True night had fallen now, making it even harder to fight on the steep slope between the trees. Kennedy's feet kept catching on damp weeds or slipping on the slick mud and it was impossible to know what was going on anywhere except right in front of her. The angry shouts from Faith and occasional grunt from Oz only made everything that much more confusing.
Even what was right in front of her was hard to follow in the darkness. There was one demon, then two, then three, and then one or more would peel off to join the demons around Faith, or those around Oz. As soon as Kennedy felt she was starting to get the upper hand against her single combatant, back some more would run, long claws waving around in front of them and thick tails swishing back and forth just above the ground, making the already precarious footing even more unsafe.
"Who else thinks this would be more fun with weapons?" she called out as she almost tripped again.
She wasn't so much trying to make conversation as trying to make sure the other two were still capable of talking. That said, she really would be enjoying this more with something sharp or pointy in her hand, or both... sharp and pointy was good too. All she had was her hands, that were neither sharp nor particularly pointy, and although her reach was longer than their's she certainly didn't have the crazy, sharp talons the demons did.
"Got a weapon," Faith grunted from somewhere behind her. "Broken beer bottle."
"I have a branch," Oz said, following it immediately with the sound of said branch smacking a scaly head.
"So I'm the only one without a weapon?" she griped.
She didn't dare poke her hand into the case of broken beers in case she sliced it off on a shard of glass instead, not that she could see the case, and she didn't have time to grope on the ground for a tree branch; if she was lucky enough to fall over one, then great but otherwise she had no choice but to attack the demons empty handed.
As that realization sank in, she did so with gusto. Leading with a right hook that was only marginally less powerful than Buffy's thanks to all the extra training she was putting in - if you allowed for pretty big margins anyway - she caught the closest demon on the end of its broad nose. Its head went back and she brought her left foot up squarely into the base of its throat. The demon fell back with a squeal and Kennedy grinned at her victory, however minor, before the alcohol in her system reasserted its influence... losing her balance, she fell backwards too.
Faith pulled her broken bottle back from missing its mark again and ducked a left - paw? Whatever lizard hands were called - full of sharp claws. She remained crouched down when she saw Kennedy taking a tumble, waiting to see if she had to leap that way to save her, but the kid-Slayer scrambled back up by herself, cursing as blue as Faith at the mud, the hill and the sneak attack.
So, she leapt upwards instead on her powerful if shaky-right-now legs and double-kicked the demon about to loom over her. Once in the chest and again in the jaw. It staggered one way and as she landed, Faith staggered the other way, catching a gnarly tree root in her left hand she used it to propel herself forwards, upwards, and the jagged end of the bottle in her right pierced the hard scales of the demon flesh just enough to make it scream and flail its stupid short arms in the air.
"Hey, guys," she called out excitedly, giving the bottle a good, vicious twist in the Meth-head's chest. "Think the game changed at some point. Bastards can be hurt now!"
A thick tail whipped out of the darkness, catching her hip and sending her flying even further down the slope into the open but unwelcoming branches of a pine tree. Her weapon, stuck firm in the demon's chest, did not fly with her.
"'Course," she added groggily as she slid painfully down the trunk. "So can we."
Oz spun as he watched her fly past, jumping over his own tail - well, not his own tail - trying with every ounce of balance he usually had to keep his feet, as he landed on the slippery slope again. He wasn't a trained fighter like the other two. Even in his tenure as a 'Scooby' he had never done more much more than take easily available and opportunistic shots at the bad guys, as a human anyway, but years of healthy living in Tibet and other communes around the world had him at the peak of health - alcohol rushing through his veins discounted - and the wolf kept him fast and agile.
So, he might not be able to land a punch that would make these guys blink, but he could jump, duck, swerve and bring that solid tree branch down in places he hoped were tender and then be back out of range again before those thin but lethal looking claws disemboweled him.
In a move that felt ninja-ish -- his sensitive nose had gotten wind of the reptile stink of a demon lunging at him from behind his left shoulder -- he reflexively twirled the branch in his hands underarm and jabbed it behind him. He felt the way it caught the lizard in its stomach, stopping it, and used its momentary surprise to spin around like a pro-batter, rising from a semi-crouch to swing at the lizard's, now even more surprised, head. It was a good, solid hit and the demon went down sideways. Even better, it stayed down.
Oz nodded at the lump of green scales he had just knocked out cold and felt the urge to grin cockily. It passed when the next demon came for him, stubby arms out in front of it like a rubber monster from a B-movie, claws poised to rend flesh like something out of a very real nightmare.
It really passed when he tried to repeat his earlier move and swung hard at the demon's head, only to hear two sickening cracks instead of one. The first was the demon's skull - that one worked out okay - the lizard staggered around before collapsing and beginning to roll slowly down the hill. The second crack wasn't so okay and Oz looked in mild alarm at what remained of his sturdy branch - about four inches. The rest had shattered on impact.
"Okay." Another demon was slowly advancing on him through the trees and he had no choice but to back carefully down the slope away from them. "Anyone have a plan yet?"
"Try not to die!" Kennedy called out sarcastically, still engaged in her own fist to scaly claws fight a little higher up.
"Anything more specific?" he wondered, still back-stepping down, eyes scanning the muddy ground for any more handy, two foot long, branches.
"Yeah," Faith shouted from right behind him. "Duck!"
He did better than that, landing flat out on the ground thanks to her helpful shove. He narrowly managed to stop his face from hitting it too and looked up to see the damaged, dripping case of beer soar through the air above him to hit his demonic pursuer on top of its wide snout. The bottles not already smashed now did so, raining glass and Coors into the lizard's eyes. Blinded, it gave a hair-raising screech and trying to claw the sudden sharp, stinging pain away and taking some of its eyes with it.
It didn't go down but it ran away, still screeching and hitting the occasional tree due to its lack of vision. Oz watched until the figure was lost in the darkness and then pushed himself to his hands and knees, thick mud squidging between his fingers and coating the front of his clothes.
"Don't mention it." Faith was already back in her own battle.
By the time he was back on his feet another demon - bigger and meaner than the last - was coming for him.
"Uh, Faith, any more cases of beer up your sleeve?"
They were thirty yards from the woodshed and by some miracle they hadn't been spotted yet. The fact that the day had gone from dusk to dark while they had been hiding behind the garage helped. So did the fact that the fight Faith, Rona and the new girl were in, with now three lizard foes, was so loud and intense that Buffy could barely hear Willow's panting right by her ear.
They were twenty yards away when Buffy saw a fourth demon leap down from the garage roof to join their particular fray. How the hell had it gotten up there? She didn't have time to call out the question and she only just managed to stop herself from crying out a warning too.
Instead she bit her tongue and ducked out from under Willow's arm, pushing her firmly towards Xander.
"What...?" he began.
"Go, get to the woodshed," she was keeping her voice down but her urgency was more than clear. "I just gotta..."
She faintly heard Willow cry out, "No...catastrophic..." but she was already moving away from them and Xander hadn't slowed down a bit.
As luck would have it, and hers usually didn't run this way, Faith whirled around swinging at the demon behind her with her sword just as Buffy leapt out of the concealing darkness. She landed on the back of the ambushing demon only seconds after its feet touched the grass. She broke its neck with one sharp twist and as she fell with it, rolled herself fluidly back into the darker shadows between the out-buildings. Crouched there, she surveyed the continuing fight, ready to spring into action again. She was weapon-less, though, and she would never have gotten the jump on that thing - no pun intended - if she hadn't had the element of surprise. She had made the fight a little fairer but there was nothing else she could do.
Half turning away already, she twisted back in surprise as something broke free of the battle and staggered fast towards her. Scratch that, someone. Faith had taken a hard hit and was stumbling backwards, back of one arm held over her nose, obviously in pain, the other pin wheeling with the sword in her hand, trying desperately to keep her footing.
Buffy was prepared to take some of the blame for that, seeing as Faith tripped right over her still-crouching form hidden in the darkness. She sprawled over on her back, nearly knocking herself out with the hilt of her own sword. Looking stunned to begin with, when Buffy leaned over her automatically, pulling her arm away to assess the damage to her nose, she looked way more stunned.
"B?" she breathed her name like she was having some kind of celestial vision.
Buffy froze with guilt for a second and then decided to go with exactly that. "Uh huh, but best if you think of me like some... tweetie birds."
"Uh..." Faith frowned, looking more like her old self - or current self as may be, "...what?"
"Tweet tweet...tweet tweet..." she flapped her hands like little wings over Faith's head for a moment and then used her sleeve to wipe the little trail of blood coming from her nose. "Come on, you're fine, you have to get up."
Faith did sit up, but only because Buffy was dragging her in that direction. She seemed much more content to lay there and stare at her in shock and awe than jump back into the melee. The scent of hard liquor was pouring from her mouth with every breath; it was so strong it might even have been seeping from her pores, making it hard to tell if this dopey reaction was down to being wasted, or the blow she had taken to the face.
"Where did you go?"
"Nowhere. I've always been here."
That was true but also had the added benefit of sounding suitably otherworldly, in case there was more chance that Faith would buy in to her being an angel than she had her tweetie bird impression.
"You've been gone for fuckin' ever!" And then Faith started crying.
Buffy sat back on her heels, pulling her to her chest quickly in acute surprise. Faith was still smiling but those were definitely big, fat tears pouring down her cheeks and her voice hitched as she continued.
"I been waiting...always waiting...but you were just...gone, B. You were just...gone."
"I know. I didn't mean to be."
"S'okay, you're back now, right?"
As Faith went to give her a sloppy hug, Buffy spotted one of the overgrown reptiles breaking out of the clash towards them. Instead of accepting the embrace she snatched Faith's sword from her hand.
"Just need to borrow this."
"Hey, that's mine. Get one of your own!"
The blade was sharp and one angry swing was all it took to send a lizard head bouncing awkwardly across the grass. These things were a lot easier to take down that they had been the last time Buffy had encountered them, making her doubt Willow's theory that their power had increased in the past year.
She was back by Faith's side before the other slayer had fully finished her complaint. She handed the sword back and then yanked Faith to her unsteady feet.
"Do I have any of my own here?"
Faith blinked at her. "What?"
"Weapons? Are they still in my room? Did you leave our rooms the same?"
Faith looked ashamed, her hand flexed convulsively around the hilt of her sword and Buffy was amazed to see her start crying again.
"We did... We did! But it's been a year, B! And once the Wilferoo opened up in the girl's dorm and...and the boy's got ripped apart by the Saquatchii we needed the space, yunno? And somewhere we could, I dunno, batten down the hatches together or whatever."
Buffy had never heard of the Saquatchii and she had no clue in the world what a Wilferoo might be. In fact, if Faith hadn't been crying and wobbling about in the middle of a massive battle for their home, she would have thought the girl was messing with her. That really didn't seem to be the case though, so she did her best to listen above the sounds of the fight, aware she really shouldn't be talking to Faith at all - tweetie birds didn't ask about weapons... angels might though, she reasoned - and tried not to sound too offended when she asked:
"So, our stuff. You what? Just threw it all out when it got in the way?"
Faith laughed through her sniffles. It was weird and unsettling seeing Faith cry; it sent cold shivers up and down her spine and made her want to weep too.
"Nah, babe, we kept all of it. S'in boxes in the basement."
"All of it?"
"Yeah, even...even Kennedy's stuff."
"Okay, thank you." Buffy squeezed the arm she was still gripping. "Seriously, thank you. I have to go."
"Go? What the hell, B? You only just got here!"
"I know, but..."
"No buts...you can't just go again!"
"I don't want to, I have to." She started backing away. "And you have to fight! The girls, your girls, are getting beat out there, Faith. They can't win this without you."
"Not gonna win it with me either. Might as well just come with you now."
"No! You have to fight. If you want to see me again you have to stay alive and save the camp. You have to prove we can do it."
"What's the point?" Faith looked like she was about to throw her sword to the ground in defeat. "If you're not even gonna stick around?"
Buffy rushed back to her, cupping the sides of her head in both hands as she pulled her into a fast, fiery kiss. She stroked her thumbs gently over Faith's cheeks as she pulled back, wiping away the trails of tears. The tender gesture was at complete odds to the fierce brawl happening just couple of dozen yards away.
"There's one point."
Faith went from looking stunned to breaking into a sudden relaxed grin. "Been waitin' over a year for you to do that."
Buffy smirked as she started backing away again. "I know. Sorry about that."
"You'll come back?"
"Hopefully a lot sooner than you think."
"Cool. B, before you go..."
Buffy paused level with the woodshed, waiting to see what Faith had to say before she dashed around it to the door.
A hand came out of nowhere and gripped the back of her sweatshirt. With one hard, unexpected pull Buffy was yanked into the darkness behind the woodshed.
Faith blinked at the spot where she had been, face creased in confusion for several moments before she was sure Buffy wasn't about to suddenly pop back into existence again.
"Man, I been hit on the freakin' head too many times this year," she decided as she turned and leapt back into the middle of Big-Ass-Lizard-Fest 2004.
Behind the woodshed, Buffy not so playfully slapped Giles' arm continuously until they made it to the front of the small wooden structure where the other two were waiting nervously by the door.
"She was...about to...say the... L word...Giles!" she ground out between slaps. "We haven't...said that...yet!"
"Do you bloody mind?" Giles snapped, getting as far from her as he could in the huddle and clutching his arm with a grimace. "You were told not to engage!"
"I didn't engage. She engaged. She fell over me before I could run away."
"You should not have stopped!" he insisted angrily.
"You're the one who made a big deal out of me still being The Slayer," Buffy shot back. "And sorry, but The Slayer can't watch a vicious demon kill my unsuspecting friends!"
"If you had kept running you wouldn't have seen anything."
Buffy opened her mouth to retaliate but Xander spoke first.
"We could argue about this all night..." he began before adding firmly. "But let's not."
"Yeah, we need to get inside," Willow's voice was even weaker than before and there was a patch of singed yellow grass half a foot away that could have been the handiwork of her stomach.
Wasting no more time, Buffy barged through the woodshed door. It was pitch black inside but at once she felt the familiar feeling of twenty-five six inch high, purple people cannon-balling into her. They clung on to her hair, her clothes, her sneaker laces, knocking her off-balance. A second later she was flat out, pinned to the floor on her back and groaning at the sudden fall.
"I really shoulda knocked first, huh?"
They were loosely back to back now. Faith would have preferred it if they were grouped even tighter but it just wasn't possible on the slippery slope. Every time one of them tried to attack they slithered a little further down. So they were mostly concentrating on defense. If they could just hold out until...
Until what? These lizard freaks got tired and went home? Yeah, 'cause that was gonna happen when there were five times as many of them and she was pretty freakin' positive that none of the demons had started this fight wasted. True, drugs and alcohol passed through a Slayer's system pretty quickly but not that damn fast!
She couldn't remember if these things were nocturnal or not but even if they were daylight had to be twelve hours away yet. None of them were going to last that long unless something drastically changed in their favor.
"Get in closer, Ken!" she yelled, grabbing Kennedy's arm as she started to slip.
"I'm trying," the younger slayer snapped back. "But this is stupid! They're surrounding us and I don't feel like playing the piggy in the middle."
"Well, what else do you suggest? We ain't got no weapons to attack with and at least this way the bastards can't get us from behind."
"But it's not working," Kennedy stressed. "We need to..." she thought about it for a moment. "We need to run. The house can't be more than ten minutes away and we have to be able to run faster than them."
"Okay," Faith gestured about them. "You wanna run through that wall of demons, or that one? Or how about the one behind us?"
"I can create a space," Oz said.
It was the first time he had spoken for a while. He was the most winded of all of them and on top of that he was having himself an inner struggle as well as an outer one.
"How?" Faith kept one eye on the demon she was trading blows with as she glanced at him. For a moment she saw the wolf within him leaking out but then he was grimacing and clenching his fists even tighter as he forced it back in. "Dude! You've had our best weapon just hidden away all this time?"
"What? What weapon?" Kennedy's back was to them.
"What's he going to do? He's not even a Slayer."
"No, he's a werewolf!"
"I don't know how much use I'll be," he said through gritted teeth as he ducked back from a demon claw, accidentally smacking heads with Kennedy behind him.
"You'll have big teeth, big claws and about two feet on us so, yeah, I'm thinking useful."
"I'm not fully in control as the wolf and werewolves are pretty territorial."
"Good to know. This is your territory, now start defending it like you mean it," Faith said encouragingly.
"It's not his territory," Kennedy said. "It's ours. He doesn't live here."
"Fine. Kennedy, you turn into a werewolf and clear these demons out. I don't care who does it, but someone has to do it before we all get killed." That made Kennedy fall into a grumpy silence. "Thank you. Now, Oz, get your wolf on, man."
"Why the hell not?" Faith was getting frustrated with him, well with everything, now.
He didn't want to have to say it but obviously the heat of battle wasn't helping them pick up on his subtle hints. "Because if I change I'll have a bigger enemy here than the demons."
"Who?" Faith demanded.
Kennedy got there quicker, muttering, "Damn right you have."
"What? Kennedy? Oh, come on! You ain't scratchin' at her legs now are you? You'll be fine."
"Like this I know why things are the way they are between us." His left foot slipped as he tried to kick in a demon's kneecap with his right and he almost went down. Faith dragged him back upright. "As the wolf I just see a rival I need to defeat. And considering I'm drunk right now, possibly hump too."
Kennedy half turned around, anger and revulsion plain in her tone. "Don't even try it, dog-boy!"
"Kennedy." Faith slapped her shoulder to get her to turn back around. "Demons."
"I think it would cause more problems than it would solve," Oz panted calmly.
Faith's arm was still outstretched from slapping Kennedy and she had half an ear on what Oz was saying and at just that moment her right foot slipped just a little bit down the muddy hill, just enough for her to wave her blocking arm about for balance. All of those factors combined was the only reason the lizard demon got in a lucky swipe - although in the back of her mind she consoled herself with the knowledge that it definitely would have happened to one of them sooner or later anyway - and four sharp claws tore clothes and skin from the left side of her waist, diagonally across her lower abdomen and groin to her opposite thigh.
She yelled at the pain, almost unbearable in the more tender regions, and fell back against both Oz and Kennedy. Kennedy grabbed her easily, holding her upright until she found her balance but soon realized that Faith was having trouble putting weight on her right leg now.
"Just give me a sec," Faith said, wincing.
They didn't have a sec though. While Kennedy was holding Faith up they were both defenseless, leaving Oz their strongest fighter and he was not their strongest fighter.
At least...not this shape.
"Osbourne, I think the balance just tipped and we've got more problems now than you could cause, so...change." When he just looked at her, unsure, Kennedy yelled it again. "Change!"
With a noise that started off a yell but became a growl halfway through and a painful-looking all over body-shudder, Oz transformed into something hella hairy and scary. The werewolf snuffled the air, its sharp eyes flicking from one to the next of the attacking lizards and then its head slowly swung around to focus on Kennedy. A deep, menacing growl started to rumble low in its throat.
"Crap!" Faith and Kennedy said at the same time.
"Release her!" The small but powerful shout echoed around the shed. "Watcher, close the door now! Timsaw, light!"
Giles pushed Xander to one side so that he could reach back and slam the door shut behind them. It left them all in pitch darkness until slowly a lantern made from a jam jar full of fire flies rose up to the ceiling on twine.
The Mawther walked forward, her shadow looming on the walls several times bigger than she was. "Just Buffy, you and your kin have been gone a long while."
Buffy sat up, brushing down her jumper. "Actually, funny story..."
"Funny?" Xander asked incredulously behind her.
"Okay, just story. We haven't been gone that long. We're from the past. Not as cool as being from the future, but there ya go."
Beryan took that in her stride with a nod. "Then you have picked an unfortunate time to visit."
Xander helped Willow down next to Buffy and then knelt beside her. "We're not here by choice. Willow's sick."
"I can see that. She's green."
"Yeah, well you're purple," Willow returned weakly.
Beryan smiled. "A spell?"
Giles sat down on the other side of Buffy. He was too agitated for sitting comfortably but it was just easier to talk to the seven inch woman this way.
"Yes, a Chaotic Nerve spell. Willow started teleporting every time she sneezed about forty-eight hours ago."
"A little longer than that actually," Willow said.
"And for the past twenty-four hours we've been skipping across time, space and dimensions with her."
From outside came a loud scream quickly followed by the thud-thud of two crossbow bolts burying themselves in the wood. All heads except Beryan's turned to the noise.
Beryan walked to Willow and then scaled her, grabbing handfuls of her pajamas to pull herself up until she was balancing on her shoulder. She pulled Willow's head around by hooking her fingers into a nostril and with her other hand pulled her lower eyelids down one at a time to look in her eyes.
"Hey!" Willow complained softly, and the pixie took the opportunity to grab her upper lip and hold it out of the way while she pulled out her tongue to inspect it.
"You are far down the path, child. Did I not warn you what careless use of your magick could lead to?"
"Actually, it's my fault. I asked her to use the magick," Giles admitted.
"That does not surprise me, Watcher." Beryan jumped back down to the ground. "But it is always Willow's responsibility in the end. She should have said no."
"Yes, she did," Giles said softly. "But there were demons."
"And now, thanks to your meddling, there are more demons." Beryan waved a hand at the battle going on outside the walls.
"Look, enough with the lecture," Buffy said. "Willow's really sick and so we're stuck here regardless of the reason. Can you help us make her better or not?"
"All nerve spells reach a point where they can not be undone because of the bond the magick makes with the physiology of the infected."
"And I'm past that point," Willow asked, scared.
"I do not think so, but I fear you are very close."
"Then help her," Xander said through gritted teeth.
"We do not have the kind of ingredients needed to reverse such a powerful spell and my scouts tell me that your own magical supplies have been severely depleted in your wizard's attempts to protect the camp."
"Our Wizard?" Giles wondered.
Buffy spoke over him. "No, Giles had all the stuff he needed delivered a year ago and Faith just said they kept all of our stuff. In boxes in the basement. The ingredients have to be in one of them."
"Then what are you waiting for?" Beryan asked, waving at the door.
"We can't risk being seen by our future friends," Giles said, his voice still coming out firm and non-negotiable despite his increasing worry over Willow. "It could affect the very stability of the universe."
"No it could not," Beryan said with just as much certainty.
"I think you'll find..."
"I think you have a very grand opinion of yourself, Watcher, if you think the fate of the universe is dependent on your actions, but that does not surprise me."
"We can't anyway," Xander said, getting even more impatient. "Willow's too weak to go rooting through the basement and we can't leave her in case she sneezes."
"Please," Willow begged. "Won't you help us?"
The Mawther looked around at the pixies assembled behind her and then back to them. "I'm sorry. We have already lost a great number of our clan because of the troubles and tonight it would be..."
"Please!" Buffy said. "We don't have any other options. And the only way we can get home and stop all of this from happening to us, and you, is if Willow gets better."
"Actually that may not be true..." Giles began, once Willow was better she might lose the ability to time travel altogether.
"One problem at a time, Giles!" Buffy snapped and then turned firm but imploring eyes back on the little pixie leader. "Please. Help us so we can help you not lose your people."
Beryan sighed but nodded. "Timsaw, take your team to the basement to-wance. Tear apart the boxes and bring all the ingredients you find."
"But, Mawther, it wull bae puar maadyness..."
"Timsaw, I gave you a direct charge. Do you fail me?"
Eight of the pixies broke ranks and left the woodshed, although the door never opened so how they got out was a mystery. A tense silence remained behind as everyone settled down to wait for them to get back. It made the fight right outside seem all the worse and all but Beryan winced at the screams and shouts and strange hissing noises that marked its ferocity.
Oz's growl had started off a low rumble but it was getting louder and growlier the longer he stared at Kennedy.
"Down, boy," Faith said as soothingly as possible.
She doubted it would do much good. She was already pretty sure that whatever part of Oz that was still in there was already telling himself that. It was probably the only reason he hadn't pounced yet, and maybe the fact that she was in front of Kennedy. Although there was a chance she was thinking a little too highly of Oz's feelings for her there. He'd gone for her once before back in the day, and even if he was fifty percent domesticated now the shit going on around them had to have him crazy on edge.
"Ken, submit to him!" She said when the idea struck her. You never knew, it might work.
"I am not backing down to him!"
"Think about it! He's just basically a big dog right?" Oz's growl got louder. "Okay, not a dog, forget I said dog! But the principle's the same. You don't have to mean it but if he thinks he's won he might stop feeling the urge to tear you limb from limb!"
"He's a werewolf, not stupid!"
It was probably the nicest thing Kennedy had ever said about him but Oz still took offense. With barely any visible effort the muscles in the werewolf's powerful hind legs bunched and then he was in the air, pouncing straight at them.
Faith and Kennedy both yelled and it wasn't really clear who dived and who slipped but they both ended up landing in the mix of mud and soggy leaves, half rolling, half sliding a good way down the slope together.
A sharp hiss was cut off with an undignified yelping noise that no self-respecting reptile should make and when they finally came to a stop both slayers looked up the slope to see what had caused it. It had been Oz tearing a demon lizard into pieces. As they watched, he did it to another one. It was cool. Gross, but cool.
"Okay, maybe we over-reacted," Faith admitted, a little embarrassed.
"Speak for yourself; it wasn't you he was giving the stink eye." Kennedy defended her own scaredy cat squeal and awkwardly got back to her feet. "Come on, let's try and take a few out from behind while he has them distracted."
"Yeah, 'bout that."
Faith had already tried to get up. Her injured thigh was having none of it and she still kinda wanted to cry over the pain in her groin. She knew without having to see it that there was probably almost as much blood on her top as mud and ever since they'd tumbled down the slope she was feeling dizzy, never a good sign, especially when blood loss might be the reason.
It was what it was though and trying not to feel ashamed about it she admitted, "I don't think I can stand right now."
"Okay," Kennedy said slowly, clearly trying not to sound as panicked as she suddenly looked. "Are you...? I mean, how bad...? Are you going to be alright?"
"It's not so bad, I'll be fine," Faith said, downplaying how bad it really felt. "I just don't trust my leg to take my weight, not on this slope and all. But you get in there, help Oz out."
"And leave you as a sitting duck to get picked off when my back's turned? No way, I could never live with myself, Buffy would kill me."
"And you're not worried what Red will say if Oz gets toasted by the ten demons he's taking on alone?"
"No," Kennedy smiled grimly. "That I can live with."
She turned though, so she could keep Faith in sight and watch Oz fight. He seemed to be enjoying himself as demon after demon fell to his teeth and claws.
Everyone except Willow, who seemed to be beyond it now, perked up as seven pixies ran back into the centre of the woodshed.
"What happened?" Beryan demanded, seeing they had returned empty-handed and a pixie short.
Timsaw bowed before his leader, "Gruflin was lorst, Mawther."
"Eaten," said another of the little people hysterically. "Snatched in the jaws of one of the cold-blooded beasts, Mawther!"
"So you didn't even bother going to the basement!" Buffy felt hysterical too.
She'd have to make the run herself now and just hope hard that Willow didn't sneeze. She hadn't in hours. It was as if her body was just too weak to make the effort now.
Furious, the pixie leader took a run and jump, caught hold of Buffy's hair in both hands and swung forward, head-butting her between the eyes, and Ye Gods did that hurt!
Buffy swayed backwards as Beryan shouted, "Wee haave lorst wan orv oor oown tring ta hell yew an thaat iss haw yew speek tow theem!"
Buffy wrapped her fist around Beryan's middle and yanked her away, losing some strands of hair in the process but before she could shout back or apologize, possibly a mixture of both, Timsaw was speaking again.
"We went to tha basement an took apart oll of thee bauxes. There war naw spell-parts in theem."
"But Faith said..."
Timsaw cut her off. "Wee looked haard. Wee did nawt want Gruflin's sacrifice to be hollow."
"Oh." She turned to Giles helplessly. "Now what do we do?"
He was cleaning his glasses. On her other side Xander was holding Willow close, she was shivering now and occasionally coughing out little puffs of apricot-colored steam. None of them apparently had an answer.
Beryan was still hanging in Buffy's fist, forgotten until she started tugging on the sleeve of her jumper.
"Whose blood is this?"
Buffy looked down at the little red blotch on her cuff. "Uh, Faith's. Her nose was bleeding when I spoke to her. Why?" she asked irritably.
"Let me down, Just Buffee."
Buffy just opened her hand, not caring about the foot and half drop to the ground. Beryan landed lightly on her feet anyway and began to issue more instructions to her lieutenants.
She spoke fast and her accent was still strong with anger but Buffy caught the occasional words. 'Personal stash', for example, and 'Sarf tunnel'.
Only three of the pixies detached and left the shed this time. Beryan didn't watch them leave or give anyone time to question where they were going before barking more instructions.
"Willow, yew must sit up straight."
"Okay." There was a pause where nothing happened. "Am I sitting up yet?"
Beryan pointed at Xander. "Yew, boy, help her."
Xander bristled at being called 'boy' but did as he was told. Sitting so that his legs were either side of Willow's hips and Willow's back was against his chest.
"Yew, Watcher, sit behind him. Try nawt to meddle."
Giles moved as he asked, "What exactly are you planning to try?"
"That is meddling," Beryan said dismissively. "Just Buffee..."
"Stop calling me that!"
"When yew get home yew can give me a reason to stop and then I will not call yew it now. Until then, take Willow's hand and wait fore me."
"Willow, I know there are probably clangings in yew head, but yew must listen..."
"It sounds just like an old fashioned telephone. Ring ring, ring, r-, r- r-."
"I'm not the only one who heard that, right?" Xander tried not to instinctively lean back from Willow.
"No," Buffy confirmed, "Will definitely just rang exactly like a telephone."
"Tickled," Willow complained.
"But cool," Xander tried to keep her spirits up. "Can you do the Nokia ring tone too?"
"Stop," said Beryan, cutting through their meager merriment. "You must pay attention." Her pixies came back into the shed then, carrying several baggies of herbs and spices between them. She nodded to them and then turned to Willow again. "I cannot cure you, but I can send you home. The blood on this clothing will act as a pull through time to its source."
"But its source is right outside," Buffy pointed out. "How does that help?"
Beryan gave her a look that explained in no uncertain terms that Buffy was stupid, but didn't explain anything else.
Willow seemed to trust her anyway, but croaked, "I'm too weak to do that kind of magick. I can't control it."
"No, but I can. You just need to be the force behind it. Once you are back in the past you must hurry to where you have left the ingredients. Waste no time for you have very little to spare. Now, give me forty-five ticks to prepare and I will send you home. And please, when you get there, do whatever is necessary to change our fates."
Buffy looked at her friends, reaching back awkwardly with the hand not holding Willow's to pat Xander's arm, offering Giles a smile that was hopefully more reassuring than terrified and murmuring to Willow, "Nearly there, Will, just hang on. This will all be over soon." And hoping like hell she was telling the truth.
If Beryan got it wrong and they ended up somewhere else completely, or even worse, still stuck here, Buffy knew it would be game over. It wasn't even pessimism, just fact. If Willow's sickness couldn't be cured and she...died, even if by some miracle they made it home another way, she knew it would still be over for the three of them that remained. It was one for all, or all for nothing.
"We're like the three musketeers," she whispered.
There was a beat of silence before Xander whispered, "There's four of us."
"Buffy's d'Artagnan," Willow said softly and suddenly all four of them were wearing red cavalier hats.
"Exactly." Buffy tried to grin.
"If only we had the swords to match," Giles whispered dryly.
Just as suddenly they all had swords. There was another beat of silence.
"Uh, Willow," said Buffy, looking at her sword. "These are made of plastic."
"Well don't blame me. I'm not doing any of this intentionally."
"Well that's reassuring," Giles said, making Xander giggle.
Beryan turned back to them. "I am ready."
Faith had made it to her knees. The pain was still intense but with an arm held low over her belly she could handle it. She was trying to get to her feet but that was still an uphill struggle, literally.
She was trying though because a minute ago the tables had turned on Oz. There were only four demons now but one of them had managed to sink its claws deep into the werewolf's back. After an initial high-pitched yelp of pain it didn't seem to be hurting him too much but it was pinning him to the spot and the rest of the lizards were starting to brave getting mauled to run in close and attack his front.
Kennedy had moved closer as soon as he had been stabbed but was holding back. Weaponless she was still only half the fighter Oz was right now - as much as that burned her! - but when one of the butt-ugly reptiles took a massive swing at his chest, claw-marks filling and overflowing with blood instantly, she gave a shout and leaped forward.
She jump-kicked the demon that had inflicted the damage, sending him flying to skid up the slope on his side, but her feet slipped out from under her as she landed and she went down hard on her knees in front of Oz.
Faith saw what was about to happen next and tried to jump up but she just fell straight back down. Oz howled but he couldn't move and his long arms couldn't quite reach.
"No!" Faith screamed as a lizard-demon's sharper than sharp claws came down hard to slice through the back of Kennedy's neck.
And then there was a sound like 'BLIP' and a grey plastic sword was being swung upwards on instinct. It did exactly zero damage but caught the paw between the second and third claws, knocking it off target and giving Kennedy the split-second chance to roll backwards out of the way.
As Faith watched, Xander struggled for the upper hand, keeping the sword between the demon's claws and trying to dodge its other swiping paw until he eventually, accidentally, pushed it close enough to Oz that the werewolf was able to rip its lizard head clean from its shoulders.
"Hey, look what I did!" Xander said triumphantly, until he realized he was talking to a growling, foaming-at-the-mouth werewolf and then he back-pedaled, holding the sword out in front of him.
"It's Oz," Willow called. She was on the ground too, looking almost as shit as Faith felt, although to be fair, the witch was a hell of a lot greener.
"Yeah, but does he know that?" Xander called back.
"Give me that!" Kennedy tried to grab his weapon.
Xander held it over his head as if that would stop a slayer. "No, get your own plastic sword!"
"Xander!" As he turned and smacked an approaching demon across the throat with it, making it stumble back, Kennedy obviously decided that he'd earned his right to keep it. "Will?" she asked instead.
Willow chucked her the sword she was carrying. It landed only a foot away from her prone body. Not bothered, Kennedy ran over and scooped it up before using what minimal force it provided on the remaining lizards.
Buffy had already been busy, ignoring everything else as soon as they arrived - from wherever the hell they had arrived from - to tackle the demon who had its claws in Oz's back. It was as pinned as the werewolf, unable to retract its claws because to do so would free the beast ripping them to shreds. Buffy was making the most of that, not even bothering with the stabby end of the plastic sword but just using every ounce of strength she had to beat the thing into submission with it.
From Faith's point of view it was hot. From the demon's point of view it was hell. When Giles turned to put his boot into the lizard's soft underbelly - his own sword plunged deep into the mouth of another slowly choking demon - it finally caved and fell back and in one smooth motion Oz twirled on the spot and turned it into several separate reptilian pieces.
The fight didn't last much longer. The Scoobies and Kennedy had beaten the remaining demons down and Oz made easy work of finishing them off. Faith smiled in relief and slumped further to the ground but kept her head up to see what would happen next.
Kennedy automatically went to rush to Willow's side, but hearing Oz's low growl stopped and turned to him.
"I'm not, I'm okay, I'm just sick," Willow called over weakly and to demonstrate vomited something yellow and smoking onto the mud in front of her.
"You can't help her like that!" Kennedy shouted when Oz continued to growl at her.
The werewolf looked around at his torn and tattered clothes caked in mud and demon guts, looking as indecisive as a werewolf was able to.
It was Giles who got through to him. "Go, Oz. We'll take care of Willow. Wait in the boys dormitory. Xander will bring you some clothes."
With one last look at Willow, Oz turned and loped away across the slope into the deeper darkness beneath trees.
Kennedy ran to Willow to pick her up gently and all at once there was an even bigger panic on.
"Hurry, Faith," Giles called. "We need to get Willow back to the house immediately."
"Uh, yeah, I'll, uh, join you in a...day or two," she said, grimacing as she made another attempt to get to her feet.
Buffy seemed to finally realize something was wrong with her. "You guys go, we'll catch up."
"Buffy, we need you to do the spell."
"And I'll be right there," she promised as she slipped and slid down the slope to crouch in front of Faith. "What's wrong?"
"Nothin'. I'm fine."
"Yeah, I can see that. What's wrong! Come on, we don't have time for fibs."
"I got..." Faith sighed. "One of the demons got me, B, okay."
"No, I just almost let Kennedy get decapitated 'cause I don't like her."
Buffy just quirked an eyebrow.
"Yeah, okay, whatever, kinda badly."
Buffy gently helped her turn over but couldn't see anything in the darkness, not with the mud covering everything too. "Where does it hurt?"
"Stomach, thigh, pussy."
Buffy sucked in a breath at her vulgarity but sighed in amusement immediately afterward. "Ouch, that's gotta sting."
"Yeah, trust me, it freakin' does."
"Can you stand?"
"Not so far."
Buffy thought for a minute. "Okay, this might hurt, sorry."
"What might?" And then Buffy scooped her up in her arms and Faith yelled, "Owww! Bitch!"
"I missed you too." Buffy grinned at her while moving as swiftly up the slope as possible after the others.
Faith just hoped this was the shortcut Kennedy had promised it to be because right now her wounds felt like they had molten lava inside them.
"Missed me? Where the hell ya been anyway?"
"You wouldn't believe me." Buffy's nose wrinkled. "Have you been drinking?"
"Yeah, shit loads. Me, Kenny and Oz got our party on at Barnies to celebrate Thanksgiving."
"What? You've been celebrating while..."
"What did you expect us to do? Sit around waiting for you to get from your little day-trip?"
She could tell Buffy was fuming about something. "You have no idea how tempting it is to drop you on your stinging hoo hoo right now, Faith."
They traveled in silence for a minute before Faith smirked through her pain and asked, "Hoo hoo?"
Giles looked up from the kettle as Buffy shouldered her way through the back door with Faith in her arms.
"Good Lord, what's wrong now?"
"I got clawed by a demon. Don't feel bad for not realizin' or nothin'," Faith said sarcastically.
Giles didn't seem to catch the intonation as he made his tea quickly. "Well, as long as you're okay. Kennedy has put Willow on her bed and Xander is up there waiting for us. Everything is as we left it, I'm thankful to say."
"And I'm thankful to hear it." Buffy said, before asking Faith, "Chair or bed?"
"Chair." Buffy started to ease her down into one of the kitchen chairs and Faith hissed in pain. "Or bed is good too."
Buffy chuckled, gently hoisting her back up again. "I'll see you up there, Giles."
"I'm right behind you."
Buffy was extra careful taking Faith up the back stairs. Normally it might be fun to bash her head off of the banister a few times - especially since she had spent the day getting drunk while Buffy had been going through hell - but the girl was obviously in a lot of pain; and she couldn't shake the memory of future-Faith crying either.
Faith's bedroom was on the other side of the house and Buffy walked swiftly down the twisty turny corridors. She glanced into Willow's bedroom as they passed it, seeing Willow frail-looking on the bed and Xander and Kennedy hovering around her.
She pushed open the door to Faith's room and realized as she entered that it was the first time she had been in there since the week after Faith had moved in. It was. . . not looking a lot different.
"Where's all your stuff?"
"Huh?" Faith looked around. "Oh, in the closet."
"But where's the rest of it? It can't all fit in one cupboard?"
Faith looked around again and shrugged in her arms. "Guess it does. Just put me on top of the covers."
Buffy resisted the urge to just drop her on the bed and set her down gently. "You're getting your comforter all muddy."
"Really not caring."
"Do you think you need...? Do you want me to take a look at, uh. . .?" Buffy waved at Faith's injured parts uncomfortably. Not that the thigh or the waist were problems as such, just...
Reading her mind, Faith leered. "Go make Willow better first. After, if I'm not dead yet, you can come fix my boo boo and cop an ogle then."
Buffy quirked an eyebrow. "Boo boo?"
Faith quirked one right back. "Hoo hoo?"
Buffy gave her a scary grin. "Sometimes I hate you."
Faith gave her an easy smile. "Yeah, I hate you too, babe."
Buffy sighed as she left her to it, wondering if that was really as close as they would be able to come to saying 'the words' for another year.
"I want to stay for the spell."
"I'm very sorry but as I told you last night, Kennedy, that's not a very good idea," Giles said calmly as he mixed some more of the ingredients.
Thank the Heavens he had ordered more that he had thought he would need or else they would be left trying to work with the sticky mess the last attempt had left in the bowl. Willow was handcuffed to the bed this time too. She might not have sneezed in three hours but he wasn't taking the chance that the smoke from the spell would induce one at the last minute again.
"And look what happened last night when I wasn't here," Kennedy said.
"That's not going to happen again, look," Willow rattled her cuffs to prove her point.
She seemed to be feeling better now that she was home but her skin was the color of stormy grass and her eyes seemed to be rolling independently of one another on an almost continuous basis. At this point Giles wished he had never watched the Exorcist because he kept having visions of her head spinning around; which was far from helpful when everyone was relying on him to keep his nerve.
"Hey, if you wanna be useful," Xander said. "Grab some clothes from my room and take them down to Oz."
Kennedy just glared at him.
"Please, Kennedy," Willow said, both eyes managing to roll her way expectantly.
"Fine!" She stormed out of the room just as Buffy was hurrying in.
"Okay, I think we're ready," Giles said, nodding to Buffy. "So, if everyone takes their places, we'll begin."
Kennedy had grabbed the biggest pair of jeans she could find in Xander's wardrobe and one of Andrew's Star Wars t-shirts before going down to the boy's dormitory. Typically, Oz wasn't in there anyway.
She found him in the training barn, sitting with his mutt.
Feeling even more irritable that she had had to hunt for him she chucked the clothes his way, and he gave a quiet, "Thanks."
"How's your back?" she asked, not that she really cared.
"Sore, but I have that whole supernatural healing thing. How's Willow?"
"No idea. They didn't let me stay for the spell," her frustration was clear in her voice.
He nodded and then waved the clothes in an awkward gesture for privacy. His lower half was hidden behind his dog at the moment and he obviously didn't want to stand up in front of her.
"Oh, please," she scoffed. "Like you have anything I want to look at."
Shrugging he got to his feet and pulled the pants on. They were miles too big; he had to use a hand to stop them from sliding down his hips.
"Any chance you have a belt?"
She smirked, "Sorry."
Unfazed, he unclipped the thin leather dog lead from Ralph's collar and pulled it through the belt loops, cinching it tight around his waist before tying a knot in it. He pulled the t-shirt over his head, looked down at the picture of the Wookie on the front and shrugged again, unbothered.
Jeez, he was annoying. Why couldn't he get pissed that she was messing with him? Shaking off her irritation she turned to leave the barn.
"Can I bring Ralph in now?"
The spell was done, Willow was, as far as they knew, cured. It was a great feeling for all of them but Giles had insisted that she have at least an hour of lying quietly in her room alone to regain some of her strength.
So, feeling jazzed that her best friend was going to be okay after all the worry, thrilled that they were finally back home, and immense relief that Kennedy was alive and Faith hadn't sunk into a pit of despair, Buffy found herself bouncing excitedly on the balls of her feet outside of Faith's room.
The excited bouncing wasn't actually translating to knocking though. She kept going to and then stopping herself. It was silly, she knew that. For one thing Faith might be really seriously hurt, needing her assistance. For two, she was sort of her girlfriend.
It was that particular thought that was holding her back though. Things had still been really tense between them before Buffy had gone off on her impromptu travels. She wanted this to be the moment they put everything right between them, she just wasn't sure how yet.
Still, she wasn't going to find out hopping from foot to foot out here. She knocked a little too enthusiastically.
"Yeah?" Faith grunted, sounding in a lot of pain.
That was all Buffy needed to open the door and go in. "Hey...whoa!"
Faith had managed to take her top off and push her jeans down until they were just off of her hips. She looked down at herself as Buffy exclaimed loudly and sharply averted her eyes.
"B, you've seen me naked before! Get a grip, would ya?"
"Yeah, sorry." Buffy cut her eyes to Faith for a second but still wouldn't look at her properly. "How are you doing?"
"I don't think I'm gonna die but this is hella freakin' painful." Faith grimaced as she tried to push the tight pants even further down her thighs. "Been trying to get my clothes off so I can check the damage but I think I've hit a wall. How's Willow?"
"We did the spell. She should be okay but Giles said we need to wait a little while to be sure. She's resting now." Buffy fidgeted nervously before making a decision and walking over to the bed. "Let me help."
"Thought you were never gonna offer." Faith slumped stiffly back against her pillows.
"Didn't think you liked needing help," Buffy muttered as she took hold of the waist band of Faith's jeans and gently eased them down her legs.
"There's a difference between needing help and needing...help... Okay, I guess there ain't."
Jeans down to her knees, Buffy looked at her curiously. "You okay?"
"Took a bunch of painkillers after you left." Faith grinned. "Think they're finally kicking in." Buffy jerked the wet, mud-caked jeans down to her ankles. "Ow! Not helping with the actual pain though."
"Oops, sorry. Nearly done." Buffy pulled the pants carefully off of her feet. "There. Oh!"
She'd meant her eyes to go straight up to Faith's face, not really ready to see her in her underwear just yet however irrational that might, but they stopped on her panties when she realized the white cotton was dark red with blood.
Faith looked down at herself again. "Yeah. I think the bleeding stopped, just feels tacky now."
"Uh huh." Buffy forced herself to go into medical mode - and not, 'ooh Faith's panties!' mode.
Her stomach had stopped bleeding too but the red gash across it looked wicked nasty still. Her thigh was still leaking a little blood, probably thanks to the removal of her jeans, but it wasn't enough to indicate anything arterial had been hit.
"Okay, try not to move around so you don't re-open anything. I'll be back in a minute."
She left Faith's bedroom and went to the communal bathroom just down the hall. There were bandages and stuff in there. It wasn't as well equipped as Giles store room inside his office - which looked like a hospital had thrown up its guts in there - but it had what she needed. She took the time to fill the small bucket kept under the sink with warm water too.
She bumped into Xander in the hall. He looked down at the stuff she was carrying and then back up in concern.
"Where's the medical emergency?"
"Faith. One of those lizard demons sliced her up pretty good."
"Oh God. Is she okay? Do you need a hand?"
She thought about Faith in her panties. "No, I've got it. She's fine, just...sore and stuff."
Xander nodded. "Kennedy and Oz are waiting downstairs."
Buffy smiled. "You should probably get down there then. Before there's even more bloodshed."
"Actually, I think they're just wondering when dinner is going to be ready."
She gave him a stern look. "That better not be the only reason you're talking to me too."
He held his hands up defensively. "No way. I'm thinking we order pizza."
She smiled again. "Let me see to Faith and then we'll work something out foodwise."
He nodded and walked away down the corridor. She watched him go for a second and then went back to Faith's bedroom. Faith looked half asleep when she opened the door.
"I'm back." She put the bucket and other supplies down on the bedside cabinet.
Faith opened her eyes. "Yeah?"
"How many of those tablets did you take?"
"Not enough to kill me...unfortunately." She shifted a little on the bed, winced, and decided lying still was better. "So what did you bring me?"
"Warm water and bandages."
"Oh, B, you really know how to treat a girl right."
"Well, I was gonna go and pick you some flowers too but I was worried you might bleed to death before you could appreciate my effort."
Faith laughed quietly. "I'm just glad you came back."
Her words made Buffy think of the future, literally, and she looked away for a moment, remembering future-Faith's crying again. How would the other slayer react now if she told her about that? She would probably deny it. If she gave it a moment's thought at all with all the painkillers she had taken.
Buffy started with her stomach. A little mud had leaked beneath her top but mostly it was just blood to deal with. Once that was clean she applied the heavy duty antiseptic cream and then gently patted a wide swatch of gauze over the wound. Using the spare face cloth she had brought in she tenderly dried the area around the gauze before taping it down firmly.
Faith watched her through heavy-lidded eyes and gave her a dopey smile as Buffy looked up from her handy work. "Nice job."
Buffy nodded but said, "That was the easy one."
She moved onto her thigh next and after wiping it clean and checking it to make sure it wasn't worst than she'd first thought, she repeated the process of delicately applying the cool cream with her fingertips and dressing the wound securely.
She looked up at Faith nervously. "I have to...uh."
"You don't mind?"
"You taking off my underwear? Kinda been hoping and praying for it for a while now, B."
As Faith grinned, Buffy gave her an embarrassed smile. "Not quite how I was planning our first...uh, next time to be though. You know, with the blood and all."
"But you have been planning it?" Faith sounded quietly surprised.
"Not really planning it, no." Faith's face dropped a little. "More just thinking about it. A lot." Faith grinned again. "Ready for some time way in the future when you stop being an idiot." Faith's face went neutral.
"Just take my damn panties off, B, before my pussy bleeds out."
"Stop using that word."
"Why? Does it shock you?"
Buffy looked down at Faith's blood-soaked underpants with a grim smile, feeling her cheeks grow hot with her blush.
"It doesn't shock me. It's just..." She hooked her fingers into the waistband of the panties. "...there are nicer words."
"What would you prefer? Bajingo? Lady Flower?"
Not answering, Buffy gingerly started pulling down the underwear.
"Oh, sorry, forgot. Hoo hoo's your fave, right?" Faith was smirking.
"Are you going to be teasing me about my poor word choice forever?" Buffy griped.
Faith's smirk dropped into a gentle, if drugged up, smile. "Hopefully."
Buffy smiled bashfully in response. Sometimes Faith got it exactly right. So why couldn't she always?
Again choosing not to answer, she concentrated on what she was doing. She watched the slow passage of Faith's panties as she eased them down her thighs, over her knees, along her shins to her ankles and then off of her feet because she still wasn't quite ready to look at the area she'd left uncovered yet.
"B," Faith said softly when she was still just looking at the underwear now in her hands.
"Huh?" She looked up, dropping them self-consciously. "Okay...I'm okay."
"Never said you weren't, but I'm not used to being the only one practically naked in the room."
"Really?" Buffy knew she sounded surprised as she busied herself moving the bucket and grabbing more gauze to avoid looking at where she had to look.
"Yeah. What'd ya think I usually do? Give shows?"
"No, it's just..." Buffy plunged the wash cloth into the bowl to rinse it and then wrung it out. "I know you're way more experienced than me," she added in a fast mumble.
Faith laughed and then cringed when it made the slash on her stomach hurt. "Is that what's been holding you back? 'Cause, babe, the two times we've done it, we've been pretty evenly matched. Last time, if anything, I was keeping up with you."
Buffy blushed again but also smiled a little at that knowledge.
"'Course, I'd hardly had any sleep for a week, put me a little off my game, but still."
Buffy grinned now. "Always the charmer."
"I'm pretty sure I can be more charming when my pu—hoo hoo ain't throbbing like a bitch."
Buffy smirked, "Don't say hoo hoo. You manage to make it sound dirty."
Faith sighed. "Can't freakin' win. Would you just..."
"I'm on it," Buffy promised.
It wasn't so bad, she told herself. To look, that was. Faith's legs were nearly together and the demon's claw had sliced her high up-ish. It wasn't so...
Okay, it totally was! It might not have been the sexiest of situations but that was Faith's hoo... that was Faith's pussy! And it was all just...there! And she had to touch it!
Buffy took a deep, calming breath and wiggled her fingers a little to get the tension out of them before picking up the wash cloth again. It was no good; she had to come up with a conversation to take her mind off of what she was doing.
"Anyway, that's not what's been holding me back."
She squeezed the cloth over Faith's...girl-part...and watched the water dribble down. She was just trying to wet the blood caked in her pubic hair, it really shouldn't be hot! She averted her eyes, just for a second while she got control of her weird and disturbing emotions again.
"So what? You don't trust me?"
"I trust you, I..." Buffy squeezed the cloth over her again. "No, okay, I don't trust you."
Wincing, Faith sat herself up. "B, I help you save the world. I did my damn time! What else..."
"Faith, it's not you I don't trust. It's..." She started to rub the cloth around the wound. "It's just...you!"
Faith slumped back against the pillows, one arm going over her eyes, her other hand coming up to hover over the bandage on her stomach as she winced again.
"Great, you almost managed to not blame me for something!"
"I guess I meant us, more than you." Buffy rinsed the cloth again and dabbed it gently over the cut. "The thought of us being together, you know like that, again, is great, really it is, but what if we do it a bunch more times and then..."
"And then you...or we...I don't know," she finished awkwardly.
She didn't really feel comfortable having this conversation when she was doing this. Actually, she probably wouldn't feel comfortable having this conversation even if Faith was fully dressed and they were doing something mundane like staking vampires.
"You think you're going to get bored of me, B?"
"No, I don't," she said, looking up quickly. "Not at all."
"I don't think I'm gonna get bored of you either."
"That's nice." The wound was as clean as it was going to get but Buffy kept pressing the cloth over and around it. "But what if...?"
"Buffy, just spit it out already!"
"Relationships go wrong! Mine especially. We have one argument and you barely speak to me for weeks. You get thralled by Dracula and I'm the one who can't think straight. You won't open up to me and I don't know how to make you. I'm insanely jealous of the ten year old you were forced to share a prison cell with. In fact, I think I'm just insane period. I nearly retroactively killed Angel for you last night and what do I get in return, huh? You're not even worried about me! You're just boozing it up at Barnies all day!"
"Hey! Ow ow ow!" Faith sat up painfully to slap Buffy's hands away from her. "Go freakin' easy down there! I'm not up to playing rough today."
Buffy pulled the cloth away. She hadn't meant to take her distress out on Faith's injuries, especially not that one. Blood had started to trickle from it again, mixing with the water dripping between her legs.
"Sorry. I just wanted to make sure it was clean," she lied.
Faith settled back again. "You saw Angel last night?"
She had tried to ask that question casually but there had been a hint of suspicion there. Buffy sighed; at least she wasn't the only one with the jealousy issues.
"Not exactly. I met Liam."
"It's not important right now." She refolded the dry cloth and held it lightly over the wound to stop the bleeding.
"Then what is?" Faith asked.
"What if we don't fit?" she mumbled.
"What if we don't...? What do you mean?"
"It took you a week of living on the streets to decide whether you wanted to give us a chance. What if it took you that long because deep down you knew you didn't?"
"I came back, didn't I?"
"Well, yeah, eventually, but you were living on the streets. I imagine forcing yourself to go through with this charade of being with me for a little while was a price worth paying for a warm bed and regular meals."
"You think I'm pretending to like you 'cause I got hungry?" Faith asked incredulously.
The bleeding had stopped. Buffy removed the cloth and picked up the antiseptic cream, unscrewing the cap slowly.
"No. I think you're pretending to like me because winter is coming and. . . and if it had been summer when you were released maybe it would have taken you even longer to decide if I was something you wanted. . . or not."
"Really?" Faith's total confounded disbelief made her voice go higher than Buffy had ever heard before.
"No! Of course not! I don't know!" Buffy shouted back to her. "This was a conversation I wanted to have weeks ago but you didn't want to talk and now I'm rubbing cream onto your hoopussything and. . . and, I just don't know whether we're meant to be in a relationship or if we're both just victims of being hot chicks with superpowers whose Slayer hormones get all bouncy when they're in a six foot radius of each other, Faith, okay? I don't. . . I don't. . . Are you even listening to me?"
"Yeah, sure. Keeping doing it." Faith's eyes were closed, her lips parted in a blissful little smile. "The talking thing I mean, keep going. Don't stop. I'm listening, babe."
Buffy looked down. She was still smoothing the cream over the wound. Okay, her fingers may have strayed a little in her tirade but not by that much.
"Oh, for God's sake! I'm not even touching anything that good!"
"Feels pretty damn good to me."
"See! Hormones!" Teeth clenched, Buffy recapped the tube of cream and set it aside.
Faith opened her eyes again now the rubbing had stopped. "Okay, let's just cut to the chase. What do I need to do to prove I ain't just here for the warm bed and three square?"
Buffy placed the gauze over the slice and stuck it down with tape - lots of tape. Faith would be in pube-pulling agony when she tried to take it off again. Buffy smirked as she imagined offering to rip it off quick like a band aid.
"I shouldn't have to tell you."
"No. Fuck that bullshit," Faith said adamantly, half sitting up again. "I've never been in a proper relationship before, Buffy. Never wanted to be either."
"Well, thanks for being honest." Buffy started to huffily pack the first aid supplies into a pile.
"Until now! So, yeah, you tell me I'm screwing it up, I'm not surprised, but if you want me to learn better you gotta give me some help."
Buffy's anger disappeared as she read the seriousness of the plea in Faith's eyes. It was probably only because of the drugs but that didn't make it any less powerful.
"Well, I guess you could start by doing something to actually show you want to be with me."
Faith waggled her eyebrows and patted the bed beside her. "Come a little closer and I can do that right now, babe."
"Something not to do with sex, Faith!" Buffy scooped the stuff up and stormed out of the room.
"I was. . ." The bedroom door slammed and Faith rolled her eyes. ". . .just joking. Damn!"
Willow's face was still a little green but after trying and failing to cover it with face powder she decided to just go with the environmentally friendly look. It wasn't like everyone hadn't already seen her looking like Kermit's twin sister. She shuddered at the thought of being related to her nemesis - talking frogs shouldn't be allowed to live.
Nearly everyone was in the kitchen. Kennedy and Oz were tidying up what was left of the mess from the day before while Buffy was banging cupboards and taking her frustration out on her spare ingredients. Xander was standing off to one side, trying not to get in the way as he sipped from a bottle of beer. Some things didn't change.
"Hey, Will, you're up!" he called cheerfully. "Feeling better?"
Okay, some things did change.
She smiled, wary, not used to such enthusiastic greetings lately. "I guess so."
"Great. I've got a job for you."
"Yup. I think Buffy might be a lost cause but could you please do something about the tension between these two before the room explodes?" He waved his beer between Kennedy and Oz.
She frowned. That wasn't what she was expecting and not something she wanted to deal with. She was even surer of it when they both turned to her expectantly, like all she had to do was wave a magic wand and make it all better.
Oh, she probably could do that again now. She forced herself not to follow that train of thought - but where was the teleport-y sneezing when you actually needed it?
"Why all the tension?"
"He wants to bring his giant mutt in here," Kennedy explained.
"Oh." If her ego was honest, she hadn't been expecting that either. "So?"
"He freaks Goorzie out."
"He's been on his own in the training barn all afternoon," Oz said. "If he can't come in, I'll have to take him home."
Kennedy waved. "See ya."
Ignoring her, Willow smiled. "Of course he can come in. He shouldn't spend Thanksgiving out there alone."
Kennedy glared. "He really scared Goorzie earlier, Will, and she has more right to be in here than his stupid dog does."
"Did you try properly introducing them?" Xander asked. He shrugged when they turned to him. "You know, like with cats and dogs. Fido meet Whiskers, Whiskers meet Fido - no more scratched puppy eyes or broken china in my aunt's house."
"You think it's that easy?" Kennedy obviously didn't.
"We won't know unless we try." Willow wondered why she had added the 'we' in that sentence because it had sounded almost like she was volunteering herself to help.
"So let's try." Oz handed his dish cloth to Xander and walked to the back door.
"Fine, but when it doesn't work your dog stays in the barn." Kennedy took hold of Goorzar's paw and joined him.
They both looked to Willow.
They could hear whining from halfway across the lawn. The baby demon scaled Kennedy's body to her shoulders, gibbering nervously.
Oz went in first, fending Ralph off as he excitedly jumped up and encouraging him deeper into the barn as Willow flicked on all of the overhead lights. After they were all in Willow pulled the door closed so that Goorzar couldn't escape.
Kennedy stood just inside the door with her arms folded. "This isn't going to work."
Willow sighed, looking from Goorzar - who looked petrified - to Ralph - who was sitting behind Oz's legs, and whining - and started to doubt it herself.
"Perhaps if I hold her," Oz began.
"No," Kennedy said simply.
Willow ran a hand over her face. She didn't feel sick at all now, but she was still too tired for this. "Okay, why don't we try it the other way around? Kenny, you make a fuss of Ralph?"
Kennedy hesitated but eventually said, "No" again.
"You don't like dogs?" Willow asked in surprise. Kennedy always seemed like a dog person.
"No, I do. Just..." Kennedy glanced at Oz and then looked away.
Willow had had enough. This had stopped being about Goorzie. It was about Kennedy's attitude and she wasn't giving in to it. She had been to hell and back in the last forty-eight hours and all she wanted now was for everyone to play nice so that she could go inside and relax. Food would be good too. Her appetite had finally returned and her stomach was reminding her she hadn't eaten much of anything for a day at least.
She mustered up her tried and tested resolve-face and aimed it at Kennedy.
"I'll take Goorzie." She held her arms out, but the demon wouldn't come to her willingly. "You'll have to give her to me."
Kennedy stared at her for a moment and then turned away. Willow thought she was going to leave but instead she walked around the far side of the trampoline and started to whisper to the demon on her back, giving her a little pep-talk.
"If she starts to freak out, get her to bounce. It'll distract her."
Kennedy handed Goorzar over. The demon grunted and made quiet squealing sounds of displeasure, but when it was clear she had no choice her long arms clung tightly to Willow's neck. She rubbed her back soothingly, trying to get her to relax the almost asphyxiating hold.
"Oh, but don't tell Buffy about it," Kennedy added as she kissed Goorzar on the forehead. "Auntie Buffy doesn't like you touching her toys, does she?"
"Atie Buvvy, bad gurl," Goorzar rasped, making Willow chuckle.
"Okay, here goes." Kennedy walked briskly towards Oz and dropped to her knees. "Hey, Ralph, here boy."
The big dog peered around Oz's waist and whined. Willow held Goorzar firmly as she began to get anxious.
Kennedy was getting frustrated with slapping her thighs, calling out 'here, boy' and holding her arms out to a dog who refused to stop hiding. Oz eventually had to kneel down too and half-drag Ralph out from behind him.
"Ralph, meet Kennedy. Offer your paw."
The dog whined but held up his right paw.
Kennedy stared at it. "Am I supposed to...?"
Kennedy took the paw in her hand - it was actually bigger than her hand - and shook it gently.
Goorzar's watchful stare was intense but she was being quiet and still. As Kennedy leaned forward to rub her hand up and down the dog's chest and neck, she began bouncing lightly on her haunches. In seconds she was gibbering and grunting and trying to break free of Willow's arms.
"Get on the trampoline with her," Kennedy said without looking around.
Kicking off her sneakers she clambered inelegantly onto the trampoline. It wasn't easy keeping hold of the jumping baby at the same time. Once upright she took both of Goorzar's paws.
"Hey, sweetie, bounce with me."
Goorzar did as she was told, reluctantly. She still craned her neck at an awkward angle so that she could stare anxiously at Kennedy and Ralph, obviously terrified the big beast was going to eat her Mommy if she turned her head away. It only took a few bounces though before her usual exuberant nature took over and worried grunts were replaced with happy hiccups.
Soon she was bouncing higher than Willow, tucking her knees up to her chin every time she soared into the air; making a sound suspiciously like 'wheee' but with more g's and h's.
Laughing, Willow let go of her paws to just watch. Goorzar did a gleeful double somersault up near the barn roof. Ralph was on his back in front of Kennedy's knees, long legs sticking straight up and his tongue lolling from the side of his mouth as she rubbed his tummy.
Oz smiled. "Okay, I think they're comfortable."
Willow grinned. "Now or never."
Kennedy nodded, still less enthusiastic. "Goorzie, come meet Ralph."
The demon was too busy bouncing to respond.
"Goorzar!" Kennedy called in a very mom-like tone that made Willow hide a smile.
Goorzar stopped bouncing and stared at Kennedy.
"Come say hello."
Willow disembarked and took her paw again; tugging on it gently until the demon hopped down. Goorzar's steps became increasingly reticent despite Kennedy's encouragement.
Ralph abruptly stood up, shaking himself, and Goorzar froze, orange eyes going wide.
"Sit!" Oz commanded quietly.
Ralph did so. All the same Willow had to drag Goorzar the last few steps. She transferred her paw to Kennedy's hand and then she knelt down on the other side of Ralph.
Ralph whined. Goorzar looked stricken. Willow held her breath, waiting for it to end in bloodshed.
Kennedy pulled the demon onto her lap and said quietly but firmly into her ear. "Goorzie, shake hands with Ralph."
Goorzar held up both paws in a confused manner and Willow thought for a second Kennedy's attempt to show off the demon's skills was about to backfire. Goorzie was a smart cookie though.
"Ralph, offer your paw."
He obeyed and Goorzar - whimpering and really not understanding why she was putting herself in so much danger - gingerly reached out to take it in one of hers.
It was a charming moment and all three of the humans shared smiles and sighs of relief.
As the dog whined and tried to pull his paw away it became less sweet, because Goorzar wouldn't let him. A tug of war followed.
Oz was obviously trying to stay cool despite the fact that his dog was about to get his leg pulled off but he looked as worried as Willow had ever seen him.
Kennedy wrapped her fingers firmly around Goorzar's forearm. "Let go, baby!"
Goorzar did so, but only so that she could jump up and down, gibbering excitedly. Ralph jumped in the air too - nearly knocking Oz over - before falling into a crouch. He growled, she hiccuped. Then she launched herself at him. They rolled over once - Willow had to dive out of the way - before the demon landed on top.
Kennedy jumped up. "Get him off of her!"
"How? She's on top of him."
Willow watched the two animals, well beings anyway, fighting. This could be bad, seeing as she had suggested it was a good idea. Actually it had been Xander's idea, so why wasn't he out here chaperoning?
After watching them for a minute she tilted her to one side. Ralph was growling, Goorzar was grunting and there was a lot of paw-play and head-butting but no actual biting. As Kennedy and Oz tried to find the best way to separate them, Willow started to chuckle.
"This isn't funny!" Kennedy glared at her.
"They're just playing!"
Ralph broke free and started running. After a little chase Goorzar landed on his back, bowling him over and over.
"That's not playing!" Kennedy said, starting towards them.
Goorzar got away this time. She bounded across the training barn and leaped up onto the weights bench. Turning, she gibbered down at Ralph. He whined for a moment before backing up and taking a running jump at the bench. Squealing, Goorzar bolted. Ralph sailed straight over and then the chase was back on. They did another circuit of the barn before Ralph caught her and they started all over again.
Oz half-smiled. "Maybe they are playing."
It went on for another five minutes before Ralph flopped down in the center of the room, panting hard. Goorzar sat close, poking his belly and jaw to get him moving again. Finally she gave up and lay down with her head on the broad expanse of his chest. She threw an arm back comfortably, her favorite way to sleep, and accidentally slapped a big paw over his eyes. Ralph shook his head, dislodging it, and her thick hairy fingers reached out to gently hold his floppy ear instead.
Just like that, they both fell asleep and silence fell over the training barn.
"Okay," Kennedy said eventually. "So, that's one of our problems solved."
The three of them turned to look at each other and the silence grew awkward.
Buffy turned the roasting potatoes over with some tongs and then shoved them back in to the oven with a clatter. She did the same with the yams, managing to make even more noise.
Xander looked up from where he was preparing the latkes as per Willow's note card instructions but quickly looked down again when he caught Buffy's angry eye.
"I was worried about those three killing each other out there but now I think I'm more worried about you killing us all in here."
Buffy glared at him but said nothing as she started slicing the calabaza.
"Um, what?" Giles looked up from mixing ginger into the peas, carrots and onions. "Oh, yes, quite. Buffy, is there perhaps something troubling you?"
"Yes! My girlfriend is a sex mad maniac!"
"Oh, man, that sucks!" Xander enthused sarcastically.
Buffy narrowed her eyes at him. "I think I preferred it better when you were hardly speaking to me."
"Too bad." Xander shrugged, grinning cheerfully. "I'm feeling a hundred percent more optimistic about life since we voyaged through time and space."
"Yeah, right. You're just trying to annoy me."
"No, see, I'll prove it to you. Throw something at me."
Buffy threw the ladle at him.
He reached out but misjudged it by a few centimeters, catching it with the back of his hand instead of his palm. He knocked its trajectory off-kilter and winced as it bounced off of the top of Giles' head and fell to the floor behind his chair.
Buffy laughed now it was Giles' turn to glare at him.
"Oops." Xander apologized, feeling his enthusiasm slip, but he spoke as if it hadn't. "But see how optimistic I was about it? That's progress."
Giles' glare softened to a weary smile. "Or it could be the four beers you've had since our return."
Xander had been about to pick up his current bottle for a celebratory swig but changed his mind. "It's a holiday, Giles, live a little."
Giles looked around as if to check they were still the only three in the room. "We need to discuss your. . . situation."
"My situation is fine," he said, trying to keep his voice upbeat.
"No, it's not," Buffy said automatically, although it was muffled by the fact that her head was deep in the freezer.
Xander wanted to go over there and slam the door on it. He sighed instead. "I think today's been eventful enough."
"Understood." Giles finished his mixing and took the saucepan over to the stove. "But sometime soon, I think."
"Sure, whatever." He pushed the latkes away and picked up his beer after all.
"So, I'm glad we helped Ralph and Goorzie be friends, but I'm kinda tired now." Willow tried to back away to the door.
"Willow, we can't go on like this." Kennedy's words kept her rooted to the spot.
"She's right," Oz said softly.
Kennedy sighed. "You have to choose."
Willow bristled at being put on the spot. "I thought you already chose for me."
"I didn't mean to!"
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means I thought you were breaking up with me and I. . .I accidentally preempted you and now we're here. I don't know what that means for us, for the future. Whether it means anything at all. But I didn't break up with you! I'd never break up with you."
Wow. Okay. She hadn't seen that coming either. What was it with people surprising her today? A side effect of the spell maybe? Or just a result of her trying to shut herself off from everybody for weeks on end.
She found herself automatically turning to Oz to see what he would say.
He was looking down at the dog and demon sprawled out together, having the kind of snuggles she herself wanted, although less with the hairy.
"I've always loved you, Willow. I'll always love you."
Out of the corner of her eye she saw Kennedy grit her teeth.
Oz hadn't finished though. "But I made some mistakes."
"So did I," she said softly.
He nodded. "I don't want to make any more and I think walking away from you again would be one." She clenched her eyes shut and he went on. "But making you unhappy would be a bigger one."
Willow re-opened her eyes and the love in them must have been apparent because Kennedy cursed quietly and turned away.
Willow's heart went out to her but she had to do what was right. "Kennedy, I'm sorry, but could you leave us please?"
Kennedy turned back to her, stunned tears in her eyes, and then without a word she left the training barn. Goorzar awoke immediately and sleepily followed. Ralph stood up, shook himself, and with one look at Oz followed the demon out.
Willow sighed heavily and sat down on the weights bench, patting it for Oz to take the place next to her. He did so, smiling.
"I love you too, Oz. . ." Willow began one of the hardest conversations of her life.
Oz's smile slowly slipped away.
Buffy was taking serving bowls to the kitchen table when Faith hobbled into the room. She was feeling better, slayer healing already kicking in to dull the worst of the pain. Plus the mix of alcohol and painkillers had helped.
It still hurt to move, mind. Her stomach only gave her trouble when she stood up or sat down, despite the fact that if the slice had been half an inch deeper her guts would have been spilling out onto the forest floor. Her leg and groin were another matter, aching every time she moved, but the smell of the food had been too good to resist.
Buffy glanced over but didn't say anything. Kennedy was sat at the far end of the table and didn't even bother to look up. Xander and Giles both greeted her readily though.
"Hey, Faith. Nice of you to join us." Xander stood to offer his seat when he realized she was limping but she pushed him back into the chair, taking the opportunity to lean on his shoulder for a moment.
"What, and miss the promise of B's special meal?"
Buffy looked like she wanted to say something but changed her mind with a sigh.
"How are you feeling, Faith?" Giles asked.
"Like I got into a knife fight with an angry midget, but I'll live I guess."
She slowly made her way around the table to get a beer from the fridge. Buffy passed her, trying to carry three full bowls at once, and Faith gave her a hand. She took the one that seemed to be giving her the trouble and set it on the table herself.
Buffy gave her a stoic nod.
Jeez, that didn't even get her a forced thank you smile? Shrugging it off, Faith went to get her drink and came back to the table.
"Sorry I didn't dress right for dinner." She was wearing loose sweat pants and a t-shirt. "Most of my clothes are kinda..."
"Slutty?" Buffy still didn't look at her. "Yeah, we know."
Faith sighed, digging deep for patience. She knew she'd brought this on herself, even if she honestly hadn't meant to piss her off. Buffy had opened up, spilled her fears, obviously trying to push things forward for the two of them and Faith had. . . well, she had tried to do the same. She'd said stuff! Big stuff for her to say! But then Buffy hadn't seemed to get it, and it was too hard, and the painkillers were making her woozy and, dammit, she'd only been kidding about the sex. . .mostly. Now Buffy was doing her big, dramatic scorned chick routine again and they were right back at square one.
Maybe they really weren't cut out to be more than they were right now, which wasn't much of anything really, and that really sucked. And not only because it made Buffy right.
"I was gonna say tight. Didn't want them pulling on my bandages." She took her usual seat at the table, between Buffy and Willow. Not that Willow was there right now. "Red still feeling too sick to join us?"
"No, she's with Oz," Kennedy said quietly, speaking for the first time.
Ah, that explained the red eyes then. She decided to leave that conversation alone.
"So, B, I'm surprised you managed to pull this off so fast. Was half expecting to come down to a stack of take out boxes, yunno?"
"I did offer to order pizzas," Xander said, he was already heaping food onto his plate while everyone else was waiting for Buffy to take her seat.
Buffy shrugged. She still didn't look directly her way, but she did answer. "It's not the fancy special meal I planned exactly, but hopefully it'll be okay."
"It smells awesome."
Buffy didn't acknowledge that as she set the final dish down near the head of the table. "Would you carve, Giles?"
Faith's eyes went wide as she looked at what was on the big plate. First of all, it wasn't what she had been expecting, and second of all, how were you expected to carve it exactly?
"Wasn't there like a giant turkey taking up beer space in the fridge?"
Buffy glared at her. "Do you know how long a turkey takes to roast?"
Faith shrugged, honestly having no idea.
"Besides, I think a pixie stole the recipe; or possibly a troll. Either way, I don't have it."
Faith nodded. "Wasn't that your Mom's recipe?"
Buffy nodded, shrugging at the same time. "It's no big deal."
Faith got the impression it was though.
Willow and Oz came in the back door then, saving Faith from trying to pursue the subject and probably messing it up. She glanced over, half expecting them to be disheveled from screwing but no one looked that tense after riding the happy train.
Willow walked across the kitchen, eyes trained on Kennedy until she dropped into her seat next to Faith and then she looked down at the table top.
"Sorry we're late."
"You're not late," Buffy said, managing to find a smile for her at least. "We're just about to start."
"Is Ralph in...?" Oz trailed off as he spotted the dog curled up in Goorzar's box with the little demon using him as a pillow.
Faith smiled. It must have been a miracle that got those two all cozy with each other.
Oz was still standing by the back door. He didn't seem to know what to do. His face didn't give a lot away but he kept glancing from Willow to Kennedy to Ralph.
It wasn't Faith's place to invite him to sit his ass down, but Xander took care of it.
"Hey, Oz, Buffy ditzed on the rations. You better grab some food before it's all gone."
"No I didn't!" Buffy griped, a small smile on her face. "I made plenty for all of us. See, Oz?"
"White meat or dark, Oz?" Giles smiled warmly at him.
As Oz came closer to the table, smiling as he saw what Giles was carving, Faith could tell what they were doing. It was the Scooby pep rally. They didn't know what was wrong, but they could see Kennedy had been crying, Willow looked like she wanted her chair to swallow her up and Oz was. . . being unusually fidgety as he eventually took the spare seat between Giles and Xander. They were looking out for one of their own, pulling him comfortingly back into the fold.
Faith felt jealous, and she could admit it was probably irrational because they had given her a home and all, but. . . back in the day, when it would have mattered so much to her, she'd never been given this kind of treatment. Okay, maybe those first few days, but not when she'd really needed it.
Willow perked up ever so slightly when Oz sat down. Helping herself to vegetables and chuckling with Giles over the meat.
Kennedy looked even worse though. Everyone's special treatment of Oz making her hunch deeper in on herself. For the first time Faith realized they really weren't all that different, both on the fringes of this tight-knit family. Both only here because they loved someone who was on the inside.
"Hey, Ken, want one of the yams?" Faith asked at a counterpoint to the other conversation, holding the dish out to her.
"No, thanks, I'm not that hungry." Kennedy didn't even look up as she pushed some peas and carrots around her plate.
"Have one anyway." Faith stood, trying not to wince as she leaned across the table to fork one onto Kennedy's mostly empty plate. "Give you something else to play with."
Kennedy looked up with the ghost of a smirk before staring desolately at her dinner again. As Faith sat back down she caught Buffy's eye and the blonde actually smiled at her, a real nice smile too, before touching Faith's arm briefly on the way to grabbing a Jewish potato cake thing.
Okay, being nice to Kennedy earned her smiles. Maybe this was the way she had to learn. She wondered idly what she would have to do to Kennedy to earn her sex, but completely quashed that thought immediately just in case Buffy read it in her eyes.
"Okay, who wants white and who wants dark?" Giles finally asked the table as he stood up to dish out the meat.
"Well, I try to stay kosher on holidays," Willow said, holding her plate out first. "So I guess I'll take some burger."
Giles tilted the dish and pushed a cut up quarter-pounder onto Willow's plate. "Next?"
Faith held her plate up. "White."
Giles forked a couple of sliced bacon rashers onto her plate.
"Is bacon really white meat though?" Buffy asked. "I mean, it's kinda red."
Giles looked down at the dish as if unsure. "But pork is white," he ventured.
"But Buffy's right," Xander said as he scooped both half a burger and some of the bacon onto his own plate himself. "It is red, and fatty, and delicious."
"Whatever color it is," Oz said, motioning for Giles to choose what to put on his plate, "meat is always good."
His zen moment was broken by Kennedy mumbling around a mouthful of yam, "Says the werewolf."
Several people, not including Oz, looked at her with mild displeasure and it was only Faith snorting with laughter that broke the sudden tension.
"Girl's got a point. Bet you are a bit of a meat connoisseur, right Oz?"
He just smiled.
The rest of the meal passed pleasantly enough, probably because it was mostly silent. Every now and then she shared an awkward look with Buffy. She ate plenty and it all tasted great. She could have had third helpings easily but by the time she went looking all but a few peas were left.
She excused herself from the table so that she could go outside and burp, figuring Buffy wouldn't consider it a compliment if she let loose at the table. She sat at the picnic table to have a cigarette while she was out there.
She'd barely lit it when Kennedy came out and joined her. "Those things will kill you."
"I'm down to like four a day, give me a break."
It was true. Being here gave her enough distractions and working most days meant she didn't even think about having a smoke until after six. It was an addiction though, and a good meal like that one practically begged for a smoke afterward.
"So what are you doing out here in the cold if you don't want a cig? Not going to bed already, are ya?"
Kennedy shrugged nonchalantly. "Just needed some air."
Faith nodded. "You wanna tell me what went down between you guys earlier?" Kennedy looked down at the table top and she quickly added, "Not trying to pry. Just here if you wanna."
"Since when do you care?"
"I don't," Faith said honestly. "But maybe us outsiders have to stick together."
Kennedy looked up at her with tears in her eyes.
"Doesn't mean I suddenly like you. I still think you're an ass." Faith clarified. "But I'm here. So if ya wanna talk. . . "
The silence after that lasted long enough for her to flick one cigarette away, ignoring the clean ashtray on the table, and light another.
"She chose him," Kennedy said quietly.
"Didn't look like they were that much together to me."
"They probably didn't want to rub it in my face." Kennedy half chuckled, half sobbed.
"Didn't look like that to me either."
"Yeah well maybe you weren't looking as hard I was."
"No, maybe not." Faith took a hard drag on her smoke, blowing it out slowly. "But I was probably more neutrally observant."
Kennedy huffed in annoyance. "What's that supposed to mean?"
Faith was already growing bored of this game. If Kennedy wanted to talk, fine, she'd listen, but this dragging info from her was a chore she couldn't be bothered with.
"It means if they'd been screwing I'd have been able to tell, and I don't think they were."
"Oh, so you have sex telepathy now?"
Faith smirked. "No, but I wish I did. I'm saying they ain't boinked today and I don't think they're likely to boink tomorrow. They weren't screaming togetherness in there. You had to see that too?"
Kennedy shook her head, still staring down at the bench top. "Oz told her he loved her and then she asked me to leave. What would you make of that if it was Buffy?"
Faith shrugged, which was a better, more mature, answer than saying she would tear Oz limb from limb.
Kennedy dropped her head into her hands and Faith patted her awkwardly on the shoulder a couple of times as she finished her smoke.
Giles took some of the dinner plates to the sink and checked his watch. "I must telephone the coven. Althanea will be anxious to know Willow is fully recovered."
"Tell her I'll call her soon," Willow said, taking her share of dishes to the counter.
Giles nodded. "I'll be back to help wash up and that was a lovely meal, Buffy, thank you."
"You're welcome." Buffy smiled, her satisfyingly full feeling making her feel generous and less with the bitter rage-iness. "Don't worry about the washing up; we've got it."
"We do?" Xander grinned sceptically.
"I'll let you have another beer."
"Since when are you the proprietor of the beers I bought?" he asked easily as he forked leftover pumpkin out of the pie dish.
"You really think you can grab one if I want to stop you?"
"You guys, can we not argue anymore today?" Willow begged. "I may be better but I'm still exhausted. I don't know if I can gather the same vitriol as you two."
"It's not an argument, Will."
Xander was surprised. "We're not?"
Not that he had really been in arguing mode but it'd felt like the beginnings of one of their now familiar bickering sessions.
"Nope. I'm simply giving you a choice. You want a beer: you either help with the washing up or you go through me. Personally I'm hoping you'll try and go through me. It'll be fun."
Chuckling, Oz chuckled began to clear the rest of the table. "I don't mind helping."
"No, you're a guest," Buffy said, smiling at him gratefully for offering. "Our only guest in fact."
"I don't mind," he said again.
"Honestly, you don't have to," Willow said quietly.
They were standing close near the sink and took the opportunity to look into one another's eyes for a long minute.
Buffy and Xander took the opportunity to share their own look. Neither of them knew what was happening here. Were they suddenly together now? Or not so suddenly. Had Oz finally made his move? Had Willow made a move?
Whatever move had been made it apparently wasn't a particularly romantic one because eventually Oz nodded and turned on his heel, whistling to Ralph. He stopped at the back door.
"My pleasure. Thanks for earlier. Out in the woods. I don't really know what went down yet but I get the impression if you hadn't be there the badness would have been worse."
He nodded and gave Willow one last look. She returned it with an awkward smile. His long-legged, shaggy dog gave Goorzar one last longing look too and then trotted out of the door after him.
Goorzar stared mournfully for a moment before flopping back and pulling her ratty blanket over her head.
Xander smiled. "Ah, the love affair between a demon and her dog."
Chuckling, Buffy turned eagerly to Willow. "So, what's the what?"
"Oh, come on, Will." Xander casually made his was to the fridge, taking some bowls to the counter as cover. "There's gotta be a little what there."
"Yeah." Buffy leaped over the counter in one easy, fluid move and landed between Xander and the fridge. "You can't tell me there isn't a story to go with those deep, loving looks."
"Not loving!" Willow said.
"Really?" Buffy asked.
"Well, loving as in 'I love him', but. . . no. Not loving as in, you know, I want to be his girlfriend or anything."
"You don't?" Xander feinted to the left. Buffy didn't even flinch. "But I thought you two were all with the. . . actually I'm not sure what you two were all with, but there was definitely a vibe there."
"No there wasn't."
"Buffy, back me up. Vibe, yay or nay?"
"There ya go. Now, I need to get some milk out of the refrigerator, so Buffy, if you would just let me get to it."
"I'll get it for you." Buffy opened the fridge door, giving Xander a good view of the beers inside, and pulled out a carton of milk.
He looked at it like it was alien produce and then sat it on the side. "Thank you. Now I need some, um, cheese."
"Cheese board is still on the table," she reminded him.
"I meant cheesy-flavored. . . "
"Cheesy-flavored?" she asked innocently.
"Soda," he finished helplessly, not able to think of anything else chilled on the spot.
Buffy grinned and made a shooing motion with her hand. "Just walk away, dude."
"But they're my beers!"
"I told Oz I was gay," Willow suddenly blurted.
Xander and Buffy both immediately forgot their conversation.
"Uh, I thought he already kinda knew that," Buffy said.
"He did. Kinda. I guess, I just told him it was non-negotiable."
"But I thought you two," Xander began, like he was traversing a field of emotional landmines. "I mean, you seemed to be hitting it off again."
"We were. We are! I do love him." Willow started to run the hot water and squirted detergent into the bowl as a distraction. "I just. . .not like that, so much, you know?"
"Like what?" Xander asked.
But Buffy figured she knew. "You don't want to get naked with him."
"No," Willow said in a small voice.
"Ohhhh!" said Xander, catching on. "Well, that's fine, Will. You know we're already down with the gay love. Some of us more than others," he added, nodding his head towards Buffy.
Buffy rolled her eyes with a little shake of her head but otherwise chose to ignore that. "So, does this mean Kennedy's the one?"
Willow shrugged, turning to the sink. "Are you okay with that?"
"Of course I am! Will, don't start this again, please."
"I wasn't aware it had stopped."
"Come on! After all we've just been through do you seriously still think I'm not there for you?"
Willow shrugged again, her back still to them. "I don't know. Xander, has the last twenty-four hours stopped you from hating me?"
Xander looked really shocked by that. "Will, I never hated you."
"You did a pretty good impression of it."
"No! I did a good impression of being pissed at you because I am. Was. Am. I don't know, but I never hated you!"
"Really?" Willow asked in an even smaller voice.
She finally turned to him. "But you were so angry."
"I'm..." he sighed. "I'm just angry period. You got the brunt because you were the only one prepared to call me on it."
Willow smiled tentatively. "You hurt the ones you love the most?"
Buffy watched as they gave each other a big hug. "Well, that's swell, but what about me?"
Xander smiled over the top of Willow's head. "Give me a beer and we're cool."
"I was talking to Willow!"
Willow let go of him and turned to face her, Buffy held her arms out for a hug.
"We're okay, I guess," she said and went back to the washing up.
"Yeah, I'm really feeling the love over here," Buffy griped as she started putting leftovers into the fridge. Xander tried to reach around her to get a beer and she slapped his hand. "No."
She caught it out of the corner of her eye as he went from a frowning, motionless start straight into his famed Snoopy dance - hands flapping, feet hopping and skipping on the spot - and she turned to him, a disbelieving smile quirking her lips.
He kept it up, a determined expression on his face, until Willow and Buffy were both laughing.
Finally he gave it up, panting a little. "There."
"Very entertaining but not what I had in mind, sorry."
"But it always earned me anything I wanted back in school," he whined. "Will, tell her!"
"Sorry, Xan, you know I'm with Buffy on the beer thing."
"Fine. I'll talk."
Buffy smirked over her shoulder. "You don't have to talk, just dry the dishes."
"Buffy!" Willow scolded.
"I meant you have to talk while you dry the dishes," she altered quickly. She handed him a tea towel and then started to wipe the counters free of crumbs and spilled sauces with a damp dish rag. "So do you think you have that PSAT thing that soldiers get?"
"PTSD," Willow corrected. "It stands for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder."
"I knew that."
"And I wouldn't be surprised if we didn't all have it coming after what we faced in Sunnydale."
"I still have nightmares largely featuring that rickety school bus." Buffy shuddered at the memory of the days upon days spent in the smelly, over-crowded bus.
"I just miss everything," Xander said as he dried a dinner plate. "My apartment, my job, my eye, Anya, my parents for Pete's sake! Anya, not being so scared all the time, being able to help you guys out with the slayage, Anya," he said for the third time and then fell quiet.
Buffy and Willow shared an unsure look.
"You helped with the slayage today," Buffy said.
"Yeah, you saved Kennedy's life!" Willow reminded him.
"Right place, right time, literally, and it was just self preservation. I saw the claws and panicked."
"I panicked too when we landed in the middle of that mess," Buffy admitted.
"But you have the confidence to know you can handle yourself. I've lost that."
"It's not confidence most of the time, it's cockiness, and I'm the Slayer - cockiness comes with the package. Ask Faith or Kennedy."
"I haven't heard you call yourself The Slayer in a while," Willow said with a soft smile.
Buffy shrugged awkwardly and went back to cleaning. "I'm not anymore, am I? But I don't think I want to be Just Buffy after all either."
"Beryan struck a nerve earlier, huh?" Xander chuckled.
Buffy smirked. "Guess so. But believe me, Xan, the cockiness you can fake. It's all the experience that keeps me alive and you already have that. I mean, you were Nighthawk!" she ribbed him good-naturedly.
He threw a spoon at her. It went a foot wide and landed on the counter with a tinkling sound. His smile went south.
"I have experience with two eyes! And I left one of those in Sunnydale. I don't think I can do it with just. . ."
He turned away from them, suddenly scared he was going to cry. It wasn't just his pride he was worried about hurting, tears physically stung like hell now too. Buffy and Willow didn't say anything and after a minute he had the feeling under control enough to continue.
"I just can't believe I miss freaking Sunnydale! And instead of it getting easier it gets. . . it gets harder! I see you two being all happy with your lives here and I get angry because I can't handle the missage. I mean how pathetic do I have to get before I. . .!"
He gave a thankfully dry sob and braced his arms on the counter as he shut his eye tight, breathing through the urge to go fetal-like on the stone floor.
"We're not happy here," Buffy and Willow said simultaneously.
"Ha!" Xander didn't believe them, despite the evidence piling up daily.
They had to be happier than him; if they weren't there was something really wrong with all of them.
"Yeah, we miss all that stuff too," Buffy said, abandoning the cleaning to move to his side. "I miss my house, my Mom's things, going to talk to her every night on patrol. I miss Anya and Spike and hanging with you guys at the Magic Box. I miss my job - I mean we all know I'm never going to get another one that good unless another slayer's kid becomes principal of McKinley High. I miss Sunnydale too, Xan, it was our town, yunno?"
"Me too!" Willow moved up close to his other side. "I miss college and walking down by the water in Weatherly Park and the Espresso Pump - the Mouth's mochas are not the same!"
"Not enough sprinkles," Buffy agreed.
Xander chuckled, nodding his head.
"And. . . and I miss that everywhere I looked there was a memory of Tara. I know she was already gone before. . . I didn't lose her right at the end like you both lost the people you love but. . . but she always with me there, you know? I think that's why I was wooed by the idea of being with Oz again. I mean, please don't tell him that, but he represents a part of my past where I was happy, he's a piece of Sunnydale. Kennedy and I had, what, four months there? And we didn't exactly do the couply thing much."
"You did it quite a bit," Buffy said dryly, causing Xander to chuckle.
Willow blushed and gave them an admonishing smile. "I wasn't referring to smooches. I meant like the 'building a life around each other' stuff and 'Sunnydale and the saving of' was my life, our lives, mostly yours," she conceded to Buffy, "but it was part of who I was. It was part of who Oz and I were too, and Tara and I. Here it's like, we could not even be here and the place would tick along as unevil-y as ever."
Buffy shrugged. "We did stop that demon rising thing."
"And now we have this exciting new lizard demon mystery to solve," Xander added.
"You said 'we'," Buffy smiled. "I think that's the first step of getting the Scooby gang back together again."
Xander was surprised he had said that. It had been a slip of the tongue after long years of habit. He didn't feel a part of the gang anymore and he missed that most of all.
"In theory, maybe. I'm still depth-perception-challenged guy."
"We can work on that." Willow promised and then she took a good look at him. "Actually, I might mean that literally. I read something a few years back about a firm in LA doing eye transplants."
She reached for his eye patch and he automatically knocked her hand away, harder than he meant to. She retracted her hand, unconsciously rubbing it.
"Sorry," they said at the same time.
"I can't. . .not. . .I don't want. . . I can't even think about that, Will."
"Maybe some other time?" Buffy suggested, seeing Willow's crestfallen face.
"Maybe, one day, I don't know."
And that was as much as he was prepared to give on the subject. It wasn't like he hadn't thought of some kind of magickal or medical way to regain full sight but all the fantasies ended abruptly, right when he imagined someone getting close enough to his empty socket to do something about it. He couldn't even take care of it himself without fear and revulsion kicking in. He wasn't about to let a complete stranger anywhere near his eyesore of an injury, pun not intended.
"Well, we can still work on it other ways," Buffy said. "You just have to get some more practical experience with one eye."
"Like how? Gonna throw me in a vamp nest and let me fumble my way out?"
"Ooh, we could start small," Willow said excitedly, catching on to Buffy's thinking. "More catching practice!"
"And no time like the present," Buffy agreed.
"It's too dark to throw a baseball around outside," Xander said. "I guess we could go to the training barn but. . . "
"No, Buffy said practical experience." Willow picked up a plate. "That means no soft options. Go to the other end of the room."
Xander eyed Willow and the plate dubiously. "You do remember what my catching skills were like two days ago, right? Giles will go ape if I start smashing plates for your amusement."
He expected Buffy to agree against this insane plan but instead she nodded excitedly. "No it's perfect. It'll be you Giles is mad at so you better really concentrate." She grabbed her own plate out of the washing up bowl, heedless of it dripping all over the floor.
Figuring the quickest way to get this humiliating experience over with was to go along with it, he moved over near the back stairs.
"Okay, let the smashing commence."
"Concentrate," Willow instructed and then threw the plate at him.
Personally he didn't blame his lack of depth perception when the plate flew past his reaching hands and smashed against the back wall so much as Willow's crappy aim.
He was about to comment on it when Goorzar, woken by the plate hitting the wall above her head, suddenly bolted out of her bed box, shrieking. They all watched guiltily as she made a frantic circuit of the kitchen looking for Kennedy. Willow bent down to try and comfort her but was only used a jumping off point, knocking her on her butt against the cupboards.
Eventually Buffy opened the back door. "Your Mom's out there."
Goorzar shot through the door, whimpering, and Buffy shut it again with a grimace.
"We probably should have given her some warning." The other two nodded. "Okay, Xan, get ready."
"You don't really want to. . ." he began; one failure was enough for the night.
"Five, four, three. . ."
Xander hurried back into position. Buffy's aim was as good as any guided missile and all he had to do was hold his hands out in front of him. He began to smile as he felt his palms touch the plate. The water and slippery detergent still dripping from the china had other ideas. For a few seconds it looked as though he was juggling and then he gave up trying to get a decent grip and watched instead as it broke into three pieces at his feet.
"I'm calling unfair disadvantage that has nothing to do with my lack of eye," he said, still looking at it.
"My bad," Buffy wiped her wet hands guiltily on the back of her pants.
"Okay, that was completely not fun. I'm going to bed." It had been a long forty-eight hours. "Same time tomorrow, ladies?"
"Just one more," Buffy said before he could leave the kitchen.
"You're joking, right?" he began irritably before he realized what she was pulling out of the fridge. "Ooh, I catch a plate I get a beer?"
"Nope. You obviously don't care enough about the plates, but catch this and it's yours."
"Buff, are you sure that's a good idea?" Willow whispered nervously, like Xander was missing an ear instead of an eye. "Glass and beer will be a lot harder to clean up."
"That's true," Buffy said thoughtfully. "And Andrew's not back for another couple of days." She shook her head. "No, I'm sure."
"Just for the record, I'm offended that you think a beer is more important to me than the pl. . ."
The bottle of beer was already soaring towards him, its trajectory deliberately a little off to make him work. His left palm smacked it too hard and his fist closed empty. His right hand came up to catch it and just missed. He flapped and flailed his arms so much he looked like he was doing the Snoopy dance again but eventually... eventually!... a dive and some creative acrobatics later and he landed on his side with the bottle pressed securely between the palm of his right hand and his left elbow.
He lay there panting; sweating profusely. "Hey, I did it!"
The back door was shoved open, revealing Kennedy in panic mode. Goorzar was gibbering behind her.
"Xander, what happened? Are you okay?" she asked, seeing him on the floor.
"Yeah, I'm good."
He rolled on to his back grinning and opened the bottle of beer. It frothed up and half of his victory sip leaked over his cheek due to his prone position but he didn't care.
Kennedy looked around and saw Buffy and Willow, all smiles, standing at the other end of the kitchen.
"I heard something smash and then Goorzie came running out terrified."
"Yeah, sorry about that," Buffy said. "We smashed a plate and it freaked her out. So where's Faith? Didn't she feel like running to our rescue too?"
"She went to the training barn for weapons, but considering how slow she's moving I wouldn't expect the cavalry to arrive before Christmas."
She scooped a still frightened Goorzar up in her arms and surveyed the people in the kitchen again. Xander was still smiling up at her from the floor, sipping happily from his beer.
"I caught it!" he said by way of explanation, toasting her with the bottle.
"Good for you. Well, as long as you're all having fun in here, I'm going to bed. I'll take Goorz with me. She's scared and I could... use the company," Kennedy turned to leave.
"Kennedy, wait. . ." Buffy began, feeling bad that she would be out in the dorm all alone.
When Kennedy turned to her, Buffy realized what she was doing and glanced at Willow, deferring to her. Willow took the opportunity; clearing her throat and stepping forward.
"I know you're tired, but could we talk a minute."
Kennedy looked away. "It's okay, Will. I know you're with Oz now. No need for any confessionals."
"What? No, no I'm not! I told him earlier that . . that we weren't, you know, gonna be together that way."
Kennedy's head shot around as Willow dropped her eyes to the floor.
"I understand if it's too late."
"I don't know if it is."
Willow looked up excitedly at the same moment that Kennedy buried her face in Goorzar's hair. Again they missed making eye-contact.
"Maybe you two should go somewhere to talk," Xander suggested, finally getting up from the floor.
Neither Kennedy nor Willow appeared to hear.
Kennedy looked up from Goorzar. "I think I love you."
Smiling hopefully, Willow took one step closer. "I think I might love you too."
"But this isn't right."
"Loving each other isn't right?"
"No, that's good." Kennedy absent-mindedly handed Goorzar to Buffy - who accepted her just as absentmindedly. "But the fact that we broke up so easily over something stupid."
"It wasn't stupid!"
"And the fact that we still disagree on that means something too."
"What are you saying?" Willow took another step closer but her body language was defensive now.
Kennedy hesitated. "I'm saying I think I love you but I don't like the way that's made me feel so far."
"It's not been a bucket of kittens for me either."
"I get that." Kennedy looked at the kitchen floor for a moment. "We were different people in Sunnydale. Everything was so intense. We thought we only had weeks, days even, to live."
"I still don't think I don't understand where this is going." Willow looked to Buffy and Xander for a clue, or maybe some moral support.
Buffy took the cue. "Ken, you're being pretty vague here. I know you love Willow; just make up already."
Kennedy shot her a nasty look. "Faith's hobbling over here to save your life. Why don't you go and reward her by doing her on the picnic bench?"
Buffy's grip on Goorzar tensed as she clenched her teeth, but she managed not to retaliate. Kennedy was getting extra laps tomorrow though.
"You won't be with me because you don't want to reward me?" Willow asked, confused.
"I want to be with you, I just. . ." Kennedy winced at whatever she was thinking before continuing. "I didn't leave you, Will."
"You broke up with me!"
"I already explained that was a misunderstanding. I've got no baggage!" Kennedy laid it on the line. "I was yours from the moment we laid eyes on each other."
"So you're holding the fact that I have exes against me?" Willow spat. "Sorry for being three years older than you, but you knew that when you pursued me."
"It's got nothing to do with the age gap and I have exes! I just never fell in love with every single person I ever kissed!"
"In that case I'm sorry that being intimate with someone actually means something to me!"
"You know what? Forget it!" Kennedy turned to leave again.
"Kennedy, do not walk out," Buffy demanded.
"Firstly because you don't really want to, and secondly because I'm telling you not to."
Kennedy turned back to Willow. "Do you want to hear my suggestion?"
Willow was obviously still seething but nodded.
"Being with you makes me feel like I'm spinning backwards on my head but being without you is worse, horrible, it makes me feel empty. But we obviously have issues, Will. Big ones."
"You have issues."
"So you didn't just let me accidentally break up with you without putting up an ounce of fight?" Seeing Willow's expression bordering on tears, Kennedy backed down without making her answer. "I know I screwed up over Oz. Maybe I pushed us to this to place with my own hang ups. I think it's because we got really serious in like a week. It didn't feel that rushed at the time, because everything else was moving at the same pace, but I think most of my issues come from the fact that I learned how you'd react to an ubervamp attack before I knew what kind of milk you like on your Wheaties."
"Half and half," Willow said. "Skim...."
"...med on Cocoa Puffs," Kennedy finished for her, making Willow grin. "I know now, but we did it backwards. I want to try and do it forwards this time; because I think I can be the person you want to be with."
"I do want to be with you," Willow said.
"I just need you to give us another chance."
"I do!" Willow nodded eagerly. "I want another chance too."
"Honestly, I came up with most of this speech before you told me you weren't with Oz."
"Now it's making a little more sense," Buffy whispered to Xander. Kennedy cut her another look and she made a show of pursing her lips shut.
Willow smiled. "So. . .do you want to finish this in our room?"
Kennedy smiled at the mention of 'our' room but shook her head. "No."
"We're not together. You only just decided you didn't want to be with Oz. That's not starting fresh, that's just jumping back in right where we were before. Buffy has made me realize that sex should be earned."
Buffy rolled her eyes to Xander, muttering, "That's me back in the dog house; and it was so nice not to be for three whole minutes."
"You want me to earn sex from you?" Willow sounded really confused now and kind of horrified.
"No, I'm saying we should earn it together."
Kennedy shrugged. "I don't know but hopefully we'll figure it out."
"Can't we just skip the awkward in-between bit?" Willow asked anxiously.
"I don't think that would be a good idea." Kennedy focused on taking Goorzar back from Buffy. "I think I'm talking about forever here, and I don't think we should be trying to rush it any more.
"So how should we be doing it?"
"To start with I think I'm going to take my Thanksgiving vacation after all, go home for a little while, if that's okay."
"Um sure, but Thanksgiving is over." Buffy glanced at Willow.
She couldn't turn Kennedy down. All of the other girls had had vacations and Kennedy had barely asked for a day off. How could she say yes though when it would hurt Willow? Especially now when her treatment of Kennedy could well determine her hopes of a future with Willow as her best friend.
In the end she chickened out. "So I can't authorize it. You'll have to ask Giles."
Kennedy nodded. "I won't go until Andrew gets back anyway."
"Why?" Xander asked.
"Goorzie," Willow sounded shell-shocked.
"He knows her as well as I do. Plus the juniors get back the same day as he does so you won't be short-handed."
Buffy just nodded.
"Do you really have to go?" Willow asked.
"Just for a little while. We'll speak first though." Kennedy closed the distance between them to kiss Willow on the cheek.
Buffy and Xander both grinned when Goorzar gave Willow a big smacker of a kiss on her other cheek, copying her Mom. Willow grinned too and pushed the demon away enough to place a kiss on her prominent brow.
Kennedy smiled. "I'm going to speak to Giles now."
"He's in his office," said Xander.
As Kennedy left through the swing door Faith barged, slowly, through the back door. She held a sword and a crossbow. She was still trying to load the bow as she came in.
"Where should I point this thing?"
Xander pointed at one of the broken plates. Buffy pointed to the other one. As Faith stared at them like they'd lost they're minds Willow pointed at herself.
"Shoot me. Please," she added emphatically.
"Is she evil?" Faith asked Buffy.
"No, just upset."
"Kennedy's leaving for a little while," Xander said.
"Oh. Sorry, Red, that truly sucks. That you two couldn't work it out, I mean." Faith dropped the sword and crossbow onto the table as Buffy, Willow and Xander all took seats at the other end. She seemed to think about something for a moment before saying quickly. "B, can we talk?"
"Um," Buffy looked up in surprise. "I, uh, don't know. Now's not really good," she tilted her head to Willow.
"It's okay. I'm fine." Willow really didn't look it though; tears were brimming in her eyes.
Buffy shook her head. "No, I'm staying here. Faith's waited this long, I'm sure she can wait a little longer."
"Actually, I can't."
Buffy just shrugged.
Faith sighed impatiently and started to storm out. She was halfway to the door when she changed her mind and walked to Buffy's chair instead.
She leaned on the table beside her. "I prefer rock to metal, don't tell anyone."
"Huh? Are we playing 'Animal, Vegetable or Mineral'?" Buffy asked, confused. "'Cause I suck at that game."
"My favorite color is red. I like dark chocolate. I always wanted to be a drummer when I was a kid. I'm half-polish, half-Irish. My mom started drinking heavy after my dad walked out, or maybe that's why he walked out. She died from a fucked liver and I dropped outta school 'cause I couldn't handle everyone talking about me and prying into my shit." She paused for breath and if she noticed their wide eyes she didn't let them slow her down. "Uh, I never really had a favorite subject at school but I had a lesbian crush on my Spanish teacher, so maybe that counts. I was a gawky little kid, all legs no tits, until I hit fifteen and then. . . " She looked down at her chest with a smirk. "I don't like beets, blue cheese, maple syrup or banana milkshakes. I've slept with two women. You and a biker chick in prison that looked exactly like you would if you were half a foot taller and thirty pounds heavier. Oh, and if you were wondering, you're a hell of a lot better in bed." She winked as Buffy blushed. Willow and Xander smirked. "And if you want to wait another six months before we have sex, that's fine, I'll wait, but I don't promise not to ask every other day if you're ready yet. I'm not gonna change myself for you, don't think I even could, but I do want to be with you. I've always wanted to be with you. So. . . balls in your court now, chica."
Faith stood up straight, looking a tad embarrassed that she had divulged so much. She gave Buffy - who was staring at her speechless - a nod and then turned to the swing door.
Buffy was still just gaping at her as she walked away stiffly, but after a rousing shake of her head she leaped out of her chair. Catching Faith's shoulder before she could leave, she pulled her back, swung her around and caught the back of her head in both hands to pull her down for a deeply scorching kiss.
Faith moaned as Buffy's tongue slid into her mouth and the quiet sound made Buffy press closer to her, relishing the contact of their mouths and bodies. As their hips bumped together Faith hissed in pain and backed an inch away but her hands swept up into Buffy's hair at the same time, keeping their lips deliciously locked together.
The kiss lasted longer than any of Faith's recent fly-by smooches and when Buffy did bring it to an end, they both sighed happily.
"I love you."
No one was more surprised than Buffy when the words slipped from her mouth but instead of stuttering an attempt to take them back she just smiled wider, the look in her eyes leaving Faith in no doubt she was one hundred percent serious.
"I..." Faith gulped, her smile slipping a little before coming back hesitantly. She screwed her eyes shut for a moment before looking deep into Buffy's. "I still can't believe you thought I only came back for a hot meal."
Buffy grinned; that was good enough for now. "We'll talk tomorrow?"
"Sure." Faith leaned in to give her another kiss and left the kitchen.
Breathless, Buffy walked back to the table, shooting Xander and Willow embarrassed glances as she sat down.
"Oh God, did I really just say. . . ?"
"Yep." They said in unison.
"So much for making her say it first!" Buffy fell forward, her forehead banging onto the table top. "Ow."
"She kinda did," Xander said. "Just not in so many words."
Willow patted her back. "But in lots and lots of other words instead."
Buffy grinned down at the wood an inch from her eyes. "I guess."
Mellusa stroked the Meluthian Hedray's smooth, green head; soothing the savage demonic beast's high-pitched keening.
"I am sorry, little one; I should never have dropped the protection spell."
Its freshly blinded eyes turned to her out of instinct and it whimpered again in pain and puzzlement at its lack of sight.
"I had little choice, you understand. To continue it was to act as a beacon and Olwyn knows the taste of my signature too well."
What she didn't admit out loud, even with only the injured demon to hear her, was that she had made a mistake, a series of mistakes. The most heinous of which was underestimating her foes.
The Chaotic Nerve spell was supposed to keep the Witch out of the loop permanently. She had considered the Slayer and the Watcher being caught with her as fortuitous. She had taken out three of her most powerful enemies at once instead of one at a time. With them banished, the inferior children at the camp should have fallen over time, one by one.
She had celebrated that night with her latest amour, feasting on the cocaine-laced blood of a seventeen year old super model in the penthouse suite of the Ritz-Carlton in Cleveland.
She hadn't even been aware of the werewolf in their midst and she was angry that the knowledge had somehow slipped past her.
Now, somehow, the witch and her hanger-on's had returned, beating one of the most debilitating spells known to the darker arts and completely crushing her lizard army. All that was left was this pathetic, blind, whining creature acting like a kicked lapdog.
Sighing irritably, she reached for the sheaved dagger at her hip and with one swift, merciful strike her blade pierced its heart. She continued to offer comfort through its death throes and then pushed its lifeless body away from her.
The loss of her soldiers was annoying but hardly a devastating blow. They bred like rabbits out there in the wilderness. Hundreds of them solitarily hiding from humanity. Most of their kills were blamed on mountain lions, bears or even humans. Like most of the ancient demonic species they had learned that to show themselves was to be hunted and trapped, killed outright or kept in captivity, always either sport or spectacle.
So they kept themselves hidden and they prospered. They could take a city like Cleveland in a week if they had the sense to band together but the instinct that they were safer alone had, over the centuries, been firmly bred into them.
Mellusa lit a kerosene lamp and left the expensive comfort of her rented mansion for the dark tunnels beneath it.
As her presence was detected the unnatural squealing and grunting became loud and terrifying. Any human would have been so scared their heart might very well have stopped but Mellusa hadn't been anything so mundane as mortal in a very long time.
Only one thing could make the Meluthian Hedrays group together en masse. Only one thing had the power to draw dozens, even hundreds, like ants to a jam jar and make them act as a single-minded unit.
Mellusa flicked the switch she had installed herself weeks ago and florescent lights flickered on, reflecting off of the titanium bars of a cage and seventeen tons of smooth-scaled lizard.
She whispered a protection incantation as the forty foot reptile's broad snout whipped around to face her and the blast of fire that issued from its sharp toothed-mouth washed over her harmlessly. She stared the creature down until the last flame had licked away.
It roared when, with difficulty - it could only fix one of its large, scarlet hued eyes on her at once - it realized its captor was still alive, after a fashion. A huge, scale-plated shoulder rammed the bars. The cage, the whole chamber in fact, trembled but held strong.
"They killed my pets," she leaned against the wall and looked up at the giant lizard. "So you are going to call some more."
The proud creature refused at first, as always, and she grinned with power as she said the words that would force its vast mind under her control.
With a horrendous roar the gargantuan Sekopiluthian Hedray succumbed.
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