."
"Mm, me too," Dawn readily agreed.
Reaching into the shopping bag, Dawn extricated a box containing the birdcage along with a package of seed, some plastic cups, a little mirror and assorted bird toys.
Resting his forearms on his knees, Xander looked at the array of items littering the carpet. "I miss the meeting where we inducted a new Scooby?"
"It's for the baby bird outside," was the simple reply.
Buffy exchanged a look with Giles. "Dawn," she began gently, "you can't—"
"—can't keep a wild bird as a pet. I know." She critically examined a string of beads designed to hang from the ceiling of the cage as she further explained. "Its mom abandoned it, so I'm going to help it get strong, and then I'm letting it go free."
Glancing over to Tara, seated on the opposite end of the couch from Xander, Dawn received a proud smile and nod. Happily, she pried the cage box open and began pulling out assorted bits of plastic and wire.
Xander's eye lit up with delight. "Oo! Some assembly required! My favorite words. Right up there with ‘no payments for 90 days' and ‘now in a fresh pine scent'." He quickly got to his feet and joined Dawn on the floor. "Mind some help?"
Scooting back out of the way, Dawn gestured at the messy pile. "All yours."
Grinning like a little boy, Xander began happily sifting through the pieces. Willow joined the group, her laptop tucked under one arm, and after a glance at the couch, settled on the safety of Xander's recently vacated cushion. She balanced the laptop on her knees and waited semi-patiently as it began to boot, drumming her fingers lightly on the keys.
Tara spied a sheet of paper on the floor by her feet and leaned over to pick it up. Glancing at it curiously for a second, she then handed it to Xander, who examined it scornfully. "Instructions?" he scoffed. "We don't need no stinkin' instructions!"
With that, he wadded up the page and tossed it over his shoulder, where it sailed right for Giles. Bobbing his head back and forth, Giles lined up and then, with expert skill, hit the paper ball precisely sending it flying through the air before landing cleanly into the discarded bag nearby.
"Yes!" the Watcher hissed, then abruptly straightened as he realized he'd attracted the attention of the entire room – save Xander, who was frowning in confusion at the birdcage pieces. "I'm not supposed to engage in any physical activities outside of being a punching bag for Slayers?" he asked defensively.
Xander ignored the question as he tried to smoosh together a couple of errant parts without success.
Rather than the expected mocking, Buffy seemed to regard the older man with a new respect. "Nice shot, Giles."
"Way impressed," agreed Willow. "Didn't touch the sides or anything."
"I bet you play soccer really well, Mr. Giles," Tara smiled supportively.
Puffing up just a tad, Giles responded, "Well, I don't like to blow my own trumpet, so to speak, but back in my Oxford days I—"
A piece of birdcage fluttered in front of his face, cutting off any further reminiscing. "Man at work here, people!" Xander exclaimed. "Could we cut the chit-chat?"
Giles huffed loudly, but Willow soon reclaimed the group's attention. "I've been looking up some stuff, on rehabilitation?" she began. "What kinda bird did you say it was, Dawnie?"
"I did some checking." Rising from the floor, the teenager relocated herself to the couch between Willow and Tara. She leaned over to see the computer screen properly. "I'm pretty sure it's a wren."
Surreptitiously, Xander fished the balled-up page of instructions out of the bag. As nonchalantly as possible, he smoothed it out, then glanced around, pleased that no one had spotted him. No one besides Tara. His expression registered panic for a second, then became sheepish and he shrugged. Tara grinned in response before shaking her head and directing her attentions to the ongoing quest for knowledge. Deeply engrossed, Willow continued typing away as Dawn leaned over her shoulder. Even Buffy approached, curious to learn what would be uncovered.
"Wrens, wrens ..." The hacker muttered to herself, as her eyes scanned the screen. "Oh, hey, look, that's interesting." Everyone, except Xander, waited for the inevitable follow-up to that statement. "Lot of stuff on the wren here ... There's a- a legend and a rhyme and everything."
"A legend?" Tara inquired with interest.
A response was not immediate as Willow continued reading for several seconds. "Yeah ..." she finally replied, dragging out the word. "'Hunting the Wren'. Apparently they ... ew." Crinkling her nose in disgust, the redhead shot an accusing look at an innocent, unsuspecting Giles. "What is with you?"
Giles could only stare in confusion. "I'm sorry?"
"You English, with- with your hanging and your quartering, and your big chopping block, and- and I'm sorry, but dunking witches is just plain wrong!"
A long moment of silence passed. Everyone joined Giles in staring at Willow now. Even Xander, his project momentarily forgotten.
Willow's gaze darted from one person to the next. "And I clearly have some underlying issues which are irrelevant at the moment, so moving on," she declared, busying herself with the laptop.
Dawn, too, was ready to return to more important matters. "What was that about hunting a wren? They're so cute. Why don't they hunt vultures or something, cuz ... hello, vulture."
So eager was the teenager to see the information Willow had retrieved, she was practically crawling into the redhead's lap. "Okay, crowded now," announced an obviously uncomfortable Willow as she shoved the computer into Dawn's awaiting hands.
Meanwhile, Buffy had drifted back to Giles' side. "Do you think this is a good idea?" she asked in a low voice. "I mean, a wild bird belongs in the wild, right?"
"Ordinarily I'd agree, but if its mother truly has abandoned it, we may be its only hope for survival."
"Our booth!" Willow's sudden outburst to Tara interrupted Giles and Buffy's quiet conversation and they both turned toward her. "We haven't told you about our booth! There's a Renaissance festival coming, and we were thinking about all of us getting a booth, where we could dress up and sell little baubles and trinkets and Tara's gonna wear this big princess hat with long ribbons and—"
"I am?" Tara questioned with a quirked eyebrow, her tone indicating this latest costume development was clearly news to her.
Yet another conversation was brought to a screeching halt as Xander leapt to his feet. From the hanging loop at the top, he held the birdcage aloft triumphantly. "Behold!" announced the carpenter in a bold voice. "Man once again has conquered his natural enemy: the instructions written only in Chinese."
Xander awaited the inevitable high praise and accolades with calm, patient certainty. The tiny swing fell to the bottom of the cage. A perch soon followed it. Then the entire bottom fell off. Xander stared at the half-cage still in his grasp. "Excuse me one moment," he requested, dropping once more to the carpet.
Seemingly unphased, Dawn poked at the monitor screen. "Guys, listen to this: ‘As little Jenny Wren was sitting by the shed, she waggled with her tail, and nodded with her head.'"
"Oh, I remember this!" Buffy returned to the edge of the couch as the memory resurfaced. "‘She waggled with her tail, and nodded with her head ...'"
Both Summers sisters joined in for the final line. "'As little Jenny Wren was sitting by the shed.'" Their recitation complete, Buffy and Dawn shared a broad grin.
Willow was less impressed. "Sorta repetitive there," she critiqued.
"But nice," Tara quickly added. "What's it from?"
"It's a nursery rhyme. Mom used to read it to Dawn when she was little," the Slayer explained.
A frown appeared on Dawn's features. "I don't remember," she confessed.
"You were really little," responded Buffy, attempting to alleviate any guilt on her sister's part. She happily pointed out, "You liked it a lot, though. That one was your favorite. That, and ‘Ring Around a Rosie'."
"Ah. Happy little rhyme, fun with the Black Plague." Willow shot another accusing look at Giles, who rolled his eyes and didn't bother to dignify the implied charge with a defense.
"What else does it say, Dawnie?" Tara prompted before Willow could lay further blame for England's dark history on the Watcher.
"Well there's this ‘Hunting the Wren' stuff, which is ... really not as fun." Dawn readjusted the laptop comfortably and began to read. "'The Wren Boys. Youths in England who armed themselves with birch rods to hunt down and kill a wren, whose little corpse was then paraded through the local village while the boys sang: ‘We hunted the Wren for Robin the Bobbin, we hunted the Wren for Jack of the Can, we hunted the Wren for Robin the Bobbin, we hunted the Wren for every man.'"
A thick silence blanketed the room.
Tara spoke first. "I-I liked the first one better," she admitted.
Thrusting the laptop back at Willow, Dawn rose to her feet. "Well no one's hunting this wren, and that's that," she decisively declared. Taking Buffy by the hand, she tugged the Slayer toward the door. "Now come help me find the ladder."
The group had reassembled on the back porch, partly enjoying the pleasant day but mostly gathering to watch Dawn's rescue techniques. Buffy stood at the closest edge of the porch and looked none too happy to be there, judging by the restless manner in which she constantly fidgeted. Her arms were crossed and her eyes locked unflinchingly at something in the distance. Dawn herself was nowhere in sight, however the sounds of metal clanging and scraping against something in the yard indicated the ladder had been found and was being put to good use.
Giles stood nearby, leaning back against one of the support posts. Nowhere near as apprehensive as Buffy, he alternated his attentions between Dawn's tree-climbing adventures and this latest manifestation of his Slayer's protective streak. Tara also watched Dawn's progress while swaying back and forth gently on the large swing. Laying claim to one of the patio chairs, Willow continued to search for information on her laptop, while Xander had procured the other, as well as the table. The birdcage, still stubbornly refusing to remain assembled, was scattered across its surface.
Now feeling much less jovial about his wire-and-plastic nemesis, Xander grumbled darkly to himself. "Stupid thing. I could've built one from scratch by now." He snorted bitterly. "'Some assembly required'. For a birdcage."
Next to him, Willow continued reading her computer display. "It'll tick ya off if I take it an' put it together, right?" she asked without glancing over.
"More than words can express," he confirmed.
The redhead nodded. "'kay then."
"How's the research?" asked Tara, dragging her feet backward along the ground then forward again.
"Coming along. If it's really little, though, seeds won't do it much good. We'll need to get an eyedropper, and here's a very appealing baby food/dog food/bug paste we can feed it."
The blonde wrinkled her nose. "Yum."
As the sounds of Dawn making her ascent reached Buffy's hearing, she shifted nervously. "I wish she'd let me get it."
Giles smiled, though whether at Dawn's stubbornness or Buffy's behavior remained unclear. "She seems quite determined to do as much of this as she can on her own."
"Great. I'll be proud of her when she's back on the ground without a broken anything."
"Well I'd say she ..." The Watcher's words trailed off and he blinked at the large tree dominating the yard. A shimmer had appeared around the crown of the tree, a sort of whitish-green glint reminiscent of heat radiating from a stretch of desert highway. Tugging off his glasses, Giles squinting at the branches, but he could no longer see anything out of the ordinary.
"Did you see that?" he asked Buffy.
"See what?" the blonde replied in distracted tone, her entire focus still locked on Dawn.
"Hm." Giles replaced his glasses and scrutinized the tree once more, but still could see nothing peculiar. "Must've been a trick of the light," he concluded to himself.
Buffy didn't respond, she simply continued to watch. Then suddenly her eyes widened. "She's gonna fall." There was no question in the Slayer's voice, it was a certainty, and without hesitation, Buffy took off at a dead run toward the tree. Giles was but a few moments behind.
Tara stood from the swing as Willow and Xander looked up, alarmed. The blonde witch's eyes became distant, as she moved to the edge of the porch. Her gaze locked on the tree as her eyebrows furrowed questioningly at surrounding shimmer.
"I see it too, Mr. Giles," she whispered.
Dawn hit the ground with a sickening thud and waited for the world to stop spinning like the wheel of a demented hamster. Gingerly, she probed the lump forming on the back of her head and breathed a sigh of relief. No blood and, as far as she could tell, no broken bones either. She sat immobile for another moment or two, expecting Buffy's "I told you so," at any minute, but it never materialized. Dawn breathed a sigh of relief. "Good, they didn't see me fall."
She scrambled to her feet, brushing twigs and stray leaves from her jeans, and trod carefully around the area, growing increasingly worried as she searched for the nest. She peered up into the tree and cocked her head, listening intently for the sound of chirping but none came.
"Maybe it managed to fly away," she muttered, then raised her voice and called over her shoulder, "Did anyone see where it went?" She waited for the expected chorus of responses, but there was only silence. Irritated, she spun around on her heel. "I said—"
The words died in her throat. No house. She blinked and rubbed at her eyes. Still no house. "Weird," she whispered, looking around. "Where'd the house go?" She stood, not moving, as if waiting for it reappear when her ears caught the sound of a small chirrup.
Dawn whirled and scanned the nearby trees, but the sun hung low in the sky and cast shades of gray, which made it difficult to see. She concentrated upon the ground at her feet and focused all her attention on the noises surrounding her. Leaves rustling in the light breeze, the ripple of a small stream somewhere nearby, a vague faraway tune being strummed upon some type of stringed instrument. And a tiny cheep. Then another, but growing fainter now as though its owner were moving on.
The soles of Dawn's shoes crunched on the gravel path as she quickly followed the chirping. A figure, indistinct save for the scarlet cap that stood out against the dark green foliage, emerged between the trees some distance away. Dawn realized it was from this shadowy form that the melody carried by the breeze earlier had originated. Stepping forward, Dawn opened her mouth to address the musician, but he then appeared to blend into the wooded backdrop and vanish from sight, although the lilt of his strings lingered a while longer.
A sharp tweet caused Dawn to turn her head and she looked around hopefully, but it was not the little wren. Instead, a bright-eyed robin regarded her cheekily from atop a signpost. Pecking at the wood until it managed to break off a sizeable splinter, it then took flight. "Slayer Bird," Dawn reflected. "Probably off to stake a bat or something." As she watched the sky, several more birds flew from the treetops, in the direction the robin had taken. The teenager nodded her approval. "Just as well there's more than one. Robin needs to roost and the bats are so much bigger these days."
Turning her attention back to the signpost, she peered more closely at the message carved there. "This Way to the Renaissance Festival," it read. The arrow only pointed one way and seemed to offer no other choice. She frowned at the direction for a moment, casting a dubious glance down the path, when a small and almost imperceptible tweet beyond the sign cemented Dawn's decision.
She shivered slightly as she moved deeper into the forest. The sun, such as was, barely penetrated the thick ceiling of leaves and heavy boughs. Even the path was steadily becoming obliterated in a tangle of sinewy vines and curling tendrils. "Guess nobody's ever come this way before," she murmured to herself.
As though in answer, the strains of a now-familiar melody reached her ears. Looking up, Dawn caught a flash of buttercup yellow in the distance – a cap perched upon the head of an otherwise indistinct figure. "Hello?" the teenager called. Her voice echoed back to her in an eerie fashion. "Who are you? Do I know you?" But the musician had vaporized without so much as a word. She stuck out her chin defiantly. "Fine, be like that. I know me."
Determined, she scaled a fallen log blocking the pathway. Once across, the vines before her grew thinner and the gravel peeked through in a comforting manner. Within a few yards, Dawn found herself at the brink of a clearing. A cheery banner floated just ahead, suspended between two tall, upright poles. "We bid you welcome to the Renaissance Festival," the message announced. Someone had scrawled, "Huzzah!" along the bottom in felt-tip pen.
Dawn skipped with excitement to be almost out of the woods and hurried toward the entrance to the festival. "Maybe Willow's booth is up. Willow and Tara will help me find the bird. I bet they know just the right spell to make everything better."
Reaching the turnstile, she pushed hard but it stubbornly refused to budge. She tried again.
"Hey!" challenged an indignant voice from the nearby kiosk marked 'Pay Here.' "No getting in without a ticket!"
Backing up, Dawn peered into the depths of the dark little cubicle. A finger emerged and jabbed pointedly at the sign above the kiosk. "Look. See? It says 'Pay Here,' and that's what you do. Pay. Here. No getting in without paying." An upturned palm was then extended, followed immediately by a frowning face.
A curious expression crossed Dawn's features as a glint of recognition appeared in her eyes.
The figured smiled broadly, but with no indication of likewise awareness, simply the joyful anticipation of monetary gain. The palm was extended further. "We also take MasterCard and Visa," Dawn was informed brightly, followed by a purse of the lips and a heavy sigh. "Oh, sorry." The tone, however, was far from apologetic. "I'm supposed to say 'Master of the Card' and 'Lady Visa'." Eyes rolled in Dawn's direction, but still the expectant hand did not waver.
Dawn continued to simply stare in disbelief.
"Well?" came the demand, accompanied by an annoyed shake of the outstretched – and as yet, still notably empty – palm.
Something was wrong. Horribly wrong. The teenager's pale face spoke volumes.
"Feeling sick?" came the hopeful query. "We've got wonderful First Aid facilities. Inside. Just look for the Apothecary Shoppe. All you have to do is pay to get in." The figure nodded encouragingly.
Dawn swallowed hard and somehow managed to get her vocal chords working again.