Buffy and Xander slouched on opposite ends of their sofa. Their posture, immediately recognizable by couch potatoes worldwide, would've made every schoolteacher in the 50s sob uncontrollably. Head and shoulders rested about mid-way down the back support and legs were sprawled straight out. Movement was obviously optional, though occasionally each would partake of the can of mixed nuts that occupied the center spot. The television flickered in front of them, and their eyes were rooted to the dancing images.
Xander popped a cashew into his mouth and crunched lethargically, yet noisily. "This sucks," he finally stated with tired authority as he jerked his chin at the TV.
"Yup," replied Buffy in a bored tone.
"We should change it."
A long minute dragged out, with no movement in the room besides that projected by the television. Both Buffy and Xander remained in their exact positions, neither twitching so much as a muscle.
"You don't know where the clicker is either, do you?" Xander finally questioned.
"Nope," Buffy replied without changing her tone.
Another silent moment passed before the carpenter decided, "You should change it."
Rolling her head to the side, Buffy regarded her friend with a frown. "Me? Why me?"
"Because you're super-powered," he explained as though the answer were obvious.
"You guys always throw that in my face," complained Buffy in a peevish voice. "Like, just because I'm super-powered, I should be able to do stuff you guys can't."
Xander's head also rolled to the side and he blinked at the Slayer. "I'm pretty sure that's the definition of 'super-powered'," he pointed out.
"Well it's a stupid definition."
Still neither made any effort to move, and both gazes drifted back to stare dumbly at the screen.
"Can't you just, like ... flick a nut at the channel up button until we find something good?" Xander asked.
Buffy eyed the almond in her hand and seemed to be giving the idea serious consideration. "But then who's gonna clean up later?"
Both contemplated this deep moral puzzler.
"I could make Dawn do it," Buffy concluded with a bright smile.
The carpenter shook his head. "She'd accuse you of unfairly abusing your guardianship again."
"Oh, yeah," replied Buffy, her face falling. "Last time she wouldn't stop singing 'It's a Hard Knocks Life'."
'Tsk'ing loudly, Xander viewed the memory with regret. "You know you've broken someone's spirit when they fall back on Annie show tunes."
Buffy shifted her position slightly as she thought hard on an acceptable answer to their dilemma. "We need someone else. Someone who loves us too much to do more than pout."
Eyes wide, the two friends shared a look. As one, they turned toward the stairs. "Willow!" Buffy and Xander called out in union, and then lapsed into an intent silence. There was no reply, nor the telling sounds of someone rushing to save them from their own laziness.
Xander rolled his head back to focus on Buffy. "That settles it. She has spurned our love."
"No, she's up there studying for some big test," the blonde answered, though her tone didn't indicate she felt this was a particularly valid excuse. "Or avoiding talking to Tara," she added as an afterthought. "Possibly both."
The light of a brilliant idea shone in Xander's eye. "Oo. Tara. Tara'll save us from televisual mediocrity."
With a shake of her head, Buffy rejected that possibility. "She's not here. She went for a walk."
"Again?" The carpenter frowned. "That's, like, her third one today. She's doing that all the time."
"I guess she has a lot on her mind. I get that. I've tried to talk to her, but ..."
"But she just sort of smiles and says that's okay?" completed Xander. "Yeah, me too. I'm worried."
"Agreeing wholeheartedly," responded a concerned Buffy. "Hey, you know what we need?"
"An extra remote?"
"No," she replied immediately. "Well, yes, but no. We need a night. A night o' fun."
At the mention, Xander's eye darted to his watch. "Oh! Speaking of night o' fun ..." With that prelude and a massive groan, he began to sit up.
Buffy blinked at Xander's motions, uncomprehending. "You're moving," she stated with bewilderment. "This is in direct violation of our mutual no-moving agreement. I can't be all sloppy if you're not here to make me not look so bad."
"Remember that fun thing we were just talking about?" he asked, slowly getting to his feet.
"Oh, tonight?" Echoing Xander's motions from earlier, the Slayer sat up straight on the couch. "Great! We'll hang tonight. Drag Willow kicking and screaming from her books, spend some good quality time with Tara ... maybe nudge things along...?"
Buffy waggled her eyebrows meaningfully at Xander, but he didn't seem to share her enthusiasm, and she narrowed her eyes at him suspiciously. "Uh-oh. I'm suggesting something naughty involving two women and you're not reacting. Who are you and what have you done with Xander?"
"The fun thing," he replied with a hint of reluctance. "See, I sorta already have fun-thing plans."
"Fun ones. With the guys."
At this revelation, Buffy appeared downright dubious. "Guys? What guys? You don't know any guys."
Indignant, Xander puffed up defensively. "Hey, I do so!"
The blonde remained unconvinced. "Name them," she commanded, crossing her arms.
Xander thrust a finger at Buffy and ticked it off. "Giles—" Another finger. "—and Wood, and ..." His conviction waning, the carpenter visibly deflated as he mumbled, "Andrew."
Like a born warrior, the Slayer detected the weakness and leapt upon it. "Andrew?" she repeated with a laugh. "Please, Dawn is more of a guy than Andrew is." Xander flashed her a wounded look and, with a sigh, Buffy let it drop. "We'll just all do something together, what's the big?"
"Look, Buff ... I want us to all do something, I do. But I gotta do something with some guys my own gender, y'know? I mean, if I get sent on one more covert mission to buy girly products, I might as well just start wearing a dress and be done with it." He gestured to the lower half of his body to add, "An' I gotta tell ya, I don't have the legs."
Her proposal rejected, Buffy seemed unsure of how to next proceed. "Well ... well fine," she threw at him. "You do that. You go and ... drink your beer and smoke your cigars and ..." She frowned. "And I don't actually know what else you guys do, but I'm sure it's not actually fun! Because we?" Fully getting into her rebuttal now, Buffy leapt to her feet. "We're gonna have all the fun! That's right buddy, you've gone to the store of life and found out they're sold out of fun, because we bought it all!"
"Oh yeah?!" Xander shot back.
"Yeah!" retorted Buffy.
"Fine! We'll fun the pants off you, you girl."
"Fine!" With a 'hrmph' that was clearly intended to embody Buffy's complete disregard for Xander, his viewpoint, and quite possibly the entire male side of the human species, the Slayer tore out of the living room and stomped up the stairs, calling out, "Willow! Dawn! Forget school, fun's more important!"
Xander glared at her back and also stomped to the door. He grabbed his jacket, nearly pulling the rack down in the process, and bustled out of the house, slamming the door shut behind him. In the wake of his demonstrative departure, the house fell silent.
Then a pounding of feet could be heard from upstairs, and just as Buffy reemerged at the top of the first flight, the front door opened and Xander stuck his head inside.
"Hey, we're still on for movie night tomorrow, right?" he asked in a congenial tone.
Buffy rapidly nodded. "Oh, yeah, absolutely."
"Okay, cool," he replied. "Later."
"Have fun!" the blonde responded with a smile that soon faltered. "But not more than us!" she hurriedly tacked on.
Xander pulled the door closed behind him, and Buffy dashed back upstairs. "Willow! Stop complaining and do a locator spell thingie to find Tara! We're gonna out-fun the boys if it kills us!"
Story by: Jet Wolf, Novareinna and Ultrace
Written by: Jet Wolf and Novareinna
Edited by: Jet Wolf and Novareinna
Original Airdate: Monday, 1 November 2004, 8pm EST
Kennedy strode into the Vortex with a confident grin and a bounce in her step. Obviously in decent spirits, she soon spied someone on the dance floor and waved in greeting, just as Buffy approached. The blonde Slayer peered over Kennedy's shoulder, following her line of sight until she, too, located the target. Her face lit up in immediate response and she looked extremely pleased, as well as more than a little smug.
"I got first round," announced Kennedy, raising her voice to be heard over the blaring music. Buffy nodded her agreement and Kennedy headed toward the bar on her right, nodding her head to the others as they filed in.
Much like the Slayers, Dawn was clearly enthused about the evening ahead, and she bopped her head in time to the beat that pounded around her. Hannah stood nearby, looking mostly bemused by her inclusion, but open to any possibilities. By contrast, Willow appeared disgruntled and like the 'drag her kicking and screaming away from her books' part might not have been entirely in jest. Tara remained hovering by the entrance, and seemed to be seriously contemplating the likelihood of simply slipping out of the building before anyone noticed she was gone.
With a resigned sigh, Willow approached Buffy, who was busily pointing toward the second floor. She followed the Slayer's gaze. "Faith's here too, huh?"
"Hazel too," Buffy replied with a beaming grin that she directed to her friend. "That's great. We're now at a full double the fun-power than Xander could amass."
Unable to fully suppress the smirk at Buffy's competitive streak, Willow asked, "If it's all about numbers, why didn't you just, y'know, invite all of Slayer Central?"
The blonde shook her head in rejection of the idea, although her expression indicated the thought had in fact crossed her mind. "Because then Xander would say I cheated," she explained, then cheered considerably. "But hey, if Faith and Hazel just happen to already be here – coincidence! No cheating!"
"I still think I should'a stayed home," stated Willow. She stole a quick glance over her shoulder in the general area of the door. "I-I'm not feeling real socially."
"All the more reason to drag you out," Buffy insisted, throwing her arm over the redhead's shoulders. "You can't stay locked in your room forever."
Nodding enthusiastically, Willow responded in an upbeat tone, "Actually, I worked it out, a-and with my own bathroom, I kinda can. If I cut a slat in the door, you guys could just shove food in there a couple times a day ..."
Allowing her eyes to dart upwards for just a fraction of a second, Buffy pulled Willow until she was facing the stairway and gave the witch a gentle shove. "Silence, you," she commanded. "Go start the fun having."
Sighing yet again, Willow did as she was told and headed toward the metal stairs leading to the club's second story, just as Hannah approached Buffy and looked down at the younger woman with a questioning eyebrow. "I admit, I'm surprised that you asked me to join you," she confessed.
Satisfied that Willow wasn't going to make a break for it, the Slayer turned to Hannah with a frown. "Why?" Before Hannah could respond, she supplied, "Oh, because you're old and stuff?"
"Actually, I was thinking because I so obviously made you appear pallid and homely by comparison," came the dry reply.
Buffy remained perky. "I'm pretty sure you're using big words to insult me, but getting upset wouldn't be in keeping with the spirit of fun," she declared.
"And we can't have that," Hannah smirked.
But the Slayer was already moving on. "No, seriously, we should hang. You're, like, practically my step-mom ... in a sort of fuzzy, out-of-focus way."
The oddness of the statement aside, Hannah gave a genuine smile. "And ignoring all fairy tale connotations attached to that title, I'm looking forward to the evening." She glanced toward the big neon arrow pointing the way to the second level. "Willow went upstairs, did she?"
"Yup. Better view, marginally more quiet."
Hannah nodded and headed off in that direction, leaving Buffy with only two individuals to properly secure on the fun train. Tara hadn't moved far from the entrance and didn't appear overly happy about the Summers who had wrapped herself around the witch's arm and clearly had no intention whatsoever of letting Tara make her retreat.
As Buffy approached, Dawn immediately appealed to her sister. "Buffy! Tell Tara she can't leave!"
"You really can't," she told Tara pragmatically. "The pride of our entire gender is on the line here."
"Somehow I doubt that showing up Xander is going to make any headlines for N.O.W.," countered Tara, the half of her body not encumbered by Dawnness twisting toward the freedom of outside.
Nodding her head, Buffy conceded the point. "No, but it'll make me feel all tingly when we win." Stepping to Tara's other side, she duplicated Dawn's actions, causing Tara to cast a final fleeting glance of longing at the door.
The Slayer ignored it completely. "Come on, wicca girl," she encouraged. "You've been broody long enough."
"I am not 'broody'," defended Tara in a voice that was almost indignant.
Dawn gave a tiny shrug. "Kinda are."
"I am not!" the witch insisted. "I ... I don't have the complexion to be broody."
The Summers girls shared an incredulous look, then both turned it on Tara. The witch glanced from Buffy to Dawn and back again.
"I've been broody, huh?" she asked resignedly.
"I hear Angel's all worried you're gonna take away his title at the next Brood Off," Dawn smirked.
"But concern yourself with it not," assured Buffy with a pat on the arm. "The first step is admitting you have a problem. And the second is toooo...?" She raised her eyebrows, prompting for the answer.
"Have fun?" guessed Tara, not sounding particularly convinced.
Still, Buffy accepted the answer as though it had been sounded from the mountaintops with bottomless enthusiasm. "Oo, she's not just sexy, she's smart, too. Now come on." The Slayer began to lead Tara further into the club, Dawn happily affixed to the witch's other arm. "Fun's a'waitin'." She was practically overflowing with grand authority. "We'll show those stinky male-things."
Xander wrinkled his nose and sniffed distastefully into the air. "What is that smell?"
Taking a sip of his Coke, he looked around the table at Giles, Wood and Andrew. They had decided to gather in a sports bar for their fun-filled evening and every television in the place was tuned to the Philadelphia 76ers game. The atmosphere was quiet and peaceful, most patrons watching the basketball with avid interest. The bartender, eyes also glued to one of the sets, polished the same glass for the sixth time in a row as he leaned on the counter. Luckily, the establishment wasn't particularly crowded and there were no customers clamoring for his attention. Xander critically regarded the bowl of pretzels in front of him and then looked at the nearby bowl of peanuts. With a shrug he took a handful of both and popped them into his mouth.
Andrew twirled the umbrella floating atop his colorful fruity drink. The maraschino cherry and chunks of pineapple bobbed gaily. He grinned at Xander. "Oh, that's probably me. I couldn't decide if I preferred Old Spice or Brut, so I went with both. You like?"
"No. No, I do not like," replied Xander. "You smell like the perfume counter at Sears."
The game having gone to a commercial, Wood reached for his glass of beer. "Andrew, you are aware that we're not actually out to attract the fairer sex tonight, right?"
Andrew cradled his drink with both hands. "Sure! Of course!" he admitted. "We're just a bunch of men, hanging out and being ... men. But men-ly doesn't mean you can't smell pretty." He leaned forward and attempted to capture the straw between his lips.
"Actually, I'm pretty sure it does," Xander told him with another disgusted wrinkle of his nose. "Though I guess you sort of wrecked that anyway, so I'm dropping it."
Wood's focus returned to the closest television as the conversation petered into silence. A glum Giles watched the condensation form on the outside of his glass of beer as Andrew, having finally secured his straw, slurped noisily and happily, apparently perfectly content to simply be counted among the elite. Frowning, the carpenter regarded each one of them in turn.
"Come on!," he urged. "This should be a fun night out, not a funeral – and I think we can all agree that in this job, it's important to draw a very distinguishing line between enjoyment and activities involving death."
Reluctantly, Wood dragged his eyes away from the screen. "I thought we were just gonna get together. Hang out, watch the game. Why the pressure?"
"The pressure, my friend," Xander told him empathically, "was special delivered from a young blonde of my acquaintance who insinuated – nay, came right out and said that she would round up some womenfolk and have more fun than us. We cannot allow this."
"But that doesn't make sense," Wood replied with a frown. "Having fun is an opinion, there's absolutely no way to quantify it."
"Ah-ah-ah! Don't bring your fancy 'logic' into this, college man," countered Xander with a jab of his finger. "We will fun. We will fun more than the girls. We will positively glow with it, like a weapon of mass fun-struction exploded just outside, bathing us all in the radiation of merriment and joy."
Andrew nodded appreciatively. "That was nice."
"Thank you," acknowledged Xander and Andrew beamed. "Now take my man Andy, here," the carpenter continued. "He's clearly got the spirit." The blond puffed out his chest. "The cheerful, if somewhat stupid, Dragonball Z t-shirt ..."
With a mild pout, Andrew peered down at himself. "You don't like Goku?"
Xander chose to ignore the question. "The bright and colorful tropical drink," he indicated the fruity beverage. "Andy is a man that screams fun. He screams..." Xander paused for a moment. "Well 'fun' is the least offensive adjective I'm coming up with, but at least he's in the spirit!"
"Fine, fine," agreed Wood grudgingly. "I'm in the spirit. Just ... don't preach anymore. It's disquieting, and honestly, really irritating."
Xander smiled with immense satisfaction. "Two of my chief attributes." He glanced at the Watcher, who continued to be engrossed in the wonders of science as drops of water trickled down the outside of his glass. He appeared totally withdrawn from the current situation.
"Giles ...?" queried Xander expectantly.
Startled at hearing his name, the Watcher looked up. "What? O-Oh, yes. Yes, of course. I agree. Wholeheartedly. Unless I shouldn't, in which case, I reserve the right to change my answer whenever it suits me."
"There ya go," Xander encouraged and then peered more closely at Giles. "Seriously though, you okay? You look sort of sullen. And I think you should know, that's an adjective I reserve just for you."
"No, I-I'm fine. Fine," Giles protested. "Just a little ..." His voiced trailed away. "Quite fine," he finished abruptly. "Another round then? Excellent."
Getting to his feet, Giles made his way to the bar, presumably oblivious to the fact that everyone's drinks were still more than half full and that his own hadn't even been touched.
"Can you get mine with extra cherries, Mr. Giles?" called Andrew over his shoulder. He almost hugged himself with delight. "I love the cherries."
Xander leaned toward Wood, who was lounging in his chair, arms crossed with feet stretched out comfortably in front of him. "You think he's okay?" he queried, a look of concern crossing his face.
Wood shot Giles a quick glance. "I think the stress is just getting to him," he confided. "He probably needs a night like this, honestly. A chance to get out of his office for a while. Between the usual Watcher and Slayer issues, the new Council branch getting ready to open within about a month, as well as everything else happening lately ..."
Xander nodded. "Yeah. He just needs a break." A relieved tone crept into his voice. "A chance to unwind. We'll turn him around." He sniffed contemptuously. "We better, cuz ain't no way I'm lettin' Buffy win."
Apparently confident that a fresh drink was imminent, Andrew allowed himself the pleasure of devouring the cherry and slurped loudly through his straw.
Despite the light sheen of perspiration and slight pant, Hazel bounded up the stairs of the Vortex. She'd clearly been partaking of the 'dance' aspect of the dance club, and thoroughly enjoying herself in the process. She soon spotted Dawn, seated alone at one of the tables, and claimed the seat next to her.
"Hazel, hey," Dawn greeted with a smile.
"Hey Dawn," the Slayer returned. "By yourself? What's up with that?"
"Oh, I'm making a statement." At Hazel's puzzled look, she further explained. "I'm being unfairly discriminated against because of my age. What's in an age, anyway? It's just a way to mark the passage of time, right? I mean, there is no significant different between the me of now and the me of, say ... four months and fifteen days from now."
Having caught onto the subtext of the speech, Hazel flashed a knowing smirk, and Dawn's righteous indignation melted. "Okay, I'm just pouting," she admitted.
"No go on the drinking front, huh?" queried Hazel, stealing a sip of Dawn's drink.
The younger Summers shook her head, her lip jutting out in a pout that clearly ran in the family. "And it's not even that I really want it, it's—"
"—it's that you can't have it," the Slayer finished with a nod of understanding. "So there. Though you do know the drinking age is 21 in Pennsylvania," she stated.
"It is?" asked Dawn, clearly knowing nothing of the sort. At Hazel's confirmation she sat back, considering this new information carefully. "Oh. Huh. I guess I'm done pouting then." She shrugged, seemingly unconcerned. "Nobody's really caring much anyway, and I'm bored."
She rose to her feet and Hazel followed suit, the two leisurely making their way toward the far end of the second floor.
"So how's the head thing?" inquired the Slayer.
Dawn glanced over in surprise. "You heard about that?"
Hazel nodded emphatically. "Oh, yeah. You Scooby guys are always big news. You should've heard the rumor mill buzzing about that huge zit you got last month." Dawn's eyes nearly popped out of their sockets, and Hazel was unable to maintain a straight face. "I'm kidding."
"Oh my god, don't do that."
Chuckling, Hazel easily dodged the light smack aimed for her arm. "Seriously though," she inquired with some concern, "you okay?"
"Yeah, fine," replied Dawn. "Ever since my trip somewhere over the rainbow, no headaches at all. I feel pretty good, actually. Sort of like this big pressure build-up in my brain is gone, and I didn't even know it was there." She laughed. "I should hit my head and hallucinate more often."
"I hear that helps with a lot of stuff," Hazel agreed.
Having arrived at the opposite end of the floor, they came upon a gathering of several tables that had been shoved together. The other girls were seated around them; Hazel and Dawn grabbed nearby chairs and easily slotted themselves into the group.
"Okay, I think we've waited long enough," Buffy suddenly announced, attracting everyone's attention. She glanced over to Willow, who nodded her complete agreement.
"Absolutely," concurred the redhead. "It's time we came clean."
"Well, not us so much," continued Buffy.
Willow glanced at Hannah. "We're thinking more you."
The group's collective focus shifted immediately to Hannah, who swallowed the mouthful of liquid she'd just taken and met their gazes with confusion. "Me?"
"You," answered Buffy and Willow in union.
"It's the Giles thing," Buffy explained.
Smoothly, Willow continued, "See, we've been sorta talkin' it over ..."
"There are stories," noted Buffy, unconcerned for the way Hannah's head swiveled back and forth between the two women as she attempted to keep up. "Stories we do not know. Stories that are likely embarrassing to Giles. Us not knowing them – that's gotta stop."
Hannah smirked at the two friends. "Subtle, girls."
"Ahh, subtlety, shmutlety," Willow pooh-poohed with a wave of her hand. "We just want the dirt."
Kennedy settled down more comfortably in her chair. "When Hannah met Giles. I'm in."
"C'mon, Mrs. G," cajoled Faith, perched on the back of her chair, her feet on the actual 'seat' part. "Enquiring minds wanna know."
Taking in the eager expressions worn by her captive audience, Hannah couldn't help but grin.
London – April 1973
There was something of a nip in the air and the streets were still wet after an earlier shower. The puddles reflecting the light from the street lamps provided the only sparkle on an otherwise gray and dismal street. Crowds of football enthusiasts who had made their way down from Lancashire to attend the game between Chelsea and Manchester United that afternoon jostled each other as they staggered along the narrow pavement, almost all of them drunk and looking for trouble. Some of them twirled their clappers disconsolately as they slurred, "Come on you Reds." Defeat was obviously a bitter pill to swallow. A passing car honked loudly as one of the fans stumbled into its path and the driver was promptly rewarded with a two-fingered "V" sign.
Double-decker buses chugged by at regular intervals, crossing the more brightly-lit and busy intersection, where belisha beacons with their flashing orange globes indicated the zebra crossing and presumably afforded safe passage to the other side – something the milling fans either refused to acknowledge or were too inebriated to notice. A group of youths stopped at the bottom of a flight of stone steps as the front door of a house opened and two young women emerged. Despite being located in a rather fashionable area of Chelsea, the building was depressingly similar to the ones on either side and, indeed, virtually the same as every other dwelling that lined the street. Once home to the aristocracy, the houses had been converted into bedsits and tiny flats.
The intoxicated young men eyed the two women appraisingly and shambled forward, effectively barring them from stepping onto the pavement. "Hey, blondie," greeted one, while another winked at the redhead and attempted to deliver a slobbering kiss.
"Oh, please," protested the auburn-haired girl, waving a hand in front of her face to dissipate the alcoholic fumes. "Have you ever considered buying a tube of Polo Mints?" She grimaced at her companion. "Sorry about this, Hannah."
Hannah shrugged and shook her head, her expertly layered bob swung smoothly from side to side. "No need to apologize, Mandy. Not like it's the first time we've ever had to deal with total Neanderthals."
"Neanderthals?" echoed one of the youths indignantly as he swayed back and forth. "We're as English as you are, you stuck-up scrubber. We ain't Dutch."
"Neanderthal not Netherlands," Mandy informed him, rolling her eyes.
Hannah tapped another young man on the shoulder. "Coming through," she told him pleasantly.
He shuffled closer and held out his arms. "Wanna squeeze past, darlin'? I'm sure it'll give ya a thrill." He turned to his compadres. "I know it'll give me one." There was an outburst of lecherous laughter.
With a charming smile, Hannah ground the heel of her boot into his foot as she stepped down. He hopped in agony and let out a high-pitched yelp. "There weren't no cause for that! Bleedin' hell."
The two girls chuckled as they walked away. "Easy to see why you chose to rent in this area," Hannah told Amanda. "Such a delightful class of visitor."
"Well," returned Amanda, "they do say some famous people live around here and you never know your luck," she grinned.
Hannah nodded wisely. "That's right, Mick Jagger has a flat somewhere nearby, doesn't he?"
The redhead pointed further down the road. "In Edith Grove, or so I've been told." She pouted. "I've never seen him though."
"Not for want of looking, I'm sure," replied Hannah briskly.
Amanda decided to ignore the dig and instead, glanced at her watch. "Want to go the Wimpy Bar now or later on?"
"Later," said Hannah with a grin. "I could use a drink or five first."
"I'll take you to the World's End," replied Amanda, hugging the blonde's arm. "I'm so glad you decided to pay a visit. It's been ages. Having a good time?"
"I was hoping to see more goals at the football match this afternoon," Hannah griped. "I thought The Blues were supposed to be top notch."
Amanda grimaced. "They're having a bit of a dry spell right now, but at least you got to see Ossie score." Her expression brightened and her green eyes glowed. "Isn't he gorgeous? The crown jewel of Stamford Bridge." A frown darkened her features. "Shame he's married."
Hannah shrugged. "I suppose he's all right. Not really my type though."
"And your type would be?" queried Amanda, arching an eyebrow.
Hannah laughed. "Guess I haven't found him yet."
Amanda tucked a wayward strand of auburn hair behind her ear. "Not sorry you came down for the weekend, I trust?"
"Good lord, no," replied Hannah. "Any excuse to get away from St. Hilda's for a while. I think I'll get on all right with my new roommate this term though. Her name's Olivia and she's a bit of a comedian in her own way. Pretty intelligent too."
"Don't know if I could deal with being at a college of all females," remarked Amanda. "It was bad enough in secondary school when there were only two boys in that awful First Year English Literature class, remember?"
Hannah chuckled. "I don't know if you could handle college at all to be honest, Mandy. You never were too swift in academics."
The redhead agreed. "Rather be out in the work force, even if it is only a typing pool."
The pair walked in comfortable silence for a few minutes toward the Kings Road. Then, Amanda began to scrutinize Hannah's outfit with a critical eye. "You do realize that bell bottoms will be on the way out soon?"
Hannah smirked. "To be replaced by the maxi floral-print granny dress, no doubt," she returned, eying Amanda as her hem brushed along the pavement.
Laughing, Amanda pushed open the door to the World's End and they wriggled their way through the crowd to the bar. The redhead drummed her fingers impatiently on the counter while Hannah's gaze drifted to the small stage located next to the window. Leaving her friend to order the drinks, Hannah elbowed her way to the front of the platform and looked up at the performer, noting the neon-orange hair, rouged cheeks and gold glitter sprinkled liberally on the eyelids.
"Likes to pretend he's David Bowie," confided a voice in her ear. She turned to be greeted by a look of open admiration. "The name's Ethan," the lanky, dark-haired young man introduced himself. "And you are?"
"Hannah," replied the blonde with a total lack of interest. Her gaze went back to the singer and she tilted her head. "Ziggy Stardust," she murmured, listening to the lyrics of the song. "'Rock 'N' Roll Suicide' ... one of my favorites. He's not bad, not bad at all. Especially given the atrocious back-up group," she added with a note of disdain.
Ethan chuckled. "Trust me, love, wouldn't help even if he had the entire Electric Light Orchestra behind him. Can I buy you a bevvie?"
"Should have one coming," Hannah told him, looking pointedly toward the bar and then waving at Amanda who had finally managed to procure the drinks.
"Then may I invite you and your friend to join us?" asked Ethan, gesturing toward a table where sat two half-empty glasses of brown ale.
"Us?" queried Hannah.
"Me and Mister Androgynous up there," he grinned, taking her arm.
Hannah allowed herself to be escorted to the table. Amanda followed, grimacing as vodka and lemonade sloshed onto the floor. She deposited the glasses with a thud and sank gratefully into one of the chairs. She smiled at Ethan who treated her to a grin and a twinkling eye.
The applause was lukewarm at best as the singer stepped down from the stage. He propped his guitar against the wall and downed the remains of his beer in one gulp, thrusting his empty glass under Ethan's nose. "Your round, mate." He inclined his chin toward the girls. "Who's the birds?"
Hannah bristled a little, but extended her hand. "It's Hannah and, surprising at this may be, I am not classified as any type of avian," she told him curtly and then added, "How do you do, Ziggy?"
His eyes narrowed. "The name's Rupert."
"Wait wait wait," interrupted Faith.
Hannah's mouth was caught in a half-open dangle as she was preparing to continue with her story, but she paused and regarded the assembled girls quizzically. Faith wore a frown that made it quite clear she felt she couldn't have possibly heard correctly. Buffy and Willow were both giggling like maniacal schoolgirls, while Tara was simply staring in disbelief, her eyebrow so high it had practically disappeared into her hairline. Dawn and Hazel were quite sedate by comparison, both simply staring at Hannah in what appeared to be utter confusion, and Kennedy actually looked impressed.
"Mr. Giles," Tara stated, trying to reconcile facts that seemed irreconcilable. "Mr. Giles. In ... drag?"
Buffy and Willow's giggling exploded into full-fledged laughter.
"Well, not really in drag," corrected Hannah. "He was dressed more ... ambiguous than anything."
The clarification didn't seem to lessen Kennedy's admiration. "Giles the gender-bender?" She grinned widely. "My respect for him has risen to all-new levels."
Seated next to her, Buffy flapped her hand in the air, fighting for breath between the laughs. "Oh god. Oh god," she gasped repeatedly.
"I keep picturing him wearing make-up, but still in tweed!" Willow exclaimed, her eyes streaming with tears of hilarity.
Buffy laughed so hard, she actually fell off of her chair, setting off Willow all over again. The Slayer had disappeared from view, but her howls were still quite audible.
Dawn followed Buffy's journey to the ground with her eyes, but her gaze seemed dazed and vacant. "My world's fragile eco-structure is collapsing," she stated in a thin voice.
"You get used to it," Hannah told her, seemingly unphased by their reactions. "Now as I was saying ..."
His eyes narrowed. "The name's Rupert."
Amanda giggled. "Like Rupert Bear?" She pondered for a moment and then pointed at Ethan. "So, you must be Algy."
Ethan didn't appear to take offense as he jostled his way to the bar. Indeed, he seemed to find the whole exchange rather amusing.
Rupert took a seat and leaned across the table toward Hannah. "Did Ethan tell you who I was supposed to be?"
Hannah shook her head. "Didn't have to. It was obvious."
Rupert smiled proudly. "That good, eh?"
Hannah laughed and Rupert's smile grew broader. "Actually, yes you were, Ziggy."
"Haven't seen you in here before," Rupert remarked, leaning back in his chair.
"Possibly because I haven't been here before?" suggested Hannah.
Amanda looked from one to the other for a moment. Then, taking note of Hannah's barely disguised hint of dismissal, retrieved her drink and drifted toward Ethan who was waiting at the bar.
Rupert crossed his arms. "Live around here?"
"No," Hannah told him. "Just down from Oxford for the weekend."
Rupert frowned. "University?"
"I'm at St. Hilda's," replied Hannah.
"My father wants me to go to Magdalene," Rupert said disgustedly. "His alma mater."
"Good college," remarked Hannah. "Oscar Wilde, Edward VIII, Thomas Wolsey. All former students." She grinned. "And the most famous son of all, the one and only Dudley Moore."
Rupert returned the grin. "Not Ziggy Stardust, though."
"No," agreed Hannah. "He would have gone to school on Mars, presumably."
"Get to London often?" asked Rupert.
"I intend on coming more often than I used to," she revealed meaningfully.
Rupert's cheeks reddened at the blatant implication. Hannah noticed it even beneath the rouge and grinned mischievously as a layer or two of the overt cockiness slipped away. He appeared to be somewhat flustered. She quickly took advantage of his discomfort. "Bet you're even cuter under all that make-up. Is that your real hair color?"
"Hardly," he admitted. "Um ... vegetable dye. It washes out."
"Still, bit of a rebel, huh?" asked Hannah with a glint in her eye.
"W-Well," stammered Rupert. "On some things, yes."
"You like Pink Floyd?" The question came out of the blue and Rupert blinked.
"Magnificent group. Love their new album, especially 'Time'."
Hannah nodded. "I'll be back in London next month. Got tickets to see them at Earls Court on May 19th. Want to come?"
"You got tickets?" queried an astounded Rupert. "I thought the concert was sold out."
Hannah winked. "I have my contacts," she told him. "Well?"
Rupert nodded and dug in his pocket for money, but Hannah waved away the offer. "My treat," she declared. "You can feed me after the show." She checked her watch. "Speaking of which, I have a date with a Wimpy burger about now." She stood up and swallowed the dregs of her White Russian. "See you outside the station, about sixish?"
"But ..." he protested as Hannah turned away.
She hurried toward Amanda and grabbed her arm, tugging her away from what was ostensibly an engrossing in-depth conversation she was having with Ethan.
"Time to go," Hannah said decisively.
"So soon?" objected Ethan. "Just when we're all getting along so famously?"
Hannah hustled Amanda out of the pub. "What's the bloody hurry?" Amanda snapped. "Seemed like you'd finally found your type in Rupert Bear, and Algy was kind of interesting too."
Hannah chuckled. "You have to leave them wanting more, Mandy. Then they remember you. That's always been your trouble – far too eager at the get-go. If you get to know everything all at once, where's the surprise?" She gave the thought serious consideration. "And I think Ziggy has a lot of surprises."
Amanda sighed heavily, but the blonde paid the unvoiced protest little mind. "Now," Hannah began brightly, "about your Pink Floyd ticket ..."
"What happened next?" asked Dawn eagerly.
Elbow on the table, Buffy rested her chin in her hand. "Please don't let the story involve high-heels and fishnets," she grinned. "I don't think I could take it."
"Nothing so scandalous," chuckled Hannah. "He was there, quite on time and looking as presentable as one could expect of an 18-year old trying desperately to be a rebel."
Faith leaned back in her chair. "Me, I'm still stuck on the school bit. I mean, as fast as you came onto Oxford, bein' trapped with nothin' but girls 24/7 must've driven you nuts."
"Funny," remarked Kennedy. "That's exactly what I liked about private school."
"Well, it had its moments," Hannah admitted with a smirk. "But it was very important to my father that I go there, and I wasn't particularly moved one way or the other. Also, it put me closer to London, which was considerably more interesting than Grantham."
Standing up, Willow let out a puff of air. "Well I think after a big revelation like that, we could all use a drink. Everyone want the same?"
The redhead's inquiring eyes were met with a series of nods, save Dawn who opened her mouth as though she were about to say something. However, being treated to a glare from Buffy, the teenager apparently thought better of it and added her own agreement with a small pout.
Willow pushed her way through the crowd and descended the staircase. The mass of bodies was no less dense on the lower floor and passage was far from easy. "Sorry," she muttered with each bump she delivered along the way and there were many of them. She almost knocked one young man off his feet entirely, due largely to the fact that he was obviously drunk and already lurching in a dangerous fashion. He staggered and grabbed the back of a nearby chair to regain his balance, watching Willow as she walked away. A smile of appreciation crossed his lips and he nodded approvingly. Straightening up as best he could given the circumstances, he lumbered in the redhead's wake. With surprising agility, he managed to skirt the dance floor and got to the bar ahead of her, effectively cutting her off just before she arrived. Startled, Willow jumped slightly.
"Oh! Sorry," she grimaced and stepped to her right, but he shadowed the move.
"Excuse me," Willow told him with a small smile of apology.
"You bumped int'a me back there," slurred the young man.
"You and everyone else," chuckled the redhead. "Sorry about that – busy night, I guess. Everyone just ... gettin' their groove on!" She took a step to the left. He followed suit.
"You made me spill m' drink."
"Oh, god, sorry," replied a remorseful Willow. "Here, I-I'll buy you a new one. What'd you have?"
He grinned and stumbled forward. "Not really int'rest'd in a drink."
Willow backed up a few paces. "How about some wings, then?" she suggested. "O-Or cheese sticks? I love cheese sticks. So yummy a-and stringy, but it doesn't really have the same consistency as other cheese when it melts, and haven't you always wondered why that is? I mean—"
She paused as the man leaned over until his face was only an inch or two from her own. "You c'n pay me back with a dance," he announced firmly.
"A ... A dance?" stammered a horrified Willow. "Oh. Oh, no. No, I'm no good with- with the dancing. My spine looks like it's all bendy and there are just limbs flailin' everywhere. Very embarrassing. I'll look bad. I'll make you look bad." She shook decisively. "It'll just be bad."
He crossed his arms and swayed unsteadily as he reiterated his demand. "I wanna dance."
"Well there's the floor, John Travolta," responded the redhead sharply, tolerance fading fast. "Don't let me stop you."
The barb was wasted. Reaching out, the young man seized Willow's upper arm and tugged her toward him. "Maybe somewhere private," he whispered in her ear. "Jus' you an' me."
"It was just her and me. Me an' Will. The two musketeers."
Wood peered at Xander from over the top of his beer glass. "I don't think that's an actual expression."
The carpenter brushed away the comment. "Is now. Anyway, it's kinda funny how we almost weren't."
Andrew wriggled excitedly in his seat. "I smell a story!"
"Just a little one. See, way back, when Will was a precocious little tyke of four, her parents pulled a lot of strings to get her into kindergarten early. We'd had a babysitter in common and were already kinda friends, so we both sort of gravitated toward each other." He shrugged. "That part's history. Anyway, all was well for the first couple'a months. Paintings were made with fingers, Legos were put to much use." Xander's expression darkened. "Then one day, Will's parents told her the unthinkable."
"That Santa Claus wasn't real?" Andrew guessed. He shook his head sadly. "I wouldn't talk to my parents for two years when they told me."
Dragging himself away from the close examination of his beer glass, Giles regarded the blond with as much disdain as he could muster – which, it turned out, was quite a lot. "Willow is Jewish," he sighed in exasperation.
"She didn't know she was Jewish until kindergarten?" asked Andrew, obviously feeling a great deal of sympathy for poor, young, religiously-ignorant Willow.
For a long moment, everyone simply stared.
Then Xander continued his narrative as though he'd never been interrupted. "They told her they were movin' her to a private school. Turns out the teacher had been payin' real close attention to our Willow, an' noticed how ... you know—" He waggled his hands around his brain region. "—freakishly smart she is. So she told the Rosenbergs that Will'd probably do better in some accelerated private school thingie."
Nodding, Wood set his glass down. "I taught at one of those for a while. They make cram schools look like day care."
"'Course, in traditional Rosenberg style, they just told her they were switchin' her out, an' figured she'd just go along with it."
"I'm guessing they were in for a rude awakening?" Wood questioned with a wry grin.
"Oh yeah," replied Xander emphatically. "Apparently the first thing Will asked was if I was goin' too." He smiled affectionately at the thought, then shook his head. "'Course my parents only barely knew if I went to school at all, an' as for actually paying for the privilege?" The sharp exhalation of air said all he obviously felt needed be said to that idea.
"So what did our resident ex-dark mistress do next?" inquired Andrew, prodding the story along.
With a chuckle, Xander answered, "Screamed and cried, I think. A whole lot. The details are kinda fuzzy, since I wasn't there, an' apparently after an hour or so, Will finally passed out." The carpenter seemed to swell with pride for the redhead as he continued, "She wouldn't cave, though."
Pausing for a moment, he took a few swallows of his Coke, narrowly avoiding an ice avalanche as he tipped the glass all the way back. "They finally decided that her social development would probably suffer anyway, an' left her in regular school." He gave an exaggerated scoffing laugh. "Like that could ever happen. Willow? Socially deficient in some way? That's just crazy talk."
Xander grinned at the Watcher, who had fallen silent once more. "Still, just as well, eh Giles? Will in private school woulda meant no Will in Sunnydale High, an' that would've meant many more boring hours of research for us."
"Yes, I suppose," came the distracted, almost bored reply. It was followed by another sigh, and Giles looked up with a frown. "Why are we discussing this again?"
Giving the question due consideration, Xander eventually replied, "I was talking about how some stuff should be kept apart, like submarines and screen doors. You said—" The carpenter's adopted an embarrassingly horrific British accent. "—'Xander do shut up'."
Quick to help out, Andrew supplied, "Oh, and then I said—" His voice dropped a register. "—'A can of peaches. A Denebian slime devil. A wet nap. Which does not belong?'" Speaking normally, he continued, "And then you guys said—"
"Shut up, Andrew," Giles, Wood and Xander all chorused.
"Yes, exactly!" the blond affirmed with great enthusiasm. Enthusiasm that quickly began to taper off as reality reasserted itself. "Oh, you meant ... now." Andrew slurped some more of his drink and said nothing else.
"I'm very sorry I asked," announced Giles in a flat, almost aggravated tone before returning his attentions to studying the rapidly de-foaming beer before him.
Xander's concern at Giles' withdrawal evident to all but Giles himself, the carpenter glanced to Wood. Easily catching the hint, Wood got to his feet and began to move away from the table.
"Come on, Andrew. Let's go play darts," he said, motioning for the blond to join him. "I expect several lasting memories from the experience."
With a final sip of his drink, Andrew happily went to join the other man. "Cool. Though I warn you, I downloaded a Java darts game once and got this close to the high score." He held up his thumb and forefinger, hovering scant millimeters apart.
"I'll bear that in mind." As the duo headed for the dart machines, Wood turned to Andrew. "By the way, you do know you're not supposed to change your voice like that when you're quoting yourself, right?"
Now alone at the table, Xander scooted closer to Giles, the carpenter's forehead creased with worry. "Giles, man – what's up? Not like you're usually a barrel of monkeys or anything, but this is pretty extreme, even for you."
For a long moment, a sigh was Giles' only response. "I don't ... I'm not altogether sure," he confessed, sounding weary.
"Is it stress?" questioned Xander, bringing forth Wood's hypothesis from earlier. "Cuz man, if it is, I gotta tell ya: we're gonna beat this thing. Sure, we don't know exactly what it is, or how to find it, or why it's so powerful, and it totally kicked our butts last time—"
"Ah, yes, thank you. I feel much better now," Giles interrupted.
Xander didn't belabor the point. "What I'm sayin' is, despite all that, we're gonna win. I know we are."
The Watcher looked at Xander – Xander in all his earnestness. The unshakable faith in his eye, the trusting and 'trust-me' smile. Giles found his own lips twitching upward, just a little.
"Yes. Yes, I expect we will," he replied, and Xander looked instantly relieved. "I'm sorry, I've just felt sort of ..." Giles searched desperately for the word. "...disconnected, and ..."
Trailing off, Giles again glanced at the other man. There was little doubt that Xander was more than willing to wait however long it took for Giles to figure out how to say what needed saying, but the Watcher shook his head. "It's nothing," he concluded.
Immediately, Xander's mouth opened in protest, but Giles raised a hand and cut him off. "Truly," he assured. "I apologize for my foul temper. I'll be more diligent in my enjoyment of the evening."
"Well, see, enjoyment's the sort of thing that just kinda, you know ... happens," rejoined the carpenter. "You shouldn't have to work at it. So c'mon." He nudged Giles with his elbow. "That grumpy, frowny Giles? He's got no place here." Xander unleashed the big charm guns and grinned widely. "He's on the block and being evicted. Let him go."
Having been backed against a nearby wall, Willow tried to jerk her arm from the vice-like grip. She frowned as the drunk refused to release her.
"Let me go," she snapped angrily.
The young man reached out to stroke her hair. "Aww, baby," he crooned. "Don't be like that."
"I'm not your 'baby', and I'm not impressed," replied the redhead sharply. "Is this what dating is these days? I don't think I'm missing much." She attempted once more to get free. "Now let go."
"I thought you might need help with the drinks," suggested a soft voice and Willow looked over the man's shoulder to see Tara standing behind him. "Though maybe it's just the 'help' part," the blonde added speculatively.
Willow shook her head. "Nah, I'm good." With a violent jolt, she broke his grasp and eyed the man scornfully. "We were just finishing up here." Brushing past, she joined Tara.
Tottering, the man turned and then blinked. "Two'a ya?" he grinned. "This just gets better'n better."
Folding her arms, Tara arched a dubious eyebrow. "For whom, exactly?"
"Never before has 'better' been so subjective," added Willow curtly.
He shambled toward them, scrutinizing Tara, openly leering as he eyed her up and down. "Mm, blondie, you jus' my type."
Tara chuckled quietly. "I really doubt it."
He lunged forward, hand outstretched as he made a grab. "Why don't you—"
But he never got to finish the proposal, his words cut short by an abrupt jerk backward. He lurched heavily into an empty table and sent it toppling to the floor. By some miracle, he managed to remain on his feet.
"Why don't you keep your hands to yourself?" suggested Kennedy, moving into position between the drunk and the objects of his amorous attention.
"Hell's this?" he muttered furiously. "One'a them coalitions?"
"Yeah, we've formed an alliance against stupid jerkfaces!" Willow informed him with an emphatic jab of her finger.
Tara threw the redhead a sideways glance. "'Stupid jerkfaces'?" she echoed.
Willow shrugged. "I still haven't mastered the art of the insult," she whispered in confidence.
"You're drunk," Kennedy sneered at Mr. Grabby Hands, "you're not particularly bright, and you're way out of your league. Go home and sleep it off." She half-turned and then regarded him scathingly. "Well the drunk part, anyway. No amount of sleep is gonna help the other two."
The young man's face turned a deep shade of purple as he clenched his fists. "You bi—"
His eyes narrowed as the intended affront trailed away. Apparently deciding to abandon verbal abuse in favor of the more satisfying physical variety, he took a threatening stride forward and then his step faltered. In confusion, he tilted his head, noting the sudden arrival of Buffy. With arms crossed, she stood beside Tara and simply stared at him. The challenging gaze seemed to make him nervous and he glanced in the other direction. There, next to Willow, legs astride and cigarette dangling from her lips, was Faith. He scowled at her amused expression.
"Go on," encouraged Buffy. "Complete that thought. It'll be funny."
His hands dropped to his sides as he surveyed the wall of women. He took note of the cool and calm exteriors, but also couldn't fail to notice the air of total confidence each exuded – the postures of self-assurance that clearly indicated they were of the opinion he could be taken out without any of them breaking so much as a sweat. He took an involuntary step backward, ostensibly fearing that his suspicions might be right on the money.
"Bunch'a freakin' dykes!" he snarled defensively.
"Dude, look at 'em," laughed Faith. "They're way too pretty." She pondered her statement for a moment. "Well maybe not Kenn," she added.
Kennedy shot Faith a quick look that was, nonetheless, loaded with deadly daggers. She was rewarded with a charming smile.
"Don't let us interrupt your not being here," advised a cheerful Buffy.
With baleful expression, the young man staggered toward the exit. Faith watched him briefly before taking the last drag of her cigarette and flicking the still-smoldering butt at his left ear with expert precision. He howled as it inflicted a nasty burn on the flesh. Ruefully fingering the injured earlobe, he lumbered out of the Vortex with as much dignity as inebriation and humiliation would allow.
Tara sighed. "Those kinds of guys are still around, huh? Nice."
Faith threw a friendly grin in the blonde's direction. "You were only gone two years, Glinda. Takes longer'n that to cure assholes."
Buffy regarded the small group seriously. "You guys okay?"
Willow nodded. "Yeah. Wish he'd just let me buy him some cheese sticks, though." She gave everyone a grateful smile. "Thanks for the backup."
Faith shrugged nonchalantly. "Hey, you know me, any possible chance for violence, I'm there." She looked down in surprise as Buffy grabbed her arm.
"We'll get the drinks," the blonde Slayer told the others as she dragged Faith to the bar.
Left alone, the atmosphere between Willow, Tara and Kennedy immediately grew tense.
Willow smiled at both of them. "Thanks," she repeated.
"My pleasure," assured Kennedy as Tara nodded in agreement.
"How did you ...?" asked the redhead, her eyes fixed on Tara's face.
The blonde frowned. "I could sort of ... I dunno, feel it? You getting upset. Like this itch I couldn't scratch."
Kennedy executed a not-so-subtle eye-roll at the unintentional euphemism, but neither Willow nor Tara noticed.
"We should probably mention it to Giles," pondered the redhead.
"Yeah, probably," replied Tara quietly.
Willow nodded. "Yeah."
Looking from Willow to Tara, Kennedy delivered another blatant roll of the eyes and grumbling under her breath, stalked off, leaving the pair on their own. Her departure didn't seem to register.
"You wanna ... talk?" suggested Willow.
"Yes?" Tara confirmed. "No?" Less sure now, she gave a deep sigh. "Yes and no?"
Willow seemed to be in accord with the uncertainty. "I know what you mean."
A tiny smile crept across Tara's lips.
At the bar, Buffy leaned over the counter in search of a tray while Faith gathered up as many drinks as she could safely carry in two hands. She smirked to see Kennedy walking toward them.
"Aww," she commented, jerking her head toward Willow and Tara. "They're so cute, don't you think?"
"Faith? Shut the hell up," counseled a tight-lipped Kennedy.
Grinning broadly, Faith stepped to one side, allowing Kennedy access to the counter. She immediately grabbed a drink – which may or may not have been the one intended for her consumption – and instantly drained the contents in one swallow. Slamming the empty glass onto the bar, she thrust her hands into the her pockets of her leather jacket and shouldered her way through the crowd. Faith watched her stomp up the staircase to the second level with no little amusement.
"You are so evil," Buffy told her, admonishingly waving the tray she'd eventually located behind the counter.
"Nah, did that scene, B," retorted Faith. "I'm reformed now. You miss that memo?" She grinned as she loaded the glasses she'd been holding onto the tray in Buffy's hands.
With a smirk, the blonde followed Kennedy, leaving Faith to attract the attention of the bartender, who scuttled toward her with amazing promptness as she shook the empty glass drained by Kennedy.
"Need another one'a these," Faith informed him. She thought for a second. "Better make it three."
Upon arriving upstairs, Buffy made her way to the table where Hannah, Dawn and Hazel had been hanging out. Kennedy had now joined the party, but she didn't look particularly pleased with the entire world as a general rule.
"Everything okay?" queried Dawn, helping her sister to unload the drinks.
Buffy nodded confidently. "Yup. No trouble."
Dawn smiled. "Cool. Hannah was getting ready to tell us more stuff about Giles."
"Oo!" enthused Buffy. "Just in time, then. I could use something to take my mind off the jerkiness of the men of today."
Sympathetically, Hannah patted the blonde's hand. "Unfortunately, it's been my experience that men have the capacity to be unpleasant creatures, regardless of time or place ..."
London – July 1973
Ethan closed the door to the flat he shared with Giles as Hannah made her way to the bathroom to seek out medicinal aids. She soon returned bearing a bottle of iodine and a wad of cotton in a plastic bag.
"Be still," she ordered severely, dabbing at Giles' cheek.
"Stings," he winced.
"Oh, don't be such a baby," chided Hannah. "It's your own damn fault." She peered at the cut. "Don't believe it's deep enough to warrant stitches." She patted him on the head as though he were a small boy. "Think you're good to go, Ziggy."
"More than can be said for the other burk," commented Ethan, nodding his approval. "Right on, Ripper."
Giles grinned as Hannah flopped into an overstuffed chair and threw one leg over the arm. "I always suspected you had something of a temper, but ..." She waved a hand in disbelief.
"Always been a bit of a tearaway, has our Ripper," smirked Ethan. "I remember back when we were ... what would it be now ... eight or so, when Chalky White broke his prize marble in two with his shooter. Do you remember? Had these really lovely orange and blue swirls. He was really quite fond of it," he added to Hannah with a note of sympathy in his voice that didn't sound entirely genuine. "Still, you got him back for it." He turned to Hannah. "He damn near cracked old Chalky's skull wide open on the concrete."
Grimacing, Giles shook his head at Ethan and then cautiously probed the cut on his cheek, which had split open again and was beginning to ooze blood once more. Hannah tossed him the bag of cotton. "You can treat it yourself this time, 'Ripper'!"
Perching on the arm of Hannah's chair, Ethan encouraged, "Don't be too hard on him. Got to protect what's his, don't he?"
"I'm perfectly capable of taking care of myself," Hannah told him huffily.
Ethan shrugged. "I'm sure you are, love, but still. A bloke can't look like a pansy in front of his bird." He grinned as Hannah visibly bristled.
"You know I hate that terminology," she snapped.
He patted her shoulder. "Now, now. Don't get your feathers all ruffled." His tone made the gesture all the more condescending.
As Hannah glowered in Giles' direction, he quickly stifled the laugh that threatened to erupt and turned it into a cough.
"It's not funny," she informed him curtly. "You could have really hurt that young man." She tutted and shook her head in reprimand. "And what good did it do anyone to smash that bottle on the counter? The glass flew everywhere and you ended up by getting a cut on your own stupid face because of it. Glad you dropped it before you could do any real damage."
"He was bothering you," mumbled Giles. "And I didn't much like the way he was eying you up and down either."
"He was drunk for Christ's sake!" exploded Hannah. "You of all people should understand what it's like to be blotto and do silly things. Not like it would be a new experience for you."
"He really prefers to go at it bare-fisted anyway," confided Ethan in a voice loud enough to easily reach Giles. "More satisfying if you wanna know the truth. He probably only used the bottle as he had it in his hand already. Anyway," he continued, "the bloke won't be eying much of anything for a while ... not with both mince pies swelled shut." He treated Rupert to another approving grin.
Giles sank further into his chair and prodded the cut gingerly.
"Not with your fingers," chastised Hannah, getting up to retrieve the iodine and wad of cotton. "Here, better let me do it."
"Never known him to get into a fight over a bir—" Ethan paused and corrected himself with a placating glance toward Hannah. "... a young lady before. He must be really fond of you." He shook his head at Giles in mock reprobation. "'Jealousy and love are sisters.'"
"Who said that?" interrupted Hazel. "That's pretty clever. Makes a lot of sense."
Hannah took a sip of her drink before answering. "It's an old Russian proverb."
"Smart guys, those Russians," remarked Faith. She turned to her fellow Slayer and grinned. "Don't you think, Kenn?"
But Kennedy's attentions were focused elsewhere. Specifically, on Willow and Tara, who were seated several yards away at their own table. They were clearly talking, although with the noise and distance, it was impossible to tell what they were saying. Still though, Kennedy's gaze remained locked and she completely ignored Faith's question.
"At any rate," Hannah continued, "it was my first real look at the other side of Rupert. Unfortunately, I'm ashamed to admit, I initially found it more compelling than was likely healthy. And when I discovered more about the true nature of the world ..."
London – September 1973
Propped against the pillow, Giles glanced at Hannah lying in the crook of his elbow. She reached toward the nightstand and lit two cigarettes, placing one between his lips. He inhaled deeply and blew a chain of smoke rings.
She nudged his ribs. "You promised to show me how to do that."
"It's an acquired art," he laughed. Then, his tone grew serious. "You shouldn't have followed us last night, you know."
Hannah pouted. "Then you shouldn't have left me to my own devices. Skulking out like that without a word. You didn't think I'd just let it slide, surely?"
"No, I suppose not," Giles sighed. "Still, I'd rather you hadn't put yourself in that kind of danger."
"On the contrary," she insisted, sitting up. "I found the whole thing thoroughly fascinating. Sure beats the study of Economics in terms of intrigue, let me tell you. The conquest of demons from the bowels of hell or whatever they were. Well, words fail me and, as you should be aware by now, that doesn't happen very often." She regarded him from the corner of her eye. "Not the first time, was it?"
Giles shifted position uncomfortably. "I'd really rather not talk about it."
Hannah wriggled closer. "Forbidden goings-on and dabblings in the darkside are right up my alley." Turning, she nibbled on his earlobe and whispered, "Maybe I could help. I've been looking for something to relieve the boredom."
"Which is not to say that you're not the most exciting ..."
He chuckled and gently clasped his hand across her mouth. "Alright, alright. 'Nuff said."
"So," urged Hannah, "time to spill the beans, Ziggy." She threw her arms wide. "Bare your soul."
"It's kind of my heritage in a way," Giles began reluctantly. "The old man, he's a member of what's known as the Watcher's Council. You wouldn't have heard of it. It's very ancient and rather complicated to explain."
Hannah reached for another cigarette and settled herself against the pillow. "Believe me, for this, I've got all the time in the world."
Buffy's eyes widened as she took a sip of her drink. "He told you? I can't believe he told you. He's usually so secretive about all that stuff. He used to be, anyway." She frowned. "Or, well, he obviously wasn't, then he was, then he wasn't again ..."
Reaching out, Hannah patted Buffy's hand. "Don't strain yourself, dear. I had ways of making him talk."
"I just bet you did," chuckled Faith. "I like your style, Mrs. G. You're alright."
Hannah smiled at the compliment. "I try."
"You said you'd try."
Giles' head jerked up at Xander's words, and he immediately found himself confronted with the carpenter's intent stare. Giles frowned in confusion. "What?"
Xander didn't hesitate. "Excuse us one moment," he said to the others as he rose to his feet and gently tugged Giles out of his chair. Giles didn't protest, appearing for the most part to be confused and surprised by Xander's actions, and allowed himself to be led away.
The area near the entrance to the bar was relatively secluded, occupied only by a row of vacant pinball machines. Here Xander stopped and turned toward the Watcher. "Okay, what's goin' on?" he gently demanded. "I'm gettin' serious 'be worried' vibes here. An' don't just tell me you got a lot on your mind. There's something goin' on. Something I'm pretty sure is you-specific. And I can't just keep sitting there and pretending you're okay when you're so obviously not."
There was no immediate response. Giles absorbed Xander's words, then nodded his head sharply, just once. "You're absolutely right," he agreed. "You shouldn't have to pretend. And neither should I."
Without another word, Giles turned away and walked out of the bar.
The table Willow and Tara had sequestered was near to the railing of the second story, providing an easy view of the dance floor and writhing bodies below, but neither woman seemed to be paying the activity any attention. Each sat on opposite sides of the table, shifting occasionally and finding something new to focus their attentions – provided that 'something new' was never the woman in front of her.
"Are you feeling better now?" Willow blurted out after a prolonged silence threatened to go on infinite loop without intervention.
Tara's eyes jerked toward the redhead, who appeared for a brief moment to want to look away again. But her resolve kicked in, and Willow held the gaze as she further clarified. "With the whole ..." Her hand flailed around as she searched for the right words. Unable to find them, she simply said, "With the everything."
Nodding, Tara also managed to maintain eye contact. "I'm okay," she replied with a bit more conviction than it she apparently felt.
"That's good. I worry all the time. I-I mean, about how you're doing." For a brief second, Willow looked panicked at having made the admission, but then she smiled sheepishly. "I want you to be okay. And you are! So ... so that's good."
"You worry?" At Willow's sincere nod of confirmation, Tara gave her a teasing smirk. "Maybe if you'd, you know ... talk to me, you wouldn't have to worry so much."
The redhead's eyes widened at the implication and she immediately protested. "I talk! I ..." Her brow crinkled in deep thought, and she thrust her finger at Tara triumphantly. "I asked you to pass the butter at breakfast!"
"Oh, yes, the condiment discussion," agreed the blonde wryly. "How could I forget?"
Despite the slight touch of sarcasm, Tara grinned. Willow happily echoed it. But the moment soon passed, the redhead again slipped into seriousness. "I just don't want to crowd."
"Maybe I like the crowd of you." As soon as she'd said the words, Tara's eyes darted away. Willow began to look distressed again, but Tara quickly reestablished their connection. "I know what you mean, though. I feel ..." She frowned, obviously having no small amount of difficulty in vocalizing her emotions. "I feel like it's—"
Suddenly, Kennedy was there. She stood to the side of the table, looking down meaningfully at Willow. Tara's mouth slowly closed as she regarded Kennedy with a confusion mirrored by Willow.
"Dance with me," Kennedy stated, fixating on the redhead as though she were the only thing in the entire universe.
Willow blinked. "What?"
"Dance with me," she repeated. Willow still looked confused and Kennedy rolled her eyes with a smirk. "Me. You. Dance. Now."
Willow glanced from Kennedy to Tara and back again. "But Tara and I—"
"One dance," the Slayer insisted. "Maybe two. I've heard nothing but talk all night. It's time for some action."
Before Willow could protest, Kennedy had tugged the witch out of her chair and was steering her toward the stairs. She winked to Tara as she made her way down, pushing Willow in front of her. "I'll bring her back," Kennedy promised with a twinkle in her eye. "Eventually."
Tara watched them leave, her expression stunned at the speed with which the situation had fallen apart. Her eyes drifted to the dance floor, where she watched Kennedy and Willow.
The Slayer immediately fell into the beat, but Willow simply stood there, her arms crossed and posture angry. Kennedy didn't allow it to phase her, however. She grabbed one of the redhead's hands and proceeded to dance with it anyway, heedless of the fact that the body it was attached to did not, in any way, shape or form participate.
Kennedy leaned over to say something, and a burst of laughter erupted from Willow. It was the opening the Slayer had obviously been waiting for, and Willow began to relax – just a little.
Taking in the scene unfolding below, Tara slowly began to transform from stunned to irritated. By the time Buffy had slipped into Willow's vacated seat, the blonde witch looked as close to furious as she ever had before. Buffy blinked in surprise at Tara's expression, but Tara hadn't yet acknowledged the Slayer's presence. Her clenched jaw twitched as she watched Kennedy spin Willow out and then back again, wrapping her arms tightly around the smiling redhead.
Buffy placed a fresh drink in front of Tara, studying the other woman's features with surprise and great interest. "Wow," she finally observed. "That's not a look we see on you every day."
Without looking up, Tara snapped, "Yes, well ... this isn't exactly a situation I'm in every day."
Forcibly tearing her gaze away, the blonde snatched the drink and took a deep swallow, which was immediately followed by an involuntary shudder at the taste. The sharp slap of alcohol seemed to douse Tara's anger somewhat, and while she still didn't appear to be on happy's Christmas card list, she no longer looked like she could set fire to the napkins by her glare alone.
Buffy took in all this impassively. "Emotional yo-yo, huh? Been there," she commiserated with an understanding nod, before brightening. "Oh, but hey, at least you're feeling something. That's really good. I was sorta afraid you'd be, like ... you know, me."
Tara very deliberately looked anywhere but at the scene below. "Believe me, I'm feeling things," she replied, her voice bitter.
"Ouch." The Slayer paused then, to allow Tara to expand on said feelings. Tara clearly didn't, so Buffy continued instead.
"Will's really stuck right now, you know. She feels so bad because of what happened to you. Not that she isn't thrilled you're back," Buffy hastily amended, "just that—"
"I know." Tara's expression softened, and she ran a frustrated hand through her hair. "It's just so hard. It's like, I think I know what I want, but ..." Trailing off, the blonde's eyes drifted once again to the dance floor. Rather than anger, this time she simply looked miserable.
Buffy's expression showed nothing but sympathetic understanding. "But it seems like there's too much stuff in the way?" she supplied.
Glancing back to the Slayer, Tara nodded, just a little, then focused on the drink glass she clutched in both hands.
A minute or so passed with Tara lost in thought and Buffy watching silently.
After what she clearly felt was far too long, the Slayer decisively declared, "We should start a club. A sort of 'Resurrectees Anonymous'."
The witch smirked. "''Hello, my name is Tara, and I've been raised from the dead.'"
"'Hi, Tara'," Buffy responded in a flat monotone, eliciting a chuckle from them both.
"We can swap stories," continued the Slayer. "Like: 'I've been alive – again – for nine-hundred and sixty-four days.'"
Thoroughly amused, Tara shook her head at their silliness. "But there's only the two of us," she pointed out. "Who'll be our sponsors?"
Buffy considered this for a moment, then looked at Tara with a note of seriousness. "We'll sponsor each other."
The chuckling died away but not the smile, and Tara nodded. "Okay.
"Okay," Buffy repeated with a firm nod of her own.
Both women looked up as Faith walked past their table, paying little attention to either of them as she was intent on not spilling the many drinks she was carrying; Faith had clearly chosen to forgo the tray route that Buffy had chosen earlier in the evening, and seemed adamant that she manhandle the numerous liquid-filled glasses into submission. She made it to the main group of tables without dropping anything, and set them down unceremoniously. Hannah remained in her central position, with Dawn on one side and Hazel on the other. Faith sucked several drops of a spilled something-or-other from her hand and began distributing glasses appropriately, making sure to give Hazel a slight noogie as she walked behind the girl's chair.
Her hand flying to her head in protective protest, Hazel exclaimed, "Hey!"
"That's for being freakin' lazy and not gettin' your own damned Dr. Pepper," stated Faith, placing a glass in front of the younger Slayer.
Hazel glared at Faith, but it seemed more petulant than angry. "Well you were going anyway! It's not like I can make a drink run!"
"Still could'a come got your own." Faith considered the options for a moment before adding, "Or gotten believable fake ID like any respectable 16-year old."
With a derisive snort, Hazel turned to her drink. "Oh, and had you chew my ass?"
"Watch your damn mouth," the Senior Slayer warned in complete seriousness.
Hazel muttered a not-at-all heartfelt sorry and, with another slight glare at Faith, sipped her soda.
A highly amused Dawn watched all this with avid, exaggerated interest. "This is so cute," she said, gesturing to the two Slayers. "It's like a really dysfunctional episode of 'Leave it to Beaver'."
Fully ignoring Dawn, Faith claimed the seat next to Hazel and turned to Hannah. "So what comes next, Mrs. G? Sucked into late night demon slayage?" She grinned knowingly. "It's like a potato chip – you crunch one an' you just can't stop."
Hannah chuckled at Faith's analogy. "For a while, it did become something of a recreational activity," she admitted. "The interactions with the darker side of the world, that is. Actually hunting and killing demons was an activity I didn't take up until some time later. However after a while ..."
Oxford University – February 1974
Sprawled across the bed in her lodgings at the Wolfson Building, Hannah looked up and smiled broadly as her roommate entered. "What you got there, Olivia?"
"Bob Marley's 'Catch A Fire'," Olivia replied with a happy grin. She crossed the small room and popped open the cassette deck of Hannah's hi-fi system. Balancing a wicker basket of fruit on her head, Olivia sashayed around the room in time to the music.
"Not interruptin' yer studyin' I hope, mon," she told Hannah along the way.
Hannah laughed. "Your accent leaves a lot to be desired and, I hasten to add, you're about as Jamaican as baked beans on toast."
Olivia gave a mock scowl. "Me father's family came from there originally, mon."
Hannah arched an eyebrow.
Olivia blinked innocently. "Well, they might have ... there or Trinidad or Barbados. Who the hell remembers?" She grinned. "Anyway, I could even be related to one of the Wailers for all anyone knows."
"My mother's family comes from Wales, but that doesn't mean I'm related to Tom Jones." Hannah shuddered. "Perish the thought."
Replacing the wicker basket on her nightstand, Olivia selected an apple and threw herself into the room's only comfortable chair. "Ah, he's not so bad," she commented slyly. "He moves pretty well ... for a white boy." She pitched the apple stalk at Hannah, who promptly returned the favor by smacking Olivia with a pillow.
Closing her economics textbook with a snap, Hannah sighed. "I'm beginning to wonder if this was the right choice." The blonde looked to her roommate and rolled her eyes. "Boring. Wish I'd taken anthropology like you."
Olivia shrugged. "The opportunities after graduation are pretty limited though."
A rap on the door interrupted the conversation. Shaking her head in response to Olivia's unasked question, Hannah went to the door and tugged it open to reveal a small brunette wearing spectacles. "Some young bloke downstairs to see you, Hannah," the woman informed her.
"Me?" Hannah asked with a note of feigned innocence. She shot a wink at Olivia as she closed the door behind her and followed the brunette along the corridor. "What does he look like?"
Upon turning a corner, she came to the main staircase and glanced down to see the figure of Giles standing there, hands behind his back and looking rather sheepish. "Ziggy!" Hannah exclaimed delightedly, quickly taking the steps two at a time and throwing her arms around him when she reached the bottom. She quickly stepped back and gazed at him with surprise. "Good lord, how long has it been? Your birthday back in November wasn't it? I tried to telephone when I was coming to London just after Christmas, but whoever answered said you weren't living there any more and didn't know where you'd gone."
He nodded. "I moved. Ethan and I got our own place. It was getting rather crowded at the old one. Seemed like every other week someone new was taking up residence. I meant to let you know but ... but what with this and that ..." He shrugged guiltily as his voice trailed away.
"Far be it from me to pry into your private affairs, other than what I already know," she smirked, her eyes twinkling. "Unless, of course, you feel obliged to reveal all."
Giles coughed instead and produced a bouquet of yellow roses from behind his back.
"I really prefer red," she smirked, accepting them with good grace.
"Well ... Given the circumstances and the length of time ..." he began, blushing a little.
She took his arm and gave it a squeeze, leading him into the main common room of the dormitory. "I'm just kidding. How have you been?"
Giles thrust his hands into his pockets. "Finally succumbed to pressure," he admitted bitterly. "I'll be going to Magdalen come the start of Michelmas Term, but got the old man to agree to fork out for a trip across Europe first. France, Spain, Germany. Ethan's coming and a few other good mates ... Nobody else you'd know."
"How exciting," declared Hannah with a sparkle.
"Yes," he admitted, though not sounding entirely convinced. "Something of a compromise, I suppose." He glanced in her direction. "Uhm, I- I was wondering if—"
"I'd love to," interrupted Hannah. "Can a bring a few friends too?"
"Of course," Giles grinned. "The more the merrier."
"When do we start?"
"Well, the year here will be over in what, June?" At her nod, he continued, "Beginning in July then? Catch the ferry from Dover to Calais and then trains from there. We won't have to be back until the end of September."
"Suits me," agreed the blonde amiably.
Smiling happily, Giles dug into his pocket and produced an envelope, waving it in the air. "In the meantime, I've got tickets to see Queen at the Rainbow end of next month. Care to join me?"
Hannah pouted. "I have to wait that long to see you again?"
Rupert pulled one of the tickets from the envelope and handed it to her with a grin. "My new number's on the back."
"Queen?" Faith sneered, the prospect of listening to the group clearly ranking high on the Slayer's personal Top Ten Least Favorite Things list.
The group of girls was complete now, save for the absence of Kennedy and Willow, and they had each clearly brought their own opinion of the group out that night.
"'Bohemian Rhapsody', right?" queried Dawn.
"Among many other things," Hannah confirmed. "This was a little before that was released, however."
Tara drained the remainder of her drink, suppressing the accompanying, involuntary shudder. "Some of their stuff was pretty good. I always liked 'The Show Must Go On'."
"Mm, very poignant," agreed Hannah with a nod. "Though, of course, far beyond when we're talking about."
Shaking her head, Faith tipped her chair back and balanced it on two legs. "I just wanna know what's up with Giles and these groups," she wondered aloud.
"He liked Glam." Hannah shrugged and grinned. "I make no account for him otherwise."
Anxious to return to the story, Hazel leaned forward excitedly. "So the concert was good?"
"Quite. And I certainly abused my newfound telephone knowledge on a regular basis," Hannah added with a wicked smirk. "The rest of the term passed with relatively little incident ..."
Oxford University – July 1974
The sun was shining down brightly on St. Hilda's College as Giles and Ethan loaded the girls' baggage into the French Blue Morris Mini Clubman.
"That's all of it?" inquired a surprised Ethan.
"Not all women have to travel with four steamer trunks and a dozen hatboxes," replied Hannah dryly. "Some of us know how to pack light."
Olivia tossed a canvas satchel onto the pile. "That's me done," she declared, adding "Nice car," as Ethan slammed the door to the boot.
"Yeah," agreed Ethan. "Belongs to the family though. Not my personal property unfortunately. I'll drop it off at my parents' house in South Ken and we can take the underground from there to Victoria. The others are going to meet us in Dover. What about the rest of your crowd?"
"Same thing," Hannah told him. "Just seemed easier that way." She glanced at Giles who was leaning against the side of the car with his arms crossed.
"What's with you?" she asked with a frown. "You've got a face like thunder."
He scowled. "Beginning to wish I hadn't cracked under the pressure." He waved his hand as though encompassing the entire University. "Not looking forward to coming here in October, I can tell you."
Standing next to him, Hannah linked her arm with his. "We won't have so far to travel to see each other," she whispered, "and we've got the next three months to be footloose and fancy free." She grinned at him. "Well, I'll let you be footloose anyway. To a point."
He threw her a small smile and shrugged.
"Oh, come on," she urged. "Don't spoil things before we've even got started or I'll have to thump you one." She regarded him out of the corner of her eye. "Something I need to tell you," she confided softly, pulling him to one side, out of earshot of Ethan and Olivia. "Remember that night we went to eat at Top of the Tower to celebrate your parents' 25th Anniversary?"
Giles nodded. "Boring evening, but you would insist on coming." His scowl deepened.
"Well," Hannah began slowly. "You did say some of the Council members would be there."
"And they were," sighed Giles.
"Indeed," agreed Hannah, "and don't ask questions cuz I'm not going to answer them, but just know that I managed to make contact with one of them later."
Giles regarded her with suspicion. "And the purpose of that was ...?"
"To see if they could use another willing and able body," she stated, elbowing him sharply in the ribs. "Guess what, Ziggy?"
"You're not—?" he gasped – whether from surprise or the unexpected jab, it was difficult to tell.
"I am," she told him firmly. "I think this might be exactly what I'm looking for. And don't you see, that means we might be able to work together at some point." She squeezed his arm. "We'd make a great team."
Beaming, Giles gathered her up into his arms and swung her around. Then, his expression darkened as he set her back on her feet. "You don't know the Council like I do," he told her seriously. "There are things below the surface that I don't agree with ... and you certainly wouldn't agree with. I'm not sure about this, Hannah."
She brushed his objection away with a wave of her hand. "Cross that bridge when we come to it," she replied, her tone indicating that the topic brooked no further discussion. She gently pinched his cheek. "In the meantime, we've got an entire continent waiting at our beck and call. We'll worry about later when later comes."
With a deliberate stride, Giles marched along one of Trillium's darkened streets. His jaw was set in a rigid line and his expression hinted at many emotions. Happiness could not be counted among them. From around a corner behind the Watcher, Xander's head appeared, swiveling in both directions. Spotting Giles, the carpenter hurried after him.
"Giles!" he shouted as he ran, but still the Watcher continued walking. "Giles!!" he called again.
Employing a little more speed, Xander managed to catch up with the older man, whose step maintained its determined course.
"Giles, c'mon," panted an out-of-breath Xander. "What's the matter?"
Giles refused to favor him with so much as a glance. "You wouldn't understand," he muttered.
Xander matched the Watcher stride-for-stride. "Try me. I'm a great understander," he urged.
The carpenter's request was met with silence as Giles' pace increased. Reaching out, Xander laid a hand on the Watcher's shoulder, but it was roughly shrugged away as Giles spun to face the apparently unwanted company. Instinctively, his arm pulled back as his hand clenched in a tight fist. The eyes behind the glinting lenses were cold and angry.
"Would you just—!" he snapped. Then, the infuriated outburst died as quickly as it had materialized. Sighing, Giles tugged off his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. "I'm sorry."
Obviously, Xander harbored no ill will. "Hey, not sportin' any bruises here, not feelin' the need for an apology," he responded cheerily. "Tell me what's wrong, and we'll call it even."
Thrusting his hands into his pockets, Giles moved to the side of the pavement and leaned wearily against a nearby wall. His shoulders drooped and he treated the carpenter to a glum smile.
"I don't think I'm doing a very good job," he murmured ruefully. Xander quirked an eyebrow. "As head of the Council," Giles clarified.
"What?" Xander's tone was incredulous. "Giles, this is, like, the job you were born to do."
Giles emphatically renounced the statement. "No, it really isn't. Or, well, it was never the job that I wanted." He laughed, but it was a bitter and mirthless sound. "Truth be told, it's not the job that I especially want now. Only someone has to do it, don't they? And it seems that someone is me."
Confusion crossed Xander's features. "But you're, like ... Mr. Council. In a good way. Mr. Council, now in low-arrogance, more-heart formula. Look at how well everything's moving now," he tried to reassure. "We've got the Slayers, we've got the Watchers ..."
Giles shrugged dismissively. "But I'm still no closer to having any answers. We've known now that Slayers were disappearing for- for months, and despite my best efforts, I'm no closer to finding out what happened to them or where they may be now. We've suffered multiple, devastating attacks that we were virtually unable to repel, and are no closer to preventing in the future. And ... And everyone needs solutions a-and suggestions, it's up to me to provide them, and I keep coming up empty!"
Xander's head nodded sagely. "Ah," he commented wryly. "The Buffy Syndrome."
The Watcher frowned. "I'm sorry?"
"The Buffy Syndrome," reiterated the carpenter firmly. "Come on, you've known the girl as long as I have. How many times did we have to hear it? Blah blah, destiny, blah blah, Chosen One, blah blah, alone me alone, blah. I love the girl to death, but I swear – she may have had to bear the burden of Slayerhood alone, but at least she never had to bear the burden of listening to her go on and on about it."
Giles appeared to be appalled. "Xander!"
"I exaggerate to make a point," he replied. "See, Buffy had this huge thing she had to carry on her teeny little shoulders for years and years, and I think we can agree that it really got her down. But now, she's one of ... what? At least a couple hundred of 'em. And look how much happier she is. I haven't seen her this generally relaxed in years. Sharing the burden has been good for her."
The Watcher considered this for a moment. "Yes, I suppose it has."
"So great, yay for Buffy," Xander continued. "But now we come to you, and I see we didn't dispel the Syndrome, it simply shifted hosts." His tone grew more serious. "This Council thing, yeah – it's a huge deal. This is, like, benevolent Illuminati stuff. An' you've taken on the whole thing. D'you ever think maybe if you shared it a little, it wouldn't ... I dunno, suck so much?"
"So basically you're just telling me to delegate," Giles summarized in a flat tone.
"In lesser words," agreed Xander.
Giles shook his head doubtfully. "But I'm still responsible. Xander, every life that is lost when I dispatch Slayers to certain areas, or- or don't send them to where they should be is—"
"—is a tragedy," the carpenter readily admitted. "But you can't know everything."
"I just don't know if I'm ready for the responsibility of all these lives."
"Would you ever be?" asked Xander quietly.
Giles apparently had no answer to that. His eyes focused on Xander.
"I appreciate your concern, I really do," the Watcher told him, his tone genuinely grateful. "But I think I'd like to be alone for a while."
Pushing away from the wall, Giles resumed his walk - a lone figure being rapidly swallowed by the surrounding darkness. Xander made to follow and then stopped.
"You're sure?" he called.
Noting the deliberate nod of the head, Xander felt compelled to give it one more try. "If you wanna talk or something ..." He waited for a moment until Giles nodded again, his stride never faltering.
Soon, even the echo of the Watcher's footsteps had faded into the shadows.
Elbows resting on the railing, Buffy looked down onto the first level of the Vortex and skimmed the sea of bodies. Her eyes seldom remained in one area for more than a second before moving on. She sensed rather than saw Faith join her. The dark-haired Slayer also leaned over the banister, a glass cradled in her hand. Turning her head, she watched Buffy for a moment and then united with the blonde in her scrutiny of the crowd.
"Scannin' for vamps?"
"Uh-huh," Buffy confirmed.
Faith nodded. A brief passage of silence passed.
"We got girls out on patrol, y'know," Faith informed her. "This is your night off. Should be relaxin'."
Buffy shrugged. "Maybe this is relaxing."
"You're a workaholic, B.," replied Faith, giving the blonde a poke in the rib cage.
"Eh," the blonde acknowledged. "It's a habit. Besides ..." She waved a hand over the heads of the masses below. "Someone's got to make sure they can keep dancing like that."
Faith tilted her head critically. "Think a few of 'em could do with dancin' a bit better'n that, personally." She tapped Buffy on the arm and pointed. "You see that one guy?"
Following Faith's finger, Buffy chuckled and then resumed her surveillance. In tandem, the two Slayers maintained a silent vigil until Kennedy took up position at the rail on the other side of Buffy.
"Vamp scan?" she queried.
"Yup," affirmed Buffy and Faith in unison.
"Cool," nodded Kennedy. "No rest for the wicked, huh?"
"None for the vamps, neither," responded Faith dryly.
This earned her a chuckle. Another period of tacit observation reigned until Hazel joined the group, moving to stand on the other side of Faith.
"What are we doing?" asked the Junior Slayer.
"Looking for vamps." Buffy, Faith and Kennedy might have been sharing the same voice, so immaculate was their synchronization.
"Ahhh," replied Hazel wisely. She too leaned over the railing and began to survey the multitude below. Suddenly, with one fluid movement, all four pointed to a woman wearing a rather slinky scarlet dress. She was draped over an unsuspecting male who, undoubtedly, would soon have the privilege of providing her with sustenance for the evening.
"There's one," came the simultaneous declaration in quadruplicate.
"Jinx," murmured Buffy.
Hazel frowned. "Who gets her then?"
"I say we make it a group effort," proposed Kennedy.
"Oo, see?" remarked Faith, shoving Hazel with her shoulder. "Sharing can be fun."
With a unanimous grin, they all headed for the stairs.
Sitting at a nearby table, Hannah, Willow, Tara and Dawn, watched them go but didn't question their departure.
Tara turned her attention to Hannah. "I've always wanted to go to Europe."
"It has its good points, no denying that," mused Hannah. "Its bad points too, though I suspect things have modernized considerably since my time. Those trains." She shook her head and shifted uncomfortably in her chair. "My behind doesn't miss the trains, let me tell you."
"Still, though ..." Willow's eyes adopted a dreamlike quality. "Just travelin' around, going day to day, nothing much to worry about ..."
"I dunno. Buffy did the whole 'go through Europe' thing. Didn't seem too impressive," scoffed Dawn.
Hannah shrugged. "It depends on how you do it. And although we were blissfully relieved of much, it wasn't entirely trouble-free ..."
Foix, France – August 1974
Followed by Hannah and Giles, Ethan led the way down the narrow aisle as the train lurched away from Foix Station. Hannah took one last glance out of the window at the castle that dominated the town.
"Impressive," she murmured. "I'm really glad we got to see it."
"Much like every other drafty lump of blood, sweat and stone in Europe," griped Ethan. "And you took so long looking around that we nearly missed the bloody connection." He peered into the compartments that lined one side of the carriage. "There's hardly any seats left and lord knows where the others are."
"They probably got in further up," Giles remarked in something of a bad temper. He glanced at Hannah. "This is the end one and the rest of them did leave about 20 minutes before we did."
"We made it, didn't we?" sighed Hannah. "What's the point in taking a trip like this if we don't enjoy the sights along the way?"
"Can't understand all this interest in the Parfaits," muttered Giles.
"Probably because they let birds become priests as well as blokes," sneered Ethan. "You know how your girl here is about equality of the sexes." He jerked his thumb toward a compartment where sat one elderly woman, huddled in the corner. "Look," he grinned, sliding back the door. "This is almost empty."
The old lady, swathed from head to toe in black despite the hot weather, regarded them solemnly with dark brown eyes as they entered. "Réservé," she murmured, waving an arthritic hand.
"'Réservé' my arse," Giles informed her, taking a seat. Ethan chuckled and stuffed the backpacks into the small overhead storage area.
"You might show a bit more respect," Hannah told them with frown. She smiled at the woman and inclined her head. "No other seats," she explained. "The train is full ... complètement," she added hopefully and then grimaced, apparently not sure she'd chosen the correct word.
The old crone nodded.
Ethan threw himself down next to Giles as Hannah sat beside the old woman, who scuttled even further into the corner.
Giles indicated the pamphlet Hannah was holding, "Let me see that."
She handed it over. "A 'please' might be nice," she snapped. "What's up with you anyway?"
"We wanted to stay longer in Paris," sneered Ethan. "Go to the Folies Bergere. Have a butchers at the lovely ladies." He nudged Giles in the ribs. "Right, Ripper?"
Giles' eyes glinted with devilment. He leaned forward and tapped the crone on her knee with the rolled-up pamphlet. She shrank from the touch. "You ever in the Folies Bergere, my old love?" He turned and winked at Ethan who sniggered loudly.
"Laissez-moi seul," the woman muttered, her eyes narrowing.
"Stop it, Rupert," ordered a frowning Hannah. "I don't know what's got into you today."
Giles sighed. "Just a bit of fun. Need something to liven up an otherwise boring day." He turned back to the old woman. "Well?"
"Paysan irrespectueux," she replied, brushing away his hand.
"Old biddy," countered Giles. He glanced at the covered wicker basket by her feet. "What you got in there? Any food or wine?" He reached down as the old woman snatched up the basket and held it tightly to her chest.
"Why don't you just leave her alone?" snapped Hannah. "She's not doing you any harm."
"I thought it was usual for the locals to be hospitable to travelers," responded Giles sourly. "Share what they have ... make us feel at home." His eyes returned to the crone. "Forget our manners did we?" He reached out again for the basket.
"Pouvez vous savoir la persécution," she croaked under her breath, gnarled fingers twitching.
"What?" queried Giles. He looked suspiciously from Hannah to Ethan. "What?"
Ethan leaned back and laughed. "I think she said something about persecution."
"You find me funny?" Giles growled, his hands curling into fists.
Ethan blinked and rapidly slid further along the seat. "Hold on a minute, mate," he began, but before he could complete the caution, he jerked his head to one side, only just avoiding the punch that Giles was attempting to deliver to his jaw.
Leaping to her feet, Hannah moved toward Giles. "Rupert, what's the matter?"
Giles regarded her warily. "Don't touch me," he ordered sharply. Mistrustfully, he scoured the compartment. "Where are you taking me?"
"We're on a train, Ziggy," Hannah stated, a frown crossing her features. "There's nothing to be afraid of." She laid a hand on his arm but he shoved her aside roughly and she fell heavily to the floor.
"I won't let you do this," he vowed.
"Do what?" asked Ethan, looking to Hannah in confusion. "What the hell ...?"
Hannah shook her head in bewilderment as Giles rushed toward the door and pulled it open. He peered outside cautiously before exiting the compartment. Ethan and Hannah quickly followed.
Hannah's eyes opened wide with horror as she spied a small boy standing halfway down the aisle. He was waving a toy gun at the fast-approaching Giles.
"Vous êtes en état d'arrestation," the child piped in his shrill voice.
Skidding to a halt, Giles turned. His mouth twisted into an ugly snarl as he noticed Ethan and Hannah close behind. Crouching, the small boy crept forward, the toy gun now pointing at Giles' back.
"Mangez la poussière," the lad shouted gleefully.
Giles was motionless for a second and then he spun to face the boy. The child blinked at the malevolent expression and his lips trembled. The gun dropped with a clatter as he whispered in dread for his 'maman'.
"No!" yelled Hannah watching Giles' fingers begin to curl, but he paid her no heed as he lunged viciously for the boy's throat.
Hannah immediately leapt for Giles, managing to grasp one of his forearms firmly. It was only too painfully apparent, however, that she alone would not be enough to restrain him, and she looked over her shoulder for assistance. Ethan had positioned himself to the side, his head tilted as he took in the scene before him with great interest. Hannah’s eyes widened as she realized he had no plans whatsoever to do more than be a spectator.
"Help me with him!" she commanded, causing Ethan to tear his gaze away the visage of Giles, snarling and almost feral-like. He sighed heavily and rolled his eyes, but did in fact join her.
It was no easy task, but by seizing a wrist each and pinning his arms behind him, Hannah and Ethan managed to restrain the struggling Giles. They wrestled him back toward their compartment as he cursed and kicked violently with his legs. Leaving the toy gun where it had fallen, the small boy fled, his high-pitched wail finally dying away.
Hannah slid back the door and opened her mouth to address the old woman, but the crone had vanished. With a hefty shove, Ethan bundled Giles into the now empty compartment. Keeping a tight grip on the handle, Ethan and Hannah watched from outside as Giles blindly threw punches in every direction, almost losing his balance from the force of the swings.
"He's going to hurt himself in a minute," Hannah murmured worriedly.
Ethan chuckled. "Behold ... loverboy in a really bad temper." He shrugged. "You get used to it."
Hannah frowned. "You've seen him as bad as this before?"
Ethan nodded. "Dozens of times, but never without a good reason before." He pondered for a moment. "And he doesn't usually go for me but then again, his reason doesn't necessarily have to be a good one."
Hannah started in surprise as Giles' face, expression set in fury, was suddenly pressed against the glass door. It took all of Ethan's strength to keep the exit closed as Giles' fought to wrestle it open. Finding his efforts fruitless, Giles pounded fiercely upon the door and hopped from one foot to the other in his agitated state.
Hannah massaged her forehead with a shaky hand. "He's going to have a heart attack if he doesn't stop. We have to do something."
"Such as?" asked Ethan scornfully. He cocked his head and regarded Giles with a grin. "Looks a little bit like a caged gorilla, don't you think? I reckon that old bitch put a hex on him or something." With a mock pout, he wiggled his fingers at Giles through the window. "Poor old Ripper."
"Well about a month or so after that we got married," Hannah continued. "We were in Cadiz at the time and ..."
An exclamation rose up from Hannah’s audience, bring her tale to a screeching halt.
Buffy’s vehemently protesting voice cut through the others. "No, wait, you can’t just go from, 'Giles cursed and nearly killing some kid’ to 'One month later we were married’. That’s violating some sort of code or something."
"The Geneva Storybook Convention?" Tara suggested with a smirk, earning a 'like that!’ nod and gesture from the disgruntled Slayer.
Hazel was quick to agree. "Come on, what happened? How’d you break the curse?"
"Usual stuff," Hannah replied with a dismissive gesture. "Some chanting, a bless’d stone, the blood of six virgins ... and a virgin back then wasn't easy to find, let me tell you." At the collective look of horror, the blonde grinned. "I’m only kidding," she assured.
Leaning forward eagerly, Willow asked, "So what’d you do?" She wore a look of intense concentration, as though she were going to commit the information to memory, just in case it might come in handy some day.
Hannah sighed. "It's all very mundane and rather boring. Suffice to say we did. Now, moving on to the ..."
"No, no moving on," persisted Buffy.
"Whose story is this?" demanded Hannah.
Deflating, Buffy sunk down into her seat with a pout. "Yours," she admitted with reluctance.
"Exactly. So as I was saying, about a month or so later ..."
Cadiz, Spain – September 1974
The sun was setting as Ethan and Olivia strolled along the narrow cobbled street. Olivia carried a basket stuffed with several freshly baked stick loaves, a sphere of Manchego cheese and two kilos of king prawns, while Ethan toted half a dozen bottles of chilled Manzanilla.
"I'm sick of this place," grumbled Ethan. "It all comes to a screeching halt every bloody afternoon."
Olivia grinned. "It's the custom. Siesta time." She turned to her companion. "Don't know what you're so worried about. The bars stay open."
"Aww," she commiserated. "What's the matter? Diddums miss his running mate?"
Ethan scowled. "Not like Ripper to just disappear without telling me where he's going."
Olivia laughed. "Hannah left a note. She said they'd be back in a few days. They probably just felt like being on their own for a while. If there was a bloke in the group I fancied, I'd probably do the same thing." She shot Ethan a sideways glance. "No offense."
"None taken, I’m sure," he replied smoothly. "And don’t worry, the feeling’s mutual."
"You've been a right misery-guts since they left," she informed him sharply. "No wonder the others made you come with me to get the grub. I imagine they were glad to get shot of you for a while."
Ethan glowered. He glowered at the locals enjoying their evening meals of Paella and Pollo al Ajillo, he glowered at the tourists making their way from the golden beaches of the Costa de la Luz to their hotels, and he glowered at the green-uniformed Guardia patrolling the area.
"You want to be careful how you look at them," Olivia cautioned. "I hear they carry machine guns under those capes and aren’t too particular how they use them." She grinned. Apparently, Ethan was not amused.
"Another reason to get out of this backwater country," he sneered. "Day after tomorrow can’t come soon enough for my liking. I do so hope our prodigal children have returned by then," commented Ethan in a tone loaded with sarcasm. "I have no intention of waiting around for them."
Olivia grabbed his arm. "Don't think you'll have to," she smiled. "Look." She pointed toward a bus heading for the central square and the terminal. "There they are."
Hannah's smiling face could be seen through the window. She waved excitedly as Giles moved to the front of the vehicle and spoke to the driver. Almost immediately, the bus came to a stop and the pair hopped off, quickly crossing to where Ethan and Olivia were standing.
"Take a gander at this," beamed Hannah. She proudly extended her left hand.
Olivia's eyes widened. "Married? So that's what you've been doing ... among other things." Her grin was wicked as she gave Giles' shoulder a shove. He shuffled his feet sheepishly.
"When?" continued Olivia, her tone insistent for all the details. "Where?"
Hannah took her friend's arm and escorted her down the street, the two men trailing behind.
"He was so cute," Hannah relayed as they walked along. "It was a few nights ago. We were about to get ready for bed and then he turned to me and was all like, 'Uhm, err, well, I ...'." She glanced over her shoulder. "You know how he can be sometimes." Olivia rolled her eyes and nodded.
"Anyway," continued Hannah, "all of a sudden, he drops to one knee and pulls out this little square box. Of course, I knew what it was immediately, but he was still, 'Um, err, well ...'"
Ethan turned toward Giles with a contemptuous smile. "Aren’t you just precious?" he asked, earning him a dark glower from the other man.
Seemingly oblivious to the others, Olivia shook Hannah's arm. "I get the picture. Go on," she urged.
"I knew it would take him forever to get around to it so, I took the box, opened it up, put the ring on my finger and said, 'I will.’" She chuckled. "If I hadn't, he'd probably still be down there on one knee."
"And now you've already tied the knot" queried Olivia. "I've heard of short engagements, but Jesus." She looked at Hannah curiously. "You're not ...?"
Hannah laughed. "Perish the thought. No, I'm not, but we didn't see the point in waiting. We caught the last bus that night to La Linea and walked across to Gibraltar. We got a special license and had to wait a day or two, but then ..." She clasped her hands, moderated her stride to a sedate pace and began to hum the Wedding March.
Olivia stopped short, put down her basket, and treated Hannah to a huge hug. "You make the perfect pair," she murmured. "I'm really happy for you." Olivia retrieved her purchases as she and Hannah continued their walk arm-in-arm.
"What about university?" asked Olivia after a moment of silence.
"We'll get a small flat somewhere in town," Hannah told her. "Rupert will be attending Magdalen next term, remember? And I'll still be at St. Hilda's."
Olivia nodded and then pouted. "Where am I gonna find another roommate who's willing to share her hi-fi?"
"Or one that'll listen to music 24/7 during finals week?" returned Hannah. She squeezed Olivia's hand. "We'll still be friends. I'll come see you. You'll come see me. Nothing's really changed that much."
Her friend returned the squeeze. "It better not," she warned with a smile. "Now, let's hurry up and go tell the others. I can't wait to see their faces."
The two men had dropped back some distance, though neither had spoken for a time. The bottles of wine chinked together merrily as Ethan swung the bag. However, the cheery sound was not reflected in his dour expression. "Married?" he asked incredulously. "What in the hell possessed you to do something like that?"
"She's good for me, Ethan," replied Giles. "Oh, and did I mention that crazy little thing called love?" He grinned at his friend but Ethan did not return the gesture.
"It was bad enough when you told me about going to Oxford," he griped bitterly. "Now this? Between studying to be daddy’s pride and setting up the perfect little love nest, there'll be no time for anything else." He frowned. "This is going to put a severe crimp in everything. You do realize that, don't you?"
Giles sighed. "We've all got to grow up some time, Ethan."
"Is that right?"
They simply regarded each other coolly for a moment. Giles glanced away first, and Ethan couldn’t entirely keep the smirk off of his lips. "Well then," he began, "here’s to being a grown up."
"But weren’t you guys kinda young?" asked Hazel.
Hannah grinned mischievously. "Of course, dear. That was sort of the point."
Dawn sighed. "Running away to get married. I'm not sure if it’s romantic or—"
"—or a really bad idea that you should never, ever, ever do yourself?" Buffy meaningfully interjected.
"Yeah, or that," Dawn agreed quietly.
"I’m thinking you should go with door number two," remarked Hazel, sounding wise beyond her years.
Dawn nodded emphatically, a wary gaze fixed upon her sister.
Willow shook her head. "I know it’s been a while, but me?" She blew out a puff of air at the remembrance. "Still stuck on the make-up parts."
Looking up, Buffy watched Kennedy and Faith approach the table. Kennedy rolled her eyes as Faith ground out her cigarette on the railing and flicked it carelessly over the top.
"Any joy?" asked the blonde Slayer with a smirk.
Grinning broadly, Kennedy flashed a couple of scraps of paper on which some telephone numbers had been scrawled. Faith nudged Kennedy with her elbow before grabbing a chair and spinning it around. She straddled the seat and motioned toward the other woman, who was tucking the small pieces of paper safely into her pocket.
"The girl’s a machine," Faith admired. "Man, I thought I was smooth, but I think she could teach me a thing or two."
"It’s all in the smile," confided a cocky Kennedy. She flashed Willow a prime example of the smile in question and a light blush crept into the redhead's cheeks. With narrowed eyes and something akin to a tiny frown, Tara looked from one to the other as Kennedy sat down.
"So what’d we miss?" asked Kennedy, eying the glasses on the table as she searched for her drink.
"Oh," Hazel rushed to divulge, "all the stuff about how Giles got cursed, then they got married—"
"Suits what I always said about gettin’ hitched," interrupted Faith dryly.
Tara turned to Hannah. "How did two split up though? I-I only know a little bit, what Willow told me ... but it couldn’t have been too long after, right?"
"You want our whole history in one fell swoop?" queried Hannah with an arched eyebrow. "Haven’t you girls learned anything? It’s all about the mystery."
Resting an elbow on the table, chin cupped in his hand, Andrew's expression grew trance-like as he began to reminisce. "It was balmy night. The kind that lingers long after the experience has passed, like that naughty feeling you get from listening to scrambled cable porn."
Xander and Wood exchanged an amused glance. The basketball game having reached a most favorable conclusion, Wood was no longer overly interested in watching television and he focused on the blond storyteller to supply the entertainment. Andrew basked in the apparently rapt attention with a self-satisfied and all-knowing smile. He casually twirled his straw around the depths of the drink in front of him and spoke with great authority as he wove his tale.
"There was this unsolvable crime, the sort that was average for the Dale of the Sun. The SDPD were, typically, at a complete loss so they turned to the one man left who could help them ... and the entire town."
"Grissom?" suggested Xander with a smirk.
"Me," replied Andrew with a confused frown. "See, they’d heard about my special connection to the stinking, wicked underbelly of society."
Wood's eyes widened in mock horror. "'Stinking, wicked underbelly’." He shuddered and grimaced at Xander. "I’d think that pretty much says all I need to know about this story right there."
Andrew chose to ignore the obvious barb and dauntlessly continued. "The chief investigator on the case was Detective ..." He paused just for a moment as he searched for a name. "... Christine Cagney." He threw his two companions a smug grin. "She was a leggy blonde who immediately—"
"Christine Cagney?" interrupted Xander blithely. "Where was Mary Beth?"
"And please," sighed Wood. "Even the Sunnydale police department wouldn’t have anything to do with you."
Xander leaned across the table and poked Andrew in the chest. "Except maybe to arrest you again. Remember that part, don’tcha Andy?"
The blond regarded the jabbing finger ruefully as his confidence slowly fizzled like a punctured balloon. "Aww, but this one was gonna be really good. I was gonna save Christine from a Devourer of Tarsnal and—"
"And then she was gonna sleep with you," added Xander with a disapproving shake of his head. "You’re such a Marty Stu."
With an offended pout, Andrew returned to slurping on his drink.
"Guess Giles isn’t coming back, huh?" questioned Wood. His eyes traveled wistfully toward the door.
"Doesn’t look like it," sighed Xander. "So much for guy’s night. I guess Buffy wins after all."
Wood nodded and all three men sat in dejected silence for a moment.
It was Andrew who broke the demoralized hush. "I really wanted to make a 'Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ joke there, but I didn’t."
"What is it with you today?" asked Wood. "You’re stuck in a decade you can barely remember."
Andrew winked meaningfully. "Retro is hip, dude."
With a puff of exasperation, Xander buried his face in both hands.
"I so need new friends," he moaned quietly.
From a nearby table, Willow and Kennedy glanced at Buffy, Tara, Dawn and Faith, who were all leaning on their elbows and chatting in an animated fashion. The pair weren't close enough to catch the conversation, but the occasional burst of laughter could be heard and the four appeared to be in decent spirits.
Kennedy tapped Willow's hand to draw her attention. "Sorry about earlier."
"No you're not," smirked the redhead.
Kennedy grinned. "No, I'm not," she agreed. "The dancing was good. I wanted, you needed – it's our formula." She inclined her head toward Tara, who was smiling brightly at something Dawn had just confided. "Lost the moment for you though, huh?"
Willow sighed regretfully. "Yeah. She said later, but ..." She twisted her fingers. "I dunno. I guess I'm not as patient as I used to be, but at the same time..." Willow sighed again, unable to put her feelings into words. "I just wanna help her however I can, so- so we can deal with it, get past it, a-and get back to ... you know, maybe trying for an us?"
The redhead's eyes widened as she turned and regarded Kennedy with horrified realization. "Oh, Kenn, geez, I didn't ... I-I should've thought. I was just ... You know my mouth doesn't really clear stuff with my brain sometimes and then I..."
Kennedy gave a sharply dismissive nod, effectively cutting off Willow's blithering. The movement was tight and strained, but her expression indicated no show of anger. "Oh, hey, no problem," she told the redhead with forced cheerfulness as she patted her pocket. "I got phone numbers and a killer smile, right?"
The corners of Willow's mouth drooped. "I know we haven't really talked about it."
Kennedy shrugged. "Yeah, well, for some funny reason, I haven’t really wanted to hear it." She crossed her arms and leaned back in her chair.
"But if Tara and I have a chance, any chance at all," persisted Willow. "I have to try. I want to." Her gaze drifted to Tara, who was chuckling and arching an eyebrow at something Buffy had just said.
Willow's eyes grew sad. "She never looks that happy when she's around me anymore."
"She will be," assured Kennedy, unable to disguise the tiny note of bitterness that crept into her voice. "You've both got that 'true love fated soulmates’ crap going, right?"
Willow's expression was wistful. "I thought so once." She treated Kennedy to the shadow of a smile. "Someone taught me love's not quite that simple."
The brunette returned the smile and then looked in another direction. Willow watched her fondly for a moment. "I'm sorry," she whispered, just loud enough for Kennedy to hear.
Kennedy smirked as she stared into the redhead's sorrowful face. "No you're not."
"Some part of me is." She paused. "We'll be friends, right? Can we be friends?" Willow asked in a rush.
The Slayer snorted a laugh and gave Willow a wry grin. "Maybe if we'd been friends first, things could've been different." She chuckled softly, "Trust me to do things ass-backwards."
"That a yes?"
Allowing the legs of her chair to hit the floor with a thud, Kennedy leaned across the table. "You want me out of your life completely, Rosenberg," she stated firmly, "you'll have to voodoo me out. And I hear you don't do that sorta thing any more." She shrugged her shoulders and leaned back again. "So looks like you're stuck with me."
"Yay for stuck," replied Willow with a sunny smile.
They glanced up as Hazel passed by, leading Hannah back toward the main table.
"It took a bit of work," the Junior Slayer announced brightly, "but I got Mrs. Hannah to finish her story." She beamed with pride.
"I was going to anyway," Hannah told the group as she reclaimed her seat. "I just needed a break."
An expression of extreme disappointment crossed Hazel's face. She was obviously crestfallen and Hannah was quick to make amends.
"I mean ... yes, it was all Hazel's doing," she hastened to inform the gathering. "Quite the silver-tongued devil, is our young Slayer."
With a happy grin, the satisfied Hazel sat down.
Kennedy inclined her head and glanced at Willow. "Wanna rejoin the campfire girls?"
The redhead got to her feet. "Naturally. Every good story needs an ending, right?" She moved toward the nearby table and Kennedy followed, just in time to hear Hannah begin her final chapter.
"We hadn't been back in England long before both Rupert and I were summoned to an emergency meeting with several key Council members ..."
Oxford University – October 1974
One of the smaller study rooms at Magdalen College had been commandeered by a delegation from the Watcher's Council. The five members, all dressed virtually identical in charcoal gray business suits, crisp white shirts and neckties of subdued navy blue, sat behind a long table on a raised dais. Before them at a much lower level, two student desks had been positioned several feet apart. The whole area was reminiscent of a court of law, even down to the poker-faced minion standing stiffly by the entrance, whose presumable duty was to act as some type of bailiff.
With all the authority of a Lord Chief Justice, the man who had assumed center seat behind the table, indicated for the Bailiff to open the door.
"Ah," murmured the Council head as the pair of summonees entered, "Mr. Giles and Miss Sinclair." He waved them toward the two desks.
Hannah lifted an eyebrow and pointedly waggled the fingers of her left hand in the direction of the dais. "That's Mrs. Giles," she corrected.
Through his rimless glasses, the presiding leader glanced briefly at the display of bright gold. "No," he told her flatly, "it's not."
With a confused frown, Hannah sank into the chair behind one of the desks and looked up at Giles as he moved to stand beside her.
"Won't you take a seat, Mr. Giles?" the leader suggested politely. Tight-lipped, Giles shook his head.
"It really would be best if you did. We could avoid so much unpleasantness and get this matter underway without further ado."
When Giles’ only answer was a dangerous glare, Hannah quickly jumped in. "It's okay, Rupert," she urged. "The sooner you sit down, then the sooner we can apparently get the hell out of here." She gave him a sharp nudge and he reluctantly complied. Then, she turned her attention to the Council members. "Okay, what's this all about?"
Still only one person continued to do the talking, and he did so with every ounce of superiority he could muster. "Your marriage to Mr. Giles has recently been brought to our attention, Miss Sinclair. As we speak, any records documenting this union are being expunged."
Hannah laughed. The sound was strained and brittle. "You're joking, right? Pulling our legs?" She glanced at Giles.
His eyes remained locked on the leader, but he shook his head at her questioning gaze. "They wouldn't know a joke if one jumped up and bit them in the arse," he spat from between gritted teeth.
"You can't do this!" Hannah stated emphatically. "You don't have the right!"
The head of the Council leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers. "On the contrary, Miss Sinclair. We can and we do." He glanced at a young man of perhaps twenty-five who sat to his right. "Mr. Travers?"
Immediately, Travers reached down and retrieved a brown leather briefcase. Snapping it open with great efficiency, he extracted two slim manila envelopes and handed them to the Bailiff, who duly deposited one before Hannah and one in front of Giles.
"Your annulment papers," the Council head informed them.
"Divorce?" Hannah looked to Giles. His expression was grim and his knuckles showed white against his clenched fists. Her eyes searched each of the five faces. "Why?" she demanded angrily. "I think I'm entitled to know."
With another great sigh, the leader regarded Hannah imperiously. "We are under no obligation to furnish explanations. However, as you are a member of the organization ... albeit an exceedingly minor cog ... we will make an exception."
Hannah arched an eyebrow. "Flattery will get you everywhere," she muttered darkly, but the comment was either ignored or went unheard.
"As you probably are aware," he began, "Mr. Giles' father is a well-respected and highly-valued member of the Council. He harbors a desire that his son, Rupert here—" The leader gestured absently in Giles’ direction, seemingly unconcerned by the murderous glare Giles had fixed upon him. "—be groomed for the most prestigious and elite programme the Council has to offer. In short, that of Slayer's Watcher." With a sneer and a dubious look at the conversation’s subject, the leader leaned forward, resting his forearms on the table. "Frankly, we are far from convinced that Rupert has the necessary credentials ... although he does, on occasion, show a modicum of potential. So, given that, and in deference to the high esteem in which his father is held, the Council is prepared to—"
"Slayer's Watcher?" interrupted Hannah with some excitement. She looked over at Giles, whose expression remained dour. "Now there's a feather in the old cap, Ziggy," she told him. Then, a frown creased her forehead and her gaze fixed once more on the dais. "What does that have to do with our marriage?"
"Singular devotion," snapped Giles. "One focus and one focus only. Total dedication with no distractions. An absolute commitment of Watcher to Slayer."
The Council head nodded. "Exactly. There is no room in the life of a Slayer's Watcher for any distractions. There can be no family ties ... wife, children, things of that nature," he stated with a dismissive wave of his hand.
"But that's so antiquated," scoffed Hannah. "Women of today, they're independent and self-sufficient. Or at least I am." She regarded the Council members earnestly. "I could be a great asset to Rupert in—"
"Impossible. It's one of the cardinal rules." The leader’s tone brooked no further protest, and although Hannah’s mouth opened in protest, he quickly continued. "However, Miss Sinclair, it seems quite clear to the Council that your mere presence is just such a distraction. Consequently, we will be relocating you with 24-hours to our facility in Andermatt where you will be—"
Hannah leaned forward in her seat. "What!" she practically shouted. "You can’t just ship me off to the far corners of the earth!"
Unable to fully repress a smirk, the Council head looked down at Hannah. "Miss Sinclair, your grasp on what we can and cannot do seems severely impaired. It’s quite simple – as a member of this organization, you will be sent where we wish, when we wish."
"Fine then," she retorted furiously, brushing the papers from her desk. They fluttered ineffectually to the ground and were promptly ignored. "I choose to resign from your precious, narrow-minded 'Council’."
The leader inclined his head politely at Hannah’s announcement. "As you like," he began.
"Bloody right I do," she shot back.
"However," the Council head continued as though she hadn’t spoken, "this in no way changes the facts of the matter. Your mere presence is a distraction that Mr. Giles can ill afford at the moment. It is our ... recommendation that you find yourself another education option, Miss Sinclair."
Hannah narrowed her eyes. "What are you saying?"
Leaning forward again, her angry stare was met unflinchingly. "I am saying, Miss Sinclair, that should you choose to remain at St. Hilda’s, the chances of a crippling academic travesty will increase exponentially. You will expelled before you have set foot outside of this room, and I believe you will find it quite difficult to locate another school willing to accept you." He paused for a moment to allow his words to sink in. "Such news would be quite a blow to your father, would it not?"
Her jaw slacking open at the brazen threat, Hannah could only blink as the leader rested his back against the chair. "On the other hand," he stated in a much more pleasant tone, "should you choose to cooperate without further protest, I believe you’ll find that life has just opened a great many new doors to you." He paused again and considered her carefully. "Wherever you wish to go. Anywhere at all, provided it is nowhere in England. Money is no object."
A tense silence blanketed the room. The next move was clearly Hannah’s, and the Council members waited patiently for her response. She glanced to Giles, but his head had dropped, his gaze focused on the desk before him. Her jaw set, Hannah turned back to the main table.
"I’ll go," she all but snarled. The leader’s mouth twitched in an expectant, smug smirk. "But I don’t want a damned thing from you. Not one penny, not a single phone call. I’ll make it without you bastards."
"I’m sure you will, Miss Sinclair," replied the Council head with a nod. "I’m sure you will."
Quickly getting to her feet, as though the thought of spending one more second in the room was unfathomably intolerable, Hannah glanced to Giles. Although his head remained down, his fists were clenched so hard, they were stark white and shaking on the desktop. Her angry expression softened. "Come on, Ziggy," she urged him gently. "Come help me pack."
Slowly, Giles lifted his eyes, and in turn, locked his steely gaze on each of the Council members presiding over them. "You haven’t heard the last of this," he informed them in a frighteningly calm tone that was belied by his demeanor.
"I really do believe we have," assured the leader. With that, he began to gather his papers together, and spared the couple no further attention.
Hannah sensed Giles tensing next to her, and it was only the restraining hand she laid on his arm that kept him from vaulting over the desk and wrapping his hands around the leader’s throat. "Come help me," she repeated.
He turned toward her and she offered him a smile that she clearly didn’t feel. Without further comment, she left the room. Giles afforded the Council one more piercing glare, seeming to commit each face to bitter memory, before hurrying after her.
Giles caught up with Hannah on the street outside the building. The rain was descending in torrents and she was already almost soaked to the skin. He seized her by the elbow and spun her round to face him. "Where are you going?"
Hannah shrugged. "Away." She waved vaguely. "Not sure where. Just know I've had about all I can stomach of this place for a while. Maybe forever."
Giles pulled her close. "I'll come with you. We can get married again. They can't keep throwing annulments at us for eternity. And if they do well, we'll just live in sin." He raised her chin with his forefinger and grinned. "I'm sure our kids will understand."
Hannah gently stroked his cheek. "No can do, Ziggy," she told him emphatically.
He laughed. "Don't worry about them. There's nothing we can't handle together."
She disentangled herself from his embrace. "They're the last people I'm worried about," she said tenderly. "The very last." She sighed. "I've got to go, Rupert, and you can't come with me."
He frowned, bewilderment stealing across his features. "You can't mean that. You go your way and I'll go mine?" He shook his head. "No. We're a team, Hannah. We can't let them split us up."
"It’s not for them," she told him firmly. "It’s for you."
"What? That- That’s absurd. You’re for me," spluttered an indignant Giles.
Hannah regarded him seriously. "If I hadn’t stopped you in there, Rupert, what would you have done?"
Giles frowned. "I ... I don’t ..." He paused and then abruptly dismissed the implication. "Look, what does that matter?"
But Hannah was insistent. "What would you have done?"
Giles' eyes narrowed. "I’d have killed him, all right?? Smug bastard." His lips curled disdainfully. "I’d have snapped his neck like a chicken and not lost a moment’s sleep over it!"
She nodded sadly and appeared to be confirming an inner conviction.
Hannah took a deep breath. "There are things, Rupert. Things that I can’t help you with." She allowed a sardonic chuckle to escape from her throat. "The funny thing is, they’re right. For all the wrong reasons, but they’re right. You need this. The focus. It will help protect you from yourself in ways that I can’t hope to match."
"Bollocks," spat Giles with a sneer. "That’s bollocks and you know it."
Hannah shrugged regretfully. "I’m sorry."
Her expression grew sorrowful as she seemed to realize there was nothing more she could add which would ease the impending separation. She looked to Giles, but the tiny smile of consolation hovering about her lips quickly faded in the face of his mounting fury.
"Go then," he informed her scornfully, eyes becoming cold and well nigh devoid of any tenderness. "I don’t need you. I never did and I never will."
Still, he lingered a moment longer, scouring her face as though searching for some sign that she might be relenting, that she might be changing her mind. He found none.
Giles' gaze narrowed as his features contorted in an ugly fashion. "I don’t need anyone!"
She winced a little beneath the venom with which the words were delivered and watched him stomp away, carelessly brushing aside anyone in his path with a violent shove of the shoulder.
Almost of their own accord, Hannah's feet carried her in the opposite direction. She glanced back only once. His relentless march was continuing, back stiff and rigid like that of a clockwork soldier. "Oh Ziggy," she sighed, "you always were a terrible liar."
Hannah’s audience was indeed captive – each woman’s eyes were riveted on her and they were collectively leaning forward in their seats, as though moving closer would allow them to catch the words just that much faster.
A small frown creased Buffy's forehead. "Ouch," she murmured with a wince.
Willow nodded in sympathy. "So much for the happy ending."
"With the Council involved, did you really expect one?" asked Hannah with an ironic smirk.
Tara's shook her head sadly. "He must've been so angry ..." she commented softly and looked to Hannah. "But you’re both okay? Now, I mean. Despite all that."
"Time heals all wounds," Hannah told her with a shrug. "It’s corny, but mostly true. When you love someone, forgiveness can’t be far behind, wouldn’t you say?"
Most of those gathered exchanged glances, indicating they just might have some insight into such things.
"What about after, Mrs. G.?" asked Faith, breaking the moment. "What happened with you?"
Hannah pondered the question for a moment. "It turned out our trip that summer was useful in more ways than one. I finished university at Boccani in Milan. I kept the Giles family name, partly as a dig at the Council, but mostly because it made me happy. For a while, studying was the only thing that I did, but I eventually realized a degree in economics didn’t lead to a job any more interesting than the subject matter suggested. After you get a taste for what the world is really like, accounting doesn’t quite cut the mustard." Stretching her arms above her head, she openly yawned. "But those are stories for another time, I think."
"But what about Giles?" Kennedy wanted to know. "What happened to him?"
For the first time since the evening had gotten underway, Hannah's expression became truly quite serious. She shook her head, denying the request. "That would be for Rupert to say."
Dawn voiced the protest that the entire group doubtlessly harbored. "Yeah, but he doesn’t like to talk about stuff from back then as much as you do."
There was a contemplative pause as Hannah surveyed the circle of disappointed expressions.
"There's a reason the past is never called the present," she reminded them gently.
On the floor of his loft, Giles sat cross-legged surrounded by stacks of CDs. The room was mostly swathed in darkness, the few lights that had been turned on serving only to enhance the depressing aura of gloom. He hadn't bothered to remove the jacket he'd been wearing when he left earlier that evening, although he had loosened his tie and unfastened the top two buttons of his shirt. The Watcher hummed morosely to the music that played softly in the background:
Every year is getting shorter never seem to find the time.
Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines.
He flipped through the photograph album balanced on his knees and reached for the half-empty bottle of scotch. Filling his shot glass to the brim, the Watcher's hand was far from steady and he had obviously been imbibing for quite a few hours. His head jerked upward at the sound of a voice by the door.
He watched Hannah walk toward him. She was still wearing the outfit she'd chosen for 'girls' night out' and obviously hadn't been home. She regarded him with a puzzled frown.
"Are you all right? You didn't sound well on the phone."
Giles stared at her for a moment but said nothing. Then, his gaze returned to the photograph album. Moving closer, Hannah inspected the picture that had claimed his attention. The snapshot showed a youthful couple, captured in a moment of sheer happiness – Hannah in fashionable hot-pants, which showed off her long legs to perfection, and a beaming Giles, sporting a white t-shirt bearing the image of a dismayed Britannia floundering in the waves.
"The Trevi Fountain in Rome," murmured Hannah with a smile. She sat down beside him on the floor. "Ye Gods, we look young." She traced a finger over the surface of the photograph.
"I thought that if you threw a coin into a fountain, all your dreams would come true," mused Giles, taking a stiff pull of his whiskey. He turned to Hannah. "Didn't happen, did it?"
Hannah chuckled. "Well, the fact that you waded into the water afterwards to get the coins back because we were skint may have had something to do with it." She tilted her head to one side as she gazed at the moment frozen in time. "My, quite the day for resurfacing memories, isn't it?"
Giles refocused on the snapshot. "It was all so much easier then."
"In many ways, yes," agreed Hannah gently.
"No responsibilities," mused the Watcher, "save to ourselves."
His ex-wife smiled wryly. "The gift of youth." She stifled a yawn. "That, and the ability to stay up beyond 2am."
Taking her hand, Giles brought the upturned palm to his lips before releasing it. "I never thanked you."
"Quite possibly because I never needed you to," replied Hannah, stroking his cheek.
"I was angry." His tone grew caustic. "So angry for so long."
"Yes," she agreed with a tiny smirk. "The six years of complete silence was an indication."
Giles threw her a searching glance. "But I forgave you."
"I figured that part out around year seven when you finally called," Hannah replied, good-naturedly jostling his shoulder.
Giles frowned, deep creases embedding themselves in his forehead. "I did some ... terrible things. Simply terrible."
Hannah placed a forefinger against his mouth to hush the words. "I know."
"I thought perhaps ..." He took her hand again and entwined her fingers with his own. "If I'd been with you, you would've somehow prevented it. All of it. The things with Ethan and the others, the ..."
Giles' voice trailed away as Hannah squeezed his hand. He treated her to a grateful smile. "But it wouldn't have, would it?"
"We were young," sighed Hannah. "I had my own life to lead, and I couldn't live yours too." She turned to him with an ironic grin. "And frankly, you wouldn't have listened to me."
Giles chuckled ruefully. "No," he admitted grudgingly. "And if I'd turned my back on the Council that day, if you'd let me leave with you ... they would have cut me off. When I think about the things that might have happened ... To me. To you."
Hannah gave his hand an encouraging shake. "They didn't."
Giles nodded emphatically. "They didn't."
Grabbing his drink, the Watcher drained the dregs as Hannah smirked with open affection.
"That stuff will be the death of you one day," she remarked.
"Will it?" queried Giles, peering at the bottom of his empty glass. "How remarkably mundane."
Dropping her hand, he reached for the bottle, but Hannah removed it from his grasp and then also relieved him of the shot glass. Turning, she placed both on a nearby table and then pushed herself up from the floor.
"Let's get you to bed," she told him briskly. "A good night's sleep so you can get an early start on regretting this in the morning." She extended her arms and he accepted the gesture.
With a mock groan, Hannah hauled Giles to his feet. He swayed unsteadily and she caught him around the waist. He draped both arms over her shoulders and held on tight. The moment of sudden closeness caused both their bodies to become taut.
"Stay," he urged, his voice no more than a whisper.
"When you're drunk, depressed and wallowing in the past?" replied Hannah in a half-hearted attempt to alleviate the tension. "How charming."
"Stay," reiterated Giles. His tone was more insistent now as he pulled her closer and Hannah made no move to disentangle herself from his embrace. "We can be together," he attempted to persuade her, "not ..."
The Watcher suddenly straightened, and he held Hannah at arms length.
The Council panel, almost thirty years ago. A row of men, all there to pass judgment on Giles’ life, to set the course for his future. His hatred for them at that moment when Hannah walked away, the loathing with which he studied each man, each face.
One face in particular stood out now. Even among the sharply dressed professionals that made up the Council panel, this man in particular stood out. His eyes, a penetrating blue that hinted at no emotion whatsoever, save a disdain for everything around him. His demeanor, an air of superiority that telegraphed his utter conviction in absolutely every thought he possessed. His face was clean, unmarred by the disfiguring scar fate would one day grant him.
Giles blinked, returning to the present. "Robespierre," he whispered to himself, the name finally finding the connection it had been seeking since the moment he’d heard it.
He gazed down at a concerned Hannah, his eyes no longer hazy or unfocused.
"I know who we’re facing."
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