Buffy stepped through the grounds of one of Trillium's cemeteries, stake at the ready and eagle eyes alert, although given the darkness of night, owl eyes might have been more appropriate. She was keeping a careful lookout on the area for the usual signs of possible trouble: disturbed plots, freshly laid grass, or, more commonly, rampaging vampires or demons.

There wasn't much to see. Everything was nice and neat, all was quiet, and the not-quite-full moon darting between clouds all but assured that even a surprise werewolf attack was out of the question.

"I've seen more exciting wee-morning infomercials than this," she mused, her tone nearly that of complaint.

As she continued to move through the cemetery, each stride became a little more tense, the anticipation of an attacked increasing. Still, nothing appeared willing to oblige her expectations.

"It's probably a bit optimistic to think the world's run out of evil, right?"

Buffy continued on further, and as if to answer the rhetorical question, there came a noise. Not the hiss of a vampire or roar of a demon, nor admittedly even the growl of a werewolf, but instead a feeble, pitiful moaning sound. A surprised expression crossed her face, but only for a moment as she quickly moved to the source of the sound, coming from behind a particularly large headstone.

It was a human, most likely a boy considering the pitch. In the shadows, Buffy could make out that he was dressed in some sort of formalwear. He was lying prone on his stomach in suffering.

She set down the stake and reached over to him. "Hang in there, I'll—"

One of his hands thrust out and latched onto her wrist in a powerful grip, making her jump just a little, while the other arm started to extend toward her. The moon had emerged from behind the clouds again and, in the increased light, she could see that although the shape and clothes were human, this was no boy. Her disgust at the sickly, grayish flesh was second only to the foul rotting stench that invaded her nostrils.

She managed to jerk her hand away, but only after several tries. Getting back to her feet, Buffy tried to rub the offensive residue off her wrist with her other hand, but only succeeded in getting that hand contaminated as well.

"Eugh," she observed. "You know, when my stomach gets queasy, you've spent too much time in funkytown."

The corpse shambled along the ground toward her, mostly using one arm and semi-mobile legs to move. The motions, along with a viewing which was definitely more extensive than recommended, convinced the Slayer that it was without a doubt a formerly living human, wearing a dress shirt and pants. Though decomposition had obviously set in, the body still had some semblance of eyes in its sockets that managed somehow to remain fixed on her as it advanced.

Buffy's casual backing away from the thing was interrupted by another, even softer moan from behind. A second corpse ambling from the opposite direction blocked her retreat. Its movements were virtually identical to first, complete with outstretched arm and slow-crawling action, but this one appeared to be female, larger and older than the boy, and wearing a deep blue dress.

"I'd love to stay for the picnic, guys, but I forgot my body of rotting flesh, so—"

She turned to run, but tripped unexpectedly, stumbling to the ground. Looking down at her ankle, Buffy could see an undead hand grasping her leg. She tried to shake it off, but things apparently were not going to be that easy. Rearing back her other foot and depositing a swift kick on the hand only made it twitch; the grip remained surprisingly firm.

The other two cadavers were steadily drawing nearer, the closest outstretched arm mere inches away. Again, Buffy tried to pull herself free of the hand, but she simply didn't have enough strength or leverage on the soft ground. Looking from one approaching arm to the other, she realized that there was no escape. One putrid hand seized her left arm—

Buffy snapped awake in her bed, breathing a heartfelt sigh of relief as she realized she was no longer in danger of becoming a three-way wishbone in the hands of zombies. She rubbed at her wrist distastefully as though it were still coated with goo.

"The ability to shower after a dream like this?" she muttered to herself. "Priceless."

"Where the Heart is"

Story by: Jet Wolf and Ultrace
Written by: Jet Wolf and Ultrace
Tireless support and mucho de editing assistance by: Novareinna

Original Airdate: Tuesday, 11 May 2004, 8pm EST

Act One

The four household members who were not Buffy were downstairs having breakfast, which consisted of waffles, toast, eggs, some strips of bacon and a few other choice delicacies. Judging from the plates in front of each person, the majority of food was being consumed by Kennedy, although Willow, Xander and Dawn were each contributing their fair share.

"It's not like it's that important," Dawn complained as she waved around a fork-impaled waffle around, her voice brimming with mild protestation. "What does it matter who the King of France was in 1600? I mean, he's dead, and he was French."

Xander poked his own laden fork at her, as though they would soon duel. "And while I can't argue with those two facts, it's still important to know about things older than last week. They've got a saying just for stuff like that. It has to do with remembering and the past." He waved his fork for good measure before shoveling its contents into his mouth. "I forget exactly what."

All three women rolled their eyes, managing for a brief moment to find some common ground in the face of XanderLogic.

"Regardless," he continued, feeling very much that he was on a roll, "classic European History is a vital, crucial subject that every student needs to learn."

Studying him with a critical eye, Dawn swallowed her last bite of breakfast. "You failed that one, didn't you," she stated flatly, not making it a question.

Xander blinked at her, then turned to Willow. "Did I fail that one?" he asked conversationally.

The redhead nodded brightly. "Yup. As I recall, Mr. Drachensten wasn't even mildly persuaded to give you half credit when said King Louis VI made milk safe to drink."

Dawn looked at Xander with a droll expression.

"Uh, wasn't that Louis Pasteur?" asked Kennedy with a raised eyebrow.

"Hey, I got half his name, I shoulda got half his points," the carpenter insisted with an exaggerated shrug.

"Bottom line, you're not staying home from school today," stated Willow with finality as she jabbed into her eggs. "It's way too early in the school year to be playing hooky anyway."

Dawn started picking up her empty plates. "You think summer school is too early to play hooky," she pointed out.

"Hey now," the redhead protested, a lock of mock offense on her face. "There's plenty of good learning to be had there. That's a whole 33% more knowledge opportunity just waitin' to happen. But I tell ya what, we'll compromise. When July rolls around, you can skip all you want, and I won't make a peep."

"Gee, thanks Mom," retorted Dawn on her way to the kitchen, rolling her eyes, but smirking anyway, clearly having expected no different outcome. She put her dishes in the sink and headed upstairs to finish getting ready.

"Ah, kids," Xander sighed wistfully. "Today it's playin' hooky, tomorrow it'll be a bold and highly visible tattoo to signify her individuality ..." he paused to consider, then turned to look at Willow.

"She is not getting a tattoo," replied Willow, quiet but forceful.

"Damn straight," he agreed.

Interrupting the debate, or lack thereof, Buffy entered the dining room. She didn't seem tired as such, but she was far from her usual morning self – and considering that her usual morning self was about half as cheerful as the average dental patient, that was saying something.

"Well, look who decided to join the land of the living," Kennedy remarked, with just a hint of snide.

"And after last night, never happier to be there," enthused Buffy, ignoring the sentiment of Kennedy's statement.

Willow regarded her quizzically. "You went out last night?"

"Never left my bed. That didn't stop me from tangling with a trio of zombies."

"Just three zombies?" an unimpressed Kennedy asked on her way to the kitchen with her dirty dishes.

"Well, they weren't your usual walking dead," Buffy shot at the other Slayer's retreating back. "For one thing, they were crawling. And they were really strong. Oh, and stinky," she added, wrinkling her nose.

Xander cocked his head thoughtfully to one side. "Would you say they were more Resident Evil or House of the Dead?" All heads turned to look at him. "They were movies too," he defended.

Kennedy ducked briefly back into the dining room to snatch a kiss from Willow. "Gotta run, early training class today."

"Give 'em hell," the witch grinned.

Buffy poured herself some orange juice as Kennedy left, and after taking a sip, continued. "I dunno what kind of zombies they were, but this didn't feel like just a dream."

"More bad-evil visions of an apocalyptic future?" Willow asked hesitantly.

Xander extended the palms of both hands, as if to shield himself from an unseen assailant. "After Hellgods and the prime evil of the world? Not so sure we can handle some smelly dead people crawling across the ground."

"Actually, it was more like ..." Buffy paused. "It didn't seem like they weren't out to get me, more like they wanted my help. The way they reached out ..."

"Yeah, I've heard they do that," nodded Xander. "Right before they snack on your brain."

Buffy was adamant. "No, seriously. Something's definitely weird about this."

"No problem, nothing we can't handle," Willow assured. "I can do some research, see if there's been anything else like this an' stuff going on. We're on the case." She beamed, then the smile faltered just a little. "Uh, got any info that might help us out? Cuz three zombies ... Not a lot to go on."

"Apart from the strong and stinky?" queried Buffy, looking a bit lost. She mulled it over. "There were three of them ... A little boy, a woman, and ... a hand."

Xander stared at her. "A hand," he repeated.

"A hand," Buffy verified. "I mean, I guess it was attached to a body, but that was still in the ground, so ..." She shrugged.

"Are we talking a Palmolive hand, or mighty fist of Conan?"

"Definitely more Conan," she confirmed. "Not much with the softness of dishwashing."

Willow frowned, digging for more helpful clues. "Were they wearing anything special?" She suddenly looked hopeful. "Oh, maybe one of those 'Hello, my name is fill-in-the-blank' tags?" The combined glances she received were enough for her to revisit the statement. "They coulda died at a convention," she grumbled, obviously fond of her idea.

Buffy shook her head. "Not so helpful. Just your usual funeral wear ... The kid had on a gray suit, the woman had on this blue dress. Really blue." She thought it over. "Clashed with her hair."

"Really blue?" Xander asked, smirking at Willow. "Just like that thing last month."

Willow chuckled. "You mean with the paper?"

"And it got all crinkled up ..."

"And we were all like, 'blue!'"

They both cracked up, laughing uproariously and utterly unable to control themselves. After a good half-minute, they slowly began to take notice of Buffy, who looked from one to the other, completely and totally at a loss. It took much visible effort, but Willow reigned herself in sufficiently to attempt an explanation.

"About a month ago ... We had this paper."

"It was blue," Xander interjected. "Bluer than blue. Its blue scale went to 11."

Dawn had reentered the dining room to collect the rest of her books, her backpack slung over one shoulder.

Willow continued, "So, somehow, it gets crinkled—"

Comprehension dawned on the teenager's face and she giggled. It was contagious, and as Xander and Willow turned to her, they started laughing again as well.

All three regarded each other and, in eerie unison, exclaimed "Blue!" dissolving into peels of laughter.

An expression devoid of even the barest understanding had never once left Buffy's face. Indeed, it now appeared as though it were prepared to set up residence for quite some time.

Stomping through the halls of Slayer Central, Buffy was lost in her own private world of irritation and feeling rather inclined to publicly voice it.

"'It's blue! Ah-ha-ha-ha!'" the Slayer faux-laughed in a high-pitched tone dripping with bitterness. Her expression darkened, abandoning all pretense of cheer, false or otherwise, as she grumbled. "Yeah, well ... I know stuff. Funny stuff. Stuff of much funniness that will invoke hilarity and initiate numerous guffaws ... if your name happens to be 'Buffy'," she grudgingly added, with a frustrated pout. "Nyh! It's not fair. How dare they go and find stuff funny without me, just because I happened to be gone for months and months? Isn't there a law against that?"

Lounging casually against a nearby wall, two Slayers watched Buffy as she passed, shooting each other 'check out the crazy chick' glances and smirking. Neither of which was lost on the Senior Slayer, and she rounded on the girls.

"Oh! Oh sure! Go ahead and stare! It's not like I'm busy laughing with my best friends or anything!" she exclaimed angrily. Waving her hands around in the air did little to dispel the image of a Buffy with only a tenuous grip on sanity. "No, I'm over here, not laughing at the joke for which I 'had to be there'. But hey! The there was here when I was there. And if that makes any sense to you, then can you explain it to me, because I think I'm confusing myself."

The pause was brief before the girls took off, far and fast, as though Buffy were the single most terrifying thing they had ever encountered which, given their calling, was certainly saying something.

Buffy watched the dwindling figures and sighed. "Great," she muttered, "now I probably just became somebody else's in-joke." Hanging her head, she continued down the hall, pushing open the door to the private training room. "Giles? Andrew said you were here. I could really use some of the mundanity of quality Watcher/Slayer ... time ..."

Fully entering the room, Buffy took in the sight of quality Watcher/Slayer time. Her face fell as her brain registered the fact that while the Watcher half of the equation was correct, the Slayer part was completely, utterly, inexorably wrong.

Wearing a pair of padded, oversized punch mitts, a sweaty Giles was issuing corrections to an equally sweaty Faith. She swung at him, forcing the Watcher to grit his teeth against the impact, but his critiquing never wavered.

"You're still over-extending yourself," he pointed out patiently. "Too much power, not enough finesse."

"I think we just found my life's catch phrase," Faith smirked, cocking her arm back and unleashing another series of punches.

Giles tsk'ed audibly and frowned at the Slayer. "I could've gotten in at least two blows with that one," he admonished. "You've got to keep your guard up, stop throwing everything behind your attacks."

Her brow furrowing, Faith tried again, and Giles actually rolled his eyes at the effort.

"Now you're just getting sloppy. Reign back the—"

Frustration evident, Faith thew a jab into Giles' outstretched hand with such strength that it was thrown back into his own face, on a direct collision course. "—force," he finished weakly with a groan, pulling off the offending mitt and sinking into the seat of the nearest weight machine. He rubbed his nose tenderly.

"Crap, sorry Oxford," Faith apologized, lowering her hands from the battle stance and moving to stand next to him. She peered down at Giles, trying to get a good look at his injury. "You okay?"

In an instant, Buffy was at Giles' side, a protective hand placed firmly on his shoulder as she glared accusingly at Faith. "What're you doing?" she demanded.

Giles smiled fondly at Buffy's concern, and he patted her hand comfortingly. "It's all right," he soothed. "I think my nose is just—"

"Beating up on Giles is my job!" continued Buffy, shooting daggers at the dark Slayer.

Allowing his hand to fall, Giles gazed into the distance with a pensive expression. "My father was right – being a Watcher is so very rewarding."

"Just a little training, B," shrugged Faith, smirking at the blonde. "You know how it is, gotta keep up the skills."

"Yeah, but with my Giles?" Buffy's glare continued to try and bore burning holes into Faith's skull as she tightened her death grip on Giles' shoulder.

The pain in his nose now forgotten, Giles pried Buffy's fingers out of his flesh, doing his best not to cringe. "Faith may not have an official Watcher, per se," he explained, breathing a sigh of relief as the last of Buffy's fingers detached itself, "but it's still vitally important that she maintain a regular training schedule."

Buffy regarded Faith questioningly. "I thought you hated Watchers?"

"An' what better way to indulge it than beatin' the tar outta one every week?" replied Faith with a grin.

"I could have been a greengrocer," Giles mused to himself, "lived the high life of selling vegetables and various tins of processed foods, but alas ..."

Irritation quickly giving way to poutiness, Buffy's voice adopted a tone usually reserved for little girls wanting an ice cream cone. "But ... this was supposed to be mundane Watcher/Slayer time."

Giles rose to his feet, clearly peevish. "You know, I'm fairly certain that once upon a time, I was respected." The Watcher glanced first from Buffy to Faith, taking in their blank stares. He sighed. "Or perhaps that was a hallucination brought on by any one of a number of head injuries over the years."

"I thought we could ... you know ... do Watcher/Slayer stuff," began Buffy plaintively, but she quickly got excited as an idea occurred to her. "Oh, like you could tell me how to do something, then I could not do it, and you could get all huffy and British about it!" She punctuated her brilliant suggestion with a bright smile.

Faith lightly slapped Buffy's upper arm with the back of her hand, drawing the other woman's attention. "If you're lookin' for someone to spar with, B, I'm up for it. Been a while since you an' me had a good fight."

"I think you were evil at the time," stated Buffy with a wistful expression.

"Those were the days," Faith commented, mirroring the blonde's look.

The two of them paused, sharing the moment.

Buffy broke the silence first. "Actually though, no offense, I was thinking, ... You know. Me and Giles." Turning to Giles, the blonde gazed at him with regret. "I used to love us training."

Giles, however, had a different recollection of events, and he regarded the Slayer with a frown. "I seem to recall you telling me, 'I would rather have my fingernails ripped out with a pair of pliers and be forced to wear Laura Ashley every day for the rest of my life than train'."

"Yeah, but there was love, deep deep down in there," countered Buffy.

"Well, all right then," the Watcher smiled cheerfully, slipping his hand back into the punch mitt. "If you wish to train, we shall train. You can come to my office tomorrow and we'll work out a schedule." He raised his hands as he turned back to Faith, nodding for her to resume the workout and completely missing the crestfallen look on Buffy's face.

"Tomorrow?" she asked with the barest hint of disappointment. "But tomorrow's so ... not today ..."

Giles walked slowly around the edge of the mat, matching Faith's movements as he remained focused on her. "No, that is rather inherent," he supplied off-hand.

"What happened to today?"

He spared the blonde a brief glance, never removing his eyes from Faith for more than a fraction of a second. "I'm afraid I have very little free time today," he explained. "After I finish with Faith I have several meetings to attend. We're currently working at repairing the rift between the old Council and the Covens, and I really can't be absent." Frowning, Giles considered his upcoming commitments. "Actually, now I think about it, I believe the bulk of tomorrow is filled as well. I'll have to check my calendar," he decided, but smiled reassuringly at Buffy. "Thursday, however, I'm certain you can come by and we'll get your training schedule sorted."

With the bulk of his attention focused on the Slayer swinging at him, Giles failed to catch the flash of pain that crossed Buffy's face. She stood there for a moment, watching Faith and Giles circle each other and suddenly looking very uncomfortable and out of place.

Buffy laughed in soft amazement, although there was no real humor in the sound. "Wow, everyone's so busy!" she observed with false cheer. "Thursday. Huh. Yup, just ... pencil me in for Thursday. I'm ... glad I talked to you in enough time for you to just squeeze me on in there."

Holding up a hand to stop Faith's next blow, Giles turned to Buffy, frowning at her with concern. "Is everything all right?" he asked.

"Sure, what's not to be right?" the blonde replied with the same overly perky tone. "I'll ... see you Thursday then."

Heedless of both Giles and Faith's questioning looks, Buffy walked out of the room.

The sun shone brightly through the skylight overhead, bathing the library in a warm glow that did absolutely nothing to dispel the irritated frown darkening Willow's features as she glowered at her laptop. Nearby, at one of the library's fixed computer terminals, Xander was clicking with his mouse at regular intervals, seemingly oblivious to his friend's deteriorating mood.

"You'd think by now I'd stop counting on Hellmouth morgues to only have a few recent deaths," the witch complained.

Xander glanced up briefly before returning to his own monitor. "No joy, huh?"

"Only if you consider sifting through a couple thousand coroners' reports joyful." Willow's tone made it quite evident that she, for one, did not.

"Thanks, I'll pass. Besides, I'm busy over here tryin' desperately to get outta pop-up hell," replied Xander, waving his hand at the machine.

The redhead's disgruntlement evaporated under her amusement. "Xander Harris, are you lookin' at naughty sites again?" she asked in an exaggeratedly chastising tone.

Looking positively mortified, Xander raised an indignant hand to his chest. "I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about, I remain the picture of innocence," he protested, adding, after a slight pause, "You want me to bookmark the good ones for ya?"

With a smirk and an indulgent shake of her head, Willow's focus returned to her computer, and the two continued working. Xander's futile clicking picked up speed as though that would somehow break through the never-ending cycle.

"I wish Buffy could've given us something else to go on," Willow finally said. "I mean, 'dead' and 'stinky', not really the sort of search words I can punch in, y'know?"

"What do you make of this dream?" asked Xander, giving up completely on the computer. "Think it's really one of those visiony things?"

Continuing to type, the witch shrugged her shoulders. "Maybe. It's hard to tell sometimes. But if Buffy thinks it is, it's worth checkin'."

"Oh, totally," the carpenter replied without hesitation. "Just that you think maybe she's ... I dunno. Reaching?"

Willow glanced at Xander, confused. "Reaching?"

"Yeah, you know. Sort of ... embellishing. So we can all do stuff together again."

The witch smirked as she turned back to her laptop. "I'd really rather she bring up a movie night or something. Much less headachy. And I'd like to cast my vote now for 'buttery popcorn' smell over 'rotting corpse'."

Xander wasn't so easily dismissive. "Oh it's out there, no doubt. But maybe she's feeling a bit disconnected."

"Think that'll happen when you spend a few years avoiding your friends for a souled-yet-otherwise-unchanged vampire before running off to frolic through the highlands?" retorted Willow with a snort.


"Just a tad."

"I think she's trying, though," Xander continued. "In her special Buffy way. I mean, we're glad to have her back, so why all the drama?"

Willow's eyes flicked briefly from the computer screen but she remained silent.

"We are glad to have her back, right?" he pressed.

"Yes!" Willow insisted forcibly, but she quickly deflated after the outburst. "Yes, of- of course I'm glad she's back! See me glad? This is me! All with the gladness. Watch me glad!" Pausing, she weakly added, "Yay?"

Xander fixed Willow with a flat stare. "Let's have the 'but'."

"Buuuut ... I dunno. There is no 'but'? No, no, there's a 'but'," she answered herself quickly, proceeding to engage in a heated conversation-of-one. "Definite 'but' action going on here. But I don't know the 'but'. But how can I not know the 'but'? The 'but''s just hangin' out there, makin' us grouchy when- when all we want is to be not-grouchy a-an' 'but'-free', but I—"

Wearing an extremely pained grimace, Xander broke in, "Will, you're hurting me."

"Sorry," she said sheepishly.

"And may I say that I could live the rest of my life never hearing you talk about 'but's hanging anywhere ever again," the carpenter added pointedly.

"Sorry," Willow apologized again, but with an amused grin this time. "I dunno. I guess it's just hard. I-It's like I feel like I've been waiting so long for her to come back to us – really come back to us – that now it looks like maybe she has, I don't know what to do."

Xander furrowed his brow, giving the matter serious thought before his eyes lit up as the answer revealed itself. "Here's a zany thought: be happy?"

"Oh, sure, when you put it that way ..." Willow huffed grumpily, turning back to her laptop.

"It's that simple, isn't it?"

"Is it?" she countered. "I think things stopped being that simple the second she said, 'Hi, I'm Buffy'."

But Xander would not be dissuaded. "Well maybe it's time you both just made 'em that simple again," he stated.

"Starting with some good ol' fashioned Scooby detective work?"

"Can't beat the classics," he smiled.

Nighttime spread over the valleys and wooded areas of Trillium like a black and ominous blanket. Buffy walked along in the dark, using the moon and her own keen senses to see by. She was alongside a roadway atop a small hill. Below and in the distance, the city proper sprawled, the regular arrangement of lights forming a lattice of illumination.

Her reverie was broken by a moan from behind, and it was almost with a sigh that she turned to see the three zombies before her once again, this time all of them up and about. It looked as though the mostly-buried corpse from before had indeed once been a man.

"This is like Night of the Living Dead or something," came the near-complaint. "You know, I hate the classics."

There was more mobility to the trio than previously displayed, all on two feet instead of crawling. It was nothing that Buffy couldn't easily outwalk, but they were definitely moving too quickly to simply ignore. Gone were the formal outfits; in their stead were t-shirts and jeans for the males with a pair of casual slacks for the woman of the group. The boy wore a jacket, the like of a fancy private school. In contrast to the rest of the clothes, the jacket stood out by virtue of its bright gold and green colors, and for the crest insignia it bore: the red head of a griffin overlaid on a shield of gold and black.

Holding up her hands, Buffy backed away from the zombies. "Really, we've gotta stop meeting like this."

It was then that one of the zombies actually spoke for the first time. The voice was rasping, rather like trying to polish a brick with sandpaper, but it was understandable nonetheless. "Heeelp," the older male slurred.

"Yeah, see, I'd like to help you out and everything." Buffy's tone was empathetic. "But I don't know what you want."

It was the woman who beseeched her next, though the voice was also so rough as to be ambiguous of gender. "Heeelp," she pleaded.

Continuing to step away, Buffy raised an admonishing finger. "And by the way, if what you want is to eat my brain, I have to warn you, that could put a serious crimp in our dreamtime relationship."

It was unlikely that the walking dead got the joke or that they found any humor in it. They were, however, definitely slowing in their pursuit. They seemed more hesitant to come after Buffy, who now stood at the edge of the road. As she stepped fully into the center of the paved surface, the zombies stopped altogether.

It was, without doubt a puzzling development, and the Slayer made no effort to hide it. "You don't want to step into the road? What's so special about it?" Buffy looked back and forth between the road and the zombies, apparently trying to formulate a connection. "I mean, it's not like it's going to—"

Whether by intuition, a flash of movement, or some imperceptible sound, Buffy turned her head to the right, looking down the length of the paved lane, and did so just in time to see a very large, very fast truck, speeding toward her and less than twenty feet away.

Surprised into immobility, she stared at the oncoming vehicle. "—kill you?"

Jerking upright, Buffy blinked her eyes in the morning light, apparently surprised to not find herself a highway statistic. She flopped backward, unspeakably pleased to discover soft, comfy sheets instead of cold, hard asphalt beneath her head.

"Once – just once – I'd like to wake up in a cold sweat over sunshine and daffodils. And I don't even care that that made no sense."

Act Two

A huge bear-sized yawn punctuated Buffy's arrival downstairs. She had changed out of her pajamas, though given her otherwise disheveled appearance, it must have been a close battle. Dark circles were beginning to form under her eyes and she nearly bumped into the wall as she rounded the corner into the kitchen. It was clear that the Slayer's night had been far from restful.

Dragging herself through the kitchen toward the dining room, she began to pick up the traces of a conversation in progress.

"...blue," Willow stated, causing Buffy's teeth to instantly grit together. However she was the Slayer, and no force on earth – not even a replay of her horrible morning the day before – was going to defeat her.

Steeling herself with a deep breath, Buffy entered the dining room, laughing with an exaggerated force that tried so very hard to be genuine. "HAHAHAHAHA—"

The laugh died in her throat as she saw Dawn standing before Willow and Xander, holding up two shirts, one green and the other blue. All three were staring at Buffy with wide-eyed expressions ranging from mild confusion to abject terror.

Buffy looked as though she wished she were dead. Again. Then she cleared her throat nervously and attempted to recover. "There was this ... thing. Funny thing. Last night, on TV Land. 'Three's Company' rerun. See, Mr. Furley thought that Jack was gay which led to this big misunderstanding and ..." It wasn't working. She cleared her throat and tried a new approach. "So, waffles?"

Meekly, Buffy slid into one of the chairs around the table and helped herself to a glass of juice. Dawn draped the two shirts over the back of a vacant chair and sat down next to Buffy as the morning valiantly strove to return to whatever passed for normal. Willow was still deeply engrossed with her laptop and Xander shoveled a mouthful of syrupy waffle into his mouth before focusing on the Slayer.

"So, how'd you sleep last night, Buff?" he inquired after a big gulp of milk. "Any more scenes out of Evil Dead?"

Rubbing her forehead, Buffy nodded. "Yeah, actually. And may I say? Getting tedious."

"Maybe you need a Boomstick," Xander offered helpfully.

"Nah, those things're never useful."

Willow glanced up from her research, frustration evident. "Don't suppose they were kind enough to provide ya with names or anythin' this time, huh?" She waved a disgusted hand at the computer. "We turned up, oh, about a bajillion possibilities yesterday."

Dawn speared her last sausage link and considered it thoughtfully. "Just how much is 'a bajillion' anyway?" she queried.

"It's how many days you're gonna be grounded if you're late for school again, now get moving," shooed Buffy.

Biting into the sausage like she wished it were something bigger and more sistery, Dawn finished her breakfast and stomped upstairs.

Frowning as she tried to recall as many details as possible, Buffy turned to Willow. "Their vocabulary was pretty limited, but the little boy did have something on his jacket. Sort of a symbol, like this feathery-lion-eagle thing."

"A griffin?" asked Willow excitedly.

Buffy shrugged. "Sure. Why not."

Eyes shining, Willow leapt back into her computer research. "Oo, I think that ... " she began, trailing off as the clackity sounds of her fingers flying over the keyboard filled the room.

"Aaaand she's off in WillowSpace, where non-brains fear to tread," Xander grinned, watching his friend work.

Considering the absorbed hacker carefully, Buffy asked Xander, "Have you ever wondered just how much we could mess with her when she's like this?"

"I nearly covered her with rubber spiders one time, but I chickened out," he admitted.

"She can be pretty scary with the right motivation."

With a chuckle, Xander corrected, "I was more afraid of being twenty years old and still in eighth grade because she stopped helping me in math."

Buffy shuddered at the thought. "Brr. I think I prefer my zombies."

"Got it!" Willow exclaimed happily as she pointed to the monitor, oblivious to any other conversation. Buffy and Xander both fixed their entire attention on the redhead as she revealed her findings. "The crest, it-it's from Sorenson Academy, a private school here in town. I crosschecked their student roster with the list we made yesterday, and I got a match. Stephen Toriello, 12 years old. He died about two weeks ago in a car accident on Avalon Hill. That's about five miles out of town. Tricky roads out there, real bendy."

"Drunk driving or something?" asked Buffy, leaning over slightly to peer at the laptop.

Reading for a moment, Willow shook her head. "The report says the police think the father fell asleep at the wheel or something." She reviewed the information further. "The crash killed the whole family – a husband, wife, one of their sons ... Everyone except Ryan, the oldest. He was thrown out of the car. It says they found him alive, but in a coma."

"Sounds like a good place to start," concluded Xander before turning to the Slayer. "Now my next question is: where are these zombies, and are brains on the menu? Cuz if so, I'm thinkin' that stopping them before lunchtime might be a good idea."

"They didn't seem to be on the hunt for munchies, but crawling out of your grave, you can work up a pretty big appetite. And I speak from experience," Buffy smirked. "We'll have to find them, just in case." She considered her options, then broke into a pleased smile. "And lucky for us, we have a zombie hunting squad all eagerly ready and willing to leap into the fray."

On one side of the rec room, there was a variety six-pack of Slayers. Blue-, green- and brown-eyed girls; blonde, brown, black and auburn hair, in curls, straight styles and even something that looked like a cross between a buzz cut and a mohawk. Some appeared almost at attention, others slouched with crossed arms. None, however, seemed very lively.

And on the other side was Buffy, who had enough liveliness for all of them.

"So, these zombies could be out there anywhere right now," she animatedly explained. "If they are, we need to find them before someone becomes the main ingredient in a brain soufflé."

A couple of the listening Slayers looked at each other dubiously. The gesture was lost on Buffy, who continued laying out plans, occasionally pointing in directions as she did so.

"Now, it's daylight, so there shouldn't be much going on, and no problems with splitting up. We can cover more ground that way. Anyone sees zombie action, call me and we can take the situation from there."

Slowly, Buffy's expression began to reflect her appraisal of the group's mood, but she pressed on. "Are there any questions?"

Several seconds of silence later, it was certain there were no questions.

"Alright. Excellent. Good luck," she nodded.

None of the Slayers moved. Buffy blinked at them.

"I can't help but notice that nobody is actually leaving to find zombies," Buffy pointed out.

A few more of the Slayers looked at each other. A couple shifted their weight to the other foot but otherwise remained unmoving.

Buffy made a sweeping gesture toward the outside with her hands. "I've given you a fray ... Go leap into it!"

One of the Slayers toward the front stepped forward slightly. She was obviously somewhat intimidated, but bolstered by her fellow Slayers' lack of action. "No offense, but we don't really feel like it."

"You don't ... Feel like it?" Buffy's repeated slowly, as though the words were foreign. "This isn't a hobby, girls, it's a job. Our job. And we do it every day. There are people out there who need our help. We help them."

"That why I heard you took a two month vacation?" a curly-haired redhead asked.

There was a palpable sense of solidarity and resistance in the group, and while it was admirable that they were working together as a team, it wasn't when they were doing so against Buffy. Her expression, first a little hurt at the words, quickly switched to irritation. "Okay, now you listen—"

"What's goin' on?" Seven heads turned toward Faith, who was approaching the gathering from the side. She stopped just short of actually stepping between Buffy and the other Slayers. Her anger was clear, but the target wasn't.

"Colonel Buffy is here trying to tell us what to do," Curly told her, pointing an accusing finger. "Send us off on some zombie hunt."

"So why the hell ain't you doin' it?" Faith demanded. The effect was like extinguishing a candle—all flames of defiance died in those few words, and without moving at all the Slayers seemed to cringe collectively as a group. "She says somethin's important and needs checkin', it's important an' needs checkin'." Leveling a glare at each and every assembled Junior, Faith's expression brokered no disagreement whatsoever. "So what exactly you waitin' for, an engraved invitation?"

Only too happy to escape Faith's wrath, the Slayers scampered out of the room without even so much as a glare back at Buffy, but that was okay because she was busily glaring at her counterpart. "What was all that about? I ask them to do something, you bark out orders, yet somehow I'm 'Colonel Buffy' and they happily run off to do your bidding?"

Faith shook her head. "Problem wasn't whatcha said or how you said it, B. You gotta understand, most'a these girls don't got a clue who you are." She put her hands on her hips "Ones that do, mostly they heard that you split right after we got here. Why should they listen to you?"

Buffy's indignity was at an all-time high. "Because I've been doing this, what, fifty times longer than they have? Died twice? Seen things they can't imagine? Stopped more apocalypses than I can count on one hand?" Buffy recounted, extending a finger for each reason, and withdrew her hand as she made the last statement.

"And how they supposed to know that? You think we sung 'em to bed at night with songs 'bout how great you are?"

"So that's how it is," Buffy concluded quietly with a shake of her head.

"Hey, ain't no station in this town for the pity train," Faith snapped without sympathy. She spread her arms wide, indicating the area around them. "You see all this? This is us bustin' our asses."

She noticed the hurt on Buffy's face and curbed herself a little. "Look, all I'm sayin' is, give it time. Me, Red, Oxford ... We know you got it where it counts," she jabbed a thumb over her shoulder in the direction of the departed Slayers, "but they don't. They can't. Ya just gotta prove yourself before you can expect 'em to follow ya around."

"I didn't have time to prove myself right now," Buffy protested. "People could be dying."

"An' that's why I gotcher back. But don't forget, they're not weapons and tools, B. They're people. Just like us."

The words carried an impact, and Buffy's anger was beginning to burn off. She smirked, just a little. "I dunno, did you see the one with that hair? Didn't seem too much like us to me."

Faith shrugged. "Okay, so Elise ain't quite like us. But she's still a person. And you oughta see her staking, she's like, I dunno, an artist or somethin'."

There were a few moments of silence, where it appeared neither knew how to continue the conversation, or if they even needed to, but Buffy finally did. "Thanks. For ... you know."

"No big, don't make a deal of it," Faith shrugged.

Buffy chuckled. "I can't believe you just lectured me on how to handle them."

The thought seemed to occur to Faith for the first time. She looked genuinely surprised. "Yeah, I did, huh?" She grinned delightedly. "That was pretty cool."

"You know what the witchy world needs?" Willow queried cheerfully. "A magazine. Like a- a journal, where we can all publish articles with stuff we've learned. With titles like 'Hellebore: Ten Unknown Uses' and 'Familiarize Your Familiar'," her tone grew darker and considerably more irked. "And 'How To Make Tedious Spell Modifications The Most Fun Thing Ever'."

Only barely restraining the urge to throw down her pen, Willow glared at the book lying open between her and Giles. They were both taking meticulous notes, their individual legal pads overflowing with writing and intricate diagrams.

"I believe I saw at least one of those article titles while waiting in line at the supermarket recently," commented Giles as he finished scribbling something onto the pad.

Smirking, Willow bent back to her work and watched Giles out of the corner of her eye. "Was it the headliner for your most recent Enquirer?"

"Like I'd pay money for that rubbish," he snorted in an offended tone. "It was Weekly World News, I believe."

"The polar opposite to 'rubbish', of course," the redhead grinned.

Neglecting the book for a moment, Giles felt the need to defend his reading habits. "I'll have you know there's an element of truth to that rag. You'd be amazed at how many reported portents of the apocalypse actually are portents of the apocalypse."

Willow also ignored the task in front of her, clearly finding this new activity much more enjoyable. "So, you've been able to prove once and for all that Bat Boy's a vampire?" she asked.

"I can say with complete certainty that I have absolutely no idea what Bat Boy is supposed to be," Giles responded with something like wonder in his voice, earning a laugh from Willow.

"Still though," she continued, waving her pen at the materials in front of them, "we've been at this for hours now. Even I'm startin' to get bored."

Giles nodded his understanding, but was adamant. "Given the complexity of the spell, however, and its importance, it's best to be thorough."

"Oh, I'm not complaining," the witch responded. She took note of Giles' questioning eyebrow. "Okay, I am complaining, but yeah. Important, I know."

With the smallest of frowns, Giles picked up the legal pad and flipped back over several pages filled with tiny handwriting and copious notes. "I confess, the more I learn about this spell, the more concerned I'm becoming for your safety," he admitted. "I-It was designed for use by an entire coven of powerful witches. As vital as this information is, it's not worth risking you." He replaced the pad in front of him and turned to Willow. "If you feel at all uncomfortable ..."

"I don't," she immediately assured him, maybe just a little too quickly. "I mean, okay, there's the usual fear that goes with casting out this far," Willow conceded before beamed a trusting smile at Giles. "But I've got you there as my anchor. A-An' I know you know that if you let anything happen to me, I'll find some way t'come back and haunt'cha. Infest your dreams with that dancing baby thing from 'Ally McBeal' or somethin'."

"Ah yes, I'm suddenly feeling extremely motivated."

Willow continued to smile for a moment, before it faded, giving way to a much more serious and contemplative expression. She fidgeted in her seat nervously, clearing her throat before broaching a very concerning subject. Giles had picked up on her attitude change, and was waiting expectantly for the witch to voice any worries she might be harboring.

"You don't think ..." she began, but broke off and tried explaining first. "I've done something like this before a-and it was really pretty ... you know ... intense."

Giles nodded, "I'd imagine so. Any time you open yourself to mystical journeys of this sort, you expand your sensitivities ten-fold."

"Right, about that. The ... The multi-folded ... sensitivities." She swallowed hard, suddenly finding it difficult to look at Giles directly as her eyes darted to one side. "I-It's just ... you don't think this'll get at all ..."

Waving her hand, Willow seemed convinced that she had provided enough information to convey her meaning. The expression on the Watcher's face indicated just the opposite, despite his efforts to understand.

"Being intense and all ..." she elaborated, widening her eyes and inclining her head to further prompt him along. Giles could only shake his head and look completely confused.

"You know ..." emphasized Willow, wiggling her eyebrows a little before blushing, thoroughly embarrassed.

Giles remained utterly perplexed for just a moment before the pieces began to fall into place. "Oh," he began, eyes growing wide as the picture became fully formed. "OH! Oh, dear lord," he muttered, visibly blanching.

Nodding, her face now as red as her hair, Willow looked everywhere but at Giles who, for his part, appeared to be beyond disturbed by the faintest hint of a possible suggestion of something so horrendously inappropriate.

"Absolutely not," he vehemently declared, just as Willow cheerfully piped in with, "Good, didn't think so."

Giles polished his glasses fiercely while Willow suddenly found the passage of text she was reading incredibly fascinating.

"If only it were this easy to scrub my brain," Giles muttered to himself.

"Oh, hey look, another use for Hellebore," the witch pointed out with feigned interest.

Clearing his throat, the Watcher replaced his glasses. "While my mind continues to work feverishly on pretending that conversation never occurred, I did want to mention that we may need to take extra precautions with this spell, even beyond those we're already taking. In my meetings with the Covens yesterday, they informed me that they're sensing a serious magickal energy building." He frowned. "It's odd – they can sense it, but can't pinpoint it."

"Sounds very 'something but nothing' to me," reflected Willow.

"Yes, my thoughts exactly."

The research continued in silence for a moment before Willow glanced to Giles. "Doesn't have the same kind of ominous zing as 'From beneath you it devours', does it?"

Giles scrunched up his face and shook his head.

With a deep breath, Buffy strode through the automatic doors of the hospital. Her nose crinkled as the smell hit her – overly clean, sterilized and unmistakable – and she glared at her surroundings with open disdain. Hospitals and Buffy Summers were clearly only barely on speaking terms.

Quickly spotting the reception desk, Buffy headed toward it purposely, wanting very much to do what was necessary and escape, but as ever, life had other plans. The young nurse manning the station, rather than diligent and attentive to her work, was lazily pivoting her chair back and forth in a semi-circle. As she spoke into the phone receiver, she loosely curled the cord around her finger. Glancing up at the Slayer's approach, the nurse remained impassive as Buffy smiled politely, choosing instead to remain attentive to the other conversation. Buffy's smile remained fixed firmly in place, even as her eyes narrowed.

"Aww, baby, you know I miss you too," the nurse cooed. "Every minute's, like ... a really long minute." Buffy rolled her eyes at the poetry. "I wish I was there too."

Buffy cleared her throat loudly, staring pointedly at the nurse, whose response was to twist further away in her chair and block the Slayer from view.

"I get off in an hour," she said suggestively. "I can come by your place."

Any semblance of patience had vanished, and Buffy half-leaned over the front desk, waving her hand back and forth. "Hel-looo...? Already done the invisible routine, Nurse Ratched, I know you can see me."

With an icy glare, the nurse very deliberately continued her conversation. "You can cook me dinner, I can give you dessert—"

"Okay, that's it." The blonde snatched away the phone and slammed it into the cradle.

"Hey!" the nurse exclaimed loudly, scrambling to her feet.

Buffy crossed her arms, not flinching even remotely under the other woman's fury. "Now you've validated my existence, I can give your job meaning," she quipped. "See what a wonderful relationship we've already developed in such a short time? I, for one, am getting all teary just thinking about it."

"Look you—"

"No, you look," the Slayer interrupted, her expression equally furious. "I have had a ... truly sucky couple of days, and I'm not in the mood to add poor customer service to my list of wrongs. I'm here to see someone – point me in the right direction and you can get back to your snookums. Ryan Toriello. He was brought in about two weeks ago, car accident."

All the defiance drained out of the nurse, and her expression softened. She actually looked for the first time like a person who devoted her entire life to caring for others. "You know Ryan?" she asked tentatively.

The change took Buffy slightly aback, and she too allowed her irritation to fade. "I'm a ... friend of the family."

Breathing a sigh of relief, the nurse gazed at Buffy with a hopeful expression. "Oh, thank god, maybe you can help him."


"Ryan's not here anymore," she explained. "He woke up from his coma about a week ago, and a few days after, he just disappeared. We think he ran away, but we haven't been able to find him. Social services have been by his house and everything, but it doesn't look like he's even been there." She shook her head ruefully. "We've been worried sick – he was such a sweet kid."

Buffy absorbed all this information. "When did you say he ran away?" she asked as a thought occurred.

Sorting through a stack of nearby folders, the nurse found the one she was looking for and extracted it from the pile. She opened and scanned it, finally finding the information and jabbing at it with her finger. "Two days ago," she responded.

"Just in time for the dream-o-vision creature feature," confirmed Buffy to herself.


"Never mind," the Slayer dismissed as she ran for the exit, heedless of the other woman's confused expression. "Thanks. Enjoy your dessert."

Willow stood in front of a long table against the wall of her Sanctum, the open window allowing a cool breeze to drift through the room. The redhead was intently focused on the array of herbs soaking in various jars and shallow dishes across the tabletop, and consequently paying little attention to the open door behind her. Engrossed, she never noticed the hand reaching out, ever so slowly, until it clamped onto her shoulder and she spun around with a gasp.

"Judith!" exclaimed Willow, a hand darting to her chest as she fought to regain control of her breathing.

The brunette smiled broadly, her expression open and friendly. "Hey Willow," she greeted amiably. "The door was open and you looked pretty intense. I admit it – my curiosity got the better of me."

Turning back to her herbs, Willow admonished, "You should watch that. You know what they say about curiosity and the cat."

"Something about always landing on its feet, right?" the Slayer responded with a smirk.

Willow chuckled. "Something like that."

"I think I've got a few lives to spare," shrugged Judith confidently, "so I'll take my chances. What're you doing?" She peered over Willow's shoulder, just barely beyond 'personal space' range.

There was a slight hesitation before the witch responded with a vague gesture at the items strewn about her. "Oh, this? Nothing much. Purifying some herbs. Pretty dull."

"No, no, I think it's fascinating," Judith insisted, moving closer. "What are you doing it for?"

Glancing at the Slayer over her shoulder, Willow relaxed slightly at the girl's benign interest. "It helps bring out the true essence of the herbs. Makes them more potent."

"You know I hear they have this new thing out now called an 'air freshener'," commented Judith with an amused tone. "Might be a bit more efficient."

"They're spelly herbs, not smelly herbs," Willow grinned.

Judith nodded, circling around Willow to stand at her other side. "Ahhh. So, you purify them, and it makes the magic stronger," she summarized.

"Yup, that's about the size of it."

The Slayer seemed content to watch Willow work for several moments, taking note of the great care the witch was putting into ensuring each herb was soaking in just the right amount of solution, sprinkling unrecognizable ingredients into the odd one or two, although there was no obviously apparent way of knowing how she determined which needed the addition.

"Looks like a lot of work," commented Judith after a time, fixing Willow with an appraising stare.

"Sorta," she agreed. "See, herbs can be purified in lots of different ways, with lots of different effects. To get the one you want, you have to do everything juuuust right." Her statement was punctuated by adding a pinch of some odd-smelling yellowish powder to one of the jars, turning the herb inside a bright, blood red.

"Sounds pretty specific," the Slayer continued. "So then I'm guessing you're doing this with something particular in mind."

Willow opened and closed her mouth silently one time, formulating her thoughts. "Sorta," she finally stated.

"Very cool," observed Judith, her eyes riveted to the witch. "What spell?"

Shuffling uncomfortably, Willow replied, "A ... tracer. I'm going to trace back a ... another spell. See if I can find out who cast it and where they are."

Judith was impressed. "Wow, you can do that?" she asked with innocent awe.

Unconsciously, the witch smiled at the wonder in the question and responded with some pride. "Yup. It's not easy – hence the herb spa – but it can be done."

"This has something to do with that lion-dog-thing, right?" The question took Willow completely by surprise, and she regarded the Slayer with a wide-eyed expression that caused Judith to grin. "Hey, word travels fast," she explained. "No such thing as a secret when you live with an army of 16-year old girls."

"No, I guess not," Willow muttered, then sighed as she returned to the jars. "Well ... Yeah, it's ... it's for that."

"So all you need's a bunch of soggy herbs and you can just pinpoint something like that?"

Slowly raising her head, Willow slightly narrowed her gaze at Judith, eyeing the girl with just a hint of suspicion at the seemingly endless stream of questions. Judith smiled disarmingly at Willow.

"Sorry, I know," she apologized, tapping the side of her nose. "It's a fault. I used to drive my teachers nuts, always looking for every last little morsel of info, you know? What can I say?" she shrugged. "I love learning new stuff."

The suspicious look evaporated as Willow smiled, nodding her head to indicate that she understood that problem only too well.

"Plus, I ... I'm worried," Judith admitted with some reluctance. "For Hazel. She's my roommate, you know. Don't tell her this, but I've kinda taken a liking to the kid. She told me about how this thing just had a total mad-on for her, completely relentless. She's ... been having nightmares about it. She'll never admit it if you ask her, but I can tell – this thing has her scared, big time. I just wish I could make her feel better, but with nobody knowing a damn thing about it, let alone how to track it down ..."

Judith trailed off, concern evident on her face as she seemed to retreat into frustrated despair. Willow responded instantly, patting the girl's shoulder to help assure her. "Hey, we'll find it, don't you worry," she soothed confidently. "We've got my soggy herbs, a remnant of the spell thanks to the blood, and we've got me." The witch beamed. "In four days we'll have all the info we need to take these puppies right to the pound."

The Slayer's expression had settled into one that was completely unreadable and Willow frowned. "That was supposed t'make ya feel better...?" she prompted.

Almost visibly, Judith snapped back to attention and relief flooded her features. "Better. Yes. God, I feel so ... wow. Seriously, knowing that you guys are so close ... it's indescribable."

Bopping her head happily, Willow smiled, paying no attention to the fact that Judith remained somewhat distant.

"Now don't go spreading that around, okay?" the witch chided gently as she turned back to her work. "This is insider stuff. I know it's probably a juicy little tidbit for the rumor mill, but—"

"Oh, don't worry," Judith assured her. "You can trust me. I won't tell a soul."

Act Three

Buffy sat on the couch in front of the television, not paying any particular attention to whatever happened to be on at the moment. Instead, her eyes flicked from one wall to the next, taking in the adornments – or lack thereof – that peppered the room. Sitting nearby in his chair, Xander was content to simply watch the moving images on the screen, unaware of the Slayer's rising discontent.

"This place needs a picture or two, something to liven it up," Buffy declared. "I'm thinking something in a nice velvet, possibly with Elvis." This served to attract Xander's full attention, and he threw her a look of complete disbelief. "I kid. Seriously though, kinda bare. It's depressing."

Xander appraised the area. "We had a pretty nice decorative theme goin' until Dawn decided it'd be fun to re-enact scenes from Poltergeist."

"We should have pictures. Photographs." The blonde nodded her head, as though the matter had been decided. "Give it that nice homey feel."

"We'll have to get Will to fire up ye olde color printer again, seeing as how every picture we ever took is buried deep in the bowels of hell and all," remarked Xander.

This new topic being broached seemed to stir something in the Slayer, and she chewed on it for a moment. "Do you ever think about going back there? Maybe try and recover some of our stuff?"

"Sure," Xander agreed, "when I'm lying awake at two in the morning and I haven't weirded myself out enough," he added bitingly. "Spelunking through the crumbled ruins of Sunnydale: Home of the Big Evil – not exactly my idea of a great vacation."

"I suppose not. But still. I miss my stuff." She frowned with irritation, muttering, "I knew I should've packed Mr. Gordo before traipsing merrily into the Hellmouth."

"Yeah, I wouldn't mind having my ..." He lapsed into silence, thinking. "Actually, all I had was a bunch'a crap. Good riddance to it," Xander concluded with a nonchalant wave of his hand.

Buffy had latched onto the idea, however, and clung to it like a dog with a bone. "I just think it'd be cool to go back."

"Have fun with that," the carpenter advised. "Me, I'm content to stop off at the nearest Pier One and spend the Council's money on new stuff that's probably just as tacky as the old." He jabbed a finger in the air. "But new!"

The sound of the front door opening interrupted the conversation, and the pair turned toward the living room entrance just as Dawn skipped into view, several bags swinging at her side. Giles followed close behind, also laden with bags but most definitely not skipping.

"And we see that Dawn also appreciates the value of newness," remarked the Slayer, gesturing at the purchases.

Dawn sighed with complete, fulfilling contentment, as though she had just bought a summer home in Nirvana. "Mmmm. Shopping."

"How you holdin' up, Watcher Man?" questioned Xander.

"It was a delightful experience," replied Giles, his expression indicating that it was anything but. "I can't imagine why every day isn't spent waiting in line to purchase a hot dog on a stick."

"Truly one of life's great mysteries," Buffy agreed sagely.

Dawn soon brought the conversation back to the truly important matters. "Oh! I got the cutest shirt at Hot Topic!" She dove into the bags, searching, as Giles looked to the others with an expression best described as 'befuddled'.

"Were you aware that they're now selling pieces of fabric approximately half the size of a handkerchief and claiming it to be a top?"

Xander smiled happily. "Yes."

Giles favored him with a look of mild disgust. "And our purchases were made from a young lady who, at first glance, appeared to be a Srebro demon, but then I realized she was far too metallic."

Buffy and Xander shook their heads, clearly not getting the reference, and Dawn explained while still rummaging around in the bags. "Srebro demons are made entirely of metal. She was big with the body piercing."

"Ahhh," they chorused.

Dawn reached up and patted Giles' arm comfortingly. "We'll spend our next Dawn/Giles day at some stuffy teahouse eating crumpets, okay?"

"'Crumpets'?" Giles repeated, obviously finding the suggestion offensive. "I do have layers, you know. Like you can find a decent crumpet in this country anyway," he grumbled mostly to himself before addressing the others. "Is Willow here? I was hoping to speak with her about the spell, fine-tune some details."

"Yup, upstairs in her room," directed Xander, jabbing his thumb toward the ceiling. With a nod, Giles headed for the stairs, halting as the carpenter continued, "Kennedy's up there too, but I think you should be safe. Just remember, if you see something you shouldn't, close your eyes up real tight." Xander demonstrated. "I find it helps burn the image into your brain much better."

Giles managed to restrain the sneer, but only barely. "Yes, thank you for that ... insightful advice."

Inclining his head, Xander graciously accepted the thanks, however it may have been intended, and Giles exited the room with an extremely disturbed expression.

Meanwhile, Buffy studied her sister, who had returned to sorting out her various purchases into some sort of order that made sense only in her mind. "A day?" questioned Buffy. "You and Giles have a day?"

"Uh-huh," replied Dawn, not looking up.

"A whole day?"


Buffy seemed unable to get past this. "For ... what, exactly?"

"Oh, you know," Dawn shrugged nonchalantly. "To talk about stuff. School stuff, life stuff ... demon stuff, if I can catch him in the right mood. He's so clearly going through this paternal figure thing," she concluded with an eye roll, though the sting of it was absorbed by a smile that betrayed what she truly thought of the arrangement.

"I want a day," the Slayer pouted, dangerously pushing the envelope toward whining. "A Me Day. A day devoted to all things Me."

"You already have that," pointed out Xander. "It's called your birthday. And given its track record, do you really want another?"

Dawn had finished reorganizing her new items, and stood up with two stuffed bags, one in each hand. "Anyway, as fascinating as this trip down Egocentric Lane is, I'm heading over to Brenda's," she announced, turning for the door.

Before she could take more than a step, Buffy was there, grabbing the teenager by the elbow. "Whooaa, hold on. In this house we ask before we leave, we don't just decide to go out at night." Reflecting on her words, Buffy frowned. "When your name is Dawn," she amended.

"I did ask," Dawn shot back, exasperated.

"Older than you doesn't automatically equal senile," her sister replied, her voice calm despite the anger flashing in her eyes. "We didn't discuss this."

"I asked Xander three days ago!" protested Dawn, gesturing toward the carpenter.

Arriving next to the two glaring females, Xander nodded his head. "That she did," he confirmed, "an' I gave it the ol' thumbs up." Smiling, Xander apparently felt that would be the end of the confrontation. Unfortunately, he was sadly mistaken.

"I would really appreciate it if you'd talk to me first," Buffy informed him.

Xander was so taken aback, it was a few seconds before his smile disappeared. "Wait, what?" he asked, as though he had misheard.

"She's my sister, Xander, she's my responsibility," the blonde explained very carefully. "If she's going out somewhere, I should know about it before she's halfway out the door."

Crossing her arms and shaking her head incredulously, Dawn glared at the ceiling. "I don't believe this," she huffed.

Aggravation crossed Xander's usually jovial features, and when he spoke it was with very deliberate calm and patience. "I understand where you're comin' from, Buff. I know she's your sister, but we all take responsibility for her."

"What am I, a golden retriever?" the teenager exclaimed.

Tearing her eyes from Xander, Buffy turned to Dawn. "You already got permission, so okay." Immediately Dawn spun on her heel, but Buffy's hand shot out and held her sister in place. "But I want you back here by nine, and make sure they give you a ride home. I don't want you walking that late at night."

"And to think, I used to be jealous of the other kids for having more parents than me," Dawn wondered angrily, stomping out of the room, her bags swinging at her sides, leaving Xander and Buffy to face each other.

"I know you're just trying to help, but when it comes to Dawn, I should be the one she clears things through, not you guys," stated Buffy firmly.

Xander's jaw set for just a moment. "Yeah, maybe you should," he replied with a nod of his head. "But that was a bit hard when you were, oh, completely unreachable for a couple'a months. Dawn going over to a friend's house for dinner didn't seem quite such a priority to you then."

Opening her mouth to snap something back, Buffy poised on the brink of a truly spectacular verbal battle. But then the carpenter's words began to sink in, and she slowly closed her mouth, her anger dissipating as she did so. "God, I'm messing everything up," she moaned sadly as she dragged herself to the couch and limply flung her body onto it.

His own temper reigned, Xander sat next to the Slayer, smiling at her. "It's not a mess," he assured Buffy. She threw him a look. "Okay, it's a little mess."

"I keep thinking maybe it was a mistake to come back," she confessed. "Willow's uncomfortable around me, Dawn hates me ..."

"Dawn's a teenager. If she's not hatin' at least one of us at any given moment, we're doin' somethin' wrong."

Despite herself, Buffy chuckled.

"Do you really think you should've stayed away?" Xander questioned, intently watching Buffy.

The Slayer considered the question very carefully, sighing after a minute had passed. "Honestly? I don't know."

"You know what I think?" Xander asked, to which Buffy shifted on the couch and watched him hopefully for some kind of answer. "I think we're tryin' too hard. Everyone's so antsy about makin' everything the way it was, we're not lettin' things be how they should be. It's okay that things're hard an' don't make a whole lotta sense right now. Long as we stick it out, they will," he reasoned, speaking with complete and utter certainty.

Buffy frowned skeptically. "That seems way too cut and dried."

Smirking as though recalling a similar conversation recently, Xander shrugged. "Well we're so used to doin' everything the hard way, why not give the easy a try for a change? Who knows? Maybe we'll like it."

"Y'know, that's kinda true," admitted the blonde. "Sometimes we're ... really, really dumb."

"Makes ya wonder how we lasted this long, doesn't it?" grinned Xander.

Willow lay on the bed in the center of the room she shared with Kennedy, typing on her laptop. Her back resting against the headboard, Kennedy sat by Willow's feet, content to simply watch as her girlfriend worked, stroking the redhead's calf occasionally and enjoying the company.

"Big mojo in the works, huh?" the Slayer questioned.

"Really big," nodded Willow, her voice a little strained. "Super big. Bought at Costco big."

Kennedy indicated to Willow's expression. "So why the worry lines? I thought the super-sized spells were the ones you were good at now."

"I-It is. They are." Willow sighed deeply, trying to find the words to explain her concern. "But this is different. The- The power used is big, but the spell itself i-is delicate. Sort of like ... like trying to thread a needle with a- a rope. Plus, you know, casting myself out into the ether and all. It's intense."

"Well I'll be there, anchors away," assured Kennedy. "Kite string and all. I'll keep you safe."

Stiffening, Willow's face became more concerned, not less, and she rolled on to her side, looking back at the Slayer who regarded her questioningly. Willow licked her lips, uncertain of how to begin. "Kenn, I ... The spell ..."

"It's major, I get that. But don't worry. I won't let anything happen to you, Willow."

Kennedy spoke with such sincerity that it didn't make things any easier, but the redhead took a deep, resolving breath. "Kennedy ... Giles is gonna be my anchor."

The Slayer's hand stopped in mid-stroke and she pulled back, frowning. "What? Giles?"

Sitting up fully, Willow faced Kennedy with a pained expression. "Yeah. I-I thought you'd ... I didn't know you were- were thinkin' you were gonna do it, else I would've explained before now."

"Explained what, exactly?" she questioned, becoming defensive.

"This spell is huge, Kenn. If I get lost out there, I might not be able to, y'know, come back. Ever. I've gotta have someone I'm in tune with to keep me grounded."

As the words sunk in, Kennedy's face became stony and unreadable. "And that someone's not me," she stated matter-of-factly.

"Sweetie, we couldn't even find each other when we were doing simple meditations," Willow expressed as kindly as she possibly could. "I ... This is just too big and important." She smiled encouragingly, her voice adopting an upbeat tone. "But we'll keep workin' on it, we will. I'm sure we can get there eventually. I- I want us to. I really do." She paused and regarded Kennedy with the barest hint of sadness. "You don't know how much."

"Great. Really looking forward to my next lesson in Remedial Magic 101," the Slayer retorted bitterly. Willow flinched at the words, and Kennedy was immediately regretful. "Sorry. This is just ... so damn hard. This magic stuff, it's such a big part of you, and I want it to be something for us ..." She exhaled heavily and ran a hand through her hair in frustration. "But it never is."

Willow reached for Kennedy's hand, but the brunette pulled away, denying the contact. "I-It takes time," the witch insisted. "We can't just e-expect that you an' me can click like that off the bat."

Studying Willow, Kennedy pressed, "But it happens, right? The clicking. I mean, when it's supposed to, it does just happen."

"It can happen, yeah, but just because we haven't doesn't mean—"

Nodding bruskly, Kennedy swung her legs off the bed. "Yeah. Yeah, I'm sure it doesn't mean anything at all."

Willow watched her girlfriend beseechingly, but Kennedy refused to meet her gaze. "I need to blow off some steam," she stated calmly and almost without emotion. Reaching out to Willow, Kennedy kissed the top of her head, pausing there for just a moment and sighing heavily. "I love you."

Opening the door, she stepped through without a glance back.

Stepping gingerly, Buffy walked along the roadside, taking note of her surroundings, seeing them with relative ease in the cloudless night. The location was slightly different but still familiar, perhaps several miles further along the same stretch of highway.

The Slayer stopped and turned to gaze behind her, sensing the now-familiar presence of the zombies before hearing them. All three stood side-by-side, and were more whole and fully formed than they had been during her previous encounters. Tensing for their usual grabby approach, Buffy waited expectantly for outstretched hands, and was surprised to find that the trio seemed content to simply stare at her with watery, unblinking eyes.

"This is becoming a habit," she chided, filling the uncomfortable silence.

"Muuusst resst ..." the older male groaned. His words were more understandable, though his voice sounded like a low gurgle.

With hands on hips, Buffy nodded her understanding. "Yeah, I'd be beat too if my every moment was spent power-walking in pursuit of beautiful young girls."

"Heeelp uss ..." the undead female begged.

Letting her arms drop, Buffy expression was apologetic. "Listen, I know about the accident," she began.

It was the boy's turn. "Caaan't stooop..."

"I know you were all killed and you're being dragged back to life. Believe me when I say I know it hurts," the Slayer empathized. "But I need your help. I need to find—"

As though responding to some unseen cue, Buffy turned suddenly to find herself facing another portion of the road. In the distance, perhaps a hundred feet or so ahead, it curved sharply; the only protection vehicles would have from this dangerous bend was a metal guardrail. The fact that part of it had been obliterated showed how little protection that actually was. Just beyond the road were trees, and visible even from where Buffy was standing were the contorted remains of a car that had smashed into the tree with such speed that its front end had literally become embedded in the trunk. Smoke trailed into the sky from the crushed hood, and the ticking of the engine echoed in the still night.

Not twenty feet from the wreckage, huddled into a tight ball, was another boy, this one every bit human. Buffy took a half-step toward him as she whispered, "Ryan?"

Given the distance, there was no possible way he could have heard her, but the boy turned toward the Slayer all the same. It wasn't until the zombies had shuffled past, moving with more strength than they had previously been capable of, that Buffy realized the boy was paying no attention to her whatsoever. Nor, for that matter, were the undead.

Despite the situation, there was a touch of indignation in her voice. "So what, I'm chopped brains now?"

As expected, she was completely ignored. She watched the zombies lumbered closer, as the boy stood and stretched out his arms to welcome them.

Buffy awoke just before contact was made, her eyes wide and alert. The sky outside her window indicated it was now early evening, and Buffy glanced briefly at the clock by her bedside. She had lain down in the clothes had been wearing earlier, so as she leapt off the bed, all she needed were her shoes. Her expression was set and determined – she now had a direction and clearly felt all the better for it. "What do you know," she mused to herself as she headed out of her bedroom, "my old kindergarten teacher was right – naps do help."

It was an unusual scene to say the least, even by Slayer Central standards. On the front lawn, a decent distance from any highly breakable windows, Hazel balanced precariously on a thin but sturdy length of wood, suspended above the ground on two cinder blocks. The sun had completely set some time ago but the moon was full and bright overhead, providing sufficient illumination. Illumination Hazel was using to her full advantage by staring at Faith as though she were utterly insane.

Several feet away, the Senior Slayer stood next to a large bucket full of heavy, hand-sized beanbags. She held one, tossing it up and catching it solidly as she explained the rules to Hazel. "It's simple: I throw these at you. Don't get hit, don't fall off."

"Are you sure you're not just using me for target practice?" Hazel questioned, nervously following the beanbag's steady rise and fall.

"Dodgin' a hit's just as important as landin' one," lectured Faith. "Maybe more. An' keepin' your balance after can make all the difference in dodgin' the next."

Hazel's eyes were transfixed, her whole head bobbing up and down like she was hypnotized. "Yeah, but—"


That was the Junior Slayer's only warning as Faith cocked back her arm and hurled the beanbag at Hazel with all her strength. Yelping, Hazel barely managed to jump to one side, waving her arms a little as she fought for balance. Her eyes widened and she ducked, narrowly avoiding another bag that zipped over her head, then leapt straight into the air as a third barreled toward her kneecap. Both feet landed squarely on the board and Hazel maintained her balance, looking extremely pleased with herself.

She beamed at Faith. "Hey, did you see th—" All enthusiasm was felled by another beanbag, this one catching Hazel directly in the stomach. With a whoosh, all the air rushed out of her lungs, and the girl toppled off of the board, landing on the ground in a groaning heap. She lay on the cool grass for a long moment, sprawled flat on her back as she fought to regain her breath. Her eyes flicked to the side as Faith approached, looming overhead as she peered down at the younger girl.

"Some part of 'don't get hit, don't fall off' confuse you?"

Hazel's only answer was to groan again and rub her tender stomach.

Faith remained unsympathetic. "Get up," she ordered. "We'll do it again."

Very reluctantly, the Junior rolled onto her side and pushed herself up, semi-glaring at Faith all the while. "Are you trying to kill me?" she wondered aloud.

"I'm tryin' to make it so nothin' else does," replied Faith with steel in her voice.

"Aw, Fiver, I didn't know you cared," Hazel smirked, hands on her hips.

There was no response, Faith choosing instead to pick up the thrown beanbags scattered on the ground before moving back to the bucket. As she passed Hazel, the younger girl rested a hand on her arm, and Faith paused.

"Hey, I'm just playing around," Hazel said gently. "Givin' you a hard time. It's my only form of retribution," she grinned. "Don't take me seriously."

"It's a dangerous world," Faith warned, her tone warming slightly but still every bit as serious. "Lotta things out there'd love t'have you as a between-meal snack."

With a half-teasing smile, Hazel vaulted back onto the board. "Yeah, but you'll always keep me safe, right?"

It was a rare moment. Faith seemed at a loss regarding how to react. "Can't rely on people, Pipsqueak," she finally stated. "Best bet's to learn how to keep yourself safe."

With that, the Slayer threw another beanbag. Rather than dodge this time, Hazel caught it easily.

"How 'bout we work to keep each other safe?"

Hazel tossed the bag back, Faith also catching it. The Senior Slayer smirked but didn't otherwise reply, instead grabbing a handful of bags and hurling them all at her target, rapid fire. Hazel yelped again, twisting her body this way and that to avoid the projectiles. All swooshed past harmlessly, save one that, again, caught her in the stomach and knocked her backwards off the board. Hazel landed flat on her back, in a position quite similar to the one she had been in just minutes before.

"Deja ow," she groaned.

Faith appeared in Hazel's line of sight, blocking out the moon. "You're kinda like those things at the carnival," she observed wryly. "Hey, if I knock you over one more time, think I'll get a prize?"

Less than amused, Hazel accepted Faith's hand-up as she got to her feet. "And I look up to you," she mumbled. "That's gotta say something disturbing about me."

Faith blinked in surprise, but before she could comment, Kennedy stomped by on her way into the building.

"Whooaa," Faith commented as she watched Kennedy breeze past. "Bad vibe central. What's the deal?"

Kennedy stopped and turned, huffily crossing her arms. "Nothing. I don't wanna talk about it."

"Ahh," the other Slayer responded knowingly. "Red."

"Remember that little talk we had just moments ago?" growled Kennedy. "Something about me not wanting to talk about it?"

Faith held up her hands defensively as she sauntered forward. "Suits me, I've about hit my insightful pep talk limit for today anyway. I think it's time to recharge." With a grin, she slung her arm around Kennedy's neck and dragged the younger woman toward her. Kennedy resisted, but it was merely a token effort. As they passed Hazel, Faith repeated the motion with her other arm, still leading the group forward and away from Slayer Central. Hazel was delighted, a bouncy spring in her step; Kennedy was tolerant, but only barely.

"An' best way I can think for that?" Faith asked rhetorically. "A night of dancin' and gettin' as many guys as possible to buy us as many drinks as possible." She cast a sideways glance to Kennedy. "Or girls, whatever floats your boat."

"Vortex?" questioned Hazel eagerly.

"Yup," the Slayer confirmed with a nod. "Where you better not touch a lick of booze or we play this game again with rocks."

Her delight tempered somewhat, Hazel's face fell. "Awww."

Faith was unmoved. "Consider it all part'a keepin' you safe," she offered.

"Safety's overrated," Hazel pouted.

Buffy walked along the desolate stretch of inclining road. It was near pitch black with no street lamps for miles; had the moon not been shining overhead, even Buffy's enhanced eyesight and night vision might have had trouble. There were no cars in sight, but still the Slayer kept close to the shoulder, her dream from the night before still fresh in her mind. Every now and then she would scan both sides of the road as she walked, but never spotted anything of sufficient interest to tear her from following some trail apparent only to herself.

Eventually, at the crest of a dangerous hairpin curve, Buffy spied a break in the otherwise well-maintained guardrail that lined the road. A section had been completely obliterated, only a jagged and tangled mess remaining. Just beyond the break was a line of very dense trees, one of which had obviously been wounded recently, the victim of a serious and violent impact.

Beyond the guardrail but some distance from the trees stood a young boy, no more than 15 or 16 with short dark hair. His face was drawn and pale and covered with cuts and bruises just beginning to heal. Surface injuries aside, he seemed otherwise unharmed, save for the haunted expression in his eye as he simply stared at the trees, totally lost and utterly alone.

Buffy approached, cautiously but with purpose, stopping when she was a few feet away from the boy, who seemed oblivious to her presence.

"We need to talk," she stated firmly.

Act Four

Slowly, the boy's head swiveled towards Buffy. The action drained him of all energy and her presence appeared to take him by surprise. His eyes widened slightly, but otherwise remained dull. From his expression, it was obvious he didn't know who she was, and it was also evident that he really didn't care.

Tilting her head to one side, Buffy regarded the boy, noting his gaunt body and the manner in which his clothes hung loosely from his slender frame. His eyes were sunken and ringed with dark circles that had no place on someone so young. Had she been forced to guess, the Slayer would have said he hadn't eaten or slept in days.

"Who are you?" he croaked, although the question was posed automatically, without particular concern for the answer.

"My name's Buffy," the Slayer introduced softly with a friendly smile. "You're Ryan, right?"

He didn't answer, merely continued to affix the blonde with a vacant stare. "Are you here to take me away?"

"Take you where?" Buffy asked gently, taking a small step forward.

Ryan shrugged, and the simple motion seemed to sap all his strength. "I don't know," he muttered. "Away."

Still ensuring there was plenty of space between them, Buffy came to a halt, just beyond arm's reach. "Do you want to be away?"

"Maybe," he replied noncommittally, though the tone was far from argumentative.

Allowing her voice to become mildly stern, Buffy tried to catch the boy's eye. "Ryan, you've gotta stop this."

"Stop what?"

"The thing with the walking undead...?" she replied. "The zombies?" Ryan's expression remained blank and uncomprehending, and realization slowly settled in for the Slayer. "You don't know ..."

"All I know is ... I miss them," Ryan responded, his voice cracking. "My little brother – you know the last thing I said to him?" He looked to Buffy, expecting an answer, and she shook her head. Ryan's reply was full of shame and self-loathing. "I called him a ... a bad name. That's the last thing he heard. I just keep thinking, if I could see him again, how much nicer I'd be. He always used to follow me around, you know? But I thought I was too cool for him," he shook his head at the notion, as though it were incomprehensibly stupid.

Buffy's spoke urgently, but gently. "Ryan, there's something going on with you. I don't know how, but I think you have this ... this power. And somehow you're—"

"My dad's gonna teach me to fix cars this summer," the boy interrupted, Buffy's words obviously not registering. "We're gonna find this old junk heap," he continued enthusiastically, "and fix it up, make it rad." A smile touched the corners of his lips. "It's our summer project. Last year, he taught me how to fish. If he came ba— ...Maybe when I see him again, we can find an old Chevy. Those are his favorites."

"Ryan," Buffy persisted.

He pressed on, his smile growing wider as his eyes became more distant. "My birthday's next month. My mom's gonna bake a German chocolate cake. She knows they're my favorite. She makes the icing herself, from scratch, and my brother and me, we always fight over who gets to lick the bowl." His smile faltered. "I think this year, I'll let him win."

Still with kindness, but now introducing a forcefulness that could not be denied, Buffy repeated, "Ryan." He visibly flinched, the only indication that he could hear her. Leaning to one side, trying to catch his attention, she held the position until, finally, he glanced at her. "You need to stop," the Slayer stated patiently but unwaveringly. "This isn't right."

As though submerged in molasses, Ryan managed to shake his head, but the movement was slow and emphasized his confusion. "What's not right? I just want things back the way they were."

"I know you do," she commiserated. "And I know this hurts, more than anything. But what you're doing, trying to make everything the way it was? I know you don't mean to, but all you're doing is hurting yourself and your family so much more."

"How?" the boy asked shakily, tears stinging his eyes. "I just want us to be together again. This is so wrong. There's so much I shouldn't have done. So much I want to do ..."

Swallowing hard, it seemed for a moment like Buffy might cry herself. "I know," she told him. " There's always stuff we wish we had or hadn't done. But you can't go back and fix it, Ryan, no matter how much you want to." Her voice was heavy with regret.

Tearfully, Ryan's gaze met the Slayer's eyes, desperately searching for some sort of answer. "What else can I do?" he whispered.

"Keep going forward," Buffy replied without hesitation as the solution suddenly became clear. "You accept that what happened is horrible and unfair, but you let it go. Otherwise every day of the rest of your life will be spent right here. That's not living, and that's not what they'd want for you. You have to let the past rest."

"How? How can I do that?"

Distressed that she could provide no concrete answer, Buffy was forced to admit, "I don't know. I wish I did. But I do know there are some people who can help you, if you'll let them. They've been worried about you." She held her hand out to Ryan. "Will you let them help you?"

Tears spilling down his pale cheeks, Ryan tentatively reached out and grasped Buffy's hand. She pulled him close and with a protective arm around his shoulder, led him away, through the twisted remains of the guardrail.

The front door swung open and Buffy walked through, instantly gazing around, her eyes searching. As the door closed with a soft click, she took the few steps necessary to stick her head into the living room, but no one was there, so she didn't linger. Retracing her path to the door, she went in the opposite direction and entered the kitchen, her pace slowing when she found Willow and Xander standing there, leaning against the counter and chatting amiably. With the appearance of the Slayer, the conversation died and they straightened. For a moment, all three regarded each other in silence.

"Hey guys, I've been thinking," Buffy announced, moving further into the room until she was only an arms length from her friends.

"Us too," stated Willow, her tone guarded but hopeful.

"And you know how much of a favorite pastime that is," Xander added with a grin.

Buffy inhaled deeply and tackled her thoughts headlong, no longer harboring any desire to drag things out. "A lot of stuff's happened over the past few years," she began. "Bad stuff, mostly. It's ... really sucked and we can't change it, no matter how much of it I wish we could. But I think we've been stuck there." Her eyes rested first on Xander and then on Willow as she shook her head, as though clearing out the last of the cobwebs. "And I'm so tired of it. I'm not interested in dwelling in the past any more. I wanna look ahead. And I want you guys there with me. You, Giles, Dawn ... I want us all to move forward. Together."

Nobody said anything. Buffy eyes were affixed on the two people in front of her, the intensity of her stare not allowing them to look at anything but her. "What were you guys thinking about?" she inquired.

Willow favored Buffy with a huge smile that the Slayer was compelled to echo. "Pretty much the same thing," the redhead cheerfully admitted.

"Only with much less words," Xander tacked on, grinning so much that it looked entirely possibly like his head might split in two if it got much wider.

There was no longer any hesitation. Together, they closed the gap between them, arms thrown over shoulders and around waists in a tight three-way hug. This time, there were no distant looks, no detachment – there was only Buffy, Willow and Xander, clinging to each other with eyes tightly closed so as to fully absorb every detail.

Minutes passed, each perfectly content to remain locked in the moment for as long as possible. Xander, being Xander, was eventually the first to speak. "See? I told you guys it was that simple," he pointed out, still grinning. "We couldn't have done this a year and a half ago?"

Without otherwise stirring, not even to open their eyes, both Willow and Buffy moved with exquisite synchronicity and smacked Xander upside his head.

"Okay, ow?" he semi-complained, although his expression never changed.

Slowly and with utmost reluctance, Buffy began to pull back, sniffing loudly. "I love you guys," she managed to get out, her voice thick.

Willow was also sniffly. "No more bad stuff, okay?" she implored innocently. "I think we can do with some vacation time from bad stuff."

"And I say we kick it off right by catchin' the late show," declared Xander, still with one arm around each of his friends.

Buffy wiped her eyes, then grabbed Xander's hand as it dangled over her shoulder. "What's out?" she asked.

Shrugging, the carpenter looked at her fondly. "I have no idea, but right now, I don't think it much matters."

"Not in the least," Willow agreed, wrapping his arm closer and snuggling into his side, which earned her a warm smile. "Hey, I know this is sorta Scooby reunion time, but do you guys mind if Kennedy comes along too? We had sort of a nasty bump earlier. I'm thinkin' maybe if she sees somethin' with enough violence, she'll forget aaaaall about it."

"A cunning plan," Buffy announced. "The more the merrier."

"But she better buy her own popcorn," cautioned Xander, poking Willow in the shoulder as he released the two women and stepped back. "Last time we went to the movies, she inhaled all of mine before the previews ended."

Willow nodded happily as she began to fish out her cell phone. "Deal."

Beaming and looking more delighted than she had in ages, Buffy linked arms with Xander, then snagged Willow, pulling both toward the door. "Home." She savored the word. "It's good to be back."

The halls of Slayer Central were completely empty. Normally it was a thriving network of people heading back and forth from one place to another, to train, to play, to do whatever. But tonight, as the dangers of the darkness outside deepened, summoning both evil and those who fight it, the facility was deserted.

"Of course, the time when you're least likely to find Slayers at home base," Willow mused to herself as she strode alone through the building.

Tipping her head to one side, Willow concentrated, attempting to pick up any signs of life. As she passed the rec room, she stuck her head inside and surveyed it quickly, but the only sights and sounds to reach her emanated from assorted video games in demonstration mode. Straightening, Willow frowned and began to look uneasy as she continued her search.

"Look what I got for you today, sweetie!" she joked, her voice sounding overly loud in the stillness of the halls, despite her quiet tone. "It's called a 'pocket'. You can use it to, you know, not forget your cell phone."

Approaching an intersection, Willow turned to peer down the other corridor then stared straight ahead again. Still she detected no signs of life as she decided to take the branching hallway.

The witch's head perked up as a voice reached her ears, and she visibly strained to listen. It was faint, but undeniably female. "... in four days," it was reporting in an even, detached tone.

"It can't be allowed," came an almost metallic-sounding response, as if the voice were being run through some type of filter. "Destroy the sample."

With a perplexed but curious expression, Willow followed the sounds, which were steadily becoming more audible as she approached. Ahead lay the entrance to the training room, and as the redhead drew near, she tentatively raised her hand, as if reaching out to something invisible. Almost immediately she jerked her hand back like it had been bitten.

"Whoa. Woooah," she breathed, "Not good. Very not-good badness here ..."

"If I'm discovered?" queried the female.

"Unacceptable. Eliminate anyone who finds out about this," came the response, causing Willow's eyes to widen a little. Closer now, she could pick up more details from the two voices. The second, while distorted, bore an unmistakable baritone that marked it as male.

Arriving at the threshold of the training room, Willow took a deep breath and slowly peeked inside. Judith, the lone figure in the room, stood before one of the mirrors lining the wall just to the right of the entrance. The glassed surface was suffused with a pulsating blue glow that seemed to shift with a life of its own as the Slayer regarded it with an unflinching gaze.

Equally as slowly, Willow pulled back, flattening against the wall. "Okay. Okay, no- no problem. I-I'm sure there's a ... a logical, completely rational explanation for all this."

"All of this effort over an inept witch," Judith practically spat, like the words were distasteful. "It's almost inconceivable."

Her face darkening, Willow glowered at the doorway. "Okay, there's your logical explanation," she grumbled angrily. "She's evil."

"Do not underestimate her," the metallic-voice admonished.

With only the slightest hesitation, the witch turned to face the wall she had been leaning against and placed both palms flat to its surface. She closed her eyes serenely for a moment, allowing her breathing to become steady and regular. When they opened again, her eyes were glazed and possessed a far-off look that indicated a deep trance. "Bind the line, find the path," Willow intoned quietly. "I know where I am, show me my destination..." Her hands began to glow with a soft white light that flowed from her fingertips to the wall beneath and beyond. "Loqui sectus."

The metallic voice continued its explanation. "Though Rosenberg lacks finesse, her power is great. She is not something to be trifled with."

Confidence was evident in Judith's speech. "Rest assured, I am taking the utmost—"

A second metallically-filtered voice cut in, this one with a much lower bass that rasped as it spoke, as though literally torn from the speaker's throat. "She is there. She is listening."

"What?" the first demanded, its disbelief evident even despite the odd distortion effects. "That's not—"

"She seeks us," the second stated.

Taken aback by the development, Judith's head swiveled anxiously around the room, searching for any disturbance. Perceiving none, she turned back to the mirror, uncertain of what to do. For a few seconds of tense silence, she could hear only her breath.

"Find her," the baritone suddenly ordered in a tone that left no room for argument. "Kill her."

"What?" questioned Judith, unsure if she had heard correctly.

"Do it now."

Without a moment's further pause, the Slayer spun toward the entrance and strode out, leaving behind a conversation that continued to echo from the still-glowing mirror.

"You can't kill her," a new voice, this one feminine and authoritative, interjected.

"The decision is made," the baritone flatly stated with finality.

"But the Sangerand—"

The bass interrupted her quickly. "This will be a setback, nothing more," it assured, though its gravelly voice left much comfort to be desired. "But if she finds us, then it is we who will be nothing more."

As soon as she stepped into the hall, Judith spotted an oblivious Willow. The redhead's eyes were narrowed in intense concentration as she continued with her spell, and she remained utterly unaware of the impending danger. The Slayer’s lips curled in a predatory grin, and she cocked her arm back as she took the final few steps necessary to close the distance between them.

The first punch slammed across Willow's jaw, and sent her staggering into the center of the hallway. For a moment, thin tendrils of energy continued to stream from the witch's fingertips and into the wall before dissipating into nothingness. Somehow Willow managed to remain on her feet, but her expression was still hazy and distant. She never saw the backhanded blow coming, and the force of it spun her around.

Willow fought to regain her focus, but even as her eyes began to clear, it was evident that the strikes to her head had badly disoriented her. Still, the witch gritted her teeth and raised her right hand toward Judith, fingers curling as she struggled to concentrate. "Creo—"

Faster than eyes could follow, Judith lashed out with a sideways kick that struck Willow's outstretched hand and smacked it into the wall, the Slayer following instantly with a vicious stomp directly on the delicate wrist. A loud crack echoed in the hall, and Willow cried out in pain, quickly biting her lip to muffle the sound. The witch turned to her injury just as Judith's boot-clad foot, which had remained extended and waiting, swung in a heavy arc that connected solidly with Willow's face. With a grunt, the redhead collapsed to the ground, blood dripping from her nose and splattering loudly on the white tile.

"Oops, did I hurt your casting hand?" Judith asked contritely with painfully mocking concern as she leisurely strolled forward. "Whatever was I thinking?"

Anger penetrated through the pain that etched Willow's face as she jerked her head toward the Slayer. Her other hand shot up in a gesture similar to the one from earlier, but the action was clumsy and lacked the same assurance. "Creo aegis ..." the witch ground out, panting heavily.

Judith's approach was halted by the appearance of a shimmering wall of magical energy. However far from the expected solid line of defense, it was a wavering, uneven mass with patches that faded in and out, seemingly at random. With a cruel, barking laugh, the Slayer raised her forearm and repeatedly brought it crashing down against the barrier. It took some effort, but before long the field bent and splayed into an opening through which Judith easily stepped, just as the conjuration evaporated entirely.

With no more effort than she might expend in lifting a rag doll, Judith reached out and, grabbing a fistful of Willow's shirt, hefted the smaller woman into the air, propelling her into the nearest wall and pinning her there firmly. Willow's good hand came up and clawed at the Slayer's arm, her fingers digging into the flesh. "I-Imas ..." the witch began shakily.

Rolling her eyes with utmost disdain, Judith backhanded Willow, her restraining grip on the witch never faltering, even for an instant. The incantation died on Willow's lips as the Slayer repeated the backhand in the opposite direction and then, deriving some sort of perverse pleasure from the action, Judith completed several more back-and-forth blows until she became bored and released her hold. No longer supported, Willow dropped to her knees and forearms. Blood now poured in a steady stream from both her nose and mouth, further staining the floor.

Unable to prevent herself from uttering a pained whimpering with every breath, Willow tried repeatedly to rise to her feet, but her limbs were no longer willing to obey her commands and it was all she could do to remain in her current position.

Watching the redhead with something bordering on wonder, Judith shook her head. "You just don't give up, to you?" she queried, adding, "That's admirable. And stupid, mind you."

Gritting her teeth, the Slayer lashed out with her foot, burying it into Willow's stomach. The force knocked the redhead over and she landed sprawled on her back. Casually, as though she had all the time in the world, Judith straddled Willow's midsection, grinning down at her prey.

Not done just yet, Willow again raised her good arm, but it was too little and far too late. Easily swatting the weak protest to one side, Judith pulled back her arm as far as she possibly could and slowly, with relish, balled her fingers into a tight fist. Like a bowstring, the Slayer's arm remained taut for just a moment before she unleashed with a powerful blow that connected directly into the center of her victim's forehead. Willow's head smacked the floor with a wet crack that seemed to linger long after everything else became still.

With that, almost as quickly as it had started, the attack was over. Willow's head lolled limply to one side, her face pale, swollen and streaked with blood. Looming over her, Judith gazed down admiringly at her handiwork. Shaking her head ruefully, she wrapped both hands around the witch's neck. "What a shame," the Slayer commented without real pity. "You were the best thing this miserable group had going for them."

Her muscles tensing with all the strength she had been mystically given, Judith began to squeeze, but then stopped abruptly. Her head whirled around, but not in time to prevent the blur of motion as a pair of hands roughly grabbed Judith by the arm and shoulder, hurling her away from Willow and into the wall at the far end of the hallway.

Impacting at an odd angle, Judith collided with such force that the wall cracked, but this did little more than momentarily disorient the Slayer. She quickly scrambled to her feet, gazing wide-eyed back toward where she had been just moments before.

Between Judith and Willow, like an impenetrable force of nature, stood Buffy.

"And I thought the highlight was our dental plan," the blonde quipped, hands on her hips.

Judith smirked, brushing the dust from her clothes as she sauntered toward Buffy. "Excellent," she stated with what sounded like genuine glee. "Sparring with Rosenberg's pet Slayer was fun, but I was really hoping for the chance to take you down before I was done."

"You should be careful what you wish for," Buffy told her conversationally, her hands dropping and hanging loosely at her sides as she watched Judith cautiously.

"Give me a break, Summers," the other Slayer retorted with an eye roll. "I've seen nothing out of you but talk." Now less than ten feet from Buffy, Judith paused, maintaining a strategic distance. "What are you going to do, lecture me to death?"

Buffy's gaze never wavered from Judith; she didn't even seem to blink. "Thought about it, but considering what you just did to my best friend, I'm gonna upgrade you to an ass-kicking, free of charge."

"What a generous offer – let's see if you can carry through with it."

Combat began with an eruption of simultaneous action. Both Slayers met in a whirlwind of standard punches that each easily dodged, using the contact to gauge a feel for her opponent.

Neither paid any attention to Xander, who had slipped unnoticed down the hallway and was kneeling next to Willow. The redhead lay deathly still where she had fallen, her body limp and face ashen. The injuries to her nose and mouth had stopped flowing, but now a small pool of blood was spreading across the floor near her head. Stricken, Xander gazed down at the sight of his best friend, his breath catching in his throat as he took in the gruesome sight. "Oh, god ... Will ..." he murmured, fumbling at her wrist to check for a pulse.

Playtime clearly over for the battling Slayers, the intensity of the conflict had increased. Blows were now exchanged with little care for dodging. Both women were comfortable in combat, and the repertoire of attacks at their disposal, coupled with super-human speed, was dizzying. At least half a minute of frenzied activity passed before Buffy sensed an opening and she seized it, landing a fist squarely in the brunette's stomach, doubling her over. Wasting no time, Buffy followed up with a knee to the face, throwing Judith upright again as a small spout of blood sprayed across the room.

Stumbling back, Judith brought a hand to her nose. It came away with her fingertips bright red, and the Slayer stared, blinking with disbelief. For the first time, her cocky demeanor slipped, turning instead to rage. "That's gonna cost you," she spat between clenched teeth.

Buffy shrugged. "Put it on my tab."

The blonde's leg flew toward Judith's head with an audible whoosh, but the other Slayer was ready for it and she caught Buffy's foot in one hand, quickly bringing up her other to clamp onto the heel as she began to twist. Countering, Buffy leapt into the air with a spinning kick, aimed at the other side of Judith's head; the dark-haired girl leaned back, her hair swishing in the breeze left by the kick's wake, and she was forced to relinquish her hold. Buffy landed on her stomach, preparing to rise to her feet, but Judith was already there. Grabbing a fistful of blonde hair, Judith lifted Buffy's head off the ground and drove it back down again into the tile with all her strength.

"I wonder if hair-pulling is still considered fighting like a girl when you can bend steel?" Judith idly mused, her previous good humor returning in full force.

Releasing her grip, Judith reared back to stomp the blonde's head into the floor, but Buffy was nowhere near as dazed as expected. Before she knew what was happening, a barrage of lightening-quick combinations assailed Judith, and in her exposed stance she was helpless to fend them off.

Judith suffered several punishing hits to her face, her stomach, her knees, before she sufficiently regained her composure to attempt any sort of counterattack, and even as she did so, her fist aimed wide of Buffy and became embedded in the wall up to the wrist. Moving swiftly to take advantage, Buffy closed in, but the brunette yanked her hand free and flung a cloud of powdery, ground-up plaster in her opponent's face.

Even as she stood a little unsteady, Judith was unable to mask her arrogance; she crossed her arms and smirked, enjoying the sight of Buffy rubbing fiercely at her stinging, watering eyes. "If I had more of a conscience, I'd feel guilty about killing you when you can't even see me."

Before she could even think to defend herself, much less uncross her arms, Judith reeled backward as Buffy rammed the heel of her hand into the other girl's chin. A running charge from the blonde sent them both flying into the wall, which buckled under the impact. Buffy was relentless, raining blow after blow down on the brunette, who appeared too dazed to do more than attempt to roll with each punch. Showering them with plaster, the wall seemed in danger of crumbling completely when Buffy finally grabbed Judith by the shoulders and slung her, back first, into the opposite wall, where she half-slumped to the ground.

"When somebody talks as much as you do in a fight, you don't need to see them," Buffy pointed out, her eyes red, raw, and angry, but her vision clear.

Several yards away, Xander was trying, without success, to rouse Willow. The redhead had displayed no signs of movement, still sprawled on the ground. Slowly but unrelentingly the pool of blood continued to grow around her head, matting in her hair and beginning to seep into Xander's jeans as he knelt by her side. Feverishly, Xander rubbed her arms, whispering encouragement; it was only through sheer force of will that he was able to keep from shaking her. "Come on, Will," he begged, searching for something, anything in his friend's colorless, inanimate face that would grant him relief. "Wake up. Wake up, dammit!" he commanded, but Willow failed to respond.

Judith had managed, with effort, to get to her feet, and renewed her attack on Buffy, but her attempts were weak, wild and predictable now, and it was clear she was on her last legs. She swung feebly, but Buffy easily caught Judith's wrist in mid-air. Twisting it, Buffy brought up her free hand and slammed it into the other girl's elbow with a sharp, snapping sound.

Remaining true to her bravado, Judith only allowed the mildest grunt of pain to escape between her clenched teeth. She panted heavily for just a moment before letting loose with a primal yell and lunged at Buffy, managing to connect with the side of the blonde's head. It was enough to make Buffy release the wounded arm, but nothing more.

In the training room, the mirror continued to glow.

"Help her," the baritone demanded urgently.

There was no pause to consider and no evidence of regret. "She's beyond our help now," the bass simply responded.

Surveying her opponent coldly and critically, Buffy looked like a snake preparing to strike at its prey. Exhausted, one arm completely useless, Judith no longer presented even a remote threat, and a single roundhouse kick brought her down in a crumpled, panting heap.

Immediately, Buffy dropped to the floor, planting one knee across Judith's stomach and the other on the Slayer's good wrist, effectively immobilizing her. Buffy was furious, and it showed in her eyes – a burning intensity that had seen the death of gods and monsters and was prepared to take on so much more in the defense of what she held dear.

"We played your game. You lost," growled Buffy, nearly snarling as she put extra weight on Judith's stomach to further drive her point home. "Now? You're going to talk. You're going to tell me who you really are and what you're doing here. And you're going to tell me now."

Stoic and defiant, Judith's only response was a glare of seething, bottomless hatred. Buffy reciprocated by driving her fingers into the wounded elbow, twisting them for good measure and eliciting a cry of intense pain.

"Tell me!" Buffy demanded, twisting again.

Judith's attitude was visibly changing, her confidence crumbling under pain and fear. Her eyes darted from one side to the next nervously, as though considering her options before she opened her mouth to speak. Nothing came out, and Judith looked surprised for a moment before she spasmed in torment, her body suddenly wracked with such force that Buffy was nearly thrown clear. The area above Judith's heart began to glow, visible even through the dark shirt she was wearing. Gazing at it, the brunette's eyes widened with terror. "No! Wait! I'm not finished!" she screamed into the air.

"What the—" Buffy began as she jumped off the other girl, an expression of amazement and disbelief appearing on her face as the glow began to take shape, coalescing into the form of an eye on a staff. It grew brighter and brighter, until it actually burst into flames, burning through Judith's shirt.

Still on the ground and with her arm now free, Judith began slapping at the tiny fire, nearly hyperventilating as she vainly attempted to smother the steadily growing blaze. "I can— I can still—" she pleaded, panting and panic-stricken, but she never got the chance to finish the statement, as the fire suddenly erupted into an inferno that spread outward and, in less than a second, completely enveloped her body. Judith screamed, an agonizing shriek that reached a fever pitch, then died away as the flames consumed her utterly and vanished, leaving nothing behind, not even ashes. In the training room, the glow in the mirror intensified momentarily, then grew dark and still.

Frozen and completely taken aback, Buffy continued to stare at the floor where Judith had been mere seconds previously. She might have remained there, simply gazing in disbelief, had Xander not refocused her attention.

"Buffy!" he yelled, his voice cracking.

Visibly shaking her head to dispel the images, Buffy glanced over her shoulder, and saw something much more horrific: Xander kneeling helplessly near a bloody, broken and unmoving Willow.

"Will," she whispered fearfully, running instantly to the other side of the redhead. Buffy inhaled sharply as she absorbed for the first time the extent of the injuries. Reaching out a trembling hand that hovered over Willow's face, Buffy couldn't seem to bring herself to make contact. "Is—" she began, choking on the words, not wanting to give them voice. "Is she—"

"It's bad," was Xander's only answer. "She might still be bleeding, she—" Xander looked up, his eye shining and terrified. "We gotta get her to a hospital, Buffy."

There was a moment of complete panic, where it seemed Buffy had no idea what to do and was unable to tear herself away from the deathly pallor that had settled on Willow's usually bright, vibrant features. But it only lasted a moment before Buffy swallowed hard and reached into her back pocket, yanking out her cell phone and punching three numbers decisively.

As the phone rang, her arm moved of its own accord, and she caressed Willow's cheek shakily and unsteadily, paying no attention to the blood now on her hands.

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