The pervading hush dominating the foyer persisted until Xander broke the silence. "Hail, hail, the gang's all here," he announced, grinning with exaggerated cheerfulness.
Buffy looked to each face in turn. "What've we got?"
"We've got a lot," Giles told her with authority.
"We've got a team that's red-hot!" declared Dawn, with a cheeriness that matched Xander's grin. She wilted a little beneath the stares which greeted her proclamation. Nervously, the teenager cleared her throat and said nothing more.
Giles turned to his left. "Willow? Tara?"
The redhead twisted her fingers. "There are some snags," she admitted hesitantly. "Because, you know ... can't be easy. Where's the fun in that?"
"Snags?" queried Buffy, out of the loop.
"But we can do it," Willow continued with confidence.
The blonde Slayer's confusion surged to the forefront. "Wait, do what?"
"We can banish the extra power?" Tara replied, her voice lifting at the end as though she were asking a question. "The stuff that makes the Super Slayers ... super."
Willow smiled brightly. "Without the Super, they're just your common, garden variety Slayer."
"Fresh from your grocer's freezer," Xander added.
Kennedy frowned as she considered the witches. "But there's a problem?"
"Couple," nodded Willow with some disappointment. "I-It could be kinda tricky to get around, but ..." Her eyes drifted toward Giles, who returned the gaze with an affirmative nod as he picked up the threads of the explanation.
"No need to get into it here," agreed Giles. "We'll discuss the details shortly." Turning to address the group, he continued, "Now then, about the—"
"Screw this," interrupted Faith with an impatient toss of her head. She purposefully marched toward Giles and Kennedy, roughly pushing her way between them. Giles staggered backward a little, but Kennedy stood her ground, reaching out to seize Faith's arm.
"Faith—" she began, but the other Slayer violently jerked herself free.
"When you're done with the chitchat an' get ready to do, come find me." Faith's tone was deceptively calm. She didn't wait for confirmation; she simply stomped away.
Kennedy watched her leave and then began to follow. Xander had apparently reached the same conclusion and swiftly moved to track Kennedy's steps.
"Xander, Kennedy," called Buffy quickly, bringing them both to a halt. Very pointedly, she inquired, "How's everything else coming?"
Their expressions were uncertain, their desire to go after Faith readily apparent.
A look of understanding crept into Buffy's eyes. Nevertheless, she stood firm, her tone unwavering. "Guys."
Reluctantly, Xander turned away and resumed his position next to Dawn. Kennedy, too, made no further action toward Faith, but her compliance was by far the less graceful.
"The girls are pumped," she reported snappily. "They're ready to dish it out instead of taking it for a change."
Turning to Xander, Giles questioned, "Ruth?"
"She's working on it now."
Giles gave a nod of satisfaction.
"And me?" piped an expectant voice. "What can I do?"
Every eye turned to Dawn. The teenager returned each glance with an eager smile and then regarded her sister hopefully, but Buffy would not be swayed. She crossed to Dawn with a forced smile on her lips.
"Don't you have a big chemistry test coming up? You can study for that." Buffy suggested, as though this were a grand task that anyone in the room would be delighted to have bestowed upon them.
Dawn wasn't feeling the honor. "What? No! I want to help you guys!"
"Doing well on your chemistry test will help us," the Slayer insisted, every one of her supernaturally-endowed senses screaming that she was on shaky and rapidly deteriorating ground. "See, cuz ... when you get good grades that means you'll get a solid, high-paying job which is important because you'll have to support all of us in our old age." Buffy smiled weakly.
Emphatically shaking her head, Dawn folded her arms and stared at her sister defiantly. "Oh no. No, I'm a Scooby now. You made it all big and official and I'm going to help."
The two Summers stared at each other, locked in a fierce battle of wills. Then without warning, Dawn shifted tactics.
"C'mon," the teenager urged, "last time I got to fight the original vampires! You can't keep me out of this."
Buffy refused to relent. "You are not fighting anything but polyunsaccharine carbon atoms."
"What?" Willow interjected, blinking in utter bewilderment that went completely ignored.
From across the foyer, Tara stepped forward. "Dawnie, you can help Willow and me," she offered. Sensing the look of confusion on Willow's face, she turned back and added, "With the spells?"
Catching on, Willow was immediately supportive. "Yeah! Yeah," she hastened to confirm. "We've got ... whoo, spells. And lots of 'em! It's like a- an entertainment expo or a real estate agent convention! Only with ... spells."
With narrowed eyes, Dawn regarded the blonde witch with suspicion. "You're just making up stuff, aren't you?" she asked directly.
The denial was instant. "No. Well, a little bit," Tara corrected with a small shrug. "But we really do need some research help."
Dawn's sigh was one of resignation. "It's the best I'm gonna get, huh?"
"For now," Tara smiled.
Accepting inevitable defeat with relatively good grace, Dawn marched toward the witches. "Fine, fine. Point me to the books."
Tara placed a comforting arm around Dawn's shoulders and led her down the hallway.
Kennedy watched for a moment and then brushed her palms together. "I'm going after Faith now." Without waiting for permission, she turned abruptly on her heel and made a determined exit.
For a moment it looked as though Xander was going to follow, but his own responsibilites surged to the forefront. "As for me," he announced, "I have a date with my workshop and many implements of destruction."
"Look at you," jibed Buffy, "all Mr. Important Destructo Man."
Xander's smile was irrefutably proud. "I make stuff go smashy."
"D'you ever stop to think about how weird it is that the tools for building something and the tools for breaking something are pretty much the same tools?" mused Willow thoughtfully. She took in the collection of puzzled looks this remark earned her. "No, okay then."
Shaking his head wryly, Xander turned to Buffy. "Care to come with? If you're very good, I'll let you touch my power drill."
The Slayer wore a somewhat dubious expression as she accepted Xander's offer to accompany him. "Was that some sort of lame come-on?"
"Not unless you want it to be," rejoined the carpenter amiably as the pair moved down the hall together.
With a fond smile, Giles pondered briefly on the lighthearted exchange before focusing on Willow. "We'll begin discussing the details of the spell, shall we?"
The redhead agreed with an affable nod and joined Giles as they exited the foyer. "Because, I mean," persisted Willow, "a saw can cut something into random tiny little pieces, or it can be used to cut exac—"
"Willow let it go."
Jogging relentlessly, Kennedy searched Slayer Central, her quest reaching its conclusion when she found Faith in the library. Although the room had been mostly cleared of debris from the battle, there had been no time to effectuate actual repairs and the area remained something of a disaster. Kennedy paused in the doorway, watching Faith as she stood before the gaping wounds in the plaster, where she had tried to claw her way through by hand in a desperate effort to reach Judith.
"Did a number on the wall," Kennedy noted with admiration. "Xander'll be a week fixing that one up."
Faith didn't turn around. "We headin' out yet?"
"Then go away."
Kennedy considered this for a moment and then shook her head, even though Faith couldn't see the gesture. "I thought you could maybe use someone to talk to."
"Yeah, well you thought wrong," came the clipped response.
Kennedy moved further into the room. "Look Faith, I know—"
"Save it," Faith sneered, half-glancing over her shoulder. "I already did the touchy-feely thing. All those pretty words an' I'm feelin' like a million bucks, thanks."
As Faith turned away again, Kennedy reached out, but stopped far short of touching the rigid shoulders. "I just—"
Her jaw clenched tight in anger, Kennedy began to comply and then apparently changed her mind. Instead, she turned back to Faith who continued to stare stiffly at the damaged wall.
"You call me a brat?" spat an incensed Kennedy. "I think I'll hand my self-indulgent crown over to you." She waited for a second, but Faith maintained her silence. "I looked up to you once."
"That'd be just one of your many mistakes."
"Seriously. I thought you had something, you know?" Kennedy persisted. "Turning yourself into the cops, the whole redemptive path thing. I thought that was cool. Plus you didn't take any of Buffy's crap, and that always gets bonus points."
"Great," mocked Faith. "I'm the role model for wannabes everywhere. Thanks for stoppin' by with that."
For a moment, Kennedy said nothing, simply staring at Faith's determined stance.
"You're gonna kill her, aren't you?" she eventually asked. "Judith."
"Nah, I'm not gonna kill her," Faith denied bitterly, finally turning to face Kennedy. "I'm gonna freakin' end her." She paused and tilted her head, regarding Kennedy with a sardonic half-grin. "So go ahead. Let's hear the big speech. 'You can't kill, Faith, it's wrong. We have to turn the other cheek and love and forgive'."
"No speech from me," maintained Kennedy with narrowed eyes. "Bitch has been playing us since day one and she's killed our own. Hell," she rolled her shoulders and shifted her weight to the other foot. "I'd do it myself if I didn't think you'd had a slightly higher claim."
Somewhat taken aback by Kennedy's bluntness, Faith's eyes also grew narrow. "That ain't Scooby talk."
Kennedy shrugged dismissively. "I guess we're not Scoobies, are we?"
In companionable silence, Buffy and Xander made their way to Xander's workshop. He paused to open the door and then ushered the blonde to enter.
"Wow," remarked Buffy with something akin to awe. "It looks so ..."
"Grown up?" supplied a beaming Xander.
Seemingly delighted with the observation, Xander gave a contented sigh. "I guess there just comes a time in every man's life where he sets aside the trappings of childhood for—" He stopped short and frowned. "Hey!"
Buffy looked to Xander in surprise as he hurried toward her, gesturing at her hands which contained a stack of comic books she had removed from a corner stool in readiness to take a seat. He gingerly accepted the pile she nervously offered and cradled it lovingly.
"I haven't had time to bag and board those yet," Xander told her reproachfully, "and if you don't stack 'em just right, the spines get little creases." He carefully began inspecting said spines.
The nod he received in return was a tad patronizing, but the affectionate smile was genuine. Buffy perched on the stool and watched Xander carefully deposit his stash of comics in a more secure location before attending to other business. With an expert eye, he verified the assortment of tools, seeming to test each one with a diligence reminiscent of Buffy going over her own weapon collection.
She settled herself more comfortably and leaned forward, resting her forearms on her knees, hands clasped before her. "So what's the deal now?"
The carpenter smacked the head of a large hammer against his palm. "You know how Lady Wrinkles was going on about some magic thing, right?" He circled the tool in the air. "This big thingamabob that's powering the Super Slayers."
"Their source or whatever," confirmed the blonde.
"Right," agreed Xander. "We've gotta get in there and destroy it, but we can't really risk not putting every Slayer in the fight. Giles and Robin are gonna be helping coordinate the attack, so that leaves yours truly."
Buffy frowned at the news. "This is suddenly sounding less like a perfect plan."
"Probably because it's not," shrugged Xander. "I sure can't think of anything better, though. We've gotta destroy this thing, and as much as I hate to say it, I'm not gonna be much use with the fighting. Might as well apply my special Xander skills at breakin' stuff."
Hopping down from her perch, Buffy joined Xander at the worktable. "I could maybe go with you. Keep things from breaking you while you break other things," she offered.
Xander smiled down at her. "You know where you're really needed, Buff."
"Maybe," she pouted. "But I don't like you going solo."
"I won't be," reassured the carpenter. "Hannah's not so good with the strategizing either, so she's coming with me. Giles says she's pretty scrappy in a fight." He sniffed with indignation and looked toward the ceiling. "I think I could take her."
"I dunno," Buffy countered, sounding amused, "you gotta watch out for those deceptively strong blondes."
Xander treated her to a sideways glance. "True. Plus, I haven't really been emasculated for a while now and I'd like to keep it that way."
A brief silence followed as Xander resumed gathering assorted tools while Buffy returned to her stool. Apparently lost in her own thoughts, she watched him for a moment until he turned to look at her with curiosity.
"Shiny new penny for your thoughts," he proposed.
"Just thinking about this year. It's been an interesting one."
Nodding his agreement, Xander produced an oversized duffel bag and began to pack it. "That it has."
"And," continued the blonde, "I've found it surprisingly non-taxing for me, as a general rule."
"That a bad?"
Buffy vehemently shook her head. "No no. That would be a definite good. It's nice." Sighing contentedly, she straightened on the stool, stretching out her arms. "You know, sort of sit back, enjoy what I have ... I mean sure, big scary army of killer teenagers ready to take over the world and let an obsessive-compulsive control freak run things. But that aside? My destiny isn't quite so isolationist and burden-y, it looks like my little sister will actually be able to finish the school year at school, one of my friends came back to life, and my family feels happy and whole again. So yeah." Her chin jutting out, Buffy nodded once, decisively. "This makes a good."
She treated Xander to a bright smile, which was swiftly reciprocated.
"Iím glad you came home," he told her sincerely.
"I'm glad I had a home to come to."
There was a tiny pause as Buffy swung her feet to-and-fro. "Of course you know this means that next year—"
"Pain, suffering, angst," finished the carpenter, leaning back against his workbench with a boyish grin.
"He was really freaky, Giles," Willow maintained firmly. "He knew stuff. I mean, even ignoring the fact that in there we were essentially nothing but thoughts wrapped up in highly attractive packages."
Giles was seated behind the desk in his office, Willow and Tara each occupying a leather chair before him.
The Watcher frowned. "He never gave you a name?"
"None," replied Tara. "It was him, though – he was the one who brought me back. Not Robespierre. Him."
Leaning back, Giles' brow was furrowed. "Maybe he was the- the power behind the act, but—"
"No Mr. Giles," came Tara's adamant response. "I mean it was all him. I-I ... I don't think anyone else was involved."
Removing his glasses, Giles began to vigorously polish, lost in deep and silent thought. He looked up sharply at the sound of Willow's voice invading the reverie.
"Do you think he'll interfere?" asked the Watcher, continuing to focus on his ardent polishing.
Willow and Tara exchanged a look.
"I have no idea," mused the redhead. "I couldn't really tell what he wanted, except to maybe keep me an' Tara apart."
"I got that too," Tara confirmed, nodding her agreement as she glanced at Giles. "He was trying hard to convince me that Willow would go evil again, and like I had to stay away from her."
Giles pinched the bridge of his nose and then replaced his glasses. "Your magickal connection has them worried, perhaps." He turned to Tara. "They clearly expected you to kill Willow and, I presume, die yourself as a result. By failing in both—"
"Yay, by the way," enthused Willow.
Giles inclined his head in acknowledgment but quickly moved on. "Perhaps they're concerned what you can accomplish together. Speaking of ..." He paused and waited expectantly.
Easily picking up the thread, Willow leaned forward in her seat. "I was right, and we can use that spell to break the extra power away from the Slayers. Now we know what we're looking for, we can do it for all of them too."
"But...?" prompted the Watcher.
"But it comes back," Tara admitted.
"Comes back?" Giles was obviously more than a little concerned. "It's regenerating?"
"Sorta," confessed Willow. "We checked back in with the Super Guinea Pig and it's ... it's like the power's reforming. Whatever's out there keeping them together, it's gonna fix whatever we break."
A line of concern appeared between Tara's eyebrows as she further explained. "Once we're in place and we separate all the stolen powers and memories and stuff, we'll have to throw up a barrier, keep it apart. It won't be easy."
"Serious power drain," was Willow's crisp affirmation.
"When the source is destroyed though," the blonde's expression brightened, "all the essences will be able to move on. The other Slayers will just be ... regular Slayers." She looked to Willow again and smiled.
Willow grinned in return. "With a grade-five migraine."
Giles' chair hit the floor with a thud as he got to his feet. "With this in mind, will you both be able to pull this off and open a portal large enough to transport our Slayers into their facility?"
"And keep our own shields up," reminded the redhead. "Last thing we need is another visit from the Scary Irritating Man."
Giles' forehead creased into deep furrows as he strode back and forth behind his desk. Willow and Tara watched his restless pacing for several silent moments, their heads swiveling in unison as they tracked his movements.
"It'll come down to timing, I think," Tara finally offered aloud in an attempt to possibly lighten the burden. "We can't use too much power to open the portal, or we might not have enough left for the Super Slayers."
"A-And we can't deactivate the Super Slayers before we open the portal," added Willow, "since once we start that, we can't stop to bamf the team to wherever they're bamfin'."
"So, timing," reiterated Tara.
"A four-leaf clover or fifty might be good too." Willow's eyes widened. "And maybe one of those lucky cat statue things!" She raised her hand in the air, mimicking the beckoning paw displayed by said felines of good fortune and turned to Giles with a broad grin.
"This is critical," a serious-faced Giles sternly informed her. "Before we commit to this plan of action, I have to know if you can do it. Can you teleport our Slayers to their headquarters and keep the Super Slayers de-powered until Xander locates and destroys the conduit?"
Willow reached across the space between her and Tara, seeking and finding the blonde's hand. As Willow's fingers entwined with her own, Tara met the other woman's eyes and the loving expression that had appeared on her face.
"I've already had one miracle this year," Willow told him, though her gaze never left Tara. "What's one more?"
Squeezing Willow's hand in return, Tara's shy smile became one of confidence as she turned to the Watcher. "We won't let you down, Mr. Giles," she assured.
"No," he replied warmly, "I don't suppose you ever could."
I won't let you down, Fiver.
'Course not. That's a given.
Standing in the middle of Hazel's room, Faith was a study of intense concentration. Her head was tilted to one side, as though listening carefully to past echoes that only she could hear. Her eyes drifted from one area to the next. She barely moved, except to shift position slightly in order to better view yet another part of the room.
I always wanted a little brother. I thought that'd be cool. Read Spider-Man and stuff together. But no – little sis, and the Barbie thing wore off as soon as she entered the 'crew cuts on Hazel's dolls are neat' stage. Hey! Maybe you could be my little brother! Only older, and not a boy.
Faith's gaze traveled along the posters lining the wall, then moved to inspect the many knick-knacks which littered the desk and dresser. Such were the sole remaining remnants of Hazel's life – reminders of everything that had been important to her.
It's a dangerous world. Lotta things out there'd love t'have you as a between-meal snack.
Yeah, but you'll always keep me safe, right?
The Slayer's eyes journeyed over the many displayed photographs that represented but a small portion of Hazel's vast collection of memories, including one framed photograph of herself with the Junior Slayer. Reaching out, Faith gently lifted it from its resting place.
But I just thought, 'What would Faith do?' ...and then I did it.
For a long while, Faith regarded the images, so lifelike in their captured moment. Then, with a snarl, she cocked back her arm and aimed the picture toward a nearby wall. Her muscles trembled with the strain and it appeared that she could almost see the shattered frame and splintered glass already lying upon the carpet. An inner battle seemed to rage – an overpowering desire to destroy vying with the acute need to preserve. It was obvious she wanted so badly to give vent to destruction.
What would Faith do?
Slowly, Faith lowered the framed picture and stared at it for what seemed an eternity before hanging her head.