Willow stared for a second before her face dissolved into a huge grin. "Tara!"
"Hey," greeted Buffy with a broad smile. "You're home."
"Next time I say I want to go somewhere? Anywhere at all? Remind me of this." Tara looked heavenward and sighed.
Clasping her hands together and restlessly shuffling her feet, Willow was obviously having some trouble in containing her enthusiasm. It was apparent that she wanted nothing more than to envelop Tara in a huge welcoming hug, but equally apparent that she was well aware such an act would be inappropriate. Consequently, she gave the impression of a hyperactive Chihuahua on crystal meth.
"You wanna sit?" asked the redhead anxiously.
Tara shook her head. "No, that's okay. I feel like all I've done for two days is sit. My legs are demanding they be used."
"Somethin' to drink?" suggested an eager Willow.
Again, Tara shook her head. "No, I—" She paused and took note of Willow's overwhelming desire to do something for her, and she smiled. "Some water?"
Willow pounced upon the proposition and immediately sprang into action.
"Everything go okay?" asked Buffy, as the chink of glassware being moved around filled the room.
"Yeah," answered Tara. "Teeny bit of car trouble, a couple demons. Nothing major."
Buffy nodded. "Cool. I guess Kennedy took good care of you."
"She did," replied Tara with a smile. "She really did."
There was the tinkle of ice being put into a glass, soon followed by the sound of running water.
Buffy regarded Tara seriously. "And what about this wing person?"
"The Keeper of the Wing?" came the response. "She's ... interesting."
"Which is Scooby Code for either 'crazy' or 'irritating'," the Slayer noted as she crossed her arms. Neither woman acknowledged the sound of drawers being opened and closed.
Tara chuckled. "I'm gonna stick with 'interesting'. She's really nice, actually. Just a little ... eccentric? Which I guess makes sense since it's just been her and Quinn for a few dozen years."
This quickly commanded Buffy's attention. "Her and ...?"
"Quinn," confirmed Tara. "He's a—" She was interrupted by something being thrust into her hand.
Willow beamed as Tara, somewhat taken aback, noted the Harry Potter decoration on the glass she was now holding. An identical picture of the golden Snitch was affixed to both sides, and the drink was complete with a straw gaily supported by several ice cubes. Tara looked at Willow and blinked.
"Your water," announced the redhead happily, before a slight frown marred her features. "I really wanted to use the Hermione glass, but I can't find it. I think maybe Xander took it. Or maybe he broke it and didn't tell me, which would just be so like him. So we only had the Snitch or Hedwig, and I figured the Snitch worked better because you were just all 'Seeker' with- with the woman and— But the straw! I found the bendy straws!"
Reaching out, Willow very deliberately bent the straw to the left and grinned at Tara excitedly. With equal exhilaration, she bent the straw to the right as her face adopted a 'Huh? Huh? Isn't that the coolest thing ever?' expression.
Tara was unable to prevent herself from smiling at the redhead's exuberance. Willow needed no other encouragement. She beamed from ear to ear. With a half-grin, Tara bent the straw very deliberately first to the left and then to the right. She nodded at Willow in confirmation, as though saying, 'I got it, and yes, it's very cool.' Impossibly, Willow's grin grew wider still.
Buffy looked from one to the other with a small smile of indulgence, which soon faded as she realized that Tara was now totally distracted. She cleared her throat meaningfully, which caused both witches to jump slightly, almost as if they'd forgotten the Slayer was even there.
"Oh, uhh ..." stammered a flustered Tara. "Uh, as I was, uhm ..." Her voice trailed away and her forehead crinkled. Clearly, she couldn't remember what she had been talking about.
"Someone named Quinn ...?" prompted Buffy.
"Quinn. Right," affirmed the witch with a shake of her head. "He's a faerie. He's here too, he helps Ruth. Sort of. They both came with us."
"Great," announced Buffy with a gleam in her eye. "Can't wait to meet her. She's with Giles?"
Lifting the straw to her lips, Tara took a sip of water as Willow all but hopped in place with delight. "She was," Tara told Buffy. "She's probably asleep now, though."
"Asleep." The Slayer was plainly aggravated. "We brought her all the way here to nap?"
"Well no, she's just ... she's tired, and it is getting sort of late." Tara's tone was sympathetic. "She insisted on meeting Mr. Giles first, and then resting." She glanced to Willow and then back to Buffy. "He wants us all to meet him tomorrow morning, so we can get on the same page and stuff?"
Buffy pursed her lips. "I don't like this. You're sure she's not evil?"
"Pretty sure," came the thoughtful reply. "I think she's just ... old."
"Why you?" questioned Willow sharply. She regarded the two pairs of eyes that turned toward her but then focused solely on Tara. "I mean, why did she ask for you? Specifically?"
"I asked her that too," mused Tara with a frown. "She said she wanted me to be able to find my way."
"Find your ...?" Buffy began with a huff. "What does that mean?"
Tara gave a small shrug of her shoulders. "I don't really know. I tried to ask her about it, but that's all she'd say."
"That's really ..." blustered Willow with a wave of her hand. "And that doesn't bother you?"
"A little," conceded Tara. "But it's not as important as her helping us, right?"
"I guess ..." the redhead grudgingly agreed, although she was clearly far from convinced.
"Well what else did she say?" pushed the Slayer. "About these Assembly people?"
"Assemblage," corrected Tara with a tiny smile. "Not a whole lot. Some vague stuff, about needing to locate their center and 'destroying the source that keeps them whole'. She really wanted to talk to Giles first, though." Grinning at the remembrance, the witch continued, "She said she only had so many breaths left, and she didn't want to waste them on saying the same thing twice."
This brought a snicker from Willow, which rapidly evaporated beneath Buffy's sharp look. She quickly sobered and regarded the Slayer seriously.
"I can't believe we have to keep waiting," muttered Buffy. "Uhn!" she grunted in her inarticulate frustration.
"Aww. Poor Buffy," commiserated Willow, patting the top of the Slayer's head. She turned to Tara to explain. "Her brain's all full."
Buffy heaved a deep sigh. "At least Dawn'll be back soon." With a glance at the clock, she announced, "I'm gonna grab a shower."
The two other women nodded and Buffy made her exit, grumbling loudly about nothing in particular and everything in general. Left alone, the tension between Willow and Tara began to mount. There was a long moment of silence, finally broken by Tara. She held the glass aloft. "Good water."
"Thanks. I got it from the faucet all by myself," responded Willow proudly.
Tara smirked. "Twisted the knob and everything, huh?"
"Hey, don't knock it," retorted the redhead. "I had a couple choices to make. If I'd picked the wrong one, y'might'a ended up with a scalding hot icy beverage."
"That would've been less refreshing," Tara wisely agreed.
The room lapsed into an uneasy hush once more. Both witches began to examine their surroundings with avid interest, as though seeing them for the first time. It was obvious they were reluctant to look at each other.
This practice persisted for several seconds until they looked up and simultaneously announced, "We need to talk."
Faith lounged on the steps of Slayer Central and watched Xander struggle through the front door carrying a large box. He muttered darkly as he tripped over the threshold and tried to peer around the side of his package to see where he was going.
"You know you got stairs comin'," advised Faith, taking a drag of her cigarette.
"Yeeee-up," came the reply.
Xander felt his way forward with the tip of his shoe and despite Faith's warning and the employment of extreme caution, still failed to find the topmost step. He tottered precariously for a second, but then Faith grabbed his elbow and held him steady.
"I meant to do that," the carpenter told her defensively, maintaining a tight grip on his box.
"Uh-huh," smirked Faith. "Why, exactly?"
It was a long moment as Xander seriously pondered the question. He finally concluded: "Shut up."
"That's gratitude," snorted the Slayer. "Next time you can fall on your ass, how's that sound?"
"Sorry, sorry," sighed Xander. "It's not you."
"What is it then?"
"I'm thinkin' the 30 or so pounds of M&Ms I ate last night," he replied with a grimace. At Faith's narrowed eyes, he explained, "It was an ill-devised plan to make Will and Buffy better."
The Slayer's eyes continued to remain narrowed. "Better by watchin' you stuff your face?"
"It was an intricate plan," he defended. "In a hard candy shell."
Faith took another puff on the Marlboro as she shook her head. "Sometimes I'm so glad I don't hang with you."
"Ahh, you don't mean that," coaxed the carpenter. "I'm very charming." He grinned in her direction.
Far from convinced, she openly scoffed, but Xander refused to be deflated. "Anyway," he stated briskly, "love to stay and be insulted, but—" He raised the box in his hands, "—I gotta make a delivery."
Continuing his descent, Xander ensured this time to carefully locate each and every step along the way. Once he had made it safely to the bottom, he settled the box more comfortably within his arms and set off on his journey. With head tilted to one side, Faith watched the departure for a second and then, flicking her butt to one side, joined him.
"You gonna walk?" she asked.
"No, I thought I'd fly," responded Xander. "My wings should sprout any second now. Oh! Here they come!" His pace slowed as his forehead creased with concentration. "No, wait, that was just my spine screaming in agony. False alarm."
Faith rolled her eyes. "You got a car, yeah?"
"It's not too far, I figured I'd walk it." He shifted the large unwieldy box once more. "I should'a brought the car," he admitted glumly.
"Ya think?" questioned Faith. She jostled the package with her shoulder, causing it to tip dangerously. Only by a very deft seesaw maneuver was the carpenter able to bring it back into balance. He treated Faith to a 'what the hell?' glare which she pointedly ignored as she asked, "What's in there, anyway?"
Xander's mood seemed to lighten somewhat. "A job I took a little bit ago. It's a present, for someone's nephew. Some toys and stuff. Just finished it all up this afternoon," he added with a satisfied smile.
"Cool," replied Faith with an approving nod. "Guess you're pretty handy with the ... the tools you use. I dunno what they are."
"I'm not too bad, I guess."
"D'you think—" began Faith and then stopped, as though reconsidering what she was about to ask. Nonetheless, she apparently decided to forge ahead. "D'you think you could make somethin'? For me?"
The carpenter chewed on the proposition for a moment before glancing at her curiously. "Well now, that's really gonna depend on what 'something' translates into."
"I dunno," she shrugged. "Somethin' nice, like for my room."
Feeling he was on the same wavelength, Xander nodded. "Sure. Like a bookcase or desk or something?"
But Faith was clearly on a different page. "I was thinkin' maybe a bit less Penneys an' more ... personal. But I dunno what."
"I'm sure we'll think of something," the carpenter assured. "Maybe picture frames?"
"Yeah, like that," returned Faith, still sounding dubious. "Not that I got pictures to put in 'em."
Xander chuckled. "Well maybe we can take some." He threw her another quick glance, no less curious than the first. "So what brought this on?"
"I dunno," responded the Slayer, dragging her feet along the sidewalk. "Talkin' to Haze."
"How's she doing?" he inquired with genuine concern. "Feelin' any better?"
"Little bit," Faith told him hesitantly. "We talked a lot last night. Or, she talked. I listened mostly. She went on some long thing about homes an' families an' somehow that tied into my room. I sorta zoned out after a while. Promised I'd add some personal stuff, though, an' she seemed happy, so ..." she shrugged.
Nodding encouragingly, Xander stated, "I think that's cool."
Faith blew out a puff of air and shrugged again. "Suppose."
"No, seriously," insisted the carpenter. "It's good you're here. Fightin' the fight, helpin' the girls ..."
Again, Faith tried to wave it off. "Beats a half-hour of rec time in a concrete yard, right?"
"And there you go," Xander emphatically agreed. "A slogan that speaks to us all."
In the large training room of Slayer Central, a couple dozen Juniors were engaged in vigorous workout routines. Kennedy observed the exercises with a critical eye as she patrolled back and forth, arms crossed over her chest like a drill sergeant.
"Pick it up, ladies!" she ordered curtly. "I was only gone for a little while, you can't have gone that soft yet!"
The command was rewarded with a restless rumble of underlying groans, but obeyed without question. Kennedy continued to supervise her charges as she paced, nodding with satisfaction at the immediate and gratifying response. She failed to notice Giles poised in the doorway, watching her performance with intense concentration.
"Melanie!" she called to one girl. "Proper form, none of this half-assed crap. Do it right now or do it right later a hundred more times."
Melanie instantly complied and Kennedy moved on, completing yet another back-and-forth circuit before she caught sight of Giles leaning against the doorjamb. She raised a questioning eyebrow in his direction and then issued a summons. "Asura!"
At the sound of her name, the Junior in question abruptly ceased pounding the life out of a punching bag with her taped fists and looked in Kennedy's direction. She swiftly jogged over in accordance with the sharp jerk of Kennedy's head.
"You're in charge until I get back," Kennedy told her.
With a brief show of pride, Asura accepted the assignment, yelling "Okay, maggots, keep it going! One-thirty-three, one-thirty four—!"
As Kennedy walked toward Giles, she glanced over her shoulder and noted Asura's enthusiasm with a grin.
The Watcher himself was unable to disguise the smirk that crossed his face. "'Maggots'," he remarked wryly. "I see you've rubbed off on them admirably."
"Little Miss Role Model, that's me," Kennedy confirmed. "So, what's up?"
She frowned as Giles turned and walked out of the room. Quickly following, she waited expectantly for a reply.
"I wasn't actually looking for you," Giles frankly admitted. "I just happened to pass by and saw your class. I thought you were going to rest and relax?"
Kennedy shrugged. "I am."
"I meant in a more conventional sense," chuckled the Watcher.
"Oh," responded Kennedy as the penny dropped. "I thought about it for all of five seconds, but ... Nah. This is good. We've gotta be in top shape for whatever's coming. I want my girls ready."
Giles regarded her soberly through his glasses. "Your dedication is admirable."
"It's a living, right?" came the nonchalant reply.
"I think we both know it's quite a bit more than that," remarked Giles.
Kennedy regarded his serious expression and gave an acknowledging nod, but offered no verbal confirmation. She returned his penetrating stare without faltering and simply waited for him to continue.
"You're very gifted," the Watcher finally voiced.
"That's me," Kennedy readily agreed with a grin. "The gift that keeps on giving."
"Your Watcher would have been very proud of you," said Giles matter-of-factly.
The Slayer blinked for a moment and her forehead creased in remembrance. An expression of surprise invaded her face, but it swiftly softened. "Thanks," she murmured, her tone sincere.
"And so am I," added Giles with equal sincerity.
Kennedy regarded the Watcher for a moment before her mouth twitched upward in smile. "It's 'Everybody Loves Kennedy' day, huh?" She nodded enthusiastically. "I'm okay with that."
But Giles was not so easily swayed from his intended purpose. "You've shown remarkable presence of mind and leadership. Though you're hard on your charges—"
"Hey, it's a tough world out there," interrupted the Slayer. "The monsters aren't gonna care if little Janie's got a hangnail and wants the night off."
Giles smiled indulgently. "Perhaps not exactly the words I would have used," he admitted, "but I share your sentiment. You're hard on them, but fair. They need that if they're to survive."
He stopped in front of his office and opened the door for her. "Which is why I wanted to ask you a question," he said as they entered. As he began to shut the door, affording the two of them some privacy, Giles' voice drifted into the hallway.
"How do you feel about Europe?"
At the wheel of the family car, Buffy took her eyes from the road for a moment to glance at her sister, occupying the passenger seat.
"Oh, and that night?" Dawn was telling her, "each of the rooms got free HBO, right? So Brenda's surfing, and we find this episode of 'Real Sex' and we—"
Horrified, she stopped mid-sentence, suddenly aware of who the delightful tale was being relayed to. She quickly backpedaled with astounding dexterity. "—we immediately changed it to ABC Family, where we enjoyed many fine hours of quality programming." Dawn nodded to herself in confirmation.
"Uh-huh," remarked a clearly unbelieving Buffy. The teenager blinked innocently, eyes wide, as Buffy shook her head in amusement. "You had a good time, though?"
"I totally did," enthused Dawn. "Thanks for letting me go."
"Well ..." mused the Slayer thoughtfully, "I can't keep freaking out every time you get a canker sore, can I?"
The teenager's expression registered confusion, but she wasn't about to argue. "Nooo, I suppose not ..."
"I just mean ..." Buffy attempted to clarify, "you'll be 18 next year." Her tone took on a wistful note. "My little sister. Old enough to vote."
"But not drink," Dawn scowled. "Where's the logic?"
Buffy shook her head in wonderment, still lost in her nostalgic thoughts. "You're growing up so fast."
Dawn appeared to hover on the brink of panic. "Okay, you're not gonna get all Hallmark on me, are you? Cuz if you are, then ... then I need a warning, And about a zillion miles between us."
"No greeting cards. Promise," assured the Slayer with a smile.
"And none of those phone commercials either," the teenager insisted. "They're depressing. Remember? Mom used to get all weepy."
Nodding her head, Buffy solemnly agreed, "No cards, no calls."
"Okay then," Dawn agreed with a heavy sigh of relief. A brief moment passed and she looked at her sister. In a tentative voice, she asked, "Do you ... ever think about Mom?"
Somewhat take off guard, Buffy nevertheless answered honestly. "All the time."
"Does it still hurt?"
Buffy nodded gently. "All the time."
The teenager considered this. "It doesn't hurt as much as it used to, though." She turned in her seat, tucking the seatbelt under her arm and out of her way as she studied the blonde's profile. "You don't think that makes her sad, do you?" Her need to hear Buffy dispel her fears crept into her voice. "I mean, do you think she knows we still love her? Just as much?"
"I know she does," the Slayer reassured. "She wouldn't want us to still be crying. You remember how much she used to hate it when you cried."
"Yeah," Dawn chuckled at the memory, "she used to start tickling me, all demanding that 'Mr. Happy Face' come out. God, so lame." She rolled her eyes, but continued grinning.
"Worked though, didn't it?" asked Buffy, arching an eyebrow.
Another moment of silence fell between the Summers girls.
"Why all this stuff about Mom?" queried Buffy, curious but undemanding. "Not that you can't think about her or talk about her whenever you want," she hastened to add.
Dawn stared at her hands, clasped together in her lap. "She's just been on my mind and stuff a lot."
Sparing a sideways glance at Dawn, Buffy snapped on the signal and smoothly made a left-hand turn. "I get that," she confessed. "I wish she was here sometimes. Lots of times. I just can't fill the Mom shoes like Mom."
It was Dawn's turn to sneak a furtive glimpse at her sister. "You do okay," she stated with an overly nonchalant shrug.
Buffy's mouth twitched in a tiny smile. "Yeah?"
"I mean, you can't make brownies to save your life," the teenager quickly amended, "but ...yeah."
Again, the Slayer tore her gaze away from the road for a brief second. "I love you, Dawn, you know that, right?" she said, as though it were vitally important that this information be conveyed and fully understood.
The teenager nodded. "I know."
"Even when you don't do your homework," Buffy persisted, "or stay out until twelve-thirty when I specifically said twelve, or—" she continued in an exceedingly pointed tone, "—steal my nice new leather jacket that I've only worn once."
"I so didn't steal it!" protested a vehement Dawn. "I was ... in a rush and when I grabbed my jacket, I ... missed."
"You missed your closet and hit mine, huh?" she was asked in a flat, disbelieving voice.
Dawn visibly pouted. "And anyway, I got the stain out."
There was no glance this time, Buffy's head spun toward Dawn, turning in time with the steering wheel. "Stain?" Her eyes flew back to the road as the car threatened to fishtail. "You stained my nice new leather jacket?!"
"Still feelin' that love, right?" coaxed Dawn, turning on her most charming smile.
"Less and less with each passing second," came the disgruntled reply.
"Hey, look, it's home!" announced the teenager brightly as she pointed out of the window. "Yay for home! I missed it."
The Slayer brought the car to a screeching halt in the driveway. "You are such a pain in my neck."
"But a lovable one," rejoined her sister, opening the door. "Look at these dimples." She turned and exhibited a huge toothy smile.
Buffy switched off the ignition. "You do not have dimples."
Dawn shrugged. "Oh. Well, I have nice teeth."
"Yes. I'm powerless before the magnetic charisma of good dentistry," a sarcastic Buffy curtly informed as she put the keys in her pocket and began to get out of the car. Dawn followed suit, hauling her bags behind her.
"Make sure you rest up tonight," the Slayer cautioned, moving around to the front of the car and making no move to help her sister with the luggage. "We've got a Scooby meeting tomorrow."
Dawn threw her backpack over her shoulder. "Yeah?"
"Yup," affirmed the Slayer. "We'll all be there bright and early. If Faith and Kennedy can make it after patrolling all night long, then you can make it after doing your math homework and getting to bed by eleven."
"So," responded Dawn, looking meaningfully at her overnight bag and then at Buffy. "Scooby meeting, huh?"
"Yeeees," the Slayer told her, blatantly ignoring the subtle suggestion for assistance.
The teenager rolled her eyes and hefted the bag over her other shoulder. Assuming Quasimodo posture, she loped after her sister. "To which I get an official invite."
"This can very easily be retracted."
Dawn waved a dismissive hand. "No no, that's okay. I'm simply basking in the implication."
"Well stop it, it's annoying," retorted Buffy, opening the front door.
"I love you, too," the teenager smirked.
Buffy rolled her eyes. "Just make sure you're ready on time," she commanded, finally relieving Dawn of the overnight bag and treating her to a hug as they entered the house.
From across the street, Judith watched, unseen, as Buffy threw an arm around Dawn's shoulders and escorted her inside. She smiled as the door closed behind them.
"We will be," Judith murmured softly with a smile.