PART EIGHT: 4th July 2004
Chapter One: Planting Seeds
Buffy was sitting at the kitchen table reading a book. Not for pleasure; she couldn't even remember the last time she read a book for pleasure. It was probably back in her second year of college, when Giles finally gave her access to all the cool books he hadn't thought she was committed enough for before.
This was not one of those books.
The sunlight coming through the large windows was pleasurable though and she was enjoying the way it bathed her back in warmth. Summer had finally come to Wendigo Hollow after a couple of months of unseasonably damp weather.
It was perfect; just in time for the holiday weekend.
Not that any of them were making the most of it right now.
Buffy sighed and turned the page of the monster book of monsters, looking for any that resembled the demons Toni may or may not have summoned four weeks before.
Four weeks was a long time to not have a positive ID on the creatures, but they were pretty generic-looking for demons, apparently - even the four arm thing didn't set them apart as much as she had expected. After her report, Giles had initially managed to narrow it down to about thirty species that could be them from the description she gave.
Kennedy had spent more time flying backwards through the air than getting a good look at them - while they were whole anyway - so she hadn't been able to offer much help with identifying them, and Willow had been busy being shaken all over the place - at best she had a blurred memory.
Buffy sighed and turned the page again to be greeted with more tiny writing, 'days of yore' phrasage and, mostly, gross sketches.
It wasn't as if the demons were even a threat any more. She'd killed them nice and dead and normally, once the killing happened, the research was thankfully over... Except not this time. This time they had to find out why they'd been there in the first place. What had they done, or been summoned to do, before they ended up killed? And if it had been her girlfriend doing the summoning, then why?
Buffy was still convinced that if Toni was the culprit, then it had been an accident. Well, maybe not an accident so much as a misguided attempt to get Buffy to open up to her. A beginner's blunder. Perhaps Toni had found a book or some people on campus that had been able to tell her about demons and the various ways to summon them and Toni had thought: 'Hey there's a good way to get my honey to be honest with me.' Only she didn't know how dangerous demons could be and hadn't realised what a stupid thing it was to do until afterwards. It explained why the demons Toni had called forth had turned on her too.
Buffy could repeat this theory every day forever if she wanted, but without proof, it was just her defending her increasingly suspect girlfriend. Right now there was only one way to get that proof: eliminate all other possibilities.
It had taken her the whole four weeks, but she was finally down to the last couple of demonio-looky-likeys and nothing she'd turned up so far made it look as if Toni had been trying to destroy the world - or deliberately get innocent people hurt - on the night of the Italian holiday.
Just as well because much more time squinting at this awful handwriting was going to blind her and then she wouldn't be able to ID the demon even if it was standing right in front of her. There'd be certain little pictures of the 'in no way gross' variety that she would miss too.
The demon she was looking at wasn't the one. Sighing, she started searching for the next name on Giles's list.
Buffy wasn't the only one sighing over the difficult reading material either; even Giles didn't seem to know whether his glasses would be more helpful on his face or in his hand as he pored over age-old prophesies concerning Easter bunnies and babies. Xander had given up completely. He was being stealthy about it; his book was open, his face was pointing toward it, but his eye had wandered to where the sun-soaked garden could be seen through the window.
It was probably fair to say that Xander had bigger things on his mind today than his research assignment. It was Anya's birthday, or at least the birthday Anya had taken for herself when she'd been re-humanised the first time. Buffy didn't know when her actual birthday had been, but she remembered hearing something once about how the date didn't even exist any more. So Anya had chosen Independence Day when the time had come for her to officially exist within the world again - and that was today.
No wonder Xander wasn't paying attention to his boring book.
They had decided, all of them, that today they wouldn't go to the organised Fourth of July party on the common. Partly because it was Anya's birthday and it seemed like as good a day as any to remember all of their fallen loved ones, and partly because their house - bought and paid for by the new Council - came with a small lakeside property.
It was going to be nice, watching the fireworks down by the lake as a family - well, an extended family. Buffy was really looking forward to it; she just wished the whole family were here to enjoy it.
Faith was still in Italy and Buffy had heard nothing from her since the night they had talked then cried and then talked some more.
Buffy gave another heavy sigh when she realised that she'd been staring out of the window too instead of focusing on the book. She was the one who had been pushing the need for the daily research sessions, and her friends were going along with it just because she said so without really knowing why, but today she wished she could just leave them to it.
Let them do the reading while she got on with the hard stuff.
The bags Andrew and Dawn had brought back from the store were still sitting on the counter - abandoned as soon as they'd been set down - because the two teens had been roped into the research too. Only the pink striped box of doughnuts had been saved the fate of sweating on the counter and was sweating on the table instead like a centrepiece.
It was already half-empty, saving Buffy the bother of making lunch. The contents of the rest of the bags probably weren't going to make themselves into a picnic for ten by that afternoon, though.
"I think I have something," Willow said softly from the other end of the table, her eyes scanning her laptop screen from left to right.
Buffy, and everyone else, looked over expectantly.
Willow murmured a few words under her breath as she read before apologetically adding, "I don't have anything."
There was a chorus of exasperated sighs. Kennedy - who was sitting on a stool behind Willow and not engaging in the reading of ancient texts at all - leaned down to give her a kiss on the top of her head before sitting against the counter once more to read Tatler magazine.
There was a quiet beep from Buffy's pocket and she retrieved her cell-phone to read the message:
'Miss you, mia cara. Happy Day of Independence! x.'
Buffy cringed slightly, deleting the message without bothering to reply yet.
She'd woken up the morning after Faith's phone call, feeling an odd but potent mixture of guilt and relief. The guilt, because she should not have done the things she'd done - even by herself - when fantasising about Faith, only hours after telling Toni she wanted to work things out.
She'd meant it at the time, she was sure, but... well that was where the relief had come in. If her feelings for the dark Slayer were still so strong that they could make her cry one minute and come (repeatedly) the next, then obviously she was just stringing Toni along.
This new awareness didn't make her happy. Her affection for Toni wasn't false; there were more than a few sparks of real and intense feeling between them - and she was pretty sure that they could have worked out the whole Troy-dispute and been really happy together given time... If Faith had stayed mad at her forever.
But Faith hadn't stayed mad forever.
And that left only one responsible thing to do: she had to split up with Toni the next time she saw her.
Buffy hadn't been looking forward to it and she didn't expect it to be easy, but from every angle she looked, it was the right thing to do.
That morning, Buffy had got everyone together and given one of her motivating speeches. Despite the amount of eye rolling that took place while she had the floor, a half hour later everyone was sitting down to some intensive researching and Buffy jumped in too, hoping that solving at least a fraction of all the mysteries swamping her would take her mind off the unpleasant task scheduled for Sunday.
It might have worked, but she never had the chance to find out, because later that morning...
Buffy looked up as a shadow fell across the sunshine coming through the open back door and her mouth opened in surprise to see Toni standing there.
She felt her stomach drop into her boots as she said, as brightly as she could manage, "Hey!"
There was a scramble around the table as Xander, Giles and Andrew tried to clear the numerous weapons lying in plain sight, out of plain sight.
"Guys, it's okay," Buffy halted them. There was no point hiding now, Toni knew enough to not be that surprised by the swords and axes.
"Buenogiorno Buffy," Toni's eyes seemed to zoom in just on her and Buffy held her breath while she waited to see what happened next.
She had a horrible flash of panic; what if Toni already knew about her conversation with Faith the previous night?
Toni smiled, and wouldn't this be so much easier if she wasn't so beautiful? If the affection in Toni's eyes wasn't so warm, so appealing, and so easy to fall for?
She couldn't lie, though, and say her heart skipped a beat in Toni's presence, at least not in the same way it did just at hearing Faith's voice calling long distance.
But she could say with perfect confidence that she wished it did. In that moment, staring at Toni standing in the doorway, she wished everything could be different and that she'd fallen in love with Toni instead.
Toni spoke, interrupting her mental pity-party. "Buffy, I know we agreed to wait until Sunday, but I am afraid something has happened and I must speak with you now."
"What's happened?" Buffy rose to her feet. "Are you okay? Did something attack you after we left?"
Buffy thought back to the venom in the Italian demons eyes the night before. Those two were dead, but that didn't mean others hadn't been lying in wait, waiting for a chance when the Slayer wasn't about.
"No, I am fine. I just need to speak with you... alone," she added quietly.
"Okay, we can talk outside." Buffy walked to the door, giving Toni time to turn and go out before she followed and pulled the door closed after her. She gestured at the bench-seat against the wall of the house. "Is this a 'hushed tones in the dead of night' kind of talk or can we speak safely sitting here?"
"Here is fine," Toni sat down, keeping her knees pressed tight together, her hands resting in her lap as she looked down at them. She didn't seem so much distressed as painfully sombre.
There was a sense of disappointment showing in her body language and Buffy thought again that she'd somehow been caught out. Maybe she was here to get in first - to be the dumper, not the dumpee.
'I don't want to finish this,' Buffy thought, meaning it so intensely she nearly blurted it out loud. 'It's just things will get really bad and messy and unfair for everyone if I don't.'
"So...?" Buffy began when Toni seemed reluctant to.
"I have some bad news," Toni spoke softly to her knees. "At least I hope it is bad news." She made eye contact quickly before looking down again.
Buffy frowned. Why would someone hope to deliver bad news? "Go on."
"My father, he telephoned this morning. Somehow he has realised that the school year is all but over and that I am free for the summer. Alas he has arranged an internship within the company to keep me from getting bored -" she chuckled, shaking her head a little at her dad's ill-placed generosity. "He thinks it is time I have a more intimate knowledge of the family business. This is, after all, why my father is paying my tuition fees; so that once I finish college here I can work with him."
Buffy didn't know what to say. It hadn't been the bad news she was expecting and she didn't really understand what there was to be so solemn about it. So Toni had to work all summer. Bummer, sure, but Buffy would be working all summer anyway. It wasn't like all of their grand plans had suddenly been dashed - they'd still have plenty of time to spend together.
"That's not such bad news," she said gently. "Okay, you won't get eight weeks of sleeping 'til noon like you were hoping, but the upside: money! Your dad is going to pay you right?"
Toni nodded, "Si, very well. When I refused at first, he doubled his offer."
"Well, there you go." Buffy grinned. "We'll have an even better summer this way with the both of us earning."
Toni's face dropped even further and she heaved a sigh that could have been half-sob. Buffy automatically moved to comfort her girlfriend, sliding closer to her on the bench and placing an arm around her shoulders.
"Hey, what is it?"
Toni looked up slowly to meet her eyes. Buffy was surprised to see them wet.
"There is not a branch of my father's company in Cleveland."
"Huh?" It took Buffy a second, but then she got it. "Oh. So does this mean you're joining the commuter masses or is relocation in order?"
"It would be too far to travel everyday."
"But in Ohio right?" Buffy checked, feeling a little more alarm now that her girlfriend might be moving to another state completely.
It was silly to think this. Buffy was supposed to be breaking up with her anyway and this should have made it so much easier, but despite that, she'd still hoped they'd be able to see each other... sometimes, just to hang out.
Maybe that was too much to ask. Maybe Toni would never want to speak to her again, but Buffy was really hoping it wouldn't go like that. A part of her really was in love with Toni. The fact that it just wasn't a big enough part to quell her feelings for Faith didn't, unfortunately, make the idea of Toni leaving for eight weeks sit any better.
Toni shook her head, confirming Buffy's fears as she murmured, "Tokyo."
"Little Tokyo? In LA?" Buffy asked hopefully. "Well that's a little far to meet up every weekend, but I've gotta be owed some vacation time by now. Maybe I can come down for a couple of weeks..."
Buffy nodded, "Right, you mean THE Tokyo, as in Japan."
Toni nodded and now there were silent tears running slowly over her cheeks as she pinched her mouth shut.
This would be a good time to break her own bad news. Okay this would be a really shitty time to break her own bad news, but in a twisted way it was a good time too. Toni was already crying, so at least this way she'd only cry the once - assuming the break-up made her feel sad enough to cry. Or, if not, then maybe it would make the passionate Italian really really angry and then she wouldn't be so upset about going away. If you looked at it that way, Buffy was actually doing her a favour...
Even as she thought this, Buffy - feeling a lump in her own throat - put her arms around Toni. Hugging her tight, she found herself saying,
"Its okay, Toni, its only eight weeks. That's nothing, it'll fly by, I promise. You'll be home and complaining to me about early morning classes again before we know it..."
Toni had left for Japan three days later without Buffy ever getting around to breaking up with her.
In fact, those last three days had been something of a wild love fest between the two of them. Buffy had pleaded with her boss Doreen for the three days off - claiming there had been a family emergency and promising to work extra shifts the week after to make up for it - and then the two of them had gone, well, a little nuts.
Three days and three nights filled with eating, drinking, clubbing 'til dawn, and sex - lots of sex. They must have had about six hours sleep spread over the three days, but Buffy hadn't felt tired until Toni waved goodbye at the departure gate.
They hadn't talked about Troy, or the demon summoning, or Buffy's Slayerness. She was kind of seeing this as their last hurrah and she didn't want to ruin it. There would be plenty of time to break Toni's heart when she came back from her internship and maybe the eight weeks apart would make it easier to do so.
Even with this game-plan, her last face-to-face conversation with Toni had nearly ripped her apart with guilt.
They had been standing in the middle of a crowd of people saying goodbye, and everyone had been hugging and kissing so Buffy had felt no unease while she held Toni, kissing her and telling her she would miss her - which was no lie.
That had been fine, it was when Toni had pulled back, clutching Buffy's hands tightly and looking her dead in the eye that her stomach had started to get twisty with bad feelings...
"This is such bad timing," Toni said, squeezing Buffy's hands. There were tears in her eyes, but she was laughing a little. "We were supposed to be fixing our relationship today..." - It was Sunday; big talk day - "...and instead I am flying to the other side of the world. That is not a good omen."
That was so true. Buffy smiled sadly, "Take care of yourself, okay? Don't go eating any of those poisonous fishes. I don't care if it's a delicacy - if it's poisonous I don't want it going in your tummy."
Toni grinned at her, dipping down for another quick kiss which Buffy happily returned. When she was standing up straight again, looking down into Buffy's face she grew more serious.
"When I get back, we will talk... we will talk about whatever it is you want to know. We will fix this. I will not lose you, Buffy; I will let nothing get in our way. Not Troy, not your duties, not..." she licked her lips uncomfortably "...Faith. Nothing. You are so very important to me Buffy, more important than anything..."
"I..." Buffy began.
But then they were calling Toni's flight and she had no choice but to give Buffy one last kiss, followed by a look of intense regret that she was walking away. Then she'd disappeared through the security check and out the other side.
To say Buffy had been left feeling as guilty as hell for essentially leading Toni on for three days just because she was having a hard time doing the right thing... would have been a totally inadequate description for the level of guilt she was actually feeling. It grew worse every time she received a text - which was every morning - or when Toni phoned - which thankfully had only been a few times and never for very long because of the expense.
Faith hadn't called again, but two weeks after the phone call a post card had turned up in the mail. The picture was a beautiful Italian castle, captured at sunset amidst acres upon acres of wild countryside. Buffy didn't know if it was Troy's place, but it seemed likely.
The card had been addressed to them all, but Buffy was pretty sure that the line about how many showers Faith had to take due to the heat was just for her.
She'd told the others about her conversation with Faith of course, although after leaving out all of the personal bits, conversation probably didn't seem like the right word to them. If they believed it had been a short, stunted exchange of necessary information then Buffy was fine with that. What she wasn't fine with was Kennedy - and everyone else it sometimes felt like - judging her.
Yes, she had made a mess, but she would also be the one to sort it out. Having everyone else jumping in with advice and criticism wouldn't help, and it would just take time away from the vital research.
Because she was all about the research...
Buffy gave a frustrated groan, running a hand through her hair, as she realised she'd been staring at the postcard from Faith - held in place on the front of the fridge by a big W-shaped magnet - instead of the book.
"Everything okay, Buff?" Xander asked, snagging his third glazed ring of fried dough from the box.
"No. We're missing something -- something big -- something that's the key to figuring out the whole thing," she grumbled.
"You mean something like: What it actually is we're supposed to be figuring out in the first place?" he asked with his mouth full.
"Exactly." She let her head rest in her hands for just a second, staring down at the book she could barely read. "We've spent all month digging up details on Eostre and we've found nothing that we didn't already know. That she's a mischievous nature spirit who - by getting the right people to copulate - has risen up through the ranks of the lesser gods to make quite a name for herself in the baby business.
"You and Wes have gone over the prophesy until you got blue faces and you still think you were right the first time; which is impossible because neither Faith nor I are pregnant..."
"How can you be positive that Faith was telling you the truth?" Giles asked, his head tilting to one side in earnest.
"I can't, but she definitely wasn't showing even a little bit, not even a..." she trailed off with some throat clearing, waiting for someone to ask how she could be so sure of that. "At least, that's what she said. And even if she was as sure as sure that she wasn't pregnant before, if she found out she was after I mentioned the whole prophesy thing, there is no way she wouldn't get in touch - even if it was just to curse at me for knocking her up."
"Well, we're still going over it daily," Giles indicated a German dictionary so old that the yellowed pages were falling out and disintegrating at the edges. "There is still some uncertainty regarding the..."
Buffy tuned him out as he started explaining the difficulty again. She didn't need to hear the details; she needed to hear that they'd cracked it. Until that day came, she was happy to focus on something else.
She looked up at Andrew's big white-board propped on the kitchen side. So far it was pretty bare with just some doodles of flowers and three topic headings. One was the demons, two was the prophecy, and three was...
"And Troy is still a big fat mystery too." Buffy sat back, her eyes flicking from the postcard on the fridge to the white-board. Under Troy's name was written 'In Italy'. "He and Faith have been together how long and we still don't even know his surname."
"You were closest to them," Willow pointed out.
"I was closest to her." Buffy corrected, warmth flowing through her at the memory. "Not him."
"But you went out on double dates."
"One. One double date and that was all part of Troy's evil plan, I'm sure of it."
"So he introduced you to your current girlfriend - the one you like too much break up with - as all part of his evil plan?" Kennedy asked without looking up from her magazine.
"So break up with Toni then," Kennedy shrugged. "Maybe that's all it will take to foil his dastardly scheme."
"No, we're just... a nice accident. You know, like how they say something beautiful is born out of something ugly? Well that's me and Toni," Buffy explained.
"You know, you're always going on at Buffy to break up with Toni," Dawn defended her from the other side of the kitchen table, twisting in her chair to stare up at Kennedy. "If you don't give it a rest I'm going to start thinking you're jealous."
It was Willow who frowned at Dawn; Kennedy just chuckled and flipped the page of her glossy socialite magazine.
"Well Buffy," Giles began. "It's true that you certainly had the most opportunity to learn facts about Troy. Not discovering anything drastically untoward in that time is perhaps an indication that there is nothing there to discover. My contacts have been unable to come up with anything and even Angel - who has perhaps the largest social network - reports having never heard of a Troy matching his description. Maybe if you were to try asking Toni the next time she phones..." he gave a little shrug. "Otherwise I'm afraid we've hit rather a dead end."
"There's something." Buffy assured them, standing from her chair and going to the counter to sort through the purchased food. If she was just going to pretend to research anyway, she might as well get on with this. "And when we finally dig up the arcane equivalent of a post-it note saying 'TROY IS EVIL' followed by a list of all the reasons why and how, maybe for once you'll all stop doubting me on this."
She began to take vegetables and eggs from the paper bags and lay them on the counter.
"I've telephoned everyone on the Council rolodex already," Giles moaned. "And that's already broken my once per year quota for many of them."
"If I click on one more website telling me how to build my very own wooden horse out of tin cans I'm going to..." Willow grumbled. "How can it be a wooden horse anyway if it's made from old bean cans, huh?"
"Giles, there's one jelly left," Xander muttered. "Wanna go halfsies?"
"Guys, I know this seems pointless. We've been going over the same information for weeks now with no new leads and no fresh angles and I'm sorry." Buffy chopped through a lettuce, turning it into light green confetti-sized pieces. "But somewhere there has to be something about something that will shed some light.
"Giles, come on think!" She reached for another lettuce as she spoke and it wasn't long before that was finely chopped too. "Why would Eostre want us to think Faith and I were having this baby if she never had any intention of us actually having it? Why bother? What's in it for her?
"And Troy - when I overheard him in the men's room a few months back, he said this Quantiaro guy was going to try something. Something really bad by the sound of it, or at least something Troy thinks is really bad, which of course might mean its something good instead." She conceded as she de-seeded a bright red pepper. "Either way, it's probably good to assume Quantiaro isn't planning months in advance, so whatever he's up to could be happening any minute.
"Maybe it's going down in Italy right this minute and that's why Troy is holed up there with Faith - waiting for Quantiaro to move so he can stop him." Buffy looked over her shoulder, hoping for a reaction other than the vacant stares she was getting. Annoyed, she reduced a red onion to tiny diced tears.
"We don't have a clue what the two of them are doing over there," she stressed. "Except that Faith is slaying for herself now and not us... Am I really the only one who thinks that translates into she's slaying for him now? He's put the whammy on her and she doesn't know any better, so when he tells her to kill this Quantiaro guy, she's not going to realise it's a bad idea because she's all... whammied!"
"She doesn't look particularly whammied to me," Kennedy remarked casually. "Happy, sexy, maybe a little drunk, but she looks like she has all her faculties."
Buffy nearly the knocked everything off of the counter as she turned in haste to the door; her heart rising as for one second as she thought Faith had finally returned home.
The doorway was empty. Her heart sank back down and Buffy turned on Kennedy, "What's your deal now?"
"You want to find out stuff about Troy?" Kennedy asked, sounding bored, her eyes still reading from her magazine. "Then why don't you start with his celebrity profile. There are five bullet-points here and all of them tell me something we didn't know. And when you're done with that you can read the double-spread article on Europe's latest golden couple - although you might want to skip paragraphs nine through thirteen," Kennedy winced as she scanned the words and obviously found them not to her taste.
"Excuse me?" Buffy couldn't believe this was more than a weird joke.
Kennedy held the posh gossip magazine up and Buffy's breath caught.
Faith and Troy were splashed across two glossy pages
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