Hazel made her way through the halls of Slayer Central, cheerfully exchanging greetings with the assortment of Slayers and Watchers she met along the way. But once out of their line of vision, her bright smile quickly faded into a small frown. Upon reaching her destination, she paused for a moment outside one of the dormitory doors before knocking.
"S'open," called the room's inhabitant.
Turning the handle, Hazel saw Faith hunched over a laptop that had been placed on the small desk. Faith appeared to be far from happy. She was scowling at the screen as though nothing would have delighted her more at that moment than to have popped the machine across the jaw – assuming it could have manifested a jaw which would have been within easy popping distance. Hazel smirked with amusement at the sight.
"Bill Gates-ing it, huh?"
"Gettin' ready to Mike Tyson it, this thing don't stop givin' me crap," growled Faith. In obvious frustration, she shoved away from the desk and threw her hands into the air. "It's out to get me, I know it. Stupid sonuva—"
"Computers don't know how to be spiteful," chuckled Hazel.
"Well this one's super smart," griped Faith. "Look for it to start launchin' nukes in a second."
Hazel nodded wisely. "Right, and then we can all look forward to an army of Ahnolds coming to kill us." She moved closer to the computer. "What are you trying to do?"
"I wanted to find some parts for my bike, really sup it up, y'know?" She turned and grinned at the younger girl. "I went to Will, but she just sorta got this glassy stare when I started talkin' specs, so she told me t' get a computer and check online." The grin turned into a sneer.
Hazel blinked. "So you went out and bought a computer?"
Faith waved a dismissive hand. "Nah, I just took hers."
The Junior Slayer stared wide-eyed.
"What?" asked Faith indignantly. "I'll give it back." She returned her attention to the laptop as a scornful smile crossed her lips. "With a few minor adjustments."
"No, okay, you can't kill Willow's computer," came Hazel's recommendation.
Faith was not so easily swayed. "Actually, I'm pretty good at killin' stuff, I'm pretty sure I can."
Hazel leaned over Faith's shoulder and peered at the screen. "Why don't you show me what you're trying to do and—"
"I think I've had about enough'a these things for today," Faith interrupted, firmly closing the lid with a sharp snap. "I'll just harass Red until she looks for me. It's amazing what you can accomplish when you're irritating enough."
Hazel straightened. "Nice motto," she stated wryly.
Faith shrugged. "It's one'a several." Spinning in her chair, she turned to face the Junior. "So, what's up with you? Why the house call?"
Apparently uncertain where to begin, Hazel wandered around the room, inspecting its contents though there truly wasn't much to see – a few well-worn dog-eared paperbacks, clothes strewn in random fashion on the floor and a couple of posters decorating the walls. There was very little in the way of personal effects.
Hazel frowned. "It's almost like it could be anyone's."
"Huh?" queried a puzzled Faith.
Hazel indicated Faith's habitat. "You've been here for months and months now, but you still look like you're ready to move out in a second. Most of the girls ... within about five minutes, they've personalized their room. But not you. Why not?"
The reply was rather terse. "So you came here to, what? Review my room for 'Better Homes an' Gardens'?" Hazel didn't flinch away however, and Faith sighed. "I dunno," she admitted. "Before this, closest thing I had to a home was a 4x5 cell. Before that it was a hospital bed. Comparatively speaking, this place is a freakin' Martha Stewart wet dream."
"I suppose," agreed the younger girl, her tone somewhat despondent.
Eyes narrowing, Faith examined Hazel from head to toe. "Okay, what's up? You obviously didn't come here for decorating tips."
"No. Actually ..." Hazel bit her bottom lip. "I need your help."
Faith nodded and leaned back in her chair. "Shoot."
Perching on the edge of the bed, Hazel took a deep breath and began. "It's my parents. They—"
But she didn't get the chance to continue as an abrupt rap upon the door was swiftly followed by the poking-in of Buffy's head. She smiled quickly at Hazel and then crooked a finger at Faith. "Meeting time."
"What?" asked Faith.
"Big meeting?" Buffy prompted with a roll of her eyes. "Big bad? Big sharing of information?"
"Oh, yeah," sniffed Faith, "the Giles thing."
"Yeah," confirmed the blonde with a sunny smile. "The Giles thing that he swears is more substantial than 'We have no idea'. You know me, Substance Girl – so let's get a move on before Xander snags all the good chairs."
An expression of apology crossed Faith's face as she turned to Hazel, but the young girl instantly dismissed the idea. "This'll keep," she assured.
"You sure?" asked Faith with a tiny frown of concern.
Hazel smiled cheerfully. "Yup. Find me when you're free?"
"Will do," promised Faith as she followed Buffy from the room.
Buffy glanced at the dark-haired Slayer as the door closed behind them. "She okay?"
"Think so," replied Faith dubiously. "She wasn't cryin' or nothin'."
"Ahh, with your sensitive side, it's no wonder she came to you," remarked the blonde with a hint of sarcasm.
"Bite me," retorted Faith.
Buffy nodded in her wisdom. "See? Sensitive."
"His name is Robespierre," stated Giles with authority. "He is the leader and founder of a group known as 'The Assemblage of Merodach'."
Pacing back and forth across the floor of the library, Giles took stock of the gathering – Buffy, Willow, Xander, Tara, Dawn, Faith, Kennedy, and Hannah, all listening intently.
"These evil groups, always with the big names," commented Xander dryly. "Just once I'd like to meet a group called 'The Evil-Os' or something. Three syllables, four max."
Willow grinned. "Maybe they're overcompensating."
Giles frowned at the banter and Willow threw Xander a grimace before blinking innocently at the Watcher and waiting for him to resume his briefing.
"Ever since Tara gave us his name, I've been trying to remember where I heard it before. A few days ago, I finally remembered: Robespierre was once a member of the Council of Watchers."
"Used to be?" queried Kennedy.
Giles nodded. "He was dismissed for his rather ... overbearing attitudes."
A frown of disbelief crossed Buffy's face. "Wait, the guys who wrote the book on how to be a control freak thought this guy was too much?"
"Yes," the Watcher confirmed. "Rather puts things in perspective, doesn't it? You see, Robespierre believes very strongly in one thing and one thing only, and that is order. The Council has, for centuries, devoted itself to combating evil and protecting the world. However to Robespierre, this is short sighted. He believes that the world needs protecting from itself as much as from outside sources."
"I can kinda see his point," murmured Dawn, noting with some surprise that everyone had turned to look at her. "Flip on the news sometime," she urged. "We don't need help from demons and stuff, people are pretty close to their very own homemade apocalypse."
Giles gave this some thought and inclined his head in agreement before continuing. "Be that as it may, Robespierre's vision is nothing less than a totalitarian society of- of Orwellian proportions. Every aspect of life would be precisely controlled, from what you hear and what you see to where you live, what job you hold, who you marry ... Free action, free thought – these things destroy order and cannot be permitted."
"Sounds like a real charmer," remarked Faith caustically. "Anyone actually listen to this nutjob?"
Giles turned to the dark-haired Slayer. "Yes, actually," he told her. "His family had been part of the Council ... well, almost since its inception. His name carried with it considerable clout and power. For years, he pressed the Council toward what he called, 'realizing and channeling the full power of the Slayer.' He believed that the Slayer should not simply be a tool for combating evil, but the chief instrument through which the Council wrested control over ... well, the world."
"Could they even do that?" asked Tara. She glanced around the room. "I-I mean, I know Buffy's real strong and everything, but ... she's just Buffy." She treated the blonde to a small smile and Buffy smirked her amused acknowledgment.
Giles thrust his hands into his pockets as he paced. "Given the deep bureaucratic ties already at the Council's disposal and adding a little strong-arming ... Well, it wouldn't necessarily be a guaranteed victory for either side. But Robespierre was convinced that they could do it. However no matter how much pressure he applied, the Council's top members refused to even entertain the idea."
"Well yay for the old Council!" declared Willow emphatically. She paused. "That'll probably be the only time I ever get to say that."
The Watcher leaned against a wall and crossed his arms, eyes sweeping the gathering. "Feeling he had little other choice, Robespierre staged a coup. It failed, of course, and he and his primary followers were expelled from the Council."
"When office politics go horribly wrong," Xander remarked.
"Robespierre quickly formed The Assemblage of Merodach," continued Giles. "The Council kept a close eye on them for a time, but the group seemed unable to amass sufficient power to be a true threat, and eventually Robespierre simply disappeared, and the group with him. With other, more pressing matters at hand, the Council were happy to let the rather embarrassing matter die."
Kennedy scoffed openly. "You'd figure the Council'd know better than anyone that dead things don't stay dead."
"Indeed," affirmed Giles, "which is what brings us to now."
"And a situation considerably more dangerous," added Hannah, speaking for the first time.
Buffy treated her to a flat look. "Way to kill the mood, Hannah."
"Sorry," she replied in a tone that indicated she was actually far from sorry. "But it's important that you all realize what it is we're likely facing."
"Guessin' it's not a bunch'a geriatrics bitchin' about the price of Depends," noted Faith.
Now, it was Hannah's turn to pace. "As Rupert suggested, it's not inconceivable that the Council could have, at any point, wrested control of the world's governments. And that was with one Slayer."
An oppressive silence enveloped the room as cold realization began to sink in.
"The missing Slayers," said Buffy.
Giles took up the gauntlet once more. "Precisely. I believe that Robespierre has been anything but lax during his years of silence. I believe the Assemblage is still very much alive, and what's more, have now become a seriously grave threat. When we awakened the potential Slayers, we provided Robespierre with his foot soldiers."
"But there's more," Hannah appended.
Xander arched an eyebrow. "Now how much would you pay?"
Hannah glanced at Giles, who gave a sharp nod. She took a deep breath. "We don't believe he's working alone."
Tara noted the exchange. "The girl, right? The one who attacked? You think she was a Slayer."
"Yes," agreed the Watcher. "But she was ..." His voice trailed away as he searched for the correct terminology, "...enhanced, somehow. She was more than simply a Slayer, she was ..."
"A Super Slayer," volunteered Xander. At the numerous eyes that turned toward him, he admitted, "Yeah, it sounds comic booky, but if the clichéd shoe fits ..." He finished the statement with a shrug.
Giles stared at Xander for a moment before picking up the thread. "I can only think that there are magicks at work here. Over the past few days, I've been in almost constant contact with the Covens—"
"Hey!" objected an offended Willow. "You're outsourcing! Witches sitting right here!" She jabbed a finger toward Tara and then directed it at herself.
The Watcher allowed himself a tiny smile at the spirited outburst and hastened to clarify. "Absolutely, but as they were already assisting me with research on our mystery symbol, I thought the coordinated efforts would be best. I promise, I have every intention of thoroughly using you both later."
"Good!" Willow told him with a firm nod. "See that you do, mister!" As her indignation died away, she frowned at what she had just readily agreed to, but Giles had already moved on.
"At any rate, the Covens have been unable to locate Robespierre or the Assemblage at all," he sighed. "According to their findings, in fact, he simply doesn't exist. This, coupled with the obvious enhancement to our attacker, keeps suggesting powerful magicks. Before we could pursue the matter much further, however, someone contacted me."
"Someone actually got your phone number?" asked an astounded Xander. He leaned over and nudged Dawn in the ribs. "See? I told you that 'unlisted number' stuff was all a scam."
"Magickally, actually," mused the Watcher. "She joined a mental link Miss Harkness and I had established for private conversations."
Impressed, Willow let out a low whistle. "Wow. That takes some juice."
"Some knowledge, too," added an equally appreciative Tara. "Pre-forged psychic links? They're really tricky. Just busting through one is hard enough, but to actually synch up to everyone involved ... Wow. And she was a stranger?"
"Completely," Giles confirmed. "To us, at any rate." He chuckled, but the sound reflected no true merriment. "She seems to know more than enough about us, however."
He regarded the questioning faces. "She's offered her assistance, and frankly, she does seem at the moment to be our strongest lead to getting information. But there's something of a snag."
Faith leaned back in her chair. "I knew it. Here it comes ..."
"She's quite old," the Watcher told them, "and insists that we arrange for her transportation."
Buffy shrugged offhandedly. "Okay, so we send her Greyhound ticket, what's the big?"
Giles shook his head. "She wants us to come and get her. Or, well, actually, just one of us. Requested by name, no less. And she was quite insistent."
His gaze traveled the room and came to rest on Tara. The blonde smiled briefly and glanced over her shoulder, seeking out the object of the Watcher's attention, but there was nobody behind her. She turned back to find she had now become the main focus of the entire room. Slowly, her eyes widened in surprise.
"Aid & Abet"
Story by: Jet Wolf and Ultrace
Scripted by: Jet Wolf
Prosed by: Novareinna & Jet Wolf
Original Airdate: Tuesday, 9 November 2004, 8pm EST
The library was a cacophony of protestations. Almost everyone was expressing their personal objection to the proposition, but Willow was undoubtedly the most vocal.
"Tara?" protested the redhead. "Going off, alone, to who knows where to face who knows what and get who knows who? There are too many 'who's' in that sentence! I demand full disclosure!"
Tara attempted to restore calm. "Willow, I'm perfectly capable of—"
Buffy scowled. "Bad idea. Bad, bad idea."
"Oh yeah," nodded an emphatic Xander, wagging a foreboding finger at nobody in particular. "On the top ten list of bad ideas, I'd say this is at least a seven or eight. Right up there with New Coke."
"But I think that—" began Tara. Her opinion was apparently of no consequence.
"Kinda gotta agree," interrupted Faith. "Seems pretty convenient, this chick popping up just when we need her, an' then wantin' us to split up?"
"No splitting!" warned Willow. "I'm putting my foot down on the split issue! We need to—"
Tara frowned. "Hey!" Her tone was forceful and the clamor hushed immediately, every eye turning to look.
The blonde flushed a little at her sudden outburst, but soon regained composure. "I appreciate everyone's concern, but ..." She paused and then turned to Giles. "Who is she?"
"Well ... I'm not altogether certain," Giles was forced to admit.
Instantly, Willow sucked in a lungful of air, undoubtedly in preparation to unleash a new barrage of objections. She got no further than her mouth opening, however, before she caught Tara's warning glance. Willow scowled her reluctance but nonetheless, held her tongue.
Tara's attention returned to Giles and he continued. "She didn't give us a name, per se. She simply insisted that we needed her help, then gave me her conditions. However Miss Harkness recognized her energy signature almost immediately. She called her 'Keeper of the Wing'."
The blonde frowned and pondered the information, before quietly echoing the name.
"Does that mean anything to you?" the Watcher asked hopefully.
"No ...?" admitted Tara slowly. Then, more definitely, "No. But it sounds ... impressive?"
"Or really pompous," huffed Buffy.
Willow regarded Giles seriously. "Giles, you can't—" Her eyes wandered to Tara. "I-I know you can handle yourself and everything, but ... some woman just saying, 'Come find me, I know stuff'? Are we really that desperate?"
The Watcher was at a loss for words. With a heavy sigh, he lowered himself into a chair. Stepping forward, Hannah took it upon herself to answer.
"Yes and no," she told the gathering. "We're sure that, eventually, we'll be able to find Robespierre. But can we do that before his Slayers become more powerful, or before he begins his insurgency, or attacks us again?" She puffed out her cheeks and shrugged. "The bottom line is, the sooner we find him, the sooner we stop him."
Xander for one was not convinced. "But there's gotta be some other way, right? Some way where we don't have to play chauffer to freaky old ladies?"
Hannah moved aside as Giles reclaimed the lead. "We can, and will, continue our research of course," he stated with certainty. "Now that we suspect we know what's happened to the missing Slayers, perhaps Willow can draw some correlation between that data which will give us a clue as to their whereabouts."
"Say we find him, then what?" asked Faith. "Just one'a them girls nearly ripped us a new one, an' I'm guessin' there's more where she came from."
Unfortunately, nobody could provide an answer.
"What did she say?" queried Tara. "This Keeper woman?"
"She said she had information," replied Giles adjusting his glasses. "Vital information that would help us in our upcoming battles. She offered it, willingly, with no strings. Her only requirements were that we would have to provide her transportation. I offered to have one of our jets sent and arrange for a car to bring her to the airport, but she was most insistent." He was obliged to chuckle in remembrance of the conversation. "She said she'd lived far too many years on the ground to start leaving it now, and that she wanted someone sent to bring her to Trillium – Tara Maclay."
"That's just so freaky," commented Dawn as she turned to Tara. "I mean, how does she even know you're here?"
The blonde shook her head as a tiny frown creased her forehead. It was obvious that she was unable to provide any type of explanation.
"So that's it, we just ... we're taking her word for it?" asked Willow in total disbelief, looking from one person to the next. "'La la la, I know something you don't know, now come find me'? I can't believe we're trusting this demented unknown lady! She- She's demanding, a-a-and aviophobic ... and she butts into private conversations, which is just rude!"
"She's not entirely unknown," the Watcher replied. "According to Miss Harkness, the Keeper of the Wing was once a-a very powerful and respected witch. One of the most powerful in the Americas, in fact. But one day, many years ago, she completely severed all ties with the Covens and refused to have any further contact with them. She's remained in self-imposed isolation ever since. Also," he added, "I doubt very much that she's demented."
"Ah-ha! That's just what she wants you to think!" came the triumphant retort.
Giles was befuddled. "What?"
"C'mon Giles, you gotta admit it sounds super suspicious," insisted Buffy. "This powerful witch suddenly deciding to pull out of her Greta Garbo just when we need her?"
Giles dug in his pocket for a handkerchief. "I admit the timing is convenient, but I've Miss Harkness' complete faith that this woman is indeed who she claims to be, and that she has never been a champion of dark forces." He removed his glasses and began to polish vigorously.
"Let her go get the woman, then!" recommended a petulant Dawn. "Why does it have to be Tara?"
Giles sighed with exasperation. "I'm not sure, but we can—"
"I'll go," Tara interrupted. The room immediately fell quiet. She looked to Giles. "It'll help, right? I mean, we need to learn everything we can, and if she says she knows something ..."
Giles nodded. "I believe that she does. And yes, this will help. But Tara, this is your decision." He regarded her gravely. "I'm sorry if I've put any undue pressure on you, but please know you don't have to do this. We'll find out what we need to, with or without this woman. Your safety is much more important than anything she could possibly tell us."
The blonde acknowledged her understanding with a bright smile. "Good, then since it's all my decision, I'll go and you won't feel guilty about it." Giles inclined his head gratefully. "Besides, I've never been to the east coast." She frowned at the statement, correcting, "Well, I mean, I'm here now, obviously, but I was sort of ... you know, teleported, so I missed the whole sight seeing migration thing."
"You don't even know where you're going yet," Willow told her with something of a pout.
Tara retained her sunny smile. "Wherever it is, I've probably never been there before."
Leaning forward, Xander rested his elbows on his knees. "Great then. But Greta wants to see Tara, she gets the package deal and we all come with," he insisted, circling his fingers in the air to encompass the entire group. "We load up the cars, we caravan to wherever she is, and if she's not legit, we kick her wrinkly butt and stop off for cheeseburgers on the way home."
"Yes, well, that's part of the problem, you see," returned Giles with no little reluctance. "She insisted Tara come alone."
In a heartbeat, the ruckus of dissent erupted anew. This time, it was Buffy who dominated the voice of resistance. "No. A thousand points of no. Giles, I won't let—"
Raising his hand, Giles spoke loudly so he could be heard over the disapproving din. "And I was equally insistent that this was not going to happen. So she has agreed that one other person may come with Tara. I assume—"
"Me," announced Kennedy firmly.
The room fell into a hush as every surprised eye turned toward the brunette. It was the first time she had uttered so much as a word since Giles had delivered the Keeper's ultimatum and it seemed that the majority had even forgotten she was in attendance.
The Slayer arched an eyebrow at the others. "I'll go with her."
"Kennedy, what ...?" stammered a bewildered Willow.
"It should be me," insisted Buffy. "I can keep Tara safe."
Kennedy shot the blonde a penetrating glance. "You saying I can't?"
"What?" queried Buffy with a shake of her head. "No. I just—"
"Good," replied Kennedy, her tone seeming to indicate that the discussion was at an end. "Then I'll go."
Confused, Tara frowned in Kennedy's direction, and the brunette steadily met her gaze. "Should be fun," she added.
"But you ..." Willow's eyes reflected anxiety. "I can ..."
Kennedy huffed and looked heavenward. "Please, you two can hardly be part of a crowd of people without one of you almost imploding, you think you can stand being alone in a car together for however long?"
Willow was unable to disguise her opposition, but she also seemed to realize the truth in Kennedy's statement. Her mouth became tight and she said nothing, but appeared far from happy with the enforced silence.
With a challenging look, Kennedy surveyed the room. "Any other objections I can shoot holes in?"
"What if I don't want you to come with me?" asked Tara.
There was a long pause as Kennedy carefully considered both the proposer and the proposition. She shrugged. "Then I guess you can tell me not to come."
Yet another long pause ensued as Tara studied the expectantly waiting Slayer. The blonde's gaze was piercing and intense, broken only by Giles speaking her name.
She glanced quickly at Giles and then returned to her scrutiny of Kennedy. Another moment or two passed before Tara looked back to Giles. She nodded briefly.
"When do we leave?"
As Faith approached Hazel's room, she saw that the door stood open. Nevertheless, she drummed a 'rat-a-tat-tat' before entering. The area that had formerly belonged to Judith remained empty and devoid of any adornment, but Hazel's half had undergone some recent redecoration. The poster of Russell Crowe had been replaced with one of Colin Farrell and she had added a cork board, littered with photographs of Pennsylvania's sights, Trillium souvenirs, and snapshots of girls more or less her own age. Some of the pictures had been taken in Slayer Central, but still others had been taken at night, several in cemeteries where groups of Juniors, brandishing wooden stakes and other assorted weapons of destruction in a menacing fashion, had mugged for the camera. One photo depicted Faith and Hazel together in one of the training rooms – a flushed Hazel grinning broadly and flashing a huge thumbs up as Faith gave her a dubious but amused look.
Also on display were pictures of Hazel's family and friends from home, the older photographs blending seamlessly with the newer ones. It was one of these older photographs that currently captured Hazel's attention. The girl was lying on her bed, Willow's open laptop ignored for the moment. In her hand was a silver-framed photograph, showing a much younger Hazel alongside an even smaller girl, each seated in the laps of a smiling couple who could only be their parents.
At Faith's entrance, Hazel glanced up and smiled. "Found some parts for you," she informed, setting the frame to one side.
Faith blinked a little in surprise. "Hey, thanks."
"No big," shrugged the younger girl. "I have some time to kill before classes start. So, you're all done?"
Faith threw herself onto Judith's old bed with a bounce. "Yup," she replied, surveying the bare half of the room curiously.
"How'd it go?" asked Hazel with interest. "Everyone gearing up to beat the bad guys and save the world?"
"You think the world needs saving?" asked Faith with a slight chuckle.
"I've heard the stories," confided Hazel. "It seems like it's pretty much always needing a save or two."
"True that. Went okay. Glinda and the Brat get to go road trippin'."
"'Glinda and the Brat'," giggled Hazel. "Sounds like a bad cartoon show."
Faith grinned wryly. "Might turn into one," she admitted. "Not sure I'd wanna be in the car for all that."
Hazel nodded confidently. "I'm sure it'll be okay. You guys'll find out what you need and save the day." She smiled brightly.
"Just gotta have faith?"
With an eye roll at the terrible pun, Hazel replied, "You just need to know the score. You guys are heroes. Heroes always win."
"I'll remember that next time I blow off training with Oxford," remarked the older Slayer as she leaned back on one elbow. "Sure he won't mind, seein' as how us winnin' in the end is a given an' all."
"You know what I mean," insisted Hazel, screwing up her nose in an expression of mild irritation.
"Yeah." Casting her gaze at the bare walls surrounding her, Faith gestured toward the empty area of the room. "So what's up with this?"
Pushing herself upward, Hazel sat Indian-style. "What's up with what?" she replied, clearly not understanding.
A lazy circle of Faith's hand indicated her half.
"Oh!" Hazel stared, almost as though she were only just truly seeing it as it was. "I dunno, actually. Just never seemed right to put anything there, I guess. Like it's not really mine, you know?" A disdainful snort escaped and she added, "Not that I miss Judith or anything. Definitely not with the hero vibe." She shook her head vehemently. "Anyway, I didn't really wanna talk about her."
Faith shrugged. "'Kay then." She focused on Hazel and waited.
The girl opened her mouth to speak, but then appeared to change her mind. Her eyes drifted to the discarded picture frame, but still she remained silent. Faith frowned and an expression of concern crossed her face as she leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees. Patience had never been Faith's forte, but she fought to maintain an unhurried air. She succeeded admirably for several seconds, but each tick saw Hazel clearly feeling worse, and the condition directly impacted Faith's ability to remain silent.
When it seemed the Junior was on the verge of real tears, Faith nearly panicked. ""Whoa, hey, what is it?" she demanded. "What's wrong?"
Hazel sniffed and swiped a fist across her eyes. "It's my parents."
"Something happen to 'em?" asked Faith gently. She reached out an unsure hand that then faltered and returned home, the Slayer plainly having no idea what she was supposed to do with it. Eyes glued to the photograph at her side, Hazel failed to notice but she nodded miserably.
Clearing her throat uneasily, Faith cautiously prompted, "Are they ...?"
Hazel looked up quickly. "No, no, they're okay." She shrugged despondently. "I mean, kinda okay, I guess. They're—" Her gaze drifted back to the smiling couple, a moment captured in happier times. "They're getting divorced," she confessed in a small voice.
The announcement was met with a relieved puff of air. "That all?" asked Faith, all of her tension pouring away. "Christ, I figured it was somethin' really bad."
At the easy dismissal, Hazel shot the older woman a wounded look. Faith immediately grimaced and shook her head as she hastened to correct, "No, I ... I mean, that's ..." She paused, searching for the best way to explain herself. "That sucks, sure, but on the grand scale of things that coulda been bad, you gotta admit, this is pretty low."
The clarification did little to improve the girl's pained expression.
"Or not," the dark-haired Slayer floundered. "I just ..." She sighed heavily and ran a hand through her hair before trying again. "Look, you obviously think this is a big thing, an' that's all that matters, right? So, okay, let's start there. Why's that upset you so much?"
There was a long and uncomfortable pause. "I think it's my fault," Hazel finally replied.
"How can it be your fault, you haven't been there in over six months," Faith pointed out.
"Exactly!" Hazel's tone made it clear she felt Faith had cemented her argument. "It's just been my parents and my little sister, and believe me, she's irritating enough to make saints start hating each other. But seriously, I just keep thinking that if I'd been there, I could've ... I dunno, maybe seen what was happening? Tried to fix it?"
Faith scratched the back of her head in a helpless gesture. She seemed to be valiantly racking her brains for the right words. Apparently, she could come up with nothing.
"You think this is stupid," muttered Hazel in a self-recriminating tone.
"No, I don't," Faith replied in all seriousness. She threw her arms to the side and sat back, a frown firmly in place. "Just ... I got no clue what to say. It's new ground for me, y'know? Wasn't no 'divorce' in my place. My old man just up and left one day. An' frankly, if they had gotten a divorce first, can't say I woulda cared much."
Hazel's face fell even further into the depths of dejection, causing Faith to lean forward again, anxious to say something right. "But you do care, an' that's great," she insisted. "You should. I'm not the standard here on what's normal feelin', trust me."
It had little effect. Completely out of ideas, Faith sought out and found the other girl's eyes, locking them with her own. "What can I do?"
Hazel smiled at the sincerity of the offer, but shook her head. "Nothing, I guess." She made a visible effort to brighten. "That's okay, though."
Glowering, Faith looked away first, seeming angry at her inadequacy.
"Fiver, for real – it's okay," assured Hazel. "This is really my thing." She reached out and moved the picture frame from the top of the notepad sitting near the laptop. With a clean jerk, she ripped the top sheet of paper free and extended it toward the Senior Slayer.
"I wrote down the names and phone numbers of some places you can get cool parts." She shrugged and smirked then, confessing, "At least I think they're cool parts. They said they were on the web site."
Getting to her feet, Faith accepted the piece of paper, regarding it ruefully.
Hazel next closed the laptop with a snap, offering the machine as well. "And make sure you put this back, or Willow'll ... I dunno, turn you into a newt or something."
Faith was obviously plagued with other thoughts. "A newt?" she asked, vaguely perplexed.
"You'll get better," grinned Hazel.
In total confusion, Faith looked from the laptop to Hazel's face, which was now plastered with a happy if somewhat forced smile.
"I'm okay," the young girl told her without the hint of a grudge. "Really. Now go on – don't you have a world to save?"
Absently-mindedly, Faith nodded and took the computer, tucking it under her arm. She headed for the door, but paused at the entranceway and glanced back. It looked as though she was going to say something, but Hazel – all smiles – shooed her off with a brisk wave. Faith glanced at the paper in her hand and frowned. Then, with a deep sigh, she exited the room, her face a curious mixture of regret and anger.
Xander peered cautiously both left and right as his fingers drummed on the steering wheel of the family car. He repeated the action two more times before easing into traffic, his caution enough to make any driving instructor proud. The car was full packed, every available seat occupied.
Seated quite happily in the front passenger seat, Dawn's long legs were slightly bent as she had scooted the seat forward to avoid completely squashing Tara behind her. Willow had considerably less legroom, sitting behind Xander, but she was at least better off than Buffy, who was crammed into the center hump of the backseat that clearly was designed to function in a seating capacity only as a last resort. Thankfully, Buffy's attentions were focused on matters other than a steadily numbing and uncomfortable behind.
"You have everything?" she asked Dawn, leaning forward and peering intently at the teenager.
"Ye-es," her sister replied, the eye roll audible, if not visible.
This time Dawn turned in her seat, making an effort to ensure that Buffy could see as well as hear the irritation. "I swear, if you ask about my underwear?" she warned. "I'm getting emancipated."
"Pretty exciting trip, Dawnie," enthused Willow, caring little about the indignant 'humph' from her best friend. "Philadelphia for the night? Birthplace of liberty, home of large Benjamin Franklin statues ..."
"Hear they got a bell too," added Xander. "Kinda cracked. They should get that fixed. Get some caulk, a little bronzer ..."
Dawn laughed. "Dork," she proclaimed. "Anyway, it's for school, so fun will be limited. But it's still way cooler than being in class." She twisted her neck in the hopes of seeing Tara over the headrest. "Will you be back before me?"
"It'd probably help me answer that if I knew where I was going," Tara told her dryly. "Mr. Giles said that the Keeper would contact him with the directions and stuff once she was sure I'd agreed to come."
An rather uncomfortable hush reigned for a moment.
"And she'd know this how?" inquired Buffy curtly.
Tara chuckled just once and smirked at the Slayer. "That's a good question, isn't it?"
"I don't like this," huffed Willow, crossing her arms and slinking back into the seat.
"For real, Will?" Xander's look of amazement fooled no one. "An' here I figured all that complaining was just a token protest."
He winced as the redhead poked the back of his head. "There will be silence from you, Mr. Harris," she commanded.
Tara craned her head around Buffy to look at Willow. "I'll be fine. And this'll be good. Good for me. To get away." She gave the redhead a quick smile before settling back into her seat, consequently missing the flash of pain that crossed Willow's features at the words.
"I hear you," agreed Dawn wholeheartedly. "'Getting away' was one of the biggest selling points for this trip! That, and then we come back to the whole 'no school' thing."
Buffy frowned. "I'm still not sure. There's your headaches, and—"
"My headaches, which have pulled a complete no-show for, like, a month," Dawn hastily pointed out.
Buffy remained unconvinced. "Still," she muttered darkly.
"And you've already talked to each of the chaperones," added Dawn.
"I know," admitted a reluctant Buffy.
"And I'm rooming with Brenda, who has sworn that if I so much as look like I'm getting a headache, she's calling 911," Dawn threw in for good measure.
Buffy nodded her head approvingly. "Good. Smart girl, Brenda. Always liked her."
"So stop worrying," instructed Dawn firmly. "I'll only be gone one night, and look – school's just up the street so it's too late to back out now."
Xander glided the vehicle to a smooth halt at the cusp of the 'U'-shaped driveway in front of the school. "Service and a smile," he announced, flashing a toothy grin. "See, if it weren't for this complete lack of depth perception, I could totally be a chauffer."
"But since you're not," Dawn reminded him, "I don't have to tip you!" At his exaggerated glower, she rolled her eyes yet again and leaned over to kiss his cheek.
The carpenter beamed. "I'm easily placated."
Dawn grabbed her overnight bag from the floor of the car and hopped out, toting both bag and backpack.
"Have a nice time, Dawnie," called Tara with a smile and a wave.
"Take lots of pictures!" ordered Willow, using Xander's seat to pull herself up. "And don't break my digital camera, or I'll be forced to sabotage all your future college essays!"
With an "eep" of alarm, Dawn nodded in quick agreement.
As her sister closed the door, Buffy clambered into the front seat. Willow frowned as her lap was used for leverage by two floundering feet and Xander grimaced with pain as an elbow found its way into his ear while fingernails dug sharply into his shoulder.
Quickly getting situated, Buffy rolled down the window. "Have fun," she called out. "If you start to feel—"
"—feel light-headed or any pain of any kind whatsoever, tell someone," finished Dawn. "I got it the first fifty thousand times. Wanna write it on a note and pin it to my shirt?"
Buffy's eyes widened at the proposal, as though it were a fabulous idea. "Anyone got a pen?" she queried.
"Okay, I'm leaving now." Dawn swiftly replied, but she could get no more than half a step before Buffy was leaning out of the window, cheek first. She watched the teenager expectantly from the corners of her eye. When it was clear that Buffy had no intention of letting her go before the unspeakable could occur, Dawn gave her sister a lightning fast peck on the cheek and then dashed away with a hasty "Bye!"
The Slayer watched as the crowds swallowed up Dawn and Xander urged the car into motion once more. "Do you think we embarrassed her enough?" she wondered aloud.
"I think we could've done better," appraised Willow with a shake of her head. "I rate us a 6.5, tops."
"I thought you should've gotten out of the car and made her hug you," Tara supplied.
"I can always drive back, an' you can yell out the window about her having clean underwear," offered Xander. "I'm sure she was kidding about the thing from before." He considered for a moment then shrugged. "Pretty sure."
He glanced at Buffy, the grin on his face swiftly fading as he noted her apparent sober contemplation of his suggestion.
"Nah," she finally decided, much to his relief. "I'll just save it all up and chaperone her prom. That should complete the requisite emotional scarring." She glanced over her shoulder at the witch sitting behind her. "Besides, we need to be getting back. Tara still has to pack and stuff."
"Yup," agreed the carpenter, also regarding Tara, though via his rearview mirror instead. "Better get used to the car environment – it's gonna be your close personal friend real soon."
The car keys in Giles' pocket jingled merrily as he walked into his office. He was mumbling to himself as he sorted through the maps and other assorted documentation in his hands, seeming to be running down a mental checklist.
Seated behind the desk, Hannah was terminating her telephone conversation. "Excellent, thanks very much," she concluded. Replacing the receiver, she turned to Giles.
"That was Lamarque, with Canadian immigration," she told him. "He's going to make a few phone calls, so the girls shouldn't have any trouble at the border."
The Watcher held aloft a small book. "I got Tara a passport, just in case."
Hannah nodded. "Wise move."
Moving to the front of his desk, Giles deposited the stack of items he was carrying and then, digging into his pocket, placed the car keys on top. That done, he sighed heavily and slumped into one of the leather chairs.
"Rough day at the office?" smirked Hannah.
Giles pinched the bridge of his nose. "Don't be cute."
"It's inherent, I can't help it."
The Watcher simply sighed in response.
Hannah rose from her seat and moved from behind the desk. As she walked past, she gave Giles' hair an affectionate tousle, entirely ignoring the glare of annoyance she earned for her trouble. She claimed the seat next to him and smiled encouragingly.
"This is a good thing," she reminded him. "You said it yourself, the information in the old Watcher's Council diaries about Robespierre's movements is minimal at best."
"No, I know," Giles admitted grudgingly.
"But you're still worried," concluded Hannah. When he didn't refute the statement, she shook her head. "Tara seems to be a remarkably levelheaded girl, and you know how impressed you've been with Kennedy's capabilities."
Giles sighed heavily. "I just wish we didn't have to keep sending children to fight our battles."
The blonde gave a throaty chuckle. "I think they stopped being children some time ago, Rupert." Glancing in his direction, it was clear that Giles was locked in a dark mood and not particularly inclined to be budged. "Do you really think they'll be in danger?" she asked with the faintest note of concern.
"Kennedy and Tara?" replied Giles, rubbing the nape of his neck and wincing at the stiffness. "Only slightly more than usual. I have confidence in the Covens that this is indeed the woman they claim, but ... why her? Why now? It only raises more questions."
Getting to her feet, Hannah brushed away his hand and began her own relaxing massage of the tight muscles. Giles closed his eyes with satisfaction. "And you're grouchy because she just blasted into your head," she told him with a mischievous dig of her fingers.
"Well it's very intrusive!" he exclaimed in a huff. "She might learn to use the bloody phone." His tone assumed a more somber note and he pulled away from Hannah to regard her directly. "This could be crucial. Honestly, I don't know how much more luck we're going to have in finding them at this point. And we must find them. With an army of enhanced Slayers behind him, I'm afraid that nothing short of nuclear weaponry will be able to stop them. That's a theory I'm not particularly eager to test."
The Tara Room was, slowly but surely, transforming into a more lived-in space that reflected its namesake. Although still sparse, particularly as compared to the other bedrooms in the house, it now looked like a room in transition from one state of being to another. Though Tara clearly wasn't there for decorating purposes at the moment, intent as she was on packing an overnight bag.
With her back to the door, she failed to notice as Willow hovered in the doorway. The redhead said nothing for a long moment, simply watching Tara's every move without comment, until she finally inquired, "Got'cher toothbrush?"
Tara turned at the sound of the redhead's voice then, with a smirk, held up the referenced item. "Check," she said confidently.
Tara chuckled. "Okay, Buffy."
Willow grinned as Tara went back to her packing.
"So ..." she mused. "Canada, huh?"
Tara nodded. "Mm-hm. Very cool. I've never been out of the country before."
"Me neither," Willow informed the blonde and then frowned. "Well that's a lie. I mean, I went to England, but most of that was, you know ... big blur. Big, gray, rainy blur. With horses."
"I'm expecting this to mostly be a big, cold, snowy blur," Tara replied. "Less horses. Which is a shame, because I wouldn't mind a horse or two."
Willow smirked. "Never did understand that."
"Maybe you would have if you'd ever let me teach you." She turned to Willow and wagged an admonishing finger. "You know you still owe me that ..." Her voice trailed away, lost somewhere in a mixture of embarrassment and sadness. " ...riding date," she finished very quietly.
Turning her back on the redhead, Tara continued packing.
"Tara?" queried Willow, her tone reflecting her unhappiness.
"Huh-huh?" replied the blonde, focus remaining fixed upon the task at hand.
Willow ventured further into the room, a look of determination invading her face. "Why don't you ..." She paused and shook her head. "What's wrong with us?"
Tara refused to turn around. "I don't know what you mean."
"Yeah, you do," challenged the redhead softly but firmly. Moving to the edge of the bed, she took the heavy sweater that Tara had already unfolded and folded half a dozen times and tucked it neatly into the bag.
"At the club, you said we were gonna talk," Willow informed her gently. "But here we are, and I've been waiting for the talk, but we're all talk-free a-and now you're running away to Canada, and—"
"I'm not 'running away' to Canada, Will," protested Tara. "I'm on a ... a mission. I'm Mission Girl."
"You are," the redhead agreed, "but if you weren't, you'd still be here not-talking. I'm getting tired of—" With a deep sigh, she tried again. " I know there's stuff. Lots of stuff, and it's important, and I want us to deal with it."
"I am dealing with it," came the response.
Willow adamantly refuted the statement. "No! No, you're not! You keep ... acting like everything's okay, but Tara—"
Tara averted her eyes. "I know."
"Tara, you were dead."
"I know that!" snapped the blonde, immediately looking regretful for her outburst.
Willow, however, was unfazed. "Well then let us help you!" she insisted. "Let me help you!" Tara promptly diverted her gaze in another direction and the furrow of Willow's forehead became deeper still. "That's all I want," she implored in a thick voice. "I just ... I don't know how."
The silence seemed to endure for an eternity as neither woman said anything.
"You can let me go," murmured Tara.
"Go?" Willow repeated, the word ending on a high, fearful note.
"Just let me do this," Tara pleaded. "Let me ... I need to think. To be away for a while."
Eyes glistening, the redhead blinked rapidly and pursed her lips together. "You mean away from me," she translated, her voice level.
Tara offered no reply, she simply resumed packing. Taking the silence as confirmation, Willow swallowed hard, tears brimming in her eyes but not falling. "You're not gonna come back, are you?" she asked.
"'Course I'm gonna come back," Tara replied, her tone light in an attempt to alleviate the heavy mood. "I've got a witch to deliver. If I don't get her here within two days, then she's free."
That brought a tiny smile to Willow's lips, and smoothly broke the rapidly escalating moment. "Okay, so you'll come back, but then after. You're thinking about ... about leaving. Not like, 'new apartment' leaving, but 'new zip code' leaving. 'New country' leaving."
"I don't know," the blonde admitted in all honesty. "Maybe. This isn't ..." She turned to Willow with a sigh. "I've been here for a month now and I'm not ... It's getting worse. And seeing you every day is—"
Tara clamped down on her words and, almost as quickly, broke away from Willow's gaze to continue packing.
Instinctively, Willow's arms wrapped around herself as she watched item after item disappear into the depths of the overnight bag. Her expression remained fixed, but her jaw continued to work constantly, almost as if it had a mind of its own. Still though, the tears that threatened to spill remained in check. Barely.
The disconsolate hush that fell over the room was broken by the faint honk of a horn, quickly followed by a summons from below.
"Tara!" called Buffy. "Kennedy's here!"
Both women glanced toward the open doorway and then at each other. Tugging on the zipper, Tara closed the bag and threw it over her shoulder, looking to Willow once more but saying nothing. She gave the room a cursory sweep with her eyes and then headed out.
"I don't want you to go," whispered Willow.
Tara stopped and turned back.
"I don't mean now," clarified the redhead. "I mean after. But if you ... If going away will help you ... then you should go. I'll understand." She nodded with a shaky smile, which faded fast despite her best efforts to keep it plastered in place.
They simply stared at each other for a long moment. Then Tara turned toward the door and walked away.
Kennedy was clearly very comfortable driving the SUV. She leaned back in her seat as her fingers drummed rhythmically against the steering wheel. She was sporting an expensive pair of oval wrap Ray-Bans. Next to her, Tara poured over a map. Her less fashionable and much cheaper sunglasses had been pushed up into her hair.
"We'll stay on I-86 north for about 25 miles ..." the blonde told her.
"Uh-huh," replied Kennedy, not bothering to disguise the boredom.
"... then I-390 north for about 60 ..." the instructions continued.
"Uh-huh," sighed Kennedy.
"... then I-90 west for—"
"At what point do you stop that?" Kennedy interrupted abruptly.
Tara glanced in her direction. "What?"
Leaning over, Kennedy ripped the map from Tara's hands and tossed it into the back seat. Then, as an afterthought, she grabbed the rest of the maps out of Tara's lap and sent them all sailing after their companion.
The blonde frowned. "You could've just asked me to stop."
Tara arched an elegant eyebrow. "That's a matter of opinion."
"Look," replied the Slayer with as much patience as she could muster, "as you so generously pointed out, we're driving this way—" She made a cutting motion toward the road in front of her, "—for at least an hour. So right now, I'm just gonna worry about this way. We'll worry about that way when it's that way's turn."
Tara stared at Kennedy's profile for a moment. "Fine."
"Fine," came the terse confirmation.
Slipping the sunglasses over her eyes, Tara began to stare out of the window as a tense silence invaded the vehicle. At regular intervals, Kennedy threw her a glance, intent on studying the blonde.
"Now who's being irritating?" asked Tara.
"I'm just trying to figure out your deal," replied Kennedy.
"My ... 'deal'?"
"Yeah," the brunette nodded emphatically. "We haven't really made the time to hang out."
"Imagine that," Tara muttered.
Kennedy ignored the sarcastic jab. "So now we're both here and I've got nothing better to do for the next 16 hours ..."
"You can not stare at me for the next 16 hours," Tara informed her.
"Oh I so could," the Slayer replied in a meaningful tone, followed by a grin that was only slightly teasing.
Arching an eyebrow, Tara turned and regarded Kennedy severely from over the top of her sunglasses.
Kennedy shrugged, sounding extremely amused. "What can I say? I'm a sucker for a pretty face."
Tara was obliged to smirk in return, both at that remark and at Kennedy's brazenness for giving it voice. Her posture relaxed then – not much, but enough to make things blissfully less tense.
"So yeah," pressed the brunette. "Your deal. What's with it?"
With a tiny frown, Tara asked, "How do you even answer a question like that?"
"Damned if I know," admitted Kennedy blithely. "Seriously, though. I heard a lot about you when you were dead and stuff."
That gave Tara pause and she seemed surprised. "You ... You heard about me? What about me?"
Kennedy rolled her eyes, the gesture obvious even behind the dark glasses. "Oh, you know ... 'Tara's was just the kindest, sweetest, bestest, generousested—'"
"I'm pretty sure those last two aren't words," Tara corrected with a chuckle.
Kennedy appeared well aware of that fact. "Yeah, well, I paraphrase."
Taking a moment to absorb this new information, the blonde ventured her next question self-consciously. "Willow talked about me?"
"Oh, no, not Will," the brunette quickly dismissed. A momentary pang of rejection flashed in Tara's face, but Kennedy caught it and frowned at how her statement must have sounded. "I didn't mean it like that," she promptly clarified. "She just ... Whenever your name came up, she'd change the subject. I guess it hurt too much."
Tara nodded in acknowledgment but her face plainly indicated that the observation still carried something of a sting.
"But Dawn, Buffy, Dawn, Xander, Dawn ..." continued Kennedy with a heavy sigh.
The Slayer smirked at Tara's chuckle. "I'm not that great," the blonde assured. "I guess it's just easier to only remember the good stuff when someone ... leaves. The bad stuff suddenly seems less important, you know?"
"I guess that makes sense," Kennedy conceded after some thought.
"So," the witch ventured, clearly looking for a topic change, "what's your 'deal'?" She turned to Kennedy and waited expectantly.
All she received was a shrug, however. "I'm pretty deal-less."
Tara shook her head, negating the response. "I find that hard to believe. You were with ... with Willow for almost a year, right? So there's gotta be a deal."
"If there was, it obviously wasn't enough, was it?" rejoined Kennedy sharply. She paused. "Okay, that came out more bitter than I meant." She glanced over at the frowning Tara and attempted to explain. "You won. So obviously whatever there might've been about me, it wasn't enough. I still lost."
Tara seemed confused. "This hasn't been about winning and losing."
"That's easy to say when you're sleeping with the prize every night," scoffed Kennedy with some resentment.
The furrows on Tara's brow grew more intense. "We're not—" She brought herself up short, continuing with, "And anyway, Willow's not just some- some kewpie doll you win at a carnival."
Kennedy was in total agreement. "You're right, she's the big-ass stuffed animal that costs three bucks to produce and you spend forty to win."
There was a hushed silence.
"That sounds ... really insulting," observed Tara.
"Yeah, it does, doesn't it?" remarked the Slayer with an expression of disapproval at her parallel.
Shaking her head, Tara pressed onward. "Anyway, I didn't 'beat' you, Kennedy. It wasn't a contest."
Kennedy's hands tightened around the steering wheel. "No, see, it was," she stated, allowing a touch of her anger to slip back into her voice. "And that's what gets me, because you won and you didn't even want to play."
Easily meeting the Slayer's challenging look, Tara wore a dark frown of her own. "You have no idea what I want," she told Kennedy. The witch then swiveled in her seat and crossed her arms, concentrated solely on the scenery outside. The gesture spoke volumes - including 'end of conversation'.
Kennedy audibly puffed. "Oh yeah," she muttered under her breath. "This is gonna be real fun. Good job, Kenn."
"B! Hey, B!" called Faith as she jogged across the street to catch up with the blonde.
Buffy turned at the sound of her name and nodded in greeting.
Fortunately, they were in a suburban neighborhood with relatively sparse traffic, so Faith's reckless sprint from one side of the road to the other held no threat to either pedestrian or prospective driver.
Buffy watched her approach. "Hey Faith. What's up?"
"Just on my way over to see you," Faith replied.
"Oh, cool. Well ... here I am!" grinned Buffy. "Heading to Slayer Central, actually. I've got a class in ..." she checked her wristwatch, "... about twenty minutes. Walk with me?"
The dark-haired Slayer fell into step.
"So, why the sudden urge to see lil' ol' me?" queried the blonde curiously. "Besides the mere presence of lil' ol' me, that is." She threw Faith a sideways glance.
"I wanted to ask you something," Faith confided. "I got this little problem."
"Buffy Summers, Problem Solver, reporting for duty," was the prompt response.
Faith lit a cigarette and blew a thoughtful smoke ring. "Well, it's not me so much. It's Haze."
"That's okay, I freelance," Buffy reassured. "This about the thing from earlier?"
"Yeah. She just found out her parents are gettin' divorced," Faith informed without preamble.
Buffy winced. "Oh, wow. Ouch."
"Yeah, apparently so," agreed Faith. "She's really bummed about it."
The blonde's expression revealed her understanding. "It's not easy. She's ... sixteen?" Faith delivered a curt nod. "Déjà vu," she mused.
Relieved, Faith turned to her walking companion. "See, that's why I figured you could help. She's thinking it's her fault."
Rolling her eyes, Buffy clearly commiserated. "Very much not the surprise."
"But that's crap, right?" insisted Faith.
"Pretty much," replied Buffy. "It's never just one thing. To get to that point, it's a lot of stuff over time."
Pleased that she'd gotten this much confirmation, Faith asked expectantly, "Okay, so how do I get her to figure that out too?"
"Feel free to quote me," offered the blonde Slayer. "Plagiarize away."
This clearly wasn't the answer Faith was looking for. "Not like that," she dismissed with a shake of her head. "They're just words, they don't mean crap."
"Thanks so much," stated Buffy sardonically.
"No, I mean ... I'm not so good with words, y'know?"
"You're talking to me okay," pointed out Buffy. "Sorta," she added, after replaying their last few exchanges in her head.
Flicking the ashes off the end of her cigarette, Faith frowned. "Haze is different. She's just a kid. I can be straight with you."
"You can't be straight with Hazel?"
Somewhat angrily, Faith shook her head. "Tried that, ended up with my foot in my mouth."
"Huh." Buffy looked pensive. "I wonder where they came up with that. Putting your foot in your mouth. Besides the incredible flexibility necessary, I can't imagine it'd taste very good." She glanced toward Faith to seek her opinion, and was met with an expression that very clearly said 'what the hell are you talking about?' The Slayer cleared her throat. "Sorry. Mind. Wonder. Wander. Anyway, yes?"
Faith pressed on. "So what can I do? What did you do?"
Giving the question due consideration, Buffy pondered deeply before replying. "Mostly cried a lot. Killed a few things. On reflection, neither was very satisfying."
Not yet willing to give up, Faith tried a different line of thought. "Okay, so what'd you do for Kid Sis?"
"Told her to stay the hell out of my room," the blonde replied automatically. "But that was pretty much normal. Uhm ..." Her face lit up in a flash of inspiration. "Oh! One night we had a 'Friends' marathon."
"I hate 'Friends'," grumbled Faith.
"You probably shouldn't do that, then," Buffy advised.
They came to a halt at the front steps of Slayer Central. Checking her watch, Buffy turned to Faith with an apologetic look. "I gotta run. I wish there was some sort of magic phrase I could tell you that makes everything better, but the truth is, there isn't anything."
"Feelin' much better now," Faith told her flatly. "Thanks, B."
Buffy paused before entering the building. "The only thing that helped me was time. That, and an increasing feeling of abandonment by and resentment for my father." Her mood appeared to grow more contemplative. "I think hatred and anger is the best medicine for being sad."
"Nice," remarked Faith with a touch of sarcasm as she flicked her cigarette into the nearby bushes. "An' what's your lesson about today?" she inquired, seeming to already know the answer.
The blonde puffed out her chest a little. "Emotional clarity in the face of hardship. Which I must now get to. I'll catch you later!"
Faith watched Buffy take the steps two at a time and disappear into the building. "I don't even really know what irony is," she muttered to herself, "but I'm pretty sure that was it."
Jamming her hands into her pockets, she shook her head with frustration and then continued on her way.
Xander and Willow weaved through the heavy pedestrian traffic of downtown Trillium, the redhead listening intently to Xander as he ranted quite vehemently.
"Underbid." He paused and then reiterated, "Underbid. I think that's my new least favourite word in the entire English language. And possibly some foreign languages too. You know 'eunoia' and 'farfignugen'? 'Underbid' sucks more'n both of those. Stupid companies."
"Yeah," agreed Willow with as much sympathetic indignity as she could reasonably pretend to possess. "How dare they go with someone who was gonna charge 'em less?"
"What do they think this is, a capitalist society?" Xander continued without missing a beat.
"What were you gonna build for 'em, anyway?" asked Willow.
The carpenter shrugged. "Oh, it was some basic renovations. Any monkey can do it, really," he admitted.
"And apparently cheaper," Willow added cheerfully.
His anger spent, Xander sighed and got to work replacing it with bitterness. "It wasn't even so much that I wanted the job," he complained, "as I wanted the money that came with the job."
"How much more do you have to save?" queried the redhead.
"A bit," Xander told her. "Not a big bit, but a bit." He shrugged. "There's only so much going on in Trillium though, you know? My wells are dryin' up."
"The Internet's the way to go," Willow informed him firmly. "I've been tellin' you that for months."
"I know, I know," he acknowledged. "But then there's all the scariness of legal documents and tax laws and my god, I still collect comic books. I'm not ready to be an adult, let alone a business owner."
Shaking her head, Willow empathically denied his statement. "Pshaw! Phooey!" she spat.
"And my arguments completely crumble under the weight of your decisive retorts."
The redhead prodded his arm. "It's your fear talking."
"It's not talking so much as yelling," Xander corrected. "Screaming aloud. Hollering, if you will."
Disapproval poured from the redhead in waves. "You're just a ... a big 'fraidy cat!"
"Oh, and you're one to talk," accused Xander.
Willow let out an indignant sniff. "We're not talking about me."
"Wouldja like to?" queried Xander, treating the redhead to a penetrating sideways glance.
"No, not especially," she faltered.
"Okay then." Xander's tone was definite. "Ix-nay on the aidycat-fray."
"What if she never comes back?" Willow suddenly blurted out.
Xander blinked in surprise at this abrupt change of topic. "I thought you didn't wanna talk about it?"
"I don't," the redhead informed him firmly.
"But what if she doesn't?" repeated Willow, wringing her hands together as she shot Xander a worried glance.
Smiling, Xander threw an arm around the witch's shoulders and gave them a comforting shake. "Will, Tara's gonna come back. She has to. All her stuff's here," he grinned down at her.
Weakly, Willow returned the grin before nodding affirmatively. "A-And besides," she stated with the tiniest amount of conviction, "she'll come back because..." She wracked her brain for some justification and, in a stronger voice, continued, "Because yeah, okay, things are kinda hard right now, but there's her, and there's me, and there's her and me, and if you put her and me together, you get an 'us', and there's the goodness of us. Which, yes, was interrupted there, briefly, by some badness of us, but ... uhm ..." Her voice trailed away as her mind stopped supplying adequate ammunition.
Luckily, Xander was there to pick up the slack. "You're a very attractive woman," he prompted.
"I'm a very attractive woman!" confirmed the redhead, puffing herself up.
"With oodles of love in her heart," Xander reminded her.
"Overflowing with love!" she readily agreed.
"And anyone would be lucky to have you," added Xander crisply.
"So lucky to have me!" Willow quickly concurred. "Super lucky! Powerball lucky!"
Xander was in total accord. "Well there you go, see?"
The witch's posture deflated and her face fell. "But what if she doesn't come back?"
With a huge sigh, Xander hugged Willow tightly as they walked along. "How could she resist this craziness?" he wondered aloud.
With a small chuckle, the redhead curled an arm around Xander's waist and squeezed tight.
"You know what you need?" asked Xander, not bothering to wait for a response. "Some feeling better."
Slowly, Willow shook her head. "Not really likely," she pouted.
The two continued down the street, neither paying much attention to anything besides their conversation, which was carried back on the cool breeze.
"I bet I can do it," challenged Xander.
Willow arched an eyebrow. "Yeah? How?"
The strains of dialogue were easily audible, even from as far away as the rooftop across the street from where the pair walked. A figure stood watching their every move, but making no attempts to interact with them directly. Content for the moment to simply watch and listen.
"It'll be a surprise," the carpenter declared.
As she crept toward the edge of the roof, Judith's eyes continued to focus upon the pair below.
"Ooo, I like surprises," enthused Willow.
At the Scoobies' house, a somewhat tentative Faith stuck her head around the front door.
"Xander?" came Willow's query from the living room.
Closing the door behind her, Faith made her way toward the owner of the voice. "S'me," she announced unceremoniously.
Willow looked up expectantly from her position on the floor where she had been peering beneath the couch. "Oh. Hey. This is a surprise."
The dark-haired Slayer gestured toward the redhead, who was on her hands and knees. "I interrupting somethin'?" she inquired curiously.
"What?" asked Willow with a frown and then appeared to suddenly realized the picture she was presenting. "Oh! No. I was just looking for my laptop."
Faith's eyebrows twitched slightly but her response was smooth. "Gone missing?"
Sitting back on her ankles, a perplexed crease invaded Willow's forehead. "Yeah. It's weird," she admitted slowly. "I know I had it last night. Remember?"
"Ahh, yeah," agreed Faith with a vague nod.
"But now I can't find it," continued the witch. "I've looked everywhere ..." Her eyes widened. "I bet someone took it!"
She seriously pondered the possibility. Shuffling, Faith seemed about to say something but the instant she opened her mouth, Willow thrust an accusing finger in her direction.
"I bet it was Dawn! Oo, she just can't keep her hands off my precious."
"Dawn?" questioned Faith dubiously, before latching onto the suggestion. "Oh, yeah, I totally bet it was her. She has that whole klepto thing goin', right?"
Willow wrinkled her nose thoughtfully. "Though I guess Tara might've taken it."
"I'm sure it was someone like that," Faith was quick to assure. "Probably turn up tomorrow or somethin', right where you left it."
The redhead's expression became grouchy. "It better, or someone's gonna find themselves with a nasty curse. I'll give them a ... a big blemish that's really hard to cover up." She frowned for a moment and then shook her head as though dispelling her foul temper. "Anyway, what's up?" she asked, rising to her feet.
"I can't just come visit?" countered Faith with a charming smile.
"Well, I suppose you can," a smirking Willow conceded, "but why start now?"
Faith shrugged, grudgingly nodding as if to say 'okay, point'.
Gesturing for Faith to follow, the witch made her way into the kitchen and went directly to the fridge, taking out two Cokes.
"I wanted to ask you something," began the dark-haired Slayer, accepting the can Willow offered and pulling out a pack of Marlboros. At the redhead's disapproving purse of the lips, Faith rolled her eyes and returned the pack to her pocket.
"No, I won't shop for your motorcycle parts," Willow grinned.
"Nothin' like that," dismissed Faith as she hopped up on the kitchen's island counter. "Hazel's really bummed out about some family stuff, an' I don't know how to make her feel better."
"Is everything okay?"
"Sorta. She's upset an' all, though, an' I'm comin' up empty for what I can do. I figure, most of the crap I went through ain't too typical, so none'a my ideas are gonna count for much. But you ..." She waved a hand vaguely in Willow's direction. "You were like Pollyanna at her age, so you've gotta have some ideas that're better adjusted than mine."
Willow arched an eyebrow. "I can't tell if you meant to slip that insult in there or not."
"One'a life's great mysteries," replied the dark-haired Slayer. "C'mon Red, spill. Sixteen – what'd you to do stop feelin' less crappy?"
"Whew, okay. Let's see ..." Willow lapsed into a thoughtful silence. "Hm. I didn't much— Oh! O-Okay. So when I was back in high school and in a blechy mood ... Xander ignoring me again, Cordelia picking on me, Xander not noticing I was alive, Harmony picking on me, Xander only calling me for help on homew—"
Very pointedly, Faith cleared her throat.
"Right, anyway." Willow promptly moved along. "I guess I had more of my fair share of less-than sunny moods in the privacy of my own room. So what I used to do, when I was really upset?"
Inching her way to Faith, she leaned forward as though she were about to reveal a deeply personal secret. Eagerly, Faith bent down to catch the confidence.
"I used to see how far I could calculate pi," the redhead announced with a wise nod. She straightened up and sipped at her Coke, leaving an extremely befuddled Faith in her wake.
The dark-haired Slayer blinked in confusion. "Pie. Like ...?" she ventured, obviously reluctant to complete the question and apparently sensing she was on shaky ground. Fortunately for Faith's ego, Willow was more than happy to step in.
"Not like coconut cream," smiled the witch. "This is the pi you use to figure stuff with circles. You know: circumference, diameter, radius ... In math?"
"Oh," replied Faith with a frown.
Willow beamed, ostensibly delighted to be sharing the information. "I'd keep a mental note of how far I'd gotten, and whenever I got upset and just didn't want to deal with whatever, I'd start all over again and see if I could get any higher."
"An' that helped?" queried a doubtful Faith.
"Oh, yeah!" enthused the redhead. "That's the great thing about numbers. When you're dealing with people, you never know what you'll get – it could change from second to second. But a number, that's something you can count on." She paused for a moment to chuckle at her own bad joke and then continued. "Three is always three, it's not sometimes a- a seven or a fifty-one, and it doesn't make you pass notes to Susie Glasmeyer in English Lit."
"Uh-huh," agreed Faith, now more flummoxed than before.
Willow shrugged. "Well it's what I used to do."
"Yeah. Thanks," sighed the dark-haired Slayer. "I don't think that'll really work for Haze, though." She hopped off the counter and swiftly downed the remains of her Coke.
"No, probably not," conceded Willow with a hint of regret. "Sorry."
"Not your fault," Faith told her with forced cheerfulness. "I'll just have to keep lookin'." She turned toward the front door. "Thanks for the drink," she threw over her shoulder as she left.
"No problem," called Willow. "Good luck!"
Left alone in the kitchen, the redhead pondered deeply for a moment and then her bottom lip formed itself into a pout.
"Damn," she muttered. "Now I really want a coconut cream pie."
Tara stood by the side of the road, rubbing her arms with her gloved hands. "You know if you'd let me—"
The response was curt, tense and decidedly snippy. "No."
Stamping her feet to keep warm, Tara stared up at the sky – gray, overcast and threatening to snow. The banks on either side of the deserted highway were already thickly coated with freshly fallen white powder and the boughs of the trees were straining beneath the weight. Tara listened for the welcome noise of an approaching vehicle, but there was no traffic in either direction.
Kennedy knelt by the right rear tire of the jacked-up SUV, an assortment of tools littering the area around her. Frowning, the brunette was attempting to loosen one of the lug nuts.
"I just think that—" suggested Tara, watching Kennedy struggle.
The reply was no less brusque this time. "No."
An aggravated Tara sighed audibly, but Kennedy didn't seem to care about the blonde's display of annoyance. Although applying pressure to the stubborn nut, it was clear that the brunette wasn't throwing all her strength into the effort. After another moment of controlled force, she cursed loudly and the hurled the lug wrench to the ground in a fit of pique. Getting to her feet, she delivered a savage kick to the flat tire.
"That should help," remarked Tara wryly.
"Makes me feel better, okay?" snapped Kennedy. "Instead of color commentary, why don't you fix the damned thing?"
Tara's eyes widened in disbelief. "I've been trying to help, you keep saying—"
"No!" Kennedy's tone was almost a growl.
The witch crossed her arms. "Yes, exactly."
"No, I mean ..." Kennedy stumbled over the words. "No! It's ... I can do it myself!"
She glowered at Tara and then knelt down again, snatching up the lug wrench. Hunching over with a look of fierce determination, she prepared for another try.
"Kennedy, wait," urged Tara, ignoring the other woman's quick glare in her direction. "Just ... calm down first, okay? In this cold, if you use all your Slayer strength, you'll—"
"Strip the nut or break it off. Yeah, I know," Kennedy muttered darkly, raising her voice just loud enough for Tara to hear. "'Course I know that. I'm the one that said it."
A small frown creased Tara's forehead. "You know if you'd just let me—"
Kennedy's face was like thunder as she turned to scowl at the blonde.
"Fine," replied Tara, throwing her hands into the air. "You just go right ahead and do it your way."
With a sharp nod, Kennedy returned to the job at hand. Shaking her head, Tara watched for a moment. "God help us if we have to actually ask for directions," she whispered to herself.
"I heard that," accused the brunette.
Unrepentant, Tara wandered away, leaving Kennedy to continue her battle to find just the right amount of necessary pressure. Snow crunching beneath her boots, she drifted along the side of the highway when something caught her eye in the middle of the road. She squinted, but it was a good ways off and difficult to distinguish.
"What is that?" she murmured curiously.
Behind her, Kennedy was now trying small bursts of power to nudge the nut loose, but the strain of limiting her strength in such a fashion was beginning to take its toll and she was quickly losing her temper.
"Dammit!" she swore, throwing the lug wrench to the ground once more. The clatter of metal on asphalt attracted Tara's attention and she turned back.
"Hey, can you tell what happened to the tire?" she shouted.
"Yeah. It lost all its air," responded a sarcastic Kennedy. "Turned into a big rubber pancake."
Rolling her eyes, Tara walked back toward the SUV. "I mean, can you tell why it's flat?"
Kennedy got to her feet slowly and placed her hands on her hips. "Because it doesn't have any air," she spelled out in exacting tones.
Tara's mouth grew tight, but she held her tongue and squatted down to inspect the tire. Intent on her examination, the blonde failed to see Kennedy's posture suddenly stiffen. The brunette's demeanor changed in an instant – she almost appeared to be another person entirely, somehow foggy and detached. Unseen by Tara, she reached down and retrieved the discarded lug wrench.
"Look at these punctures in the tire," Tara observed quietly. "They way they're so evenly spaced apart?"
Standing up, she took a step backward, still concentrating on the flat tire. Next to her, Kennedy straightened as well, very slowly and deliberately.
"I-I don't think this is natural," added Tara, her tone somewhat puzzled. "I think someone meant for us to pull over here."
She continued to study the tire, head tilting from one side to the other as considered the evidence and its implications. When no answer was readily available, she turned to Kennedy. "What do you—?" she began and then stopped short.
Taken totally off-guard, the blonde's eyes grew wide with alarm to see Kennedy looming over her, lug wrench held aloft and threatening to strike.
Careful to make no sudden movements, Tara delicately stepped backward and away from Kennedy. Though momentarily stunned by the unexpected threat, she quickly regained composure and raised her hand as if to ward off the impending blow.
"Proté—" she began to murmur.
But before Tara could complete the incantation, Kennedy's arm snapped forward and she hurled the wrench with a powerful show of force. It whizzed past Tara's head, missing by mere inches and making her hair whip in the backdraft. Spinning end-over-end, it imbedded itself into the chest of a squat, long-armed creature. Taken by surprise, the gray-furred demon uttered a single grunt as the projectile made impact. It seemed to hover for a moment, caught in the mid-leap of an attack on the blonde directly within its path. The vicious claws scrabbled at the air as it fell heavily to the ground and landed with a soft thud into the snow bank. The body twitched only once and then lay still.
Whirling, Tara took note of the motionless demon and blinked with shock. Then, she wrinkled her nose. "I-I don't think we're gonna want to use that again. Ever," she remarked with open disgust.
Kennedy approached the fallen creature and prodded it in the ribs with the toe of her boot. "Dammit," she muttered darkly "That was my only one of those. Stupid demon."
"Huh. That was pretty clever," pondered Tara. "I'm guessing it set out the tire trap, kinda ... catching prey."
"Canada's certainly got some new breeds of nasty," Kennedy admitted grudgingly, poking it once more for good measure.
Tara surveyed the desolate stretch of highway. "I wonder how many people it's killed out here."
"Well it won't be killing any more," the Slayer replied matter-of-factly, "so score one for the good guys – defender of traveling families and innocent tires everywhere. Unfortunately ..." Her gaze returned to the flat and she stared at it balefully.
Following the brunette's eyes, Tara smirked. "Curatio ventulus," she chanted.
Instantly, a light breeze blew across the area. Kennedy regarded Tara with some astonishment, but Tara failed to notice, her focus intent upon the tire. The Slayer's attention also returned to the flat tire, which was no longer quite as flat. It continued inflated itself until it became normal-sized.
"Clausus," murmured Tara.
The punctured areas glowed brightly for several seconds before gradually fading to reveal a tire that was whole and undamaged once more. Slowly, the summoned breeze began to dissipate. With a small frown, Kennedy bent down to check, running her hand across the now-sealed rubber. "Handy," she appraised.
Tara shrugged good-naturedly. "I've got a hundred and one uses."
Looking up, Kennedy arched an amused eyebrow, but Tara had gone back to inspecting the fast-freezing demon.
"I think we should probably move him," she told Kennedy. "Back into the woods? So he's not just lying here on the side of the road and everything."
"Don't suppose you have a spell for that too, huh?" chuckled the brunette.
Tara studied the creature with a critical eye, ostensibly trying to find the most suitable angle. "Why use magick when you can do something yourself?" she asked, finally settling on simply grabbing one of its too-long arms. Her expression clearly indicated she was far from thrilled at the prospect, but had determined such had to be done.
With a grin, the Slayer joined her. "So you don't have to actually touch stuff like this?" she suggested, grabbing the other arm and helping Tara to drag the monster toward the trees.
"I'm really not in an objective frame of mind at the moment," Tara grimaced. "Ask me again in about ten minutes."
Kennedy snickered as the two women deposited the body beneath a thick fir tree, well out of sight from the highway. Together, they walked back to the SUV.
"So the tire mojo," the Slayer began. "You couldn't have done that half an hour ago?"
"Maybe next time I say I can help, you'll actually listen to me," smirked Tara.
A moment of silence followed which was broken Kennedy.
In the living room, Buffy and Willow were sharing the couch, lying on opposite ends with Buffy closest to the entrance. They had each claimed an armrest and were using it to support the upper back while torsos and legs took up most of the remaining cushion surface area.
"It's so quiet," noted Buffy.
"Which is good," Willow stated.
The blonde was in complete agreement. "Absolutely. Quality Scooby time." She frowned. "As soon as Xander gets here. Where was he going?"
"He wouldn't say," replied Willow with a tiny pout. "He just told me knew how to make the night a good one. He seems to be under the impression that we are in need of cheering."
"Silly Xander," huffed Buffy.
"Totally," came the confirmation. "I mean, me? Full of cheer."
"Mirth, even," added the blonde.
Willow nodded emphatically. "And why shouldn't I be? Tara and Kennedy going off alone into the wilderness because they received some psychic summons from a person we've never heard of before who has an unexplained need to see Tara? That would have no impact on my mood whatsoever."
"None at all," affirmed Buffy forcefully. "And as for myself, I'm not even remotely overprotective to the point of scary about my little sister, recently plagued by a series of disturbingly Mom-like headaches which have now disappeared as suddenly as they arrived. Why would that bother me?"
"Not at all."
"Silly Xander," echoed Buffy, "who is, himself, devoid of mope."
"He and mope aren't even on speaking terms," agreed the witch.
"Despite not getting as much work as he wants ..."
"... and being lonely ..."
"... and having to deal with us," the blonde finished before quickly clarifying. "Not that we have anything in need of dealing."
"Because we don't." Willow's nod was firm. "And neither does he."
Buffy shook her head at the absent carpenter. "He's very silly."
As if on cue, the front door opened. Leaning her head all the way back over the armrest, Buffy regarded the entrance to the living room from an upside down perspective.
"I have returned," Xander announced grandly, sight unseen.
"Cool," replied Buffy. "We were just talking about how we're all doing so well."
From the foyer came the sounds of a coat being removed and shoes being discarded. "You two sure about that?" called Xander.
"Absolutely," assured Willow. "My good friend Buffy and I have thoroughly analyzed the situation and determined that we are both in excellent spirits." She frowned at the noises emanating from the direction of the foyer, indicating the moving around of things that appeared to be fairly bulky.
"Sure you're sure?" was Xander's amused query.
Both Willow and Buffy shared a look before sighing heavily in unison. "No," came the stereophonic response.
"Good," commented the still unseen Xander.
A frown creased Buffy's forehead. "Good?" She looked to Willow. "Did he just say 'good'?"
"I think he did," conceded the redhead. "We can punish him for that, right?"
"Yeah," affirmed the blonde, screwing up her nose. "But he may like it."
Willow also adopted a distasteful expression. "Oh, yeah."
Her gaze moved to the living room entrance where Xander had suddenly appeared. Bearing a big box in both arms and sporting a huge grin, he strolled casually to the coffee table and deposited his burden. He stood back and waited expectantly. Willow and Buffy looked at each other, then turned their attentions to the box before finally treating Xander to a dubious narrowing of the eyes.
"A box?" queried the redhead doubtfully.
Xander gave her an emphatic nod. "Box make better."
"What's in it?" asked a suspicious Buffy.
"Well that's the better part," replied the carpenter with a broad grin.
Both women still appeared leery, but Xander simply waited, looking very proud of himself. He nodded encouragingly as they uncurled themselves from the couch and warily broached the vicinity of the box. Willow and Buffy gasped in unison at the contents.
"Xander!" proclaimed a delighted Willow.
"I do feel better!" declared Buffy, hastening to add, "Not that I was bad."
Xander crossed his arms and beamed with satisfaction. "Do I know my girls or do I know my girls?"
Exchanging a glance of glee, both women reached into the box. Buffy's hands emerged holding two tubs of ice cream: one Half Baked and the other Karamel Sutra. With a tiny shriek of happiness, Willow hugged a super-sized bag of Doritos to her chest while Xander pulled out a box of Twinkies so large that it could only have been bought at one of those warehouse food places. He waved the carton aloft.
"I hereby declare this Scooby Pig Out Night. We will feast like the Romans, only less with the vomiting. I have pizza on the way, and two 24-packs of soda in the car." He pointed to the box. "DVDs are inside."
Willow peered hopefully. "Did you get a pie?"
Xander smiled good-naturedly as he fished in his pocket for the car keys. "I'll be right back."
Willow's grin was immense as Xander jogged out of the front door. She turned to Buffy, whose head was buried in the box, inspecting the multitude of assorted goodies.
"Think this'll help?" The blonde's voice was muffled.
Willow ripped open the bag of Doritos and snagged herself a large chip, eying it with relish.
"No," she replied matter-of-factly. "But at least we won't be miserable and hungry."
In one of the larger dormitory rooms, Giles was stuffing a pillow into a crisply clean case of white cotton. The area had obviously been vacant for some time, being totally devoid of any decoration save for the bed and a small three-drawer dresser. Faith paused in the doorway and watched Giles struggle as he shook the case violently in his attempt to distribute the pillow as uniformly as possible. It wasn't long before he noticed her, and smiled in greeting. "Oh, Faith, good evening."
"Hey," she replied, indicating the linen laid on the bare mattress with her chin. "What's all this?"
The Watcher frowned and gave the pillow another fierce shake. "Oh, I'm making up a room for our guest."
"Figured she'd make like Samantha an' just do it up herself," commented Faith.
"Samantha?" queried a confused Giles.
Faith cocked her head. "You know ... Samantha, Darrin, Tabitha ... 'Bewitched'. Had the whole nose wiggle thing goin'."
"Yes? How charming," came the perplexed response.
"Come in at 3, 4 in the mornin' from patrol, you take what the TV gives you," she shrugged.
Presumably now satisfied with the pillow, Giles held up a sheet. "Would you mind...?"
"Yeah, sure," Faith readily agreed. She moved to one side of the bed and grabbed the half of the sheet the Watcher tossed to her.
"Hospital corners now," he instructed.
Faith rolled her eyes, but didn't argue, choosing instead to focus on other matters. "Hey Oxford, can I ask you something?"
"I'm fairly certain you just did," Giles told her with a small grin of amusement.
Faith smirked. "Man, I hate that crap."
"I do too, actually," admitted the Watcher. "It's just such a rare occasion I get to use it on someone else." He leaned across the bed to check her handiwork, then straightened again and regarded the Slayer. "Yes, Faith, you may ask me whatever you like. Answering is, of course, another matter entirely."
"It's nothin' bad," the dark-haired Slayer assured. "I'm just tryin' to help someone, an' I'm not sure how to do it."
He shot her a quick glance. "Oh? Help them how?"
"One'a my girls," Faith explained. "She's kinda bummed about family stuff back home. I wanna make her feel better, but nothin' I can think of is really gonna do the trick."
Giles smoothed the sheet and treated the Slayer to a genuine smile of commendation. "Faith, I think that's marvelous. You wanting to help out one of your charges." He picked up a blanket and shook it out. Faith nabbed the edge that sailed toward her. "That's very selfless of you."
Looking somewhat embarrassed, Faith tried to blow it off. "Not really. If she walks around like someone killed her puppy then it's just gonna rub off on all the other troops. Bad for morale." Her tone became defensive. "I ain't soft or nothin'."
Giles shook his head vehemently. "No, of course not. Heaven forbid."
"... okay," stated Faith with conviction. "Long as that's clear."
"Quite," agreed the Watcher seriously.
"So ... what should I do?"
Giles settled his glasses more firmly upon the bridge of his nose. "Unfortunately, despite all appearances, I'm actually NOT the leading authority on young teenage girls." He admitted wryly.
"You're kiddin' me." Faith's tone was incredulous. "You're like ... the Big Daddy. B, an' Red ... Xan ..."
"I am the ..." Giles frowned at word choice, but pushed on valiantly. ".... 'big daddy' mostly by virtue of the fact that I have been the only consistent older male presence in their lives for some time. This comes with no sudden bursts of insight or knowledge, however."
The Slayer's face registered open disappointment. "Oh."
Immediately, Giles was anxious to make amends. "But- But I have made several observations over the years, and I may have one suggestion."
Her expression brightened considerably. "I'm all ears."
"I believe that ingesting copious amounts of confection has some sort of recuperative powers. I find that something frozen, containing several thoroughly unappetizing dollops of raw dough is a popular selection."
Her brow deeply furrowed, Faith shook her head in confusion. "What?"
"Try chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream," he restated.
The mood of hopeful anticipation deflated like a pinpricked balloon. "That's your big advice?" questioned Faith dubiously. "Ice cream?"
"I've heard it's quite tasty," the Watcher told her with an encouraging nod.
Lounging on the couch, legs stretched out in front of her, Buffy delved into the pint of chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream with a large serving spoon. "So good," she murmured contentedly.
The formerly neat living room was now well on its way to becoming a disaster area. A mostly-empty pizza box had been tossed carelessly into the middle of the coffee table, surrounded by balled-up taco wrappers, several open bags of assorted chips, shredded cellophane, and bowls of a variety of different candies. Nonetheless, the three indulgees showed little sign of slowing down their rate of consumption. Indeed, their expressions indicated that they might just now actually be getting started.
Willow was perched cross-legged upon one of the couch's cushions. She glanced at Xander sitting on the floor to the side of her. "Okay, I bet you ..." She cast searching eyes upon the piles of food until she spied something. "I bet you can't drink a whole can of Coke in five seconds."
Xander pooh-poohed the very idea. "Oh please. Think of something challenging. That's beneath me."
Willow's tone was triumph-laden. "So you refuse then?"
"And give you the satisfaction of putting an incriminating red tick mark by my name?" came the accusation. "You wish." He wiggled his fingers and was promptly rewarded by a smug Willow thrusting a Coke into his hand.
"Come on then, tough guy," she challenged.
Pointing the pull tag toward her, Xander popped open the can. He shot her a fierce and competitive look, but the gleeful grin betrayed the underlying essence of fun. He then turned to Buffy.
"Ready, O Mistress of the Time?"
Buffy waved her wrist in the air, displaying the watch she was wearing. "Okay, ready and ..." She glanced at Xander who had the can poised at his mouth, ready and waiting. "Go!"
Swallowing noisily, Xander began to guzzle as Buffy counted the seconds. "One ... Two ... Three ... Four ... Fi—"
But before she could complete the countdown, Xander announced that he was done – to the accompaniment of a very loud, very demonstrative, and intrinsically manly belch. Both women began to laugh, their faces contorted with entertained disgust. With pride, the carpenter forcefully slammed the empty can down on the coffee table.
Buffy shuddered through her giggling. "God, don't ever ask him to do that again."
"Ew, I promise," returned Willow, wrinkling her nose and grinning broadly.
"C'mon now, I met my challenge, so let's make with the black ticky," insisted Xander.
From the closest end table, Willow grabbed the small whiteboard that usually hung on the refrigerator door. It had been divided into three rows, one for each of them. There were several black check marks under each person's name, as well as quite a few red ones. Pulling the top from a felt-tip pen, the redhead placed a black tick in Xander's section. He peered at it curiously, trying to see the scores.
Clearing her throat in an official manner, Willow summarized the results thus far. "Ms. Summers has five completions, four pass/fail ..." Buffy nodded and appeared to be moderately pleased as she shoveled another spoonful of ice cream into her mouth. "Mr. Harris, you have seven completions and only two pass/fail ..."
Xander made a fist and held it high over his head. "Victory!"
"... aaaaand I've got one to eight," the redhead hurriedly finished. Her expression grew cranky as both Buffy and Xander started to boo and hiss.
"Well sorry, some of us just aren't so ... piggy," she admonished with an air of superiority.
Xander frowned at Buffy. "Did she just insult us?"
"I know my ego is all bruised," came the confirmation.
The carpenter rubbed his hands together evilly. "You know what this calls for."
On edge, Willow shrank into the back of the couch, inching away from Buffy who was sliding across the cushions, and cowering beneath the upright Xander, now looming above her.
"It's harsh and brutal, but she's left us no other choice," Buffy murmured regretfully.
Willow's eyes opened wide as the enemy closed in. "Don't you dare! Don't you dare!"
But her protest went unheeded. With a unanimous whoop of "Willow-pile!!," Xander and Buffy attacked, launching themselves at the groveling Willow, in order to bestow merciless tickling and a shower of unrestrained noogies.
"Ahh! Stop it!" squealed Willow. "I know spells! Lots of spells! I'll get Hecate down and you'll both be so whammied!"
The aggressors paused, but lurked in readiness to resume their assault at a moment's notice as Willow panted and tried to catch her breath.
"Promise to stop being so pouty?" demanded Xander, fingers twitching.
"I'm not pouty," objected the witch. "I just didn't want to eat fifteen Twinkies without stopping. I like my stomach contents ... you know, in my stomach."
"Cuz if I can let all my worries go ..." cautioned Buffy.
"Let them go?" scoffed Willow. "You've been checking your cell phone for missed calls every five minutes. I've clocked you."
The blonde's eyes narrowed but Willow raised her hands in defense. "I'm just saying!" she urged. "It's not only me."
"Bleah," came the reply as Buffy threw herself back onto the couch with a blatant pout.
An expression of alarm invaded Xander's face as he sensed he was losing them. "Ohhh no you don't. You—" He jabbed a finger in Buffy's direction, "—are going to let your little sister grow up and stop freaking whenever she gets a canker sore."
Buffy blinked in amazement at the accusation. "I'm not—"
There was no time for further denial. "And you—" He turned to Willow, "—will stop letting your love life, or lack thereof, turn you into a gloomy guts."
"But I—" began the redhead.
Xander gave a dismissive wave, effectively cutting her off. "So I have said, so it shall be. Now." He thrust a package at each woman. "Eat a Ding Dong."
"You're very bossy," Willow commented peevishly.
"It's all the sugar," he mused. "I think it's rotting my brain from the inside."
With the critical eye of a school marm, he watched until both girls started to unwrap their snack cakes. Then, smiling with vast satisfaction, he grabbed one for himself, tearing it open and stuffing the whole thing into his mouth before either of the other two had taken more than one bite.
"I wonder if they're there yet," pondered Willow, mostly to herself. She flinched as pair of Ding Dong wrappers were thrown at her.
"Okay! Geez," she griped, sinking her teeth savagely into the icing. "Any Funyuns left?" she asked through a mouthful of chocolate crumbs.
"Take a right," instructed Kennedy, glancing at Tara who was behind the wheel.
The snow was falling now, and the road they traveled as no longer a highway but some type of wide trail. Darkness was beginning to fall and visibility was not at its best.
Tara leaned forward in an attempt to see more clearly. "Where? I don't see any roads. Just trees. Lots of trees. And some snow. Which would be pretty if we weren't, you know ... lost."
"We're not lost," snapped Kennedy.
"So we know where to go, then," responded Tara with a hint of sarcasm.
The brunette's eyes narrowed. "We'd be going right, if you'd listen to me."
A flush of anger crept into Tara's cheeks, but she forced herself to take a deep and calming breath. "I'll take the first right that won't require us to cut down the forest first, okay?"
The other woman puffed impatiently. "Can't you just ..." She wiggled her fingers in mock enchantment. "... and find the way there?"
"I could maybe help us find the way out if we get too turned around," the blonde replied thoughtfully. "But without knowing exactly where we're going or who we're looking for, I-I won't be able to find the Keeper of the Wing." Her forehead creased in a tiny frown. "She's here somewhere, though. There's ... Magick is everywhere in here. I-It's a little overwhelming."
Huffing, Kennedy sank down into her seat and glared at the hand-written directions lying in her lap.
Tara glanced quickly at the Slayer. "I'm sure we'll find it soon," she commiserated kindly. "You're just tired."
"You think?" retorted the brunette. "I knew there was a reason I hated taking family trips," she muttered darkly.
Rubbing at her eyes, Tara was obviously equally as fatigued. "Well why did you come then?"
"Someone had to," shrugged Kennedy off-handedly.
"Buffy would have," the blonde told her with conviction.
"Oh yeah, Buffy the perfect," Kennedy sneered. "I just wanted to, okay? I thought maybe it'd help me ... I dunno. Learn something."
"And did you?"
"Mostly that you're more repressed than then entire British royal family," was the curt reply.
Kennedy arched an eyebrow. "I mean look at you." Blinking with confusion, Tara took stock of herself and frowned. "You're so damned busy not dealing with stuff that you're stuck," continued the brunette. "You can't handle the back, so you can't move forward."
"I'm not—" Tara began to protest.
Swift to interrupt, Kennedy effectively cut short the blonde's objection. "You know what pisses me off?"
"I'm guessing you'll tell me," grumbled Tara.
"You could have it all, and it's like you don't even want it," snorted Kennedy disdainfully. "I mean, you got a second chance at life! You got a do-over, but with all the good stuff still in place! The friends, the respect ..."
Tara seemed to withdraw into herself. "It's not just good stuff," she stated softly.
Kennedy waved a hand in the witch's direction, and the gesture screamed of frustration. "But instead you do that! You just fold up and push it away and don't deal with crap. What the hell?"
"It's not that simple," the blonde offered in quiet defense.
"Yeah, you know what?" Kennedy challenged. "It is. You went through some bad stuff, and that sucks, but it's life. If you're not gonna face that and deal with it, you might as well be back in the ground. You've got people around you who'd drop everything to help you. They want to help you so much they can taste it."
Tara shook her head. "This is ... These are my problems. They shouldn't have to—"
The Slayer swiveled in her seat. "I knew it!" she announced triumphantly.
The tone of victory had apparently truly grated on Tara last nerve and she shot Kennedy a withering look before turning her attention back to the road ahead.
Entirely unfazed, she repeated, "I knew it! You're doing this whole suffer-in-silence martyr thing! You think it, what? Makes you more noble? Keeps everybody good and sympathetic?" Her voice took on a patronizing note. "Oh, poor Tara, always so giving, can't burden everyone else with her pain." Her voice returned to normal, but her scorn didn't lessen. "God, do you always have to be so perfect?"
Tara's mouth had tightened into a thin line. "Do you always have to be such a bitch?"
As soon as the words were spoken, an expression of mortification crossed Tara's face. For a second, Kennedy blinked in amazement and then broke into a huge grin.
"You've been wanting to say that for hours, haven't you?" she questioned cheerily.
"Oh my god, I'm ..." Tara stammered an apology. "I- I didn't mean ..."
Kennedy's attitude was almost smug. "Oh no, you meant it," she nodded confidently.
Tara battled her rising irritation. "Why do you do that?" she asked in a clipped tone. "That stubborn, superior thing. I-It's like the tire, you just had to do it all yourself. I mean it's obviously defensive, but—"
"Sorry Mrs. Freud," replied Kennedy, her voice far from apologetic. "But there's room for only one psychoanalysis in this vehicle, and trust me on this – you are by far the more screwed up of us."
Tara's eyes blazed. "See, you did it again."
"Do you even want her?" challenged Kennedy.
The abrupt nonsequitur took Tara off-guard and she blinked in confusion. "What?"
"Willow," stated the brunette firmly. "Do you even want her? Because you've got to know that she wants you."
Tara appeared befuddled. "What ... What does that have to do with anything?"
"Please. It has everything to do with everything." Kennedy rolled her eyes condescendingly but Tara still appeared to be in the dark. The brunette leaned forward. "Look, I'll make it real simple: If you don't want her, then have the decency to let her go."
"I'm not holding her," Tara insisted.
Kennedy let out a sardonic chuckle. "Which, incidentally, isn't doing much to prove to me that you're not an idiot." She ignored the witch's frown and continued with her tirade. "And by the way? Yeah, you are."
"I thought you were going to make this simple," snipped Tara.
Kennedy leaned back against the headrest with a heavy sigh. "She's been waiting for you since the second she saw you across the street. Probably longer, if I wanna sacrifice my ego. I think fifty years from now, some part of her will still be waiting. The bottom line is: that's not right. Not if you don't want her. Not when there are people out there who do." Slowly, she turned to stare at the blonde's profile. The gaze was intense in its scrutiny. "So. Tell me right now that you don't still love Willow and want to be with her."
Tara dragged her attention from the road to meet Kennedy's penetrating eyes. Kennedy held the stare and it was the blonde who looked away first. The Slayer waited for a moment but ostensibly, Tara had nothing to offer by way of words.
"And there we go," Kennedy concluded. "Which brings us to the next point: What the hell are you waiting for?"
"Why are you ..." Tara began and then smirked with apparent realization. "You're trying to get us back together."
Kennedy's response was virtually automatic. "No way."
"You are!" insisted Tara with a smile which quickly became a puzzled frown. "Why are you?"
Kennedy slumped down further into her seat and propped her feet on the dashboard. "I love Willow. That's not news. But I'm realistic. While she's yours, she can never be mine. If she thinks there's the slightest chance, I don't even have a shot. Hence the questions. I knew what she wanted but I wasn't sure about you." She shrugged. "Now I'm sure."
"Sooo you're playing matchmaker because...?" prompted Tara.
"Because," Kennedy told her, "I want Willow to be happy."
Tara pondered for a moment and then nodded, seeming to recognize the sense and sincerity behind the statement.
"And," the Slayer added sharply, "because it's pretty damned clear that if someone doesn't step in and kick you in the ass, you'll both keep circling around each other until one of you crashes and burns." She tutted in frustration and rolled her eyes. "This is so not hard. Why the hell you have to make it into this big drama is beyond me. It's freaking irritating."
"See, you were sounding nice up until that point." Tara allowed herself a tiny smile.
Kennedy glanced sideways at the blonde from beneath lowered lids. "Well, can't go giving you false impressions, can I?"
Only the purring engine and the occasional 'swish' of the windshield wipers broke the hush that followed.
"You're so different," Tara suddenly announced. Kennedy quirked an eyebrow and waited for clarification. "From how I thought you'd be," the witch added. "When Willow first mentioned she'd ... she'd found someone, I thought ... I dunno. I thought you'd be kinda like ... me."
Kennedy snorted a laugh at that and Tara was obliged to grin.
"I-I guess that's kinda self-centered," she admitted.
"Maybe a little," conceded the Slayer. "But no. I think the last thing Will needed was someone to remind her of you every second of every day. So she traded up." She shot Tara a mischievous grin and the blonde chuckled.
"I'm the anti-Tara," Kennedy declared, puffing out her chest with mock pride.
Agreement was quick and quite certain. "I'm surprised we can exist in the same space without canceling each other out. Do we even have anything in common? At all?"
"Willow," Kennedy replied with a tinge of regret.
There was a pause.
"Well there's that," admitted Tara.
Kennedy returned her feet to the floorboard of the car. She leaned forward and, with a knowing look, treated Tara to a leering grin.
The witch blushed. "A-And that too."
Both women relaxed a little as the tension between them seemed to ease.
Tara peered out through the windshield. "Hey, look – a right," she pointed out with a smile.
"About time," puffed the brunette. "Take that bad boy."
As Tara turned the wheel, Kennedy referred to her handwritten directions. "It says we keep straight for a couple miles."
"Boy, when Mr. Giles said she was living somewhere remote, he wasn't kidding," Tara remarked as she observed that the new trail looked unmistakably similar to the old trail.
"Chapleau so far – not that impressive," commented Kennedy with something of a sneer. She dug around under the seat, unearthing an unlabeled CD that she waved at Tara. "Feel like some tunes? The radio hasn't picked up anything for hours." She turned the disk back and forth and frowned. "Though I have no idea what's on this."
"Oh, that's one of mine," the blonde responded.
Kennedy held it at arms length and regarded it with contempt. "It's not easy listening crap, is it?" she asked warily.
Smirking, Tara took the CD and popped it into the player. Within seconds, a strong beat filled the interior of the SUV. Then, a woman could be heard singing in the background, followed by a male voice:
Unconditional love, talking about the stuff that don't wear off. It don't fade, it'll last for all these crazy days ...
An expression of unadulterated shock invaded Kennedy's features. She blinked at Tara in total astonishment, mouth gaping. Now, it was Tara's turn to act smug and she grinned into Kennedy's disbelieving face.
"Tupac Shakur?" gaped the brunette.
"He was a great poet," Tara offered by way of explanation.
"Yeah, but ..." Kennedy seemed at a loss for words. "But what the hell do you have in common with a black male rapper who grew up on the streets of New York?"
"Nothing." Eyes wide in feigned surprise, Tara regarded Kennedy innocently. "Amazing, isn't it?"
Shaking her head, Kennedy seemed to be trying to absorb this turn of events. Tara grinned broadly, obviously delighted that she had been able to take Kennedy so unawares. She turned her attention back to the road, just in time to see something huge leap in front of the SUV.
Instinctively, Kennedy threw an arm across Tara's chest. "Look out!"
Wrestling with the steering wheel, Tara managed to make a sharp swerve off to the side of the wide trail. She struggled in vain to maintain command of the vehicle as it careened out of control, directly toward a row of large trees.
Applying the brakes with delicacy and no little skill, Tara brought the fishtailing vehicle back under control. It screeched to a halt no more than a foot before careening into the trees. Though visibly shaken, neither woman had suffered any fatal injuries and they let out a collective sigh of relief.
"Nice moves," remarked Kennedy, rubbing a bruised kneecap.
"Thanks," Tara replied, shaking out hands that had been clamped rigid upon the steering wheel. "I always knew driving my father's truck in the middle of winter would come in handy one day." She paused. "Actually, I didn't, but anyway." She glanced into her rear view mirror but could see nothing untoward. "What was that?"
Rolling down her window, Kennedy peered at the road behind them. "I don't know."
The pair started as a sudden booming roar echoed through the area. They looked around wildly, but failed to locate the source.
"... but if we find that? I'm guessing we'll have our answer," assured Kennedy.
Tara laughed nervously. "Ignorance is bliss?"
"So's kicking ass." Turning, the Slayer pulled a crossbow from the backseat and quickly readied the weapon. "Wait here," she commanded.
Tara protested. "But I—"
Kennedy affixed the witch with an uncompromising stare. "Wait. Here."
Seizing a quiver of arrows and throwing it over her shoulder, Kennedy opened the door cautiously. She exited the car, eyes searching in every direction but all was tranquil and eerily silent. There was a light fall of snow swirling all around her and an icy layer crunched beneath Kennedy's boots as she moved away from the SUV. She paid the noise no attention, her every sense tuned to the environment surrounding her. The Slayer's gaze narrowed as she constantly scanned for any sign of movement. She slowed to a halt and tilted her head, ears straining for the slightest sound of danger. She could see nothing and hear nothing until Tara's voice rang out.
Whirling, Kennedy was only barely able to avoid the aimed blow from an immense fist that whistled past her right ear. Recovering with incredible speed, she counter-attacked with a vicious kick to the creature's midsection, but made contact with nothing but thin air; there was no sign of her opponent. The Slayer blinked and straightened, head snapping from side-to-side.
"What the—" she muttered and then turned to Tara who was now standing outside the SUV. "Where did it go?"
Tara extended her arms and shrugged. "I don't ..." She shook her head in bewilderment. "It's like it just vanished."
"Something that big?" rejoined Kennedy. "Doubtful. It's probably just—"
Dropping to one knee, she spun quickly and fired a bolt from her crossbow toward a thicket of trees. However, the arrow obviously missed its intended target, given the fact that the monster – disappointingly whole and unscathed – came lumbering toward her. It was an enormous beast, perhaps as tall as twelve feet, very muscular and covered with silvery-yellow shaggy hair. With remarkable presence of mind, Kennedy began to calmly reload her weapon. Apparently, however, the speed with which she was doing so didn't sit very well with Tara, who promptly took off at a run.
"Kennedy!" she called, instantly attracting the creature's attention. It tilted its head to one side and abruptly changed direction. Kennedy's eyes narrowed as the monster shuffled toward the blonde.
"Dammit," she cursed. "I said stay in the car!"
Pulling herself up short, Tara blinked at the monster, which continued its ambling gait toward her. It grunted loudly and made peculiar guttural noises as it approached. A puzzled frown crept into Tara's features and she moved forward, as though to take a closer look. Scrambling to her feet, a worried Kennedy sprinted across the snow until she stood between prey and predator, now no more than an arms length away. The brunette threw a powerful roundhouse punch but the creature, despite its massive bulk, easily evaded the tightly clenched fist. She followed swiftly with a well-aimed jab, which also missed unfortunately, but at least served to send the beast momentarily off-balance.
Kennedy spared a quick glance to Tara, who appeared to be frozen in place. "What part of 'stay in the car' is confusing?" she all but shouted. "I can't fight this thing if I gotta worry about you too!"
Wonderingly, Tara shook her head. "There's something weird about—"
Another wide swing kept the beast at bay. "We can do the National Geographic bit later!" she told Tara sharply.
However, the monster had apparently grown tired of the confrontation and, with a mighty roar, rambled back into the woods from which it had emerged. In a heartbeat, all sight and sound of the creature had vanished.
Tara carefully scrutinized the area of disappearance as she moved to stand next to Kennedy. "It's got this sort of ... weird emptiness around it, like—"
"Down!" came Kennedy's abrupt warning as a smallish tree, roots still dangling, came hurtling toward them from a densely forested location to the far left of where the monster had evaporated into the gloom. The missile traveled with startling speed and unbelievable accuracy. Acting on instinct, Kennedy seized Tara about the waist and hurled herself to the ground. Almost immediately, the tree sailed above their heads, missing them by mere inches. The pair landed in a jumbled heap, just as the trunk made impact with a row of slender firs on the opposite side of the trail. The saplings snapped easily beneath the force.
Neither moved for several seconds. Kennedy's posture was rigid like a stone statue, head cocked and ears pricked, her eyes narrowed with concentration. Tara, however, being pinned by the other woman's weight and apparently not entirely at ease with the proximity, had more pressing matters at hand. She shifted uncomfortably. "Uhm ..."
Without looking down, Kennedy jammed her forefinger against Tara's mouth. "Shh," she commanded.
Tara blinked but ceased to fidget – even her chest barely moved as she breathed as quietly as possible. Kennedy continued to listen intently to her surroundings. Then, in a blur of motion, the brunette brought around the crossbow still gripped in her hand and fired. The bolt's flight was straight and true, hitting the monster squarely between the eyes. But Kennedy's self-satisfied smile faded fast into one of bafflement as the projectile simply sailed gaily on its way, leaving behind no sign of injury. Nonetheless, the monster waved its arms in a threatening gesture and bellowed loudly before quickly scampering back into the safety of the trees.
"Did you see that?" whispered a dumbfounded Kennedy, even though Tara, still firmly immobilized, couldn't see very much of anything.
This was a condition that Tara obviously was keen to rectify. "Uhm ..." she murmured a little more forcibly.
Kennedy glanced down and for the first time, appeared to realize Tara's predicament. "Oh! Oh. Sorry." Rolling smoothly to her feet, the Slayer extended a hand. Tara accepted gratefully and began to brush melting snowflakes from her shoulders.
"I hit it," Kennedy insisted, still somewhat mystified. "Or, well, I should've hit it, but nothing."
Tara shook out her soaked gloves. "Do you maybe get the feeling we're being kinda ... tested?"
"Starting to," the Slayer scowled. "I'm not much appreciating it either."
"I didn't think so." The blonde regarded Kennedy with a small smirk. "You know, I have actually been doing the monster fighting thing for a little while, you don't have to protect me."
Kennedy went back to scanning the immediate vicinity. "You're the important one here. I'm the security." She shrugged. "Besides, this is my first big solo mission. How's it gonna look if I get you all killed?"
"That works then, I'm not much in the mood to die. Again," Tara frowned for a moment, but quickly shook it off for more pressing matters. "I've got a plan. Can you keep it busy?"
As if on cue, an ear-splitting yowl echoed from behind.
"Shouldn't be a problem," assured the brunette as she whirled to face the monster.
Without further hesitation, Tara raced to the SUV, threw open the door, and began to rummage through the untidy pile of bags that had been thrown into the back seat. She glanced back briefly toward Kennedy, who was apparently working methodically through her extensive repertoire of attacks, but meeting with little if any success.
"C'mon, lemme land at least one," coaxed the Slayer. "It'll help my fragile ego."
The monster's response was a hefty punch, which Kennedy avoided with relative ease.
"By the way," she continued smoothly, "the Hair Club for Men called – they'd like you to be their poster child success story."
This barb was met with minimal reaction, save the mutual swing-and-miss exchange that seemed to have become the temporary norm. Kennedy audibly 'tskd' with disappointment. "Oh come on," she urged. "I was a good two minutes thinking that one up, you could at least pretend to be a little pissed."
A high-pitched whistle effectively put a halt to the skirmish and both combatants turned to see Tara standing nearby, a powdered concoction of unknown origin nestled within her outstretched palm.
She smiled sweetly at the creature. "I think maybe you have reality issues," she said with mock concern. "We can help."
Puffing out her cheeks, she blew the loose mixture into the beast's face as Kennedy took an involuntary step backward. The powder swirled about the monster, and it shook its shaggy head in confusion.
Taking full advantage, Tara began her incantation:
"Mother of dreams,
From the depths of night,
Remove the veil,
Bring truth to my sight."
The concoction began to twirl more rapidly. The creature watched the spiral guardedly, batting at the close-knit particles as though trying to swat away a swarm of pesky mosquitoes, but the effort brought no satisfaction. Without warning, the powder exploded, effectively blasting the beast like a sandstorm. The eruption swiftly eroded the illusion of a yeti-like monster, leaving in its wake an extremely svelte and slender being, perhaps two feet tall. Dressed in a thigh-length tunic of emerald, it fluttered a pair of vaporous wings as it hovered in front of Kennedy's face. A cap of the same color, which had obviously been placed with utmost precision between two pointed ears, rested upon its long platinum hair.
The bright blue eyes, narrowed with vexation, became saucer-like with apprehension. "Crap," came the nettled utterance. Quickly altering its flight path, the being attempted to flee and its trajectory was indeed speedy, but Kennedy was ready. Reaching out, she snagged it by one wing.
"Ow!" The being glared at Kennedy over its shoulder. "Do you mind?"
The Slayer shrugged and pinched a little harder. "Not so much."
Staring intently, Tara joined Kennedy and examined the small struggling creature with much fascination. He treated her to a scowl and then returned to the business of freedom. With noisy protestations, he tried unsuccessfully to liberate the entrapped wing.
"Who are you?" asked Tara curiously.
The being huffed and puffed as he ineffectually jerked within Kennedy's grasp. "I am ..." He waved his hands desperately as he tugged. "Quinstharyn ..." The feet were also pedaling violently in mid-air now. "... of the—"
With one final yank, he gave up the ghost and, sighing in defeat, leaned on Kennedy's outstretched arm.
"Besides being tremendously undignified," he stated with a frown, "this is, in fact, rather painful. Please let go. I promise not to run."
Kennedy's response was a scornful chuckle. "Right, and you've obviously proven yourself to be so trustworthy so far."
The being turned its pleading eyes toward Tara, almost as though appealing to her better nature for support on his behalf.
Tara thoughtfully considered the unspoken request for clemency. "I-I think you can let him go."
"Sure, so he can play dress-up some more," scoffed the unrelenting Slayer. She peered at the little individual loafing on her forearm. "What's next on the creature feature, going to turn into Mothra or something?"
The attractive but somewhat epicene features contorted into a lascivious leer. "Only if you two lovelies will be my Cosmos twins."
Kennedy rolled her eyes. "Oh, so no."
"Really, you can let him go," coaxed Tara. "I can cast a spell on him if I need to." Meaningfully eyeing the creature, she assured, "He won't be going anywhere."
Rather reluctantly, and standing ready to enforce another snaffle if need be, Kennedy released the small being. Her arm dropped immediately, and as his support disappeared, gravity kicked in. He let out a yelp of surprise, but his recovery was swift. As he floated back to eye level, he exuded an aura that screamed 'I meant to do that'.
With as much nonchalance as he could muster, the creature flexed his emancipated wing and massaged it gingerly. He glowered at the kink and palpitated both wings until the crimp had all but straightened itself out. That task accomplished, he removed his cap with a flourish and hung it on nothing at all. It remained stationary on its invisible hook while he pulled a small mirror from the pocket of his tunic and began to alternately fluff and smooth his silvery tresses with the utmost care.
Tara was unable to entirely stifle a chuckle at his vanity, but she appeared to be the only one amused by the show. Kennedy favored the blonde with a dubious look, prompting Tara to clear throat and interrupt the grooming session. "Mr. Quinstharyn—"
"Just 'Quinn', sweetie," interrupted the creature with a beaming smile as the mirror vanished and he set about replacing the cap upon his head just so. "Since we're all such good friends now."
The witch's eyes betrayed mild amusement. "...Quinn," she corrected. "What are you ... I mean, what was with all the ..." She waved her hand abstractly around his figure.
"Oh, that?" replied Quinn dismissively. "Just a little diversionary protection. Got to keep the nasties away, don't we?" He crossed his legs as though seated upon an invisible chair and traced the line of his chin with a delicate finger. He considered first Tara and then Kennedy with open approval. "Mm, but no nasties here."
The attempted charm had no effect on Kennedy – save perhaps to make her further aggravated. "So it was all illusions?" she asked, sounding thoroughly annoyed.
"Every bit," Quinn admitted with extreme pride. "Sight, sound ..." He polished his fingernails on his tunic. "I've been working on them for years. They're some of my best."
Tara nodded appreciatively. "It was very impressive."
Quinn glowed at the compliment and his wings quivered with delight. "Thank you, love! Aren't you just the sweetest thing? You should see my one-man presentation of Rent, it's to die for."
Kennedy puffed with exasperation. "God, I hate magic," she muttered darkly.
Quinn appeared not to have heard the observation as he happily continued. "Better to be safe than sorry, especially these days. But congratulations to you two!" He bounced in place and clapped his hands with unbridled pleasure. "We can go as soon as you're ready."
Kennedy and Tara exchanged a look of confusion.
"Go?" queried Tara.
"To see the lady of the house, of course," Quinn tutted at their apparent slow-wittedness. "Didn't come all this way just for the scenery, did you?
Night was beginning to fall, enshrouding the cemetery in a patchwork of darkness. Both Faith and Hazel were clearly on the hunt, their eyes alert and constantly seeking out threats lurking in every shadow.
"How you doing?" Faith eventually broached, her attention not wavering from her surroundings.
"Little chilly," Hazel told her. "I should've worn a thicker jacket."
"No," the older Slayer replied. "I meant about the, y'know. Parents."
"Oh." Hazel turned to Faith and shrugged. "Okay, I guess." The bulk of her focus returned to the patrol, but she easily continued as they prowled. "I talked to my dad this afternoon. I got the after school special speech, about how this is about them and not me. I actually sort of was thinking it would help, since it always seems to make the kids on TV feel better." She chuckled at her naivety. "No go, though. It was all sort of anticlimactic. Just as well I've never used drugs, cuz I don't see their generic intervention stuff doing much better."
Her confession complete, the duo lapsed into silence once more until Faith suddenly broke it to ask, "You like ice cream?"
"Isn't it physically impossible to not like ice cream?" returned Hazel. She thought for a moment and then added, "Though I guess if you're lactose intolerant ..."
"Yeah, then?" queried Faith with mild irritation.
The Junior grinned at the display of low-grade impatience. "Yes, Fiver, I like ice cream. Why?"
"Cuz I bought some for you," she answered. "It's back at the base."
Coming to an abrupt halt, Hazel turned to look at her companion with astonishment. "You bought me ice cream?"
Before Faith could supply an answer, a vampire leapt from the shadows, flying at Hazel in a tackle that sent the girl rolling to the ground. Standing back, Faith crossed her arms and watched carefully while making no move to intercede. The scuffle proved to be amazingly short-lived. With relative ease, Hazel thrust her legs upward, throwing the vampire to one side. She then rolled back onto her shoulders and flipped nimbly to her feet, just as the vampire was about to launch a second attack. Glancing expectantly toward Faith, she extended her arm and deftly caught the stake that the Senior Slayer tossed toward her. With a smooth motion, she drove it into the vampire who promptly disintegrated into dust. Hazel looked down at the pile of ashes and shrugged before casually flipping the stake back into Faith's outstretched hand.
"Nice," Faith told her approvingly.
Hazel smiled proudly. "Thanks. It's amazing how much better fighting evil can make you feel. Sort of puts everything else in perspective you know?"
"I'll take your word for it," smirked Faith.
Rubbing her hands together, Hazel's tongue poked out from between her lips. "That ice cream is sounding really good now, though. What kind did you get?"
There was the slightest hesitation before responding. "Chocolate chip cookie dough. I thought maybe it'd ... I dunno, make you feel better."
A tiny frown crossed the younger girl's face and almost immediately, Faith initiated a severe assault on her idea. "I know, dumb," she snapped, sounding intensely irritated at herself. "I knew I shouldn't'a listened to Oxford. It's just that ... See, I really wanted to try and make you feel better, right? But I ain't built for that sorta thing, so I scoped out B an' her little gang. Figured they're pretty much the group that invented the warm fuzzy."
Pausing to take a breath, she rolled her eyes. "Hangin' around 'em can make ya a little sick sometimes, but they're all big on the group hugs an' gold stars, so seemed easy money. But all I basically got was 'Friends', some number thing, an' food."
She glanced toward Hazel – whose mouth was now agape at the lengthy explanation – before continuing. "Food came up twice, but wasn't no way I was gonna bring you a week's worth'a Ho Hos." She noted the younger girl's raised eyebrow and hastened to clarify. "X-Man. He was on some Hostess kick, I didn't stick around to figure it out. Ice cream seemed okay though, so ..."
Faith shrugged, her expression a strange mixture of anger and embarrassment. "But yeah, stupid idea. Sorry."
Hazel waved her hand, as though trying to back up the conversation. "Wait, so you spent all day, running around town, tracking people down, asking them for ideas on how to make me feel better?"
Faith frowned and inspected an offending clump of dirt clinging to her heel. "Uh-huh."
"And you got me ice cream?"
Shaking out a cigarette, Faith dragged a match along the top of a nearby headstone. "It was the best I could come up with," she admitted grudgingly. "I know it's lame, but—"
She dropped the blazing match as Hazel enveloped her in a huge bear hug. Her eyes widened in shock and the unlit cigarette tumbled from her lips to the ground. On automatic pilot, Faith tried to step backward and away from the embrace, but Hazel held her fast.
"Oh my god, that's probably the sweetest thing anyone's done for me. Ever!"
Gingerly, awkwardly, Faith patted the other girl's shoulder. "It's just ice cream, yo."
"No! It's ..." breaking the hug, Hazel stared into Faith's dazed face. "You spent the entire day trying to come up with some way to cheer me up. It doesn't matter that you 'only' got ice cream – which I happen to love, by the way. But you cared that much."
Tilting her head, Faith considered the statement. "Yeah?"
"Yeah," confirmed Hazel.
With a tiny smile, Faith gave a satisfied nod. Then, she resumed her search through the graveyard, Hazel following happily in her wake.
"You tell anyone about this an' I kick your ass," Faith warned.
Hazel placed a hand over her heart. "Your secret dies with me."
The Senior Slayer shot her a quick look and then elbowed her playfully in the ribs. Hazel let out a mock groan and staggered before grinning broadly. Faith rolled her eyes at the younger girl's antics as they continued on their patrol.
The SUV pulled to a smooth stop outside a quaint but rather nice little cabin. The light of the sun was on its last legs for the day and the retiring rays painted the darkening sky in delicate shades of pale pink and muted orange. The snow had stopped falling and the entire area was quite beautiful in its peace and tranquility. Despite the cold, an old woman wrapped in blankets and, to all intents and purposes, fast asleep, sat in a rocking chair on the front porch.
The passenger door opened and Quinn immediately flew out, wings fluttering. He carelessly zipped past Kennedy's ear on the course of his journey and although she appeared to be far from pleased at the affront, she said nothing. Tara exited from the driver's side as Quinn approached the cabin and called out in a singsong voice, "Here they are!"
He hovered in front of the old woman's nose, but her eyes continued to be tightly closed and she was ostensibly ignoring his announcement. He glowered at the bundled figure. "I know you felt them coming," he accused. "Time to get up now and play hostess."
The crone grumbled under her breath but otherwise made no movement. Rolling his eyes in disgust, Quinn looked over his shoulder at the two younger women. "Up this way, loves. You'll probably find it all very anti-climactic." He refocused on the old woman. "You couldn't at least make a showing? Honestly, after all my hard work on the yeti ..." He tossed his head, apparently working himself into something of a snit.
Curiously, Tara and Kennedy approached the cabin, but Kennedy's attention was primarily diverted in examining the immediate area, getting a feel for the lay of the land.
Tara took the wooden steps of the porch slowly and then looked down at the figure. "Ma'am ...?" she murmured softly.
The old woman cautiously cracked open one eye and blinked. Tara's face was shrouded in shadow cast by the fast-disappearing sun behind her. Indeed, she appeared almost entirely in silhouette form, save for the bright nimbus of brilliant gold and shimmering amber that circled her blonde head.
"The Curat ..." whispered the old woman.
Tara frowned. "I'm sorry?" She moved closer, her features now becoming visible, and the crone blinked once more before fully opening both eyes.
"Oh, nothing dear," she smiled.
"You'll have to excuse her," Quinn stated firmly, reclining in his invisible chair and manicuring his nails with a Quinn-sized emery board. "She's senile," he added cheerfully.
The woman treated the faerie to a dark glare, but Quinn seemed thoroughly unimpressed with the fixed gaze and not in the least intimidated by it. "I am not senile, you irritating little gnat," she snapped.
"Please," Quinn snorted. He looked to Tara. "Just wait until you see her housecoats, sweetness. If she's not senile, then she's just given up the most flattering excuse I had."
The crone watched Kennedy step onto the porch and studied her briefly for a moment as well, but there was no flare of recognition.
Neither Tara nor Kennedy noticed the scrutiny. The Slayer in particular was busying herself with appraising the cabin. "Nice place," she admitted. "Looks pretty secure."
The answering chuckle was reminiscent of scratchy sandpaper. "I'd certainly hope so. I haven't spent the last 20 years or so building up the area for nothing."
With narrowed eyes, Kennedy gave the old woman the proverbial once over and looked her up and down several times. The crone seemed rather amused at the prolonged examination and bore it without comment. With a shrug, Kennedy appeared to reach the conclusion that the object of her inspection was nothing special. "So you're the Keeper of the Wing, huh?" she asked, her tone indicating that the title held little weight in Kennedy's world.
An expression of pride crossed the crone's face and she drew herself up straighter in the chair. She opened her mouth as though to provide a response but was cut off by Quinn's derisive chuckle. It earned him another dark look, but he appeared equally as unperturbed as before.
"Ooo, 'Keeper of the Wing,'" he jeered mockingly with a dismissive wave. "Her name's Ruth."
The old woman visibly winced. "Was that really necessary?"
Flitting to his feet, Quinn placed his hands on his hips. "Well if you think I'm going to listen to them fawn all over you with this 'Keeper of the Wing' nonsense for the next few days ..."
Crossly, the crone frowned. "But honestly. 'Ruth'. It ruins all the atmosphere. Where's the mystery in 'Ruth'?"
Quinn sighed. "Oh don't worry, there'll be mystery enough." He turned a cautioning eye toward Tara and Kennedy. "She made meatloaf," he confided in a loud whisper.
Both young women seemed at a loss for words, the exchange clearly failing to be what was expected in almost every possible way.
Tara was the first to recover. Shaking her head, she made a supreme effort to get the situation back on track and into some semblance of order. "Mr. Giles said you had information for us?" she queried gently. "That you could help us figure out what's going on."
Ruth regarded the blonde with great seriousness. Her eyes were clear and sharp, the outward indication of a mind far from addled in its thought processes – one as active and intelligent as any other, if not more so.
"Indeed I can, Tara," the crone nodded sagely. "I can help you figure out a great many things."
Blinking at the peculiarly intense reply, Tara was taken somewhat aback. Kennedy, on the other hand, was all business.
"Well great," commented the Slayer. "Let's get you all bundled up in the car and—"
Ruth abruptly shook her head. "My dear, we shall do no such thing." She ignored Kennedy's obvious attempt to go on the offensive and simply continued. "Not tonight, at any rate. What we are going to do—"
Her voice dwindled into a strangled groan as she began to rise from her chair. She moved slowly and it was apparent that the effort brought with it no small amount of pain. Instantly, Quinn dashed behind and began to push upward as both Tara and Kennedy offered a helping hand. Once on her feet, Ruth smiled gratefully at Tara and patted Kennedy's hand before turning toward the cabin. Her hand snuck into the crook of Kennedy's elbow and the Slayer had no choice but to allow her arm to be used as a brace as she walked alongside.
"What we are going to do is have a nice dinner," Ruth informed her visitors in a tone that brooked no debate. "And then you girls are going to get a good night's rest."
Nonetheless, Kennedy obviously felt obliged to voice a protest. "But we—"
"Ah-ah!" The old woman wagged an arthritic finger and Kennedy's mouth immediately snapped shut, obviously conditioned from a very young age to not argue with grandma.
"Dinner," continued a smiling Ruth. "Sleep. Possibly some 'Wheel of Fortune'."
Quinn brought up the rear. "Be still my heart," he muttered.
"Quinn will get your bags, won't you, Quinn." It was an order rather than a question.
Tara objected. "Oh, I can—"
"You can come help me get dinner ready. Thank you, dear," responded Ruth, opening the door. She directed both women into the small cabin, pushing them ahead of her. "Now why don't you two freshen up first. The washroom is right upstairs, second door on your left."
Tara and Kennedy appeared uncertain, but Ruth nodded her encouragement and regarded them expectantly. Sharing a look of resignation, they headed up the stairs. Once gone from sight, the old woman sighed heavily and her face became less animated, visibly showing the signs of her advancing years.
Nearby, Quinn hovered, watching the pair disappear from view. Cross-legged, he floated a millimeter or so above Ruth's shoulder, careful to avoid sitting on the bony projection. "She's young," he observed.
Ruth nodded. "And yet, so old."
He leaned forward and peered into Ruth's eyes. "She's not what you expected, is she?"
The Keeper sighed again. "No, she's exactly what I expected. That's the trouble."
There was a brief and quiet moment of shared thought.
"You're not really going to make them eat that dreadful loaf-thing of yours, are you?" asked Quinn, visibly shuddering.
With a sideways glare, Ruth simply said, "The bags, Quinn?"
With a roll of his eyes, Quinn flew out the door and toward the SUV while Ruth continued to stare sadly in the direction taken by Kennedy and Tara.
At the Scoobies' house, the living room was in even more of a shambles than it had been earlier, although it was apparent that the evening was now winding down to its conclusion. A DVD was playing on the television, but it was largely ignored. Most of the lights had been dimmed and the floor was virtually covered with discarded wrappers and empty boxes. However, perhaps the most prominent picture to be seen was that of Willow, crumpled on the couch like a limp Raggedy Ann – not simply asleep, but totally passed out into oblivion. She looked rather like a puppet whose strings had suddenly been severed. Her arms and legs were all akimbo and both Buffy and Xander stared at her curiously.
"I think it was the Super Fudgey Fudge Chunk Cookies that finally did it," Buffy nodded wisely.
"I gotta say, I'm actually kinda glad it came to this," admitted Xander, gently massaging his stomach.
Buffy tutted disapprovingly. "You had to know this would happen. All that sugar, all that caffeine ..."
"The girl was a walking spaz attack." He glanced toward Buffy. "Did you even get what she was talking about in the end?"
Buffy shook her head. "I caught something about water and potassium, snakes, ladders, and Tara and Kennedy running off together." She paused. "I guess the last one's technically true." She turned to Xander with something of a wicked glint in her eyes. "Still, I guess she showed you in the end, huh?"
She held aloft the little whiteboard, now loaded with hash marks. Xander impassively took in the superior black-to-red ratio on display under Willow's name, but Buffy continued to gloat on behalf of her comatose friend. "Rosenberg comes from behind to scoop out the Xan-Man."
"Nah." Waving his hand, Xander brushed aside his crushing defeat. "This wasn't the real deal." At the Slayer's perplexed expression, he explained. "Earlier today, I bet Will I could make her forget all about the stuff that's gettin' her down." He gestured toward the prone figure. "I'd say for the past couple hours, there wasn't much on her mind but scarfin' back more junk than me. Ergo, she had forgotten about everything else; ergo, mission accomplished." He nodded with utmost satisfaction at a job well done.
Buffy's eyes betrayed approval. "I'm impressed." She blinked and glared miserably at her stomach. "And also very bloated and uncomfortable."
"I echo all of these things, and more," commiserated the carpenter.
"Help me get her to bed?" requested Buffy, getting to her feet.
Xander pushed himself up from his position on the floor and then his complexion suddenly turned ashen as all the color drained from his face. Buffy's eyes widened and she moved toward him, but Xander held up a finger and shook his head.
"Sure ..." he muttered. "Just let me ..." He clutched his midsection. "Oh god."
With one hand clamped tightly across his mouth, Xander pounded up the stairs. With a shake of her head, Buffy watched his desperate departure before turning back to the passed-out Willow.
"At least some of us will have a nice of peaceful rest."
Ensconced in the cabin's comfortable spare room, Tara and Kennedy shared a queen-sized bed. Tara occupied approximately one-quarter of her half, while Kennedy had laid claim to her entire side. However, it was apparent she was well aware of her bedmate and she seemed to be making an obvious effort to stay within the boundaries of her allotted space. There was an almost palpable tension in the room, though both women seemed determined to avoid any reference to their awkward situation and the discomfort that accompanied it.
Kennedy sighed and stared at the ceiling, her arms folded under her head. "I just keep thinking about everything. I can't figure this woman out."
"She's very ... unusual," admitted Tara, inching just the tiniest millimeter over to avoid falling on the floor.
"Unusual?" scoffed the Slayer. "She's freaking weird. And that brownie thing of hers—"
"Faerie," the blonde corrected.
"He's a faerie. I think," responded Tara. "Brownies are more sort of ... terrestrial. No wings. And they like housework."
Kennedy rolled her eyes. "Whatever. I'm just saying, it all seems pretty out there to me."
"Yeah, it is," agreed the witch. "She's powerful, though. Very powerful. I really think she can help us."
"And no negavibes?" asked Kennedy, rising up just enough to flip her pillow around to what would hopefully be a less lumpy side.
"Nope. I'm not sure what it is exactly that I'm getting from her, but it's not bad."
Smirking, Tara turned toward the Slayer. "You sound almost disappointed."
"Maybe a little, on a purely selfish level," conceded Kennedy. "It would've given me a chance to actually do something, you know? I've been pretty useless on this trip so far."
The smirk turned into a frown. "You haven't been useless." Taking note of Kennedy's dismissive shrug, Tara reiterated, "You haven't been."
Kennedy's ceiling inspection seemed suddenly engrossing. "Right. I was a big help against the thing-that-wasn't-really-there," she responded bitterly.
"You saved me from that tire-killing demon," the blonde reminded.
"Sure," Kennedy chuckled sardonically, "but if I'd just let you fix the tire in the first place, we wouldn't have been there long enough for it to even attack." She sighed heavily and waved her hand in the air, allowing it to drop back down where it bounced on the mattress. "It's just like ... I'm a Slayer, right? I'm supposed to be the big defender. Kill the baddies, protect the innocents. But when the innocents stop needing protecting, then what's my point?"
Tara studied Kennedy's profile – the tiny frown of annoyance and the determined set to the jaw line. "You're a good Slayer, Kennedy. I-I mean I know I haven't really known you very long, but ... you're good at what you do."
The brunette snorted a laugh. "Because when you think 'Slayer', the name that leaps immediately to mind is 'Kennedy'."
"Maybe you need better PR," Tara suggested, eliciting a tiny chuckle. She thought for a moment then asked, "So you have to be ... the Slayer?"
"No, of course not," replied Kennedy. "But I'll be honest – it'd be nice. I spent I don't know how many years hearing about Slayers, actually thinking maybe I'd get to be one. It was everything to me. You know, you start buying into the whole mess ... The Chosen One, the lonely life you'll lead. Just you, alone, protecting the world."
Whatever romantic notions the prospect might hold for Kennedy, it was obvious Tara didn't share them. "That sounds horrible. I think I'd be glad I didn't have to be alone."
"Oh, no, totally," the Slayer readily agreed. "It's great to know the girls got your back." Her brow furrowed deeper as she tried to explain. "But at the same time, there's something about it. Knowing that the world gets to keep turning just because of you." She paused and shrugged. "At least it was something in my head."
"But you did save the world," the witch stated.
"No," came the pointed answer. "Buffy saved the world. Willow saved the world. I got to deliver an oversized letter opener."
Tara smiled briefly at the vehement protest. "Well Buffy's had a lot of practice."
"Exactly. Which is why Buffy's The Slayer. Capital 'T'. I'm a Slayer. That'd be a little 'a'."
"You're your own person, Kennedy." Tara's tried to persuade. "You're not in Buffy's shadow."
This was also met with denial. "No, I am. Faith's too. I mean, they're the real deal. The rest of us ... we're the by-product. I'll always be 'the other one'. No matter what I do, no matter how hard I try, I can never be the Slayer that they are."
Tara considered this for a moment. "Well no, probably not."
Kennedy swallowed hard at the affirmation, clearly indicating that although she had total conviction in her own words, it was nevertheless a bitter pill to take when voiced by another. However, Tara was not yet done.
"Because you're Kennedy the Vampire Slayer," continued the blonde. "You're brave and you're resourceful. You're an incredible fighter and a good teacher. And I'm gonna hazard a guess and say you kick demon butt just as much as the next girl. Probably better. So if you can be all that, why would you want to be them? I dunno, if it were me? I'd probably just worry about being Kennedy the Vampire Slayer." She blinked in the darkness. "O-Or, well, I guess 'Tara the Vampire Slayer'. But that doesn't sound as cool."
Turning her head slowly, Kennedy regarded Tara seriously. Somewhat embarrassed, the witch grinned a little shyly. "If it were me," she repeated with a shrug.
Kennedy's smile was one of gratitude. There was no 'thank you' forthcoming, but the expression said it all. "That was the other thing I wanted to learn," she nodded to herself.
"What's that?" queried Tara.
"Why you," Kennedy told her. "Now I know."
Totally abashed, Tara rolled over and gazed at her side of the wall. A resolute Kennedy shot her quick glance and then propped her elbow on the pillow. She cupped her cheek in her hand and soberly regarded the back of Tara's head. "So, what's the biggie?"
The blonde frowned in confusion, but didn't turn around. "What's the...?"
"The biggie," persisted the Slayer. "The biggest reason why you're so ... well, pretty much so miserable all the time."
"I really don't think now is the time," Tara bristled.
"No, now's the perfect time," Kennedy countered. "Cuz see, I know I'm tired and I know you're tired, but I'm not letting this drop until I get at least one big thing out in the open. So in the interests of actually getting some sleep tonight, you'll tell me."
Tara appeared to view this as a challenge – and one that she clearly had every intention of meeting head-on. Clamping her mouth in a tight line, she turned and faced the Slayer with an arched eyebrow. The conveyed message was perfectly plain: 'No syllables shall escape these lips', but Kennedy simply grinned in response.
"For real," she insisted. "See, Slayers? We can function on forty-five minutes, an hour of sleep tops. I'm pretty sure witches need more recharge time. I can go all night and still be fine tomorrow."
This seemed to do nothing but strengthen the blonde's resolve to not succumb, resulting in Kennedy's grin adopting a slightly evil curl.
"Though laying here in silence," pondered the Slayer in a tone filled with far too much innocence to be genuine, "I'd probably start getting bored. You never know what I'd have to do keep the monotony at bay. I might even have to sing." Tara quirked both eyebrows at this announcement. "But not just any old song, oh no," Kennedy shook her head. "I'm thinking something really ... catchy. The sort of song that burrows into your brain and nests there for two or three weeks, you know the kind. Something like ... 'Copacabana'."
Tara's eyes widened with abject terror. "You wouldn't."
Now, it was Kennedy's turn to quirk an eyebrow. "So what was that big thing?"
Crossing her arms defiantly, the witch refused to buckle even under threat of torture.
"Her name was Lo-la," Kennedy sang in a soft, teasing voice. "She was a show-girl ..."
With a burst of laughter, Tara threw the bedclothes over her head and disappeared beneath the covers. However, Kennedy was relentless and she leaned over the huddled figure, chanting even louder.
"With yellow feathers in her hair and a dress cut down there, she would mer-en-gue—"
The covers exploded back and Tara reemerged from the not-so-protective cocoon. "Okay, okay!" she relented, pleading mercy.
Blissfully, the Slayer stopped singing. "Oh, good," she declared. "You did not want to let me hit the chorus." Settling back against her pillow, Kennedy watched as Tara rearranged the coverlet, pulling it up to her chin. A few more moments passed as the blonde fussed with the arrangement of the sheets and blankets.
Kennedy shot her a sideways glance. " ...and do the cha-cha..." she resumed with a warning timbre.
A serious expression crossed Tara's face. "Okay."
Inhaling deeply, the blonde held the breath for a moment before letting it out slowly. Kennedy gave her time, waiting patiently as Tara inhaled for a second time.
"I would have killed her," she announced flatly.
"Willow," confirmed the Slayer.
Tara nodded. "I had the knife in my hand. I could see myself doing it. I was going to do it." She fell into wretched silence.
Kennedy frowned. "Okaaay ... So that's—"
"I was going to kill Willow," the blonde clarified firmly, since it was so patently obvious that brunette hadn't heard properly.
"Yeah, I got that part," verified Kennedy gently.
"Don't you—?" Tara clenched the hem of the sheet tightly in her fists as she attempted to explain once more. "I was taught to respect life. That life is sacred, and precious. And my whole life, growing up? I was terrified that I'd become something horrible. Something evil that would ... would kill without hesitation. Something that would hu-hurt the people I love most. When I found out that was all a lie? It was probably the best day of my life."
She shook her head sharply, fighting against the tears that prickled and then turned toward Kennedy in an almost challenging fashion. However the Slayer was simply regarding her with an expression of empathy.
"But now," continued Tara, staring into Kennedy's eyes and regaining some of her composure. "I'm not so sure it was a lie. I would have killed her. The most incredible person I've ever—" She effectively severed that line of thought and swallowed. In a low, almost detached tone she recited, "I would've taken the knife, and I would've s-stabbed her, and stabbed her, and I wouldn't have stopped until she was dead. And ..."
Tara's voice caught as tears threatened once more. Her eyes traveled to the ceiling, the words resuming only after she was safely free from meeting the Slayer's intense gaze. "And if I hadn't found out she was okay ... I know I'd make the same choice." She lay there in misery, struggling with her emotions and meeting with only marginal success. "God," she whispered, "what kind of person does that make me?"
"A damned courageous one," Kennedy stated without question.
Tara blinked in surprise, this clearly not being the reaction she was expecting.
"You would've killed her, yeah, and murder is pretty high up on the 'damning' meter. Things aren't always so black and white, though." Leaning forward, Kennedy did her best to make sure Tara could see her without encroaching. "When you knew you could do it, when you got ready to ... What were you thinking?"
"That ... That I had to stop her," she replied quietly.
"Why? Specifically," the Slayer pressed. "Tooo ... help Buffy? To save the world?" With a failing smile, Tara shook her head. "To save Willow, right?" Kennedy gently asked.
The replying nod was almost imperceptible, but the Slayer caught it easily. "I get that," she told the witch.
Tara gave a hapless chuckle. "No, you don't. I would've—"
"I get that," insisted Kennedy, "because I almost did too."
Stunned, Tara turned to regard Kennedy with pure amazement.
The Slayer threw herself back against the pillow, though still maintaining the newly reforged eye contact. "The night before we went into the Hellmouth, to face off against the First ... Willow was petrified of the spell she'd have to do. The magic stuff had been giving her wiggins pretty much since ..." She gestured in Tara's direction, which earned a nod of understanding, "...and she already knew the First could get to her like that. So she asked me – she begged me that if there was a hint, even the slightest suggestion that she was going evil again, she wanted me to kill her. She gave me a dagger and told me to stab her in the heart."
At the blonde's shocked expression, Kennedy smiled wryly. "And I denied it, and I argued, and I swore a whole lot," she added, "but she made me see that it wasn't all about what I wanted or what I needed. It was about what Willow needed. I loved her enough to give her what she needed, regardless of what it'd do to me. I still would." She shrugged. "So sorry, if you were looking for me to give you more fuel to hate yourself; you've come to the wrong place."
The two women faced each other for a heartbeat longer and then Tara's eyes returned to the ceiling. She said nothing further, locked in her own world.
Kennedy's gaze lingered, then she duplicated Tara's upward concentration. Neither spoke for a while.
"Everything's so screwed up," sighed Tara eventually.
"Pretty much the only guarantee you get with life is that it'll suck," Kennedy agreed.
Silence reigned once more. This time, it lasted for a long while and it might have been safe to assume that both women had fallen asleep until Tara spoke.
"Yeah?" came the wide-awake reply.
"My parents are good people, but their music tastes, what's the word ... suck."
Yet another hush descended until Kennedy broke the silence.
"Yeah?" came the drowsy reply.
"I'm thinking we shouldn't mention this whole single-bed thing to Willow."
"Uhmmm ... no," responded the blonde stifling a yawn. "That's probably a good idea." She grinned a little wickedly in the darkness. "Though I almost want to, just for the look she'll get on her face."
"Oh my god," chuckled Kennedy sinfully. "Wouldn't that be something? Her face would go all red ..."
"Her eyes would get wide enough to practically engulf her entire head," added a mischievous Tara.
The Slayer laughed and gave her pillow a good thump. "That's our Will. The girl of a million facial expressions, and every one of 'em adorable."
Willow's eyes opened gingerly and she squinted at the weak morning sunlight filtering through the window. Sitting up in bed, she ran slack fingers through her hair and winced at the jumbled mass of tangles. Staring contritely at the bedclothes that had landed in an untidy heap on the floor, she swiped a flaccid hand across her drooling mouth and grimaced. She blinked stupidly for a moment or two and then flopped back onto her pillow with an audible groan.
At the cabin, Kennedy and Tara, looking moderately refreshed, were determined to get an early start. They busied themselves with loading the SUV, carefully moving bags and other items around to ensure that Ruth would have plenty of room for whatever she might chose to bring along with her on the trip. Squinting at the sunlight, the old woman emerged with a large steamer trunk floating behind her. She glanced at the chest and it promptly moved to the side of the porch. Turning, she sharply called out, "Quinn!"
The sudden sound caused both Tara and Kennedy to jump slightly, but they quickly returned to their packing.
Ruth tapped her foot impatiently and peered into the cabin. There was no sign of the faerie. She took a deep breath. "Qui—!"
But suddenly, there he was at her shoulder, tugging on his boots. "I'm right here, no need to shout," he griped. "We're not all as deaf as you."
"Are you ready?" she snapped.
Quinn fussily positioned the bottoms of his jeans over his boots and straightened up to smooth his platinum hair. He checked the baby blue sweatshirt, whose front posed the question 'Fancy A Flutter?', for wrinkles and then smoothed his hair again before brushing non-existent specks of lint from the shoulders of his shirt. His hand was about to return to his hair once more when Ruth gave his wing a vicious flick with her gnarled finger. Quinn yelped indignantly.
"You're ready," she told him firmly.
"Honestly, that's very rude," chastised the faerie. "I suppose you were born before they invented manners, hm?"
Obviously deciding that his jibe warranted no answer, Ruth simply stared at him. A grumpy Quinn, followed by a small trail of luggage, moved toward the car. Pulling the door of the cabin shut, the old woman locked it with an ornate brass key, which she then placed in the pocket of her heavy woolen cloak with extreme care. Taking a rickety step backward, she waved her hand. The cabin shimmered for a moment and then disappeared, leaving behind only the porch. She turned and looked at the trunk that, as if obeying some silent command, slowly began to rise. Before it could go too high, however, Quinn had returned to Ruth's side.
"Let me," he insisted with a long-suffering eye-roll. "If you strain anything, we'll hear nothing but you complaining about it all the way there." With a grand gesture, he assumed control over the chest and pointed imperiously toward the car. In dutiful deference, the trunk floated over to the SUV.
"A chest?" came Kennedy's irritated observance from behind. She proceeded to complain bitterly about limited space issues and old ladies who over pack. With an expression of barely restrained tolerance, Quinn fluttered his wings and went to join her, presumably in an effort to lend assistance.
Ruth didn't appear to care very much one way or the other as she made her way down the porch steps with a stiffened gait. As she cleared the last one, the wooden stairs also faded from existence to be replaced by a thick crop of trees. Their emergence was most effective, completely obscuring even the space occupied by the cabin. Noticing the old woman hobbling toward her, Tara rushed forward and took her by the elbow. This action was rewarded with an endearing smile of gratitude.
"Such a sweet child," Ruth murmured, reaching up to affectionately cup one of Tara's cheeks. The words were spoken with sincerity, but laced with just the faintest hint of sadness. An expression of confusion invaded the blonde's face, but Ruth did not elaborate. Upon reaching the vehicle, Tara handed jurisdiction of the old woman to Kennedy and moved to the driver's side.
"Shotgun!" came Ruth's instant demand.
Kennedy was taken aback. "What?"
"I call shotgun," Ruth repeated stringently.
The Slayer frowned. "What? But ... but I'm sitting in the front."
The old woman smiled reprovingly. "Did you call it, dear?"
"Well no," Kennedy admitted, "but I thought—"
Ruth tutted. "Then it's the back seat for you. You can keep Quinn company."
The Slayer regarded the rear of the vehicle with some alarm. Quinn had already stretched out and commandeered as much of the seat as his two-foot frame would allow. He waggled suggestive eyebrows in Kennedy's direction and patted the cushion invitingly. Kennedy's expression quickly moved from being dumbfounded into a scowl of irritation.
Turning toward Tara accusingly, Kennedy snapped, "Next time you take your own damned road trips."
Grumbling loudly, Kennedy climbed into the back seat as Ruth turned to wink at Tara. The blonde shook her head admonishingly, but couldn't hide the grin as she fished the car keys out of her pocket.
Casting a wary gaze at the sky, the old woman's eyes narrowed and all traces of humour swiftly evaporated. "We must hurry," she urged. "There isn't much time left. Not much time at all."
The main conference room used by the Assemblage was as different from the Circle's as were their respective leaders. Brightly lit but sterile, each piece of paper and every pen had a very exacting and specified place. Madrigan gazed at his surroundings with an expression that betrayed his innermost desire to simply start knocking random things off shelves. Or possibly even to neatly relocate a stack of papers from one end of the table to the other. Both actions would have likely precipitated the same result.
With a longing sigh, Madrigan refrained, instead walking with Robespierre into one of many highly efficient and entirely generic hallways. Silent as always, Seneca followed behind, a small spiral notebook and nicely sharpened pencil floating in front of him. He appeared to be thoroughly absorbed in the conversation taking place between the two men as his writing implement moved rapidly across the paper, seldom remaining still for very long.
"I want no further delays," Robspierre announced with a frown.
"Really?" queried Madrigan. "And here I thought that patience was one of your few remaining virtues."
"There is patience and then there is procrastination," came the sharp reply. "Fortunately, I'm aware of the difference."
"Oo, that was good," Madrigan responded with mocking appreciation. He glanced over his shoulder to Seneca. " Write that one down."
The pencil flew even faster as Seneca nodded sagely, as though he would do no less than note with due diligence every single nugget of wisdom formed by Robespierre's vocal chords.
"The Council was once a proud society," continued a wistful Robspierre. "So noble." He sighed and his tone returned to its normal abrasive timbre. "A little narrow visioned, perhaps, but I truly believed it was the gateway to a better world. A world that brought forth sense from the senseless."
Cocking an eyebrow at the melodrama, Madrigan dropped back to inspect Seneca's writings. He grinned to see the page mostly covered with stick figure drawings. Though very crude and largely unflattering, they were undoubtedly renditions of Robespierre – tiny body, gigantic head, and greatly exaggerated scar. Each little image was engaged in a different activity, such as spouting fire or waving a small circle-fist attached to a skinny stick-arm.
Seneca and Madrigan exchanged a moment of glee before Madrigan moved forward again to join Robspierre. The mage immediately disguised his amusement to adopt a rapt expression of keen interest as he listened to Robespierre's words of wisdom.
For his part, Robespierre was apparently oblivious to everything but the music of his own voice. "But this ... farce that dares call itself the Council of Watchers. They have no focus, no defining purpose besides this impossibly nebulous idea of protection." He snorted with disgust, his voice dripping with loathing. "Slayers giving orders instead of following them. Children commanding the world's greatest forces. That laughable excuse for a Watcher overseeing them all like a benevolent Alexander."
"Plus I hear they get cable," added Madrigan, which earned the mage a look of utter contempt.
Rounding the corner, the three men stopped outside of a huge training facility. Almost every machine was in use, and the open mats teamed with pairs and trios of young girls. They all wore the same generic workout uniform – gray sweatpants with a black tank top. The clothing was, by its nature, only able to cover so much. The marking of an eye atop a key plainly visible on each and every girl.
This marking aside, there would have been nothing to distinguish one girl from most of the others. But some could no longer claim that ability. Their symbols pulsated with a bright blue, visible even through the fabric of their shirts, and their eyes glowed with the power to match. Every girl was training, hard and fast, but there was nothing performed by one that could not be outdone by one infused with the cool blue glow.
Pride openly displayed on his now satisfied countenance, Robespierre stood in the doorway. Instantly noticing his arrival, the Super Slayers, acting as a single unit, ceased their strenuous pursuits and turned to raise their hands in a venerable salute. Eyes shining, Robespierre acknowledged the gesture with a nod and they promptly returned to their workouts.
Madrigan glanced to Seneca, who performed a sloppy, limp-wristed parody of the gesture behind Robespierre's back. The mage grinned in appreciation, but his attention was soon diverted to the huge mirror positioned at one side of the room.
The reflective surface began to shimmer and almost immediately, Judith emerged. Spying Robespierre she grinned and then snapped her heels together, saluting him in the same manner as had the other girls. Robespierre beamed with pleasure. He leaned toward Madrigan, eyes still transfixed on Judith who continued to hold her respectful pose.
"They cannot be allowed to interfere," he muttered through thin lips.
Madrigan regarded Robespierre's grim profile with all due solemnity as he surveyed the busy hive of Super Slayers. He threw a companionable arm around Robespierre's shoulders. "Then stick around," he advised. "You won't wanna miss this."
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