Dawn reluctantly waved goodbye to Fen and made her way to the open-bed truck waiting for her. She knew people were looking, more like everybody was looking, and she was so going to kill her sister for putting her through this.
"This is her way of getting me back for this morning," she muttered to herself as she smiled weakly at a group of cute guys who were grinning her way.
Willow leaned out of the drivers' window and got her attention. "Hi Dawnie, you wanna sit in the front with us or the back with the animals?" She grinned. "It's a bit cramped in here but we can manage."
"You can sit in the stairwell with our feet," she heard her sister call.
Dawn had been about to opt for the front thinking it would be less embarrassing, but her sister made her change her mind. She grimaced at the red-head.
"I'll take cattle over your feet any day, Buffy," she called out, changing direction for the back of the truck.
Kennedy had already jumped out and was opening the tail-gate for her. "Hey Dawn, how was school?" She asked, helping her in.
"Mainly average until this. I know Buffy never got to have the normal school-life thing but does she really have to inflict it on me too? I mean, why didn't she just make a float out of paper flowers and get Bobo the clown to pick me up in that? It would have been less attention grabbing."
"Aww lighten up, it's fun," said Miranda as Dawn took a seat on the little wooden benches Xander had fitted into the back himself.
"I feel like I'm in a chain-gang, going out to bust rocks or paint that white line down the middle of the highway," Dawn pouted.
Kennedy shut the back up again and hopped over the side to take her seat next to the whining brunette. Alison slapped the roof of the cab and Willow pulled smoothly away from the curb.
"So what's the what anyway?" Asked Dawn. "When Buffy said she wanted to pick me up to spend some quality time together I thought she just meant me and her, not the whole house."
"We have a situation," Cici said. "A code red.
Kate looked thoughtful before asking. "Is a code red as serious as it gets, 'cause if it is, shouldn't we be a bit better prepared? I mean I know we're strong, but are we really ready for a code red?"
Miranda looked nervous now. "Yeah, maybe we should start off with a code baby pink or soft orange."
"We'll be fine," Alison reassured the rest of the new girls. "It's daylight, the vampires can't come out in the day time. That's right isn't it?" She looked to Kennedy and Dawn.
Dawn nodded. "Yep. So that's it? A few vampires don't make a code red."
There were obvious sighs of relief from all the new girls except Alison.
"Vi and Rona found a whole lot of them in Cleveland and Giles thinks they're going to raise some big bad ass demon from a Hell dimension. Plus there's this big vampire feast happening any night soon which they're all coming here to celebrate. Add to that the Hellmouth having a dear diary day. It's not a code red yet, but Giles wants us to squash it before it can become one. Which is why the Slayer force is out in, uh, force," Kennedy said.
"Vi and Rona are here?" Dawn squealed enthusiastically, missing the rest of it entirely.
"So where are we heading exactly?" Willow asked as she drove away from the school.
Giles looked out of the passenger window and fought the urge to shrug. "I'm not sure exactly. Without the aid of a positive location to work with I'm afraid our best bet is trial and error."
"Which is pretty much all we've ever really had to start with," Buffy reminded them from her seat in the middle.
"That may be so Buffy, but we still had a large number of books on our side and a less impressive - but still bigger than presen - number of contacts to engage."
"And eventually punch."
Buffy and Willow grinned at each other.
"Precisely," Giles said dryly. "And now we don't, which makes things harder than I would like them to be, especially with my going away tomorrow." He glanced sideways at Buffy but she didn't react, at least not outwardly. "I don't like to leave you without a clear plan of attack."
"We'll be fine Giles. Kennedy is just itching to do some dusting and it's about time the new girls had a proper workout. This town isn't really bad enough to keep all of them busy. This will be just what they need to get a proper taster of being a Slayer," Buffy told her Watcher.
"I know you're right, but none of them have had any battle experience. Watching you and Kennedy slay demons isn't enough to keep them safe in what is to come."
"I don't know Giles. All you did was 'Watch Buffy', and you're still here to tell the tale," Willow smirked.
"I did more than watch Willow," Giles said, sounding annoyed.
Willow felt guilty for offending him and was quick to stammer. "I...I know...I just ...meant it ...in a funny way...like a...I know you did more than...you did lots of..."
Giles cut her off. "I got captured and used as currency more than once and let's not forget my penchant for being knocked on the head in the heat of a battle. I don't believe that was just watching."
"No, and you did it all very well, especially the head hitting part." Willow was quick to convey her admiration at his ability to be knocked unconscious. Anything to avoid 'annoyed Giles' and atone for insulting him. She looked away from the road when she heard Buffy giggling. Giles was also smiling, his gaze directed out of the windshield still. She took a deep breath. "Hope you get knocked out in L.A. ya big meanie," she muttered then winced at the bad thought and smiled apologetically at him.
Giles just chuckled. "I'm just glad Vi and Rona turned up when they did. With the two of them and Kennedy all working together, the girls will hopefully be able to join the battle with the minimum amount of danger, but enough involvement to learn a thing or two from their peers. I trust you will be joining them too, Buffy." He said it like it was already a done deal but he couldn't be sure. While over the past week Buffy had willingly begun training the new Slayers in the training field, she had left the patrolling to Kennedy, only joining them for small periods of time each night before returning home to watch T.V with Xander and Dawn.
"I'll be there. If it's as bad as you say it is then I can't be anywhere else, can I. But I'm only going for the new girls. Kennedy can head the attack or whatever we decide to do with Vi and Rona. I'll hang back and make sure the girls are safe. Back them up, y'know, so Kenny can concentrate."
Giles nodded. That would have to be good enough.
"Um, I still don't know where I'm heading," Willow reminded them.
Buffy pulled a map out of the glove compartment and handed it to Giles, who was himself pulling the map printed from the laptop out of his coat pocket. He put the two of them together and studied them. Buffy looked them over from his side.
"There's a small hamlet almost in the middle of the area we're looking at. Maybe if we head there and spread out we'll find a clue," Giles suggested.
Buffy rolled her eyes. That didn't sound very promising but she made an appropriate agreeing noise and Willow said:
"Point me in the right direction and I'm there."
Giles issued directions as she drove and it wasn't long before they drove past a little wooden sign bearing the name Pleasant Creek. Giles checked the map again and confirmed this was the place they were looking for. Willow pulled the truck to a stop just past the sign.
"It's like a little secret town," she breathed as they sat and looked around.
"Just don't say ghost town," pleaded Buffy. "Ghosts are always so angsty and tortured, it's a drag."
"It doesn't look dead..." Willow began.
"Just peaceful," Giles ended.
"Well there's the first bad omen for this place right there," Buffy quipped.
"It's perfectly possible that this place is naturally quiet. After all, it looks mostly untouched by tourism and it is out of the way of the main routes."
"Oooh look, ducks crossing the road." Willow squealed as up ahead a family of ducks crossed the road in front of them.
They both looked at the driver.
"What?" She defended herself. "They're cute."
"And probably demonic," Buffy dead-panned.
They felt and heard everyone jump out of the back.
"Well demon ducks aside, I think we should split into teams of three, one of us heading each, and start looking for clues." Giles started to climb from the truck.
"And what exactly will these clues look like?" Buffy asked.
"Anything remotely resembling demonic activity," Giles said quickly.
Buffy pointed to the ducks. "Found it."
The back room was cluttered with boxes, trays and haphazard piles of cardboard day-glo signs. He kept meaning to clear it up but even in a thousand years there just never seemed to be the time. He'd much rather do these sorts of thing at home anyway, but evil struck when evil felt like it. And it felt like it right now.
He pulled out a deep, white-glazed pottery ash-tray with Glastonbury 1982 hand-painted on the side in wacky rainbow colors and filled it almost to the brim with water from a plastic jug. Next he sprinkled in a pinch of fine ochre powder and stirred it slowly with his finger. Leaning back he surveyed the results.
Inside the ashtray a scene began to take form.
Two young women, one with fiery red hair and another with a long, straight sheet of dark brown falling over her face as she bends forward towards some ducks. They are both laughing as the waddling birds carry on their way oblivious to the attention. Another girl with hair so black it resembles midnight in a poetic sort of way stands off to the side. She alternates between longing looks at the ducks and more anxious looks around them, as if knowing they should be doing something else.
"This is the force of great good?" He said to himself in disbelief.
He snapped his fingers and the scene changed.
Two blondes, one short and one a little taller walk side by side through a maze of trees, talking. After a moment a third girl comes into view behind them, her mouth open to shout or squeal. Both of the blondes spin around battle ready. The third girl who has light auburn hair cut closely into her neck points to the low weeds growing to the side of the path. The two blondes inspect, and then laugh before continuing to walk on. The auburn girl laughs along with them and follows.
He put his hand to his chin as he watched and then pulled it away again, disgusted. He missed his beard. Really missed it. You always knew where you were with a good beard. He'd thought countless times about re-growing it but the styles the men wore these days just weren't the same. He sighed. Plus it would be impractical, getting caught in everything. And people no longer thought of food particles clinging to the hair as a sign of a good meal; now it was considered unhygienic.
He snapped his fingers again and stared into the ash-tray.
A man, walking along yet another track between the trees. One girl, short with dark hair held high in a pony tail was talking to him but he appeared to be barely listening, instead studying a map with his finger tracing various random lines over it. As one they stop and turn back. The man's face shows interest as he walks back the way they came. The girl looks put out that she is being ignored but she follows him anyway. They stop beside a squatting girl with a head of short messy hair that she pushes out of her eyes while pointing at a five-sided flat stone embedded in the earth close to a tall Oak. The man gets excited, bending down and gesturing manically.
He smiled. Well, they had found it. He was surprised. Would they know what it meant though, and would they be able to find the others? And if so would they find them in time?
Satisfied for the time being he snapped his fingers once again. He smiled.
"Ah, sports, that's more like it."
The ball whizzed through the air, looking like it was going to land perfectly in the big but fast woman's hands that were waiting for it. She jumped to catch it but her hands grabbed empty air and she landed back on her feet cursing.
Faith just grinned innocently at her over her shoulder as she dribbled the ball at speed back the other way. Seeing Janey open herself up some space, she threw the ball in her direction hard enough to break a mere mortals wrist if they tried to intercept it. None of the other women did; they'd learned that lesson the hard way a long time ago. Janey caught the ball and bounced it a few times on the spot, looking nervous as six women from the other team all crowded around her.
They pressed in and, panicking slightly, she threw the ball to a woman with a large scar down one cheek who she vaguely remembered as being on the same side as her. The scarred woman caught it but was immediately tackled and lost the ball. She looked pissed but Janey was just pleased to have the attention away from her.
Faith grinned from the other side of the small court and took off after the ball once more. For the twentieth time in the game she jumped effortlessly and snatched the ball out of someone's grasp. She was loving this game. She dodged a thick set Hispanic woman and launched the ball back towards Janey once again. Normally she didn't dare play in these yard games in case people realized her supernatural speed and agility, not to mention the fact that she had hurt a few women in the past by being a bit forceful. With Janey playing too she knew she didn't have to worry so much. One freak stood out way more than two for some freaky reason.
She was up by the hoop now and as the young blonde threw the ball back to her she leapt high to catch it, and swinging on the metal hoop - purely for show - sank it.
Whoops and cheers came from the rest of their motley team. Faith didn't know why they still bothered, the score must have been like sixty to nearly nothing by now and they'd done that every time. She slapped some woman's hand, who she seemed to remember had tried to rearrange her face with a broken plastic plate once upon a time, just for the camaraderie and turned to grin at Janey.
Janey grinned back. This was kinda fun, compared to sitting in a cell or being accosted in the cafeteria anyway. Thinking of which, she noticed Lolitta and her friends standing off to the side, leaning against the wall smoking. She looked over to see if Faith had noticed but the game had started up again and Faith was running to get the ball. She shook it off and tried to concentrate on the game.
Faith had noticed the three troublemakers watching from the sidelines but she wasn't about to let it ruin her good mood. This was the first time in days she'd been able to take her mind off the up-coming court appearance. The adrenaline rush of racing around this court overshadowing her fear of the other more important one. So let them stand and stare. It was no big deal. She caught the ball again, even though it was sailing past at least three foot to her right and tried a jump shot from forty feet behind the line. It dropped through with ease and her team started cheering again.
Faith grinned. Yeah, today was a good day.
Willow, Dawn and Miranda had finally left the ducks to their business and had begun wandering around the small village looking for anything "demonic". So far they hadn't found a thing.
The idyllic place was just too nice to be evil. The road they'd driven in on continued on through the woods without changing direction or forking. Small cottages built from wood and brick lined the road, only about six in total. Before you reached them there was tiny wooden bridge which allowed you to cross a tiny, clear stream. Most probably Pleasant Creek.
The three girls had already spent ten minutes walking up the road checking out the dwellings. Some housewives were standing in a front garden, one of them bouncing a small child on her hip as they talked. When Willow, Dawn and Miranda had passed by trying not to look suspicious, the one with the child had called out a friendly hello.
"Hi," Dawn had shouted back and Willow and Miranda had both waved.
Now they were standing in front of a small shop. It was like a scaled down version of the grocers in Boudenver.
"I don't know what we're supposed to find here," Dawn grumbled.
"Evil stuff," Miranda supplied helpfully in a safe whisper.
"Yeah but the only thing we seem to be in danger of here is rotting teeth from too much sweetness."
Willow shhh'd them just as a small old lady with grey hair in a tight bun came out of the shop door.
"I saw you loitering out here and I just thought I'd come see what you wanted," she told them with a smile.
"Oh we weren't loitering, honestly, we were just looking around," Dawn said.
The old lady's smile grew bigger. "I was only pulling your leg, dearie. Now what can I get you? How about ice-cream. Chocolate ice cream…with sprinkles."
Her words were met with three big grins.
"Just as I thought. Wait here in the sunshine and I'll bring them out to you." The lady patted Miranda, who was closest, on the arm before disappearing back inside the shop.
"Do you think she's evil?" Miranda asked with that whisper again.
Willow shrugged. "Going on my experience, which is vast, most people aren't that nice unless they want something."
"Yes but people bearing ice cream are seldom evil," Dawn responded.
The old lady had returned before anyone could add to that with three double cones dripping gorgeous, chocolate-y goodness. They each took a cone eagerly and licked up the drips. Willow started to reach into her pocket for some money to pay for them but the lady shook her head.
"No thank you, dear. Consider these a treat. So what are you doing in Pleasant Creek? We don't get many visitors these days for some reason."
Willow tried to work out if there was any kind of threat in the sentence, but there didn't seem to be. Dawn licked at the ice cream wondering if it was drugged but it just tasted good. Miranda eyed the old women suspiciously. She'd seen all manner of weird things since she'd joined up with these people and now she was just waiting for the woman's skin to peel off and reveal the green scaly demon beneath.
It was Willow who answered, "We're just sight-seeing, y'know checking out the countryside."
The lady nodded. "Well it's nice to have you here. Not that there's a lot to capture young peoples' attention these days. Most of the kids who grow up around here can't wait to get to college or just plain move to Cleveland." She straightened out her apron and looked sad. "I guess this place is just history breathing itself in and kids are always wanting to be modern." She shook her head and brightened her smile. "But if you kids are interested in the local history then there are some fine places to visit. You've got the old quarry about three miles down the road. They used most of the stone from there to build Boudenver. Then you've got the discontinued railway line. That stops about half a mile away. They say ghost trains still run on it at night, but that's probably just to get the tourists into the area." She chuckled warmly. "Or there's the church over yonder." She pointed beyond the houses to a lush green area surrounded by trees and bushes with a church spire rising from the middle like an island. "Or there's the old Anashew reservation, but that's quite a trek and the sun'll be down soon enough."
She chuckled again, "But if you really want a taste of history, just talk to ninety percent of the people who live here. Apart from a few youngsters, I'm quite the spring chicken." She grinned at their surprised faces. "I best get back inside. Enjoy your ice cream."
The three of them stood there licking after she had gone back into her shop. Dawn finished her cone first. "So do you think the Hellmouth is in any of those places?"
"Could be at the quarry." Willow shrugged. "Quarries are big pits. Sunnydale's a big pit. Maybe Hellmouths have that in common."
"Yeah but Sunnydale wasn't a pit until we made it one - I don't think it's like a rule," Dawn replied.
"Ghost trains sound kinda evil," Miranda said almost shyly, still not sure if it was okay to have an opinion. Still not used to having an opinion on Hellmouths.
"Nu-huh," Dawn said with conviction. "Definitely a red herring."
Willow nodded her agreement.
"It's most likely to be the Annieshoe reservation. Those places are mystical aren't they?" Dawn continued.
Willow drew back. "If it is there then I'm out. I'm not having another Hus encounter. I felt bad enough the last time."
Dawn stroked her arm soothingly. "It might be in none of those places; it might just be somewhere completely random or unexpected like under this shop or that house over there." She started to walk off towards the church. "Come on, let's go check out the graveyard, maybe there'll be a vampire Miranda can practice on."
Willow saw the terrified look cross Miranda's face and was quick to reassure. "She's joking...I think. Besides, sun." She waved her arms above her.
Miranda didn't look all that comforted but she followed the other two anyway.
Lolitta and her two pet goons lounged against the wall watching the fast-paced Basketball game. Lol growled every time Faith got the ball; she was growling a lot. One of her buddies, the tooth picker, nearly swallowed the slither of wood she had in her mouth when Lol clapped her on the back unexpectedly.
"What?" She asked annoyed as she spat it out.
"Get out there and play, Max."
"Me? Play ball with them? You're joking right?"
The Italian-American was clearly not joking. "Get out there and mess up her game."
Goon number two chuckled. "You'd have to be Superman to knock Faith offa her game. She's flying."
Lolitta back-handed her without turning around.
"So you better go break her wings then."
Max grumbled, but moved to the edge of the chalked out court anyway. Grabbing a skinny red-head who was jogging past, she pulled her off the court and shoved her towards the wall.
"Thanks for the tag. You've been benched." And she jogged into the middle of the game while the skinny woman scowled after her but knew better than to argue.
Buffy walked along in the woods listening to Cici talk about her home - and her horse and her parents, and her horse, and her school, and her horse - and grinned to herself as Alison gently made fun of them all, especially the horse.
Cici took it all in good nature and merely teased Alison back about her lack of school and a horse.
Buffy wasn't sure if Alison had the parents or the house either. She never talked about her life before Willow and Giles had found her. She gave vague answers when asked but would soon turn the conversation around to someone else.
The Slayer didn't know if this was a warning signal or if Alison just wanted to keep a part of herself private. There wasn't a lot else you could keep private at Sunset Camp.
Buffy had started to make it her business over the past week to try and draw each girl out about her life before Slayerism. She had never made the time with all the potentials that had boarded at chez Summers before the Big Battle and she had regretted that every time they had lost another one. She wasn't going to let it happen here too.
She wanted each new Slayer to be reminded constantly that they were more than just an army for the Powers That Be. That there was more than just the Mission. Those things were both very important obviously, but they were not the be all and end all. It was important to be a person as well. To have a life outside of Slaying, even if it was only watching your favorite movie once a week or going home for your Mom's birthday once a year.
Spike had summed it up for her; the reason she had made it so far was because of her friends and family and the ties she had with them. In quite the literal sense she wouldn't even be alive today if her friends hadn't loved her and missed her enough to bring her back, but in the more figurative sense, without the bonds they provided she might have lost herself long ago.
Would she have returned to Sunnydale from L.A. after her junior year if it wasn't for the people she loved? Probably not. She could have gone off the rails a thousand different ways if she hadn't had such a strong support system. And you needed that with Slaying. It gave you a reason to find the strength for one last punch. When you were bloodied and broken and the fight was rapidly turning against you, the Watchers Council and the rest of the world seemed like a long way away and definitely not worth the bother. Why should you save the world for some regular Joe when he couldn't care less whether you lived or died doing it? Saving the world for your sister, or your best friend, or even your best friend's girlfriend's cat made a lot more sense.
So she had made it her job, utilizing skills from her brief counseling stint to make sure all the new Slayers knew this and that everyone was there to help them adjust to the Slaying. Maybe that way they'd avoid having any of the girls turning to the dark side out of resentment or fear of the Council.
'Because please - once was enough,' she thought. 'And I never want to go through that again.'
What was she thinking; she was still going through it the first time. Before her mind could dwell on that she tripped over something embedded in the grass track and landed on her hands and knees.
"Geez Faith, always with the distracting," she muttered as the two girls came over.
"Graceful much?" Alison offered her hand to the felled Slayer, laughing.
"I was distracted," Buffy muttered as she jumped up without the offered help.
Alison was still laughing. "What by ... a tree?"
As Buffy brushed the dirt from her hands and knees she spotted the thing she had tripped over. She bent down for a closer look. It had five sides and a rough engraving of an upright pentacle in the middle. If you looked at it from the other way, it was inverted.
"What is that?" Cici asked, squatting down next to her.
Inscribed around the outside of the pentacle were the words:
'L'anneau autour du feu.'
"No cars past this point," Buffy read. "That's a weird sign to put in the middle of the woods."
Cici gave her a smile; it might have been just a little condescending. "It says, 'The ring around the fire'. I wonder what it could mean."
"French was never my strong subject," Buffy said. "It is French right?"
"Yes," Cici assured her. "I was never any good at sports, well until..." She waved her hand around in the air.
"But what does it mean?" Alison was sitting on the grass to the side of them tying up her shoelace.
"Something not good." Buffy said, straightening up. "Come on let's head back to the car. I'm thinking this might be just the thing Giles was on about. The only thing missing is a goats head."
Xander had taken his beer outside into the late afternoon sunshine. He had to admit, aside from the demoralizing aspect of being left behind, it was nice and quiet with everyone gone.
He'd spread some newspaper on the grass, close enough to the back door so he could still hear the radio, and was carefully applying red paint to the wooden shutter that would eventually go on one of the dorm barn windows. He cursed softly every time he accidentally applied it to his fingertips instead.
The music on the radio changed to some heavily soulful rock ballad and he grew increasingly irate with every lyric.
"Bloody stupid love songs," he muttered feeling vaguely disturbed that he was channeling Giles; or was it maybe Spike? "They don't know the half of it. I too once sung about the love and look where that got me." He dipped his paint brush into the tiny tin of paint balanced on his knee and started again. "Sitting in a field in Ohio, that's where." He ran the tip of the brush over his thumb again and gave it a mean look. "Stupid thumb getting in the way."
Suddenly his newly red thumb was the least of his worries, as something jumped onto his shoulders and clung to his head. He gave a very un-manly shriek and tried to jump up, knocking the paint to the grass and splattering it down his leg at the same time.
He heard Andrew call out something but it was muffled by the two paws held over his ears. Then the paws and the weight were gently removed and Xander opened his eye and turned around.
Goorzar sat behind him chewing on the paint soaked brush he'd just been working with. "Rorwl," she said around her new chew toy.
"Hello to you too." He greeted, his heart steadily getting back to normal. The little demon baby had been doing the same thing to him all week and he still wasn't used to it.
Everyone else had gotten used to it pretty quickly and teased him for not being able to, but everyone else had a much wider field of vision than him and they could see the little critter coming. Xander had more blind spots than un-blind spots and Goorzar knew them all already.
"That's not a tooth brush you know," he told her.
She grinned at him around the brush. It could have been a grin; there were a lot of teeth involved.
"The paint might dissolve your stomach, then what will you do?" The carpenter tried next. When this didn't seem to convince the demon to give up his paint brush Xander settled for grabbing the handle and trying to pull it free from her mouth.
Goorzar's lips pulled back in a snarl but she was making the little hiccuping noises deep in her throat that the girls had decided meant 'happy', so Xander didn't give up but just pulled harder.
He pulled with all his strength, his other hand digging into the soft grass to give himself some leverage. Goorzar just used her teeth and he still couldn't pull it away from her.
Finally, just as his arm felt like it might pop out of the socket, she grew bored of the game and bit right through the wooden handle and chewed up the brush part. When she'd finished swallowing she smacked her lips, now bright red making her look like she'd put on Gramma Harris' lipstick. It didn't look any better on the baby demon than it had on a young Xander.
Andrew puffed and panted his way around the side of the house.
"We were playing hide and seek and she got away from me again," he wheezed as he collapsed next to Xander and the demon. "Why's she wearing lipstick?"
"It's not lipstick, it's paint." Xander gestured at the mess around them.
"You shouldn't let her eat paint Xander, that can't be good for her." Andrew tried to wipe it from her lips but she just swatted his hands away with her paws.
"I didn't let her,." he said exasperated. "She helped herself. And now I have foot prints in the paint." He gazed in dismay at his shutters.
"I'm sure she was just trying to help." The blonde tried to be the diplomat. "And they still look good. You could say the paw prints are deliberate. Y'know like a demon hunter motif. And no one could say they aren't authentic. What are they for anyway?" Andrew asked as he scratched the baby behind the ears. Xander noticed she was making the hiccupy noise again.
"For the sleeping barn. There's no glass in the windows yet, but we need to start using them as from tomorrow. They'll offer some protection against the chilly nights we've been having. Not that they compare to having a warm body to snuggle up under the covers with." He stared dreamily off into the middle distance, a wistful smile playing on his lips.
"Uh yeah, I guess." Andrew cleared his throat. "Uh if it gets too cold, if you want..."
Goorzar chose that moment to reach up and place paint drenched fingertips on Xander's cheek, bringing him joltingly back from wherever he'd gone. "Arrgh."
"Never mind," Andrew muttered as the carpenter wiped at his red streaked cheek. "So what's the rush with the barn?" He asked instead.
"Vi and Rona arrived this morning."
"And we're running out of room. Plus if Faith's appeal goes well, she'll be coming back with Giles and I don't think her and Buffy will be sharing a room any time soon with the way things are between them. Not to mention that Giles has arranged for a bunch of Watcher possibilities to come over in a couple of weeks to meet the Slayers. They'll need a whole sleeping barn to themselves, 'cause we can't exactly put them in with the girls; well, except the girlie Watchers but how many of them are there gonna be? The shower block down in the west field needs all new plumbing before it will work and we really should be getting the Health and Safety guys out here to okay it all, but I'm not gonna be the one to tell Giles that."
"So if all this stuff needs doing, why are you just sitting here painting?" Andrew asked without guile.
"I'm taking a break," Xander snapped, finishing off his beer. "I've been researching all day. Not that I get any thanks for it," he grumbled the last part.
"I've been trying to teach Goorzar to say my name, but she doesn't seem to want to."
"Well at least you're doing something constructive," Xander said sarcastically, but the idea did seem attractive. He gave the demon a little shoulder nudge to get her attention away from licking the paint out of the tin. "Say Xander. Can you say Xander?" He coaxed.
Goorzar blew a red raspberry and followed it with the hiccuping noise.
"Hey that's exactly how my parents used to say it. Well done ,demon." Xander gave her another pat on the head and looked around at his ruined work. "Well I think we've done enough here for one day." He took a deep breath, he couldn't believe he was just about to suggest what he was about to suggest, but what the heck. "Do you wanna hang out? There's a Stargate marathon starting a little later or we could play D&D as long as you tell everyone you bribed me."
"You don't have to do that you know," Andrew told him as he pulled Goorzar away from trying to gnaw on the shutters.
"What's that?" Asked Xander, confused.
"Feel sorry for me, or feel like you owe me something, because you don't. You've got more important things to be doing than babysit me."
"Whoa, who said a darn thing about feeling sorry for you? Not me, and I certainly don't owe you anything. I just..." He been about to admit he was just that bored, and feeling that un-loved right now that Andrew was better than nothing. Anya had always liked the nerd for some reason too, but he wasn't thinking about that.
Andrew stood up holding the demon's paw. "I'd better go get this little madam cleaned up. Mr. Giles won't let us keep her if she puts red handprints all over the walls." He gave Xander a sad little smile that confused him no end and walked away around the side of the house.
'Okay,' he thought. 'Now even the geek that Kennedy thinks has a boy crush on me would rather give a smelly demon a bubble bath than spend time with the Xan-man.'
He flopped onto his back, mindless of his hair landing in the paint. "You truly know you're having a bad day when you start missing Spike!" He groaned to the world in general.
Faith watched out of the corner of her eye as Lolitta's lackey stomped onto the court. 'What are they playing at now?' she wondered. Choosing not to chase the ball manically like she had been all afternoon, she kept back from the crowd and alternated between watching Lol grinning and heckling from the side line and her goon wading as gracefully through the crush of players as a steam roller through Bambi's back yard.
Janey made a spectacular jump into the air and caught the ball easily, landing and pivoting quickly to find Faith, and instead came face to face with the creature from the black lagoon's uglier twin. She staggered back just a step or two, surprised.
"Let's see what you got then bitch!" Max spat a sliver of chewed wood at Janey's feet.
The rest of the women had fallen back, expecting a fight. Faith sauntered casually through them, coming to a stop behind the goon. She flashed the young blonde a smile with a one shoulder shrug which was easy to translate as 'Your call'.
Janey dribbled the ball on the spot while she regarded the 5'8", large - hard to tell where fat began and muscle ended - menace. She knew she had nothing to fear from this woman, not physically at least. If what Faith had told her was true, and she pretty much already knew it was, she could turn ten times this woman's body weight into so much paste.
All she had to fear was the darkness welling up inside. The darkness that cackled in the night when she dreamt about Rik Hogan. The darkness that would just love for her to smash the hard basketball into the poisonous face in front of her. Faith had a lot to say about the darkness. Janey knew the penitentiary was overflowing with it; it was in her own crying at night and that of thousands of other women, including her mentor's. Faith was wracked every night by nightmares rising from her past. Between the two of them, they never got much sleep.
Still dribbling, Janey finally spoke. "You wanna play?" She asked with mock surprise. "Think you can keep up?" She shot the ball over the other woman's head and Faith caught it neatly.
Max spun on her heel, surprisingly fast for someone of her stature, but it was still only human-fast.
Janey had set off running up the court the moment the ball had left her hands and now as Max grinned evilly at Faith, the brunette gave her a wink before throwing the ball backwards over her head. She knew without looking that Janey had caught it when a few cheers were heard. Smiling, she side-stepped neatly as Max charged towards her and slyly stuck her foot out. Seeing the move, Max used it to her advantage by stomping on the outstretched knee.
Faith went down to the ground, clutching her knee and biting her lip to keep from screaming the long list of expletives lining up behind her lips.
"Let's see ya be so cocky now, Wilkins," Max laughed as she went after Janey and the ball again.
Muttering, Faith crawled to her feet. That had hurt like hell. Not broken though, the dumb bitch didn't have skills for that, just bruised all up the creek.
Janey had faltered when she saw Faith on the ground but grinned now that she was back on her feet. She threw the ball to a tall, black woman who was hovering by the hoop. She scored and the cheers went up again. Janey looked to the sideline and saw Lolitta raging at her other minion, who was looking terrified.
"Jeez do they got money on this game, or what?" One of the women asked as she walked by Janey.
"Could be she's got money riding on something," another answered, laughing.
Janey followed her gaze and realized with uneasiness that they were watching Faith as she hobbled up and down testing her knee. She got in there line of sight.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Aw honey, nothing 'cept she wants your girl dead," said the second woman with a smile.
The first woman patted the young blonde on the shoulder. "This is Lolitta we're talking 'bout honey. She don't need no reason 'cept the ones she makes up."
"Still, Wilkins can take care of herself, or at least she used to be able to. I think she went soft on the outside." Both women laughed.
"What do you mean?" Janey asked again.
"You know. She used to be this tough nut to crack, an' plenty of ladies had a go at the cracking, but they all got splinters, so they left her alone. Since she came back from wherever she went, she ain't been the same."
The second woman took up the tale. "Yeh, she's letting Lol beat on her butt every opportunity she gets and then there's you. You're the first cellmate they've let her have in Lord knows how many years. You hear what happened to her last one, right?"
Janey shook her head. "Only rumors."
"J, heads up." The game had started up around them again and Faith sent the ball flying unerringly in the blonde's direction.
"Yes, they're markings." Giles trampled through the trees, batting the brush away with a hand when it got in his way. "A boundary line for something." He stopped talking into his cell phone long enough to wave his arms around a bit.
Kennedy got the message and she and Kate spread out a bit more, both staring intently at the ground.
"Well I think it's safe to assume that it is connected to the Hellmouth, which means we are in the right place at least." He listened to the phone for a moment. "Well Buffy says that they found a similar stone in their area. I've instructed her to look for more. If the stones make up a ring as the inscription suggests, then common sense would place the Hellmouth directly in the middle."
"Tell her I love her." Kennedy called out suddenly from off to his right.
"Yes, well you just stay where you are and keep your eyes open. We've found two more stones already and the curve doesn't seem to be vast, we should be with you shortly. Yes okay...okay..Oh and Willow, Kennedy asked me to pass on her regards. Okay Goodbye."
"I did not say that," Kennedy grinned.
Giles cleared his throat. "Yes well it was close enough."
"Did I get a reply?"
"Um yes. She sends her regards also...Snuggle-bunny."
Kennedy cracked up.
Kate looked over from the far left of Giles. "You two are pretty tight, huh?"
"Yeah, we are." The small brunette said with a soft smile.
Faith spun, dodged, jumped and scored again. Her knee was giving her less trouble with every movement.
Janey backed her play every step and between them they were unstoppable.
Max looked over at Lolitta and knew she had to do something. Put a spanner in their axial. 'Of course that's not gonna be easy,' she thought as she looked over again at the Italian-American lounging against the wall. 'Why the hell ain't she got her ass out here running up and down and sweating like a moron?' Sulkily, she stepped it up; yard exercise only lasted so long and Lolitta wanted Faith crushed out here where everyone could see it.
"Over here!" Faith called excitedly, seeing a team-mate get the ball. "Chump," she muttered when it was stolen by the opposition.
Then Janey had the ball again and Faith was already running towards the hoop, knowing her young cellmate would throw it straight to her hands. She turned her head to see the ball coming to exactly where she knew it would and reached up to pick it out of the air, and then ...ooof.
She doubled up around the knee that had been forced into her stomach and felt herself being pushed away before she could straighten up. She looked up through her tangled, wind-blown hair and saw Max grinning at her, ball bouncing casually by her feet.
Faith stood up straight and regarded the other woman. Janey had run up and came to a stop nearby.
"What's your beef?" Faith spread her hands and gestured around her.
"Nuthin' Wilkins. I thought we were playing ball."
"Yeah so what's with the assault and battery?"
"It's called a block. Not my fault if you're too soft to take it." Max's grin turned to a sneer. "Maybe you should join a kiddies game instead, might be more your deal."
Janey stepped up next to her cell-mate. "Why don't you go and join another game. No one wants you here."
There was some muttering and murmuring from the gathered women but no one out rightly agreed with her. They knew which side the beatings were delivered from.
"This is nothing to do with you, short stuff," Max told her amiably enough and lightly threw Janey the ball. "This is to do with super-freak." She took a step closer to Faith who just stood there watching her. "So all the girls wanna know Faithy, what happened to you on the outside to make you such a pussy? Did Lex stick it to you with a kryptonite d..."
The ball bounced squarely off of Max's nose and blood splattered as she fell over backwards. The women cheered and guard whistles added to the clamor as they finally noticed something was going on.
Plenty of women tried to pat Janey on the back as Faith quickly led her through the crowd and away to another part of the yard. Janey didn't even realize as she followed shakily.
"I didn't kill her." It was half a question, half a statement.
"Nope, kiddo, you didn't." Faith stopped against the wall between two guard points and watched as the hubbub died down in front of them.
Kennedy pulled the truck to a stop behind the house and everyone jumped out.
"Meeting in ten minutes everyone," Giles called.
"Oh my God. There's been an attack!" Alison pointed to a mess of red colored lawn.
"What if it's still here?" Miranda looked around her expecting a giant demon to emerge from thin air.
Kennedy dropped to one knee outside the back door, studying the red splashed grass. "It's paint." She informed as Willow and Buffy both made there way over to investigate.
"Are you sure?" Buffy asked.
"Looks like paint, smells like paint...We can get Andrew out here to taste it if you want a second opinion."
"I heard that," Andrew called though the open kitchen door.
They trooped inside. Andrew was kneeling on a cushion in front of Goorzar, who was fidgeting in one of the kitchen chairs.
"She won't keep still," he moaned.
"Ohh she looks so sweet!" Dawn exclaimed, rushing over and fingering the tiny ponytails Andrew was meticulously putting in the baby demon's hair.
Goorzar batted Dawn's hands away and Andrew seconded that motion. "Don't pull on them; they took ages to get level."
"Where's Xander?" Willow asked, coming in and taking a seat next to Andrew.
"Showing the training barn to Vi and Rona."
"Even though at the moment its correct title is ...Barn?" Buffy asked with a smile. "And is that hygienic?" She grimaced and pointed at the demon.
"She's clean; I just gave her a bath."
Kennedy took a seat on Willow's lap and Goorzar immediately put her paw in the Slayer's hand. She saw Dawn pout. "It's not my fault she's close to me. She thinks I'm her mom."
"Poor her," Dawn grinned.
Giles entered the kitchen from the living room. "Has no one put any water on to boil? I thought there was a rota for these things." He moved to put the kettle on himself.
"Don't you think that more includes who chops the wood and who feeds the cows?" Xander asked, coming through the kitchen door.
"There are cows too?" Vi asked, coming in behind him followed by Rona. "'Cause I'm not sure about cows."
"It's the eyes, isn't it?" Giles looked over. "That blank stare that just makes you wonder just what it is they might be plotting."
Vi nodded in agreement while everyone else looked at him like he was crazy. He shook himself.
"Anyway if everyone is here, let's get started. We believe the Hellmouth is located in a small hamlet almost directly in the centre of the Boudenver district. A place called Pleasant Creek."
"Doesn't sound too demony." Xander ruffled Dawn's hair on the way to get a beer.
"Hey!" she scolded. "It didn't look it either."
"Anyway, if the stones we found are in fact the Ring of Jupitus, like I suspect, then that would put the Hellmouth directly in the middle of them."
"Pleasant Creek." Buffy summed up and Giles nodded. "Okay, got that part. Does not explain what the Ring of Jupiter is, though."
"Jupitus," Giles corrected. "Well I need to do some research to be sure, but from what I can remember from my studies, the Ring of Jupitus was spun around one of the Hellmouths in the new world. A highly regarded French mystic managed to capture and trap an ancient demon Lord beneath the mouth of Hell and kept him there with spells woven into the ring."
"Does the demon lord have a name?" Kennedy asked.
Xander raised a hand. "I'm gonna take a wild stab and say...Jupitus."
"That is correct Xander. However I had no idea that Boudenver was the Hellmouth in the report, and in fact we still can't be certain without extensive research. It's possible it means something else entirely. Of course it's also possible this is the place and it could be Jupitus himself these vampires are trying to raise."
"And that would be how bad on a scale of one to ten?" Buffy questioned.
Giles removed his glasses for a good polishing without answering. Willow flopped an open book down in front of the blonde Slayer. A picture of a muscley, many horned demon-man looked back at her. Lightning bolts were spurting from its claw like hands and fire blazed from its mouth.
Buffy put her finger to the little caption beneath the picture. "Any chance this says 'actual size'?"
Cici looked over her shoulder at the small French writing. "It says 'Lord of Damnation - all who walk or crawl the Earth shall fear.'"
Dawn leaned over her sister's other shoulder. "And I think this little box thingy is supposed to be a house." She pointed to a small house shaped squiggle nestled by the demon's foot.
"Which is why it is imperative that we put a stop to the cult's plans." Giles started sorting through various books on the table and handing a chosen few around.
Willow booted up the laptop. "Right well let's get started then. Who's with me?"
Dawn went to give Vi and Rona a hug. "Hey guys, it's so good to have you here, and not just because of the impending doom either."
"Yeah we know." Drawled Rona. "This place is boring and you need us to liven it up."
"Boring! Obviously no one's filled you in on how Buffy made the cactus I brought her curse us all, or how I tried to shoot a werewolf, but missed and..." Dawn looked up to see Buffy watching her expectantly.
"Well go on; don't keep us all in suspense," Buffy ordered, tapping her foot. She couldn't help but notice that everyone else in the room, with the exception of Vi and Rona wore the same caught in the head lights expression as Dawn.
"I...I...missed you because you weren't here, you were in L.A. with...and shutting up now." Dawn grabbed a thick book off of the table. "I'll just be researching quietly through here." She went to sit on the couch in the living room. Vi and Rona went with her, both grabbing books on the way, eager to hear the rest of the story.
Buffy looked around at everyone else but they all seemed suddenly and inexplicably interested in inanimate objects around the kitchen.
Andrew broke the silence. "Why don't you all go through to the other room and then I can start dinner without you getting in the way." He lifted Goorzar out her chair and placed her in a well chewed cardboard box in the corner. She sat there hiccuping to herself.
"Wash your hands." Buffy said on reflex.
"Good idea, Andy. About the dinner I mean, oh and the handwashing." Willow unplugged her laptop. "Giles you should pack first so it's out of the way."
Giles nodded. "Yes, I'll go and get on with it now, and then I must set up the alignment tests. At least by midnight we should know which night the raising will take place."
"Okay, I'm taking weapons," Kennedy said, clapping her hands together.
"Won't we all be taking weapons?" Miranda asked nervously, not liking the thought of going up against a cult of vampires and a demon Lord empty handed. Or at all.
"On the night of course. I just meant I'll sort through them, make sure they're good to go. Whittle some stakes."
"Good idea." Buffy said. "We should probably put in some training too."
"It's getting dark," Alison said, looking out the kitchen window.
"Damn. We need to get that training barn sorted out soon Xander."
"Just waiting for the materials to arrive." The one-eyed man explained. "But you're right and maybe I should get out there and see if I can do any more tonight." He got up and went to the back door. "Come on Kennedy, I'll show you where all the cut offs are for your stakes."
"I'll be out in a minute to give you those suggestions you wanted." Buffy called after him. He didn't answer, just raised his hand in a little wave. "Okay girls, why don't you go through and help with the research and let Andrew do his thing." The four new Slayers went through to the living room
Buffy, Willow and Giles stood looking at each other.
"Its bad again, isn't it?" Buffy asked. With an annoyed grimace, she added: "Already."
"Well Jupitus is certainly not something we want to have dealings with. In medieval times he wreaked havoc across the globe. No one was safe from his destruction. He was... how shall I put it? An Ambassador of sorts, for the demonic races."
"And I'm thinking not a very diplomatic one." Willow gave a small smile.
Giles smiled back. "Quite, but we can stop it before it happens, I'm sure of it."
"No," Buffy corrected. "We're gonna stop it. You're gonna tell us how, but then you have an elsewhere to be. So go pack."
Giles let his hand rest on his Slayer's shoulder for a moment. "Of course." Then he turned and went up the kitchen stairs.
"You sure you're okay?" Willow asked from her seat at the counter, oblivious to Andrew bustling around her preparing a recipe from a cook book.
"Peachy." Buffy smiled at her best friend, before heading for the training barn.
The sun had already dropped from the sky and the proposed training barn cast a long purple shadow across the field. Kennedy sat on the grass, her back holding the wide wooden door open, whistling while she whittled. Buffy watched her as she walked over from the house.
Kennedy was one of the outsiders. One of the new breed. Buffy didn't really think all that much about her when she didn't have to. Sure she was Willow's girlfriend but it was just a rebound thing and would eventually blow over. Kennedy would get even brattier, if that was possible, and Willow would get tired of her immaturity and cut her loose. Hopefully then Kennedy would get relocated to another area of mystical convergence and could form her own band of Slayerettes and Buffy could have her best friend back.
At least that had been the plan that Buffy had been planning on.
Something had changed.
When Buffy was too caught up in herself to care about Slaying, Kennedy had jumped in with a zeal Buffy had rarely shown, at least when anyone could see. When the new girls had started to arrive and Buffy hadn't even noticed, it was again Kennedy who stepped up and took them under her wing. That should have been her job and she knew it, but Kennedy had done it without complaint; well, much complaint anyway.
In short Kennedy had surprised her. She was still arrogant and brash and, well, bratty, but Buffy felt now that if the kid could keep herself alive through the next year, then maybe she wouldn't make too bad a Slayer.
Buffy sniffed dismissively as she remembered she hadn't kept herself alive her first year. Xander had, but she hadn't. Like details were important in life and death. Just don't die was the important thing, it didn't matter how you did it.
So Kennedy had the makings of a good Slayer. Well good, that's what she was here for. Right?
To slay, not to be a part of the family. Buffy already had her family just the way she liked it, thank you very much. Interlopers made her cranky.
At least that was the way she'd felt up until that morning. Having Vi and Rona suddenly descend - except without the sudden because she knew they were coming - forced Buffy to realize that Kennedy wasn't exactly an outsider anymore.
Kennedy had been here with them all along, making a life for herself with Willow and the gang. Buffy felt a flash of jealously but it was expected and she rose above it. Damn it, the girl had made herself family while Buffy had her back turned and now she just had to accept it.
Willow had once mentioned a Scooby initiation thing that Buffy had found funny, but she'd been too preoccupied with Harmony kidnapping Dawn to talk details. Now seemed like a good time to initiate an initiation. Before anyone else decided to jump on board.
Buffy had walked right up to where the small Slayer was sitting and Kennedy looked up.
"Anything I can help you with, or did you just come out here to stare?" Small, quick hands never stopped slicing her knife into the length of wood she held. "'Cause if you did, well...I wouldn't blame you."
"Kenny, don't ever let anyone tell you that you're too full of yourself, okay?" Buffy said sarcastically.
Kennedy gave her a cheeky grin. "Okay, I won't."
Buffy shook her head with a smile. "Xander inside?"
Kennedy's attention was already back on the soon to be stake in her hands. "Making shadow puppets on the far wall."
"Thanks." Buffy walked into the darkness of the barn.
It was large, it was dirty and dusty, it was very dark and once it was finished it would be the best damn training room ever. Of course you had to start it before you could finish it and Giles had insisted that the sleeping barn be done first so this was still only in the planning stages.
Buffy made her way to the end of the thirty foot long out building which still smelled faintly of cow shit even though Giles swore it had only ever been used as an assembly space for the Watchers. Xander was using a flashlight to search through a box of tools and he jumped and spun around when Buffy put her hand on his shoulder.
"Geez Buf, way to sneak up on me in a pitch black room." He panted in the near darkness. "You couldn't have hollered from the door?"
"Hollered?" Buffy asked.
The carpenter shrugged and handed her the flashlight. "Here hold this, and point it downwards." He went back to rummaging around.
"What are you looking for?" Buffy peered into the box too.
"Matches, why? You haven't taken up smoking too, have you? 'Cause really, one vice per person is enough."
"Eww, no I haven't started smoking. Hang on a minute, what are you going on about, one vice?"
Buffy looked up, a little stricken. "Uh, nothing. Just that..." He stood up straight to look at her and she trailed off and tapped the bottle at his side gently with the side of the torch.
"What of it?" He asked tightly.
Buffy started to pace, the beam from the flashlight pacing with her. "Xander look, I know the past few months haven't been great for you since leaving Sunnydale. I mean, they haven't been great for any of us, and we all cope in our own ways, but maybe not all of them are as healthy as they should be. We've all been guilty of that. Me with the running away, Willow with her ...addiction..."
"I don't think me having a few beers in the evening is along the same lines as trying to destroy the world, Buffy."
"Maybe you should try talking about it?" Buffy tried, wondering why she'd gotten herself into this conversation.
"I'm surprised you even noticed there was something to talk about. You've not exactly been Miss Conversationalist yourself since Sunnydale. What's your vice, Buffy? Throwing yourself in solitary for six weeks? I thought that was Faith's gig, not yours."
Buffy took a step towards him, lifting the flashlight so the beam shone straight at his good eye. "Yeah, so I went a little crazy for a while, but then I talked about it and got it into perspective and I've moved on. Faith is safely tucked away in a little box in my brain labeled 'Highly Toxic' and that's where she's going to stay. Now how about you do the same?"
Xander turned away from her and bent over the box again to look through it once more. "Everything is in perspective. I lost everything in Sunnydale, but it's not like there was much there for me to lose. I'm over the whole sorry city, good riddance to it." He finally found the match book he was looking for and lit one on the side of the box. Carefully he picked up an old fashioned gas lamp and lit the wick in the centre. It ignited with a soft blue flame and he put it back down on the work bench.
Buffy touched her fingers to his arm and felt him flinch, but he didn't pull away. "Even Anya?"
"Anya and I were over long before she died."
"But still nothing, Buffy. I know you care and I get that you're worried but you have no reason to be. Just let me deal with it, okay? At least let me have that." He did pull his arm away now and reached for a stack of paper on the bench. Finding the one he was after he straightened it out and smoothed it out on the wood. "You need to check this before I can go any further."
"Xander..." Buffy started.
"Buffy please," he insisted.
She sighed but didn't finish her sentence. Instead she switched off the flashlight and then leant over the bench to look at the carefully drawn plans. "What's this?" She asked, pointing to a small rectangle at one end of the paper.
"Raised platform - for demonstrations."
"Demonstrations?" Buffy wrinkled her nose.
"And here you have the weapons cage - big enough to house all the weapons and the odd werewolf if we need to. Over here is an area for the weight bench and other equipment like that. Giles wanted enough space left in the middle for sparring, which I don't think will be a problem." Xander's finger flitted over the page as he spoke. "At this end here, I'm fitting a window and possibly a few skylights in the roof, plus obviously we'll get the electricity up and running out here soon enough. They used to have fluorescents all the way down, but where it was left untended for so long they all burnt out. It shouldn't cost to much to get it all safely up to scratch again."
"It looks like you've thought of everything," Buffy said, admiration clear in her voice. "It looks good."
"Yeah I don't know how I managed it what with being drunk all the time." Xander rolled the plan back up and put it back on the stack.
"So all you've really got to tell me is what equipment you're going to need and then we can make sure there's enough room for it all," he interrupted her.
She frowned. "The kind of stuff we had at the Magic Box I guess. Um. One of the wooden horse box things, y'know, gymnast-y stuff. Ooh you know what I always wanted? - A trampoline, and some bars like the one in the corner for pull ups, and do you think we can get a sound system in here and some speakers set up around the walls? Aerobicizing is so much easier to music."
"You don't want a lot do you?" The carpenter scrabbled through the stuff on his makeshift work bench for some blank paper and a pen.
"It's only the essentials," Buffy pouted.
Xander started making notes of the things Buffy had requested. "The rest I can get, but the sounds you'll have to ask Giles about."
"Why?" Buffy pouted more.
"Because it's Council money, over which I have absolutely no authorization."
"Okay," Buffy relented. She wandered over to the beam she'd used for pull ups the week before and looked up at it. "But do you think we'll be able to get the rest by next week?"
Xander turned around and watched as Buffy jumped up, gripped the pole with both hands and started some slow pull ups. "As soon as the barn's done, you and me can go on a Meyers Sports and Tackle spending spree or whatever they have around here that passes for a bait and decapitate shop."
"Ooh shopping; sounds good. Do you think we'll get it finished for next week?" Buffy asked again.
"Dunno, we can certainly give it our best shot. Why, what's so special about next week? And how come I've been demon fighting almost as long as you and I still can't do what you're doing without turning a fetching yet embarrassing plum color?"
"I have muscles you've never even dreamed of," Buffy joked in a husky drawl.
"Oh I've dreamed about them," Xander replied playfully.
"Xander!" Buffy mock scolded as she dropped to the floor in front of him.
He held up his hands in surrender. "So again, why the hurry?"
"I want the place to be up and running before the Brits get here. I want to show them that we can run the Council better than they did and then I want to go nyah na na na na!"
"That's what I respect most about you Buffy. You always take the high road."
Buffy laughed. "Yeah well, it's probably gonna be lost on all the pimply faced kids they send over, but the sentiment is pure."
"It might be nice to have it finished for when Faith gets here too," Xander suggested cautiously.
"I think she'll be too interested in partying and getting some to worry about what an old barn looks like." Buffy's voice had tightened but she was trying to sound as carefree as she had a minute ago. If it hadn't been one of her best friends standing with her, she knew she might have got away with it.
"Oh I don't know, she was always pretty big on the violence too."
"And in here, she can train to be more violent. I think it will be right up her alley."
"You know that talking thing you didn't want to do a minute ago Xan? Well I'm starting to see your point. So can we just drop it?" Buffy crossed her arms and leant against the dusty wall.
"Buffy, my past is dead and buried, literally. Yours is coming to town at the end of the week. I don't think you can just drop it."
Buffy shook her head. "What makes you so sure she's gonna get her appeal anyway? And if she does she might not come here at all."
"From what I've heard, her remand conditions say she has to, at least for a little while." Xander had known this was a bad idea.
"And since when have you ever known Faith to play by the rules?"
"If you didn't want her here Buffy, you should have told Giles. He could have made some other arrangements for her. She could stay in L.A. with Angel. It's not too late, I'm sure if you spoke to Giles before he leaves he can ..."
"I can't make her not come here Xander. Faith has to have the choice. This camp, this new Council, may be just what she needs to keep herself on the right track. Somewhere to call home, something to belong to, if she wants it that is. Either way it's not my decision to make."
"Yes it is," Xander replied firmly.
"Well it shouldn't be." Buffy turned and walked out of the barn, leaving Xander standing in the lamplight staring after her.
Buffy was startled by Kennedy's voice coming out of the near dark.
The brunette was still leaning against the door and carving stakes.
"I'm fine." Buffy's tone could best be described as curt as she made to walk back to the house.
"It's okay to be freaked, y'know." Kennedy chucked the stake she was holding onto the finished pile and didn't flinch from Buffy's sudden glare. "I wasn't eavesdropping, I was just sitting here. Hard not to hear stuff with my new x-ray Slayer ears."
"Yeah, especially when you're sitting real quiet and holding your breath so you don't miss a thing," Buffy answered sarcastically.
Kennedy just shrugged. "You gave me the super powers, can't blame me for exercising them."
Buffy sighed. "I'm not freaked... just, I don't know. I want it over already. To know if she's getting out or not. Until I know that, I can't settle."
Kennedy stood up with the new stakes under one arm and with the hand of her other she brushed at the seat of her pants. "Grass is wet." She groaned. "I thought it was a done deal and the question was when not if."
"Nah, there's lots of if's." Both Slayers turned to see that Xander had come out of the barn and was standing behind them in the doorway. "If the jury decides she was wrongly accused the first time. If Angel's lawyers do a good enough job of convincing them she was. If the Judge is stupid enough to believe it. If she doesn't accidentally, or not, kill anyone while she's in there. If she doesn't sneeze out of turn; and if she actually wants to leave."
Buffy listened to Xander's speech without bothering to look up from his left shoe. She knew most of it was true. Faith could have all the noble intentions in the world, but it didn't change the fact that she was a convicted murderer. One who still had a lot of time to do in front of her.
"Of course she'll want to leave. It's prison." Kennedy looked at Xander like he was crazy.
"She's gone there of her own free will, twice. I don't think it's insane to think she might want to stay. It's got everything she could ever want. A roof over her head, a bed to sleep in, regular meals, all the scared, vulnerable inmates she can handle..."
"Sorry Buf, but you've got to agree. If you aren't enough to make Faith wanna stay out of jail, then what else is?"
"Try freedom," Kennedy sardonically replied.
"Freedom means making your own choices. Faith, as a rule, is bad at that." Xander sighed. "Maybe she's just not cut out to live in the real world."
Buffy frowned in the now absolute darkness around them. She wanted to believe that Faith had put herself inside both times out of a desire to finally do the right thing, not just to escape the harsh realities of everyday life. It wasn't always easy to think that way though. What if Faith really had chosen prison over her because it was simpler, or, even worse, preferable to a life with her blonde counterpart?
"Well," Buffy concluded, "I guess that's a decision Faith has to make before Thursday. She can come out and live a scary, dangerous life with the rest of us, or she can stay in prison where it's all safe and cosy."
Faith walked out of the shower block door still toweling dry her thick, wavy hair. She lifted a few strands up and studied them, before making a tutting noise of disapproval. This place was hard on your hair; the shampoo alone had more in common with paint stripper than Herbal Essence.
She winked as she passed Janey still waiting on the other side of the door. "Y'know you're gettin' old when the gettin' clean part is almost as much fun as the hot and sweaty part," she chuckled.
"Next Fifteen!" Barked a guard by the door.
"Have fun kid, see ya at supper." Faith flicked Janey's butt playfully with the towel as she walked away.
Janey walked into the damp, featureless changing room and quickly shed her clothes. She left them in a messy pile on the bench and hurried into the showers proper. It was just one long tiled room with a row of shower heads along one wall, all of them either gushing or dripping lukewarm water. The water had been hot for the first couple of sessions and steam still hung heavily in the clammy atmosphere.
Most of the showerheads already had women under them; Janey hurried past all of these to a vacant spot a couple from the far end and ducked under the spray. Shivering slightly she rubbed shampoo into her hair before soaping herself down. She had to be quick. You only got five minutes a day to wash and another five minutes to dress again before the next fifteen women were sent in. You learned to economize your time, Faith said.
Luckily today she was in the last group so she shouldn't be quite so rushed.
After a quick glance around the room, her Slayer instincts working sub-consciously, she turned to face the wall so she could keep her back to the other women. She was still uncomfortable being naked in front of all these strangers. She didn't think she would ever be comfortable with it.
She looked up briefly when she heard a scream, muffled by the sound of water running throughout the room. It sounded far away though and it wasn't as if it was unusual. With a little shudder she got on with what she was doing.
School had been different. She'd hit the showers after gym with the rest of her class and think nothing of it, but then none of the other girls would have dared look at her, or each other, even if they had wanted to. It was a rule. In this place, the other women didn't only look; they stared, openly, at whatever they wanted to. The more nervous it made the young blonde, the more they all seemed to like it.
With that in mind, she kept turned to the wall while she finished her cleaning rituals, letting the shampoo wash naturally out of her hair while she lathered her body in the cheap soap.
'Let them stare at my butt,' she thought, keeping her eyes shut against the stinging suds sliding down her face. 'What I can't see can't bother me.'
The idiocy of that thought was brought crashing home at the same time as she felt herself falling. Someone or something had grabbed her shoulder from behind and yanked her backwards, hard. Her legs flew out in front of her and a second later her ass hit the cold floor with a stinging slap.
Her eyes flew open on impact and that was a big mistake. The acid-like hair product blurred her vision and stung like hell. She rubbed at them and tried to leap to her feet. She could hear laughter echoing off the tiles and it was pissing her off. Who was it? What had happened?
She was on her feet, crouched against the wall and blinking rapidly when the fist - or it could have been a car - smacked her on the nose. She fell backwards, feet going out from beneath her again, her head hitting the wall behind before she slipped down it, dazed.
She let out a whimper. She knew the back of her head was bleeding without needing to see the blood. Every drop of water hitting it was like a tiny scalpel cut to her skull.
A voice she recognized growled out. "How d'ya like that, Shithead? Not so much fun taking it, is it?"
It was Max, sounding gleeful. Janey felt her Slayer rise to the fore, but before she could leap up and throttle the no-neck in front of her, a boot came out of nowhere and caught her on the jaw, snapping her head sideways into the wall and creating another dull thump.
"Hurry it up, Ladies." She heard Lolitta call out. "The guards ain't gonna be distracted by some slashed up bitch for long."
Janey's vision had cleared enough for her to see the boot heading towards her face again and with a grunt she caught it in both hands, but before she could use it to her advantage Max's own boot came down hard on her knee. There was a crunch, and with a scream Janey huddled over it sobbing.
Another boot to the side caused even more pain when a few ribs snapped. She shoved a hand in her mouth and bit down on it to stop another scream escaping; she wouldn't give them that much satisfaction.
Their laughter mingled with the rushing noise of the showers as cold water continued to rain down on her naked body, making the beating seem even harsher than it was.
Janey struggled to her hands and knees. She sucked in a sharp breath when her stomped-on knee touched the floor, but she had to get away. She was either going to puke or pass out with each movement, but it was better than just laying there. One of them planted a final kick on her ass cheek making her slump forward, her knee skittered across the hard, slimy tiles bringing fresh tears.
They were laughing harder now, giggling like school girls every time she winced. A big hand grabbed the back of her soaking hair and pulled her head back roughly. Through the blur of salt in her eyes she could make out Lol's face just inches from her own.
"Don't cry darlin', you're getting off light," Lolitta growled in her ear. "Just wait 'n' see what we do to Wilkins."
Janey didn't have time to form a coherent thought prior to her forehead being smashed into the slick tiled floor by the Italian-American. And then she didn't care as everything faded to a comforting blackness...
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