The dining room at the Scoobies' house was filled nearly to capacity. The long oak table in the center of the room was surrounded; Buffy and Giles sat across from each other at the ends of the table. Dawn sat to one side of Buffy with Xander on the other and Faith between him and Giles. Willow sat next to Dawn with Kennedy on her left. The meal was obviously winding to a close, most plates having been completely emptied.

Faith grabbed the wine bottle nearby and began filling her glass, glancing up when a Powerpuff Girls mug was suddenly thrust at her.

"Oo, more for me, too," Dawn insisted.

Shrugging, Faith reached out with the bottle. "Sure—" she began.

"No," came the immediate, simultaneous response from Buffy, Willow, Xander and Giles.

Without missing a beat, Faith retracted the bottle smoothly and set it back down on the table. "Ooookay then," she responded, sipping her own glass.

Dawn huffed and heavily returned her mug to its original place next to her, just as Willow was ready to fill it to the brim with a much more appropriate beverage. "Growing girls need their milk," she explained cheerfully. "Lots of yummy calcium."

The dark look shooting from Dawn's eyes would have made lesser individuals cower in terror. Willow simply smiled indulgently as she finished topping off the mug.

"I'm, what? Technically several thousand years old? I think I'm done growing."

"Then you should worry about osteoporosis," replied Willow without hesitation. "Still needin' milk, still with the calcium," she added with a firm nod.

Across the table, Xander waggled his fork at Dawn. "Better drink up before she switches out your Flintstones vitamins for Centrum Silver."

Dawn pouted as only a maligned teenager could. She glanced to Faith, hoping for some modicum of sympathy, but the dark Slayer only toasted her before sipping the wine again. It was quite a feat, but somehow Dawn managed to pout even more; Willow and Xander were impressed.

"This is good," Buffy declared, breaking the budding tension. "With the food and the company and the food and the me not cleaning up and the food."

"I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say she enjoyed dinner," commented Kennedy, leaning over to Giles.

"Yes, that was my interpretation as well." Giles smiled across the table at Buffy, clearly pleased that the meal had gone over well. "I'm glad you enjoyed it. I'm only sorry it took so long for us all to gather together."

Buffy shrugged nonchalantly before taking a long, dramatic sigh. "That's okay. I mean there was the bit where I cried at night, wailing to the unfeeling gods in my abandoned misery," she brightened considerably, "but then I remembered that being home meant cable, and all was well."

"You mean that was you?" queried Xander with surprise. "I thought it was—" He turned to behold Willow and Kennedy, both staring at him with matching flat, entirely unamused glares. Gulping audibly, he hastily corrected himself. "–a cat. I thought it was a cat." He sipped his water and managed to look absolutely everywhere but directly ahead.

Faith was less discerning and with an evil glint, opened her mouth to interject. Until she spied Dawn's doe-eyed expression and the 'speak your next words carefully as they may be your last' glare coming from Buffy. Grudgingly, Faith returned her attentions to the wine glass, muttering, "I had so much more fun when I didn't give a crap about getting along with you guys."

"So," Kennedy began, a bit too loudly, as she turned to Buffy, "now you're back, what're your plans?"

"Yeah, the whole 'bum' concept loses appeal when it's not in a foreign country," commented Xander confidently, as though speaking from great experience.

Buffy glanced from Kennedy to Xander, appearing lost for a moment before Willow exclaimed, "Oh!" like she'd just discovered the cure for cancer, the secret to world peace and innate knowledge of why there are five syllables in 'monosyllabic', all in that exact moment. "School!" she continued with the same level of enthusiasm. "With the learning! You never did get to go back, what with the Hellgod and the dying and the ..." Trailing off, finding the subject uncomfortable, the redhead quickly got back on track. "Bu-But now, there's money o' plenty a-and a very appreciated lack of big-haired, skanky evil to fight, so lots of free time to go back!"

Willow's 1000-watt smile threatened to blind everyone daring to look directly at it, but her enthusiasm was not infectious.

"IIII dunno, Will," Buffy dragged out as she rubbed the back of her neck, clearly not buying into the idea. "It's way too late for registration this term, and the thought of auditing again does nothing but drudge up unpleasant memories of mummy hands and time loss."

"Evil lint," added Xander, nodding sagely.

Gesturing at the carpenter, Buffy presented Xander's words as final proof.

"Payin' for school," remarked Faith with a disbelieving shake of her head. "Just seems unnatural to me. An' why bother anyway? People go to college or whatever to get trainin' to get a job." Draining the remainder of wine, she reached for the bottle to refill it again, her eyes on Buffy. "Way I see it, B, you already got a sweet ride set up. All you gotta do is jump in an' hang on."

Xander frowned at Faith's word choice and swiveled in his chair to look at her directly. "It's a life choice, not a dune buggy."

At this, miniature conversations erupted almost simultaneously around the table, as it seemed that everyone had some sort of opinion and felt quite keenly that they should vocalize it.

Rankling at Xander's words, Faith scowled at him. "I know what life is, Harris, an' what to do with it." She appraised him critically, not appearing terribly impressed with what she saw. "Question is, do you?"

"What's that supposed to mean?" snapped Xander defensively.

Buffy opened her mouth to try and divert the conversation before it could get ugly, but instead her focus was redirected as Kennedy jumped in first.

"When you say 'sweet ride'," she questioned Faith with a furrowed brow, "what do you mean exactly?"

Willow however had latched on to a completely different portion of Faith's feelings about Buffy's possible choices. "School's not just about degrees and- and career fairs," the redhead protested indignantly. "It's about learning! Knowledge for knowledge's sake! Buffy has the right to- to know stuff. And she's good at knowing stuff!" Willow added, gesturing at Buffy. The Slayer's face broke into a proud grin that persisted, even as the witch began to frown. "Okay, maybe not French so much," she amended in an afterthought as Buffy's face fell, "but other stuff!"

As though Willow hadn't spoken, Kennedy persisted. "Because we, you know, have trainers already ..."

"There's no denying we can always use another set of experienced hands with the new Slayers," Giles said thoughtfully, not seeing Kennedy's sharp look. He smiled across at the blonde Slayer. "Particularly Buffy's."

Her answering smile was weak and appeared to be more a grimace, but Xander's raised voice quickly attracted her full attention.

"Oh that's right, I forgot, you don't actually have the same kind of restraint we mere mortals do. And how's that workin' out for ya? Tried to kill any friends lately?"

"I cut way back, but I'm thinkin' about startin' up again," replied Faith pointedly.

"Then there's the on-campus activities," Willow continued, wrapped up in her own world somewhere far, far from this one. "Though I don't recommend environmental groups cuz, you know, scary. A-And, oh! History!" She whipped around toward Buffy with such enthusiasm that the Slayer actually jumped slightly. "The history department's one of the best. Plus, increased knowledge can only help broaden the quip material ..."

"Yeah, but, trainers." Kennedy was also locked in her own space, and from her expression, wasn't enjoying it anywhere near as much. "Sitting here. Training." Glancing from Faith to herself, she paused. "Or, well, not right now, but in a general sense ..."

Eyes darting from one person to the next, Buffy's expression becoming increasingly lost with each passing second. Dawn, the only one who hadn't said a word, casually leaned over to her sister to make herself heard above the din.

"Welcome home," she smiled pleasantly.

Buffy whimpered.

A similar large oak table was situated in the center of another location, however all similarities between the two settings ended there. Whereas Buffy's welcome home dinner was brightly lit and, degeneration into argument aside, a companionable event, the atmosphere at this meeting was all business.

Aside from the table, there were only two features in the room that were at all remarkable. The first, a giant pentagram drawn on the center of the floor, surrounded by runic markings and ornate symbols pulsating with a deep blue light. The second, its light throbbing in time with the other markings, was a stylized representation of an eye appearing to be affixed to the top of a long, strangely pointed stick or rod.

Eleven robed figures sat around the table, five on each side and one at its head. Power hummed from each individual, and yet all eyes remained riveted on the lone man, commanding the respect and attention afforded him by his seat of authority. No one spoke, and save for the constant buzz of energy in the air, there was no sound. Expectantly, patiently, they waited.

Eyes closed and lost deep in thought, the man at head of the table absently stroked the dirty blond stubble on his chin with the pad of his thumb. Closer examination revealed him to be young, no more than 25 or 26, an even greater contrast to the assembled men and women around the table, most of whom were graying and obviously advanced in years. Still though, they sat in silence, awaiting his words of infinite wisdom.

"Excellent. This rocks," he finally proclaimed with enthusiasm. His eyes opened and he focused upon the person sitting to his immediate right.

'Inhuman' would not have been an unfair adjective, despite the fact that the man appeared to be anything but. His irises, rather than blue or brown, were instead goldenrod, bright and almost ablaze in the darkness. At first glance, it seemed he had no pupil whatsoever, his eyes almost consumed by the strange color, but a pupil was indeed visible – only slightly larger than a pinprick of the deepest black directly in the center.

The figure, a elderly woman with streaks of dark brown still lingering amidst the gray, inclined her head, accepting his words as a compliment.

"The Sangerand?" the young man queried, his unblinking gaze never wavering.

She bowed her head again before answering. "Everything is falling into place," she assured him, her voice raspy and deferred. "We are expecting a report tomorrow evening. Once we have enough information about the organization, we can decide upon and proceed with the next phase."

The man nodded, pleased with her answer. "And they don't have a clue?"

"They are not in the least bit aware. They're trusting to the last."

He grinned broadly at this, displaying a set of perfectly even, straight teeth. Despite a somewhat scrawny appearance, he looked as though he might have stepped out of the cover of an Eddie Bauer catalog – were it not for his unnatural and disconcerting eyes.

"You know," he remarked conversationally, his cheerful spirits coming through bright and clear, "you have to appreciate their predictability."

Toward the end of the table, another figure leaned forward slightly, peering hesitantly around his neighbor and raising a tentative hand, like a timid first grader asking for the bathroom pass. "L-Lord Madrigan," he began, stuttering over his words, "the Assemblage of Merodach has been pressing for—"

Instantly, Madrigan's jovial mood vanished, leaving behind no trace. The other man, despite being old enough to be Madrigan's father, cowered immediately beneath the fierce, threatening glare leveled at him. "Tell Robespierre he'll get his prototype when I'm ready and not a minute before."

Wishing he were anywhere else at all in the entire universe rather than the seat he currently inhabited, the man nodded his head so vigorously he nearly knocked himself unconscious. "O-Of course, Lord." Swallowing hard, the man dug deep and called upon whatever reserves he had left, fighting to keep his voice steady. "However if I might remind my Lord of The Antediluvian ..."

With an absent flick of his wrist, Madrigan tossed a stream of energy at the other man; deep, blood red in color laced with dark blue streaks. Even before the burst reached him, the man appeared frozen in terror, unable to run. When it hit, striking the center of his forehead first, he became rigid with agony. A terrifying, excruciating scream tore from the man's throat, but only for a moment as the energy bored into his body and spread, quickly reaching his mouth and blocking all sound. His body remained locked and trembling, but still he was unable to move, his face a fixed study in torment.

Around the table, nine heads never once turned, never once took their eyes from Madrigan. There were no signs of realization regarding what had transpired, let alone any feelings of sympathy for the suffering man.

Madrigan eyed his handiwork critically, like a sculptor surveying a new creation, before raising his hand, palm outward toward his victim. He folded his fingers, leaving only the thumb and forefinger extended, then rotated them until they were pointed at the man like a pistol. Tightly closing one eye, he cocked his head to one side and pretended to 'sight' down the 'gun', taking slow and deliberate aim at the still-twitching figure across the table. Sticking his tongue out between his lips, he made a show of concentrating very carefully, then whispered, "Bang," and slowly pulled his hand back in a mimicry of recoil.

The man shattered into a million frozen pieces.

Watching the fragments clatter to the ground, Madrigan sighed deeply. "I hate redundancy," he muttered to himself. "Seneca!"

A tall, perfectly toned man entered the room, also robed although his cowl was thrown back. He was at least six-foot of nearly solid muscle and looked as though he might have given Arnold Schwarzenegger more than a little competition. His stark white hair was expertly trimmed to best compliment his chiseled features. He glanced at Madrigan, saying nothing but raising an eyebrow expectantly.

The blond waved his hand at the general area where, just moments before, there had been a person. "You know I can't work in a mess," was all he said by way of explanation.

Seneca stood in place for a moment, a bemused smirk touching his lips, then motioned toward the now empty chair. The still-frozen remains of the deceased rose into the air, swirling over the chair and gathering. Madrigan watched intently, amused, but save himself and Seneca, no one else seemed to take notice of the fact that there were dancing pieces of a human being levitated mere feet from them.

Continuing to smirk, Seneca gestured with his fingers, and the fragments reformed into a not unimpressive facsimile of "The Thinker". He glanced at Madrigan, jerking his eyebrows at his creation.

Madrigan snorted a laugh. "Yeah, well, I think you're cleaning this up, therefore you are cleaning this up."

The smirk became a full-blown grin, and the image reformed into a giant " :P " emoticon. Still saying nothing, Seneca turned and strolled out of the room, the pieces trailed behind in a macabre game of follow-the-leader.

"I'm telling you, the Internet will be the death of human interaction as we know it," called Madrigan, despite the fact that the other man was well out of sight. The remaining particles began reforming into a rude gesture, causing the blond to burst into laughter. "Ass," he grinned.

Still chuckling with mirth, he turned to the others. "Right, so where were we? Ahh, yes, tomorrow night. We'll wait for the report to come in, and go from there. Everything's right on schedule." He sighed, deeply contended. "I do so love it when a plan comes together."


Story by: Jet Wolf and Ultrace
Written by: Jet Wolf
Edited by: Novareinna
Original Airdate: Tuesday, 4 May 2004, 8pm EST

Act One

The door to Giles' office cautiously swung open as Judith stuck her head in, reluctant to disturb what sounded to be a thoroughly engaging and enjoyable conversation. Giles was sitting behind his desk, a broad smile on his face as he chatted with the bright-eyed new Slayer across from him. Her face was open and expressive, with light blue eyes and pale blonde hair to match the award-winning toothy grin that was echoing back to the Watcher.

He glanced up as Judith knocked on the open door and stepped into the room, motioning for the girl to enter fully.

"Asura said you wanted to see me?" she queried, taking in the new girl who was now beaming in her direction.

"Yes, thank you, Judith," replied Giles, rising to his feet to lead her fully into the room. He gestured at the blonde girl. "This is Sonja."

Sonja's smile turned up an impossible notch and she waved happily at Judith. Judith returned the greeting with a nod of her head, just a touch of disbelief on her face at the enthusiasm.

"Sonja just joined us from Sweden," he continued, hopefully offering a starting point for conversation to make both girls feel more at ease.

"Pleased to meet you," greeted Sonja.

Judith's eyebrow twitched in surprise. "Wow, your English's good," she complimented.

"Thank you," the new Slayer replied graciously. "I've been studying since I was very small. My teachers believed strongly in a solid language background. Be prepared for any situation, and all," she added with a shrug of her shoulders, although her smile never once diminished.

"Good philosophy," nodded Judith. "Got lost somewhere in application for me, though. At my school, we were force fed just about enough Spanish to say 'El tejon es frio en mi tienda.'"

Frowning, Sonja tilted her head to one side, thinking for a moment. Finally, she regarded Judith with a smirk. "'The badger is cold in my store'?" she questioned with a laugh in her voice.

"Huh." The brunette considered this. "I guess that one has limited usage."

Sonja laughed easily, a tinkling sound that had both Judith and Giles smiling in response.

The Watcher was obviously delighted that that the two girls appeared to be hitting it off well as he turned to Judith. "I was hoping that you could perhaps give Sonja the grand tour? Spend today with her, help her get settled in?"

"Sure thing," she replied. "It's either that or worry about this badger thing for the rest of the day."

"Excellent, thank you." To the other girl, he stated, "We can meet again tomorrow morning, Sonja, and get your training and class schedules sorted, all right?"

The blonde practically bounced in her seat with excitement. "Okay, Mr. Giles," she replied sunnily. "I'm looking forward to getting started. This is all so exciting!" Sonja actually clapped her hands together, unable to fully contain herself. "There's so much to learn!"

Giles grinned and regarded the girl fondly, her mood contagious. "And we shall do our utmost to teach you."

Nodding, Sonja rose to her feet and followed Judith out of the office, the door closing quietly behind them. Giles remained standing for several seconds, staring at the door as his good cheer slowly evaporated. No trace of a smile remaining, he returned to his seat and moved aside a heavy book to reveal several pages that had been hidden from view. The topmost contained a detailed sketch of the Mogari. The Watcher picked up the phone receiver and dialed a number, studying the picture intently while he waited. When he finally heard a voice on the other end, he dropped the sketch next to the stack of pages and focused his attention on the conversation at hand.

"Bentley, good afternoon. This is Rupert Giles. I'm calling with regards to the blood sample I sent you last week. Do please tell me you've made some headway on it ..."

Half covered by the drawing was a long list of names and addresses. Almost every name had been scratched out.

Report 0100.21 – Proditionis Traditum
The bulk of today was spent stuck in a pointless tour of the facility, however it did afford me the perfect opportunity for intense scrutiny of people and events that might have otherwise raised suspicion, and I took full advantage of that fact.

My contact with Rupert Giles was brief, but I was able to access his mood, and I feel confident in saying that he is at a complete loss with regards to our movements. I fail to believe that even he is ignorant that something is happening, but he is aware only of the symptoms. Of course, this also means that the entire Watcher's Council is operating in the dark. So much the better for us.

Judith walked into the large gymnasium that served as the main training room for the new Slayers, Sonja only one step behind. The blonde surveyed the room appreciatively, but her eye was soon drawn to the class being conducted at one side. She and Judith moved closer, standing toward the back of the assembled group of fifteen or twenty girls, content to observe for the moment.

In front of the class, Kennedy stood next to another, much taller girl with short dark brown hair highlighted with blonde streaks. She was standing to one side, arms crossed in front of her chest as she watched Kennedy pace back and forth while addressing the class.

"Fighting and kicking ass is great and all, no doubt, but what's really gonna win the battle in the end is knowledge," lectured Kennedy. She ticked examples off on her fingers. "How your opponent moves, what she's thinking, what she can do and what she thinks you can do. You can have all the strength in the world, but without knowledge and skill to back you up, you're just a midnight snack. Okay, so let's see some of that in action."

Kennedy gestured to the girl behind her. "Danielle's been part of my training classes for about a month and a half now." Moving to stand at Danielle's side, the Slayer glanced up at the taller girl. "Would you say you've got a pretty good handle on my fighting style by now?"

With just the slightest sneer, Danielle nodded. "Yeah, I think I got you pegged," she said confidently, bordering on cocky.

"Alright, let's put that to the test. We'll start off with—"

There was absolutely no warning whatsoever. One second Kennedy's hand was dangling at her side, the next it was retracting from where the heel had collided with Danielle's nose. The audience collectively winced in sympathy as the other girl cried out. Cupping her nose, she tried to stop the flow of blood running down her upper lip.

"See?" Kennedy pointed out to her class. "She should've been expecting that."

Danielle was in too much pain to agree or disagree. Impassively, Kennedy watched the Junior for a moment, then slightly rolled her eyes. "Okay, let's get you to the infirmary," she sighed, leading the girl away by her elbow. Over her shoulder, she told the class, "Think about it. I'll be right back."

With only a barely passable bedside manner, Kennedy tugged Danielle toward the left-hand entrance of the training room, navigating her through the various hazards along the way that the girl couldn't see due to her head being tilted all the way back. The moment they were out of sight, the class erupted into chatter. Wide-eyed, Sonja turned to Judith.

"Is that the norm?" she asked, her voice a mixture of awe and concern.

Judith shrugged, the exchange seeming to leave her completely unphased. "Oh no. Sometimes she's brutal."

Somehow, Sonja managed to widen her eyes further.

"For the most part, Kennedy and Faith are big believers in pain being a keen motivator," explained Judith, gesturing toward where Danielle and her bleeding nose had exited. "And I guess they have a point. I mean, a vamp's not gonna care much about your perfect nose alignment."

Observing the excited conversations around her, Sonja was puzzled. "And how does everyone else feel about that?" She gestured to encompass their fellow Slayers.

"Surprisingly, pretty cool about it," replied Judith, before leaning over to the blonde and lowering her voice. "Confidentially, I think hate's a pretty decent motivator too, and we've got some girls here who would dearly love to get one over on our beloved trainers." Sonja raised her eyebrows with interest at this as Judith straightened and continued in her regular tone of voice. "Keeps us on our toes though, you know? I mean actions speak louder than words, right?"

As if on cue, the sound of someone loudly clearing their throat cut through all conversations, and everyone turned to stare at the newcomer.

Buffy stood in front of the group. With her arms crossed and her hair pulled back in a tight ponytail, she radiated business. Business and extreme disapproval. "Is this what passes for training these days?" she asked with a touch of sarcasm. "Standing around and gossiping?"

Nobody replied, unsure of what to say. A few girls leaned over to their neighbor whispering, "Who's that?" Most received nothing but shrugs and shaking heads.

"I may have been out of the loop for a while," Buffy began in a loud, clear voice as she started pacing, "but I'm pretty sure nobody ever saved the world by talking about who's dating who."

By now practically every head in the crowd was turning this way and that, seeking someone who could fill them in on just who this woman thought she was. Despite their ignorance, however, nobody questioned her right to speak to them, and there was no denying that she had every ounce of their attention.

"Now I've been watching how you guys act for a few days, and I gotta tell you – so not impressed." Buffy gazed out at her rapt audience, taking a moment, it seemed, to meet each girl's eyes before continuing. "I mean yeah, you're learning some important stuff ... What a stake is, the business end of a vampire, the fact that no amount of Tide is gonna get that bloodstain out. But when I look around at you, I'm not seeing Slayers." She stopped pacing and turned to face the group straight on, her tone becoming harsh. "I'm seeing little girls who think this is a game. And I think you're all in for a rude awakening."

The girls were riveted, having no idea how to react to this sort of speech and thoroughly entranced. Her eyes fixed on Buffy, Sonja leaned over to Judith. "Who is that?" she asked softly.

Judith adopted a similar position. "That must be Buffy. She's been away, only just got back. I haven't actually seen her before today. Something, huh?"

Nodding, Sonja frowned slightly as she continued to study the Senior Slayer. "That's certainly one way to describe her."

The infamous Buffy Summers graced one of the training classes with her presence today. From what I've been able to gather, she took off soon after the Council reformed. Once she had decided everything was settled, she left, and nobody really heard from her for months afterward. I doubt very much that her return now, after all this time, is a coincidence. Realizing who she was concerned me for a moment, but as I soon discovered, the friction caused by her return may be much more an aid to us than a hindrance.

Buffy resumed her pacing, speaking passionately as she did so. "You've each made a choice, to come here, to learn, and to keep the world safe. You realized your power and you grabbed it, taking—"

"What's going on?"

Kennedy, sans Danielle, strode toward the group, her face like thunder. She glared openly at Buffy, who had halted once more and again crossed her arms. The blonde's expression was guardedly neutral, and she gave no indication that she felt even remotely intimidated by Kennedy's outburst.

"Just talking," replied Buffy casually, gesturing at the group. "They seemed to be in need of some direction, and as I was passing through ..."

"You figured you'd take over my girls?" Kennedy accused, coming to a stop almost uncomfortably close to the object of her anger. Said girls shuffled nervously, many looking guilty as though they had somehow been caught cheating.

Almost too calmly, Buffy uncrossed her arms and placed her hands on her hips. She spoke very slowly, as though dealing with someone just a tiny bit challenged. "No, I was thinking I might try inspiring your 'girls' with something other than a fear of extended hospital visits."

"So you think you can teach them better than me, is that it?"

"Different. I didn't say better."

Kennedy frowned, and tilted her head as though in deep contemplation. "Cuz I'm here thinkin', what can you really teach them? Besides how to run away from responsibility."

A flash of anger crossed Buffy's features, though when she spoke it was still with an eerie calm. "I didn't say better. Doesn't mean I wasn't thinking it."

Clearly beyond angry now, Kennedy's instinct was to drop into a threatening stance and Buffy immediately responded with a defensive one. Noticing the changes, the assembled Slayers broke again into chatter, only this one was tinged with nervousness on top of an undeniable excitement. Buffy's eyes darted to the group, and inhaling deeply, she straightened. Though still tense and ready for anything, she made an obvious effort to prevent the situation from degenerating further.

"We probably don't want to go all War of the Roses with an audience," she stated, jerking her head toward the class.

It took a moment, but Kennedy blinked and then came back to herself. An expression of shame, quickly followed by one of renewed anger darted across her face as she too straightened and fought to regain composure.

Her gaze still locked on Buffy, Kennedy spoke to the class. "We'll pick this up on Friday," she dismissed, and the girls all turned to leave, splintering immediately into little discussion groups. Only Judith and Sonja remained, watching the drama unfold before them.

Neither Slayer was willing to back down, but Kennedy finally broke the deadlock and, with a parting glare that could have easily killed had it been physical, stomped out of the room. Buffy watched her go then sighed and shook her head in frustration, staring angrily at her shoes.

The two newer Slayers lingered for a moment longer, then Judith motioned for Sonja to follow and exited through the same door as Kennedy.

The complete lack of order here is unnerving to say the least. Those who have been charged with preparing their younger counterparts for the life they will lead seem incapable of agreeing on any method. I'm at a loss for how anything gets done. I can't even suggest that it's a case of too many chiefs. Instead, it seems more a lack of any one, singular individual strong enough to exert his or her will over the others. One gets the feeling that if we were to leave well enough alone, it would simply collapse internally. But then I suppose that is the nature of entropy.

It's ... difficult to be here amidst this chaos, but now more than ever, I'm convinced our path is the true one.

The girls found Kennedy in one of the dorm rooms, similar in size to Faith's but with even less adornment. There was a very simple bed off to one side, appearing mostly unused, and the bulk of the floor space was taken up with exercise equipment. Hanging in one corner was a punching bag that Kennedy was doing her utmost to punish.

"Hey, you," greeted Judith.

Kennedy glanced up briefly, grunted noncommittally and renewed her attack. Hovering uncomfortably but watching with undisguised interest, Sonja lingered in the doorframe as Judith moved further into the room.

"Bad day?"

"Oh no," Kennedy replied with biting sarcasm, "every day Her High and Mightiness butts into my life is a carnival." She attacked the bag with renewed vigor.

Judith carefully stepped closer, making sure to stay well away from the pummeling fists. "I'm sure she didn't mean it ..." she began soothingly.

"Oh, she meant it," Kennedy spat. "Well, not as in she got up this morning and said 'How can I piss off Kennedy today? I know!', but she meant it. To her, I'm nothing but a fill-in, someone keepin' her spot warm while she runs off and does whatever the hell she feels like for months. Never mind the fact that I—" She drove her fist into the bag with a surge of anger. "–stuck around here and I—" Another fierce punch landed home. "–helped whip this place into shape. Where the hell was she? Now all the hard work's done, here she comes again to shove me back in line with everyone else." Kennedy pulled back and hit the bag so hard the hanging fixture vibrated. "I knew she was gonna do this!"

Casting a worried glance at the ceiling, Judith stepped backward. "I really didn't get that feeling from her, she just seemed to want to ... you know, help. It's just that her style's really different from yours and Faith's, but that doesn't mean it's better ..."

Kennedy snorted at Judith's attempts to be placating, and she punctuated her reply with renewed attacks. "You don't know her. I know her. It's all flowery speeches and declarations that she's the only one with any real power and poor Buffy, nobody understands her. You think that now she's back she's gonna be interested in what Faith and I have been doing to make this place run like it does? Hell no. An' what's worse is, everyone else is just gonna fall in line behind her like sheep and not even question it, because that's what they do."

The Slayer threw a final punch at the bag, a disgusted 'get away from me' gesture. "Nah, screw that," she growled. "She won't listen to me, but I know someone she damn well better listen to."

With that, she stomped out of the room, not looking back. Sonja glanced at Judith and the brunette simply shrugged.

Dawn walked briskly through one of the hallways of Slayer Central with great purpose, rushing just enough to not pay much attention to where she was going. Consequently, she walked right into Judith who was rounding a corner. As they collided, Judith took only a step backwards, but Dawn stumbled and fell heavily to the ground in a generally undignified manner.

"Oh, geez, sorry!" exclaimed Judith as both she and Sonja went to either side of Dawn to help her up. Dawn just laughed as she shakily rose to her feet.

"And I thought height was supposed to give me some sort of grace or something too. I think I got gypped," she chuckled, rubbing her injured assets.

Convinced that she'd done no lasting damage, Judith stepped back and smirked. "At least you can reach the top shelf without crawling on the counter."

"This is true. And I have a distinct 'keep away' advantage." Brushing herself off, she glanced to Sonja, smiling her thanks for the girl's assistance. "Hey, I don't think I've seen you around before. Not that it's easy keeping track of everybody anymore, but ..." She shrugged. "Are you new?"

The blonde smiled broadly, and Dawn was compelled to respond in kind. "Yes, I just arrived. I'm Sonja."

"Dawn. Hey."

"Dawn's Buffy's little sister," explained Judith.

A small huff escaped and Dawn rolled her eyes slightly. "That's pretty much my full name!" the teenager stated with obviously forced cheerfulness.

Judith was instantly sheepish. "Sorry," she apologized, but Dawn simply shrugged again, blowing it off.

"My issue," she dismissed. "So, Sonja, where are you from?"

"Karlstad, in Sweden," replied the Slayer, a fond expression appearing.

"Oh, cool," Dawn enthused as she checked her watch. "Listen, I've gotta be somewhere about five minutes ago, but maybe we can meet up later and you can make me insanely jealous some more?"

Laughing and nodding her head, Sonja agreed, "I'd like that. And you can teach me all I need to know to fit in America."

Dawn backed away, keeping the two Slayers in sight. "Develop an unhealthy love of money and McDonalds and you're halfway there. Catch you later." She waved at the other girl. "Bye, Judith!"

Both Judith and Sonja waved at Dawn's retreating back as she jogged down the hall.

After a brief discussion with the sister, I'm even more firmly convinced that Summers' return is far from the happy event one might expect. As observed, the sister constantly struggles to find her place, believing it to only be worthwhile if it's separate from Summers. Her failure to realize that her very connection to Summers is a source of great strength and power for the both of them not only works in our favor, but provides further proof of the short-sightedness indicative of the entire inner circle of this new Council.

"I'm here!" Dawn announced as she entered Giles' office. She practically glowed with eagerness and excitement as she closed the door behind her and stood in front of the desk. "I've squeegeed my brain of all those useless 'school' things, and am prepared to devote every single ounce of brainpower to whatever task you need." A frown crept across her face. "Unless it involves cleaning. I know nothing of cleaning."

"No, no cleaning," Giles assured, glancing up from the book he was reading. "It's research, actually."

Dawn glowed again and actually did a very tiny dance of joy with an excited, "Yay!" as Giles moved to her side carrying a handful of papers. She scooted closer to study at them.

"I've been focusing the bulk of my attention on that new creature Kennedy encountered last week," the Watcher explained, shuffling through the papers. "Its actions seem to support the idea that its attack was anything but random, and I'm hoping that if we can uncover its origins, we might shed some light on the missing Slayers."

Reaching out, Dawn took the sketch of the Mogari and examined it with some trepidation. "Is this it? Gyuhh," she shuddered. "They won't be making a Beanie Baby of this thing any time soon."

"Indeed," agreed Giles, bringing a laboratory report to the top of the stack. "Now an associate of mine is running some tests on the blood sample, but it could be a few more days before he has anything conclusive to tell us. In the meantime, I suggest that we continue our research into known demons and see if we can narrow down the type."

Giles placed the stack of papers on his desktop and turned to one of the shelves, hefting a stack of books and dropping them in Dawn's hastily outstretched arms. Nearly collapsing under the weight, Dawn staggered for a moment but regained her footing and peered around her tower at the Watcher. Giles collected another, smaller stack and opened the door.

Unsteadily, Dawn made her way out of the office, her head still tilted to one side so she could see where she was going. "Fun-time Saturday spent in the library!" she bubbled without a trace of sarcasm as Giles locked the door behind him and followed. A moment passed and Dawn considered her words. "God, I really couldn't be more of a dork if I tried, could I?"

The Watcher chuckled fondly and smirked at the young girl. "I expect that you could do with a spot of, erm, 'dork' for a time."

"You heard, huh?" Dawn winced, and not from the strain the books were putting on her arms.

"I wouldn't be at all surprised to discover that the entire population of Trillium heard by the time Willow was done with you."

Somehow, Dawn managed to be indignant. "Oh, like it was my fault the ghost totally wrecked her X-Files DVDs." Her eyes darted to Giles, complete with flat stare, and she sighed reluctantly. "Okay, like it was only my fault," she corrected.

Giles said nothing, content to simply shake his head.

"How long do you think I'll have to grovel?" the teenager whined.

"Oh, I'd say at least until you graduate and move out," Giles replied kindly. "Possibly up until you're married and have your first-born child. Still, if you uncover anything at all about this creature, I'll put in a good word for you." He placed a restraining hand on Dawn's shoulder to keep her from running into a group of Slayers who were rounding the same corner where Dawn had collided earlier, then took a few of the topmost books from her stack so she could see more easily. The coast clear, they continued down the hall, passing several large windows that were streaming sunlight into the building.

Dawn shot Giles a pleading look. "Could you make it a whole sentence?" she nearly begged. "It kinda nailed Xena, too."

Unseen by either, they were being closely observed by something outside the building. It watched them intently as they passed by the windows, chatting amiably. Once they were out of sight, it let go of the windowsill where it had been holding itself up, landing solidly on the ground.

It was a small, not particularly attractive creature, even by demon standards. It was squat, like it had perhaps met with an unfortunate trash compactor accident at some point in the past, rendering it solid at about three and a half feet tall. Its complexion was an off-orangey color, akin to a pumpkin that had been left out in the sun for a little too long. The skin was stretched tightly across its face, rendering it almost featureless, and it had no nose to speak of – only two little holes where a nose might normally be. As though attempting to compensate, its pointy ears were twice as big as they should be and it was nearly hairless, save a tuft of black fuzz that could be called a goatee if one were feeling generous.

Quite in contrast to its natural appearance, the demon was immaculately dressed in a tiny black three-piece suit with a blue silk shirt and matching tie. He pulled a small notepad from inside one of the jacket pockets and scribbled something with a miniscule pen, glancing in the direction of Giles and Dawn. His notes complete, he grinned, very nearly from ear-to-ear, revealing an impossible number of razor sharp teeth.

Act Two

Sonja shook her head slowly, valiantly trying to comprehend what she had just observed. "I've never seen someone so passionate about baking before," she remarked with wonder.

"Talking with Andrew is quite the experience," a smirking Judith agreed.

"Did you see how agitated he got when you told him that only losers use Toll House?"

Giggling, Judith nodded her head, glancing over her shoulder in the direction of the kitchen. "And I only barely know what Toll House is. But irritating Andrew is like our national pastime around here." A thought occurred to her, and she grabbed Sonja's upper arm excitedly. "Oh, you know what's really fun? Just casually mention how Darth Maul is so much cooler than Darth Vader. I swear, he'll turn colors."

"I think this is quite possibly the oddest gathering of people I've ever encountered," chuckled Sonja.

Judith smiled proudly. "Oddly gathered, that's us."

They walked by a large closed door, unremarkable save for the fact that it seemed more ornate than the others around it. And the fact that it was half-covered with signs, which the girls felt compelled to stop and examine closely.

The first ordered, in big red letters, "DO NOT DISTURB". A second piece of paper, taped to the bottom of the first, was bright pink fluorescent stationary that proudly declared itself to be from the desk of Dawn. In a purple pen, someone had written "Spells in progress!" and gone the extra mile to replace the dot over the "i" with a large smiley face. The third and final sign was a generic oversized post-it note. A broad, masculine scrawl warned "Caution: Might get SEXY!"

Glancing at each other, the Slayers erupted into a fit of giggles.

"Okay what...?" Sonja managed to ask, indicating the door.

"Willow's Sanctuary," replied Judith. Noting the other girl's puzzled expression, she elaborated. "Willow. She's this mega-witch. Seriously badass with the power. When you see her she doesn't look like much – a tiny, babbling redheaded bundle of nerves." Judith laughed, amazed. "Some days, it looks like a strong wind could tip her over. But hey, we wouldn't all be here today if not for her. Really makes you think."

Impressed but uncertain of what else to say, Sonja stuck to the basics. "Oh. Wow."

Judith leaned against the doorframe as she continued. "Though I've heard rumors that her spell casting isn't quite what it used to be. Or it's more than it used to be. Some control issues or something, too much power." She shrugged regretfully at Sonja's fascinated expression, unable to provide more information. "I dunno. Anyway, this is her room; she casts all sorts of spells and stuff in there."

Without even attempting to feign pretense, Sonja leaned toward the door and pressed her ear against it, closing her eyes as she strained to listen. Judith was right behind her. After several long moments, they both straightened, disappointment evident.

"That was anticlimactic," Sonja complained, crossing her arms and glaring angrily at the door like it had intentionally held back.

"Yeah," Judith grumpily agreed. "She probably cloaked it, she does that sometimes. Puts up some sort of sound-dampener around the room. She says it's because the spells can get a bit noisy, but ..." Glancing around to make sure they were alone, Judith beckoned for Sonja to come closer, which the blonde girl did eagerly. "We have a bet going around here about its real purpose," confided Judith, "but until someone manages to get Kennedy drunk enough to spill, we'll never know for sure."

She winked lasciviously. Sonja was confused for just a moment before blushing fiercely and giggling again.

"She and Kennedy...?"

"Oh yeah," confirmed the other Slayer, grinning like the Cheshire Cat. "You know, standing around and gossiping about who's dating who may have never saved the world, but it sure saved me from some boring Saturday nights."

Using her shoulder to push away from the door, Judith continued walking down the hall, Sonja at her heels.

Rosenberg cast a dampening field or something similar around her spell room, and unfortunately I wasn't able to tell what she was doing in there. I'm still at a loss for how to properly gauge her. It seems incongruous to have that much power in someone so apparently weak. From what I've been able to gather, she still suffers from a lack of control, although more in the sense of toning the power down. It begs the question, what would happen if her restraint slipped, even on the simplest of spells? What can one do in the face of all that raw power? And can we afford to find out?

"Kenn, sweetie, Buffy didn't mean it. She's not trying to take your place. Please try to calm down."

Kennedy paced the length of the Sanctuary, her dark hair bouncing in empathetic anger as she pivoted on her heel and stomped back toward the door again. Willow sat on the far side of a casting circle that dominated the center of the room, her head dutifully turning first one way and then the next, tracking the Slayer's ceaseless motions.

"Please?" Willow tried again, the corners of her mouth twitching upwards in a smirk. "I'm startin' to feel like I'm at Wimbledon here. Only, you know, without the tennis or the strawberries and cream or the pretension."

With a largely exaggerated sigh, Kennedy came to a halt outside of the circle, facing Willow. She huffed and crossed her arms. "She just drives me up the freakin' wall, y'know? I mean, here I am, working my well-toned and not unimpressive ass off to establish a rapport with these newbies—"

Willow barely stifled a laugh, and looked around the room innocently when Kennedy leveled a dark glare.

"What? Okay, so it's not a rapport filled with peach fuzz and sunshine, but it's a rapport, dammit!" Kennedy threw her hands up in the air and resumed her steady pacing, gesturing her arms around animatedly as she spoke. "They respect me, I don't kick their ass. That's a rapport. So we're good and gettin' in a routine, things're going smoothly. Oh, but wait!" She spun and stomped in the opposite direction. "Here comes the Slayers' answer to Tony Robbins, fresh from her two month break, ready to step in now all the hard work is done and take over my freakin' class!"

As Kennedy's fist raised and pulled back away from the nearest wall, Willow leapt to her feet. "Ah-ah-ah!" she exclaimed in a panicked tone, halting Kennedy's actions long enough to reach her girlfriend's side, careful to not scatter the fine white sand marking the boundary of the casting circle. "No punching! There will be no making with the violence!"

Willow held Kennedy's clenched fist between her hands, gently lowering it but not letting go. Absently, she ran her thumb over the Slayer's knuckles in a soothing gesture and gave Kennedy an admonishing look. "You and that temper of yours. It took me a whole week to cleanse this place of the bad vibes after you went all butch with the wall last time."

Kennedy stuck her lip out in a pout. "Richelle cheated," she said in her best little girl voice.

"It was air hockey, Kenn, what'd she do? Blow on the puck really hard?"

The Slayer's pout became a predatory grin and she leered at Willow. "She was wearing this really loose top, and you know Richelle – the balcony's pretty well filled to capacity. So when she leaned over the table it reminded me of that time when we were at the playground and you got up on the monkey bars and—"

Willow dropped Kennedy's hand and cleared her throat nervously, her face becoming as red as her hair. Kennedy showed no matching sign of discomfort, instead taking a moment to soak up Willow's flustered spluttering.

"Yeah, well, there's that a-and ... Yeah. Yeah, okay, so- so no punching in my sanctum. Okay?" Willow waved her hand in the general direction of the section of wall that had nearly met with a scrunchy end. "It leaves badness. No badness in my goodness."

"Yes ma'am," Kennedy smirked, before her mood darkened again. "But freakin' Buffy..."

With a small sigh, Willow returned to the casting circle, again stepping over the line and making sure not to disturb it. She resumed her position on the far side, sitting Indian style and placing her palms down on her knees before looking back to a scowling Kennedy. "You said she was just talking to them. That doesn't mean she's taking over your class, Kenn, it means she was having a conversation. Don't you think you're maybe over-reacting just a teensy bit...?"

A glare provided all the answer necessary. Willow inhaled deeply and tried once more. "Okay, maybe she stepped on your toes. But we have to give her some time. She just wants to help. And, you know, she's been away for a while so she's still lookin' for her place."

Kennedy resumed her cross-armed stance from earlier, but her anger was quickly burning off so it lacked some of its previous force. "You always take her side," she groused.

"I'm on your side. And her side. I'm multi-sided. I'm the triskaidecagon of this conflict." Kennedy threw a questioning look at Willow, but the redhead either didn't see it or chose to ignore it. "I just don't want two of the people that I care about ripping each other's throats out as soon as I get them both back again."

"All right," relented the Slayer after a pause. "But you'll talk to her, right? Make her understand that crap ain't gonna fly. If she wants to do the 'Ten Steps to a More Fulfilling Slay' seminar, she can do it on her own time."

"Absolutely," Willow assured, smiling comfortingly. "Now get rid of the rest of that nastiness you're givin' off and come in here."

Smirking, her rage finally dissipated, Kennedy stepped into the circle and adopted a similar position across from Willow. She took a deep, calming breath and focused on the witch, shifting a little uncomfortably in the unfamiliar environment. "So. What are we doing again?"

Willow's eyes shone and she leaned over excitedly toward Kennedy, clearly overjoyed with the idea of sharing this with her lover. "Well you remember when I cast the Slayer spell, right? You were my anchor, my connection to this world, so I couldn't get all swept up and lost in the magics."

"Like I could forget anything about that night," Kennedy said with a wistful smile.

"Right. Slayer birth and all that. So, we were able to pull that off, and it obviously worked because, hello, hundreds of Slayers all over the place. I know that was a one-time deal, and I was pretty much too terrified to really appreciate it, but through the abject terror, I remember thinking it was nice. To- to, you know, have an anchor. Again. I-I haven't had one since ..." Willow trailed off.

"Tara." The name hung there in the air like a tangible thing, causing the silence in the room that followed to become heavy and oppressive. The tension persisted just for a moment before Kennedy grinned and her typical self-confidence quickly masked anything else she might be feeling. "Hey, Will, it's cool. I mean, I know you two used to work the whole magic mojo. It was kinda your thing."

Willow had looked stricken, her previous enthusiasm having given way to mirror the discomfort that now permeated the room, but her face began to brighten at Kennedy's words and she visibly relaxed.

Reaching out through the space that separated them, Kennedy grabbed Willow's hand and gave it a squeeze. "I'm honored that you'd ask me to be part of something you two had. Really."

The smile she received in turn was beaming and full of affection. Willow gripped Kennedy's hand tightly for a moment in gratitude before pulling away. The space between them remained, but it was now open and comfortable.

"Well we did the thing with the scythe, which was great, but it was really more of a, you know, 'in the moment' thing. We made it work because we had to. The real test is to see if we can achieve that kind of connection in normal, every day, apocalypse-free conditions."

Kennedy shrugged nonchalantly, scooping a lock of hair from her eyes and tucking it behind her ear. "Should be pretty easy. Not sitting directly on top of a Hellmouth ready to spit a couple thousand übervamps in my face is pretty relaxing." She paused to consider this. "More boring, but relaxing."

"You'd think it'd be easier, but the idea of being ripped into several dozen pieces? Tends to push people above and beyond," replied Willow with a smirk. "Go figure."

The Slayer shifted her position on the floor, steeling herself as though she were preparing for battle. "All right, let's do this thing. What's the plan?"

Willow eyed Kennedy's posture critically. "Well you know that relaxing thing you were just talking about? Try that first." At the blank expression, Willow motioned toward Kennedy's tense demeanor. "You can't beat magic in the head until it listens to you, Kenn, you've got to ... to attune to it. Coax it. Entice it."

"Are you saying I'm not enticing enough?" Kennedy asked in a flirtatious voice.

The suggestive grin that appeared on Willow's face was instinctive, but she quickly replaced it with one that was sobering and entirely serious. "Kennedy..." she chastised with a definite warning tone.

Kennedy inhaled deeply, shook out her hands and rolled her head around in a full circle. "Okay. All relaxed now. I'm good."

"Good," echoed Willow, closing her eyes. Kennedy did the same. "We'll start off slow and simple. I'll cast my essence out, just a little ways, and we'll establish a connection. All you have to do is reach out to me. W-With your mind, not literally, cuz this is all about the not-physical. Just remember to breathe, stay focused, and come to me."

With another deep breath, Kennedy shrugged her shoulders a couple of times to work out some of the kinks, intent on relaxing. Her face was passive and tranquil for a minute or so until her forehead crinkled slightly. She breathed again, a small amount of irritation managing to make itself known, and fidgeted into a more comfortable position. A look of intense concentration appeared on her face, and her eyes twitched restlessly underneath their lids. Another few minutes of this passed, until Kennedy's eyes shot open and she let out a cry of frustration.

Across from her, Willow remained the picture of calm serenity for a moment, before her own eyes opened, forehead furrowed in concern. "What's wrong?" she asked, watching as Kennedy ran an agitated hand through her hair.

"Stupid magic's not working!"

Caught up in her own emotions, Kennedy missed the flash of hurt and anger that briefly danced across Willow's face, and it was soon replaced with one that was much softer. "So, nothing then?" queried Willow in a small yet still hopeful voice.

Kennedy got to her feet and stepped out of the casting circle. "Nada," she replied bitterly.

"Oh." The disappointment was evident, and Kennedy turned toward a crestfallen Willow.

"I'm really sorry, Will."

Willow shook her head. "No, no, i-i-it's not your fault. I mean, it was silly of me to, to think that we'd be able to connect, like that, the first time. Don't feel bad. It means a lot that you tried."

Kennedy quickly moved over to her girlfriend, squatting down behind her and resting her chin on top of Willow's head. Her arms draped casually over Willow's shoulders. "We'll try it again," she stated with conviction. "You know me, I don't take just sitting around too well. Besides, I'm way too stubborn to let this fairy tale crap win." She hugged Willow briefly but firmly, her position preventing her from seeing the look of sadness and loss on Willow's face. "We'll try it again."

"Yeah," replied Willow, trying but failing to recapture her earlier enthusiasm.

Judith leaned against the front steps of Slayer Central, her elbows helping to support her back from digging into the cement, and tilted her head upwards to enjoy the sun. Seated next to her, Sonja was sitting demurely with her legs crossed and her hands folded neatly in her lap, but she still basked in the warmth. Gazing around in wonder, no detail seemed to miss the blonde's keen eye.

"I'm really impressed by how much space there is," she remarked. "The complex itself is quite large, with the administrative offices and training rooms, plus the dormitories. But all that additional land in the back ..." Glancing toward the wide expanse of field to her right, Sonja was contemplative. "Do you know what they plan to do with it?"

Her eyes still closed against the bright sun, Judith shook her head. "Nope, not a clue. I was thinking maybe we could get our own major league football team to play back there for our amusement, but seriously? I've asked, and nobody seems to know. I don't think Giles and the Council know yet either. They're probably holding on to it for expansion or something."

Sonja leaned forward, propping her elbows on her knees and resting her chin in her hands, still focused on the distant foliage. "I'd love to go exploring some time. All those trees back there, I'm sure there are some beautiful spots."

"I don't doubt," Judith agreed amicably.

Noticing a figure moving at a lively pace toward the object of her attention, Sonja lifted her head and peered intently. "Who's that?" she asked, unable to recognize the person.

Judith cracked open an eye and cocked her head, squinting to make out the details. "Oh, that's Faith," she answered after a second. "She's like the number one Slayer-in-charge around here." Frowning, she added, "Or, was. Don't know how Buffy's return will change that."

"Huh. She seems sort of ... angry?"

"That's definitely Faith, then," chuckled Judith, her eyes closing again as she soaked up the rays.

Regarding Judith with interest for a moment, Sonja returned to watching the slowly disappearing shadow of the Senior Slayer. "Sort of a bad attitude, huh?" she probed.

"Well ... I'd say she's an original." Judith grinned. "You won't find anybody else quite like Faith."

I had no chance to interact with the rogue Slayer today, although I did spot her skulking alone from the facility. As I watched her move, I found myself wondering how she was taking this new life of hers, and if she felt that it was truly her calling. Faith has a unique understanding of what it's like to be on both sides of the fight, and while she has clearly cast her lot with this Council, I wonder if it's a permanent decision or a passing fad? I believe she tries, perhaps harder than anyone, to fit into this new life, yet ironically, she never allows herself to fully integrate with those around her. Does she honestly want to be with them? Or does she simply remain because she feels that she should?

As Faith entered the clearing, she immediately spied Xander, resting against the large tree that dominated the area. He was serene, a ghost of a smile on his lips as he simply sat staring at the tiny sapling growing several feet away. Taking all this in, Faith turned to leave without a word, but Xander glanced up her briefly.

"Faith," he stated, his eyes soon returning to the sapling.

Pausing, Faith seemed to consider leaving anyway, but made no move to do so. "Hey. Sorry," she clipped. "Didn't know anyone was here. I'll come back later."

Again, the Slayer turned to leave, but Xander's voice brought her to a halt once more. "No." Taking a deep breath, he refocused his thoughts and appeared to return to himself. With a smile, he gave Faith his full attention. "No, please. Stay."

Scooting over, the carpenter made room for Faith next to him against the tree. She hesitated for a second before accepting his offer, sitting with a grace she usually reserved for battles. They both stared straight ahead, neither speaking for a time.

"I like to come out here," Xander began, talking softly, loud noises seeming to violate the peaceful area. "I think Will was on to something. Since she brought me here, it's been better. Not 100%, 'top o' the world, ma' better," grinning, he shrugged, "but it's gettin' there. I'm not sure if Anya's really here with me, but sometimes it feels like she's standing right over there," a wave of his hand indicated the sapling, "glaring at me for being such an idiot and gettin' all depressed about her."

Mulling this over, for a moment Xander fell silent. "Though between you an' me, I think she's mad I don't have a job. Or maybe it's that I didn't buy her an expensive tombstone, or that she has to share a memorial with a bunch of other ghosts. Or it could just be that she doesn't like my shirt. Anya had a whole bunch of glares for a variety of occasions, it's hard to narrow it down sometimes."

With a sideways glance at Faith, Xander paused, his silence inviting her to speak. She didn't take him up on his unspoken offer, choosing instead to simply stare straight ahead. The Slayer was nearly motionless, and save for the occasional blink and continual rise and fall of her chest as she breathed, she might have been a statue. Frowning at this, Xander studied Faith, and then decided to fill the silence himself.

"I play the 'what if?' game a lot. Like, 'What if I'd gone with Anya instead of Dawn?', or 'What if hadn't waited until my wedding day to grow a backbone?' Funnily enough, they all seem to end with me gettin' glared at. Although there is this one that ends with us riding elephants through the jungles of Bangladesh." Turning slightly toward Faith, Xander stuck out a finger to punctuate his comment. "Interestingly enough, that's not the strangest part. It starts gettin' really weird when I bring home some kiwi fruit, then—"

"My mom's dead."

The words were delivered with no emotion. Faith might have said, "Clouds are neat" or "I like cheese" with the same disinterested tone, but they certainly wouldn't have had the same effect on Xander. He froze, mid-sentence, his finger pointing at the Slayer and his jaw dangling open. With an audible snap, his mouth closed and he slowly lowered his hand. "Geez, Faith, that's ... I'm sorry."

Faith absorbed this and then shrugged. "I'm not."

Sighing, the Slayer ran a hand through her hair, heavily as though it weighed forty pounds. Xander waited patiently, watching Faith closely but saying nothing. She elaborated eventually, her voice tired and flat. "Decided a little while back that I'd send her a letter, tell her where I was. Dunno why exactly," she admitted with a shrug. "She never much cared where I was when I was livin' with her, she cared even less when I left. But I figured hey, got the whole new life thing goin' here, can't hurt to try, right?"

Xander smiled and nodded, but Faith didn't pay the affirmations any attention. Remaining eerily still, her eyes fixated on the sapling as though it held the answer to some great mystery that could only be uncovered if she stared long enough, she continued in the same near monotone. "Got it back today, marked that she don't live there. So I call my Aunt, thinkin' maybe mom finally got her crap together, threw out the bottle and got on the wagon west to the land'a corn an' clean livin'. Nope. Turns out a month ago, she drunk herself in the ground instead."

He didn't know what to say. Several circuits of opening and closing his mouth passed with words almost coming out, only to be intercepted by Xander shaking his head. Once, he partially raised his arm as though to hug the women next to him, but thought better of it. The Slayer took all of this with the same apathy she had exhibited since sitting down.

"All I can think to say is 'Sorry'," the carpenter finally managed, "and I know damn well that doesn't make it a bit better."

"I meant what I said, I'm not sorry," Faith insisted, sounding almost bored. Off of Xander's confused expression, she attempted to explain. "I'm not ... anything. I keep thinkin' it's comin'. Any second now, it's gonna hit me like a sucker punch an' I'll just curl up like I'm three years old again an' bawl my eyes out." She paused, waiting expectantly, as though speaking the words would somehow trigger a reaction. Nothing happened. She sighed. "But it's not. I just don't care that she's gone."

Tearing her eyes away from the sapling for the first time since taking a seat, Faith reached out and tugged on a nearby blade of grass. She freed it from the earth easily, and slowly shredded it into strips as she spoke.

"For years it was pretty much just me an' my mom ... and her plaything of the week," she added with a touch of bitterness. "But the clearest memories I have of her are slappin' me for cryin' when my dad left, comin' home and findin' her passed out on the couch, and her tellin' me I couldn't have a puppy. It's the puppy one that still stings."

A mirthless laugh escaped and Faith tossed the remnants of the blade to the ground, pulling out another one and repeating the same actions. "I keep thinkin' about her, tryin' t' find somethin' to hold on to. An' I realized, all I really got're crappy memories." Flicking her fingers, the now naked stem went flying through the air. "Hell, I made enough crappy memories all on my own, don't need her help for that. But then ... What's that say about me? I seen enough touchy-feely Lifetime movies in the joint to know I'm supposed to have some big revelation, some breakthrough where I'm supposed to cry an' forgive an' move on. Only I ain't got the tears." For the first time, Faith turned to Xander, frowning in confusion. "Shouldn't I have tears?"

He smiled kindly as he answered, "Maybe you skipped steps one and two and went straight to moving on."

"I dunno. Ain't never been an overachiever before, doubt I'm startin' now." The Slayer had actually appeared amused for moment, but it was brief and she soon looked sad and just a little afraid. "You don't think I'm ..." Sighing, Faith shook her head and tried again. "What if I go back to ..." Again the words died in her throat, and she gritted her teeth in frustration.

But Xander somehow knew what she was trying to say, and he let that understanding fill his voice. "If you want to ask the question, I think you already know the answer." Faith deliberated on this, neither agreeing nor disagreeing, and Xander seized the opportunity to compose his thoughts.

"I can't speak for your situation exactly, but there is one thing I've come to realize about parents: A DNA contribution means squat. Without some connection, all you got are a couple'a old people who look sorta like you. An' I'm not gonna waste my energy on some thoughtless, emotionally crippled – albeit undoubtedly handsome – individuals."

That warranted a smirk and Faith eyed Xander critically. "'Undoubtedly handsome'? In your dreams, pal."

"Well I do have weird dreams," he admitted. "I'm tellin' you, kiwi fruit? Never. The same. Again."

The smirk became a smile, and this one actually seemed genuine. Bumping Xander's shoulder with her own, Faith declared, "Y'know what Harris? You're alright."

Looking every bit like a sheepish little boy, Xander grinned and shrugged. "It's a well-kept secret. Don't let it get out, or everyone'll want me." He considered this very carefully. "Oh god, please tell everyone."

Faith chuckled as a silence fell between them, but just for a few seconds. She glanced over to the carpenter. "Elephants in Bangladesh? Where the hell's Bangladesh?"

"I have no idea," he admitted. "I'm thinkin' maybe near Nepal."

A little flushed from the warm sun outside, Judith and Sonja walked through the heavy, over-sized doors that opened into the foyer of Slayer Central, laughing at something that had obviously amused them greatly. Not in any particular rush, they crossed the room and went to open the door leading to the left-hand section of the facility. Just as Judith reached for the knob, however, the door flew open. Startled, the two girls jumped back and away from the entrance, just as Willow stormed through, her face a mask of fury, Buffy right on her heels.

"Will, would you just calm down and listen to me?" Buffy implored, her own irritation evident.

"I think I heardja pretty good the first time," retorted Willow, coming to a stop in the center of the room and spinning on her heel to glare. "I'm not a Slayer so I can't know what it's like. Knock knock, deja vu calling! Where've I heard that before?"

"I didn't mean it like—" spat Buffy before catching her tone. She took a quick breath, continuing in voice approximately 0.2 degrees less angry. "I just meant that ... when you have all this power—"

Willow's eyes widened in complete disbelief. "Oh, and hey, I wouldn't know anything about that either!" she exclaimed with utmost indignity. "I-It's not all about you all the time, Buffy. We've done a lot of good here, a-and worked really really hard to get this place running. And you just ... just come in here, all 'Hey, lookit me, Alpha Slayer on deck!', an-and you expect us to just jump to attention and salute or something, and it's not like that. We've got a ... a system. A training system. For training ... stuff." She frowned at herself. "And yeah, okay, maybe I don't know what that happens to be off-hand. But Kennedy does. She knows because she helped develop it." Willow crossed her arms and glared at Buffy accusingly. "You know, when you were busy being not here?"

Flinching involuntarily, Buffy hissed through gritted teeth, "That is not fair."

"Fair? We were here teachin' a bunch of girls how to hug their gran'ma without snappin' a few ribs while you were off all 'Hills are Alive'. Gosh, and how is that they can break bones without even trying now?" The redhead looked off, pretending to be thinking hard, then snapped her fingers as the answer came to her. "Oh yeah, because you wanted 'em called!"

Judith and Sonja had been standing motionless by the door, gaping at the exchange. Casting a quick, nervous glance at each other, they beat a simultaneous, hasty retreat.

A clash between Summers and Rosenberg was, I suppose, inevitable. Summers seems unsure of, even reluctant to fulfill her role as leader and Rosenberg's own perpetual guilt and insecurities only feed off of Summers' uncertainty. The pet Slayer's bruised ego may have been the catalyst, but the truth of the matter is, two of the world's most powerful forces have no idea how to relate to each other. There's simply too much hurt and too much history between them at this point, and rather than use it to heal, they'd rather skirt issues and chip away at each other piece by piece.

The eyes of the Slayer were cold and harsh as she regarded her friend, who was just as angry but more wounded than detached. "I did what I had to," Buffy justified. "I did what I always do – I took on the bad guy and I won."

"We won," Willow quickly corrected.

"Yes, we won," she frustratedly agreed. "I'm just saying—" Taking a mental step back, Buffy sighed. When she again locked eyes with Willow, the coldness had evaporated. "There's more to slaying than just blocking a punch to the face," she explained calmly. "All we're doing is teaching them to fight, and all that's doing is making them think they're invulnerable. They've got to know there's more to life than fighting, Will, or that's all we can ever expect from them."

Willow truly wanted to hold on to her anger, but it simply wasn't possible and it washed away, leaving only the hurt. "Yeah, okay, I understand that," the witch conceded softly. "But you- you can't just walk in here like you own the place and start ... takin' over. Things aren't like they were before, Buffy. We're not just your generals, and they're not your troops."

"Generals?" repeated Buffy, almost whispering. "Is that what you think you are?"

Willow tilted her head to one side. "Aren't we?"

"No!" the Slayer immediately denied. "You're ... god, I thought you were my friends!"

"When's the last time you treated us like friends, Buffy?" Willow asked wearily. "Me, Xander, Giles ... For the past few years, you've treated us like a ... a habit you weren't in the mood to break."

Defensive was Buffy's first, instinctive reaction, and she spoke very slowly, clearly pronouncing each word. "Well, I'm sorry that I wasn't up for a video club after you pulled me—" Waving her hand, Buffy severed that line of conversation, making a very obvious choice to not go down that path. She glanced at Willow, taking note of the lingering sorrow and regret. "It's been a rough couple of years," she summed up after a deep breath.

"For all of us, Buffy," Willow gently reminded, "not just you."

The Slayer hung her head. "I know that."

Regarding her friend for several moments, Willow wasn't quite ready to let it all go. "This was our chance to start over, to rebuild. And what'd you do?" She shook her head disapprovingly. "You ran away. Again."

"I had to—"

"I know y'think you had to," interrupted the redhead. "Y'told me. But it doesn't change the fact that'cha left, Buffy. You chose to go off and find yourself, and that self you were lookin' for ..." Willow crossed her arms again, hugging herself. "It obviously wasn't with us."

"But I came back," offered Buffy.

"Why was that, exactly?"

Buffy opened her mouth to answer, but nothing came out. Her face fell, and she glanced away, focusing on something across the room. "I just want things back how they were," she finally replied, a touch of need lacing her voice.

Willow nodded, her bottom lip quivering slightly. "Well that's what I want too."

The two women stood across from either other, both looking in opposite directions and neither saying a word. Buffy balled her hands into loose fists at her side, and Willow rubbed her arms for comfort.

"I'd also like very much to know how to do that."

Nodding again, Willow agreed, "Yeah, that'd be nifty."

Another long minute passed in silence. Glancing up, the Slayer raised an eyebrow at her friend. "And can I have a pony?"

The redhead met Buffy's eyes, the corner of her mouth twitched in a smile. "Ponies are evil," she stated matter-of-factly. "Maybe a hamster."

Buffy grinned slightly. "Okay."

The moment passed into renewed silence. This time, Willow spoke first. "So," she began, straightening up as Buffy did the same. "What now?"

They regarded each other, searching, but found no answer.

Act Three

Nathaniel, Kennedy and Faith were occupying one of the smaller, more private training rooms of Slayer Central, the latter playing spectator to a sparring match between the other two. There were several exercise implements, including a weight set and punching bag, but none was currently being used except for a lengthy floor mat.

The choice of weapon for today was a quarterstaff, which Kennedy and Nathaniel both wielded with no small amount of skill. Being a slayer provided Kennedy with a considerable advantage, however, and it was only through remarkable prowess that Nathaniel managed to hold his own, panting and nearly breathless.

Faith errantly tossed a twenty-pound hand dumbbell back and forth as she watched, occasionally applying a stylish spin or balancing it on the tip of her finger. A particularly fanciful pirouette coincided with an aggressive series of attacks from Kennedy that drove Nathaniel back, but he was able to block each strike.

He paused for a moment to gather his breath. "Very good. Now, let's work on your defense."

"Oh, I think I've had my fill of being defensive today," Kennedy responded, earning her an amused snort from Faith. "Hey, no comments from the peanut gallery."

Faith flashed what would probably pass in her world for an innocent look. "Who, me?" She grinned at the other Slayer's level glare and twirled the weight on her index finger by its axis.

Fully recovered and no longer content to wait, Nathaniel begun his attack. If he expected to catch Kennedy by surprise, he was sadly mistaken, as she deftly spun her staff sideways to deflect his thrust. Undaunted, he feinted a strike at her legs and, at the last moment, shifted upwards to her ribcage. This too was avoided.

"Man, what is it about Buffy that just punches all my buttons?" Kennedy questioned, turning to Faith. She continued to block, shift and otherwise evade attacks despite being unable to see them. The clacking of wood didn't impede having a conversation in the slightest.

Faith chuckled. "It's a gift she's got. This big ol' huge yap that don't know when to shut the hell up. They all got it, really. Been more than one time I've wanted to punch your honey right in the— Oh, wait, I did," she smiled somewhat fondly at the memory.

Kennedy raised an eyebrow while, at the same time, stopping an attack to her head.

"Still didn't shut her up," Faith admitted with a shrug.

"Her attitude drives me nuts!" Kennedy nearly growled. She noticed the expression from Faith. "Buffy's. I know she's all lost and everything, but I can see this goin' back to how it was before, with Buffy all shoutin' orders and the rest of us expected to just fall in line."

Faith had removed the four plates from the dumbbell and began juggling three of them, paying as little attention to them as Kennedy did with her attacker. "Maybe," she agreed. "But see, here's the thing with B. Sometimes it seems like she don't learn too quick, an' yeah, maybe she's so self-righteous it makes you wanna scream ... But at the end of the day? She tends to be right. So maybe we should hear her out, huh?"

"Don't tell me you're buying into all this Kodak Moment crap."

"Oh no," came the Slayer's quick reply. "But hey, if she wants to give my classes a ten-minute pep rally once a week, more power to her." Without missing a beat in her juggle, she picked up the fourth plate and added it to the mix. "I want my girls to keep breathin', an' if some fancy word games make that happen, I'm big enough to stand on the sidelines while she preaches."

Kennedy's use of the staff had been shifting from defensive to offensive, not merely parrying blows but making counterattacks. She now moved up another notch on the scale, causing Nathaniel to widen his eyes as he valiantly defended himself while being driven back.

"Great, that's just what we need," Kennedy grumbled, seemingly unaware of her tactical shift, "Buffy 2: The Sequel."

Faith glowered for a moment, but recomposed herself quickly with a small shrug. "Been there, done that, caused some trouble, got a complicated story for my shrink. I'm just smart enough now to know that no matter how much it cuts me up sometimes, B's got a handle on some stuff."

"I'm not letting her push me into the background."

Apparently bored with the mere juggling, Faith began to improvise, occasionally looping a weight under her leg like a basketball player or behind her back. "Fine. So you don't let her. But you gotta do it without throwin' a fit every time she walks in the room, or things're just gonna get worse."

"Yeah, I guess," Kennedy grudgingly agreed, as she finished off a particularly savage series of blows. She held up her staff, waiting for the next attack, but it didn't materialize. What she received instead was the image of Nathaniel on the ground, panting heavily and holding himself up only by his staff. "Oh. I guess we're done," she concluded, a little surprised.

Finishing up her juggling routine, Faith set the metal plates down, reaching out and snatching the staff from the air when Kennedy tossed it at her, catching it solidly in one hand. She glanced around but couldn't easily spot where the weapon was supposed to go. With a small shrug, she casually tossed it aside where it landed on the ground with a clatter.

Together, they headed for the exit. "Thanks for the workout, Nate," called Kennedy over her shoulder. "I feel I've grown as a person."

"Brat," Faith smirked.

Kennedy was nonchalant. "It's a defining characteristic."

They entered the hallway, paying no particular attention to Judith and Sonja who approached from the opposite direction. The two younger Slayers were very amused and excited by something.

"When you're right, you're right," Sonja admitted. "I didn't even know there were that many shades of red in the entire spectrum."

Judith let out a small smile. "The lack of challenge is almost cruel. Is it wrong, having that much fun at a nerd's expense?"

The pair considered the question carefully for a moment, as though it were the age old puzzle of 'is it live or is it Memorex?' "Nahhh," they concluded in unison.

Arriving at a set of large double doors, decorated with delicate carving, Judith finally came to a halt. "This is a place that you'll probably find the most fascinating stop on our tour so far," she prefaced, waiting only a moment before continuing. "Or you'll fall instantly unconscious as soon as we walk in."

Judith threw open the doors and presented its contents dramatically.

"The library," she announced, bowing deeply.

Clearly no amount of effort had been spared in creating a gorgeous home for the countless volumes and resources belonging to the new Council. The room in which they were standing was itself only part of the entire library, a staircase trailing off in the back and leading toward rows upon rows of books. The girls had not seen its template before, but if they had, they would have noticed an uncanny resemblance to the library in the original Sunnydale High, complete with large skylight overhead. The Council's version was much larger, however and lacking in the necessities for a school, such as the book cage. At the center of the room was a line of long tables surrounded by chairs, and off to one side were several computer terminals. Along with the skylight, the huge windows dotting the two outside walls impressively lit the room, which was nearly empty save the two Junior Slayers, and Dawn.

Hunched over a book, Dawn was so thoroughly engrossed that she didn't glance up when they entered. Judging from the tall stacks surrounding her, she had a lot of work to do.

The brunette Slayer noted that her companion's jaw was practically dragging the ground in awe. "Ah, you're in the fascinated category," she observed. "Oh well, takes all kinds."

Wonder clearly etched on her face, Sonja all but glided to the nearest bookshelf, her hand reverently tracing the spines of the volumes housed there. "I've never seen so many interesting books ..." she stated breathlessly. "Mystical histories, demonologies, artifact appraisals ... It certainly beats my Judy Blume collection back home," she grinned. "I think I could spend weeks in here."

"I know when I have a research paper due it sure feels like weeks to me," Judith chuckled.

In a manner entirely unfit for the silence due a library, Giles burst into the room, a book under one arm and cell phone pinned to his ear. Even Dawn was pulled from her studies by the entrance, and she watched expectantly as he crossed to her, still talking on the phone. "That's— Yes, that's incredibly helpful. No, I never would have— Absolutely. Thank you," concluded the Watcher with utmost sincerity.

Decisively, Giles snapped the phone closed and tossed the book he was carrying on top of the one Dawn had been reading. She glanced up at him, alarmed but curious. Judith and Sonja hovered at one side of the room, content to remain unnoticed for the time being as they watched the events unfold with keen interest.

"It's magickal!" proclaimed Giles, clearly feeling this was all the information necessary.

"I agree my shirt's nice," Dawn responded, inspecting her garment appreciatively, "but I don't know that I'd go with magickal ..."

Rolling his eyes, Giles explained, "The creature, the one that Kennedy defeated. We've been looking in the wrong places," a sweep of his hand indicated the piles of books surrounding Dawn, "trying to locate a-a known demon with similar features or-or characteristics. But we're going about this all wrong." Giles shook his head at his own shortsightedness. "It's not demon. It's a mystical creature, one created by powerful magicks."

"Oh," commented Dawn very simply with a touch of surprise. Glancing at the legal pad in front of her, she smiled. "Well ... looking on the bright side, I now know everything – and I do mean everything – about the Dyar'on packs. So if we ever decide to break into the demon puppy business, I'm your girl," she grinned proudly before scanning her notes and pointing out a particular line she had written. "Apparently they really, really like Alpo ..."

But Giles was too engrossed in hurriedly gathering together a fresh armload of books from the shelves around him. Rising to help, Dawn took a few steps toward the Watcher, arriving just in time for him to dump another tower of volumes into her arms.

"That's it, you and me have gotta get a new shtick," decided Dawn, her voice muffled by the books toppling into her face as she fought to remain upright.

Lost in his own world, Giles didn't respond. "Come on," he urged, pulling more materials from the shelves, "we'll start cross-referencing these texts with my volumes on magickal constructs."

"You know, this would be so much easier if you'd let me get that database underway."

With a heavy sigh, the Watcher shot Dawn an expression of disapproval. "For the last time, you are not going through my spell books." Situating his burden so as to be more manageable, Giles headed for the exit with Dawn in tow. "Good lord," he muttered mostly to himself, "it's like you were made from Willow, not Buffy."

"Hey, maybe I was made from both of 'em," she supplied cheerfully. "Sort of a Witchy/Slayer love child and oh my god I've just scarred myself into ten more years of therapy."

It was a struggle, but they both finally made it through the library doors and out into the hall. Judith and Sonja watched them leave, then blinked at each other before Judith held up a thin paperback and grinned. "Hey, look. Superfudge."

The Watcher's discovery that the Mogari construct is magickal is undoubtedly a development we will need to keep a close eye on. While I have every confidence that the Circle will be able to block their attempts at tracing the creature's origins, the simple fact is that this creature is their strongest link to us. It was an unfortunate error that the construct tracked its target this close to the Council's headquarters.

The Junior duo continued their tour, passing through the foyer on their way to elsewhere. Had they looked outside, they would have seen Buffy sitting on the front steps, working herself into a Dawn-sized mope.

Xander saw her, however, and approached while eyeing his friend cautiously. There was no doubt that Buffy knew he was there, but she didn't lift her eyes or acknowledge him in any way. "Buff!" he announced happily. "You look like someone stole your Barbie. Someone not-me," the carpenter quickly added. "My Barbie-stealing days are long gone."

"If only it were that simple," Buffy lamented, squinting up at him. "A quick run to Toys R Us and everything would be fine again."

Taking a seat next to the Slayer, Xander sighed wistfully. "I used to think there was no problem on earth that couldn't be solved by Geoffrey." He shook his head with regret. "My world is all askew."

"'Askew'?" repeated Buffy, cocking an amused eyebrow.

"It's a fun word. I recommend using it as part of this balanced breakfast." He drew the word out, savoring each letter like a fine wine. "Assssskeeewwwww ..."

Buffy stared at Xander, seriously contemplating his mental faculties. "You are a very strange man," she concluded.

"Yes," a beaming Xander wholeheartedly agreed. He patted her knee affectionately. "Now we've established our relative sanity levels, tell crazy Uncle Xander what's wrong in Buffyland."

"Eh. I don't know," she dismissed, focusing on her shoes. "I'm not sure I wanna talk about it."

Xander poked her shoulder until she looked up. "Uh-uh, that doesn't work anymore. While you were out, we laid down some new Scooby rules. Rule #11: No More Not Talking. Whenever we don't talk, Bad Stuff Happens. And I, for one, am pretty tired of Bad Stuff Happening."

"I had a fight with Willow," confessed the Slayer. "It was horrible. Too much yelling."

"What about?"

Sighing, Buffy hooked her hands behind her neck and tilted her head back. "It started about Kennedy but I think I can safely say it soon became about a whole lot more."

With a nod, Xander's expression indicated her answer wasn't much of a surprise. "Will's been on this mission since we got here. She's pretty gung-ho about making everything run smoothly, gettin' back to basics, that sort of thing. You leaving kinda put a crimp in that plan. But you're back now," he smiled, "and that's really all that's important. Just give her a bit of time and she'll be okay. You know Will, she can't stay mad at you for more than a week, it's like something hard wired in her brain. She is Saint Willow of the Infinite Forgiveness."

At this the Slayer frowned. "And what is it she's forgiving me for, exactly?" she demanded, a twinge of defensiveness creeping in.

Xander continued in the same tone, refusing to rise to Buffy's mood. "I dunno," he shrugged broadly. "Your last Chanukah presents. Borrowing her shirt Freshman year and never giving it back. Not calling or writing for the past month ..."

Buffy deflated as she backed down. "Okay. Point taken," she grudgingly conceded. "Although it should be known I would never have borrowed anything from Will's wardrobe in Freshman year."

"Maybe not. But I think we could all do with a heaping spoonful of forgiveness for at least one thing or another in recent history, hm?" he asked pointedly.

Nodding, Buffy dropped her head, a little ashamed, but she never got the opportunity to wallow.

"Now, no more mopey face," Xander ordered, clapping his hands together as he rose to his feet. "I think you'll feel better after crazy Uncle Xander takes you to the toy store and buys you anything you want."

Tilting her head, Buffy regarded Xander hopefully. "Anything I want?"

"So long as it's under a dollar," he replied indulgently.

Buffy's lower lip jutted out. "Crazy Uncle Xander's cheap," she complained in her best pouty voice.

Jerking his head toward the building, Xander grinned. "How about we go put that pout to good use and see if we can't get stuffy Uncle Giles to give us the company credit card?"

"Yay!" exclaimed the Slayer, sounding all of three years old as she leapt to her feet. "You're the best, crazy Uncle Xander!"

Buffy wrapped herself around the his arm and they headed inside together. "I've been upgraded from 'alright' to 'the best' and I'm goin' toy shopping," beamed Xander. "Today's lookin' up."

Hidden from view, the small orange demon poked his head around the corner of the building, gazing intently at the exact spot where Xander and Buffy had just been sitting. Ducking behind the line of hedges near the entrance, despite the fact even at full height he couldn't be seen, he made his way cautiously to the steps and sniffed the air, trying to catch a whiff of something.

After several seconds of intense concentration, he pulled out his notebook, scribbled some notes and then put it away. Scurrying back into the bushes, the demon emerged once more carrying a small briefcase; it was perfectly matched to his size and obviously custom made. He placed it on the ground and opened it, reaching in for a Palm Pilot that was obviously not, since the entire thing was almost as large as his head. Somehow, he managed to balance it in his hand while using an altogether unwieldy stylus, poking here and there and thoughtfully studying the display. Satisfied, he replaced it carefully back in the briefcase and extracted a cell phone. This, too, was a size or two too large, and the receiver end dangled near his chest. Despite this, he used the phone with some skill, calling up a number on speed dial and waiting for someone to pick up, looking every bit like the stereotypical businessman. A very small, very orange businessman.

Finally receiving an answer, he smiled. "Thir?" he questioned, speaking with a decided lisp due to his many, many teeth. "Thith ith Norg, thir. The thurveillanth ith going well. On your okay, we can protheed ath theduled. Yeth thir. Tonight it ith, then. Thank you, thir."

Norg clicked the phone shut, made another couple of entries in his notebook, then packed everything away before slinking into the bushes and disappearing from view.

The library was again almost devoid of patrons, save for one Willow Rosenberg. The redhead was hunched over a book in the exact same spot that Dawn had inhabited earlier. Whatever she was reading may have been quite gripping and suspenseful. Willow wouldn't know because she was too busy doing everything but reading, despite staring at the open pages.

Though agitated and fidgety, she doggedly persevered in the charade of focusing on the book. Settling down, Willow sighed and allowed her eyes to drift over the text for a second before frowning and flopping into another position to reread the exact same line. Many times it appeared as though she was giving up, ready to leave the room and do whatever it was that she obviously felt more like doing, but then her resolve face would return and that would be that. Thus the cycle continued for several long moments, until something snagged her attention and she jerked her head up, noticing Buffy standing there for the first time.

Clearly surprised, Willow gaped and then smiled awkwardly, unsure of what to do or what to say. Buffy returned the smile, but hers was full of excitement, leading the other woman to furrow her brow in confusion. The Slayer bounced on the balls of her feet, grinning like a girl half her age, and Willow noted that her friend's hands were behind her back. Confusion gave way to curiosity, and the witch raised an eyebrow.

Grin still firmly affixed as she thrust her hands forward, Buffy presented a stuffed animal – a plushy Pooh Bear hugged a small plushy Piglet that was hugging him back. An expression of rapt adoration appeared on Willow's face as she beheld the toy. Then Buffy grabbed Piglet and tugged him gently away from Pooh, revealing that Velcro held the two together. Smiling fondly, Buffy presented Piglet to Willow.

Beaming, Willow took Piglet, hugging him tightly as a delighted Buffy watched. The hug lasted for a second, then the redhead got other ideas. She frowned and pointed to Pooh, cradled in Buffy's arms. The Slayer rolled her eyes, but grinned as she handed Pooh to Willow and took the offered Piglet instead. Even more thrilled now, Willow leapt to her feet, a death grip on Pooh in one arm and a death grip around Buffy's neck in the other.

Both laughed as Xander bounded into view, holding up a plushy Tigger and grinning like a maniac. Then he held up a stuffed Owl, complete with spectacles, and indicated beyond the room with his head. Buffy and Willow wore expressions to match Xander's and nodded in absolute agreement.

By this time, Hazel had joined Judith and Sonja, and the three girls walked past the open doors of the library. Sonja appeared to be in some considerable discomfort, and her two companions focused the bulk of their attention on her as they continued down the hall.

"The money part I think I can handle," groaned Sonja, "but I don't see McDonalds becoming anything more than an unwise flirtation."

Judith patted her shoulder comfortingly. "I guess Big Macs are an acquired taste."

"Toldja you should've stuck with nuggets," noted Hazel not unkindly. "There are only so many ways you can mess up mulched chicken bits." All three scrunched up their face as they considered this, coming to a distasteful conclusion. "Other than calling it 'mulched chicken bits', that is," she amended with a sneer.

Pulling a crinkly, half-empty packet out of her back pocket, Judith punched a fresh piece of gum free from its bubble package and popped it in her mouth. Hazel very emphatically rolled her eyes, but the others missed the gesture. With a deep sigh that bespoke of great personal sacrifice, Hazel managed to let the gum thing pass without comment, instead leaning past Judith to address Sonja.

"So, big ball of meat-fat and unknown sauce just lying in your stomach aside, how are you finding everything so far?" she asked amicably.

The blonde smiled with enthusiasm. "Oh, very exciting! Though I admit, I'm feeling a little overwhelmed. Everything here is just so ..."

"Crazy?" Judith supplied.

"Yes! I'm trying so hard to learn all that I can about our methods and procedures, as well as get to know everyone, but it's so much! I think I'll need several brains to tap before I have everything mastered." Shaking her head, Sonja did indeed seem to be overwhelmed, and just a tad pathetic, rather like a puppy left out in the rain.

Hazel couldn't help but respond. "Well consider my brain constantly on-tap," she assured the other girl confidently.

I suppose they believe that they are simply being helpful, but I wonder if anyone in this organization fully understands that knowledge is power. Admittedly, the newer girls don’t have anything much to offer besides a way to gauge the general thoughts and feelings of the Slayers here, but a little effort goes a long way, and there’s plenty of opportunity for contact with those in the true positions of power. All you need is to see the ladder for the rungs.

"Just like beer," Judith commented with wonder. "So, is your brain less filling?" She laughed as Hazel took a swing at her, easily dancing out of the way and popping a bubble at her roommate as she did so.

"Speaking of crazy ..." Hazel grumbled to herself.

Judith stuck out her tongue, then sobered as she turned to the newest Slayer. "Seriously, Sonja, I know just how you feel. You can never have too much information, I say. And hey, maybe if we all learn just what the heck we're doing, we can straighten out the insane mess of the world, huh? An army of girls out to vanquish strife and disorder can't be a bad career choice."

Gaping at Judith with mock amazement, Hazel brought her hand up to touch her chest. "I didn't realize you knew so many big words."

"Don't worry, I have a supply of really short ones, just for you," Judith replied, dripping with sweetness.

The acerbic banter couldn't infringe on Sonja's mood in the slightest. She smiled at both girls, gratitude pouring off of her in waves. "Thank you both, very much. You've all been so helpful. I just can't wait to know as much as all of you so I can pass on my knowledge." She smiled, perhaps a little too wide. "I know others are anxious to receive it."

Act Four

The frantic clacking of an air hockey puck was the prevalent sound in the rec room as Judith attempted to introduce Sonja to the finer points of the game. The score coupled with the almost pained expression on the blonde's face didn't speak highly of Judith's success. The room was fairly well populated that night, with three Slayers playing pool at the nearby table and five occupying the couches and chairs that surrounded the TV.

Willow and Kennedy walked in, mid-conversation. "I'll try," Kennedy relented, the effort put into the words indicating how little she was likely to output.

"She has a lot to offer," commented Willow helpfully.

The Slayer huffed. "I'll bet."

"Play nice."

"Hey, this is me bein' nice."

"You can be nicer."

Throwing Willow a sidelong glance, Kennedy sighed deeply, realizing she was fighting a losing battle. "You drive me crazy."

"That's not niiiicer ..." Willow sang with a cheerful grin.

Kennedy smiled broadly, not even trying to make it convincing.

The redhead patted her girlfriend's shoulder proudly. "There's my little trooper!" she exclaimed as though speaking to a very small child. Giving Kennedy's arm a shove, Willow grinned. "Now go woo me with your ability to propel plastic discs on jets of air."

"Well since you made it sound so sexy ..." the Slayer commented with a barely suppressed eye roll.

Willow smiled mischievously. "You should hear me talk about ping pong." Kennedy raised a very questioning eyebrow, but all she received in response was the enigmatic smile.

With a final odd look, Kennedy focused on the playing Juniors. "I got winner," she announced, just as Judith sank her final shot.

"A winner is me," declared Judith, smirking as Sonja glared at the scoreboard as though it were personally to blame for the totals it displayed.

Glancing at the nearby table, Sonja decided, "We'll play billiards next." She stared dejectedly at the paddle in her hand. "I play much better with a big stick."

"I've lost all ability to relate to you," remarked Kennedy, taking the paddle and moving into Sonja's now vacated position.

Willow moved slightly over Judith's shoulder to get the best view of the game. Or, perhaps more accurately, to get the best view of Kennedy playing the game. Sonja stood next to Willow as the match began.

Several heated minutes passed with only Kennedy managing to score once. The Senior Slayer was extremely enthusiastic about the game, bringing her typical competitiveness to even recreational activities. The goofy grin on Willow's face indicated that she in particular enjoyed Kennedy's enthusiasm. The witch was so wound up in her spectatorship that she didn't even notice Giles enter the room, and jumped slightly when he touched her shoulder.

"Willow, if you're free, I very much need to see you," Giles said with an urgency that Willow completely missed.

"Oh! Giles!" she enthused. "We wanted to come up and see you earlier, but you were all locky with the door. Xander bought you the cutest—"

Sighing the long-suffering sigh that only he could pull off without seeming too insulting, Giles interrupted. "I'm sure he did, and I'll be delighted – and admittedly, mildly terrified – to see what Xander could have purchased for me that could be called 'cute'." The Watcher emphasized the word as though it were thoroughly distasteful. "However that will have to wait. We have a breakthrough on the creature that attacked Kennedy last week—"

At this, Kennedy immediately became interested, sticking her hand out to intercept the puck as she straightened and focused intently on the conversation taking place across the room. The game halted, Judith also listened in, turning slightly so she could hear better, despite the fact that the pair were only a few feet behind her. Sonja had the best view of all, and she too was blatantly eavesdropping.

"—and I believe that I have discovered a way for you to uncover who summoned it. Now, we just ..." Realizing for the first time that he had an audience, Giles trailed off, beholding the three keen faces he hadn't intended to include in the conversation. He cleared his throat uncomfortably. "Perhaps we'd be better served continuing this in my office...?" he directed to Willow, extending his arm expectantly to escort her out of the rec room.

With an apologetic glance at Kennedy, Willow mouthed "Sorry", but the Slayer shook her head to let the other woman know that it was okay. Willow smiled in gratitude and left quickly with Giles.

It wasn't until the end of my day that I fully began to appreciate just how resourceful this new Council can be. By and large I remain unimpressed with their overall lack of cohesion, however they have a tenacity about them that I grudgingly admire. Not long after receiving word of the Mogari's nature, the Watcher had tracked down a spell that he believes could in fact trace back its source. Again, I stress my firm belief in the Circle to immobilize any such probes, however as we are all aware, information is the best defense. I will do my utmost to gather the specifics of this spell and report back on my findings at the earliest opportunity.

Kennedy watched Willow leave, then turned back to the air hockey table. "Now, where were we?"

Also lingering at the rec room entrance, Judith tore her eyes away and returned to the game. "You were pretending you were gonna beat me," she smirked.

"Oh yeah, that's right," Kennedy nodded. "You were trapped in some strange delusion. It's all coming back to me."

Sonja was the last to look away from the door, as though staring at it long enough would somehow allow her to tag along. Still deep in thought, she moved to the side of the table, standing at the center between the two opponents. "That was all very mysterious," she finally mused, absently watching the puck speed across the surface of the table. "What do you think it was about?"

"Eh, it's Watcher stuff," came Kennedy's off-hand reply, her eyes never moving from the table even a fraction.

"You don't find it interesting?" questioned the blonde with surprise.

Kennedy shook her head. "Nope, not really. I'm more a hands-on kinda girl. I leave the wondering about what I fought to the brains, and they leave the killing of the next one to me. It's a beautiful partnership."

Considering this carefully, Sonja frowned at Kennedy for a moment, then looked to the other girl. "How about you, Judith?"

"Seemed pretty interesting to me," she agreed. Glancing up, Judith jerked her head at Kennedy. "Maybe you can find out from Willow what it was all about later? Fill us in. Enquiring minds wanna know."

This little distraction was all Kennedy needed, and she scored another goal. "How about you get more interested in giving me at least a tiny bit of competition here, huh?"

"A bet, then?" challenged Judith, recovering the puck and dropping it on the table in front of her. "I win, you get the dirt from Willow and share with those of us less fortunate."

Kennedy was intrigued. "And if I win?"

She was met with an evil, confident grin. "Not gonna be an issue. I haven't lost a game of air hockey yet."

"First time for everything," Kennedy replied, almost exactly mirroring the grin.

That was all the confirmation Judith needed. She threw all her might behind the paddle and sent the puck flying toward Kennedy. She was ready for it, however, and returned it to the other side of the table with equal force. The game continued in this fashion for several minutes, both girls thoroughly engrossed, aided by the fact that Sonja had decided to play cheerleader for Team Judith. So much speed and strength was behind each stroke that the puck became little more than a blur, only a constant, rhythmic clack reporting that any contact was being made with it at all.

As the puck sped toward Judith's goal, she shot out her paddle to intercept and clipped it. Deflected from its target, it careened off the table, aiming directly for Kennedy. The Senior Slayer ducked just in time as the puck zoomed overhead. The wall wasn't able to duck out of the way so well, however. Rather than bouncing off into areas unknown, the projectile traveled with such power that it became embedded. Next to three nearby puck-sized holes. The Slayers watching TV turned at the noise and regarded the damage, then returned to their program without a word.

"That doesn't count," stated Judith with conviction.

Giles strode quickly into his office, Willow a few paces behind. From her obviously comfortable position stretched out in Giles' chair, Dawn jerked her head up, surprised by their entrance. She had reclined the chair almost horizontally, her feet propped on the desk, and seeing the pair startled her so much that she nearly fell. Nevertheless, she succeeded in maintaining her balance and dignity, albeit barely, and flipped her feet off the desk. In what she hoped was a sneaky and covert manner, she brushed away any lingering traces of her boots from the polished surface. Giles was thoroughly absorbed, however, and missed everything, although Willow was perfectly aware and smirked a greeting at Dawn.

"We've pinned down that the creature must have been summoned using one of five conjuring spells, based upon its primary characteristics and apparent function," explained the Watcher, grabbing an open book from his desk and bringing it over to Willow.

"I'm thinkin' it's probably the akello recité," added Dawn, "what with the bloodlust and all."

Willow smiled wistfully at Dawn. "Lookit you, all with the bloodlust." Giving an exaggerated sniff, she wiped away a faux tear. "They grow up so fast."

Dawn rolled her eyes while Giles completely ignored the conversation altogether. "There's a spell that can be used to trace back the line of mystical energies used in powerful spells," he reported, lifting the book in his hands. "Its original purpose was for witches to police themselves against dangerous uses of dark magick, but I believe that with a little creative manipulation, it will suit our purposes just fine."

"The only sample we have of the thing is a week old bloodstain, though. Do you think that'll be enough?" Dawn asked Willow as she lazily swung Giles' chair from side to side.

Taking the offered book, Willow intently reviewed the text in front of her. "Wow, this spell isn't messin' around," she commented, impressed. Giles and Dawn watched the witch as she read. After a minute or so, she glanced up, talking to herself. "Hmm. If we substitute orris root and wait for the first day of the new moon, and with some cleansing rituals ..." She trailed off, still pondering, then focused on the others. "This won't be easy, a-and I can't just go do this, like, now. It's gonna take some serious preparation – we're talkin' a- a week or two. Maybe even three. But yeah. I think I can do it."

Giles exhaled the breath he had been holding and relief flooded his features. "This is our only lead, and I'd rather not wait around until the next one of these decides to deliver itself to our doorstep. From the description, I doubt very much that it will be of much help in answering questions. However long it takes you to prepare and whatever you need, just let me know," insisted Giles. "It's crucial that this spell work. Everything hinges on getting this information."

Willow's face became etched with consternation. "So no pressure then," she whimpered.

With a slightly off-key clack, the puck screamed through the air, landing solidly in Kennedy's outstretched hand. Over her shoulder were now five long holes. The Senior Slayer was not amused. "That's gotta stop," she demanded. "Xander's gonna whine for a month if you destroy any more wall."

Opening her mouth to respond, Judith was interrupted by Faith's rather unusual entrance. Held out well in front of her was Norg, dangling several feet off the ground by the scruff of his well-tailor suit. The little demon had crossed his arms and was glaring at Faith, as though hoping to convey the very depths of his insult. If she was picking up on it, Faith clearly didn't care.

"Lookie what I found at the door," announced the Slayer, hoisting Norg higher and displaying him to the group. "Anyone order a single-serve demon to go?"

The assembled Slayers chuckled and Faith opened her hand, unceremoniously depositing her cargo on the floor. Landing with a thud, Norg hastily scrambled to his feet, readjusting his suit jacket and brushing himself off.

"Honethtly, I did thay I came in friendthip," he grumbled, the glare pinned at Faith never once wavering, not even when the room erupted into quiet giggles at his lisp.

"Which would be why the only thing hurt is your pride," she replied, nudging the demon with her toe. "Now spill."

All other forms of entertainment forgotten with the new arrival, the Slayers formed a half-circle around Faith and Norg. Some were wearing blank, vaguely hostile expressions, but most appeared to find the notion of a tiny demon in a tiny suit adorable beyond words and seemed uncomfortably close to "Awww!"ing. To these would-be admirers, Norg flashed his most charming smile, apparently heedless of the fact that the teeth somewhat ruined the cute angle. In short, he generally enjoyed the positive attention.

Puffing up to make himself more important, achieving mixed results at best, Norg began his narrative. "I wath out tonight, minding my own bithneth, when I heard thith terrible thrieking coming from a nearby alley. Being the community thervith-minded demon that I am," he ignored the obligatory eye rolls and doubtful glances, "I went to thee what I could pothibly do to render my athithtanth. I thaw a woman, crying that a monthter had just thtolen her baby. And indeed, there wath a horribly oafith-looking demon running away with the poor thing cradled in his armth. I followed him, and he appearth to have holed up in a warehouth on 10th and Cornell." Norg concluded his explanation with an expectant look at the gathered Slayers.

"That's not too far from here," one Slayer said to her neighbors.

"We can be there in a few minutes," agreed another.

Faith and Kennedy, both with similar cross-armed stances, eyed each other skeptically.

"And we're believing you ... why now?" Kennedy asked the demon with a furrowed brow.

Craning his head up at the Slayer, doing his best to make eye contact, Norg replied smoothly, "Come on ladieth. I juth want to help you out, thave a life. It'th all very thelfleth," he assured her.

"Uh-huh," replied Faith dubiously. "Now try it again without lookin' like you're lyin' through your teeth."

"Okay, tho not thelfleth nethetharily," the demon admitted. "But hey, I figure thith can be the thtart of a beautiful relationthip. It may have pathed your notith, but I'm thomewhat vertically challenged." Norg held a hand over his head for unnecessary emphasis. "Believe it or not, little guyth like me, we don't have it tho eathy in the demon world."

Kennedy nodded at the demon's attire, still regarding him with the utmost suspicion. "That suit doesn't exactly scream 'hard times' to me."

"I do apprethiate the finer thingth, yeth," Norg said with an indulgent air as he smoothed the lapels of his suit. "But I get by uthing my brain. And my brain'th telling me, a town full of Thlayerth? That'th the thide you want to be on to enthure future enjoyment of thaid finer thingth."

Rolling his eyes at the two Senior Slayers who remained unconvinced, Norg threw his hands into the air with frustration. "Oh for— Look me up," he commanded. When all he received in response were blank stares, he sighed heavily and very carefully explained as though speaking to someone profoundly stupid. "Armod'th Demon Anthology, Volume 5. Page 315, if memory therveth. Do pleath tell me there'th at leatht one among you who can read?" he asked, seeming to half expect the answer 'no'.

Faith ignored the comment and pointed to one of the girls, jerking her head toward the library. The Slayer raced out of the room at top speed as the two Senior Slayers continued to glare suspiciously at Norg.

"The clock'th ticking down on that poor infant'th life, ladieth," he reminded them.

Kennedy took a threatening step forward, causing Norg to stumble backwards and his cool exterior to drop momentarily. "We find out you're lying to us, the baby's not the only one who's running out of time."

Book in hand, the girl ran back into the room and handed the volume to Faith. Casting a final glance at the demon, she opened the book and after several flips, arrived at the indicated page. She scanned through the text as Kennedy peered over her shoulder.

"'Quivel demon'," Faith read. "'Native to the Ohngard dimension. Usually found around potent energy convergences that attract strong forces, both positive and negative. Due to its diminutive size, it survives by making itself useful to whatever forces it perceives as giving it the most protection. Alone, the Quivel itself is ultimately harmless'." The book closed with a snap and all eyes returned to the demon.

"Not the motht glowing review ever written on uth, but thith hopefully allayth thome of your fearth...?" Norg queried pleasantly.

Kennedy ignored him and asked Faith, "What do you think? Can we trust him?"

"Probably not, but if some kid's life's at stake, we can't really afford not to check it out," answered Faith, the other Slayer nodding her agreement. "You stay here, keep an eye on him. I'll get some of the girls and we'll go make like heroes."

Unconcerned at the increased glare from Kennedy, Norg examined his fingernails.

Faith pointed to half the gathered girls, preparing herself for action. "Okay, you guys with me," she commanded. The selected Slayers began to file out of the door. "The rest of you stay here. Kennedy's in charge."

Reaching out, Kennedy caught Faith's arm just as the older woman turned away. "Think we should tell Giles or ... Buffy or something?"

"Nah, we can take care of it. But you don't hear from us in half an hour, tell Oxford."

As Kennedy nodded her understanding, Faith jogged out of the room after her team.

Flanked by half a dozen or so less-experienced Slayers, Faith stepped into the warehouse. To say it looked run-down would have been an insult to run-down warehouses everywhere. There appeared to be only one tiny light bulb in the entire place, but the illumination filtering in from outside was enough; the target's silhouette easily stood out across the building.

The demon was big. Even accounting for tricks of shadow, he was at least six and a half feet tall, with hulking arms and a solid-looking torso. They could make out the outline of his open maw, and the fangs that were revealed.

Totally dwarfed by comparison was the baby he was holding up with both arms. Slowly, he brought it closer to his mouth.

"Jesus!" one of the Slayers quietly gasped.

"Okay, no time for discussion," Faith instructed quietly but with an authoritative force. "Gina, Christi, you get the kid and get him out. Rest of us takes down Big Ugly."

The girls nodded their understanding, and Faith led the movement forward toward the demon. She moved stealthily just long enough to get within good range, then stood up to make herself more visible. "Yo!"

The demon whirled his head toward her, completely stunned by her appearance.

"You gonna just eat it dry like that? I hear they stick in your throat."

Clearly caught off-guard by this turn of events, the demon clumsily moved the arm holding the baby behind him. He spoke with a powerful, raspy voice despite his surprise. "What? Who? What are you—?"

"Put the kid down," Faith advised, advancing slowly. "Then we can chat, woman to ... thing."

The demon glanced behind him briefly as if he didn't know what was already there. Gina and Christi were spreading out from the rest of the group as he turned back to them, a mixture of fear and anger crossed his face. He set the baby down on a nearby crate. "You ... You saw ..."

"And boy do I wish I hadn't," Faith sneered, continuing to advance.

She slowed her approach only slightly to keep a defensible stance as the demon began lumbering toward her. As he fully stepped into what passed for light in the warehouse, the group could see that he looked much like a standard demon, except that he was really big and for some reason sported two sets of ears.

"I won't let you tell ... You can't tell anyone!" he snarled.

Faith held her hands up in a placating gesture. "Hey, no sweat. Your snack of choice – not quite the hot topic you'd think."

"You won't tell!" he bellowed, and sprung at her with surprising speed; she had enough time to prepare herself for his attack, and the Slayers around her moved out accordingly. Gina, followed by Christi, had arrived at the crate and gently picked up the baby.

For the Slayers, the fight between Faith and the demon was something to behold. No amount of practice sparring in the training room or observing of Slayer-on-Slayer combat could compare to the sight of their toughest member going toe-to-toe with such a powerhouse. The two exchanged a few casual but escalating punches that were intended more for sizing up the competition than doing damage. The demon then upped the ante with a strong blow which struck Faith's jaw and sent her spinning.

Acting on instinct and utilizing her momentum, Faith turned her spin into a powerful backhand that caught the monster by surprise. As he stumbled back momentarily, she pounded him a few more times in the head and across the chest. It didn't accomplish much in the way of harm, but even so, his defense became slow, sloppy and weak. She stopped attacking and stood almost entirely upright.

"This is the big threat?" she asked herself in amazement.

Seconds later, the demon lunged into a football-style charge. The Slayer braced herself, but his sheer mass was such that she was pushed off balance and back until she collided with the wall. Before he could capitalize on his position, Faith delivered a one-two combination of knee thrust and groin kick. His bulk caused her kick to land in his stomach instead, but it successfully knocked the wind out of him all the same.

Using the wall for support, she was able to shove him back out to the center of the room with her legs. As she straightened, the demon doing likewise, she glanced at the intimidated Slayers around her, all of whom were giving him a wide berth.

Smirking, Faith crossed her arms and took a step back from the regrouping creature. "This ain't Sunday brunch, folks, step up. Time to put that training to some use."

For just a moment they hesitated, indecisive, until a girl with cropped blonde hair stepped forward to take her shot. Her foe had now regained his composure and the two proceeded to duke it out. The girl took a different tack on the fight than Faith, actually bothering to dodge the demon's swings, which were growing slower by the moment.

His durability wasn't lessening, however, and, seeming to realize she couldn't hurt him, he started to ignore her punches. A slow but lucky jab to the solar plexus left her all but paralyzed long enough for him to grab both her arms at the elbows and deliver a solid head-butt. The thud echoed throughout the warehouse.

A look of concern danced across Faith's face, but it was brief. "Teamwork, people!" she shouted, spurring the others into action.

Another Slayer, short with curly brown hair sprinted up to the demon and hit full-force with a spinning kick. It was enough to make him release his victim. Her savior didn't fair much better with attacks, but she improvised cleverly with a feint to his head that actually ended up as a kick directly on the kneecap. The demon fell heavily to one knee, howling in pain.

She seized his head, intending to twist, but he was too fast and grabbed her arms. However, he was unable to stop the third Slayer, a tall and lanky straight-haired brunette, from successfully snapping his neck and finishing the job.

As the demon collapsed to the floor in a lifeless heap, the blonde stumbled to her feet, still a little dazed. "Holy crap. Are they all like that?"

Faith restrained a chuckle. "Sometimes. That was your first non-vamp, huh?"

"Yeah," the blonde admitted, ruefully rubbing her forehead.

"Not bad. You'll get better." Faith turned to the entire group as she spoke. "You did okay, but'cha can't just sit around on your butts like that. You ain't gonna run, then you gotta hit, an' hit fast. Remember to help each other out. You're all your best chance of survival."

The lesson at an end, she went to Gina and Christi. "You got the kid?"

Gina gave her a hesitant look. "Uh ... Sort of?"

"What do you mean, sort—" Faith began, her voice trailing away as she looked past the two to see what lay on the crate. It was a baby doll, immaculately dressed in a tiny pink frock patterned with little yellow daisies. Its eyes seemed to sparkle despite the dim lighting, and it even wore a diaper.

"Oh man," she groaned, sporting an unusual expression of distaste. "That's just twelve kinds'a wrong."

Norg all but skipped along the darkened street, swinging his briefcase and humming a tuneless melody. The little demon was clearly in good spirits, wrapped up in whatever happy world he was currently inhabiting, and consequently paying little attention to his surroundings. As he passed an alleyway, he failed to see the shadowy form, which watched him intently. Very few details could be discerned, but it was obvious that the figure, like Norg, was well dressed, slightly reddish, and quite probably not human.

"Norg," a voice called out as he strode by without a glance. The tone was refined, inspiring, and contained just a hint of malice. It brought Norg up short and he whirled toward it, startled, but quickly recovering and moving to stand in front of the owner's voice.

"Thir!" he exclaimed with a joy bordering on sycophantic. "I'm thurprithed to thee you. I wath heading back to make my report."

"My last meeting let out early, I thought I'd see how it went," the figure explained conversationally.

"Great," enthused Norg. "Fantathtic. Better than we'd hoped. The Thlayerth were thuthpithiouth at firtht, but I think I won them over." The last statement was tinged with pride, and the little demon puffed out his chest.

"And Marv?"


"Excellent." The statement was laced with approval. "He was a disgrace to us all."

Norg nodded emphatically, a beaming smile plastered to his face. "I couldn't agree more. Playing with dollth?" He snorted in disgust. "We do have a reputation to uphold."

"The Slayers are certainly more effective than a pink slip," mused the figure thoughtfully. "And no need for severance."

"It'th a fantathtic idea. But then, that'th why you're the bosth, Bosth."

"True," came the agreement, although there was no conceit in the word, simply a statement of fact. "How did the Slayers take finding out that it wasn't a baby at all?"

Shrugging, Norg waved a hand dismissively. "Angry at firtht, figuring I'd thet them up or thomething. But I thimply told them that, bathed on the human woman'th reaction and my own eyeth, I had no reathon to think it wath anything but genuine. Thinthe it wathn't a trap for them and they themthelveth believed it to be a real child, they didn't quethtion it much. They interrogated me a bit more, but finally dethided I wath harmleth and let me go."

The pale light from a nearby streetlamp glinted off the teeth of the taller demon as he smiled amid the shadows. "This has been a most productive day," he decided cheerfully. "So what do you think? Karaoke bar?"

Norg grinned and followed his boss into the darkness.

The new Council remains an interesting experiment, but it is clearly no more than that. Once we are at full strength, they will fall, and when they fall, the rest of the world's chaos will soon crumble after them. This simply isn't a question. Order must prevail.

A large, modern conference table was situated in the center of an otherwise unadorned room. Those seated around the table, twenty in total and all male, were impeccably groomed and dressed in a manner that would do any CEO proud. Only one was speaking, the others paying rapt attention to his words. He was reading from a paper-thin device, light gray in color, which gave the appearance of being highly technological. As the man spoke, lines of text traveled up the surface, seeming to appear by magic.

"I will continue to gather information and include all I can in forthcoming reports," the man continued reading.

At the head of the table, his fingers steepled before him and brow creased in thought, sat a man whose demeanor was the very personification of control. Every strand of graying brown hair was in place, his moustache trimmed to lengths that, had they been measured, would have been identical. Each movement he made, including every blink of his eye and every breath that he took, seemed calculated. This was a man devoted to order and there was no room in any aspect of his life for anything but.

Although his disfigurement would have been alarming enough on its own, the aura he radiated only served to draw further attention to the huge, perfectly straight scar on the left side of his face. The puckered skin was pale and shiny, as though the injury had occurred at some point in the man's distant past, but this in no way made the scar any less prevalent, a fact emphasized by the absence of his left earlobe. The elongated scar stretched from where his earlobe had once been, cutting a smooth swath across his cheek and culminating at the corner of his mouth, where the healed flesh had distorted the upper lip into a perpetual smirk. Despite this, however, he rarely appeared amused in the slightest.

Except for now. He smiled.

"Again, I thank the Assemblage for this opportunity to serve them."

The training room was dark, quiet and completely empty, save for one solitary figure standing before the rows of mirrors that composed one of the walls. Typically they were used for those working out on the weight machines to check their positioning, or practitioners of various martial arts to monitor their form. Tonight, however, one of the mirrors was glowing faintly, a rich blue that permeated the room and enveloped it in an ethereal light. The glow pulsated, breathing, it seemed, with a life of its own.

Her report complete, Judith waved a dark crystal in front of the mirror. The intensity of its glow increased for a moment, the crystal echoing the color and hue, before both fell dark and again appeared normal.

Judith remained standing in front of the mirror, regarding her image impartially. Clad only in a thin tank top and pair of boxers, it was apparent that she had recently gotten out of bed. She displayed no emotion whatsoever, nor did she pay any particular attention to the marking over her heart, barely visible beneath the top's strap, of an eye affixed upon an oddly shaped staff.

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