The sun was losing its afternoon warmth as Buffy jogged toward home. Dressed in a tracksuit, she'd obviously been working out for quite some time and seemed unable to completely shut down her engine. She continued to jog as she opened the front door and headed for the kitchen. Still running in place, she went to the refrigerator and grabbed a carton of orange juice before trotting to the cupboard to get a glass. Locked in perpetual motion, she poured out the juice and then brought the glass to her lips, resulting in much of the contents slopping onto the floor. Reluctantly, the Slayer slowed her pace sufficiently to get more of the liquid into her mouth rather than all over it. She drained the last remaining drop with a satisfied smack and then eyed a bowl of fruit sitting on the counter.
Plucking one of the apples, she tossed it into her other hand and regarded it speculatively. Turning back to the bowl, she chose another and then snatched a third. Her tongue protruded slightly as she frowned with concentration and began to juggle. The act was executed with rather more determination than skill, but at least each piece of fruit managed to stay aloft, which was something.
She had managed to keep the circling arc airborne for around thirty seconds when Willow entered the room.
"Should I make a 'playing with your food' joke or an 'apple a day' joke?" queried the redhead, raising an eyebrow at the spectacle.
With a small start, Buffy's tenuous control over the apples was broken and all three of the fruited balls tumbled to the floor. She pouted as they rolled under the counter in an impromptu game of follow the leader.
"I wanted to eat those," she complained.
"Really?" Willow questioned in an amused tone. "Cuz you looked pretty big with the juggling and less with the eating."
"I can't do both?" rejoined Buffy.
The redhead shrugged. "I have no idea. Oh, but you can try, though. Just lemme get the video camera first," she grinned mischievously.
"So I'm funny to you?" asked Buffy with a twinkle, squaring her shoulders and bearing down threateningly. "I'm a clown for your amusement?"
Less than intimidated, Willow replied, "You pretty much looked one dogface boy from a carnival a second ago."
Sticking out her tongue, Buffy straightened as her brow furrowed in thought. "You ever wonder why I can't juggle?"
Willow's mouth started to form a 'Yes', but her vocal chords responded with a "No."
"I mean with Slayer abilities and everything, you'd think I should be able to juggle."
"Maybe it's a trade-off," the redhead suggested with a sunny expression. "You got, you know ... super-strength, super-speed, and super-metabolism in exchange for ... juggling."
Buffy considered this for a moment. "I guess that's fair," she finally admitted.
"I'd take it," stated Willow firmly. She tenderly patted her stomach and pulled a grimace. "Especially super-metabolism. Ugh. I can't believe I"
"'Ate the whole thing'?" finished the Slayer brightly. Willow narrowed her eyes and Buffy grinned. "I was waiting all night for that set-up."
"You're not wrong," Willow told her grudgingly. "I don't think I'll even be able to look a piece of junk food in the eye for a week. Not that junk food typically has eyes. Or any kind of food really. Except a potato, and what's up with that? Why do they call them eyes? It sort of gives you this image of a ... a big brown thing with a couple dozen tiny blinking eyes just staring, right at you."
Buffy's forehead creased as she followed Willow's ramblings. Clearly, she had never given it much thought before. With a shake of her head, it became apparent that she likely never would again, either.
"I don't think I'll be able to touch another baked potato," murmured Willow, ostensibly in a place all her own by this time.
Buffy was anxious to move on. "Anyway, that's not really important."
"Says you!" exclaimed the redhead. "I just gave myself enough nightmare fuel to last a month!"
"I was talking in more of a 'big picture' sense," Buffy explained. "You know, taking everything into consideration, I'm just not convinced the spuds issue ranks."
"Still worrying about Dawn, huh?" asked Willow with a knowledgeable tilt of her head.
"Oh no," Buffy was quick to deny. A glance at her friend told her that the statement wasn't exactly carrying the weight she'd hoped and she sighed. "Okay, that's a lie. But I've since added to my worry repertoire. I went to see Giles earlier."
The redhead was immediately concerned. "What did Is everyone okay?"
"Oh, oh, yeah. No, it's fine," the Slayer firmly reassured. "Kennedy called him when they crossed the border. They've got this Keeper woman and they're on their way. They should be here" She briefly checked the clock on the wall, "any time now, actually. Kennedy was apparently really keen to get home. Said something about getting pixie dust all over her favorite jeans."
Buffy looked expectantly at Willow, as though hoping she could provide clarification of that last statement, but the witch simply shrugged and regarded the blonde with a blank expression. Buffy echoed the shrug before continuing.
"But he's pretty wiggy. I think he's starting to get really worried, which is making me really worried. Which he knows, so he's trying super hard to not show he's worried, which just means he's seriously worried, and it's making me even more worried." Buffy frowned as she mulled over her convoluted dissertation.
Willow rested her elbows on the counter and smiled indulgently. "Wow," she grinned, "you sounded like me just there."
"Mom always said you were a bad influence," Buffy accused with a smirk, only to be rewarded with a similar smirk, but then she exhaled heavily. "I dunno," she puffed. "I just want some answers."
"Then you're in luck," came a voice from beyond the kitchen. With a quick turn of their heads, both Buffy and Willow saw Tara standing in the doorway, still toting her bags. She dropped her luggage onto the floor with a thud and treated them to a smile.
"I think I have just what you're looking for."
Story by: Jet Wolf and Ultrace
Scripted by: Jet Wolf
Prosed by: Novareinna & Ultrace
Original Airdate: Tuesday, 23 November 2004, 8pm EST
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.
Tara sat cross-legged on the bed in Willow's room, watching the redhead pace nervously back and forth across the floor. Neither woman appeared particularly comfortable with the situation, but their resolve and determination were apparent.
"So, any great advice from Canada?" queried Willow, an exercise in perpetual motion.
Tara's eyes followed the redhead's rapid step. "Make sure you already have a happy predisposition toward snow," she suggested. "And change flat tires really fast."
"Ha!" exclaimed Willow as she came to a halt at the foot of the bed. "Flat tire, that's ... that's funny ..."
"There ... really wasn't a joke there," Tara replied with a slightly confused chuckle.
Willow wrinkled her nose. "No, I guess not." Her feet resumed their restless journey as a long silence enveloped the room.
Leaning forward, Tara rested her chin in her palm and quirked an eyebrow. "So much for small talk, huh?" she smirked.
"We just have too much talk," the redhead countered, still pacing. "We need a more appropriate size."
"Big talk?" volunteered Tara.
"Super-sized talk," Willow countered.
The blonde thought for a moment. "Prodigious talk."
"Well if that isn't enough talk," puffed Willow, "we're gonna have to do some serious editing."
They both chuckled, but any true merriment died very quickly. It was obvious there was simply too much to be said to continue to avoid the saying.
Willow slowed and finally came to a halt once more at the foot of the bed. She fidgeted with her fingers as she looked worriedly at Tara. "I'm scared," she admitted in a hurried breath, anxious to get the words out.
Immediately, the blonde's eyebrows knitted together. "Of me?"
"Of me. This ... Whatever's between us, whatever it means ... This power that I have, it's strong. Sometimes I think it's stronger than me. Stronger than any of us."
Slowly, Tara shook her head. "I can't believe that."
"I have to," declared Willow with acutely felt certainty. "It changed me, Tara. I let it change me. I wanted it to. The temptation to just ... You don't know. I can feel it. All the time." She suddenly looked tiny and crestfallen. "You shouldn't have to go through that."
"There's a lot of stuff we 'shouldn't' have to go through," the blonde told her gently. "But the bad stuff? It all helps make us who we are."
"And if you can't live with that person?"
Tara looked away, apparently at a loss to provide any satisfactory answer. "I'm scared too," she eventually acknowledged, able to meet Willow's gaze. "I-I'm ... I'm not who I used to be." She noted the redhead's expression of confusion and attempted to make her point clear. "Things are different. Now. The things I've gone through ..."
Still unable to grasp the full implication, Willow frowned. "What does that ...?"
"I don't know who you need. I don't know who I need," Tara added with a sardonic laugh.
The redhead's face broke into a smile. "Well that one's easy for me." She moved around to the side of the bed where Tara was sitting, bridging the distance between them. "I've always known," she affirmed softly.
"Willow ..." murmured Tara.
Kneeling in front of Tara, Willow's smile was so bright, it was almost impossible to not bask in its warmth. "Whatever you think is different," she told the blonde, "what you think is not-Tara? It doesn't change a darned thing. You're the same in all the ways that matter." The redhead's hand loitered over her heart. "I can feel it."
Tara shook her head doubtfully. "You don't know that."
Willow nodded with absolute conviction. "I know that."
A tiny frown of concentration furrowed Tara's brow as she looked into the earnest upturned face. Willow projected an aura of total confidence in the words she had spoken as pure and simple fact. An eternity of moments passed between the pair, moments devoted to intense scrutiny and deep searching. Slowly, Willow began to rise, leaning forward and inching her way toward Tara.
"Whoever this 'New Tara' is?" Willow began in a low, intimate voice, "I wanna know her, too."
"Even if she's grouchy sometimes?" asked Tara in a hushed tone.
Willow's smile broadened. "Mm, I like grouchy. I bet New Tara gets the most adorable little crease in her forehead when she's grouchy."
As though a magnet were tugging at her, Tara began to slowly lean forward as well. "And even if she wakes up in the middle of the night from bad dreams?"
The smile transformed into an impish grin. "Sounds like a good excuse for early morning comfort cuddles."
There were scant inches separating them now. Tara's lids were becoming heavy and began to drift shut. "How about when"
Her eyes shot open at the sudden emergence of a blinding flash that erupted between them. As an intense arc of energy leapt from Willow into Tara, they abruptly pulled apart, each instantly startled and somewhat short of breath.
Willow sat back on her heels, her hand leaping to her chest. "Okay, what the frilly heck was" She swiftly surveyed the room and then locked her gaze once more upon Tara. Her features contorted in alarm and the blood drained from her face. "Oh god. Oh god," she muttered fearfully.
Shaking her head, Tara was still attempting to recover from the unexpected charge. Her eyes now black and impenetrable as a starless midnight sky roamed Willow's petrified face. "What is it?" she asked anxiously.
"Oh god," whispered Willow, rocking back and forth in horror.
The blonde reached out a hand, but Willow was clearly terrified and violently recoiled. "Don't touch me!"
Obviously wounded at the rejection, Tara immediately withdrew her gesture. "Willow? What's wrong?" Her tone was gentle but undeniably frightened.
Instantly, Willow deeply regretted her outburst, but the dread she was experiencing refused to abate. "Oh, baby, I ..." She paused before continuing in a voice that spoke primarily to herself. "What have I done?" Stumbling to her feet, Willow's began to blindly back away toward the door.
Stifling her own mounting feelings of panic, Tara also stood and moved slowly toward the redhead, like she was approaching a cornered and timorous rabbit. "Will, just calm down," she attempted to comforted. "Whatever it is, it'll be okay."
But Willow simply shook her head and would not be convinced. Gaze transfixed on Tara, almost as if she were unable to look elsewhere, the redhead continued to back away. She reached behind her for the door handle and upon finding it, turned and fled the room.
Tara called out Willow's name, but the redhead did not return. Instead, the only sound that met Tara's ears was that of footsteps pounding down the stairs. By the time the blonde reached the entrance to the room, the front door had slammed and Willow was gone.
Lost in confusion, Tara swallowed hard to contain the threatening tears. She ran a trembling hand through her hair and then retreated into Willow's bedroom. Her gaze traveled across the floor and around the walls, finally coming to rest upon her own reflection in the mirror above the dresser. The jet black eyes that regarded her from the looking glass registered complete astonishment.
Entranced at the vision, Tara approached the image. Her fingers reached out toward the reflection and then turned to her own face. In wonder, she traced the contours of her cheekbone just beneath the eye, hardly able to believe the manifestation. She blinked rapidly just to make sure it wasn't an illusion. It wasn't. She stared at the mirror image for a moment longer.
In the large communal training room, a few pockets of Juniors were working on the weight machines but the room was mostly dominated by Faith, reclining on a tower of exercise mats while she watched Hazel shadow box in front of the wall-length mirror.
"This'll be so cool," enthused the younger girl. "Me. Large and in charge." She caught sight of Faith's reflected, dubious expression. "What? I'm taller than you." Hazel drew herself up to full height, but then quickly slumped again. "Just," she added under her breath. Her exuberance could not be contained for long, however, and she soon began chatting again. "It's exciting, though. And kinda scary. You think I'll do okay?"
"You'll be fine," Faith assured. "Just don't let 'em hit'cha too much. You newbies land a few blows on the teach an' you get all cocky."
A fleeting hint of worry crossed Hazel's features. "I'd feel better if you were there."
Faith quirked an eyebrow. "If I was there, I wouldn't need you to take over."
"Oh, sure, use logic," scoffed Hazel, throwing a roundhouse punch.
"You'll be great," Faith told her with a wave of dismissal. "Just remember: 8AM. How to use whatever's handy as a weapon. Don't get hit a lot."
Hazel nodded her understanding and then returned the majority of her focus to the workout. Faith watched in silence for a moment. "Y'know," she tossed out casually, "you change your mind, decide you wanna go visit your folks, I can get someone else to take the class."
Puffing and continuing to aim jabs at her mirror image, Hazel glanced at Faith. "You already offered that once."
"Well I'm offerin' again."
The young girl smiled gratefully but declined. "I'm good, Fiver. I mean, it still really sucks, but I did a lot of thinking last night. If I was home, just me and my sister ... well, this'd pretty much trash my world. My parents were everything."
"Livin' the suburban dream," muttered Faith with an eye-roll.
"I sure thought so," pondered Hazel, hopping lightly from one foot to the other. "Guess appearances really are deceiving. Or I'm blind as a bat."
The dark-haired Slayer shrugged. "They probably just didn't want you an' your sis all caught up in their personal crap."
Hazel seemed to be in agreement. "I'm sure it was all very altruistic. If I was still at home right now, though, I'd probably be crying pretty much all the time. Now I'm here, though."
Faith nodded with understanding. "So you don't have to really deal with 'em."
"It's not that," the younger girl told her. "They're not my world any more." Her all-encompassing gesture included the entire complex. "This is. Being here, training to be a real true blue superhero, saving people ... this is what I do now. I saw the movies and stuff, right? Watched the TV shows, read the comic books ... That's me. That's all of us. I can't think of anything better in the whole world."
Leaning forward, Faith rested her elbows on her knees. "Just wait 'til you hit your first apocalypse. Divorce'll seem like cake."
"See, there you go just one more silvery sketch around that cloud of mine," Hazel grinned. "You, me, the Scoobies, all the other girls ... This is our home now." Hazel regarded the Senior Slayer's reflection in the mirror and grinned broadly.
Faith's watched the younger Slayer bob and weave against her imaginary opponent. "Be it ever so humble."
More workouts were occurring in other areas of the facility. Buffy and Giles had staked their claim on the private training room, the two circling each other cautiously. The Slayer aimed a kick at the Watcher's head and he blocked it with a well-padded hand.
"I can't believe you didn't make her talk," she griped.
Giles sighed heavily, as though he'd already explained the situation a dozen times. "She was tired. It was difficult to argue with her request to get some sleep. We will tackle this first thing in the morning. Besides, she does have something of a point about going through all the same information twice."
Pouting, Buffy turned to the wall and selected a broadsword, holding it aloft in attack position. She waited for Giles to do the same. "But you know stuff. She told you stuff."
Irritated with the stubborn glove, Giles shook his wrist in an agitated fashion. He scooted the discarded hand covering to one side with his shoe and poised his weapon. "I know a little bit of ... of 'stuff', yes, but certainly not enough to pop over to Robespierre's for a spot of tea. He- He's hidden himself remarkably well." He regarded the Slayer seriously. "We're going to need her help, Buffy."
"I'm being good," she insisted peevishly. "Good, yet cautious." She gave a tiny smirk. "Just like my Watcher taught me."
Giles leaned upon the hilt of his cutlass and nodded sagely. "Ah, remarkable chap. Very astute. You should listen to him more often, I think."
"Nah. He talks funny," rejoined Buffy, suddenly spinning gracefully and arcing her blade at Giles' knee. He hastily parried the blow and waited for her next assault.
Giles regarded her warily this time. "Yes?"
"When you first met me ... what did you think?" She feinted to the left and then lunged but the Watcher was ready.
"'That outfit is entirely inappropriate for Slaying'," he told her crisply. Buffy laughed and Giles was obliged to smile. "I also seem to recall thinking, 'Good lord. She's only a child'," he added fondly, brandishing his weapon defensively, but Buffy was now leaning upon the hilt of her sword and apparently in anything but attack mode for the moment.
Laying down his cutlass, the Watcher moved to the ice chest and extracted two bottles of water, handing one to Buffy. The Slayer sipped slowly as Giles gulped his like a thirsty man in the desert.
"It's funny how serious you were back then," she smiled indulgently. "You were, like, Watcher Concentrate, all tweed and superiority."
Giles peered at her over his upturned bottle as he drained it dry. "Had to take classes, you know," he confided. "Coming across that uptight is an art form one must refine."
The Slayer tilted her head to one side in contemplation. "Would you go back there? If you could?"
"Would you?" he challenged.
Buffy gave the matter some considerable thought and then smirked. "I asked you first."
Raising an eyebrow, Giles regarded his Slayer petulantly. "Well I asked you second."
"You are such a child," Buffy retorted with an eye roll.
"I know you are, my dear Slayer, but what am I?"
His tone was so prim and proper that Buffy let loose with a loud peal of laughter. Giles' eyes glinted with amusement behind his glasses, but he consented to end the petty bickering and answer the question.
"Would I return to those days of willingly being under the Council's thumb?" he pondered, as though mulling over the proposition. "Of dealing with endless streams of children with no interest in learning, who viewed the library only as a prime place to celebrate their teenage hormones in seclusion? Lying awake at night, worrying that you weren't taking your duties seriously and were, at that moment, getting yourself killed?" He shook his head emphatically. "No, I can't say that I miss those days much at all."
He looked at Buffy's now sober and thoughtful face. "And you?"
Buffy shrugged. "Sometimes. It all seemed so much simpler then."
This was something the Watcher found unable to refute. "Yes, I expect it did."
"But mostly ..." the blonde continued. "No. I don't think I'd go back. I mean, then? I didn't even have a cell phone."
Again, Giles had no argument to offer in rebuttal. "Yes, it all balances out now." He paused. "What brought all this on?"
Distractedly, Buffy slashed at the air with her honed blade. "Dawn was just talking earlier about Mom and stuff. I guess I just got bit by the nostalgia bug."
"I think I have some understanding of that," the Watcher commiserated. "Still, we can only learn from the past, not dwell in it."
Wide-eyed, Buffy blinked. "So says the man who still thinks MTV is a tool of dark forces."
"Well honestly," he protested, "have you ever stopped and really considered Carson Daly? I think I need say no more." Aiming his empty water bottle at a trashcan in the corner, he executed a perfect basket and then hefted his cutlass. "Now, let's practice your counter attack."
They had just begun the blow-exchange process when Faith appeared at the doorway. With a jarring clang of metal, both Giles and Buffy turned in her direction.
The dark-haired Slayer took a step back. "Sorry. I'll go to my room."
Buffy beckoned her forward. "No, Faith," she insisted, "it's cool."
But Faith was not easily convinced. "I got a bag in my room," she responded with a shrug. "I can pound on that."
Concerned, Giles took a step toward her. "Are you all right?"
She jerked her head. "Five by five. Little wired is all."
"You can feel it too, huh?," asked Buffy, instantly sympathetic to the mood. "All the tension."
"A bit," admitted Faith. "Now we got a face to go with the name, I just wanna go smack it around. Waitin's not exactly my strong point."
"Well why don't you join us?" came Giles' suggestion.
Faith dismissed the notion. "Nah, this is a Slayer/Watcher thing."
"Last time I checked I was, technically, your Watcher also," chuckled Giles wryly.
Moving to the entrance, Buffy seized Faith's arm, tugging her further into the room. "Just think of all the fun we can have. All the friendly rivalries ... Being the favorite Slayer, picking out the best 'Watcher's Day' present ..." she grinned conspiratorially.
Faith snorted, but didn't pull away. "Think we got enough rivalries to last us a lifetime, B."
"Nah," gainsaid the blonde. "It's like Jell-O there's always room for more."
Faith cast a questioning glance toward Giles, who simply smiled and then quickly hurled his cutlass at the dark-haired Slayer. Reacting immediately, she caught it deftly by the hilt with one hand.
"We're working on taking advantage of any weakness in your opponent," he told her.
"Might know a little somethin' about that," Faith conceded with a cocky grin.
Buffy was scornful in her indignation. "Well let's see what'cha got."
Treating himself to another bottle of cool water, Giles settled down comfortably on a nearby bench to watch the entertainment.
The morning had dawned clear, bright and cloudless. In the library, its lone occupant stood before one of the windows and squinted at the bright sun before taking stock of the vast inventory of books that lined the walls and the upper level. Ruth nodded her ancient head in approval and eyed several of the volumes with much interest, not bothering to turn when Willow quietly entered the room. The redhead had clearly been in search of something and had now apparently found the object of her quest in the form of the old woman.
"Hello, Willow," came the soft greeting in a voice which sounded rather like crackling parchment.
Willow was a somewhat startled at the obvious recognition and her reply held a questioning note. "Hi?"
Slowly turning, an expression of surprise crossed Ruth's features as she laid eyes upon Willow, but it soon became a smile.
Having caught the look, the redhead looked down at herself in confusion. "What?"
"You're not what I expected," chuckled the old woman with a hint of delight. "How refreshing. Do you have any idea how rare it is for someone my age to actually be surprised?"
Willow took a cautious step closer. "What did ... You expected something?"
Ruth's eyes twinkled with amusement. "Don't we all?"
"But you know me?"
"My child," she responded with an indulgent smile, "every witch, warlock, mage or sorceress worthy of the title knows you." Tilting her head to one side, Ruth queried, "You didn't honestly expect to make the Earth scream and remain anonymous, did you?"
A flush invaded Willow's cheeks but she shook her head sharply, refusing to be distracted. "I wanted to talk to you."
"We are talking," the old woman pointed out.
"I mean about specific stuff," Willow told her. "Giles, Tara ... they think you know things."
Ruth shuffled across the floor. "I do. My oatmeal raisin cookie recipe, for example."
The redhead's eyes widened. "Oh, I-I like oatmeal rais" She abruptly severed that train of thought with a wave of her hand. "Do you know what's happening?"
"You might want to be a little more specific, dear," Ruth chuckled. She sank into a comfortably stuffed chair with a sigh of relief to be off her feet.
Willow moved closer. "To me. Us. My powers."
"Ah," Ruth breathed knowingly. She scrutinized Willow's eager face as her fingers absently drummed against her chin. After a moment, she shook her head. "I'm not really sure," she mused, her eyes still locked on Willow. "There's obviously a connection there, but ..." Her forehead creased in a deep frown. "You're blocking it," she claimed firmly.
"Darn tootin' I'm blocking it!" came the instant reply. "Do you know what happened yesterday?"
The old woman opened her mouth to respond, but the question had apparently been rhetorical, as Willow had every intention of answering it regardless. The redhead began to pace back and forth as she spoke.
"There we were, things looking ... really good, I'm about a second away from my first Tara smoochie in, oh, forever, a-and then bam! ..." Willow frowned as she replayed the events in her head. "Only not so much bam! as flash!," she corrected as an aside, before resuming in a more anxious voice. "Then there's this- this feeling like I'm under attack by a vacuum cleaner from hell and suddenly Tara needs Visine for evil and is that what I really look like when I get the black magick eyes, because, wow! Scary!"
Yet another frown invaded Ruth's forehead, adding to the numerous wrinkles already ensconced there. "What did she do?"
"Tried to stop me from freaking out! Yeah, like that was possible." The scoff was accompanied by a self-effacing eye roll.
Turning this new information over in her mind, Ruth leaned forward in the chair. "Is she okay now?"
"I haven't seen her this morning," the redhead replied, "but ... when I finally went home last night, she was fine. Her eyes were nice and normal. She said it wore off after about ten minutes, but ..." Willow twisted her fingers, the recollection plainly distressing. "I don't ever want to see that again. Not ever. I like her eyes the way they should be blue and perfect. They shouldn't be evil ..." Her gaze drifted to the floor. To herself, she added, "Like mine."
Ruth's joints creaked a little as she moved into a more comfortable position. "But her personality, her attitude? That didn't shift at all?"
Willow thought for a moment. "Well she was scared, which was so not the surprise, but ..." She paused and seemed to dig deeper. "No. She acted just like Tara. She didn't even seem to notice it."
The old woman concentrated on digesting the information while a concerned Willow hovered expectantly. However, the redhead was apparently not prepared to wait very long. "What does that mean?" she demanded. "It means something good, right? No, of course it's not good. But ... But it doesn't necessarily mean bad? But when it was me, I didn't think it was bad at first either." Her tone grew almost desperate. "How can I stop it?"
Surveying the anxious face, Ruth shook her head apologetically. "I don't think you can, dear."
Clearly, this was not what Willow wanted to hear. "But I have to! What's gonna happen if I don't?"
"I don't know," the old woman told her honestly. "The answer to that is really up to you and Tara."
She reached out her hand to Willow, and the redhead appearing almost shell-shocked reacted instinctively and took it. Using Willow as a lever, Ruth hauled herself to her feet, her knees popping noisily as she did so. With a thankful smile, the Keeper patted the younger woman's hand.
This seemed to jar Willow from her thoughts, and with a frown, she opened her mouth to further question, or perhaps protest Ruth's words. She never got the chance to speak, however, as Giles entered the room, closely followed by several of the others.
Riffling through a sheaf of notes, the Watcher looked up briefly and smiled at the two women already in the room. "Ahh, good, you're both here." He nodded with satisfaction. "Shall we get started then?"
With a final parting smile in Willow's direction, Ruth headed toward Giles, leaving Willow lingering on the fringes, a worried expression on her face.
Much to Giles' delight, everyone had arrived on time for the meeting and had now taken up positions at various tables, either sitting or standing. As the center of attention, Ruth smiled happily to note that every eye was concentrated on her. She dramatically dragged out the moment of suspense before deciding to speak.
"For a few decades now," she began, "I've made it something of a habit to not concern myself too much with the outside world. I've found it doesn't quite hold the same interest for me that it once did, and I was tired. So very tired. I was content, not paying things much mind. There were of course moments where I couldn't completely tune everything out." At this, she glanced briefly and meaningfully at Willow. "I was detached, not blind. One such event occurred a few months ago."
Giles took up the tale as Ruth's eyes sparkled indulgently. "I believe the catalyst for Ruth's ... renewed sense of interest was Tara's resurrection," the Watcher explained.
Xander leaned toward Tara. "Boy, you just woke up everyone, didn't you, missy?" He wagged a reproving finger. "Keep it down next time you rise from the dead."
Tara grimaced. "I, uhm ... I think I'll skip on the 'next time' part."
"Once my attention had been attracted," stated Ruth, taking the lead once again, "I wasn't particularly in the mood to just let it go." She began to grumble under her breath. "I'd already missed the end of 'The Price is Right'." She scowled in aggravation for a second and then continued in her normal scratchy voice. "So I stretched a few old magick muscles, and went sniffing around."
"Sniffing," echoed Buffy. "I'm guessing not for potpourri."
Ruth fixed the blonde Slayer with a piercing stare, beneath which Buffy refused to waver. "Youth today," sighed the old woman regretfully, "no appreciation for hyperbole." Sensing the mounting atmosphere of agitation, Ruth rolled her eyes a little and then continued. "After some investigation and reflection, I was able to get an impression of the signature."
Kennedy waved an impatient hand. "Okay, I'm officially confused."
Willow hastened to explain. "Every spell has a sort of- of fingerprint. An impression left by the caster, or possibly casters. Two witches can cast the exact same spell, but leave behind completely different signatures."
"You have to be pretty sensitive to pick them up though," added Tara, "unless you're already really familiar with the signature."
Ruth nodded wisely, seemingly content with these explanations. "I wasn't able to get an exact match, but I did find something extremely similar ... and very powerful. I spent some time trying to get as much information as I could, but it's impressively shrouded. Slipperier than a pumpkin seed in the rain."
"What're we talkin'?" interrupted Faith. "This that Robespierre guy?"
Giles was quick to confirm. "That's what I suspect. Although Robespierre himself never showed any particular leaning towards mystical powers ... in fact, he more often than not seemed to deem it as unrefined, antiquated at best. Still, given the nature of the attacker and our difficulty in locating him through more conventional means ... Well, he appears to have expanded his resources."
"And it makes sense," asserted Willow crisply. "If he's working the magicks to juice up Slayers an' I couldn't even catch a trace of it, it's pretty punchy power."
"So," pondered Kennedy, "we're talking busting in and busting heads, right?"
"It's most likely an item of some sort acting as a conduit," Ruth submitted with conviction. "The readings I was able to get show a steady stream of power, constantly flowing but constantly regenerating too. The levels don't fluctuate or decrease, they simply rise steadily. Anything living, even something that powerful, would have to slow or stop occasionally."
Xander mulled this over for a moment. "Okay, so summing up: Big Bad, Big Power. Power in doohickey. Doohickey smashy, power go bye-bye."
"You have such a way with words," Wood told him. Xander beamed in satisfaction.
Giles folded his arms across his chest. "Power will not go 'bye-bye'," he responded, the repeated words almost distasteful, "so much as simply stop feeding into whatever is draining it. If my assumptions are correct, the power already expended will remain in ... whatever was absorbing it."
"You're thinking the Super Slayers," volunteered Dawn, who had brought a legal pad with her and already covered several sheets of paper with copious notes. She smiled proudly at the Watcher's nod of affirmation.
"What about the magic users behind this?" asked Hannah, leaning over the back of Wood's chair.
"Powerful, no doubt, but not our primary concern," Giles told her and then turned his attention to the assembly as a whole. "They're under the command of Robespierre. Without him and without their power source or conduit or whatever it is, they'll likely scatter. The commander and his army must be our top priorities. Once we've stopped them, we can seek out the spellcasters after."
Buffy took a deep breath. "Okay, so step one: we destroy the battery and somehow get rid of whatever leftovers is turning these other Slayers into T-1000s, right?" She regarded Giles expectantly.
"In its most basic form, that would be the plan, yes," he conceded.
Nodding grimly, Buffy turned to Ruth. "Great So where are they?"
"I don't exactly know ..." came the response. It was a reply not taken well by the blonde Slayer, and she appeared ready to launch a major protest. Ruth held up a hand to stave off the impending storm.
"...but," the old woman added brightly, "I can help you find them."
Tara sat against one wall of the corridor outside the library, knees drawn up to her chin, while Buffy and Xander were across from her, shoulder-to shoulder. The trio looked like school kids loitering in the hallway awaiting the summons to first period.
"You're talkin' full on, eyes of darkness?" queried an awe-struck Xander.
Exhibiting a tiny frown of concern, Tara nodded.
"Whoa," breathed Buffy. "Why didn't you say anything last night?"
"The whole thing was sort of draining," the witch replied. "I just fell asleep before you guys got home. I-I got to talk to Willow about it, though. Well, we didn't really talk," she corrected. "More like, I spoke, and she kept panicking. She was really upset."
"No blame from my end," remarked the carpenter. "It's freaky enough when she gets like that, I can only imagine what it'd look like on you."
"But you're okay, right?" Buffy checked. "No malevolent side effects?"
"None. Not even nightmares."
"We should tell Giles," announced a tight-lipped Buffy.
Xander was in total agreement. "G-Man definitely needin' to be in the loop on this one."
"I'll talk to him as soon as we finish up today," Tara confirmed. She glanced into the library before adding, "Whenever that is."
Buffy slid further down the wall. "Break time should be over soon. How much tea can one man drink?"
"I've seen him put away a whole box of Celestial Seasonings," confided Xander. "He's a tea-drinking machine."
"I think he was getting maps and paper and stuff anyway," remarked Tara thoughtfully. "For the plan part of our plan."
"Oh believe me, there's tea involved there somewhere," Xander assured with a dismissive wave of his hand.
Looking up, Tara smiled to see an immaculately groomed Quinn emerge from around the corner. Dressed in a gray tracksuit, his arms and legs pumped vigorously as though he were jogging along an invisible path as he made his way toward her.
"Hey, Quinn," Tara greeted.
"Good morning, sweetness," enthused the faerie. "And how are you today?"
"Fine, thanks," she told him. "Did you sleep okay?"
He puffed as he ran in place. "Oh, as well as could be expected. Ruth sounded like a grizzly bear with a sinus condition. Pity the dampening magicks were never my strong suit." Quinn treated Tara to an exasperated eye-roll before glancing over his shoulder and taking note of the curious expressions that adorned the faces of Xander and Buffy. He looked at Tara and jerked his head meaningfully. She hastened to make introductions.
"Oh, Quinn ..." Tara gestured at the wall across from her. "These are my friends. This is Buffy ..." She indicated the blonde Slayer who acknowledged the faerie with a very dubious and stilted wave. " ... and this," continued Tara, "is Xander."
The carpenter was staring at Quinn with a slightly dropped jaw. His forehead was creased with concentration, as though trying desperately to categorize the small creature in front of him. Xander blinked rapidly when he noticed that Quinn was treating him to an equal amount of scrutiny and he threw the faerie a friendly smile.
Apparently far from impressed, Quinn motioned toward Buffy. "Been battling demons and the like for 8 years, you said?" His question was directed toward Tara, who nodded brightly. Quinn then regarded both Slayer and carpenter quizzically. "Amazing," he commented with a baffled shake of his head.
Instantly, Xander's smile faltered and a nettled frown invaded Buffy's forehead.
Quinn turned to Buffy. "Slayer, I take it?"
"That's right," the blonde was quick to confirm. "Slayer of things both great and small."
The faerie fluttered to the floor and with hands clasped behind his back, strolled back and forth, eying Buffy critically. He flitted near Tara's shoulder and hovered there, drawing his knees to his chin in a perfect replica of the witch's position. His eyebrow arched in superior skepticism of Buffy's statement.
"She's practically skin and bone, isn't she?" he asked incredulously. "Looks like she could do with an sandwich or five, love. Put some meat on her, maybe she won't look so gaunt and sunken in."
Instinctively, Buffy inspected herself up and down before returning her eyes to Quinn and glowering darkly. The faerie failed to notice, however, as he was busy focusing on Tara and ignoring her wide-eyed look of disbelief. Apparently, he had yet to continue his appraisals.
"The other, now he's much more my speed," confided the faerie in an appreciative tone. He flew to Xander's side and lingered there for a moment, prodding with approval at the muscular bicep before assuming his former position near Tara's shoulder. He regarded the carpenter from across the hallway with a look of regret. "Shame he's so gormless."
Xander's expression, which had momentarily flashed with pride soon visibly fell, to be replaced by indignation.
Quinn's regret persisted. "Suffered many a blow to the head, I expect. Pity."
Taken aback by the faerie's behavior, Tara blinked several times before finding her voice. "Uhm, Quinn, they're actually"
"Very nice people, I don't doubt," dismissed Quinn.
"Yes, actually," replied Tara with an admonishing frown.
"Well there, you see?" Quinn remarked cheerily. "They have that going for them, at least."
With a nervous look, Tara noted Buffy's clenched fists. The Slayer was obviously working herself into a fine temper, but Quinn was oblivious to the mounting tension and, in any event, had presumably decided to move on.
He delivered a kiss of farewell to Tara's cheek. "Ahh well, delightful as this exchange is, I simply must continue my exploration. I've been cooped up with only her Keeperness for company for so long, it's a welcome change of pace to flex my wings."
With a small stretch, he began to flitter away, throwing Xander and Buffy a half-hearted wave as he did so. "Ta-ta. Enjoy the rest of your meeting. I know I'll enjoy not having to be there." His chuckle was similar to a small tinkling of silver bells.
Visibly fuming, Buffy and Xander watched his departure with much hostility.
"I know this is wrong," gritted the carpenter, "but I gotta say I think I now hate all faeries for the rest of my natural life."
"Gaunt?" muttered a fractious Buffy. "Sunken in?!" Her narrowed eyes regarded Tara accusingly.
"You don't look gaunt o-or sunken in, Buffy, I promise," soothed Tara. "He was exaggerating just a little."
"Just a little?"
Tara was swift in pouring even more oil onto already troubled waters. "I-I meant a lot. Lots of exaggerating. He was ...Hey, maybe 'sunken in' is a- a compliment where he comes from." She flashed a weak smile in Buffy's direction, not truly expecting it to have much effect, which was just as well because it obviously didn't. The Slayer continued to scowl.
"'Gormless'," snorted Xander. "What does that even mean?"
"Uhh ..." Tara searched in vain for the least offensive definition possible, but was saved by the appearance of Dawn. With a can of Coke in one hand, the teenager looked quite happy with the world in general.
"Oh, you guys'll never believe who I met in the kitchen!" She smiled brightly with utter delight. "The Keeper brought this faerie guy named"
"Quinn," came the sharp response from both Buffy and Xander in unison.
"That's him!" replied an enamored Dawn. "He's so funny! He started talking about how mousse got its name because it used to be made from actual mooses ... moosen?" She frowned and then shrugged. "He started going into this whole skit, like he was a chef making the first mousse, and he had this really outrageous French accent for some reason. Oh, but then"
She paused and turned toward the library as Giles' head emerged. "I think we're ready," announced the Watcher, beckoning with his finger.
"You mean I won't hear more stories?" inquired Buffy sarcastically. She got to her feet. "Tragic."
Dawn huffed at her sister. "He's cute."
"No he's not," came the abrupt denial, as again, Buffy and Xander spoke with one voice. Similar expressions of irritation on their faces, they marched into the library together, leaving a confounded Dawn to blink at Tara.
"What?" queried the bewildered teenager, but Tara simply patted Dawn's arm sympathetically before entering the library.
Dawn stared in confusion for a moment longer at the now vacant doorway. "What?"
Willow and Kennedy had commandeered one of the interior chambers of Slayer Central. The building housed many such rooms, not designed for any specific purpose, all very similar in appearance with windowless, white walls, devoid of decoration, and containing only three or four chairs and one or perhaps two tables. Both women had decided to ignore the seating provided and had instead chosen to occupy the solitary long table Kennedy sitting cross-legged on its surface and Willow perched on the edge, swinging her legs back and forth.
"Thanks for coming to talk to me," Kennedy stated with a nod in Willow's direction.
Willow shrugged and grinned. "Well how could I resist with you being all mysterious."
"I wasn't mysterious," the Slayer corrected. "I was pushy."
After a ponderous moment, Willow agreed, "Yeah, you're right, you were." She threw the Slayer a quick glance. "Stop being so pushy."
"But it gets results," insisted Kennedy, resting her elbows on her knees.
"That is does," the redhead was obliged to admit, watching as her feet first disappeared under the table and then reappeared again. "So what's up?"
"I had a chat with Giles yesterday," Kennedy told her.
"Pretty talky, isn't he?" replied Willow with a grin. "I swear, he hasn't shut up since he figured out who Robespierre is."
"This was something a little more specific." The Slayer paused for a moment and cupped her chin in her palm. "He asked me to run the new Council branch. The Slayer side, not the paperwork side." She turned to observe Willow's reaction.
The redhead's face glowed with delight at the news of Kennedy's good fortune. Swiveling, she threw her arms around Kennedy's neck and delivered a heartfelt hug. The Slayer tensed with surprise for a second but then basked in the warmth and affection.
"Oh my god, Kenn!" enthused Willow with genuine exuberance. "That's so great! See, what did I tell you? You're a natural, you just"
Her voice trailed away as the implication of Kennedy's impending assignment thoroughly penetrated her consciousness. Her hands grasped Kennedy's shoulders and she held the Slayer at arms length as she scrutinized her face.
"The new Council branch." Willow's eyes narrowed. "The one in Europe."
"In England, specifically," corrected Kennedy. "I think Giles just wanted a good excuse to visit a lot. I would've put it more central, like in Austria or Italy or something, but ..."
"England," interrupted Willow with a frown. "The one in ... Europe."
Kennedy chuckled. "No, the England next door."
But Willow apparently found little amusement in the words and her hands fell away from the other woman's shoulders. "The Europe that's a different continent. Separated by a rather intimidating patch of ocean." She searched Kennedy's expression.
With an amused frown, Kennedy nodded very slowly. "Kinda Asia-ish? That Europe."
"But ... But if you're in Europe, how can you be here?"
"Until they perfect cloning, I sort of won't be," Kennedy told her. She considered the proposition. "Though multiple me's is sounding really cool right now in ways that should probably be inappropriate."
"But I need you here!" protested Willow. Noting Kennedy's 'oh, really?' eyebrow arch, she swiftly added, "A-And I know that sounds really selfish, but I do!" Her bottom lip protruded in something of a pout.
Kennedy's smirk was of the indulgent variety. "No, you don't." The redhead was ready with her objections, but the Slayer beat her to the punch. "You've got all you need here already, Will."
On this, Willow was in ready agreement. "Right! With you here too!"
Kennedy shook her head. "You have your friends, your family, your work, your school ... You haven't needed me for a while now. That's a good thing, by the way. Bugged me for a little bit there, but I like to think I maybe had something to do with it." She looked to Willow for confirmation and was not disappointed.
"You did," came the decisive affirmation. "I ... I don't know if I could've made it without you. You just ... you never let me give up. Not on anything."
With a sly grin, Kennedy puffed out her chest. "If there's one thing I've got going for me, it's a dogged stubborn streak that would put the world's most bullheaded donkey to shame."
Willow winced at the convoluted statement. "You've got a whole petting zoo there."
"Probably," the Slayer admitted. "But see? I'm so stubborn, I'm not going to go back and change it."
The redhead regarded Kennedy with glistening eyes. "When are you leaving?"
"Not for another three weeks, month or so at most." Kennedy stared at one of the bare walls, but noted Willow's resigned nod and determined swallow. She turned and smiled. "I just thought you should know," she confided in all seriousness, "this is doing wonders for my ego."
"You have to go?" came the wavering question.
Kennedy's tone was settled and secure. "Yeah. I need to find my place, you know?"
"But you have a place," Willow quickly pointed out.
"No," the Slayer corrected, "I have your place."
The pair exchanged a lingering look until Willow conceded with a miserable nod, accepting the fact but not particularly happy about it. She reached out and took Kennedy's hand. "I'm gonna miss you."
Kennedy squeezed the limp fingers and grinned. "Damned right you will." She smiled as her comment earned her a chuckle, and she continued. "It won't be so different, though. There's e-mail, phone calls on the Council's dime, company jets to abuse for personal reasons ..."
Willow returned Kennedy's squeeze, her fingers now firm. She gently shook the hand she held in her own. "Thank you, she began. "For believing in me. For loving me when I didn't think anybody ever could again."
Kennedy smiled and shook her head. "That was all you, Will. I just did what came naturally."
Disentangling her fingers, the redhead swiped at a tear trickling down her cheek and stared at the hands in her lap. "Today's been the worst day," she sighed.
Reaching out, Kennedy lifted Willow's chin, forcing her to look up. "Then tomorrow has to be better, right?"
Willow seized the Slayer's fist with both hands. "You'd better write me! All the time!"
"I'll be worse than spam," she vowed earnestly.
"And I want phone calls!" Willow persisted. "Constant updates!"
"I'll harass you day and night," the Slayer promised with a mischievous wink.
Willow released the captured hand. "Okay."
Pushing herself off the table, Kennedy stood in front of the redhead. "If you ever need me, for anything at all, you know I'll be there."
With a nod, Willow also got to her feet. The two regarded each other for a long moment and then engaged in a fond embrace, hugging each other tightly. Kennedy closed her eyes for a moment and then stepped back.
"Hey Will," she announced with a sinful smirk, "I bet I know what you'll miss most of all."
At Willow's expression of curiosity, the Slayer clacked her tongue stud against her teeth a couple of times. She grinned evilly as Willow instantly blushed beet red.
"Thought so," Kennedy nodded knowingly. "Already thinking about hinting to Tara, aren't you?"
Willow straightened with exaggerated indignation. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
Kennedy's grin broadened until it almost stretched from ear to ear. "And now I'm satisfied that I have, in my own small way, spoiled you forever."
"No argument here," the witch conceded.
A light rap upon the door interrupted the playful exchange, and Giles peered into the room a moment later. "Sorry to interrupt," he told them, "but we're ready to continue."
They both nodded in acknowledgment and made ready to follow, but then Willow leaned over and planted an impulsive kiss upon Kennedy's cheek. The Slayer's fingers lingered over the area for a heartbeat.
"I've spoiled you, too," accused the redhead.
Kennedy smiled at Willow affectionately. "No argument here."
Assembled once more in the library, the majority of the attendees were gathered around one of three long tables that occupied the bulk of the main floor. Nearby, an easel had been set up, complete with whiteboard upon which Wood had been taking notes. He quickly surveyed the group and then pointed to the board.
"Okay, so we need to know: how many there are; where is the power source and how to destroy it; the lay of the land; how to get rid of the power they already have."
"And what do we do about this Robespierre guy?" queried Buffy. "I mean, he's just a human, right? So I can't just ..."
Giles stepped forward with authority. "When we attack and ... capture him. We'll bring him back here. I'll deal with him from there." Before anyone could voice an objection, the Watcher pushed on. "Willow, Tara?" Both witches focused on Giles instantly. "How are you coming on the transportation spell?"
"Kinda okay?" replied Tara somewhat dubiously. "There's a lot of stuff on teleportation, but ..." She paused and regarded Ruth from over her shoulder. "Are you sure we'll be able to find them?"
The old woman nodded with certainty. "Absolutely. You two have more than enough power to locate their signature on your own. You simply don't know what you're looking for. I'll be able to guide you. From there, it will just be a case of you both being able to open a portal."
Willow puffed. "Yeah, but sending, like, all our Slayers through? That's big stuff."
Tara smiled at the redhead. "So we'll just have to find a big spell."
The smile was returned but swiftly faded into apprehension as Tara's hand reached out. Flinching, Willow retracted into herself, as if dreading Tara's touch. Though visibly hurt at the rejection, the blonde's hand didn't falter and continued on its original course to retrieve a book lying on the table in front of the redhead. An expression of shame crossed Willow's features, but still she sat with her limbs curled tightly around her body.
None of the others appeared to be aware of the wordless exchange, and they continued their discussion. "This is great final assault stuff," volunteered Kennedy, "but we can't send a whole platoon in without knowing what we're facing."
"Which brings us back to here," submitted Wood, tapping on the board with the marker.
The room dissolved into quiet contemplation until Faith broke the hush.
"How 'bout the witches?" she asked, which resulted in every head swiveling in her direction, including those belonging to said witches. "Once they find where the bad guys are, maybe they can ... I dunno, take a look around? Get us the info?" She searched each face for an answer.
Willow was doubtful. "I don't I mean we'll try, yeah, of course. But from what we've already heard, from the Covens and stuff, they'll be pretty well protected against scrying magicks. I- I could maybe bust through their shields, but then they're definitely gonna know we're onto 'em."
Hannah spoke next, offering her opinion. "The element of surprise is one of our only advantages. We shouldn't give it up unless we absolutely have to."
Without a word, Giles seemed to suddenly dominate the room. Apparently, he had reached a decision and the air of unspoken authority was almost tangible. "We'll have to send one person," he stated firmly. "Someone to scout around and report back on their findings."
Wood nodded approvingly. "Reconnaissance. I was thinking that myself."
"Dangerous," Hannah commented.
"But necessary." The Watcher's tone was final.
"Wait wait wait," protested Buffy, holding up her hands. "One person. One person, alone, into the ... the ..." She appeared to be fumbling for words.
"Lion's den?" offered Dawn.
"Hornet's nest?" suggested Xander.
"Place of badness," Buffy decided. "It's like suicide."
Giles was inclined to disagree. "Not if it's done correctly."
Buffy stared at her Watcher. "'Not if it's'...?" she echoed disbelievingly. "Giles, just one of these girls nearly tore us apart from the inside. You expect a Slayer to go in alone and face off against who knows how many of them?"
"No," Giles told her with conviction. "I expect whomever we send to be alert and observant and to most definitely not engage anyone until they can get back here and report their findings."
Buffy arched an eyebrow. "And what if they get caught?" The Watcher didn't respond, but his gaze was unmoving, and Buffy shook her head in amazement. "I can't believe you're talking like this!"
Removing his glasses, Giles tossed them onto the table, almost as though he were throwing down the gauntlet. "Well then what do you propose? If you have any other solution besides sitting here and waiting for them to choose the next time and place to attack us, then please feel free to share it."
"There has to be something," insisted Buffy. "'We're all in this together', isn't that what you've been saying since we got here? 'No Slayer alone, not any more'."
Giles continued to regard the Slayer coolly. "That's not a solution, it's an ideal."
Her expression was angry enough to send most monsters running in the opposite direction, but Giles did not flinch away, and when Buffy had no further words, he nodded. "All right then." Regarding the room somberly, he addressed the group. "We'll need to decide who."
Buffy's response was instantaneous. "Me."
As the Watcher regarded his blonde Slayer, the cold expression of resolve slipped from his face just a little.
This time, Buffy met Giles' gaze without flinching, her eyes daring him to deny her. "You wanna just send someone in, then it should be me."
"Buffy ..." whispered Dawn fearfully.
"You?" scoffed Kennedy. "Your idea of stealth is sneaking the last cookie which never works, by the way, since we all know it's you." She turned to Giles. "You should send me. I've got the skills to back it up."
Buffy was about to protest when another voice cut in with its own objection.
"No, no way," insisted Faith. "Anyone should go, it's me." She met Buffy's eyes directly. "You got a whole lot more goin' for you here than me, B." Faith then turned to Kennedy. "You too." The dark-haired Slayer focused on Giles. "This is the sort of thing I was made for."
Xander's head bobbed from one Slayer to the next as alarm invaded his features. He finally settled on Giles. "Bad choices! Very bad! Think up new ones!"
Buffy stood up and crossed her arms. "I can't let either of you"
Kennedy also leapt to her feet. "'Let'? We need your permission now?"
Faith simply rocked back and forth in her chair with supreme confidence. "Trust me, y'learn to sneak around a lot in the joint. This ain't much different."
Willow's face crumpled into distress. "Guys, we need to"
The redhead's bid for attention was brought to an abrupt halt as her eyes flew upward to the second story area where the book stacks were located. Almost immediately, accompanied by a tiny gasp, Tara's gaze followed suit as she also became locked on the same space. Before either could utter a word, a shimmering portal of bluish energy opened and Judith materialized through its entrance. Within a heartbeat, the gateway had faded, leaving Judith standing alone.
She wore the same uniform as the first invader upon Slayer Central black jeans and black turtleneck sweater. The sigil above her heart glowed brightly through the fabric, pulsating with a vitality that was mirrored in her vivid, unnaturally blue eyes.
The room fell into shocked silence as Xander stumbled to his feet and took an involuntary step backward. He clumsily shuffled into the easel, knocking the board from its perch. The clatter it made as it hit the ground served to restore animation to the otherwise stunned gathering. Kennedy's expression swiftly melted from surprise to anger as she gritted her teeth, and Buffy moved immediately to put herself between Dawn and the dangerous new arrival.
"Judith," murmured Buffy, so softly that only those closest to her could hear the name being uttered.
From her lofty and advantageous position, Judith smiled benevolently upon the group below. When she spoke, her voice was clear and distinct, but possessed the weird reverberation effect as that of the initial intruder as though a dozen or more individuals were speaking at the same time in near immaculate synchronization.
Her expression held nothing even remotely close to affection. "It's good to be home."
While Judith continued to hold court over the room, each inhabitant, one by one, rose slowly to their feet, eyes glued upon the dominating figure. She smiled indulgently. "Did you miss me?"
"Just the part where we all got to take a hunk outta your skanky ass," snapped Faith.
Fluttering her lashes, Judith treated Faith to a mocking 'ooo, that hurts' look.
Moving stealthily toward Willow, Kennedy steadily put herself effectively between the redhead and the intruder. Consequently, she managed to overhear the conversation taking place between the two witches.
"So that's the- the Slayer who" Tara was whispering.
"Who beat the crap outta Will, that's the one," interrupted Kennedy. She shrugged at the dark glare that issued from Willow's direction, adding matter-of-factly, "She did."
Willow was immediately indignant. "I was ambushed!" she protested. "Foul play!"
Further to the right and behind the group, Giles was whispering to Hannah and Wood. He had replaced his glasses and his eyes, glittering through the lenses like granite, never left Judith's face for an instant. Xander paused beside the trio for a moment and then, unobserved by anyone, sidled away.
"We don't want to make any sudden moves to attract her attention," murmured the Watcher, "but at the first possible moment, you two go get weapons and as many Slayers as you can find. Don't forget the tranquilizer gun and those darts."
Hannah shook her head vehemently. "I don't want to leave"
"Do it," came the sharp command. With a slight but visible bristle of annoyance, Hannah returned the order with a curt nod as she and Wood began to slink warily toward the door.
Leaving Willow's side, Tara's unobtrusive movements had now brought her close to Buffy and, more importantly, next to Dawn. Catching Tara's eye, Buffy nodded meaningfully, conveying that protection of the teenager had been duly delegated. Secure in the knowledge of her sister's safety, Buffy joined Kennedy, where Faith had already assumed her position. The three Slayers thereby formed a clear initial line of defense between Judith and the rest of the room.
"Didn't get enough the first time, I take it?" queried Buffy.
"Suits me," Kennedy responded. She shot the blonde a quick glance. "You hogged all the fun."
Leaning on the railing above them, Judith simply smirked. "I think you'll find it a bit harder to beat me this time."
"Bet it'll be just as much fun, though," retaliated Faith.
"A serious ass kicking is a lesson I save for all my special students," Kennedy told her with a sneer. "Lucky you, you're in a class of one."
As the two dark-haired Slayers continued to banter with their adversary, Buffy turned to hiss at Willow. "Get back," she threw over her shoulder.
"But I can help," objected the redhead.
"She's here to here to kill you," snapped Buffy. "I need you back."
Clearly unhappy with the situation, it appeared as though Willow would voice yet another protest but at Buffy's withering look, she gritted her teeth and did indeed comply. She glanced at Tara, who was firmly ushering Dawn toward the Keeper.
"Ruth," whispered Tara, "can you protect Dawn?"
The teenager was working her way up to a full-blown protest. "I don't need"
"Yes, you do," Tara told her, tone plainly communicating that there would be no further discussion.
She looked expectantly at the old woman, who nodded her confirmation. "She'll be safe as mother's milk."
Satisfied, Tara slowly crept back to the middle of the room. By now, Willow had reached Giles while Hannah and Wood were making good progress toward the door.
"So you came to, what?" taunted Buffy. "Make some idle threats?"
Faith arched an eyebrow. "Not impressive ones, neither."
"The Bringers didn't even talk, and they sounded scarier," baited Kennedy.
A momentary expression of irritation flashed across Judith's face. "You three," she sneered. "Always so superior. Thinking you had the answers. Well this time I"
She stopped short in surprise as the easel that had been supporting the whiteboard suddenly landed squarely on top of her head. It was wielded by Xander, who had snuck out of the stacks behind her and aimed the blow with all the strength he could muster. His satisfied grin at the strike was, however, short-lived. Barely flinching at the assault, Judith swiftly turned and, almost in a blur, seized the carpenter by the throat with one hand. She held him aloft as she began to squeeze the air from his windpipe.
"Xander!" Buffy cried out as a gasping Xander attempted to swing at his opponent, arms and legs flailing wildly.
Wrinkling her nose with disgust, Judith shook the carpenter as though he were a rag doll. "You are entirely not worth my time," she snarled, losing interest and tossing him to one side with a nonchalance that belied the speed of his trajectory. He sailed over the railing, on a lethal collision course for the wall on the opposite side of the room.
Willow watched the perilous flight for no more than a nanosecond before taking action. Thrusting out her hand, she focused on the area where Xander's impact was imminent. "Pernă!" she muttered.
The summoned enchantment came none too soon, resulting in Xander not making contact with the wall directly, but with an invisible cushion that absorbed most of the crushing force. Nonetheless, he struck the buffer with a tremendous thud and groaning audibly, fell heavily to ground, unconscious but relatively unharmed.
The attack on the carpenter served as an opening volley for the trio of defending Slayers and without further ado, they moved quickly into battle mode.
Almost simultaneously, they leapt for the upper level, but however fast they moved, Judith was faster. Taking a step back, in one fluid motion she snatched Kennedy from the air. Realizing the predicament all too late, Kennedy could only turn with the momentum as she was hurled into the tall shelves behind, bringing two of the wooden constructs down in a shower of volumes.
Faith and Buffy each cleared the railing and rolled to their feet, directly attacking their target from both sides. More amused than threatened, Judith effortlessly moved out of the way of their intended blows and knocked them aside as if swatting gnats, not even bothering to counterattack.
While the Senior Slayers held Judith occupied and Kennedy extracted herself from the ruined shelves and books, Hannah and Wood were no longer bound by the need for stealth and they dashed from the library. Likewise, Giles moved swiftly toward the alarm affixed to a nearby wall. He promptly smashed the glass with his elbow before slamming a large red button with his palm.
Immediately, the room began to flash with the strobe of red lights, and sirens blared in the hallways outside the room. Locked in a world of swings and thrusts, dodges and parries, the four Slayers took no apparent notice of the change in their surroundings. The addition of Kennedy to the mix made almost no difference to the proceeding of the fight; although the trio was now able to land the occasional blows on Judith, their effects were nonexistent.
Tara knelt beside the unconscious Xander, checking the extent of his injuries while Giles and Willow watched the battle unfold the former with intense scrutiny and the latter with nervous anxiety.
Simultaneously blocking head strikes from Kennedy and Faith, Judith brought a blindingly fast boot up to Buffy's midsection, knocking her backward. The invader showed no signs of slowing down, but her previous arrogant glee appeared to be slowly melting away into boredom.
Willow turned to the Watcher. "Giles, we have to do something! I- I could ..." Her brow furrowed in doubt and concern. "But what if I hit them? Buffy, a-and"
Satisfied that Xander could be moved, Tara was now dragging him toward Ruth and Dawn. A momentary shimmer appeared around the pair, and then Dawn rushed out to help, relieving Tara of one of Xander's arms.
Giles' eyes did not leave the escalating conflict. "If we must, we'll go that route. But for now, simply be prepared."
Kennedy narrowly missed being struck in throat with an errant jab. Faith seized on the opportunity by grabbing the outstretched arm, but Judith simply hurled her up, over, and onto the ground, flat on her back with a teeth-jarring impact. A diving tackle from Buffy was the only thing that saved Faith from having her head crushed beneath Judith's heel, and the pair went tumbling to the floor.
Willow could only bite her lip in frustration as she watched her friends fighting for their lives. "I should be able to do something!"
Another shimmer heralded the return of Ruth's protection spell, this time encompassing Xander as well as Dawn and herself. Tara reappeared by Willow's side, also nervous but radiating calm. "We will."
Judith had won the grapple with Buffy and sent her flying before vaulting off her back and onto her feet. Her eyes met Willow's and a vicious smile materialized. The expression was not mirrored on the witch's face.
"You know one thing that really bugs me?" Judith queried aloud to no one in particular.
Faith and Kennedy were rushing forward, attempting to pin her against the wall, but Judith reared back and let loose a blazingly fast roundhouse swing that knocked both Slayers off their feet. Kennedy skidded across the floor, colliding once again with bookshelves that remained intact; Faith sailed over the railing, where she landed on a table with such force that it collapsed underneath her.
It took less than a second for Judith to leap the wooden banister and close the gap between herself and Willow, all in one fluid lunge. With the slightest, most offhand of gestures, she flung Giles and Tara far to either side of the redhead, leaving her exposed and vulnerable.
The grin she flashed was like the baring of wolf's teeth. "Leaving jobs unfinished," the Slayer concluded.
In the blink of an eye, Judith's hand had shot out, on a deadly course for Willow's throat. Mere inches from its target, however, the hand met with an invisible barrier that surrounded the witch. The impact sent tiny ripples throughout the energy field, but it held. Judith's face registered surprise for a moment, but she pressed forward, her fingers digging like talons, bending the shield as she moved inexorably toward her goal.
The strain on Willow's face was evident, as was Judith's enjoyment. It was only a matter of time, and they both knew it. Just then, Willow glanced over her attacker's shoulder to see the three Slayers regrouping. She regarded Judith with a restrained but triumphant smile. "This time? I have friends."
Judith smirked without bothering to look behind. "This time? So do I."
As if on cue, two glowing blue portals, one at either end of the balcony appeared. Out of each stepped a young, teenaged girl, clothed identical to Judith. Their eyes and the symbols over their hearts also glowed much like hers, although lacking the same fierce intensity.
Buffy and Kennedy paused for a fraction of a second to take in this development. There was clear conflict in their eyes, torn between the desire to help Willow and the need to route these new threats.
"I got Will!" Faith yelled, not turning back from her dash toward the front of the library.
It was all the confirmation the other two needed to hear, and each faced her respective opponent. A trickle of Slayers had begun to arrive on the battlefield, and Giles was there to distribute them among the three targets.
"Don't really think you're Red's type," Faith sneered, grabbing Judith. "Trust me, she likes 'em a little less homicidal."
Between a ferocious yank and the outward force of Willow's shield, Judith was pulled completely off-balance, and Faith spun on her heel to sling the younger Slayer into the opposite corner. Plaster spider-webbed behind Judith's head as she collided with the wall.
Wasting no time, Faith pressed her advantage, leaving an exerted Willow, panting and leaning against Giles for support. Within moments, Tara had joined them. As Dawn strained within the confines of her protective shield, Tara flashed the teenager a reassuring smile, confirming that Willow was okay.
On the balcony, Buffy and Kennedy were each flanked in battle by a pair of Juniors. The unknown Super Slayers clearly didn't posses the raw power that fueled Judith, but neither were they held in check by her arrogance these Slayers were all business, and it was an effort for Buffy and Kennedy simply to avoid being maimed. Evading blows was the order of the day, and the occasional counterstrike they could muster was proving to be inadequate.
Faith was faring slightly better her blows less desperate, her evasions less frantic. Despite this, however, Judith displayed not even the slightest hint that she was in anything less than complete control. And it was clear the smug, superior attitude was beginning to infuriate Faith.
Giles quickly directed the last of the most recent batch of Junior Slayers to their targets before turning to Willow and Tara. "We cannot allow any more of these advanced Slayers to appear. Is there some way you can- can block incoming teleportation?"
"I'm sure there's something in the books," offered Tara.
"The Belevoir Compendiums," Willow agreed, darting to the nearest table and grabbing two of the oversized volumes. She handed one to Tara, and the witches began to hurriedly flip through the pages.
Although Giles noticed that Xander was beginning to stir, a more pressing matter commanded his attention, as Hazel, Sonja and two other Junior Slayers arrived. They rapidly assessed the situation, and before Giles could make a move to dispatch them, Hazel darted toward Faith, who had just been doubled over by a knee to the midsection.
"I can't tell you how disappointing this is," Judith complained as she loomed over Faith. "Where's all the witty banter I've heard so much about?"
"Three ball, side pocket?" suggested Hazel as she drove the tip of a heavy steel weight bar into the back of Judith's skull. The Super Slayer staggered forward from the sheer power behind the blow and her head collided against the wall with a sickening crack. She slumped to the ground.
Faith was almost immediately on her feet. Panting for breath, she still managed to shoot Hazel a questioning eyebrow when the girl turned toward her.
Holding the bar aloft, Hazel grinned. "Weight room. I'm using whatever's handy as a weapon."
"No complaints from me," complimented Faith with smile. But the moment was short lived.
"Hey roomie," greeted Judith, causing Hazel to turn and realize for the first time who she had attacked. "Long time no see."
Even discounting the stunned surprise, Judith's fist moved far too quickly for Hazel to have any chance of avoiding the blow. Suddenly, she found herself sailing yards away as the steel bar clattered to the ground.
Across the room, Willow continued cycling through the pages of the book in her hands while Tara had begun, as carefully as possible, to move the exposed, still bodies of injured Slayers out of harm's way. Nearby, Xander had fully regained consciousness, and was now pounding and kicking on the inside of the forcefield that protected him, shouting at Giles all the while.
"Lemme outta here!" he demanded angrily. "I can help!"
Giles regarded the furious carpenter with an unyielding expression. "Xander, it will take more than raw courage even courage as foolhardy as yours to stand against one of these girls." He paused only momentarily to point newly arriving Slayers to their places on the battlefield, just as one of their teammates came soaring through the air to land several feet away. Almost immediately, Tara rushed to the fallen girl's side as Giles continued, "They are simply too powerful for a human."
"Look, you stand here and play pointy fingers all you want, but me? I'm gonna help my friends." Xander spun to Ruth, glaring. "Now let me out."
The old woman looked to Giles for confirmation, and with a sigh the Watcher nodded. Another shimmer appeared around the small group, and the barrier surrounding Dawn, Ruth and Xander dissipated. Xander turned away from Ruth to join the fight, only to be coldcocked by Giles. Precisely aimed across the jaw, the punch accomplished its goal the carpenter collapsed on the ground in a heap.
"Xander!" Willow cried, seeing her best friend fall, out of commission for the second time that day.
Dawn focused an accusing glare on the Watcher, even as she knelt at Xander's side. "Oh my god! Giles!"
Giles regarded Ruth grimly. "Get that barrier back up." She immediately complied, and he stared at the unmoving Xander with a fond, subdued smile. "Heart of a lion," he murmured with affection. The expression quickly faded and he rolled his eyes before adding, "Sense of a pigeon." Shaking his head ruefully, the Watcher returned to surveying the battles, taking note of the open gape being leveled at him by Willow.
"He'll be fine," Giles assured her. "Believe me, I've been knocked out many times in my life."
Though still considering him with shocked surprise, Willow returned to scanning her book, only to snap her head up again as she heard Buffy's yell.
"Kelly, watch ou"
The Super Slayer who had opposed Buffy had seized one of the girls and pinned her against the wall. Unable to move, Kelly could only watch in wide-eyed horror as the Super Slayer's fist, now glowing with the ethereal blue power sufficing her eyes and heart, was pulled back to strike.
With a primal grunt, the Super Slayer plunged her hand into Kelly's chest, submerging the glow within the helpless Junior's body. Save those individuals currently embroiled in a battle for their lives, every eye was focused in stunned disbelief at the sight before them. Surprisingly, there was no blood and despite the fact that her face was contorted in agony, mouth open in a silent scream, Kelly made no sound. Perhaps one second after the blow was delivered, Kelly began to dissolve, draining into the point of impact in her chest.
Buffy was the first to overcome her shock and she leapt into action, bringing the back of her hand across the Super Slayer's face, causing the attacker's head to snap to the side. She followed up with a kick to the chest that sent the enemy stumbling back, but it was already far too late. The few vestiges of Kelly that remained trailed after and flowed into the Super Slayer's hand, as if it were an irresistible black hole.
And then Kelly was gone entirely.
Buffy's outrage manifested in a yell of impotent defiance. She released a devastating roundhouse that sent the Super Slayer flying into and through the stacks of books and out of sight. The blonde Slayer and the three remaining Juniors with her didn't hesitate, they immediately took off after.
Seemingly oblivious to the events occurring across the room, Faith had now been joined by a pair of Slayers. She had grabbed the weight bar and was whirling it like a staff, high and low, back and forth. It was clear that Judith's posturing hadn't all been for show, however, and the Super Slayer was both fast and agile, nimbly avoiding every swing with apparent ease.
If Faith was unaware of the developments with Kelly, Judith was not. She cast a sneering glance over her shoulder in the direction of her cohort. "Idiot," she snarled. "We came here for the three-dish main course, not some appetizers."
The distraction was momentary, but enough, and Faith was able to strike a blow across the brow of her opponent's forehead. Judith turned to the Slayer with a mildly irritated expression, then grabbed the bar on an incoming swing and easily wrenched it from Faith's hands. "Let me show you how to use that."
Immediately, the steel rod was cutting through the air in Judith's grip. Faith ducked the first pair of swings, but her helpers weren't so lucky, and the cracks that resonated through the room indicated at least a few broken ribs for each one as they tumbled to the ground.
Judith whirled like a dervish, and before Faith could position herself for more evasion, the bar shot out, seemingly everywhere at once. Faith was struck in the stomach, chest, and head, all in rapid succession, before dropping to her knees.
Head weaving, blood trickling down the side of her face and from the corner of her mouth, Faith glared up to see her adversary toss the bar aside. Judith smiled at her hand as the flesh began to adopt an eerie blue glow. She very deliberately curled it into a fist as she glanced back down at Faith. "And speaking of main courses I'm getting hungry."
Kennedy was faring little better on the raised second level. Those around her were either dazed, unconscious or physically unable to move enough to put up any fight. Kennedy herself lay prone, gasping for breath after being repeatedly battered. She stared helplessly at the glowing blue hand that was readying itself.
But Willow had seen it as well. The redhead thrust out her hand, and the Super Slayer's clenched fist stopped in mid-swing. Pulling it back, the Slayer again attempted to execute the killing blow, but with the same result. Without hesitation, she turned her head directly to the source of her trouble and gave Willow a hateful, malice-filled glare.
Judith had no such barriers to overcome. Her hand was now as bright as her eyes, and the time for games had clearly passed. She spared Faith a final self-satisfied smirk. "Goodbye," she said pleasantly, and plunged her fist down on the helpless Slayer.
Judith's aim for Faith's chest was straight and true and blocked. Seeming to come from nowhere, Hazel managed to interpose herself between the two Slayers, and was impaled on the end of Judith's arm.
Faith's eyes widened as she watched Hazel's body stiffen and twitch. "No," she breathed.
But the denial had no bearing on reality. Standing before her, Judith continued the absorption, her face transfixed into near-ecstasy at the rush as Hazel steadily dissolved.
An explosion of wood splinters and books on the balcony preceded the reappearance of a Super Slayer tumbling across the floor, followed by Buffy emerging to continue unloading a barrage of attacks. The blonde's expression was a mix of anger and satisfaction as she threw an assortment of knuckles, knees and elbows at her dazed opponent.
"What's the matter, bite off more than you can chew?" Buffy snapped before kicking the Super Slayer into the wall with a boot to the stomach. Pausing a moment to survey the rest of the room, she could see that she was the only one with any reason to gloat at the moment.
Hazel had disappeared completely, leaving only Judith to stagger, as though slightly intoxicated from the experience. There were no words for Faith to speak only a guttural cry that was ripped from her throat as adrenaline gave her the strength to launch herself at the unsuspecting Super Slayer. Judith and Faith tumbled to ground and Faith easily came out on top, squatting on the disoriented and prone Judith's stomach as she hammered down into her opponent's face with all the force she could muster.
Groggy as she was, Judith still coursed with power. Even the repeated pounding was doing relatively little harm, and after several seconds of the assault, she darted her head to the side, causing Faith's fist to burst through the floor. Judith seized the moment and rolled out from under Faith, but the other Slayer was unfazed. Yanking her hand free from the rubble of wood and tile, she didn't hesitate to attack again, swinging back and forth at Judith relentlessly,
Still, the Super Slayer remained true to her arrogance. "Come on, Fiver," she said, with an increased reverberation in her voice. "We thought the world of you. We looked up to you. This is how you avenge us?"
At the words, Faith's blazing eyes narrowed to slits. Her lip curled in a snarl of bottomless loathing as she seized Judith by the throat and hurled her to the floor in a rage.
Not far away, Kennedy had received a minor reprieve. She had been abandoned by the Super Slayer, who had chosen instead to eliminate the source of her problem: Willow. The intruder, glowing hand and all, was currently attempting to batter down a forcefield erected by the witch. Whenever the strangely colored fist would strike the shield, tiny ripples and discolorations would appear.
The worry in Willow's eyes made it clear she was losing much more rapidly than she had with Judith. Despite the threat, however, the witch refused to cast anything more powerful; her eyes darted around the room, its relatively crowded quarters obviously giving her pause.
With one final blow, the entire shield collapsed in a wave of dissipating energy, and with it, Willow collapsed to the ground, nearly unconscious. Sporting a predatory grin, the Super Slayer loomed for the kill, bringing her glowing fist to bare.
"Impedio," a voice intoned.
The Super Slayer's attack was again halted in mid-air and she turned to see Tara standing there, hand extended in a mirror image of Willow's previous posture. But where the redhead clearly had enough power to stop the killing blow against Kennedy with relative ease, Tara's arm trembled against the strength of the Super Slayer. The lethal fist moved ever closer to Willow, half an arm's length from its intended target.
Tara's teeth gritted. She stared through narrowed eyes. "I won't ... let you ..." Her quiet defiance carried little weight, however, and the Super Slayer pressed forward, slowly but relentlessly. Straining even harder, Tara fought desperately against the inevitable.
At that moment, a crackle ran through the air and both witches suddenly stiffened. Willow's body twitched and she gasped audibly, her wide eyes turning to Tara. The blonde, by contrast, was standing straighter, taller, steadier. All signs of her strain had vanished, replaced by sheer will.
The Super Slayer's arm indeed, her entire body was forced back and away from Willow. She struggled, but the motions quickly became smaller and smaller, as though she were becoming trapped in solidifying concrete, until nothing but tiny quiverings could be seen.
Tara's clear blue eyes were alight with calm determination. "I won't let you."
By contrast, Faith was in a frenzy, raining blow after blow upon Judith. There was no banter, no finesse, no thought involved. When the Super Slayer got up, she was thrown back down, or against a wall, or simply struck again. No escape was possible from the fury that was Faith. For the first time, concern etched itself into Judith's features.
"It's time we depart," Judith managed to gasp between blows. "But we'll see each other again soon, Fiver. We'll miss you."
A blue portal opened in the nearby wall. Faith snarled and tried to grab the Super Slayer, but was struck by a lucky backhand that sent her staggering off-balance. Judith fled through the portal, which instantly vanished behind her.
Similarly, a portal had appeared on the balcony, and the Super Slayer who was now being double-teamed by Buffy and Kennedy turned instinctively toward it. She made a dash and dove through just as Kennedy narrowly missed grabbing her by the foot. As with the previous gateway, it too sealed as though it had never been there.
The one remaining enemy was immobilized within Tara's magical grip. Giles crossed to Hannah, who had returned with Wood at some point during the battle. He relieved her of the tranquilizer gun in her hands.
"Is it loaded?" he asked.
"There should be enough in there to take down an elephant," she responded. "If it were also a Slayer."
He nodded and raised the weapon, taking aim. "Tara!" he warned.
Moving her gaze from the Super Slayer, Tara caught sight of Giles and his intention. Lowering her arm and exhaling heavily, the witch dropped her spell restraining the Super Slayer. The girl looked with bewilderment at those around her, then immediately began to search for an exit. Before she could even think of which way to move, she had already been shot with a dart from the gun. Snarling, she grabbed a table between herself and the Watcher and shoved it aside. While it did still go flying with a strength that was clearly above human, it was not the effortless action it would have been moments before.
Tara raised her arm as if to cast the spell again, but Giles was well ahead of her and had fired another dart into the Super Slayer, who was now breaking out in a sweat and dizzily shaking her head. She stumbled backward.
"Hey!" shouted Kennedy, grabbing the dazed girl and spinning her around, face-to-face. "This is for almost killing me."
A solid fist across the jaw, and the Super Slayer fell to the ground, out cold.
"I feel better already," Kennedy nodded to herself.
Now that the threat had passed, the others had time to process the sounds coming from the other side of the room. One by one, they turned to regard Faith, who was silently but determinedly tearing into the wall with her bare hands, as though a taunting Judith waited on the other side.
Buffy approached slowly, her eyes full of sympathy for her fellow Slayer. "Faith, she's gone."
If Faith heard her, she didn't show it. She continued her assault, leaving holes and cracks in the wall. Plaster dust and splinters were flying through the air, coating her face, hair and clothes. None of it mattered.
"Faith!" Buffy yelled, trying to break through to the other woman. She gripped Faith's shoulder and forcibly turned her around. There was no hesitation on Faith's part, and she lashed out at Buffy, who rolled with the punch so quickly she could only have known it was coming. Buffy quickly turned back to face Faith, her expression unchanged but still resolute. "She's gone."
Faith looked at Buffy, her desire to hit the blonde again only too clear. Instead, she slowly turned to stare at the ruined wall. Without a word, she threw Buffy's hand off her shoulder and stomped from the room, leaving the others to stand in subdued silence, surrounded on all sides by the carnage of the attack.
In the center of one of Slayer Central's interior rooms, smaller but otherwise virtually identical to the one occupied by Willow and Kennedy earlier, the captured Super Slayer sat in an upright metal chair. Her ankles and wrists were tightly shackled, the binding chains looped through cast iron rings which had been set into the concrete floor. The girl was conscious, but appeared groggy and rather ill, almost as though she had contracted a nasty dose of influenza.
Hannah stood against one of the walls, keeping an eye on the prisoner and glancing occasionally at Giles as he slowly paced back and forth behind Kennedy and Buffy, both of whom wore expressions of extreme irritation.
"How many of you are there?" demanded Buffy.
The response she received was in the form of a defiant glare."How many?" she insisted, but was met with no more success than before.
With an expression that displayed not even the merest hint of compassion, Kennedy stepped forward. "Stronger than us, faster than us ..." she mused in a deadly tone. "Maybe we're lucky and she feels pain more than us too." She quirked an eyebrow in the Super Slayer's direction. "Wanna help me find out?"
Kennedy looked up sharply as the opening door attracted her attention and Xander entered the room. The left-hand side of his jaw was swollen and already turning purple from where Giles had struck him. It seemed the carpenter had more troubling things on his mind, however; his face displayed both sadness and extreme concern.
Giles noted his arrival and moved toward the pair of interrogators. "Buffy, Kennedy ... See to Xander," he instructed firmly. "I'll continue working with our ... guest." It was with some reluctance that the Slayers complied, but comply they did and Giles loooked to Hannah, beckoning her to come forward.
Kennedy and Buffy followed Xander into one of the corners. "Did you find her?" questioned Kennedy immediately.
Appearing weary, Xander shook his head. "I looked everywhere nearby. I thought maybe she'd go to the Memorial, but I guess she isn't feeling too memorialous right now. She wasn't anywhere." Glancing at Buffy, he suggested, "I could maybe go downtown? I mean, she's gotta be somewhere, right?"
The blonde shook her head, her expression grim. "If Faith doesn't want to be found, I don't think you're gonna find her."
"We can't just leave her out there," Xander protested with an angry and frustrated frown. "She's in pain. She could ..." He swallowed hard, the words clearly not coming out easily. "I mean, you don't think she'll ...?"
"Hurt someone?" completed Buffy. "I hope not. And we won't leave her." Worry was still etched clearly on Xander's face, and Buffy assured him, "I'll find her."
The confidence in the Slayer's voice worked like a soothing balm on Xander's nerves, and he nodded his acceptance of her promise. With a heavy sigh, he regarded the restrained Super Slayer, jerking his chin toward the chair. "Getting anywhere?"
Kennedy's eyes narrowed. "In the sense that we're standing in exactly the same place."
Buffy huffed with frustration. "She's not talking. I dunno what more we can do. I mean, you can only ask the same question so many times."
"Your inflection is getting repetitive," Kennedy remarked, ignoring Buffy's glare. "I say we try something a bit less open to interpretation." She flexed her fingers into a tightly clenched fist.
Somewhat regretfully, the blonde Slayer shook her head. "I really don't wanna go there."
Kennedy rolled her eyes in disgust. "What other choices do we have? We can't go in blind, and we can't keep waiting. You saw them, they were weakened. It may be the chance we were looking for."
Xander looked from one to the other. "Yeah, but you guys said they just got woozy after eating one of you. What're we gonna do, bring along a bunch of the girls and offer 'em up as delicious candy?"
"Of course not," rejoined Buffy with a hint of snippiness. She folded her arms. "We're just running out of options, and I don't like the ones we've got left."
Thoughtfully, Xander considered the captive. "She's still under the influence, huh?"
"Yeah," agreed Kennedy almost sadistically. "That drug Giles used looks pretty hardcore."
"It is," Buffy nodded with conviction. "I've been on the receiving end." She noted Kennedy's look of surprise and started to explain. "The old Council used to have this test, they called it the, uhm ... the Crucible."
"Cruciamentum," Giles corrected.
The trio was surprised to suddenly find the Watcher within hearing distance as Hannah hung back with the Super Slayer.
"Tento di Cruciamentum," continued Giles. "The Old Council used to give it to each Slayer if she made it to her 18th birthday. This drug essentially renders a Slayer powerless, turns her into a normal girl. They would then ... lock her up with a vampire and- and see if she would survive."
Kennedy blinked several times as the words sunk in. "That has to be the stupidest thing I've ever heard."
"Believe me, as far as the Council's traditions go, this was nowhere near the stupidest thing," he told her with a weary sigh. Then, noting Buffy's arched eyebrow, hastened to add, "Though it came close, certainly."
A suspicious expression crept across Kennedy's features. "So," she pondered slowly, "you had this thing, are you planning to maybe...?"
Giles waved a hand in utter denial of the implication. "Good lord, no. Barbaric ritual. It was one of the first things we did away with. No, Robin found a small store of the drug while doing inventory on various storage facilities and warehouses that were leased to the Council. He brought it with him, thinking it might become useful at some point." He glanced at the girl in her greatly weakened condition. "I'm sorry to say he might have been correct."
"But this is good, right?" insisted Xander. "We arm up on dart guns and bust on in. Once you depower them, you don't have an army of Super Slayers, you have a Girl Scout troupe. Without the Samoas, which is just sad."
Giles' response was tinged with some ruefulness. "There simply isn't enough to go around. There was only a relatively small amount of the drug, and no copies of the exact formula have yet been found. Since I had no plans to reinstitute the test, I didn't see any reason to have it analyzed and then reproduced." He tugged off his glasses. "A bit shortsighted of me, I'm afraid."
"If drugging them's out, we need something else," stated Buffy emphatically. "It's all the extra power. If they're just regular Slayers, we stand a shot at beating them."
"Sounds good on paper," scoffed Kennedy. "Now, how do we do that?"
In yet another of Slayer Central's smaller and nondescript rooms, Willow and Tara sat across from each other at a long table. The surface was strewn with the fruits of their initial research slim volumes and impressively heavy tomes. Using a forefinger to mark her place in the book in front of her, Tara reached out toward another and slid it closer. She flipped through the pages until she found the text she sought and then read the information with avid concentration. She double-checked her findings and then looked to Willow.
"I think I have a teleportation spell."
Willow dragged her eyes away from her own exploration and tilted her head, peering at the book Tara was now twisting in her direction.
"If we add peony here," Tara suggested, "and reverse this incantation ..."
Willow nodded." Yeah. Yeah, that looks like it'll work." She swiftly scanned the information. A frown of concern creased her forehead. "It's gonna take a lot of energy, though."
"Well there's a lot of people," Tara reminded her.
"This is true," Willow admitted thoughtfully.
"I'll see if I can find a way to make it more efficient," Tara informed her before adding, "And safe, of course."
Willow was in total agreement. "Absolutely. Don't need anyone going all Brundlefly."
Tara's gaze flickered downward at the page before her and then returned to Willow's face. "How are you doing?"
The redhead gestured to the many open books in front of her. "I've got a couple ideas knocking around. The way they ... they killed the girls, and how Giles said Judith started calling Faith 'Fiver' and stuff ... But they're just ideas right now. I'm working on it."
The blonde smiled gently. "I mean, how are you doing?"
"Oh!" Willow's eyes opened wide with sudden awareness. "Oh. I'm, you know ..." She trailed off, her sentence incomplete.
"I don't really know, that's why I asked," smirked Tara.
Willow gave a tiny smile. "I'm feeling okay. I thought I'd be all drained and stuff but, no." She shrugged her shoulders. "You sorta hammerin' through my shields and all aside, it actually felt sort of ..."
"Natural?" Tara supplied.
Willow stared at the book in front of her without truly seeing the printed text. "...yeah," she finally whispered.
"And you don't like that," pressed the blonde.
Willow closed the volume she had been studying and laid her clasped hands atop its cover. "Tara, yesterday I saw something straight out of my worst nightmares. I'm still a little bit stuck on that right now."
"Me too," conceded Tara. "I'm sorry for the hammering thing. I just ... I saw her coming and I couldn't stop her on my own. I just couldn't let her hurt you."
The redhead smiled brightly. "Hey, all for the not hurting. What you did, that was a good spell. I've been afraid to try it. Figured I might, you know ... do some weird global stop-time thing or something. Every time I try to psyche myself up to give it a whirl, I have flashbacks to that 'Twilight Zone' episode."
Tara's eyes twinkled. "Oh, the one with the stopwatch?"
"Yeah, brrr." Willow gave an exaggerated shiver, which earned her a chuckle from the other woman.
At that moment just for that moment as Willow gazed at Tara's amused expression, she smiled as though she had no cares in the world. There were no spells to be figured out, no army of murderous Super Slayers, no loss and death; there was only Tara's smile. But it was a mood that was lost as quickly as it had been found, and Willow refocused with a tiny shake of her head.
The gesture did not go unnoticed by Tara and she gestured to the piles of as yet unopened books. "I-I guess we should really ..."
"Yeah," the redhead hastened to agree. "Questions aren't gonna answer themselves."
There was a moment of hesitation before each returned to their respective volumes.
The door to the interrogation room opened slowly as a tentative Dawn entered. Turning, Buffy immediately noted the shaken expression and hurried to her sister's side. She threw a comforting arm around the teenager's shoulders.
"Dawn, you shouldn't be here."
Dawn blinked at the Super Slayer in the middle of the room. "Mr. Wood asked me to tell you guys that they've had to take some of the other Slayers to the hospital. They're pretty messed up. They're ..." She swallowed hard. "They might not make it."
Buffy absorbed the information with a nod. "Thanks," she told Dawn gently before adding, "Hey, you were doing good there, helping out with all the wounded and all. What do you think, maybe Doctor Dawn some day?"
A tiny trembling smile crossed the teenager's lips. "I gotta make it through senior year."
"Oh, you'll make it," was Buffy's confident reply, "even if I have to chain you in here myself with only your textbooks for company."
Through lowered lashes, Dawn watched Xander approach, his arms held wide. She gratefully accepted the gesture and treated him to a tight hug. He held her close and smoothed her hair.
"How you doin', Dawn Corleone?" he questioned, forcing a lightness into his tone.
Dawn shivered. "I just keep thinking about Hazel. I liked her. We weren't that close, but ... we could've been."
Xander increased the consolation level of his embrace. "I hear you. I come to Slayer Central all the time, but I never really got to know any of the girls. We keep talkin' about this Big Bad's army, but then I gotta wonder, is what we've got any better?"
Over his shoulder, the teenager watched Kennedy move toward them. "We're not trying to take over the world," commented the Slayer. "That's better in my book."
Xander released Dawn and stuffed his hands into his pockets. "Yeah, there's that." He shrugged. "I just feel so bad. I should've tried harder to get to know them."
"I knew them." Kennedy's voice was flat. Looking to Buffy, she noted the determined line of the blonde's jaw and corrected her statement. "We did. Hazel and Kelly, all of them ... they're good girls. At least they died fighting."
"Yeah, I'm sure they find that real comforting," Xander replied with bitter sarcasm.
"It's what we're born to do," stated Kennedy without apology. "But what we need now? Payback. And the only thing standing between us and that is this bitch." Her narrowed eyes focused with deliberate intent upon the metal chair and its occupant. The rest of the group followed her gaze.
The captured Super Slayer appeared no less sickly than she had previously, but her demeanor was one of strong resistance as she regarded both Hannah and Giles with a defiant stare. She was obviously a long way from her breaking point and this fact served only to further infuriate Buffy. Striding purposefully toward the captive, the blonde Slayer drew her arm across her chest and delivered a stinging backhand to the girl's face, snapping the captive's head forcefully to one side. A tiny bruise materialized high on the right cheekbone, but the challenging attitude was no less prevalent.
"Talk," Buffy insisted coldly.
The girl refused to flinch. "Go to hell," she spat.
"You first," retorted the blonde, poised to strike again. Moving quickly, Giles stayed the imminent blow by seizing Buffy's wrist.
His tone was intended to calm. "Buffy. Let's take a break."
The Slayer vehemently shook her head. "We need"
"I know," assured the Watcher. "But we need a break, first."
He ushered Buffy toward the door, spreading out his arms to include Xander, Dawn and Kennedy within the sweep. Stepping to the forefront, he turned the handle and shepherded the group out of the room before following behind. He waited for a moment as they slouched their way along the hall and then turned back to Hannah. Arms crossed, she was leaning against the wall directly opposite the Super Slayer, the sole of one boot propped against the brickwork. She returned the Watcher's icy stare with an equally emotionless one of her own.
His instructions were given in a low voice. "Get me answers."
She responded with a barely discernable nod as he left the room and deliberately closed the door behind him.
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