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.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Mad-Hamlet wrote portions of the mayor’s scenes. Specifically, the ‘Gummy Bears’ bit was him. Howard Russell also wrote the majority of the Joyce point of view scenes, which was very cool. We got to work together. Special thanks to him as well for all of the lovely commas.
FEEDBACK: valyssia[at]gmail.com
ARCHIVING: A master list of my fiction can be found here. Please do not archive or distribute without my permission.

By Valyssia


Chapter 3 - Just How Damaged Have I Become?

Mayor Wilkins plastered a forced smile on his face as he walked through his office doors. His feet made splashing noises with each step. He glanced briefly around the sodden room. The door to his altar had been opened during the vandalism and the picture was more than a little grim. His coveted ‘Books of Ascension’ had been reduced to so much pulp by the deluge of water.

Eventually the mayor managed through gritted teeth, “You know, Faith, we’re all just products of our environment. Poor upbringing, bad manners, they can’t be excused. But really, who’s to blame? The criminal or the ones who influenced the criminal?”

“I sorta think it’s both,” Faith replied simply as she looked around the ruined room.

“That’s why I want you to—” the mayor started, then cut short as his temper got the better of him. He took a couple of sharp breaths and continued, “To provide our little friends with an environment more conducive to acceptable behavior. I’m thinking something in a satin-lined box.” He took another deep breath. “And speaking of boxes—” The rage won out and he screamed, “I want my box back!” He walked around to his desk and sat in his leather chair. As his weight settled, the cushion poured water onto the already soaked floor; he seemed utterly oblivious. “Please, Faith, the box and Buffy Summers’ eyes.”

Ignoring the mayor’s aberrant behavior, Faith put on her best waitress impersonation when she replied, “Comin’ right up, boss. Want the eyes breaded and fried? Maybe a little ketchup for dipping?”

The mayor shot the slayer a terse glare. With his elbows on the desk, he dropped his head in his hands. Eventually he rubbed his face and looked up. Rage reflected sharp around his eyes, betraying the charming mockery of a smile he put on. “Oh, no… Yuck! They’re just hard on the old ticker that way, all that oil and starch. Good nutrition’s just as important as good manners, Faith. Now run along.”

Faith smirked. “Sure thing, boss.”

Buffy peered into the mirror while she brushed her teeth. Grateful that the face that stared back was almost familiar, she quickly finished up and went to her room. Fuzzy flannel pajamas were located and she stripped out of her robe to dress. Almost human again—nearly me. The mom wig was bad, but not so much I couldn’t deal. ‘Worried Mom’ is way better than ‘Suspicious Mom’ any day.

After crawling in bed, Buffy pulled the covers up and did something extremely out of character: she grabbed a textbook. Holding the heavy book open, she began to read her English assignment. Anything’s better than an encounter with ‘Suspicious Mom.’ Even homework. Pushing the limits, giving her what she needs to become ‘Suspicious Mom,’ not a plan. ’Cause ‘Suspicious Mom’ could—more likely, would—spawn the most horrifying of all Moms…‘Questioning Mom.’ ‘Questioning Mom’ would summon ‘Answer Buffy’ and, and, and…well, I’m supposed to stop apocalypses not cause ’em. So, homework. Homework is an excuse that trumps ‘Worried Mom’—cuts her off before things get outta hand. It’s a small price to pay for world saveage. Amazed it worked. Think I scared her.

Just about the time Buffy was beginning to read, comprehend, and perhaps even retain a fraction of the material, the world conspired against her. A knock issued from her window. Crap! Stuffing a scrap of paper between the pages to mark her place, she dropped the book over the side of the bed and got up. After donning her robe, she went to the window, mocking softly as she moved, “I love you. Always will. Know that.” Her voice dropped to barely a mumble, “But I’m not your fucking whore,” then she pushed the curtain aside and slid the window open, making eye contact with Angel. “What?”

Angel appeared somewhat perplexed at first; back-peddling to recover, he gasped a hasty, “Huh?”

As she met her former boyfriend’s gaze, Buffy grumbled tersely, “Just a line from a stupid movie, Angel. What do you want?”

“To say I’m sorry,” Angel responded plainly.

Still appearing less than tolerant, Buffy nodded and aridly observed, “I’m in no position to really get all judgey. It’s been a crappy couple of days.”

“I can tell,” Angel remarked, gesturing to the sickly looking yellow bruises around the blonde’s eyes.

“Yeah…had a little run in with a thick-headed old British guy. I managed to get it figured why knocking him out seems to have so little lasting effect,” Buffy commented wryly. Perking up, she added, “But hey, snagged and torched the mayor’s magic box, so…no more ascension.” Dropping back to the dry tone, she snarked, “Yay us,” then started to shut the window. “Anything else, Angel?”

Angel appeared sheepish as he reached for the sash. “Can I come in? There’s something—I don’t want to intrude, but—”

After taking a step back from the window, Buffy drawled, “Yeah…sure, whatever,” while she removed her robe and hung it up. Slipping back into bed, she drew the covers over her chest and leaned back against the pillows. When she looked up, Angel was standing by the window, peering out into the darkness.

“I’m leaving, Buffy,” Angel offered in a flat tone, “But, before I go, I want to talk with you about something.”

Once settled, Buffy picked her English textbook up off the floor and mumbled, “Okay, I’m all ears,” in a vaguely sarcastic manner while she opened to the correct page.

“It’s about Willow. Something you may not understand,” Angel said gently as he turned to face the bed. Ignoring the fact that the blonde instantly grew uneasy at the mention of the name, he continued with marked distaste, “It was common practice not that long ago—still is in some places—to arrange marriages based on family affluence or whatever other petty reasons. Men mostly, making decisions to gain some advantage, using their daughter’s lives for barter.”

Cocking an eyebrow, Buffy asked, “What’s that got to do with Will?”

“Ever wonder why it works? Why people can do something so crass and get away with it?” Angel replied, countering the question with a question blatantly.

Buffy set her textbook aside and propped herself up against her pillows. “Never really thought about it, I guess. But you didn’t answer my question.”

Angel stepped away from the window, still keeping a respectful distance from Buffy’s bed and reflected, “My point is this: women fall in love with the first person they have sex with, unless the sex is in some way cruel, or they’re severely repulsed. It’s a universal truth. That’s why a woman’s status as ‘virgin’ holds such significance.” He sighed. “You can answer the question for yourself now.”

Allowing Buffy a moment to comment, Angel went on, “You need to be very careful with her. I know you love her, but…what happened, it changes things. Doesn’t matter how much you want it not to, or how much she says it doesn’t. She’ll say things just to make you happy.”

Taking in the harsh stare the blonde gave him; Angel cleared his throat and continued, “You know I’m right. Just look at how you held onto me, come hell or high water. Not that it wasn’t absolutely mutual. I still love you, Buffy. I clung to you too, but it’s time for me to stop. It’s time for you to live. I need to leave to allow…” His voice trailed off.

The sharp expression was replaced by an air of melancholy as Buffy queried, “Wait, you mean you’re leaving Sunnydale, ‘leaving’?”

Angel looked away, unable to meet the forlorn gaze the blonde was giving him. “I have to, Buffy. Here, where we are, my being here is just causing you—causing us both pain. I can do more good someplace else. You stopped the mayor alone. You’ve proven yourself many times over,” he sorrowfully muttered, “I’m proud of you.”

God! He sounds like my mother!  “But I love you,” Buffy murmured.

Fully aware that Buffy was on the verge of tears, Angel whispered, “And I love you, but love can be the most painful thing in the world. I have to do this, Buffy. It’s what’s right and you know it.”

Buffy found herself at a loss for words.

“I couldn’t ask for better,” Angel reflected, then turned for the window to make his exit.

Watching Angel leave, Buffy asked, “Better?”

Angel slipped outside and leaned back in through the open window. “I know it’ll be hard at first, but it’s good, Buffy. There’s so much good there. Willow’s a remarkable woman.”

By the time Angel finished speaking, Buffy was at the window. She leaned down and embraced him, then muttered in his ear, “Wait. You—you aren’t suggesting—? Oh, Angel, I don’t know.”

Withdrawing from the embrace to make eye contact, Angel replied frankly, “Buffy, understand I’m not trying to make any decisions for you. All I’m saying is that you should think about it. Don’t let other people tell you what’s right. You and Willow are the only ones that should make that choice.” He cupped her cheeks and swept the tears away with his thumbs. “And you know as well as I do you don’t get to plan who you love. It doesn’t work that way and we both know it.”

Buffy took in the sad smile on Angel’s face and nodded. “You’d better get going. Mayor’s probably all rampagey. Hanging out in my window might just qualify as an extreme sport,” she remarked sardonically through the tears.

As Buffy relaxed her grip, Angel slipped away. When he was gone, she closed the window and drapes, then listlessly went back to her book.

Willow pulled the afghan that was draped over her up to her chin and turned onto her back on Giles’ couch. After staring at the ceiling briefly, she closed her eyes. We’re right where I expected. I need someone to talk with and…I can’t talk to him.

Turning toward Xander where he lay on the other side of the coffee table in a sleeping bag, Willow opened her eyes and began to imagine telling him all her troubles. Buffy didn’t say a single word, nothing. We burned the box and she clammed up. Her expression was— Well, there wasn’t one. Every once in a while it was like I’d see the faintest hint of a smile. Guess it hurt—the expressiveness. It looked like it hurt. Lots actually. Her facial muscles tightened, crinkling her brow. At least I got to say what I needed to before the burning. Not like she had bunches of choice with the listening, but still.

All she really said in return was that she’d expected me to feel used. She seemed happy I didn’t. Not used—I don’t feel—I feel…umm…lonely, isolated, cut off, ignored, neglected… I shouldn’t though. I told her I’d give her space. I just wish I knew.

Clutching her shoulder, Willow crossed her arms over her chest in one of those mock hugs that never feels quite right. I wish I could get a Xander hug. He gives good hugs…and I miss them. Ever since the fluking, Xander hugs have been really, really rare. Always with others around, but never Oz or Cordy. I miss my Xander hugs.

I don’t understand how something so beautiful could be so difficult, so painful.

Willow listened to the ambient noises coming from around the apartment. He’s not asleep. Xander’s breathing was slow and steady. Back when we were kids, Xander used to hug me all the time. He’d see I needed a hug—that someone, usually Cordy, had been picking on me and he’d just—he’d hug me and it’d get better. Nothing complicated, just simple comfort. Now, all of a sudden, there are all these rules about the hugging.

And Buffy—now Buffy—does this mean that if we can be friends that there’ll be rules about the hugging? Only around lots of other people, but not Xander or something like that? It just seems so silly.

So now I’m alone. I’m the bad and— Willow brought her hand to her mouth, brushing her lips, then returned it to her shoulder almost defensively. All I really want is to kiss her again. What if I never get to? What if it never happens again? Can I be okay with that? I told her I could. Friends first, that’s what’s important. It really is, so I guess I’d have to.

I should’ve appreciated it more.

Her face relaxed, leaving her expression neutral, but not placid. A tear leaked out of the corner of her eye, pooling against the side of her nose and Willow quickly wiped it away. Oh! And she said she was sorry for leaving. That’s a good sign. Actually, as signs go, that’s a really, really good one. Guilt. Yeah…always a positive thing. I should know. I have a Jewish mother.

Willow turned away from Xander to look at the shadowed ceiling again and rolled her eyes. The rest of our big talk, like it was ‘big,’ was about the ‘why’ and Oz. I wish I actually understood the ‘why’ myself. I don’t. It was—looking at it, there wasn’t a choice. Oz or Buffy. Buffy or Oz. Makes it sound like I don’t love Oz. Like, ‘Oh, it’s no big, no great loss.’ That’s not true. I’ll always love Oz…and it’ll probably always hurt. But the choice—in that moment—there wasn’t a choice. It was like a dream. Not sure why. I suppose it was just so far outside the realm of possibilities that—

Lifting her hand from her shoulder, Willow rubbed her eyes. I wish there had been a choice. I meant it when I said, ‘no regrets.’ I don’t. There’s no regret. But if Buffy can’t handle it—if she leaves—if she never speaks to me again— Her hand flopped limp against her shoulder again.

I’ll die.

Not exactly regret, is it? Nope. No siree, Bob. No regret here. Just gimme a shovel.

Tears streamed freely down the edges of her cheeks now, but Willow didn’t make a sound. As they collected and trickled into her ears, she cringed and clenched her jaw muscles, trying to bite back the unrest. I need to get a grip, have a plan, do something—something proactive. I need to be ‘proactive girl.’ What can I do? Well, there’s the standard list: candy, flowers, stuffed animals, jewelry, cards, bad poetry… Oh! I could write a sonnet. I’m good for at least a sonnet. ‘An Ode to My Bestest Buddy Buffy.’ She’d slay me and I totally get the ‘why.’ Wonderful ideas, all… If I never want her to speak to me again. Not like any of them really say ‘friend’ either. I could buy her a mocha. And we all know what that got me last time. Well, we don’t—not all—Xander doesn’t know. My other bestest buddy’s totally in the dark…and I still need a hug.

Actually, we’re both in the dark, literally and figuratively.

A soft, grumpy sigh disturbed the silence of the room, sounding more like a hiss, and Willow wiped her eyes. There’s always Prom. Guess we’re going stag if we go at all now…and we have to go. It’s a ‘Rite of Passage’…and what good is a ‘Rite of Passage’ without the passagers…er…passengers …umm… passers—without the people to go through it? I could take her as a friend, right? I could do that and it wouldn’t have to mean anything. Question is: do I have the nerve to ask? ‘Buffy would you go to the Prom with me?’ See, easy-peasy. Getting the words to actually pass through my lips without choking on my tongue and passing out: that’ll be the trick. It’s always so flattering when that happens.

I can do it. I can. I’m psyching myself up. I am.

Willow turned toward Xander’s voice when the sound derailed her reverie.

Angel picked up a small rock and carefully lobbed it at the wall next to Giles’ bedroom window. Really don’t want to push it, but he needs to know this. Waiting a moment, he listened for movement inside the apartment, then tossed one more rock. When the window finally slid open, he took in the expression of annoyance on the Englishman’s face. “Giles, I’m really sorry to bother you like this, but I have something important to tell you.”

“It is perfectly acceptable to knock at the front door, Angel, though it would get you no closer to setting a single toe inside my flat again,” Giles replied in a bitter tone.

Angel nodded and accepted the barb at face value. “I appreciate that, Giles, but this is something I’d rather not say around the others.”

Giles leaned against the window sill. “Then please, carry on, but do be quick.”

“The potion we made to counter the effects of—” Angel started, cutting off when he received a nod from the former watcher. He did his utmost to keep his tone neutral, but failed miserably as guilt tainted the remainder of his account, “Something happened—something bad and it had to be the potion. I ran into Buffy in the cemetery last night and, Giles, there was—it wasn’t like anything I’ve ever been around before. She smelled like a human male, but not— There was a very strong male pheromone—but it wasn’t—it was like there was something else—something demonic,” he hung his head shamefully, “I attacked her. I did everything I could not to, but I attacked her.”

Giles started to say something, but Angel cut him off, noting the harsh accusatory expression. “Giles, I know you feel I’m not good for Buffy. And right now, I’m not gonna argue, but you’re a watcher,” he pleaded, trying to appeal to the analytical side of the Englishman’s nature. He took a breath to continue, “This thing, it caused me to change. It brought out the demon and made me want to hurt her. It’s dangerous. If I didn’t care— If it had been more than one vampire— It needs to be recorded so others know. Just a simple ‘stay home’ in the margin would save the next person a lot of pain.”

Giles appeared pensive as he considered the vampire’s words. It seemed rather silly to me in the moment that one would allow themselves to be driven mad by the ‘aspect of the demon,’ however in retrospect, perhaps the cost was simply too high? Having to choose: saving oneself versus the violation of another human being and becoming a target for every creature of the night? It certainly doesn’t sound appealing. And where we’re concerned, there still remains the question of Willow’s health.

Speaking in a careful even tone, Giles replied, “That assumes the situation would remedy itself of its own accord. However, I will certainly note what you’ve said in my records,” After a brief pause, he prompted, “Now if that is all?”

“Thanks, Giles,” Angel returned sincerely and nodded. “There’s one more thing. I’m leaving as soon as I know the mayor can’t hurt any of you. I’ve already said goodbye to Buffy. Don’t let the others know I’m still here. I’d rather just—”

“Yes, yes, well, thank you for your candor,” Giles responded crisply, then shut the window.

When Giles closed his blinds, Angel began a lap around the apartment building, searching for a way to access the roof. Around the rear of the building he spied a terrace he could leap to. From there he jumped up and out, grabbing the rough tar surface and pulling himself to the roof. He walked to the front corner of the building, positioning himself over Giles’ apartment door, and stooped down to wait, sitting on his heels.

“Did you say something?”

Willow blinked in the darkness, trying to make out exactly where Xander was. Still recovering from the discomfort of her internal monologue, she babbled anxiously, “Say? No, no saying, just sighing. If ‘sighing’ is ‘saying,’ then I said—” then produced a phony sigh.

Suppressing a chuckle, Xander asked bluntly, “What’s wrong, Will?” Under the sleeping bag, he raised his shirt and rubbed his tummy. Then, careful not to pull any hair, he fished out the day’s collection of bellybutton lint, rolling it between his fingers.

“Nothing,” Willow lied badly, seconds later covering by adding, “Or, I mean, nothing much.” Her arms tightened defensively as Xander began to probe for information.

“You sure? ’Cause you and Buffy both have been acting really wigged all day. I mean, I get the weirdness over Buffy with the injury, but before, you were both just weird. At least what I saw of you was weird,” Xander said, finally voicing his inner concerns. He turned on his side and looked at the silhouette of his friend in the dark. “What was up with the ‘hand’ thing? Buffy didn’t hurt you did she? She wouldn’t hurt you. She couldn’t, right? I’m talking crazy,” he stammered, amending by quickly pleading, “Please stop me, Will.”

Willow brought her hand to her sides in an abrupt movement, actually pounding the cushions of the couch. The afghan moved with her arms, exposing her sleep shirt to the waist. When she eventually spoke, her tone was curt, “No she didn’t hurt me, Xander.”

Sounding slightly wounded by her unusual brusqueness, Xander took a deep breath and implored, “Then what’s with the weird? ’Cause ‘weird’ is mostly hellmouthy and hellmouthy is always bad.” Bringing his arm out of the sleeping bag, he dropped the lint and propped himself up attentively, cupping the side of his head in his hand.

It was apparent from her harsh demeanor that Willow was fed up with the questioning. Her tone was utterly arid as she prompted, “You really want to know?”

“Yes, I really want to know. I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t,” Xander replied, sounding a little too curious, “Oh! And what was up with Oz? Is he okay?”

Willow ignored the question and simply pressed again, “You won’t wig on me and you won’t talk about it?”

His brow furrowed as Xander tried to imagine what could cause his friend’s uncharacteristic mood. Putting on his best ‘reassuring voice,’ he replied, “I’ll try not to. And if it’s a secret, I can…I’ll keep it. Just tell me, Will.”

Stalling a moment to psych herself up, Willow blurted out, “I had sex with Buffy,” then drew in a sharp breath.

Xander gave his head a tiny shake hoping his ears would clear. “No, really, Will. Just tell me.”

“I did.”

Faith skirted around the back of the Summers’ residence, concealing a few select weapons as she went. Her favorite bow was the first item stashed, far away from the main house, then a knife and a short sword. It was just enough to make her feel comfortable, but not enough to offer a chance advantage to the other slayer. Now all I gotta do is getcha out in the open, blondie.

After making her way to the tree under Buffy’s window, she scaled it and leaned in place to wait. We get to see just how good you are now, B. How long will it take for the perfect slayer to sense my presence? An hour? Two hours? Make it three and you’re gonna end up with company in that snug little bed of yours.

When the light finally flipped on, Faith’s legs were very nearly asleep. About time, B., she mused, then dropped to the ground. Listening intently, she heard Buffy walk over to the window, pause for a moment, then move away. When the door to the room swung open, Faith climbed the tree and slipped silently inside. Bit disappointed. I expected her to at least pull the curtains back. After taking a seat on the bed, Faith made herself comfortable, propping herself up on the pillows and flopping her boots on the clean, white sheets.

The door opened and Buffy walked back into the room. Without taking a look in Faith’s direction, she said, “I wondered when you’d show,” as she shut the door. Seemingly unaffected by the brunette’s attempt to raise her ire, Buffy turned toward the bed and simply folded her arms, awaiting the snarky comeback.

Well, alright, B.! You go, girl! She’s not been missin’ me, she’s been ignoring me. Takes guts. I may have to show ’em to her. Faith folded her arms across her chest and said in a disinterested manner,“Never been one to disappoint.”

Buffy looked at her nails, feigning boredom, then put her hand to her mouth and yawned deeply. “Sorta depends on who you ask.”

Faith ignored the cheap taunt. Sorta walked into that one.  “Well, y’know, B., if you weren’t walkin’ around like some snot-nosed, preppy-princess reject from a John Hughes film, you mighta noticed that I wasn’t tryin’ to unseat you from your throne. I just wanted to fit, didn’t really care how. And yeah, maybe I tried too hard,” she laughed mirthlessly, “Trying to impress the great Watcher Giles and make friends with your lackeys. Anyway…I’m over it. I got on with my life. There wasn’t any room for me in ‘team misfit.’ My heart bleeds for the loss. Now can we move on?”

Buffy glared at the brunette slayer. After tilting her hip to the right, and placing a hand to her waist, she remarked dryly, “Been moving on. You were barely a hiccup on my social calendar. Now what the hell do you want, Faith?”

Faith met the unspoken challenge, locking eyes with the blonde. She cocked an eyebrow and asked, “There’s the little matter of my boss’s box, B. Any ideas?”

A wicked little giggle slipped out and Buffy replied, sounding very amused, “Yeah…ideas, lots of ideas. Picture this, Faith: all us pitiful Scoobies huddled around a roaring fire, toasting marshmallows and singing ‘Nobody Likes Me.’ We ran low on firewood and sacrifices were made. Good times. You shoulda been,” she yawned and stretched, “Now, if that’s it, my bed misses me.”

Faith’s eyes narrowed for just an instant. Boss’s not gonna like that.  “Yeah…it’s pretty comfy,” she countered, reaching back to fluff a pillow. Bitch isn’t gonna take the bait and I’m not throwin’ down here. Mrs. S. was decent to me. Killin’ her daughter in her house? Even I’m not that low.

Crossing the room, Buffy stood beside the bed and remarked, “You’re on my side. Scoot over.”

Jesus fuckin’ Christ, B. Faith shot outta the bed, stepping square in Buffy’s face, and growled,“Bit late for us to be bunk buddies, B. Sorry—had your chance. I wouldn’t fuck ya with Xander’s dick.”

Buffy didn’t even blink, she stood utterly still and snarked in a low, dangerous voice, “Good. I don’t like where it’s been.” Appearing completely impervious, she mimed a yawn at Faith and stretched again. After stepping around the other slayer, Buffy slid back in bed. As she drew the covers up over her, she commented absently, “Leave the window open on your way out. I sleep better with the fresh air.”

She’s gotta have somethin’ up her sleeve. Faith strutted over to the window, stopping just as Buffy flipped the light out.

A not-entirely-unexpected knock issued from the door and Buffy flipped the light back on. “Yeah, Mom? Come on in. Join the fun…that’s not—” she grumbled, abandoning the sarcastic attitude when she met her mother’s gaze.

Faith turned toward the elder Summers and smiled sheepishly. “I was just leavin’, Mrs. S.”

Joyce ignored Faith entirely and fixed her glare on Buffy. “Would you mind explaining this? You’re grounded, Buffy. ‘Grounded’ doesn’t mean that you can have people dropping in to visit at all hours of the night.”

Buffy muttered a curse under her breath, then glanced at Faith and glowered at the cocky smile. Turning back to her mother, she smiled coyly and stammered, “Er, umm…visit?”

Faith smirked at the blonde slayer and interjected, “Hate to butt in—such a touching family moment and all—but” — she glanced at her nonexistent watch — “look at the time.” After climbing back out the window, she commented, “There’s this little redhead I was gonna visit,” leaning in the window to wink at Buffy, “Helluva lot cuter than you, B.”

Prying her attention from the glare her mother was giving her, Buffy turned to watch Faith slip into the darkness.

“I’m waiting,” Joyce prompted impatiently, “And what exactly did she mean by ‘cuter’?”

“Uh-boy,” Buffy intoned, then turned to face her mother, and looking a little bit desperate, shrugged. A sigh revealed an acceptance of her fate and she answered dully, “I dunno, Mom.”

Still smirking, Faith dropped to the ground. Not exactly an arrow to the chest, but definitely fun. Good times, B. We’re gonna have such good times.

Did she just say ‘sex’? Like the naked kind? Xander stuck his finger in his ear and wriggled the digit around, hoping for a popping noise or some indication that his hearing was somehow at fault. He gradually became aware that his mouth was hanging open and quickly clamped it shut, grateful for the darkness. She did say ‘sex’! Oh! My! God! How could she? Okay, think this through. On the upside: two girls having sex; downside: Buffy having sex with somebody else not me. My…two…best…friends and…uh, er, umm…sex… I’m gonna die. Should I ask her what it was like? I mean, details, never a bad.

Thick silence hung in the room and Willow was left feeling guilty. “Xander, I shouldn’t—I didn’t mean to—to hurt you. Did I hurt you?” She paused briefly, hoping for an answer. “I just really, really, really need someone to talk to. I-I feel so alone. I can’t talk to Giles. He figured it out. I figured you’d figure, but you didn’t and, well… I told Buffy I’d give her space to— Now I’m alone and I don’t know if I’ve lost one of my best friends and…” she stammered until she ran out of steam. Tears welled up in her eyes as she spoke. By the time she drew silent, she was sobbing.

But Buffy? I saw her first. Of the two—the ‘her’ and the ‘me’—who’d’ve thought she actually had a better shot? In point of fact, it never crossed my mind. What does that say about me? Xander rubbed his chin thoughtfully.

No, no, I have real reason to be upset. What if they never make up? Where does that leave me? I’m the go-between-guy then. That never goes well. Especially when you’re dealing with— Xander suddenly realized that Willow had been speaking and he hadn’t heard a single word of it.

“Xander, are you mad at me?” Willow asked bashfully.

Xander sunk back into his reverie despite himself. Oh! What if they make me choose? Who would I pick? I’d have to pick Will, but what about Buffy? My best friend, the girl who used to carefully take home each picture she drew in school and hang it on her refrigerator hoping her parents would notice, had sex with— Does that make her a lesbian? Is Buffy a lesbian? Xander tilted his head trying to imagine what it might look like for his two best friends to even kiss.

“Xander?” Willow tried again. She wiped her teary eyes in the darkness and prayed he would answer.

“Huh?” Xander gasped.

“Are you mad at me…and please say ‘no’ ’cause I’m not sure I can take any more,” Willow prompted, sounding a little desperate.

“Not mad—not exactly—just very, very confused. I thought you loved Oz? I thought Buffy was still all angsty over the evil dead?” Xander offered. He stopped, not having the heart to go any further when he recognized the sobs that were coming from the couch. But Buffy over broody boy would be a major good. This might be a ‘good’? Huh? We’ll see. Right now, Willow, she’s sort of melting. Might wanna deal with the melty redhead.

Willow sniffled. Eventually, she managed, “Oz and I are—we’re ‘not’,” thickly through the tears.

Sitting up to turn on the lamp next to his feet, Xander located a box of tissues and handed it to Willow. After taking a seat next to her on the floor, he gently brushed a clump of hair out of her face and waited patiently for her to speak again. Big brother mode: check. I can do this. Just listen. Let her talk herself out. Nod lots. And, above all, find something funny and make her laugh. Silly faces are a little desperate, but a valid last resort. I’m not proud. Getting used to it, whatever it is. I got used to my parents throwing lamps at each other. This should be a piece of cake.

Naked Buffy, naked Willow, naughty touching. Xander’s eyes glazed over.

Willow snagged a tissue, wiped her eyes, and blew her nose, then asked tentatively, “Xander?”

Xander slapped himself on the cheek at the same moment Willow thumped him on the crown of the head. He barked, “Ow,” and rubbed his head, “Yeah, Will?” I can do this.

A high pitched whirring noise blended harmonically just above the frequency of the sound of a passing car. Angel spun in the direction of the familiar sound. As he swept his forearm across his chest, he turned sideways, sending the arrow clattering across the rooftop. Then he began to carefully survey the point from which the projectile had originated. Movement betrayed the would-be sniper. Angel dove to the ground, rolling to absorb the impact. Using a parked car for cover, he quickly crossed the street and dashed between two houses. When he got to the tree-line—the site where the assassin had been—it was vacant. A few disturbed weeds were all that remained.

Angel inhaled deeply. Faith. I could track her but, being lured away—pretty stupid, all things considered. She could easily double back. Aware that he might be settling himself up for another attack, he turned and swiftly made his way back to the roof. En route to his post, he swept the arrow up, inspecting it as he went. Aluminum? He felt the cold shaft of the hunting arrow and brought the tip up to his nose. Poisoned. Nasty stuff too. I’ll sneak this to Giles tomorrow so he can figure out what she’s playing at. He carefully checked to make certain he was uninjured. The only mark the arrow had left was a small scrape on the sleeve of his leather duster. He shook his head ruefully at the damage, grateful it wasn’t skin, and put the garment back on.

Faith ditched her weapons behind a dumpster and snuck in through the backdoor of The Bronze as a couple was leaving. Tonight’s a bust. Boss’s just gonna have to be patient. The Scoobies may be a lot of things, but they aren’t stupid—well, not for the most-part—not where it matters. They’re something else too that’s even more scary: painfully, amazingly, ridiculously…lucky.

Reaching the bar, she took a seat. Once she caught the bartender’s attention, she flashed a fake I.D. and ordered a draft. It’s tactically stupid to attack any of ’em on their home turf. Especially all clumped together like that. A vampire, two kids with crossbows, and the old man’s pretty handy with a blade. Bad odds. Listen to me thinkin’ tactics. My watchers would be so proud, if two of them weren’t a little too stiff to be anything and the other one wasn’t… Jesus! Is he an idiot—too busy singin’ ‘God Save the Queen’ and screwin’ with his new suits to notice shit.

Faith accepted her beer and paid the barman. After taking a drink, she rapidly surveyed the room. Bad things out tonight. She watched a vampire leave with a victim through the backdoor. I think the mayor will appreciate wantin’ to go for the hurt. Kill ’em off slow. Give ’em time to grieve. I mean, once he knows his box is gone and all. Course tellin’ him that— I wonder if I could get one of his stupid vamp lackeys to deliver the news? I’d rather not be around when he firms up.

Flashing a seductive smile at a cute guy who approached her to flirt, Faith took another healthy swig from her glass. Dunno how this whole thing’s gonna play out. The mayor’s in pretty deep. Missin’ A-Day’s probably gonna be unhealthy for him, not to mention anyone around him. Sad too, I liked the old guy. He’s been more of a dad than my real one. Course, that doesn’t take a helluva lot. Stayin’ sober and not—

After quickly finishing her beer, Faith winked and took the guy’s hand, leading him from the bar.

Bad as I don’t wanna—survivor in me’s screamin’, ‘get some and get gone.’

Ornate violet lace and sheer white muslin hung draped organically from the top of the large canopy bed, spilling out onto the rich hardwood floor in a rolling sea of fabric. Deep purple satin sheets gave the surface of the bed a warm, reflective glow in the diffused light of the multitudes of white candle sticks burning in wrought iron stands around the room. A gentle breeze disturbed the stillness of the room and caused the candles to flicker, lending brief radiance to the darkest corners, and giving the wave of flowing draperies and fabrics life. The singular occupant of the room, a slender redhead, lay casually, curled on her side in the middle of the bed, bathed in a flow of gossamery lavender and ashen fabrics that demurely shrouded her unclothed form. She faced the doorway patiently in wait.

The redhead grew taut with anticipation when the door swung aside, revealing a petite blonde woman clothed in a white laboratory smock and carrying a clipboard. The blonde strode wordlessly across the room and placed the clipboard in a vacant space on the bureau. Her manner spoke of efficiency and grace as she skirted the perimeter of the large room, directing her attention to the occupant of the bed. Buffy spoke with the distinct authority of experience when she murmured silkily, “I’m gonna show you the right way to play doctor,” then made her way to the bedside, pushing aside the delicate veil. The technician’s frock fell open and slid slowly from her alabaster shoulders, drifting languidly toward the floor where it came to rest in a milky pool, exposing the blonde’s perfectly sculpted body.

The redhead gulped thickly when her blonde companion crawled onto the bed and closed the distance between them, slipping between the layers of fine textiles. A faint blush suffused Willow’s features with color as the slayer nestled against her bare form. The timbre of the redhead’s voice bore testimony to her discomfiture when she queried, “So…playing doctor is—?” wrapping her arms around the enthusiastic blonde.

Warm light and shadow played at the slayer’s features as the perfume of balmy salt air wafted into the room on a mild breeze, causing the candles to shimmer once more. She lay motionless, studying her redheaded lover, appearing mesmerized by the subtle traces of fretfulness. Tenderly cupping her companion’s cheek, Buffy trailed her finger tips along the border where smooth, lightly-freckled skin met the soft red hair that framed her lover’s face. Her touch soothed the worry away as it followed a path set by the delicate angles of the redhead’s jaw line, coming to rest at the tip of her chin. Using the supple point of flesh to guide her reluctant lover, Buffy drew her into a brief tender kiss. Their lips barely brushed before they parted, then the slayer whispered, “No, it’s not ‘all the way’.” Touching lips again, she withdrew and appended, “But, we don’t have to go ‘all the way’ to have fun.”

Drifting peacefully on the edge of slumber, Xander suddenly became starkly aware where his dreams had taken him. He shot upright, blushing fiercely. Holy Halifax! Wanting nothing more than to burrow into the sleeping bag that he had outgrown a few years prior, he glanced nervously around the room.

Lying on her side with her head propped in her hand, Willow met his gaze with one eyebrow arched inquisitively.

Xander collapsed backward in a heap on the floor and silently lamented, ‘I’m gonna die!’ as Willow broke into a fit of giggles. Taking a deep breath in a vain attempt to purge some of the guilt, Xander then sat back up, suddenly and extremely disconcerted by the need to pee. He didn’t even need to check, he knew his condition would be readily apparent beneath the shorts he’d unwisely chosen to sleep in. That’s it. God hates me. It’s a conspiracy.

Willow watched amusedly as Xander made two attempts to stand, clutching the sleeping bag to his waist. On the third try, he found his footing without breaking the coffee table. She withheld her applause, anticipating that it would be better served if he made it to the stairs. Her eyebrow arched again when her friend set off in a dangerous looking sack race across the living room, nearly knocking over a standing lamp, only to catch Giles’ high-backed leather chair at the last second. When Xander made it to the landing, Willow was laughing so hard she fell off the couch with a thud.

Rubbing her hip, Willow groaned, “Ow!” then turned onto her stomach. Already facing away from the stairs, she propped her chin in her hands, covering her eyes. “I’m not gonna watch,” she grumbled, “so neither one of us is seriously injured before you make it to the bathroom, ’kay?”

Faith raised an eyebrow and started to back slowly away when the mayor began to chuckle.

“Well, how about that?” the mayor mumbled to himself. Slapping the desk suddenly, causing every vampire in the office to jump, he rose to his feet and started pacing from person to person within the room.

“Destroyed my box, did she? How about that? That’s gumption there, people. That’s initiative and daring, that is.” He put his arm around the closest vampire. “Wouldn’t you agree that that little girl really showed some forethought in destroying my box? Er—?” he asked cordially.

Appearing anxious and confused, the vampire replied, “Frank.”

“Some forethought in destroying my box, Frank?” the mayor finished.

The Vampire nodded. “Yes sir.”

“Always nice to be agreed with,” the mayor said cheerfully, shoving Frank into the nearest rays of sunlight. Moments later, as the mayor herded the vampires into the corner opposite the slayer, a desperate wail echoed through the room and the mayor chortled, “Yes indeed. I can see the positive influences of my various youth policies at work here!”

Faith took a slow casual step toward the door.

“Responsibility, planning, sacrifice, daring, initiative,” the mayor rattled off, ticking each one with a finger. “It’s…it’s just…just neat” — he beamed — “to see all my efforts paying off. And I mean, really…” then spun and suddenly moved toward Faith.

Faith flinched and appeared unsure how to react.

The mayor began to herd Faith into the other corner as he spoke, still smiling, still chipper, still happy, and warm and fuzzy, but apparently completely insane. “What better way to see the future generations coming along but to have them come skipping into the very center of my operations and without any trouble at all…from any of my trusted allies” — he raised a finger, stabbing the air between himself and the slayer — “and destroy that which I’ve spent the better part of a century preparing for?”

He snickered, then turned away, almost screaming between clenched teeth, “Just dandy, isn’t it?”

Still damp from the shower and wearing a robe, Buffy fell back onto her freshly made bed with a thud and a bounce. She snatched up Mr. Gordo and placed him on her chest. Peering into his plush, piggy face, she began to speak, “It’s just you and me, Mr. Gordo. Mom’s gonna be at the gallery all day cataloging an exhibit,” she shrugged, “And yours truly is still grounded. So, we’re up for a boring day around the house, but honestly, I could use the downtime.”

An exaggerated sigh exhausted through her slightly parted lips. When the last traces of air exited her lungs, Buffy took a breath and commented, “Dunno if you’ve noticed, but things have been pretty wiggy lately.” She tilted the pig’s head as if to make him nod. “I figured you would.” Raising a hand to rub her itchy nose, she restrained the action, gently brushing the bridge with her nail instead. “So, whatcha think about what Angel said last night? Pretty messed up? But as usual, he was making the inconvenient kinda sense. I think he enjoys that.” A twitch of her fingers caused the pig to nod again. “Yeah…I thought so too. I hate it when he does that crap.”

Falling silent, Buffy continued to look at Mr. Gordo as she mused, I keep doing that and one of these days someone will walk in…and it’ll be straight back to— Kay, so…not really funny. Someone might hear though…and then more grief. I can always use more grief.

So, yeah…grumpy mothers, redheads and Angel’s inconvenient truths. Sound like a full day.

Funny thing, it seemed like the dumbest thing when Angelus killed all of Will’s fish. Dunno why I just thought of that. Jenny was the worst part. But sometimes it’s the little details that get missed ‘cause of the big stuff—they get smushed, pushed aside, forgotten… And I guess the other night reminded me. I really wondered if something had happened. He was so much like— It scared me.

But yeah…Will’s fish…it seemed so stupid, but it was the smartest thing in the world. It was so stupid that most people would’ve totally dismissed it—brushed it off. But it got him exactly what he wanted from me. He knew I loved Will—that I love Will. If he had hurt her I would’ve gone straight on the offensive. I would’ve hunted him like an animal and ripped him limb from limb. Kill a tank full of stupid fish and I get all defendy. Protect Will. Keep her safe. Keep her near. And of course, miss the little details… Buffy gently set Mr. Gordo on her pillow, tucking her blanket under his chin, then rose to dress.

Crossing the small room in three steps, Buffy began to open dresser drawers, selecting comfortable items to lounge around the house in. Listen to me. I sound like a Slayer. The Slayer that wanted to be a real girl— She chuckled bitterly. Just like Pinocchio or something. It’s kinda pitiful, but then it isn’t. I should be able to have a normal life. That is if a normal life means always stressing that the things you love will be ripped away by some new bigger bad.Picking up the pile of clothing, she placed it on the bed and removed her robe, hanging it in the closet. Once dressed in a tank top and sweats, she flopped back onto the bed next to Mr. Gordo. We only get the highest quality evil here at the mouth of Hell. New and improved, concentrated, ultra strength evil. Only the best for the slayer.

So, I guess the sixty-four-thousand dollar question is this: can I give Will what she needs? Can I be ‘in love’ with her? Am I? I never really thought about it. It just sorta was… I mean, there has to be something—some pull for the ‘friends’ thing to work. But can I feel those warm fuzzy feelings with her again without the hellmouthy weirdness? I guess asking isn’t making it any better. Experimenting would really screw things up worse. But then, the other night was—what did Will say? ‘Beautiful.’ I could toss out a few adjectives myself, but that was a good one—it works. When I peel away all the horror, all the guilt, and all the ugliness, that was the one thing—it was frightening, but it was also ‘beautiful.’

Principal Snyder was shown into the mayor’s office by a large man in a three-piece suit. He stood expectantly in the doorway, wondering why he’d been summoned.

The mayor glanced over his cup of coffee, taking a sip before he spoke, “Ah, Principal Snyder. Thank you for coming in on your day off. Please, have a seat.” He gestured at a chair in front of his desk. “Can I offer you something? Coffee perhaps?”

Principal Snyder took a seat and fluttered a hasty reply, “Oh, I know you’re a busy man. Please, don’t go to any trouble.”

“It’s no trouble. No, trouble at all,” the mayor responded genially and rose to prepare another cup of coffee. Crossing the room, he stood in front of the coffeemaker and took a cup from the stack as he reminisced, “My dear Edna Mae used to serve me coffee with just a touch of almond extract. It gave the coffee such a nice, nutty flavor.” After pouring a cup, he asked, “Do you take anything in your coffee?”

“Cream and sugar,” Principal Snyder responded nervously as he watched the mayor turn to him and smile graciously. When the cup was offered, he accepted it and began to mix it to taste from the creamer pitcher and sugar bowl the mayor had placed on the table next to him. He set his spoon on the saucer provided and took a tentative sip, smiling as the mayor returned to his seat. “This is good coffee,” he offered politely and took another sip.

After watching as the beady-eyed little man took a drink from his cup, the mayor stated, “I know you’re wondering why I asked you here, so let’s just cut to the chase.” He took a sip from his own cup. “Please set that down,” he asked as he gestured to the cup in Principal Snyder’s hand. Once the cup was safely in its saucer, he continued, “You allowed one of your students to leave campus on Friday. A student I specifically warned you about. When you took the job, you assured me that you could keep her in check, Ronald.”

Feeling his throat tighten, Principal Snyder gasped, “But—”

The mayor ignored the obvious discomfort of his guest and continued to remark, “This building was vandalized, costing the taxpayers thousands of dollars. You may have noticed the construction crews downstairs.” As the principal started to claw uselessly at his throat, struggling for air, the mayor smiled insipidly, then resumed, “It’s the darnedest thing, though. Thousands and thousands of dollars in security equipment and there’s no evidence of a crime. You might ask why.” He accepted Snyder’s futile struggles for life in lieu of an answer. “It’s simple really: the vandal poured soda pop on all those expensive little gadgets. So the only record we have is the one of her leaving the school.” His guest began to convulse and fell to the floor as he concluded, “Your school, Ronald.”

Angel stood in the shadow of a large crypt far away from the others. He could hear their muffled conversations, but he wasn’t there to eavesdrop; his goal was to protect. He didn’t even need to see them to be successful. A brief glimpse now and then was enough. More than he wanted really. The important part was that he remained sufficiently removed that his presence not be detected. One last thing for Buffy. Joyce’s right: I don’t belong here anymore. If I thought she— That’s not fair. She could handle it, but I can spare her. Faith in the equation makes it messy. If all the mayor had working for him were vampires and demons, I’d leave right now, but Faith’s human.

There’s something else, too. Faith’s not totally gone. It’s hard for Buffy to see that. There’s too much bad blood. But Faith, she’s close to the edge and teetering. Pull really, really hard and you might just bring her back. I’d like to try again. Take her with me and try to help her away from all this. What Faith really is is damaged. She’s the stereotypical ‘bad girl.’ It says volumes that any society would have a stereotype for young girls who’ve been so severely tortured that they lash out. I made a few myself, as Angelus, so it’s easy for me to see.

A faint rustling at the edge of the woods caused Angel to turn and focus his attention. Suddenly he sprung to life. Moving in the direction of the sound, he slipped silently through the darkness. I don’t think she’s—it takes a special kind of madness to look into the eyes of someone you know and kill them. I don’t think she’s that far gone. She’ll be under pressure and wanting to use her bow. It’s like the thing with humans and guns. You can kill and never really have to look them in the eye. It’s impersonal, or as impersonal as murder gets. I have to stop her. Not just for Buffy, but for both of them.

Willow fixed her attention at her feet as she walked. She hung back with Giles to allow Buffy some space, trying to resist the temptation to stare. With each step she took, little wisps of ash rose from her shoes. She watched them, numb and tired from fighting. Gosh…I’ve become Pig-Pen. If I had to become a male cartoon character, why not Schroeder? And why did the child prodigy have to be a boy anyway? I think Sally should’ve— Oh! And Lucy— Glancing to make certain that Buffy was distracted; she leaned over to Giles and whispered, “I was accepted to Oxford,” in an effort to strike up conversation.

Giles positively beamed with pride at Willow, then replied, matching her tone, “Oh, Willow, that’s just marvelous news. Oxford is the oldest and one of the most prestigious universities in the world.”

“I’m not going,” Willow whispered.

Unaware that she had said anything, Giles continued to gush, “Being accepted is quite an honor. I’m very proud of you. You’ll receive an education worthy of your intellect in beautiful, historic buildings older—” he cut off as Willow tugged his sleeve.

“I’m not going, Giles.”

Appearing dumbfound, Giles asked, “Why not?”

Willow met the watchers’ gaze and replied resolutely, “Because what we’re doing here is more important.” Seeing that he still seemed befuddled, she continued, “Giles, I don’t want Buffy to think it’s because of her, so I’ve not said anything, but the fact is this—all of us—it’s really important to me—fighting evil. I’m not gonna find that there. Not like here. I can find an education here, though. Do you sorta understand?”

As Willow spoke, Giles’ initial surprise ebbed and his manner grew more pensive. When she finished, he remarked candidly, “I do, but I must say that I am no less surprised. Passing up such an offer is quite a sacrifice.”

“It’s a sacrifice that’s mine to make. I believe in what we’re doing, Giles.”

Giles nodded his understanding and smiled warmly at Willow.

Griping her bow tightly, Faith crouched down and ran across the open lawn. Swiftly blending into the shadow of a mausoleum, she edged around the structure to get a better view. I need to get this done or get my ass gone quick. Considering all the kindness blondie showed me I’m shooting for the former, then the later.

Pausing briefly to listen, she hugged the darkest parts of shadows and moved to the next large crypt for cover. Wow! The mayor’s pissed. You’d think he’d get that you just can’t expect and make it happen. I’d like to come out of this with all my parts in the right places. Course that little detail about the box wasn’t helpful. Right now, all he cares about is blood…revenge… Giving it to him…it’s the least I can do. We’ll call it a ‘going away present.’

“I’m telling ya, Xander, the adults in my life need a serious reality check. By the time I see daylight, I’ll be able to celebrate by having a beer.” Buffy sighed. “It sucks—not being able to tell my mom stuff. We used to talk about everything. Now…pretty much nothing. I can’t. I just can’t make her worry, but then I say nothing ’cause I can’t lie. And guess what? She worries,” she ranted absently, not really caring if Xander was listening. Taking a deep breath, she concluded, “It’s like this double-edged sword. Problem is—the metaphor—I keep falling on my double-edged sword and it’s way past sucking.”

Xander waited patiently for Buffy to wind down. This is almost mean, but I might actually get her to talk if I hit her outta the blue. Clearing his throat to prepare, he very gently asked, “Did you have a one-night-stand with Willow?”

“What?” Buffy hissed, causing Xander to jump. Glancing cautiously over her shoulder to make sure the others hadn’t heard, she glared at Xander and challenged, “I don’t see what business it is of yours.”

Hanging his head, Xander said sheepishly, “Alright, admittedly, not my business, but I’m worried about her, Buffy.” ’Kay, so…rethinking…and maybe ducking.

Her demeanor grew reserved. Silently contemplating for several moments, Buffy finally prompted, “Why?”

Xander gave the slayer a sideways glance. Noting the change in her behavior, he reflected, Pushing my luck here, then prodded, “You didn’t answer.”

Buffy returned the glance and mumbled, “It wasn’t a one-night-stand. It might be a one-time-thing, but it could never be a one-night-stand. I love her, Xander. You of all people should know that.”

Fixing his gaze at the ground at his feet, Xander watched the dust kick up off his shoes. His posture relaxed in reflection of her honesty. “I get that. Sorry for—” he replied sincerely, leaving the rest unvoiced.

“It’s okay.” Buffy offered reassuringly, then murmured more for her benefit than his, “I just don’t want to hurt her anymore.”

Xander glanced up and whispered, “She is hurting, Buffy. She’s not sure you can still be friends with her. She was a total wreck last night. I sat up and listened to her until she talked herself out and fell asleep.”

“Thanks for that—the listening,” Buffy responded and turned toward Xander as she walked, taking in the gloomy expression. “Xander it’ll be okay. I just need some time. I still love both you guys. You’re still my best friends. It’s just…”

Angel spied Faith in the distance. She was perched on a tombstone, looking like some bizarre cherub. He ran at the slayer desperate to stop her.

Sighting down the shaft of the arrow, the slayer moved between targets. Eeny, meeny, miny, moe… Catch a Scooby by the toe… If she… Fuck it!

Tackling Faith as she released the shot, Angel snatched at the arrow, feeling it brush just past his fingertips.

When Xander looked back in Buffy’s direction, she was gone. He spun, gasped and ran.

Chapter 4 - Like Bees Working in a Glass Hive

I wonder if she’s gonna be okay? Xander chanced a sideways glance at his oldest friend and squeezed her hand reassuringly. Still the same. She’s had that same sort of dull, lifeless look on her face since the car.

Xander rubbed his eyes and turned his attention to Giles who was speaking with one of the nurses. I suppose there’s something sorta wrong with sitting here worrying about Will when Buffy’s upstairs in surgery, but—well, it’s just that Buffy’s the strongest person I know. I have no doubt she’ll be okay. Will, on the other hand—Will’s not okay. Doesn’t matter how many reassuring things I say, fact is: someone she loves nearly died for her tonight.

I’m not sure of the entire ‘why’—the whole reason she’s acting this way. But it’s pretty wig-worthy. She just kinda snapped in the car after Buffy woke up and started trying to pull the arrow out. I’m pretty grateful Will didn’t snap before ’cause trying to stop a slayer from doing anything she’s set on doing—it’s not fun—in a big way not fun. I knew it was bad—the pulling—so I tried to pin her arm. She nearly ripped mine off. Then Will just looked at her and said, ‘No,’ then took her hand. Their eyes met and Buffy stopped. It was pretty amazing. Maybe there is something there I was missing. Since then, Will’s been quiet. Not one word. Not a single tear. It’s like something broke. Wish I knew what so I could help put it back.

When the doors slid open, Xander turned to look and Willow averted her eyes to the floor. He watched Mrs. Summers enter the waiting area and walk up to Giles and the nurse. Then he turned his attention to Willow. She seemed to be shrinking. Guilt. He bowed his head too as if effected vicariously by Willow’s display and began to study the bland, beige carpet. Maybe I’m selfish. Is it wrong for me to be glad that Buffy did? ’Cause, I mean, if she hadn’t, Will would probably be…and—I can’t think that.

Buffy will be fine. I know she will.

Giles turned to meet Joyce’s worried gaze when she entered the room. Rupert, you need to get a hold of yourself, old man. No good will come of you making a spectacle of yourself. These people require reassurance and reassurance is what they shall have. He took Joyce’s hand briefly, offering a heartfelt, “I’m terribly sorry.”

Giving him a quick nod in return, Joyce turned her attention to the nurse.

After withdrawing to allow her to privately speak with the hospital staff, he moved over to the others. Seating himself next to Xander, he reflected quietly, “It appears as though she will pull through the surgery,” repeating what was already known, but omitting the thing that caused him the greatest concern.

Afraid he might upset Willow more, Xander leaned in and asked nervously, “Do they know anymore about…?” trailing off and leaving the remainder of the question unsaid.

“I’m afraid not, however Joyce may well discover something I was unable to glean,” Giles replied honestly. How could you allow yourself to fall into this predicament? I never once questioned the rightness of the organization to which I dedicated my life. We were working for the greater good. That knowledge was absolute. Being subsequently removed from their service was one of the most shocking and painful events I’ve had to bear. And now I find myself in the very worst of situations. These people have become my friends, my trusted allies, and in a very real way more my family than those to whom I have blood ties. How can I not warn them? How would I even begin to? Would any good come of it if I did?

Joyce walked over, taking a seat next to Willow, and began to speak in a soft, careful voice, “I’m afraid we won’t know much until she’s awake. The doctors say that, with injuries of this sort, there’s a very real chance that —” she sighed despondently “— she’ll be left with some permanent nerve damage and maybe some loss of motor control, but they can’t speculate the extent.”

Giles listened numbly to Joyce as she reiterated, in a trembling voice, the information he had already offered the others. At the point Joyce drew silent, Willow was sobbing into Xander’s arms and Giles had turned his attention toward the carpeting under his feet. How does one begin to reveal the truth?

Joyce sat silently staring at her hands. The others had left, first Willow — no doubt to freshen up — and then Giles. She barely noticed their passing. Finding herself alone with Xander, she took the opportunity to attempt to discover more of the truth, beginning to question on a very casual level, “Would you mind telling me what happened tonight, Xander?”

Appearing extremely puzzled, Xander turned toward Buffy’s mom and swiftly stammered, “Umm…I thought you—how could you not know? Buffy was shot.”

Joyce stood up just enough to rotate toward Xander in her chair and smoothed her skirt underneath her as she settled. Crossing her legs and lacing her fingers in her lap, she prompted, “That’s not exactly what I was getting at. What I meant to ask was why it happened.”

“Oh,” Xander gasped and froze up for just an instant. He suddenly appeared very nervous as he answered, “Well, I guess it happened because the mayor wanted it,” casting his gaze at the floor.

The mayor? Joyce forced herself to maintain a neutral expression.

Starting off still quite anxious, Xander’s manner eased as he spoke, “Faith’s been working for him. She shot Buffy. Not that I saw it, but—well, I saw right after—Buffy, not Faith. She was actually aiming for Willow, but Buffy….” He glanced up to gauge her reaction.

“Ah, I wondered about Willow. I hope she doesn’t think I blame her,” Joyce remarked casually. Why on earth would the mayor want to harm Willow?

“Blame? No, it’s not that simple. It’s worse actually. Guilt. No one has to blame, the guilt just sorta happens. I’m just guessing. She’s not really been too chatty since— Thing is, there’s more than just the guilt. It’s really pretty….” Xander realized he was being too honest.

“It’s okay, Xander; it’s perfectly obvious that both you and Willow care for my daughter.” When Joyce looked up, Xander appeared close to tears himself. He cleared his throat to cover and stood. Pardoning himself by nodding, he exited the waiting room, leaving Joyce alone. She tilted her head again to stare at her hands. It’s funny that asking questions seems to always leave me with more questions than answers. One of these days I may learn to stop asking.

Willow dully sat in the one place she knew she could be guaranteed some measure of courteous privacy: the ladies’ room. The fact that she’d just thrown up and was sitting on the floor bothered her much less than it occurred to her it ought to. Pulling herself to her feet, she flushed the toilet and made her way to the sink to wash up. I really need to get—to fix my head.

She turned on the tap and washed her hands. Once they were clean, she scooped up a handful of water to rinse her mouth. I’m not sure the others get this. ’Kay, well, Giles would. I got it right after I saw. The Council’s already pretty much shown that they have about as much regard for Buffy as a Post-It Note. Her birthday proved that. If she’s left partially paralyzed…

I’m sorta jumping to conclusions. I should get the facts before I make with the jumping. After splashing her face, Willow dried off and started for the door. I can’t hide in here. They’ll wonder and worry…and making them worry more is no good, especially Xander. He’s already wigged out enough over me. She reached to open the door and familiar voices in the hallway caused her to freeze.

“I’m not certain you appreciate the extent of this, Angel. If Buffy cannot fulfill her role, the Council will seek to replace her.”

“By ‘replace,’ you mean ‘kill,’ right, Giles?” Angel’s bitter voice fell off for a moment and a perceived nod hung in the air. When he continued, he was livid, “I won’t let that happen. I’d rather—” cutting short when Giles spoke again.

Willow nearly turned around and ran back to the stall to throw up again. Well, so much for jumping. This would be falling. She fought for control while she listened to them.

“I appreciate your anger, but this is simply not the time to allow our emotions to run rampant. Rational thought is much better served.”

“Rational thought? Would it be rational to consider taking her and running?” Angel asked, sounding almost pensive.

After swallowing hard to clear the lump from her throat, Willow opened the door and met the stunned gazes of the two men. “If you do, I’m coming with,” she stated in a ragged voice, then stepped out into the hall to join them. “But I’m not so sure we should do much until we know exactly how bad it is. Right now—the travel—it might just make it worse.”

Giles nodded and remarked evenly, “Good to see you are somewhat better, Willow. Well stated.” Redirecting his attention to the vampire, he confirmed, “Should the need arise, we will graciously accept your offer, Angel. However, until we better know what we are facing, we should play our cards close to our chests.”

“Agreed,” Angel replied with a nod.

Facing Willow, Giles responded cordially, “Very well then.”

Willow peered down the hallway after the vampire, offering politely, “Good to see you, Angel.”

Angel looked back just long enough to say, “You too,” then limped away, clutching his side.

“Angel does not wish for the others to know he has remained in Sunnydale. Your candor will be appreciated,” Giles commented as the vampire took his leave.

“Sure,” Willow mumbled as she continued to watch Angel struggle to walk. “Is he gonna be okay?”

Giles returned a kindly smile and replied, “I’m certain he’ll be fine by this time tomorrow. Now what is your concern?”

In a hushed voice Willow reflected, “Y’know that conversation we didn’t have in the car the other day?” directing her attention to Giles mid-thought. When he nodded his affirmation, she continued anxiously, “I just want you to know, there’s no reason to worry. I know you will—worry that is…and well, there’s no reason.” Dunno why I care about this. Guess it’s good if we can stop worrying about something. Not that I was, but Giles might be.

His brow crinkled with uncertainty as Giles queried, “What makes you say that?”

Willow stared at the floor at her feet and stammered hastily, “Well…umm, y’know how I said that there were certain things that had to happen…and umm…the-they didn’t?” she sighed “Well, there are other certain things that should happen. And when they do, they make you stop with the worrying…and they did happen, that is…or are happening. So, no more worry.” Drawing silent, she glanced up and gave the watcher a small, sheepish grin, feeling suddenly ill again.

Giles puzzled over the code for several moments, appearing lost in thought. Finally, he replied, “Ah, very well then. I shall stop worrying,” and smiled reassuringly at Willow.

Joyce glanced through the doorway, meeting Willow’s gaze briefly. When the young redhead averted her eyes, Joyce entered the room and took a seat, then began to speak frankly, “Willow, I’m not sure what you think, but I want you to know that I don’t hold you responsible for any of this.” Her attention moved from her unconscious daughter to Willow’s face as she spoke, lingering momentarily on their joined hands.

Nodding and carelessly wiping a tear with her hand, Willow feebly replied, “Thanks, Mrs. Summers.”

After searching through her handbag, Joyce produced a packet of Kleenex and passed them to Willow. She vaguely watched while the younger woman struggled to control her emotions as the sheer helplessness of the situation threatened to cave her resolve as well. Centering her attention on her curiosity instead, she asked, “Willow, why would the mayor want to harm you?”

Willow appeared momentarily startled and gasped, “Huh?”

“Xander told me he thought Faith might’ve been aiming at you,” Joyce clarified.

Willow’s expression transformed from dull and lifeless to deeply pensive. “You understand what your daughter is and you know that lots of bad things happen here, right?” she stated more than asked. When she received a nod from Buffy’s mom, Willow continued, “’Kay, so…why is it so hard for you to grasp that a bad place where bad things happen might be run by a bad man?”

Joyce digested this, unable to see a flaw in the logic, then prompted, “But that still doesn’t answer why he would be interested in you.”

Willow fixed her attention on the hand she held. “He wasn’t—Faith wasn’t. See, thing is—the thing you might not get—Buffy—when she’s alert and not hurt—she’s fast. You probably don’t see it ’cause she hides it, but I’ve seen her catch arrows. It’s really, really neat. She can catch or block knives too. Like if you throw them at her,” she stammered, then smiled warmly.

Appearing taken aback for a moment, Joyce completed the picture for herself. “So she aimed at you to—”

Willow’s face sagged. “Yeah…it was really horrible.”

Semi-lucid and woozy, Buffy listened to the voices of her mother and Willow. They sounded like they were in the next room or down the hall, but she couldn’t tell.

“I’m sorry, Willow. This must be very hard for you.”

“I’ve had better weeks,” Willow said sounding really depressed. “But then, things seem to get really bad this time of year. It’s pretty normal for the bad to get really bad.”

As Willow spoke, her voice wavered in and out until Buffy understood they were in the same room. Then she was wrapped in a slightly awkward, but extremely gentle hug. She didn’t need to open her eyes to know it was Willow. Smell and touch told her all she needed to know. It brought back vivid memories of just a few days prior, but this time she wasn’t frightened.

Willow began to whisper as the blonde weakly placed her arm around her, “Remember the blindness, Buffy? This is temporary just like that, ’kay? Don’t be afraid.”

When Willow’s forehead came to rest against hers, Buffy recognized what was wrong: she couldn’t feel her right leg. It was like the limb was absent. She started to get frightened, but trust won out when her friend’s lips briefly touched hers. Then Willow withdrew and moved away. Buffy opened her eyes and looked over at where they were seated to the right of her bed.

“There’s some swelling that’s causing the numbness. It’ll go down. Then the doctor says—” Willow offered, choking off obviously fighting to contain her emotions.

Buffy met her mother’s gaze and turned to Willow who was peering at the floor. “Just say it, Will.”

“They’re not really sure, Buffy. They couldn’t tell us much, but from what I’ve read if the damage—if it’s not so much, then the body can—it can sorta pick other pathways to send the information. Sorta like if a phone switch is busy, it moves to the next one. Not sure that makes sense.”

Buffy pleaded, “Bottom-line it for me, Mom, please,” staring at the sling her right leg rested in.

Understanding that her daughter didn’t like mincing words, Joyce replied plainly, “Well, honey, you may have to relearn to do a few things,” she sighed, “You’ll have to use a brace at first to walk. But then, you heal quickly, so I’m not certain myself. I think we should wait and see before we react too much.”

As Buffy listened to her mother’s trembling voice, she felt a lump form in her throat. When the only sounds in the room were coming from the monitors, she swallowed thickly and offered what she knew her friend needed to hear, “Will, not your fault, ’kay?”

Willow nodded feebly without looking up.

After giving her mother a sweet smile, Buffy asked, “Mom, can I get you to do a huge favor for me?”

Joyce cracked a quirky half-smile in return and replied, “What do you need?”

“Would you mind taking Will home real quick so she can shower and change?” Buffy picked up the remote and turned on the TV. “I mean, it’s not like I mind, but she’s starting to get extra Willowy and well—” she turned to wink at her mom “—make sure she eats too. Do that thing you do to me if she gets grumbly.”

“I think I can handle that.” Joyce rose from her seat and offered a hand. “Come on, Willow. I think she’s kicking us out so she can watch ‘E! True Hollywood Stories’ without us making fun of her.”

Buffy rolled her eyes and absently said, “Thanks, Mom,” as she stopped from channel surfing briefly to watch them leave. “Hey, Mom, can I have a sec with Will before you—?”

“Sure, I’ll be right outside,” Joyce said, continuing to the door as she released Willow.

“Would you lower the railing?” Buffy asked. When her friend managed to figure out how to lower the annoying bed rail, Buffy chuckled and hit the remote to raise the bed to a sitting position. “A real one, please,” she whispered, holding her arms out.

Willow accepted the embrace gratefully.

“Y’know it’ll be okay, right?” Buffy murmured, she felt Willow nod and continued, “Things are a little weird. But when aren’t they? Sorta expected when you live in the middle of weird-apalooza.” Buffy moved to cup her friend’s face in her hands. “Now I want you to believe the first thing you told me. I know you said it to keep me from wigging, but—”

“I’ll try,” Willow replied, reluctantly pulling away. “I shouldn’t keep your mom waiting. I’ll come back if you want me to.”

“Of course I want you to. Don’t be silly. You think I’m gonna eat the world’s worst lunch alone?” Buffy chided.

“’Kay.” A silly grin played at her features as Willow made her way from the room.

When Buffy was finally alone, she grimaced and lowered the bed, hitting the page button. The truth was that her lower back felt like it was on fire. She went back to flipping channels to take her mind off the pain.

The Mayor glanced up from his desk to see Faith leaning against the doorframe and gave her a stern glare. “Well, don’t be bashful. Come on in.”

The Mayor’s expression told her all Faith needed to know. She reluctantly entered the room and took a seat as he gestured to a chair. “I can explain, sir.”

Ignoring the slayer’s attempted excuses, the Mayor remarked in a deceptively chipper manner, “Little filly’s hardly going to win any races.”

Faith broke in, “Got jumped, boss.”

The Mayor continued as though he hadn’t been interrupted, “So, next time you’ll knock ’em dead tiger.”

“Shouldn’t be a problem,” Faith replied honestly.

“Well that’s just swell!” the Mayor chimed, smiling when the slayer flinched. After pulling out a packet from his top desk drawer, he said cheerfully, “Well, aren’t you just a real go-getter. I think you deserve a reward for your pluckiness,” placing the packet on the far edge of his desk.

Faith eyed the package cautiously, finally picking it up. She quirked an eyebrow and said, “Gummi Bears?”

After taking a packet for himself, he ripped it open and pulled out a piece. Turning the candy bear to face him, he remarked, “I just love these little guys. Look at them. Each one a smiling face.” He bit the little bear’s head off. “Soft, sweet…and just a little bit tangy.” Shoving the rest of the candy in his mouth, he chewed enthusiastically. “But you know the best thing about Gummi Bears, Faith?”

“No, sir.”

The Mayor smiled warmly before he answered, “When you’re finished with one, there’s always another to take its place,” pulling another bear out as he spoke. Winking, he popped the candy into his mouth and beamed at the slayer.

Faith’s gaze traveled between the Mayor and the candy packet in her hand as she firmed up.

“Do we have an understanding, Faith?”

Faith nodded and rose. “Yeah…I gotcha.” Her expression turned grim as she made her way to the door.

“Excellent!” the Mayor chortled gleefully. Setting the package on his desk, he reached for a moist towellette to clean his fingers. “Oh and, Faith? Be sure to brush and floss after you eat those.”

Faith rolled her eyes as she traveled swiftly down the hall. The candy hit the first trash can she passed. “Gawd, I hate Gummi Bears,” she grumbled and swung the door to the lobby open. As she passed through the doorway, a black and white spotted rat bolted by her. “Well, you should fit in real well here,” she groused, ignoring the fallen security guard as she moved to the exit.

After picking up the receiver, using his shoulder to press it to his ear, Wesley dialed a long string of numbers from memory. When a crisp, female voice extended a greeting, he said, “Quentin Travers, please. This is Wesley Wyndam-Pryce.”

Several moments passed before Travers’ voice growled back through the receiver, “How may I help you, Wesley.”

“A situation has arisen here, sir, which I believe requires your attention.”


Wesley took the receiver in his hand and sat down behind Giles’ desk. “It concerns the rogue slayer, Faith. She has made an attempt on Miss Summers’ life.”

“Ah, that is unfortunate,” Travers offered. The muffed sound of him clearing his throat sounded over the line. “A team will be dispatched within the hour to apprehend the rogue.”

“Very well, thank you, sir.”

“Certainly.” There was a brief pause, then Travers instructed, “Your further involvement in this matter is unnecessary. You will not mention it to anyone, nor will you take it upon yourself to assist. Do I make myself clear?”

The chair creaked as Wesley leaned back. “Yes, sir.”

“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” Xander grumbled as he strode through the garden of the Crawford St. mansion. After pausing to knock, he swung the door open and ventured inside. What he found searching the mansion surprised him. The entire house stood empty except for a few larger pieces of furniture that were covered with sheets. Satisfied he’d looked in every room, he trotted to the exit. Grumping under his breath, “Well, it seemed like a good idea,” he let out an exasperated sigh, “Figures Captain Courageous would bail when we actually need his help.”

Reentering Buffy’s hospital room with an armload of books, Willow set the stack down and took a seat.

Buffy looked from the pile of musty books to her friend and asked, “Research? I thought we were out of crisis mode what with the —” she gestured to herself “— and the mayor not exactly being effectual guy.”

“The —” Willow gestured to her friend “— is part of the research. Besides, the mayor’s not exactly ineffectual. He’s still pretty much ‘wrathy guy.’ I figured I’d see what I could find to help. Y’know doing nothing makes me crazy.” She clamped the bridge of her nose between to fingers as if fighting a headache, “Actually though, Giles is pretty much working on the helping. I have a side project I wanna look at. If it’s okay,” then pulled a book from the stack and opened it on her lap.

“What do you mean, ‘if it’s okay’? I can’t exactly tell you what to do, Will.”

“Well, yeah…but you can refuse to—this is sorta an ‘us’ thing—it kinda takes two,” Willow offered. Glancing up to see the slayer still keenly observing her, she continued, “Oh, I just thought that ‘telepathy’ thing was pretty nifty, so I wanted to see if I could—” Blushing, she buried her nose in the book on her lap as she stammered, “I-I mean it’d be really useful on patrol.”

Buffy quirked an eyebrow and stifled a giggle. After taking a deep breath, she reflected, “We should talk.”

“If that’s what you want,” Willow mumbled noncommittally. “Talk then.”

“Look at me, Will,” Buffy prompted. When the redhead sheepishly met her gaze, the slayer commented, “It’s a good idea, the ‘telepathy’ thing, but there’s other stuff, pretty complicated stuff and you know it.”

Willow nodded and set the book aside.

When her friend didn’t say anything, Buffy continued, “Here’s what I think: I think we sorta—that things sorta got mixed up—out of order and jumbley. What we should do is: try to put them back in order. Actually work on the ‘friends’ part and see if it can be more, but slow. Rushing would be a bad. Our friendship’s just too important to me not to wanna give it some time.”

“I agree,” Willow replied in a soft pensive voice. “It was pretty confusing and painful, but then—” she trailed off thoughtfully.

“It was also beautiful?” Buffy filled in.

Nodding her agreement, Willow continued, “It was…and it was so not what I was looking for, or expecting.”

Buffy took her turn to simply nod. After several moments of silence, she asked, “How’d you know I was awake?”

Willow looked up from the book that had drawn her interest in the respite. “I dunno. I just sorta felt it. Same as I can tell you want to press that button now, but don’t bother.” Smiling at the confused expression on the blonde’s face, she added, “The nurse will be by in about ten minutes to give you your medication.”

“Okay…now you’re just getting scary. How do you know that?”

Returning her attention to the book, Willow replied absently, “I read your chart while you were sleeping this morning.”

Giles entered the hospital room with a small package under his arm.

Buffy’s expression turned mischievous as she chimed in, “Oh, presents for me?”

Giles set the bag down and replied, “Not as such.”

Willow curiously looked up from her book. “Find something, Giles?”

“Indeed. It required a rather exhaustive search; however, I did manage to locate something useful. Curious thing about dark magick: the practitioners often don’t hold much value for life. You’d be surprised how many of these spells are lethal to either the thing requiring protection—” Giles prattled thoughtfully as he removed a book and two containers of fine powder from the bag.

Buffy’s brow crinkled with concern and she cut in, “Whoa…did he just say lethal, Will? ’Cause really not liking that. We’re not gonna be—? You did test this, right, Giles?”

Giles sighed when the slayer cut him off and began to leaf through the book as he spoke, “If you’ll allow me to finish, I did indeed test the results. In fact, I took a page from your book, not to be outdone.”

Buffy cocked an eyebrow and motioned for him to continue.

After locating the correct page, Giles poured a small amount of one powder into the palm of his hand. “Oh, it’s rather simple really. I acquired a pet. His name is Clifford. I named him after a great uncle who was quite a prankster himself.”

“We’ll be arriving at a point sometime soon?”

Willow giggled as she stood up to look over Giles’ shoulder and read the spell details.

“Yes, yes… Once I located a useful spell I practiced it on Clifford. I then put the little fellow in the pocket of my overcoat and took him to City Hall. I posed as a tourist and whilst the nice receptionist was giving me directions, I slipped Clifford from my pocket. At the time I left, one guard had already succumbed to my prank.”

Buffy was still gesturing for more details when Giles sprinkled the powder over her.

“It works under the same principles as static electricity, building a large charge around the object you wish to protect. It may feel peculiar, but it is quite safe,” Giles filled in, starting to intone the spell when he finished.

When Giles fell silent, Buffy inquired, “And the guard?” as the air around her started to crackle and buzz.

“Oh, he was flat on his back and very much unconscious when I left. It packs quite a wallop but, if one is smart, there are ways around it: gloves, for instance. That’s how I handled Clifford.”

Willow slid off her shoe and placed her foot against the metal bed frame.

Buffy tried to flinch away, looking amused as Willow caught her hand. There was a slight pop on contact.

Willow raised an eyebrow as she explained, “I grounded myself, Buffy.”

Faith slipped into the dimly lit hospital room, shutting the door in her wake. After pulling a knife, she stalked silently up to Buffy’s bedside. Her gaze fixed for a moment on her intended victim. It’s over, blondie. End of the ride. Wish I could say ‘it’s been a blast,’ but I won’t lie to ya. We both know the truth.

I didn’t wanna play it this way, but the boss—well, the bastard scares me. Read the subtext and gettin’ the feeling the crazy BAMF would hunt me like Kakistos. When I break, I need it to be clean, so…

Besides at this point, think I might be doin’ you a favor with the big finish.

Faith deliberately moved the knife to the blonde’s throat as she pressed her other hand in the middle of her victim’s chest. The instant her hand made contact, Faith was thrown against the wall. Fuck!

Swiftly reclaiming her knife and shaking off the daze, she ran across the room to where Willow was seated. “Remove it, Red” — she held the knife to the redhead’s neck — “or I remove your head.” Faith drew the blade across Willow’s throat, leaving a fine red line.

All the redhead said was one word, “Thicken,” and it pissed Faith completely off. “What the hell do you mean, ‘thicken’? I said remove the—” Trying to move, she spat, “What the hell?” as a hand coiled in her hair. She was frozen in place. Then the little redheaded bitch asked, “Ready?” and her head snapped violently back. Aware for only an instant she was flying through the air again, Faith blacked out.

When Faith came to, she was handcuffed in the back of a squad car. “Shit.”

Willow opened the blinds to let the dwindling daylight in. “Well, that was fun.”

“Cool is what it was, Will,” Buffy responded enthusiastically. “Well, the mojo was cool. The cops pretty much sucked.”

Flopping back into her chair, Willow blushed furiously and stared at the floor. “Y’think so? I mean, it was no big.”

“I know so,” Buffy assured, then snickered softly at her friend’s modesty. “Did you see the look on her face when she crashed through the door?”

Willow glanced up. “That wasn’t a look, Buffy; it was the effects of catatonia.” Her tone turned guilty when she added, “I just feel sorry for the poor lab tech.”

“Yeah…having your rounds interrupted by ‘the Amazing Faith’s Death-Defying Flying Act’ has to suck.” Unable to resist the urge, Buffy chuckled. “Bet they’ll be happy when we’re gone.”

Willow curled sleepily back up in her chair, replying dully, “Probably,” as she draped a blanket over her.

“I’m sorry you got hurt. I didn’t mean—”

Absently rubbing the bandage on her throat, Willow murmured, “It’s only a scratch.”

Buffy pressed the button to flatten her bed and mumbled, “I’m still sorry.”

Willow opened her eyes and met her friend’s gaze. “No need. I’m here by choice.”

A sentimental smile warmed Buffy’s features as she studied the redhead. She lay silent for several minutes just watching. When she finally spoke it was simply to reaffirm, “I love you too, Will.”

“And I love you. But do you really think—?” Willow reflected stopping short as it occurred to her how insensitive the comment was.

“Do I really think what?”

Willow sighed, instantly chiding herself. “It’s just actions, Buffy. I mean, you sorta— Well, you’re lying in a hospital bed ’cause you—and then you tell me you love me. It seems…I guess it just seems pretty clear. Very nice to hear—something I wanna hear again, like lots, but right now—”

“Little obvious, huh?”

“Just a little,” Willow said with a warm smile.

Buffy returned the smile. “So it looks like I’ll be picking out a prom dress based on cut. That is if I go. Something long, but not too full. Sounds pretty actually.”

“You’re always pretty. Doesn’t much matter what you wear,” Willow replied honestly. Turning pensive, she asked, “What do you mean ‘if you go’? You have to go.” Her brow furrowed with concentration as she forced herself to say, “I wanted—I mean I hoped—” A frustrated growl slipped out and she hastily spat out the rest of the request, “I hoped you’d go with me.”

Buffy appeared taken aback by the proposition. “Oh, I dunno, Will.”

Willow’s demeanor turned bashful again and she mumbled, “I meant as friends.” The silence turned thick and oppressive and she started to babble defensively, “I just thought—I mean, I hoped that because of everything—all those things—instead of going stag we could— We deserve to celebrate. Making it through this is a big deal—a really super huge deal—and I just—I-I wanted to dance with you. Oh! And make fun of Xander. He’s bringing that creepy…” she trailed off sullenly.

“It’s totally not you, Will. Just give me a few days. I’m not even sure I’ll be able to walk by then. I’m not gonna be much with the ‘merry making’ if I can’t,” Buffy replied honestly. When a soft hurt sounding little, “’Kay,” came in answer to her statement, she felt horrible.

Buffy laid quietly watching Willow sleep, grateful that after all the excitement they had gotten a new room. The new room was private and it actually had a recliner for her friend. She listened to the soft snores that sounded to her more like the noise a teddy bear might make in a cartoon than a human being. L3: why do I feel like I should be saying, ‘You sank my battleship’? Mom and Will left me alone long enough to actually talk to one of the stupid doctors. ‘L3’ sounds like total garbage to me—like something from a game. Who’d of thought those two little letters…umm…numbers, er — she furrowed her brow — digits? Whatever—would ever mean a thing to me? Now they mean everything.

Seriously considering turning on the TV to distract herself, Buffy played with the remote for a moment or two before setting it aside. I don’t have the heart to wake her. I’m sorta stuck here with my—with— Okay let’s face it. With a crap load of horror to keep me company—with the worst of all possible… I can’t believe Will asked me to the prom. I’m paralyzed. Paralyzed! I haven’t had the heart to tell her to go away. I couldn’t bring myself to. Not on top of the guilt.

I should. It’d be best. I mean, what can I really offer her but pain? We all know how slayers are replaced. I don’t need to go there—something else… Something that’s not—

After sweeping her fingers over her eyes in frustration, Buffy placed her hands at her sides gently to avoid making any noise. I want to hit something, but waking her… It’d be mean. She’s had so little sleep. That and breaking your bed…generally frowned on.


The doc basically said ‘broken.’ Funny, that was the only word I needed to hear. But go figure, he kept talking—stuff about bone fragments and severed nerves. Whatever. I had him bottom-line it for me. ‘The prognosis looks good.’ See footnote that says: to him. To me it looks like shit. I’ll be able to walk again after I learn how and probably only with a brace. They’re coming to fit that tomorrow. I feel like telling them to forget it. It just seems like a waste of cash Mom doesn’t have. If I can’t fight, then I’m useless. I have the life expectancy of a whiny chick in a slasher film.

And y’know they’ll wanna protect me. She looked at Willow again and a tear slid down her cheek. I’m not sure I want protecting.

Buffy stifled a soft, bitter laugh. Will’s read my chart. She admitted it. How can she still be hanging on? It’s crazy. Totally screwed up. Angel and I are actually the perfect couple now, but he’s gone. The ‘unfuckable’ and the ‘can’t fuck.’ God, how can I live like this?

Y’know…the truly screwed up part of all this: I’ve got no clue what sex with another girl would be like and one of the two sorta is… I mean, it just seems like it wouldn’t be that much different than self-serve. Assisted self-serve? I guess it must be better. It has to be better. Somehow I ended up in some twisted backward reality where Angel’s telling me I should and I couldn’t feel it if I did. Though, that’s not really fair. It is better.

Her mind drifted briefly and she smiled despite the anxiety. Weird to be talking about friendship…and how important it is. Not that it isn’t. I just never thought I’d end up— Buffy clamped her eyes shut. I know all the little noises, the expressions, what she feels like, how she tastes. All those intimate details a friend shouldn’t know. I can still close my eyes and hear her, see her face. Wow, she was beautiful. Still is…

Several moments passed and her eyes fluttered open. Buffy’s gaze fell again on the occupant of the recliner. Doesn’t really matter though, just the fact that I can’t even control—peeing in a plastic bag—it’s a real turn on. Totally sexy. All that stuff’s linked. As long as one’s missing, the other is too so…

And Will still wants— I can’t let her… Buffy looked away from her friend, picking a blank patch of wall to focus on. L3…

I feel like a piece of cheese. Never thought I’d be the one playing bait. A helpless cripple. Though not exactly helpless, I did toss Faith through a door…with Will’s help.

I guess the bad is also the good though. Mom and Will are right. The doc doesn’t know crap about slayers. He sees me as an eighteen-year-old girl. But he did say: best case—if I do walk again—no brace—its all good—miracle Buffy. The catch: even if I get that fairy tale ending, my back will always be weak. If I ever break it again—and he said I could do it falling down—it’ll never heal right…instant cripple—for real—no cheery pep talks…just in a chair for the rest of my extremely abbreviated life. And back to the ‘abbreviated life’ thing ’cause that’s my reality. She clenched her jaw and cringed.

Can’t take a fall, can’t take a punch, can’t slay… Not a slayer—just a girl. If I could only dream. I don’t get to dream. I get to stay in the present…and right now…my present sucks.

I should just go to prom with her—one last good memory. But would it hurt her more or less? If I told her to go away now it’d hurt. Would it hurt more for me to—for us to have that one last time together? It wouldn’t be me hurting her. That’s a good. So I guess ‘yes’ is it. One last—then nothing. Her resolve finally caved and Buffy started to weep in anger and frustration. No, not nothing—then I make the choice. I rob that fat fuck Travers of the satisfaction by doing it myself. On my own terms.

Mayor Wilkins walked briskly through the halls of the hospital, smiling cheerfully at the people he passed. Striding down an empty corridor, he mumbled to himself, “If you want something done right you just have to do it yourself.”

Sweeping his fingers through his hair, he continued to mutter, “Progress is the cornerstone of any community and it’s time this community moved forward, starting with a new slayer. Yes, it’s past time our little filly was put out to pasture.”

He fell silent as he rounded a corner and moved past a nurse’s station. Once he was out of earshot, the mumbling resumed, “Do you realize that she’s old enough to vote? A slayer? Next thing you know she’ll be asking for a pension.” He smiled warmly as he passed the waiting room.

A short distance down the hallway, the Mayor turned and opened a door. His gaze fixed on the room’s occupant. “What a load of malarkey. I’ll give you a retirement package, young lady,” he grumbled under his breath and moved swiftly to the bedside, closing his hands around the slayer’s throat. A crackling noise and a loud pop followed. His body jerked, but he didn’t let go.

Buffy woke up choking and gasping for breath. She put her hands to the Mayor’s forearms, struggling pry loose his grip.

The Mayor’s head spun violently, whirling through the air. He caught glimpses of his body still standing over the slayer as he flew. Landing abruptly on something soft with a bounce, he heard a stifled shriek.

There was a momentary pause where he was able to deduce his fate. The British Librarian stood behind his headless body with a sword, poised to remove one of his arms. As the Englishman swung, he tumbled to the hard tile floor.

Twirling as he traveled, he caught glances of girl leaping from the chair he must’ve come to rest in. Then things got even more bizarre. There was a sharp pain to the side of his head and he whirled away from his body, colliding sharply with a wall.

Xander barreled down the hall, ignoring the complaints. I just went for something to drink. Good timing, Xander. Standing at the vending machine and who walks past? The mayor, of course. Yup…that’s me: Mr. Perfect-Timing-Guy. He burst through the door to Buffy’s room and into complete chaos. Giles was chopping the Mayor’s arms off, one after the other, trying to get them to let loose of Buffy. Each time he swung, the limb would simply reattach. At the same time, Willow appeared to be playing kickball with the Mayor’s head.

Xander stood slack-jawed in the doorway for a moment just trying to decide who to help. ’Kay, so…didn’t see this coming. Quickly shutting the door, he stood behind Giles. The moment the swing came, he grabbed the arm away, jerking it from the slayer’s throat.

“Ah, thank you, Xander. Do be so kind,” Giles commented and swung at the other arm.

Buffy sputtered as the final hand wrenched free.

When the arm separated, Xander seized it and held it clear. “Go help Willow, Giles. Get something to put the head in. If it reattaches, we’re done.” He stepped away from the body, struggling to hold the arms. There was a strong magnetic pull between them and the body. It occurred to him that, if the Mayor got his bearings, the body would simply move to reclaim its parts.

Giles rifled through the locker by the washstand and came out with a personal property bag with a draw string. After quickly dumping the contents into the locker, he ran to assist Willow, pushing past Xander.

Willow moved around to kick the Mayor’s head back against the wall. When she completed the kick, Giles swept in behind her with the bag and scooped the head up as it began to gravitate towards the body. He closed the bag and let out a relieved sigh.

“Will, more bags?” Xander asked nicely as he moved toward the bathroom. After shutting the arms inside, he walked across the room. Looking at the body, which was still standing ineffectually over Buffy, he offered, “Chop him up like The Judge, it’s the best way.”

Willow ran for the door before Xander finished speaking.

Beaming at Xander’s smiling face; Buffy teased amusedly, “Look at, Xander, with the big brain.”

“Indeed,” Giles noted. Grabbing the second container of powder and quickly muttering the word, “terminus,” he sprinkled a pinch of the powder over the slayer to dispel the shield.

The tingling was a bit unnerving when the shield dropped. Buffy felt her hair stand out and couldn’t stifle the urge to giggle.

Giles opened the washroom door and seized the arms as they slid across the floor. When he handed them to the slayer, there was a crackling noise and Buffy’s hair settled. “Xander, assist me with the body. It makes far more sense for this to be in the lavatory. Otherwise, some passerby may notice the decapitated, dismembered corpse standing in the center of the room.”

Buffy held the Mayor’s squirming arms out, watching with delight as the two men struggled to move his torso and legs into the bathroom. “Knock off the wiggling or I’m gonna make sure your head gets left in front of a TV. Then y’know what? I’m personally gonna walk into the room and change the channel. I’m thinking MTV.” The arms went limp and Buffy started to snicker.

Giles nearly collapsed as the rigid body wilted in his grasp. Once they had wrestled the carcass under control, he glanced over his shoulder and gave the slayer a dirty look. “That will be quite enough ‘help’ from you.”

The expression on Giles’ face made the giggle fit worse. “And to think…I left my camera at home,” Buffy wheezed thickly through the mirth.

When someone knocked and tried to enter the room, only to collide with the open bathroom door her face blanched and Buffy fell silent. “Oh crap. Company, guys,” she hissed, wondering what to do with the arms.

A black, late-model cargo van pulled into a parking lot behind the Sunnydale Police Department. From inside the vehicle emerged five armed men dressed in black paramilitary gear and wearing ski masks. The largest of the men exited the back of the vehicle dragging a cart with tanks of compressed gas. He towed the tanks up to the metal outer door.

The leader announced in a thick Scouse tongue, “Juss like we planned, men,” setting the ball in motion.

The large man turned the valves on the tanks and flicked a striker, adjusting the cutting torch head he held until the flame burned white hot. He put the torch to the hinges of the door and began to burn through. Moments later, he cleared the tanks and tugged on the door, lowering it quietly to the ground. He motioned the others ahead as he went to reload the cutting rig in the van.

The four remaining men ran as one through the narrow halls, clutching their rifles. The leader directed them into a stairwell. They marched up the stairs. Once they pressed through the doorway, two of the men leveled their weapons and fired at the pair of police officers that were passing down the hall. Darts hung from their backs as the policemen slumped unconscious to the floor.

The leader directed his team left down the hall.

As they broke into a large, open room, three more officers fell victim to their tranquilizer darts.

The leader made his way to another metal door next to a large glass window. The officer behind the window scrambled for the phone. The leader ignored the officer, producing two small cakes of explosive from a pouch on his belt. He swiftly stuck the putty to the door hinges and pulled a device from a different pouch. After unwrapping wire leads from the device, he stuck them in the putty and pressed the device to the door. Entering a series of numbers into a keypad on the device, he motioned his men clear and ran himself.

The team crouched in an alcove down the hall with their hands cupped over their ears. A loud explosion shook the building and the team stood up and moved as one back down the hallway. Black scoring covered the once-white walls, the window was shattered, and the door was buckled and folded in its frame. Two of the men moved the door aside and the team filed into the space. The officer who had been trying to use the phone was lying unconscious on the floor with blood trickling out of his ears.

The leader moved behind the desk and took a set of keys. Using the keys to unlock the inner door, he motioned for his men to follow. The team entered the jail and hurried to the one occupied cell.

Faith stood up and sputtered, “What the—?” falling on her face as the darts hit her chest.

The leader snarled, “Filthy traitorous mongrel, I have no interest in anything you might say,” and spat at Faith as he searched for the key. Once the door was opened, he motioned for one of the larger men to take her.

The man nodded and stooped to pick up the unconscious slayer. When she was manhandled over his shoulder, the team set off for the exit at a brisk march.

Giles abandoned Xander, who seemed to have matters in hand, and quickly took the arms from his charge and shoved them in the locker. Then he went to see where the head had gotten to. He found it stuck along a wall and slowly sliding toward the bathroom door. Snatching up the bag, he lifted one of the chairs and threaded the drawstrings around the leg. After casually taking a seat, he shoved the bag under the chair with his feet.

Xander popped out of the bathroom and hastily shut the door. There was a thud when the Mayor’s body collided with it. He straightened his shirt and ran his fingers through his hair then opened the door. “Oh…hi, Mrs. Summers,” he offered warmly, “Sorry about that. I didn’t feel like going down the hall.”

“Its okay, Xander” Joyce walked past him with several garments over her arm. “Oh, a full house. Where’s Willow? I’m surprised she’s not here,” she commented, offering a warm smile.

Utterly straight-faced, Buffy returned the smile. “She just went to get something. She’ll be right back.”

Joyce moved to open the locker and heard Xander gasp. “I brought you some clothes and your robe. I’m not sure when they’ll be releasing you, but it never hurts to be ready.”

Buffy’s eyes went wide. “Mom, don’t—!”

Joyce took one look at the body parts inside the locker and everything went fuzzy.

When Joyce fainted, Xander caught her up and carried her to the recliner. He picked up the dropped clothes and draped them over a chair, taking a seat. “Oops. Sorry, Buffy.” Hearing hysterical laughter, he glanced up to see Buffy rubbing her eyes and cackling.

“No, I’m sorry. I so shouldn’t be laughing, but,” Buffy struggled to say through the giggles, “it’s just—” gesturing vaguely at the mess.

Xander was quick to join her, followed closely by Giles. The three of them were chuckling like idiots when Willow entered the room.

Willow took in the scene and commented, “Trash bags were all I could find. Seemed fitting somehow. Now stop laughing and get moving, people. We’ve got forty-five minutes before the nurse makes her rounds.”

Giles came to his senses first and quickly retrieved his sword to begin the grizzly process.

Willow took one of the arms and passed it hand first to Buffy.

Buffy couldn’t help it. Catching the hand, she gave it a quick shake and said, “Pleased to meet you,” then started laughing again.

“Quit screwing around, Buffy. Clamp the hand into a fist for me,” Willow directed impatiently, “I got some zip ties too. We need to make sure he doesn’t try to claw his way through the plastic while we move him.” When the ties were applied, she took the arm to Giles to cut down. “Wiggling would be a bad. We need to disarticulate all the joints and cut the torso into pieces small enough to carry.”

Giles looked up long enough to confirm, “Right, Xander, help control the body and separate the pieces. Willow you bag. You’re quite correct about the seriousness of our situation.”

“Buffy, when your mom comes around you need to try and talk her down. We need her. The Mayor’s roughly a two-hundred pound man. That’s fifty pounds for each if we split him four ways,” Willow remarked as she held out the second hand to be bound.

“No, Xander, you may not put the mayor’s head in a jar. Just because you saw it on Futurama does not make it a good idea,” Giles remarked from the bathroom.

Buffy started to chuckle again as Willow glared at her. As Willow went to have the arm cut down, her mother started to wake up. “Uh-boy,” Buffy mumbled to herself, meeting her mother’s gaze.

When Faith came to, she was lying on her side chained to the floor of a van. As she tested her restraints, a creepy looking, rodent-faced man directly in her view began to speak.

“Faith Lehane, by order of the Watchers’ Council of Britain, you are hereby taken into custody pend—” the creepy little man stated, falling silent as the slayer spoke over him.

“Save the speeches. Caught the act last time you were in town,” Faith growled as she sensed the others around her, trying to get an exact idea of their number and strength. Her efforts to see them went in vain. There wasn’t enough chain to allow her much movement. She considered fighting her way to a sitting position, but the realization hit her that she would be hopelessly folded in two if she did.

Another man spoke, his voice was deep with a thick British accent, “Yes, yes, quite right. Let’s just dispense with all the pleasantries, shall we? Be assured that should you try anything so foolish as to— What is it you bloody Americans say?” While he mocked puzzlement there was movement behind her and the creepy little man began to remove his belt.

The second man started to speak again, filling in an answer to his lame question, “Bail?” The belt was fashioned into a noose and slipped around her throat by the creepy man. As the voice continued, the creepy man passed the belt off to someone unseen near the crown of her head, “We’ve been given authority to use whatever” — the belt pulled tight around her neck — “means are necessary to detain you. The Council wants you back” — something cold slipped between the collar of the orange jumpsuit she wore and her neck — “and they are simply past caring how you arrive.”

The jumpsuit began to tear open down Faith’s back. Gloved hands brushed against her skin as it was ripped away. The belt pulled tight causing her to choke.

“My personal preferences aside, you’d be well advised to keep your snide trap shut,” the unseen speaker drawled, “Travis, you may have your go at this wretched little piece of filth.”

Faith didn’t have time to consider much before something lashed across her back, opening the skin up, but she was certain she knew the speaker’s voice. Her body wrenched reflexively with pain, drawing the noose tighter.

“Would you mind explaining yourself to me, young lady?” Joyce asked harshly.

“Umm…” Buffy sputtered, lowering her eyes, “Er…umm…Mom, the mayor was a bad guy.”

Joyce glared at her daughter. “So I’ve heard but, Buffy, even if he is corrupt it doesn’t give you the right to slay him.”

Glancing up Buffy looked utterly confounded. “Huh? Corrupt?” she stammered, not quite believing what she heard. Taking a deep breath, she snarked, “And this, Mom, is why I never tell you what’s going on.”

Rising to her feet, Joyce rounded on her daughter.

Buffy put her hand up to hold off the pending tirade. “First of all: I didn’t. That would be Giles. Remember, Mom, bum leg,” she explained patiently, gesturing to her leg, “Second: He’s a bad guy as in ‘not human’,” then directed for her mother to look in the bathroom. “No blood.”

Joyce’s jaw was sagging when she got back from her quick glance in the bathroom. All she managed was to gasp, “Oh.”

Willow muttered nervously, “This is actually sort of interesting. Does his appendix look enlarged to you, Giles?” pointing in the doorway as she quickly shoveled another part into a bag and taped it shut.

Giles’ voice sounded from the bathroom, “Yes, yes it does, but the man’s health is hardly an issue, Willow.”

“We don’t slay humans, Mom. Ever wonder why Sunnydale hasn’t had a mayoral election in a hundred years?”

“Honey, we just moved here. How would I know that?” Joyce replied defensively.

“The mayor was setting himself up to become a demon—a real one. Think: huge, no social skills, and more than a little snacky. He was gonna do it on graduation day. Giles and I busted into City Hall and took something he needed to make it happen,” Buffy filled in, falling silent to allow her mother to speak.

“That was you?”

The terse sound of Giles’ voice erupted from the bathroom, “No, Xander, you may not keep those.”

Buffy quirked an eyebrow and stared for a moment in their direction. “I so don’t wanna know,” she mumbled dismissively and turned back to her mother, shaking her head. “Yeah, Mom, broken nose,” she reminded, sighing before she resumed, “If he had become a demon in the middle of the ceremony, lots of people would’ve died.” She paused to let the sink in, punctuating a moment later with, “Lots of kids, Mom.” Glaring, she concluded, “Me, here, now… It was revenge. The mayor came to finish me off.”

Giles interjected from inside the bathroom. “Mrs. Summers, your daughter is quite right. What she has accomplished is not only good, it might be called miraculous. Unfortunately, she’s paid a heavy price.”

Flabbergasted, Joyce made her way back to the recliner. Watching agape as one of the chairs was pulled along by the handles of a white plastic bag with something the size of a large melon in it. A moment’s debate left her with the overwhelming conclusion that she really didn’t want to know.

When Buffy finally got her mother’s attention again, she said, “Mom, we need your help.”

Chapter 5

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