DISCLAIMER: Another day, another…they don’t pay me anything at all. I just do this to amuse myself and you. That’s what allows me and mine to slip under the radar while playing with characters created by those more fortunate than us.
ARCHIVING: A master list of my fiction can be found here. Please do not archive or distribute without my permission.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Special thanks to Howard Russell for all of the lovely commas.
Y’know, it really didn’t hit me till—
My alarm goes off, completely derailing my train of thought. I flinch. And no wonder. It makes this shrill buzzing sound, like Brundlefly huffing helium. I resist the urge to bury my head under a pillow. It’s the last thing I want, but I sit up and swing my legs over the edge of the bed. Both actions take way more effort than I’ve got to give.
Peering blearily at the stupid clock, I groan and rub my eye. The profane number five mocks me from the first column.
Profane? I snicker. Yeah, pretty twisted. It was twisted around, facing the other way since last time I looked.
All but falling out of bed, I stagger across the room to shut it off. Chucking it out the window sounds like a better plan, but…
I stretch instead and grumble, “You’re a goner when I get a minute.”
Like I’ve had a minute in months. It’s sad. My clock has job security because I don’t have time to see straight, let alone shop for another.
I haven’t even gotten much more than a single z in recent memory. No plural z’s for me. One’s plenty. It’s fun. It makes you do all kinds of crazy stuff. Like try to put your pants on backwards.
Witness me having fun.
I take advantage of the temporary aloneness, scratching my lower back and regions slightly south as I trudge to the shower. Give it an hour. I’ll be up to my neck in teenage girls. And while that sounds great in theory…
Actually, it sounds like the answer to a prayer and a fantasy all rolled into one. One really naughty fantasy.
It’s a little disturbing how many things seem to work that way. You look at the box, or worse, the commercial and you think, ‘Man, that looks good.’
I turn on the shower and stare blankly into the tub. At least the water swirls the right way here. There’s some comfort in that swirl.
Attractive packaging. There’s so much of it.
Like, take the Big Mac. They look great on TV. But when you get there and actually pay the pimply-faced kid for the two pieces of thick black cardboard covered in slimey green stuff that might’ve been lettuce in a former life, slathered in chunky, vomit-pink paste and sandwiched between three pieces of hard, golden-brown Styrofoam it’s, umm…
This might be pathetic, but I could really go for a number two. Super Size it.
Nah, it’s McDonalds. Worse than cigarettes…and arguably just as carcinogenic.
There should be a patch.
After testing the water, I slip off my PJs and climb into the shower. And again with the effort…
The hot water does something—not nearly enough—but some of the haze lifts. It’s like my head depressurizes. Despite how that sounds, it’s a good thing.
I pick up a sponge. As I pour some soap and lather, the shower fills with the smell of pine.
Mechanically, I wash myself and shampoo my hair. Mid-lather, another shrill sound destroys any glimmer of hope I might’ve had for a good day. It’s another day, like the days before.
Time to make the doughnuts…
I used to just get them. Now that the shine’s worn off the promotion, I think I liked it better that way. But I was too stupid to see. I didn’t understand that the ones in the know are pretty much as much ‘in the know’ as the ones who know nothing.
Now, I just don’t know.
Quickly rinsing, I turn off the water, spring out of the shower and slip.
My arms windmill. Stuff crashes. It’s morning.
I catch the door jamb, cheating The Powers That Be So Kind to Me out of their belly laugh…this time. My pride mostly intact, I reach through the doorway, grab a towel and run to answer the phone.
Well, I’m awake now. And shivering.
I quickly swab my ear with the towel and grumble, “Hello.” If ‘hello’ doesn’t work, I’ve got a couple of other ideas that might.
Through the scruffling sound of me attacking my hair, Renee announces, “Mr. Harris, we need you in Ops immediately.” Somehow, I’m not surprised.
I wrap the towel around my waist before I ask the obvious, “What’s up?” I let the formality slide. It’s way too early to give her the satisfaction.
Renee replies, “Detective Comics number eight-thirty-five?”
I struggle with the reference. Wow. I think I’ve just been out-geeked by someone not Andrew. That’s pretty amazing. But maybe it’s just that I’m exhausted. When I murmur a noncommittal, “Uh-huh,” she goes on, “Remember how the Scarecrow escaped Arkham?”
That’s the lame book where the Scarecrow hypnotizes everyone. No wonder I didn’t remember. Exceptionally heavy on violence and mayhem, obscenely light on plot and grammar; it’s one of the worst Batman books ever, with or without the Boy Blunder.
It figures we’d rate the worst.
She tries to say something, but I cut her off with another, “Uh-huh”—this one’s lots more wigged—and stammer, “I’ll be right down,” rushing to hang up the phone.
I hope the girls are okay. Nah, uh…
I’m sure they are. Renee would’ve been a lot more freaked if—
Two and two click. Crap. I really wish they wouldn’t do that. Making it through breakfast able to feign blissful ignorance would nice just this once.
But a fuzzy gray rodent causes the first twinges of a headache to set in behind my vacant eye instead.
Y’know, that’s gotta be it. No matter how much you want it not—
Detective Comics number eight-thirty-five. Amy flew the coop. It’s gonna be another day.
I roll my eye. What’s missing moves too. It’s been over a year and that still feels weird.
Dressing at warp eleven-point-five, I come dangerously close to the ‘pants on backwards’ thing. But it’s all good.
I can hardly wait to see Buffy. That’s gonna be fun. The ‘I should sell tickets’ kind of fun. She makes Captain Willard look like a paradigm of mental stability.
I don’t even kill myself when the phone rings again. There’s a better solution. I ignore it this time.
It’s not like things haven’t been rotten enough without the help. Not to mention confusing. We really don’t need this. One day she’s flirting with me. Or at least, I think that was flirting. It’s hard to tell with her.
And, minor miracle, I even remember to brush my teeth.
Like I’d go there now. Good thing too, ’cause next day I was dangling from her bedroom door.
Her baggage really needs its own postal code.
I made that mistake once. It nearly got me killed. Think I’ll skip the second feature.
I rush out my door, only to turn right back around. I forgot my stupid eye patch. I don’t give a damn what the doc says. I do all the stuff I’m supposed to. There’s a list. The speech—in no way was that fun. But I’m not gonna show this piece of crap off. I don’t care if it is a perfect match. It still looks weird, in an unpleasantly dead sorta way. And there’s plenty of that to go around. I don’t need to add to it.
Collecting my eye patch off the nightstand, I step in front of the dresser mirror to put it on. The eye that’s not my eye stares vacantly back at me for only an instant. That’s long enough. Once it’s covered, I bail, heading for Ops at top speed.
It’s really no wonder things are so weird. There isn’t a single one of us that hasn’t seen too much. And just for kicks, grins and giggles, the ‘too much’ keeps on coming.
Yet here I am.
Where else would I be? Pounding nails gets pretty dicey without depth perception.
As I round the corner that leads to the stairwell, I run into a slayer patrol. Three of the younger girls, making the rounds on the shift nobody wants. Go figure, I’m here too. I put my hand up in greeting. They smile, sidestepping me before I get the chance.
Maybe my sense of self preservation’s finally kicking in. That’d be just spiffy. And about damned time. Out of the five—mostly demonic—women who’ve shown an interest, only three have really gone out of their way to kill me. And the only one who’s still alive is Faith.
It’s a great theme…paving the way to too much Patsy Cline, Schlitz and titles like ‘Man Servant.’ Good times!
My jaw muscles tighten. They throb, making my headache that much better.
I keep waiting for Renee to try to kill me.
I pause on the stairs for just a sec and take a deep breath, squeezing my eyes shut as I force myself to relax.
I need to keep moving. So I do. I turn the corner and jog down a flight of stairs. At the next landing, another well-needed reason to dread comes to mind: Willow.
I’m not sure which one of them worries me more. I’ve never seen Will like this. And that’s saying something. She’s, uh, I dunno…
One minute… Will’s always been a little flakey. It’s one of the things I love about her. But now she’s super-duper, amazingly, extra flakey, with a side of nuts. I might even use the word ‘addled,’ if I used words like ‘addled.’ I leave them for Giles.
And then she’s not. Then she won’t say a word. It’s like she’s mad, or hurt, or depressed… She only gets quiet when there’s something really wrong.
At the landing, I turn left and dash down the hall.
I don’t get it.
It’s like hot and cold running Willow. Just like Buffy, there’s something really off. The most disturbing part is that I can’t even put my finger on what.
I pause outside Ops, drawing in another deep breath. All the fun I’m not having ties my stomach in knots. Once I locate my poker face, I push the doors open and step inside, giving Renee an expectant glare.
My glare doesn’t last long. I fixate on the surveillance video playing out on the large screen behind her as she explains, “I’m sorry, sir. That was a bad example. I tried to tell you no one was hurt, but you hung up. And you didn’t answer when I called back.”
The timestamp on the video reads: four-forty-six. That was only thirty-seven minutes ago.
A portal forms in Amy’s cell directly in front of the slayers who were standing guard. Gina and Jody, I think. With over two-hundred girls here, it gets kinda hard to remember who’s who. They continue to talk like nothing’s going on. There’s no way they don’t see that, but it’s situation normal…
…all fouled up…not to mention a little surreal. I study the animated gestures, giggles and gossip as Renee reports, “The girls are both under observation. The mystics gave them a clean bill of health, but this worries me. It worries me more than—”
I interrupt her by mumbling, “Yeah, I get that.”
These girls weren’t hypnotized. Or I don’t think they were. It’s like they’ve been blinded to what’s happening.
So, maybe that is hypnosis? Like I’m an expert. Sounds like hypnosis. But they’re chatting too casually. The conversation’s just so normal. You’d think there’d—
Without tearing my attention from the view screen, I ask “Did the mystics sense anything? I mean, besides the portal?”
A tall, redheaded woman steps through the portal. There’s this look about her that just isn’t right. Not that it matters. The ‘not right’ sort of goes without saying.
Thing is, just like men, there’s stuff women do because they like it. And there’s stuff they do because we like it. The way she looks is like the latter gone horribly wrong. A sausage casing would be more comfy. But the really unmeshy part is her boots.
Gah! Now I sound like Buffy. But she’s wearing flats and they just don’t match the ‘my pimp poured me into this’ look. It’s weird.
The irritating strumpet even winks at the camera before grabbing Amy’s cage and stepping back through. She knew.
How could she know?
Simple enough. Whatever happened, she did it, or had something to do with it. But it wasn’t magic. Really weird.
I mumble, “Drugs?” more to myself than to Renee.
She answers anyway. “They were clean, sir.”
I’m not surprised. Lacing their food, or whatever—it’d take an inside man, er, umm…inside woman. I’m the only man here. And it wasn’t me.
Well, at least that part’s comforting. The rest—the entire idea of a double agent—
While that makes for a great video game, I’m gonna come down firmly against it. It’d be a mess of monumental proportions.
And probably way too simple to pull off.
Now, that really is comforting.
I say through a sigh, “Alright, well…” Taking a breath, I pick back up a second later, sigh-free, but totally tempted to sigh again, “We need to get this over with.” Resisting the urge, I cross the room, completing my thought as I go. “See if you can raise the others.” I grab up my headset from the charger by my workstation and put it on.
Another day, another…they don’t pay me nearly enough to put up with this crap.
Renee asks, “Should I contact Buffy?” And boy, does she sound thrilled.
They say that the secret to happiness in positions like this is learning to delegate. And right now, I’m completely in touch with that. “Nah, I’ll handle it,” I reply. That doesn’t mean I’ll do it.
After taking a seat at my desk, I dial the extension. The phone rings. I ignore the creepy-crawlies that skitter down my spine. There’s no reason…nothing valid anyway. I just hate bad news. Being the bearer always makes me feel like I’m headed for an execution.
Or at least raised voices and PG-13 violence.
Buffy finally picks up, but refuses the request for a video feed. No surprise there. Her, “Hello,” sounds as bad as mine did. Maybe worse.
“Hi, Buff, it’s Xander. Sorry to call so early, but there’s been a problem,” I state. Short, sweet and to the point.
She asks, “What?”
And I continue that theme, bluntly admitting, “Amy escaped.” My voice doesn’t even waver. I’m getting better at this.
Waiting’s the worst. I hold back the cringe, or almost. I give it my best shot. It’s kind of half a cringe. Really more of a faint shrug. As victories go, it’s damned pathetic.
There’s this hollow noise when she puts her hand over the receiver. A few moments pass. I can almost hear them, but not quite. Finally, she says, “I’ll be right down.”
The phone goes dead. I hang up and let go the breath I was holding. I have no clue whether that was the worst of it or not. If so, I got off easy. But probably not. The math isn’t that hard. Anything we might’ve learned just walked out the door with Amy.
But square one’s not such a bad place to be, right? Comfy, inviting, familiar…it’s almost like home.
Who am I kidding? Buffy’s gonna be so pissed off she’ll make Quentin Tarantino’s work look like John Hughes.
Though, I could see some serious crossover potential between those two. Or maybe just a cameo. Who wouldn’t want to watch Macaulay Culkin take Marvin’s place in the backseat of Jules’ car? I’d pay ten bucks for that.
It sucks. I feel too bad for Will to stay amused for long. I hope she’s alright. She paid way too much for a whole lot of nothing. I wish I could do something, but there’s nothing to do unless she lets me. And it seems pretty unlikely she will.
Maybe Buff will be able to get through to her, or she’ll get through to Buffy. Either way would be dandy. I’m not picky. I’ll take anything positive right about now.
And the nothing…
All we’ve really got is that the army wants us dead. That went swell last time.
And there’s another squiggly, pretty-much-meaningless symbol. Those are always fun.
This reeks of Big Bad.
Bored Big Bad, sitting around, doodling. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m picturing Moons Over My Hammy, stale coffee and a paper napkin. The Bad draws a swishy arc, a straight line and a star. ‘Uh…no, this’d be better with a four-pointed star.’ Scribble, scribble…
‘Oh, that’s good! Now all I have to do is find a bunch of idiots dumb enough to carve this into their flesh and I’ll be in business.’
‘I know! There are lots of idiots in the armed forces.’
Not exactly a beautiful sunset, but it’s almost a theory.
Y’know what? Little Miss Mood Disorder was Ginsu-free. That is, unless it was buried somewhere between the mountains of cleavage. I wonder if that means something.
She might be the artist. It wouldn’t be hard to get a bunch of grunts to follow a chesty redhead.
It’s either that or she and Amy are working for someone else. And that someone else isn’t as fond of carving up the scenery.
Now there’s a cheery thought. More than one psycho that wants us dead. I’ll pass.
And quickly moving on, I’m sure I can find another disturbing thought before Renee reaches Giles.
But I don’t need to. There’s plenty to be disturbed by without my help. Robin Wood does an exceptional job of illustrating the point when I look up. He looks like death on burnt toast.
Next to Wood, but not really next to him, is Andrew. Andrew’s nearly a polar opposite. He wears a red silk smoking jacket and a big silly grin. It looks like there was a party in Rome last night and he hasn’t bothered to sleep yet.
Must be the life. At least one of us is having a good time.
I can’t help but grin. It’s the split screen. It always makes me think, ‘Brady Bunch from Hell.’ It’d be funnier if I could convince them to face each other. Maybe look around a little. No such luck…
I stand up from my desk and walk to the center of the room, next to Renee. My grin’s still there, all lopsided and intentionally quirky, when I say, “Morning.”
It works. Even Wood cracks a smile, but that doesn’t last.
Trying to be friendly, I ask, “Anything new?” I hope he answers. He looks like he could stand to talk.
Go figure, Andrew beats him to it. “Carla managed to sneak in a call last night. She says the Immortal’s been acting really weird.”
I nod. It’s pretty unusual to hear from Carla. She’s been on deep cover assignment for over a year. Almost everyone believes Buffy’s in Rome because of her, including Angel.
“I’m not sure what the deal is, but he’s definitely up to something. He’s had several closed door meetings. And last night Carla said he snuck out. She tried to follow him, but he gave her the slip,” Andrew explains. Appearing pensive, he takes a deep breath. This is bad. He’s building steam. Andrew, in top form, can out-babble a highly caffeinated Willow. And not one to disappoint, he starts in, “You don’t suppose it was some sorta clandestine rendezvous? Like Mission: Impossible. On the water front, all gritty and a little bit sexy—kinda Film Noir—with guns and everyone’s shooting. Oh, and Tom Cruise—”
Thankfully, Wood interrupts, “That’s exactly what I think.” He doesn’t look impressed. Andrew takes a clue and backs down.
I put in, “If someone shot the Immortal, they’d make my Christmas card list. Not that it’d do any good. But it’d annoy him.” Smiling at Wood, I add, “It’s the thought that counts, y’know?”
He cracks another brief grin and replies, “It really is,” sighing before he takes his turn. “We’ve got a local vamp here, calls herself Kako. It’d be easy to laugh—maybe crack a few tasteless Star Trek jokes—if she wasn’t so damned frustrating. We’ve been hunting her for months.”
“Yeah, I think you’ve mentioned her. Kakoboyla?” I cut in during a pause, hoping he’ll continue.
Andrew mumbles, “Malice.” He sounds almost reverent.
Wood nods. “Yeah. She specializes in using the inner city gangs to do her dirty work.” He takes a sip from his mug and wipes the corners of his eyes. Looking a little more alert, he continues his report. “Unlike most vamps, she has a knack for getting people to work together. Standard stuff: promises of immortality, money and infamy. But not-so-standard: her people are zealots.”
Still coming off a little moon-eyed, Andrew interjects, “I think I’ve read about her. The girl’s seriously got it going on.”
And it’s always helpful when we get a hankering for the evil dead. Like that’s worked out well for any of us. Maybe Andrew should take a hint.
“Yeah, that doesn’t help,” Wood admits. “She’s intelligent, well spoken, charismatic, driven, creative…all of the features we really don’t need. But the worst part is, her people aren’t gun-shy. It’s been pretty rough.”
A Giles square joins the other two, taking position above Andrew to the right. He remains silent.
I’m not sure Wood even notices. He’s kinda lost in thought, staring into his cup as he recounts, “Her followers took another run at the Hellmouth last night. They abducted some girl off the street. We only just managed to stop them.” After sipping at his coffee, he mumbles, “Without a squad leader, the team’s not quite on par. Facing an extremely organized opponent—”
Giles doesn’t look impressed. He interrupts, “What’s become of Faith?” stopping Wood short.
“She hasn’t returned since I sent her to Hough. Remember that nest we talked about?” he replies. The honesty hurts. He takes another drink of his coffee to cover.
Giles says, “I’ll look into it.”
The man’s got monotone down to an art form. If I didn’t know him so well, he might have me fooled. But he’s got that crinkly thing going on. That thing he used to do right before he told me to shut up. I love it. Give it a minute. He’ll have his glasses off and be clamping the bridge of his nose.
This day just keeps getting better and better.
I nod to Renee and say, “It’s been a barrel of laughs here too. Now that Giles is with us, there’s some more footage you guys should see.” She walks over to her console and cues the surveillance video from late last night. Andrew, Giles and Wood all move into small framed boxes to the left and right of the display.
Now I’m really thinking Brady Bunch. I’d hum the theme if I didn’t think Giles’ head would explode.
The background is filled with a large image of Willow being sucked into the portal. The timestamp says midnight, on the dot.
The next piece of footage is from twelve-forty-eight. Another portal crackles to life and Willow flies out of it. She’s closely followed by a huge, scary looking, green fireball. It engulfs the entire room for few seconds. The concussion shakes the camera and everyone goes sprawling. Everyone except Buffy. It’s really hard to see, but she jumps into the fire and catches Willow. They both smash into the wall.
That looked even more painful on video. I cringe as Andrew exclaims, “That was so cool!” We all ignore him, but I have to secretly admit he’s right. I may need to keep a copy of that for my collection. It makes most of the garbage Hollywood puts out look weak.
The view changes to camera two, focusing on the wall where Willow lays on top of Buffy. It takes a minute for either of them to move. I use the time to fill in, “The source of the blast is still unknown. We’re waiting for Willow’s report.”
Buffy moves her leg. As she slowly sits up, she rolls Willow away, carefully laying her flat. Once they’ve seen that the girls are alright, or sort of alright, I nod to Renee. She queues the next video and I comment, “She didn’t return alone. Giles, you should recognize the rat.” The display then fades to the abduction footage I watched a few minutes ago.
Giles appears mildly amused when he mumbles, “Amy,” for everyone’s benefit.
The door to Ops opens as Catwoman passes into Amy’s cell on the feed. I glance over my shoulder. Right on time, Buffy trudges into the room. I thought Wood looked bad. Her face is gaunt. She’s really pale, all except the dark circles under her eyes. If I didn’t know her better, I might be tempted to think she looks sick.
She hangs back out of the line of sight until the show ends. The ‘gaunt’ and ‘bad’ all sort of add to the ‘pissed off.’ She looks positively evil when she steps into view. It’s an impressive feat for a petite California blonde. As she meets my gaze, I mouth, “I’m sorry.”
“It wasn’t you, Xander,” she replies. Turning to face the others, she announces in the same matter-of-fact tone, “We’re gonna figure out who this woman is, okay? And when we do…”
She seems momentarily preoccupied by an internal debate involving the merits of evisceration verses flaying.
Giles tries to offer, “Buffy, while I understand how upset you are—” only to be cut off.
“Do you?” she snaps. In a heartbeat, she goes from garden variety miffed to utterly furious. It’s so quick. She actually freaks me out. I put more distance between myself and her as she rages, “’Cause I’m not sure I do. Maybe you can help me out. I just know, I’ve had it up to here…” she slashes the air above her head “…with all this bullshit. I’m sick of the stupid little symbols and all of the petty, childish games.”
She steps forward. I glance over at Renee. The monitor to her left shows our feed. It’s a close up of Buffy’s face. She must’ve played with her marks. Either that or it’s the best dumb luck ever. I should totally dim the lights and give her a flashlight to hold under her chin.
“But you know what I’m most sick of?” she growls.
Giles doesn’t waver. If she were looking at me like that, I’d be all over ‘wavering.’ Actually, I might even find a little ‘skedaddle’ to go with my ‘waver.’
Her voice drops to a low, raspy hiss when she answers. “The people I care about getting hurt over this crap. They want me, so they hurt my friends. Tell me there’s sense in that?”
“I’m afraid there is,” Giles replies. “And what’s more, you know it. From a tactical standpoint, it’s perfectly sensible. It upsets you and makes you behave irrationally.”
Yeah, we’ve heard this song before. Didn’t help then… Silly British man. The furrows in his brow deepen. He’s really annoyed now. At what specifically, I’m not sure. There’s kind of a list.
Renee backs the video up, freezing it to give us a good look at our new playmate. Actually, Catwoman’s a pretty good nick. She’s seriously trying for the look. Her hairstyle’s more Halle Berry from that horrible Bond movie. Pierce Brosnan just shouldn’t be Bond. Ever. It’s a little longer, but it looks good. She has the bone structure to pull it off.
For the record: I’m scraping dangerously close to Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. The slayerettes are rubbing off on me. And not in a good way. I need some male friends. Immediately. Like, I should start looking today. Put an ad in the paper, maybe something on the Internet…
Yeah, so I can go from a wannabe Nick Fury with an understandable metrosexual flair to totally creepy and weird.
On a hopefully manlier, less stalkery strange note: I’m on the ‘go Buffy’ side of things this time. When the opportunity presents, I’ll cheerfully help with the rending.
She opens her mouth to speak, but Giles interrupts, “Yes, I believe we’ve seen everything necessary to begin research. Perhaps we should adjourn until cooler heads prevail? Willow can file a report through interoffice mail easily enough.”
“Hold up, Giles,” Buffy snaps. Again, if I didn’t know better, I’d say that sounded like an order. And oh-boy…it does nothing to improve the imagined anger Giles isn’t displaying. I’m glad these two aren’t in the same room ’cause getting between them…
Things haven’t been the same since Giles went behind her back to try to dust Spike. I’m still thinking, ‘Bravo, Giles’ on that one. Doesn’t mean I have to say it. In fact, saying it’s the last thing…
But after everything went down, if Spike had still been around, I would’ve taken him out myself or died trying. I don’t care what Buffy thinks.
And Buffy couldn’t care less what Giles thinks. Intent upon speaking her piece, she continues, “Willow told me some stuff I need to pass on. She apologizes for not being here herself.”
Spike always was a festering sack of shit. And strangely enough, I was okay with that. I could deal. It was predictable. But he did the one thing I can’t excuse or forgive. Even an attempt…
After that, Buffy made a federal case out of his goddamned soul, like that somehow changed everything. Well, I’ve got some news for Little Miss Psycho Glee Squad: Jeffery Dahmer had a soul too. See how much good it did him?
But she didn’t want to hear that any more than she wants to hear Giles now. And I guess that was a good thing. Then. Now it’s just kinda…
Backing off from the camera, she says, “Will said the base is underground. She wasn’t sure where. Just that it’s huge. There’s at least a company stationed there, led by some general.”
Andrew and Wood listen with interest. When it becomes clear that the rant’s over, Giles chills.
Things almost feel normal as her report continues, “The explosion was caused by her taking out their portal generator. A lot of good it did. They obviously have a spare. But from the sound of things, they have lots of spares.”
I have to wonder what’s gonna break next. But that’s just me.
Her attention turns to Wood. She says, “The woman on the video is named Riah. She’s a slayer. If that rings any bells, I’d like to know.” Pausing, she gives the others a moment to comment, then concludes, “’Kay, well, that’s about it.” She’s almost out the door before I realize she’s leaving.
I raise my hand, giving her a wave and say, “Buff, wait up.” She doesn’t stop, but I have to try. I need to know. Turning to Renee, I ask, “Would you mind?”
“Not a bit,” Renee replies with a smile.
I ask the others, “Anything else?” They unanimously dismiss me and I make a break for the door. Worse comes to worst, I may be able to catch her before she reaches her room.
But I don’t even have to run. When I leave Ops, she’s at the end of the hall breaking up a fight. She stands between the two girls, holding them apart with her arms.
Before I reach them, the larger of the two takes a potshot at Buffy. It’s kind of funny. She picks the smaller, mousy-haired girl up by the front of her shirt, swinging her around as she hooks the bigger one’s leg. The tall, dark-haired girl topples over backward like a domino. Buffy plants the arch of her foot across the girl’s throat.
Giving the smaller girl a shake, she asks, “We done? ’Cause if we aren’t…”
When the dangling girl manages to get out a shaky, “Yes, ma’am,” Buffy tosses her.
She hits the wall and Buffy says, “Get out of here before I forget I’m in a good mood.” Nothing about her even remotely suggests a ‘good mood.’
The brighter of the two takes off running toward the dorms as Buffy turns her interest to the brain trust on the floor. The girl’s struggling, scrapping at Buffy’s calf. I have to wonder why she went off her medication. Buffy puts a little more weight on her throat and turns to me to ask, “Think you can find something to entertain this one?”
I nod and reply, “I’ve got just the thing.”
She levels her attention on the girl again and says, “There are two-hundred and eight bones in the human body.” The evil’s back. “I heard that in a movie once.” But she’s chipper, almost friendly. It’s like she might be talking about the latest sale at Macy’s or something. “Dunno if it’s true, but I’m pretty sure you can guess where it’s leading.” Defying her sudden streak of ‘kindness,’ she puts more pressure on her foot.
The girl flails her arms and legs, desperately fighting to get up. There’s this sort of sickly blue tinge to her skin when Buffy finally lifts her foot. I help the girl up and set off toward housekeeping. As Buffy steers her along with us, I ask, “What’s your name?” I feel kinda bad asking, but…
When the girl supplies a hoarse, “Alice,” I fill in, “Alright, Alice, I’m gonna introduce you to Susan and she’s gonna find something for you to do. You’ll spend the day working off some of that angst, or I’ll have Buffy continue the anatomy lesson. We clear?”
“Clear, sir,” Alice rasps.
Susan and I have an understanding. She’s an interesting character. I couldn’t believe it when she came to me and said she wanted to contribute. She’s a slayer. That makes her contribution pretty much automatic. She’s also damned sneaky. Without any other real skills, I gave her housekeeping. And now she’s the one that really dishes out the punishment around here.
Did I consider the meanness for a moment? Probably not, but she’s totally mean. And extremely useful. She’s even built for the job. Sort of like what would happen if Gina Torres took a role as an army drill sergeant. Or how Kennedy might be if she ever learned that silence can speak volumes.
Just before we reach Susan’s office, Buffy hangs back. Susan’s reading her email. A soft knock gets her attention. She offers a chipper, “Good morning, Mr. Harris,” as she sizes Alice up. The young, dark-haired slayer says nothing to being eyed like a particularly tasty sausage. She’s withdrawn, morose even. At least her cheeks are pinking up.
For my part, I shrug off a cringe. It’s only the fourth or fifth one this morning. I get a lot of practice. I don’t think that she or anyone else here gets that Mr. Harris is a drunk jackass who made my life a living hell.
Well, Buffy gets it, but she’s mostly not around. And Willow…
Sensing my annoyance, Susan cracks a grin.
I suppose it’s all in fun. I should just keep shrugging it off. Maybe if I get better at that…
“Morning, Susan,” I reply through a thin smile. “Would you mind keeping Alice busy today?” So much for ‘better.’
“Not at all,” Susan says as she stands.
With the platitudes out of the way, Susan doesn’t waste any time making Alice miserable. She grabs a pair of rubber gloves, a bucket, a bottle of cleaner and a toothbrush, passing them off.
I feel compelled to stay. Alice was after all brain damaged enough to attack Buffy. None of these girls think that’s smart. It’s unnerving that she did.
But I shouldn’t. Susan’s got this. Staying would tell her that I think different. Like it or not, it’s time to delegate.
As Susan leads Alice away, I thank her and head back down the hall to catch up with Buffy. She’s hanging out in the alcove where we left her, appearing extremely bored. She hasn’t been out of my sight for more than a minute or two, but still I’m surprised she waited. Glad, but kind of surprised.
As we stroll past Ops, I ask, “What happened?”
A contemptuous hiss slips out. She shakes her head and replies, “Hell if I know, Xander. Two-hundredish teenaged girls, all under the same roof, it’d be simpler to ask what hasn’t happened.”
I consider interrupting, but let her finish before clarifying, “With Will.” It’s just safer that way. She’s in a really crappy mood.
Quickly wising up, she gasps, “Oh…” I glance over as she rakes her fingers through her hair. The gesture seems almost evasive. It’s no real surprise that she answers, “I don’t know much more than you do.”
The brush off isn’t gonna cut it. I don’t care where she hangs me. I deserve some answers. Persistently, I prod, “Anything would be better than nothing.” I try to add, “She’s my friend too,” but Buffy takes off. I have to run to keep up. She’s out the door before I clue that she’s headed for the stable. Once inside, she perches on Bernadine. I find a crate to lean on.
“Sorry, I just don’t like all the cameras,” she explains. When I nod, she continues, “I really don’t know what happened. The last thing I remember is you leaving last night. I just don’t think the others need to know that.”
Meeting her eyes, I reply, “I can see that.” She’s a little better, or at least she doesn’t look quite so pasty.
“I woke up like I am now. I don’t remember dressing for bed. Yet here I am,” she says with a flourish of her hand. The fact that she hasn’t bothered to change out of the sweats she slept in is really un-Buffy. But I suppose, given the morning we’re having, it’s not all that shocking.
She says in a soft, thoughtful voice, “I had to seriously beg to get her to talk. She finally gave in and told me what I told you in there. The only thing I withheld was that Amy and Riah were trying to put something inside her.”
And damn me.
Actually, damn her! Visions of Catwoman and Amy flood my mind. They have Willow strapped to a table. I shut my eye and blink it open, trying to drive the badness away.
Not quite reading my mind, Buffy grins. Or I hope that’s ‘not quite.’ Anyway, the look on my face must’ve given me away. I clear my throat and ask, “Would you mind rephrasing that?”
Her grin fades and she clarifies, “They had some sort of device, like a rock or something. They cut into her eye and were going to put it into her.”
“Whoa…’kay, so…the whole ‘eye cutting’ thing—not much better,” I mumble.
She grows more sullen. I could swear she needs to cry, but she doesn’t. Instead, she asks, “Have you ever seen someone who’s been shot with a bulletproof vest on, Xander?”
I answer, “Yeah, on television.” I don’t really need any more. I get it. But what I need isn’t important now. She needs to talk, so I let her.
Staring at her laced fingers, she reflects, “I needed to know. I mean, Will kinda took care of me for years, so I figured…” She looks up, meeting my gaze. “She won’t go to the hospital. I’ve tried.” Her expression hardens. “She’s got at least three cracked ribs and a broken collarbone. I believe her right arm’s fractured, but I can’t tell. Her left wrist is badly sprained. And it’d take me days to list all of the bruises. I’m not even sure I saw them all.”
To call her account of Willow’s injuries ‘dispassionate’ would be an understatement, but the veneer wears thin at the end.
Squeezing her eyes shut, she wipes them before she continues. “Her collarbone’s partially healed. She has really limited use of her hands this morning. It’s gonna take time…” she hops off her bike, motioning for me to follow “…at least a few days. And that’s with me helping.” I match her pace as she heads back to the castle. “Think you can keep the others off my back?”
“I think I’ll manage,” I reply. I’m not sure why she wants to keep this between us, but I’m not going to question it. The one thing that’s certain is she’s telling the truth. She’s as much in the dark as I am. Everything she told me, except her lack of memory, is something I could’ve figured out on my own.
The funny thing, she doesn’t seem to care. I’d be a little worried about the memory lapse considering Will’s history.
But that’s the thing. That’s how Buffy is. Their relationship was pretty strained last I saw. Now, all’s forgiven. Just like with Spike. I can’t forgive him, but somehow, she can.
It feels like selective memory. Like she forgets. People think she’s flakey, but I see it different. I think it’s because of the need. She can’t stand to see someone she cares for suffer. That’s just who she is.
As we approach the front of the castle, she stops and whispers, “I’m really sorry.” It takes me a sec to get what she means. About the time it occurs to me, she adds, “For the other night. It’s just been…” Her voice fades.
As I finish her thought, “Lots of fun. Heaps even,” she takes my hands, turning me to face her.
Sighing, she murmurs, “Isn’t it always?” A sad little smile betrays her, revealing just how confused and vulnerable she is.
I return the smile and confirm, “Always.”
This is insane.
Y’know about the time I think I have some glimmer of insight—some idea what the heck goes on in their heads—they pull a major switcheroo that leaves me mystified.
Talking sense was worth a shot.
Actually, it was just useless. I talked, they ignored, and here we are.
I tune out all the movement going on around me and fixate on the main display. There are six squares this time, one for each member of the team. Buffy’s camera is directed at Will. I stare at her face, trying to figure her out. She looks…
Her expression’s utterly blank. She must be in pain, but I can’t even tell that. She’s like chiseled-Willow.
So why’s she sitting in a helicopter waiting to be deployed?
If I knew that…
One thing’s for sure, whatever’s going through her head, it’s a total one-eighty from where I was led to believe we were this morning. And considering the fact that it probably took her that long to plan this little shindig…
Yeah, that’s not helpful. You’d think there might be some underlying sense of…
There’s not. But there might be some solidarity. Buffy was blindsided by this too. That much is obvious, even if I can’t tell it to look at her face. I swear, they’re like bookends…emotionally stunted, impassive, apathetic, frosty, not-quite-snooty bookends.
But all she wants is to protect Will. And Will’s having none of it.
I really don’t get her.
I pulled Holly off the bench and gave Satsu lead on the Gilhaven drop tonight. And I’m not even sure that’s what Buffy wants. I didn’t get a chance to talk to her. After this, it wouldn’t surprise me if she wanted to blow off some steam.
I look at Willow again. Nothing’s changed. An ice sculpture would give me more to go on.
Buffy called an hour after I shuffled the roster to cover her, demanding an unscheduled drop. I had to scramble to put this together and keep us on track. It made me wonder if she’s even—
But that’s just crazy. I know it is. I can’t even think it.
Thing is, Buffy was so bent on this mission that she said if I couldn’t make it happen, they’d just take a truck. I’ve seen her change her mind before, but nothing like this.
I don’t even know how she talked the others into it. They’ve got plenty on their plates without her springing some spur-of-the-moment Easter egg hunt on them.
On top of all of the other weirdness today…Amy pulling a Houdini, Alice going off…
It wasn’t just her. If it had been, I’d probably still think things were fine. The occasional fight’s to be expected, but she was just the start. There’ve been spats breaking out all over. Renee even got into it earlier with some girl who dropped by to use the copier.
…this is just too much. It’s only mid-afternoon and the crazy keeps right on coming. Maybe it’s just that time of the month…cranked to eleven.
Or maybe it is Will. She did kind of bust her pumpkin last night. Maybe she’s projecting crazy. It wouldn’t be the first time she’s caused a bunch of random wackiness. And she is the new variable.
But that doesn’t make any sense. Why would she let Amy go?
I guess it could be Amy. She did cast a nasty on Buffy. And she’s the reason Will—
But that doesn’t track either. Amy hadn’t been gone an hour when Alice flipped out. And that still doesn’t explain—
Oh, what are their names—the two girls who were guarding her, uh…hum…?
A groan slips out unchecked. Really, it’s more of a harrumph. Anyway, it earns me a look.
Amy wouldn’t have any power as a rat, so I guess that lets her off the hook. None of this is comforting. Nothing adds up.
I really don’t see how Dawn changing into another random still-not-quite-Dawn-thing is gonna help. Will was pretty clear that this isn’t a cure. It’s just a way of speeding up the process. Seems like we’ve got enough going on without that. Personally, I think the last thing we need is another surprise. What if she becomes something dangerous?
Like she’s not already dangerous. If whoever’s messing with us pulls a Jedi mind trick on her right now, we’re done.
That’s just too awful to consider. I need to stop. Maybe this does make some sort of twisted, pretzel-shaped sense?
But I don’t think that’s what Will’s thinking. In fact, I don’t think she’s considered that at all. This is about something else.
Well, whatever the case, I’m just along for the ride. I need to move on. Think about something else. Anything else. If keep this up, I’m gonna hop right on board with the crazy. Then where will we be?
As the helicopter banks, I switch my attention back to Satsu’s camera view. I get a glimpse of a grassy field through the window behind Buffy before focusing on her face again. Back and forth and back and forth and still no closer.
I rub my face, brow to cheek, lingering to massage my temple. What a day.
It amazes me how much things change. And they never get any simpler. It’s always…
I remember when we first met Buffy. It seems like ages ago. I couldn’t understand why someone like her would be interested in Will and me. But that was as complex as it got…at least for the first few minutes. It was great. I was actually nervous about normal stuff. I thought Cordy had cooked up some scheme to humiliate us. I half expected an, ‘Oh, by the way…’
That’s how the in-crowd worked. It wouldn’t’ve been above Cordy to con the new girl into feeding us to the lions as part of some insane rite of passage.
I miss the good old days.
Almost as much as I miss my parents’ basement.
Or my parents for that matter.
That’s not how it went. She didn’t and we didn’t. And things got wiggy instead. But something happened, something really special. Buffy was supposed to be this lone warrior, Hellmouth guardian person. Like Kwai Chang Caine without all the aimless wandering. Boy, the Council was really under-whelmed when that didn’t work out.
Irony doesn’t get much thicker. The closer she got to that first thing, the more she pushed us away. It almost seems fickle when I put it that way. Like the less rebellious it was…
But that’s not exactly fair. I get that she got hurt. She got hurt lots. We all did.
Again, not fair at all. She’s the only one of us who died. Not surprising that it made her a little intense.
Not to mention jaded.
Thing is, right here, right now, she has something that would’ve made the Buffy I first met happy…really happy, ecstatic even. Instead, what she is…
She’s become exactly what C.O.W. wanted in the first place. Too bad they weren’t around to see it.
Yet somehow, a moment of silence later, I find I’m not that torn up by the loss.
She works with the others, but only because she has to. There’s no doubt that she’s the one. A very singular entity. Even with body doubles and the occasional sex-bot.
I snicker and Renee gives me a sidelong glance. Yeah, I know. Look around. I’m not the only one.
It’s sad. Here, now, doing what we’re doing, everyone around Buffy does everything they can to reinforce the separation. She’s singled out. And that’s pretty much that…
Now what about Will? I take another long, hard look at her. The image is really grainy. I ignore that, staring through the fuzz into her eyes. What are you thinking?
She glances left. It’s just a twitch, but that’s enough.
Oh. Well, I’ll be damned! That’s just too obvious. No wonder I couldn’t see it. She can’t make eye contact. It’s been almost twenty minutes since they took off and her attention’s been everywhere else except on Buffy. She may look like a statue, but she’s still the same old Will.
That’s it. That’s gotta be it. She doesn’t want to be here one second longer than she has to. She’s doing exactly what she needs to do to do right by her people. Then she’s gonna leave.
I can’t be sure, but I think that’ll wreck Buffy. She hasn’t reached out to anyone since Spike. At least I don’t think she has. If Will takes off, Buff will probably dig in even further.
I just wish I knew what the heck was up with Will. Why would she do that? If she’d talk to me, I might be able to…but she doesn’t want my help.
There’s no time for this now. They’re landing. I key my mic and say, “Alright, let’s do this by the numbers.” I sound so enthused. Not that it matters. This’ll go the same as usual. We actually have a rule book now. Buffy helped write it. Doesn’t mean she follows it. She plays until something hits her hard enough to piss her off, then she ends it.
I focus on Buffy’s frame as she watches the team disembark. It’s probably wrong that I think this looks cool. Pulses of wind whip everything around. The girls exit single file, stooping down, then fan out.
Backing away from the noise, Buffy raises her voice, not quite shouting, “Satsu, you stick with Will. Whatever happens, don’t engage. Your only mission is to keep her safe, ’kay?”
That’s not right, but I don’t need to tell Satsu about her mission. It’s pretty obvious from the bucket in her hand she knows what’s up.
When she nods, Buffy turns, mid-stride and takes off, cutting a path through the tall, dry grass. “The rest of you, you’re with me,” she adds, motioning for the others to follow.
This is a snatch and dash. Satsu’s job is to locate the underground lake, pond or puddle—whatever it is—from what I gathered it’s not big enough to be a lake, but I’ve never heard anyone say ‘underground puddle’ before, so…
Anyway, she’s supposed to locate water and scoop up an egg while the rest of the team distracts the demon. This should be a cakewalk unless…
Keeping stride with Willow, Satsu falls in behind the others as they head for a craggy hill not more than a hundred meters away. The terrain’s too rough for Terry to have gotten them any closer unless they jumped. And that was out because of Willow. She’s just not well enough for that. Of course, making her walk isn’t much better.
I can’t believe she made a huge deal out of me ‘jeopardizing the mission’ when I asked to go along. I only wanted to be there for Dawn. She’s my responsibility too. And while I know Will’s right, I’d have to be blind and more than a little stupid to think that me tangling with a succubus is a good idea. I admit in no way would that’ve been smart. I just don’t see why she can’t.
That’s my problem. I think she’s really one to talk. I haven’t figured out exactly what her type is yet, other than pretty people at large…and once upon a long time ago me. If anyone’s gonna jeopardize this mission…
They reach the hill and the team moves single file up the rough path, passing between rocky outcroppings.
“Remember, don’t make eye contact with the demon,” Willow repeats for the umpteenth time. I guess that’s for her benefit. She’s not moving very well. Satsu hangs back, making sure she’s okay.
It doesn’t take Buffy long to pick up on the problem. She slows the pace to accommodate, but eventually, the inevitable happens. Willow stumbles. Satsu doesn’t let her fall.
Buffy turns, weaves past the others and sweeps Will up. Leigh takes point and they set off again, slowly picking their way up the narrow dirt trail.
I focus on Willow’s face when Buffy looks down to say, “Y’know, Will, I totally get the ‘why.’ Now that we know what to do, helping Dawn is really important.” Will grows anxious. But if I know her, that’s purely defensive. “I even get why now. You’re right. We may not get another break for a while.” It surprises me she doesn’t interrupt, especially when Buffy concludes, “But I still don’t understand why you’re here. The team could’ve handled this.”
“I’m here because you need me,” Willow replies with the speed and precision of a well rehearsed line.
If it wasn’t for everything else, I’d be all over the subtext. It couldn’t be clearer. Maybe she does get it, but she sure has a funny way of showing it.
Renee pokes me in the ribs with her elbow. She always does that when she’s seen something funny. I guess the drama is amusing. But not really. Not if you care. I want to be annoyed until she points. That’s not what’s got her tickled at all. Satsu glances to her left toward a heavy canopy of vines and brush. They just walked right past the cave.
Before I can say anything, Willow grumbles, “Put me down, please.” She turns around and marches back the way they came when Buffy obliges her request. What I see of her expression is priceless.
And I don’t have to see Buffy to perceive the eye roll. Sight unseen, it’s there.
Point, set, match…
Round one goes to the witch. Let’s hope she can keep that up. If she doesn’t, I’ve got the Devonshire coven standing by to bail us out.
Catching Buffy’s arm as she passes, Willow whispers, “We’ll wait for thirty seconds before we enter. That should give you plenty of time to get up to your neck in trouble.”
Buffy shakes her head and pushes the vines aside. I can’t make out what she grumbles, but I don’t need to. Her intent is plain enough.
When one-by-one, five of the six squares fade almost to black, I start to wish we’d sprung the extra five-grand a unit. Thermal imaging would be more than a little handy right about now. That’s nothing new. I wish the same thing every time this happens…which is about once or twice a week. But I get it. Cameras get broken all the time. That’s painful enough without…
The team clusters at the entrance to give their eyes time to adjust. Finally, Buffy mutters, “’Kay, that’s just gross,” as everything gets just that much blacker. She’s on the move.
I can just imagine what she saw.
Actually, I have to imagine. And my job’s to keep an eye open—
Buffy springs sideways, turning as something pinkish rushes past. I’m doing my job oh-so-well.
Leigh’s frame comes to life immediately after Buffy’s. No clue what’s happening from the blur, but the groan sounds promising. It’s way too low to be one of the girls.
Eww. Ro’s frame fills with a furry, dirty, naked backside. This guy could seriously use a wax. Or a boost up the evolutionary ladder. After mooning me, Ro…and the entire room, he goes stumbling.
This is a little too R-Rated for some of our younger viewers. I should clear Ops.
And they’re both sort of, uh…yeah, they’re done. They passed right through—
Rowena spins and attacks Leigh.
Keying my mic as the succubus lunges at Buffy, I snap, “Take her—!”
Glowing eyes pierce the darkness. Suddenly, I can see, but—
Renee takes a swipe at Buffy. This makes no sense. She’s—
Buffy dodges the attack. I can’t take my eyes off the screen to check.
This is not—!
It’s her. I don’t—I’ve never seen her naked, but I—
As I reach out to touch…the view changes. Falling, it pans down the length of the beautiful, bare…
How’d I get so close? My fingertips touch plastic. Plastic?
I catch a glimpse of Leigh parrying a blow from Rowena’s staff. But I don’t care about that.
My view, it bounces. Why’d it—?
The screen—it’s a screen. And it’s black. Renee yells, “Xander, get out of the way!” How’s she behind me? Someone grabs me. I spin. My face flushes hot when I see Renee. She’s clothed, in my face and livid.
As she shoves me away, I glance over my shoulder at—it’s a display screen. Clawed feet stand poised over whoever…
That’s Buffy. Camera one is Buffy! What the hell?
In a voice thick with stress, Renee orders, “Satsu, make it quick! Leigh, quit playing and finish her. Everyone else, get on the demon now!”
The demon snarls, “Pitiful little girl…” snatching Buffy up by her throat “…you think yourself immune to me?” As its cold black eyes turn warm, brown and full of life, the words, “I know what’s in your heart,” send a chill down my spine.
Her eyes vanish. As I long to see them again, sickening swirls of gray and black whiz past, bouncing, spinning and crashing…
Heartbroken, I rush the…
Renee shouts, “Xander!” Snatching my arm, she spins me to face her. I—
She drags me away again, shoving me into my desk chair. I feel like an idiot. I know that’s just a display. It’s a flat piece of plastic membrane that holds in whatever miscellaneous goo LCD is. No clue, but I do know that the real flesh and blood Renee is here with me.
I turn to face the display. Camera one’s dead, but there’s jumble of movement in the remaining five frames. I piece together what I can see. Leigh and Rowena are still fighting each other furiously. I can’t tell who’s winning. Their frames weave back and forth. I catch glimpses of their faces. All I get is they both look really miffed.
Alana and Sandy are trading blows with Renee. Not my Renee, the Renee in the cave. The Renee who’s ruined more men’s lives than Paris Hilton.
Sandy’s moving sluggishly, like she might be hurt. Renee’s bleeding profusely from a gaping wound in her side. The image makes me sick. But the truth’s right here in front of me. The Renee who’s here, she’s real.
Doesn’t matter. My grip on the arms of my chair tightens. I need to defend Renee even if she isn’t Renee. She’s hurt. I squeeze my eye shut. I can’t look.
When Renee commands, “Sandy, get Buffy out of there,” my eye snaps open. I focus on camera five. Sandy leans down. Buffy’s unconscious and bleeding pretty badly from three gashes across her chest.
Before Sandy can touch her, Willow yells, “No!”
Where the hell is Willow? I scan the screens trying to figure it out. That’s it! Next time we do this, Will’s getting a damned headset…and maybe a collar with a little bell.
On second thought, I hope we never do this again.
As Sandy backs away from Buffy, Willow shouts, “Satsu, get in there and help. Stay on the demon’s six or this is over. Got it?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Satsu replies, stepping through the tattered canopy. The gap closes in a blink.
And me…I’m so useless. I have trouble dealing with the wings. Renee doesn’t have wings. Or at least, last I saw she was wingless.
I force myself to look at the real Renee. She’s still wingless, dummy. She’s standing right there.
Willow’s voice echoes through the cave. “Leigh, lead Rowena out here.”
Sandy turns and rejoins the fight. Her kick is followed by a couple of things that look really painful. Alana brings her staff down against…that’s not Renee. It’s a demon.
Okay, that would probably smart a little. But it’s the tip of Satsu’s katana poking through the demon, not-Renee’s right breast that really makes me cringe.
That’s still not Renee. Renee’s right over there and if I get up, she’s going to put me on my ass.
The piercing scream is drowned out by a loud clap. I can only assume that was Willow. Either that or not a cloud in the sky and it’s going to rain. I sure hope it was her.
Leigh stoops over Rowena. She’s pretty badly beaten up. I think this is the first time I’ve ever seen her without a ball cap. Leigh glances up at Willow. What I expect to see and what I actually see don’t mesh at all. The last time I saw Willow she looked positively sick. Now she crackles with power. Her brow is knit with concentration. She reassures Leigh, “She’ll be fine. Get in there and help the others.”
It’s no surprise that Leigh does exactly what she’s told. She dashes back inside, slipping past Buffy’s limp form as it floats out of the mouth of the cave. But the fight’s practically over. Satsu managed to dislodge her sword while Will was slipping Ro a mickey. Or whatever that was.
The demon’s on the ground. Satsu swings. A sickening crunch brings the high-pitched wail to an end.
My mangled nerves thank her.
I sneak a glance at Renee. Her complexion’s a little pasty, but otherwise she’s okay. I like that shirt. She looks good in pastel tartan. The blue jeans are good. She’s—
That’s how she should be. Clothed, not naked. And no wings. The wings were just creepy.
Breathing a sigh of relief, I focus on camera four. Rowena’s head is turned toward Buffy. Willow kneels beside her. The power she radiated moments before is gone. She looks really frail.
I feel like a Peeping Tom as I watch her. This is none of my business. There’s tenderness in her touch. Will cares. And not just average cares…she really, really cares. Now I really don’t get it. Why does she want to leave so much if…?
And what in the hell was that all about? I thought that stupid succubus could only charm—? The way I see it—me going off the deep end—small potatoes compared to Buffy.
And what about that…? She wigs and gets dropped like a new recruit. Then she stays down. She doesn’t get taken out like that. In fact, that’s exactly the sort of thing that usually pisses her off.
I mean, I get why Will needed to stay out of it. That thing playing puppet master to her—? I don’t even need to imagine how bad that’d be. I’d already called Ms. Harkness just in case.
And what’s up with the warning Will gave Satsu?
Has everyone lost their minds?
To make matters that much better, Renee has this really annoying grin on her face. She knows.
Or I think she knows. Maybe she just suspects? I could live with suspicion, but if she knows…
I could transfer. Somewhere low key, strategically unimportant, off the map…like Siberia…
Do we even have a Siberian branch? I could start a Siberian branch.
Y’know what? Never mind. I’ll just be over here if you need me. I know nothing. I see nothing. It’s safer that way.
As I sneak a peek at my watch, Dawn says, “But that’s not it at all, Xander.” Her frustration couldn’t be plainer from her pacing and…
Eighteen hours and change. Days like this shouldn’t happen.
I ignore the tension in her voice and lean my head back. It thumps into the tree I sit against.
I’m way too tired for this. One carefully prepared hardboiled hellspawn later and Dawn’s dragging herself out from under a pile of Nancy Archer’s dirty clothes.
She changed at roughly sixteen-forty. I glance at my watch again, but I still can’t make my sluggish brain do the math.
Whatever, that’s been ages ago. You’d think eventually, I’d catch up.
She draws closer, stopping just short of me before she whines my name.
The guilt’s helpful. I should say something, but I can’t.
I can’t help how I feel. And I sure can’t change things.
I’ve had enough. I shut my eye. Maybe tomorrow.
“I didn’t do this on purpose,” she says.
That’s nice. But does it really matter? This whole thing’s been like some bad private joke. ‘Thrice’ what?
I really should’ve asked, but I think it’s gone too far for that. Instead, I played along. Pretended I got it. It was so much easier that way. But if I had asked, I might know what to expect.
Dawn as a centaur?
Worse, Dawn topless! You’d think they might’ve gotten there first and spared me the trauma. But no…
And she’s gonna change again some time tonight…into God knows what. Stupid me, I really should’ve asked. I just didn’t think.
Actually, I didn’t want them to think I was stupid.
“Xander, look at me,” she pleads.
And I can’t exactly leave her alone. That’d be mean. So without help…
Moments slip by. The hurt builds. I really hate hurting her. Eventually, she mumbles, “Y’know what sucks most?”
I have a list. Odds are, she does too. “What?” I give her permission to share her list.
Through a despondent sigh, she says, “Not having permission.”
Her answer’s not at all what I expect. I don’t get it. My eye snaps open. I look up. I’m pretty sure, judging from the expression on her face, that there’s actual irony in what she said…or at least some brutal sarcasm. And not just in the ‘shared thought, double-wordiness’ thing that happened.
It’s also totally wrong. I shouldn’t find her attractive, but my inner geek just can’t resist. It’s like looking at something from a fantasy. And what’s worse, I think she knows it.
As the smile fades, her expression turns harsh. “Think about it,” she challenges, searching my face. “I was fourteen the day I was born. About the same age Buffy was when she was called. What bothers me most isn’t that she ignores me.” She folds her arms. I move my legs as she turns away, but she doesn’t even come close to stepping on me. “Yeah, that’s hard. But what really sucks is that no matter what I do, I can’t seem to grow up. Buffy went through all the trauma and the drama that was Angel and no one batted an eye. With me…”
Moving away, toward the castle, she says, “I’m in college, Xander. And they’re still treating me like…”
I look up, following the incline of her head. I’m not sure, but I can guess that my attention and hers rest on the same thing: a light three stories above us. I stare at the window, listening to her whisper, “I think it’s ’cause I was given to her to protect. It’s perception. The world around me changes. Everyone else sees me changing with it. But here, with the people that should matter most, I’ll always be a child.”
Her hooves shift, pawing irritably at the ground. It’s surprising how graceful she is. After only a few hours, she’s completely comfortable in her new skin. You’d think the learning curve would be steeper.
“Kenny actually treated me like an equal. Not like some sort of afterthought. Or worse, a burden,” she mumbles, shaking her head. “My life’s a joke.” A bitter laugh slips out. “It’s like I’m the brunt of one mystical punch line after another.” She turns to face me. Giving me a piercing glare, she asks, “You really think I’d do this on purpose?”
She has a point.
I admit, “No, I guess you wouldn’t.”
I sure didn’t.
Of course, it’s not like I got my Supernaturally Transmitted Disease playing hide the salami with a coed. There was just a musty hole in the ground and some really wrathy, annoyingly sympathetic, indigenous ghosts.
But from the sound of things, neither did Dawn. Being able to relate…not exactly priceless.
Breaking eye contact, I stare past her over the battlements of our home. It’s a pretty night. The sky’s full of stars. There’s a slight chill in the air.
Of course, the other side of that particularly shiny coin is that it’s been over a month.
But it’ll be at least another six before we live this down. Not only did Dawn make herself the source of the nearly perpetual punch line, she wore everyone’s patience Gandhi thin.
Giles is still pissed about the expense report. I didn’t even think. Neither did Buffy.
I was still trying to get over her suggesting that we rat Dawn in the first place. It was smart. Kind of cruel, but—
A spot on the breakfast show seemed eminent, so we made the call and Dawn became a field mouse…the size of a Saint Bernard. It sounded better than a rat. More manageable, less cursey…
And what you do with a monster mouse once you get her to the Scottish castle? That sounds like the start of another really awful joke, but that was our reality. We couldn’t exactly change her back. Not without some clothes. And we do have catacombs. So we set her free under the castle.
Andrew was less than pleased when we said ‘no’ to his request to come ‘adventure.’ He’ll live.
Otherwise it worked out. She seemed happy. I thought we’d dodged a bullet. And everything would’ve been just ducky if one little detail hadn’t slipped our minds. We forgot about the Land Rovers we store down there. Mice like to chew.
On top of the astronomical spike in our grocery bill…Giles may forgive us. One day. Maybe even in this lifetime.
Yeah, the less she knows about that, the better. ‘Able to chew all-terrain tires off the rim’—not exactly something—
The soft timbre of her voice almost gets lost in the sounds of the forest. “I’m not fourteen. I’m five, going on twenty.”
I’m just grateful she finally said something. Better yet, I didn’t miss it. My brain could churn like this for hours. That’s a big part of my problem—the lack of sleep—on the nights that I do have time to squeeze in more than a couple of winks, I can’t make the stupid thing shut up.
The light goes out. My gaze travels down the castle wall. I shift focus to her. She looks so serious. Earnest for someone to understand.
She knows I do. Dawn and I have a lot in common. Neither one of us is especially gifted, despite her numinous upbringing. We’re both just sort of us. Us, trying to compete for attention at Professor G’s School for Gifted Girls.
The good kind of attention…not the ‘how do you keep the giant girl from showing up on Google Earth’ kind. Ms. Harkness was just thrilled by that request.
I may live it down.
“I really thought I could talk to Willow, but so much has changed,” Dawn says.
Curious what she thinks, I ask, “What’s changed?” It’s kind of a weak question, but—
I climb to my feet. If I don’t move, the exhaustion’s bound to catch up. Staying parallel to the castle, I stroll across the yard.
Matching pace, she asks, “What do you mean?”
“Willow,” I reply. “You’re right, there’s something really different about her.”
She mutters, “Oh.”
She sounds distant and preoccupied. Both kinds of ‘distant’…and not the good kind of preoccupied. When I turn to look, she isn’t moving.
Her face tenses with pain. She folds over and clutches her stomach, screaming in agony as I rush to help her. I have no idea what to do when I get there. It’s not like anyone gave me a handbook on coping with mystical transformations. The only thing I can think is to hold her. So I do. I lift her upright and put my arms around her.
It isn’t quite as bad as a bear hug from Buffy, but Dawn earns a close second. She clings to me for dear life, begging me to make it stop. There’s nothing I can do.
Trembling, she staggers to her knees. We both go down. A detail slipped my mind. It hurts. I sorta forgot that she outweighs me by several hundred pounds. I land on my ass with my legs pinned beneath her. It hurts like hell, but I hang on. I’m pretty much out of choices.
Clammy and wet, her hair sticks to the side of my face. I close my eye. Feeling’s bad enough. I don’t need to see. And hearing…
As the weight on my legs diminishes, she slumps forward, on top of me.
This really shouldn’t feel good. Not after that. Not while my ears are still ringing.
She sits up, straddling me. Just guessing, but last I knew, all she had on was a tee-shirt.
This really, really shouldn’t feel this good.
“Xander?” Her voice is kinda gravely. From screaming, I guess. It makes my skin tingle.
When she shifts her weight, her crotch grinds against—
This feels way too good. She rises awkwardly to her feet. The instant she breaks contact, I feel like begging.
There’s a special Hell for people like me.
I keep my damned mouth shut. She doesn’t move. It’s the last thing I should do, but I open my eye. There’s no mistaking the fact that I’m a whole lot happier than I ought to be.
My cheeks flush hot. I scramble backwards.
A flash of something shiny catches my attention. It’s somewhere where shiny shouldn’t be.
“What’s the matter?” she asks. The question carries an innocence that makes me more—
Damning myself for not shutting my eye, or turning away, I stare at her legs. In the low light, it’s hard to tell what’s wrong. But something’s wrong. Really wrong. Her skin tone’s too dark and kinda…
“Xander, this’ll probably freak you out,” she says. “Call it T.M.I. or whatever helps you sleep, but I like sex.”
My mouth falls open. I clamp it shut, hoping to spare my dignity.
Dignity, shmignity. It’s pointless. Dignity never meant anything to me before. Why should it…?
She’s got great legs.
So why am I just now noticing?
I watch them. They should be alright, right?
Of course they are. She wears shorts around me. That works until…
Dammit! I can’t win.
…she closes in.
Oh, for pity’s sake! I helped raise her after—
My stomach knots up.
Buffy’s gonna kill me and send me to the special Hell! And I’ll deserve it!
She whispers, “Kenny wasn’t the first. Willow wanted to think that, so I let her.” I can hear the smile in her voice. She lets out a mischievous giggle before she asks, “Why ruin a good thing?”
No reason I can think…
This can’t be Dawn. Not the Dawn I know. She’d at least try to cover herself. She did earlier with the—
She inches closer and I scramble, trying to spring to my feet. Only halfway there, I lose it and freeze, fixating on the tiny silver ring.
See? This is what I get! I knew I should’ve kept my stupid eye shut. I really shouldn’t…
Was that thing there when she was the size of, uh, umm…
It could be the demon. I hope it’s the demon. No. It’s gotta be part of the…’cause if not—
Imagination just sucks! I should stop, but—
Let’s see. She’s been…I have to list just to keep it all straight: Dawn Dawn, mouse Dawn, giant Dawn, centaur Dawn and whatever-this-is-now Dawn.
’Kay, so…that’s five things. Was that there the whole time? If so, how?
I could ask Willow. Wouldn’t that be fun?
Imagination plus curiosity equals—in my case, with my luck—head injury. That’s what her overly protective, extraordinarily strong, ‘Bruce Lee’ fast—maybe faster—sister is gonna do to me…if I’m lucky.
So, stupid me, I move on to the next thing, a small tattoo inside her left hip. Burning my brain may be the only solution after this.
But her tattoo’s pretty. Two crescent moons, back-to-back, staggered and touching. The top of the right one almost reaches the center of the left one. Where they meet, they’re pink. The color shifts in a smooth gradient to blue on either end.
That doesn’t keep me from wanting to yell at her about how she’s not old enough. But then…she’s right. She’s five, going on twenty. I can’t argue. It’s not like she needs parental consent.
I could rant at her about the Mark of Eyghon. In no way was that fun. Thing is, this is way more witchy, lots less demony. And Dawn’s just not that epically stupid.
At least she’s not epically stupid that way. We have Giles to set that particular bad example.
I keep my stupid mouth shut. Actually, I have to shut my stupid mouth. It kinda fell open when that other tiny detail caught my eye. The one that caused the big freeze, Xander-statue, I-can’t-move sorta thing.
I debate whether I should look again. I think I’d rather claw my remaining eye out.
And yet, she just stands there letting me look. Modesty’s a lost art. It has to be the demon. Green skin. She’s a demon, right? I’m gonna say ‘yes.’ Green skin’s probably—definitely a ‘demon, not Dawn’ thing.
My knee throbs, not to mention my wrist. Hunched over, half-standing isn’t good. Worse, she’s just inches from my face. And she smells…
My now shut mouth waters. Oh, that was truly helpful. Thanks bunches!
She’s still not moving. I focus on the neatly groomed patch of tight, dark curls. This is insane. My gaze travels down to the small silver ring.
I’m not gonna ask. The obvious question is, ‘didn’t that hurt?’
Obvious and really, really moronic.
I want to, but damn me!
And damn her, she starts to talk. “My roommate—god, she gives good—”
My fingers are in my ears. I flop backward onto my butt. And before I know it, I’m humming, ‘la la la la la,’ in my head like I’m twelve. Mature much? I switch to first thing that comes to mind: I am the very model of a modern Major-General. Searching my memory for the lyrics keeps my head from coming apart like a Roman candle. I've information vegetable, animal, and mineral. I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical, from Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical…
I run out of lyrics just in time to catch, “—I’ve ever spent.” Please be done!
A moment of silence later, I thank all the powers that be. She’s done.
That does it! She’s switching dorms if it’s the last thing I do!
So lemme get this straight.
Buffy’s not straight. Or at least she’s less straight than…
Actually, at least half the Alpha Team’s, umm…
To combat her family-imposed Peter Pan syndrome, Dawn’s become, uh…
That’s just the sweet, gooey frosting to conspiracy theories, branches of the military wanting us dead, psycho slayers and—damn it all to hell—Amy. I could’ve lived another couple of lifetimes without seeing her again and been just fine.
I need a vacation.
My mouth’s pasty and dry. I swallow. It doesn’t help.
The damnedest thing is, she still hasn’t moved. Not an inch. She’s just staring at me.
Well, I’m not sure about the staring. I can’t make myself look up.
She’s staring. It tracks. Her hand’s on her hip. The tee-shirt—
I wish she’d untie it. It might cover…
But really, she may as well take it off too. It’s drenched and stuck in places—
That does it! I’m going to bed!
I can wake up in a couple of hours to another disturbing phone call and forget any of this ever happened.
It was all just a bad dream.
Buffy will be straight and not crazy. Willow will be crazy—the good kind, not the world-endy kind—and not straight. We like her that way. And Dawn will be Dawn. Shy, naïve, sweet, little Dawn…
One great big, happy, severely dysfunctional, all-too-matriarchal family.
It’ll be great!
Rolling onto my knees, I slap my hands against my thighs and stand up. This time I actually stand. I may reward myself with a cookie.
“Good night,” I announce. My voice is just a little too chipper. I sound kinda stupid, but…
As I turn, she meets my gaze, grinning like the Cheshire Cat. I can’t move.
Her eyes glow an eerie yellow.
A dark spot forms in the center of my eye, like I stared at a camera flash.
Shivery, frigorific non-fun.
My muscles burn.
I try to scream.
The dark spot grows. It keeps growing, wicking out like blood on a tissue. Everything turns foggy and gray.
She’s not smiling anymore.
Panicked, she shrieks my name, sounding muddy and distant.
I struggle, desperate to answer.
She touches me. It feels wrong.
More wailing joins the murky chorus.
Not my name.
Continue to Part 4: Gravity
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