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House of The Setting Sun: House Party
Episode Eight of the House of the Setting Sun Series

Disclaimer: I don't own any of these characters, nor do I make any profit from writing about them. No copyright infringement intended.
Rating: R
Summary: Episode Eight in the House of the Setting Sun series. It's All Hallow's Eve and the things that go bump in the night are meant to stay in and bump at home... but that doesn't mean they can't still have a scream.


Episode Eight

Act One

It was early in the morning, a lot earlier than Faith generally wanted to be up now that she didn't have alarms going off and guards barging into her room without permission. It was so early that the outside was in that in-between stage - not still dark, still not light.

It was a stupid time to be up, but Faith was wide awake, the size of her eyes proof enough. She was showered and dressed already and Xander was going to have a heart attack when she turned up for work without him having to yell at her a half dozen times first.

Not that work was first on her agenda. She had something more important to do first. Something that had seemed a lot easier when she first thought of it the night before.

She was standing in her bedroom - which still smelled of Willow's candles and Kennedy's muscle rub - staring hard into her mirror. One hand was either side of it, palms flat on the wall, her face just inches from her reflection. She used to do this in prison a lot, when she had to calm herself down or give herself a talking to. It worked... sometimes, and the familiarity was helping her some - God knew, nothing else about living here was familiar to her.

"You can do this," she was muttering to herself, low enough so that no one walking by would hear. "You can do this. It's not that damn hard. Everyone else in the freakin' world has done this a thousand times, so there's no reason I can't - and do it a damn sight better for sure."

She let go of the wall and straightened her back, but didn't take her eyes from her own.

"All I gotta do is go out there and ask. Just ask, simple right? Not like she's gonna say no."

Faith ran a shaky hand down her face, closing her eyes briefly. What if she did say no? What if she really did just wanna park her ass in front of the TV? She was gonna have a wicked long day as it was; maybe the thought of adding to it was the last thing she wanted.

"Maybe I should just wait until she mentions it," Faith thought aloud, dropping her self-staring match to examine her thumb nail. "After all, nothing in the rule book says I gotta be the one to make the first move."

Faith gave herself a little shake, frowning at the mirror.

She was trying to talk herself out of it, and why? Because she was scared of a little rejection? Please. If she wasn't used to that by now, what the hell was she used to? And she knew exactly why she had to make the first move: because Buffy was waiting for it. She'd dropped her hint the night before, and Faith had already lost points for not doing it before hints were dropped. The best thing she could do here was prove she'd caught it right away, because Buffy probably wasn't expecting that. So in a way, it was almost like she'd had the idea herself.

Deciding to quit her over-analyzing while she was ahead, Faith took a deep breath and went looking for the blonde Slayer.

The alarm clock was blaring again and Kennedy couldn't ignore it any more, as much as she'd like to. Willow had already hit snooze three times in her sleep.

She sat up groggily, wiping her eyes with the backs of her hands. "Willow."

She mumbled something in her sleep and rolled Kennedy's way before snuggling her cheek back into her pillow.

"Will," Kennedy tried again, leaning over her girlfriend to smack the alarm on its head.

Blissful silence returned to the dark bedroom and Kennedy fought the urge to lie back down and sleep. The digital display on the clock already read 5:30, but that wasn't really her problem. She hadn't agreed to go on a day trip with her ex at stupid o'clock in the morning. Maybe if she let Willow oversleep, Buffy and Osborne would have to go without her.

But then Willow would wake and be upset, not necessarily with her, but just in general, and Kennedy didn't want to be the cause of that.

Willow was really excited about this werewolf outreach program thing, over the moon at being able to participate in Council work that had nothing to do with magic for once.

Kennedy knew the witch was still reeling inside from the magical use and abuse of a couple of weeks ago; not wanting to do anything related just now except the control exercises Althanea was emailing to her.

Kennedy sighed deeply; she just didn't understand why Willow had to choose a project with her former boyfriend to be her extra-curricular activity.

"Willow!" She poked the woman in her shoulder, Slayer-hard.

"Ow, I'm up, I'm up!" Willow sat up instantly, her eyes still closed as she swayed back and forth a little. "Is it demons?"

Kennedy chuckled at Willow's sleepy reaction, but it died all too quickly.

"Actually, yeah. Your ex will be by to pick you up in..." Kennedy looked at the clock again. "Less than twenty minutes."

"Huh?" Willow yawned comfortably, but then her eyes shot open. "Oh shoot, I overslept?" She jumped out of the bed.

"Just a little. No need to panic; I'm pretty sure he'll wait for you."

'I'm pretty sure he's only going because of you,' she added in her head as she watched Willow race around the room grabbing clothes.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to be so abrupt," Willow apologized as she pulled a pair of red cords from a drawer. "Please don't think snuggle time is being neglected easily here. It's just we have to be on the road just after six if we want to meet the woman this morning. She's going away this afternoon."

Kennedy had to smile at that, although it was a sad smile. The two of them hadn't had snuggle time in over two weeks now. "I know, it's okay, go."

Willow gave her a grateful smile - making Kennedy's generosity feel almost worth it - and came over to give her a kiss goodbye. "I'll miss you."

"You're only going for a day, Will," Kennedy reminded her with a brighter smile. "But, just so you know, I'll miss you too."

"Really?" Willow bent down to grope for her shoes under the bed, but she kept her eyes above the edge so she could still see Kennedy.


Willow jumped up to give her one last kiss.

"Hey, I got you these last night." Kennedy threw Willow a big bag of Milk Duds from the cinema. "Take them as travel snacks."

"Oh!" Willow beamed. "That's so sweet, thank you."

"You're welcome." She watched Willow walk to the door.

On the threshold Willow looked back at her, she was still smiling, but her eyes were serious. "And just a thought, Sweetie, but if you stop referring to Oz as my 'Ex' all the time, you might get over it quicker."

Willow delivered the blow and then she was gone before Kennedy could offer a comeback. Not that she knew what she'd say. Shaking her head irritably she flopped back down on the bed, hoping to go back to sleep.

Buffy was asleep at the kitchen table with a miraculously un-spilled mug of coffee held between the palms of her hands and her breasts.

Xander smiled at the sight as he came down the back stairs in search of breakfast. He'd gotten used to being up this early during his one-man-construction-crew-nervous-breakdown stage and it hadn't quite worn off yet now he had help. Buffy, though, wasn't usually up until well after the sun had started its day.

"Buffy?" he said her name gently as he leaned over the table towards her. "Buff, if cups were teddy-bears they'd be fluffier... plus they'd have, like, ears and stuff."

She took a deep breath through her nose as her eyes flickered open; her exhale came out as "Hmmm?"

"If cups were... never mind." By the looks of her doziness, it would be a while before she was ready for his high quality wi-partee. No point wasting the material. "You're gonna get coffee on your shirt if you're not careful."

"What?" Yawning she lifted a hand to rub her eye and dislodged the cup from its heavenly resting place. "Oops."

She caught it in time but checked for spillages all the same. Chuckling, Xander went to the cupboard and started shaking cereal boxes to check their quantities.

"Does something not look right to you?"

"Like what?"

"I don't know," she mumbled through another yawn. "Something just doesn't look right."

Xander gave the kitchen a cursory look as he went for a spoon before turning to Buffy for a clue. She was still inspecting her chest.

"I'm not gonna comment," he decided was the safest thing to say. He may have been an expert on the chest-ular area Buffy was sleepily glaring at, but he'd learned years ago that his seminars on the subject weren't welcome. "So, what time's Oz swinging by?"

Buffy stretched as she looked up at the kitchen clock. "Another twenty minutes; but I don't mind if he wants to be tardy."

Pushing the mug away from her, she crossed her arms on the table top and settled her head on them.

Xander sat down opposite with his bowl of Honey Loops. "So are you ready for today?"

"What's to be ready for? This is Willow and Oz's thing. I'm just going to make sure their thing stays this thing and doesn't become another thing endangering Oz's thing to Kennedy's hunting knife."

"I didn't know the original crossbow queen even had a hunting knife."

"She's going to buy one especially." Buffy smiled at Xander's quiet laughter. "But I don't think she'll need to bother. Even if I wasn't going, nothing's going on there. Will swears blind the kiss was tied into the spell-thing and I can't see Oz wanting to rekindle things after all this time."

"He does."

"What does he?"

Xander finished another mouthful of cereal before he clarified. "Oz, not so much with the platonic feelings for our Will."

Buffy mused on that for a second, "Nu-uh, I think you're barking up the wrong tree there, Xan. If Oz were interested, I think there would have been a sign by now, don't you? Maybe a very stoic sign, but still something in the signage family."

"Like him telling me, you mean?" Xander slurped some milk from his spoon. "Not particularly stoic, but still pretty signy."

Buffy sat up again, blinking at him. "He told you?"

Xander nodded. Buffy's face fell as she digested that. When it had fully sunk in, she looked annoyed.

"Well, why didn't you tell me?"

"Because for one, we're not in high school anymore. Meaning, I can keep a secret without feeling guilty about it. And for two, we're not in high school anymore. Meaning, I was really hoping not to be a part of another Willow and Oz love triangle. Not even indirectly."

"But Xander, if Oz really does want... what you say he said," Buffy whispered, casting an eye to the stairs to make sure they were alone. "That is so far from good, it's not even funny bad."

"I agree, but that still doesn't make me wanna get involved." Xander finished his cereal and got up to make some fresh coffee. "Besides, I wouldn't know what side to get involved on. I think Kennedy's cool, really, but... I also think Oz is cool, and anyway, how many lesbians do we really need in the family? We're already over our sitcom quota now that Faith's back."

Buffy looked at him sharply, "You have a problem with lesbians now, Mister I-kissed-lots-of-guys-just-a-couple-of-weeks-ago?"

"It was only two guys!" Xander felt himself blush at the reminder. "And, for the record, I'm all over the lesbian commune aspect of our new life." He gave her a hyena grin but it dropped as he added, "But I think maybe I'm feeling a little left-over high school guilt."

"Say again?"

"The aforementioned love triangle. I'm rooting for Oz because maybe if I hadn't kissed Willow one time..."

"One time?"

"One time we got caught," Xander mumbled as he dumped coffee grounds into the filter. "Oz wouldn't have gotten frisky with the sexy werewolf and maybe they wouldn't have split up in the first place, and then Willow never would have been available to hook up with Tara, she wouldn't have discovered her Sapphic-ness and Kennedy wouldn't now be in the picture, meaning this situation wouldn't be happening. It's all my fault!"

Both of Buffy's eyebrows lifted, "You really believe all that?"

"I don't know." Xander fetched the milk while he waited for the coffee to percolate. "It's kinda hard to imagine a past that doesn't have Tara in it."

Buffy nodded, "And it's kinda hard to imagine a present that doesn't have Kennedy in it."

It was Xander's turn to nod, "And yet, Oz is our friend too. So you see why I'm determined to stay out of it?"

"Yep, you've made a good argument for staying uninvolved. I think I'll copy you."

"Except I get the feeling Oz might have been waiting for a nice away day to make his move, and guess who's designated chaperone?"

"Crap." Buffy groaned, letting her head fall back to her arms.

"What's up?" Faith asked, as she breezed into the kitchen through the swing door.

"Well you for one," Xander looked at her in surprise. Did the clocks go back without him realizing? Faith was usually up after Buffy, despite having to start work at 8am. And that had been heavily negotiated down from 7am. "Did someone set fire to your bed or something?"

"Well, if they did, I'd know how to fix it now, right?" She gave him a strange, nervous grin. She nodded at the glass coffee pot he'd just picked up. "Black, three sugars."

"Well, you'd know how to paint the room," he conceded. "And I think I know how you like your coffee by now. You've had me acting like your tea-boy for a week and a half!"

"You have to put your Boss-like foot down, Xan," Buffy grinned. Her head had shot back up the moment she'd heard Faith's voice. "Don't give her an inch or she'll take the whole nine yards."

"You all love it," Faith said as she leaned down to give Buffy a chaste good-morning kiss.

Xander watched the two of them greet each other as he set three mugs of coffee on the table and knew he'd never get tired of his all-time favorite fantasy coming true.

"So what's crap?" Faith asked, taking a seat next to Buffy.

"Oh, uh, nothing much," Buffy hedged. "Just, um, stuff."

Xander saw Faith's face drop at the apparent rebuff.

She looked down into the blackness of her coffee. "Okay, that's cool."

"It's nothing, honestly," Buffy added. "We were just talking about..."

"High School," Xander filled in for her. "Just stupid school crap that we, even in our mature years, can't seem to get over. No big."

"Okay," Faith said again. She didn't look any more relaxed, but she did smile. "Shoulda done what I did. Dropping out at sixteen cuts all that crap dead." Her smile dropped again. "At least until ya hit twenty-one and have Parole hounding your ass to get your GED."

Buffy pressed her hand over Faith's. "You're gonna ace it."

"Yeah, maybe," Faith shrugged. Looking even more tense than before, she rushed out, "So B, there was kinda something I was wanting to ask you. Are you busy tonight?"

Buffy looked surprised. "I thought we covered this already. You, me, Charlie Brown and a big bowl of candy."

"It's just I was kinda thinking we could do something."

"Well, we will be, with the sitting and the watching and the pigging out."

Xander watched in amusement as Faith gave a quick, impatient sigh.

"What if we did something other than sit in front of the tube all night?"

Buffy shot an embarrassed glance at Xander before whispering, "Faith, you know my answer to that already. Not yet, okay? Now can you please just drop it for, I don't know, a day at least?"

"Jeez, B, I can think of something else occasionally, ya know?" Shaking her head in annoyance, Faith pulled her hand away from Buffy's.

"You can?" Xander grinned.

"Hey, private conversation, Bucko! So if ya gonna watch me crash and burn at least have the decency to do it quietly."

Xander made a zipping his lips motion and turned eagerly towards Buffy for her response.

"Why? If that isn't the question, will there be crashing and burning?"

"Hell, I don't know, Buffy. Maybe because if you don't wise up in the next minute I'm gonna deliberately fly into the side of a mountain. Or maybe because obviously this was a really bad idea, or else you woulda caught on by now, and I'm flying in circles not knowing what the hell to do n..."

Buffy raised her hands, cutting Faith off. "Okay, this here," she waved her hands around herself. "Is a no fly zone, okay, 'cause you're making me really dizzy with all the me not understanding a thing you're talking about."

Faith slumped and blew out a noisy breath. She rolled her eyes to Xander.

He grinned, "I know what you're thinking. How can someone usually so quick suddenly become so slow? We think it's a condition of some kind."

"Are you talking about me?" Buffy's eyes narrowed.

"If it's any consolation, the density of the Buff generally relates to how into someone she is," Xander continued.

"What are you talking about?" Buffy demanded, her tiredness making her irritable.

"B, I'm trying to ask you on a freakin' date. Tonight. Now do you wanna go or not?"

"Oh." Buffy just blinked at her.

"B!" Faith said exasperated. Xander laughed.

"Oh, sorry. Yes. Yes, I'd love to go on a date with you tonight," Buffy beamed, grabbing her hand again. "Why didn't you just say so?"

Faith shook her head again with a little relieved smile. Buffy grinned at her, obviously happy with this turn of events.

Xander felt a little more of his Faith-hate slip away.

She'd been chipping away at his resistance to liking her ever since she'd been back. It was kinda hard not to be drawn to her when she was one of the good guys. He still had a few deep-seated issues that he was clinging to, but, seeing how she could make Buffy's face light up like that, it was getting easier to let the small stuff go.

"So where are we going?" Buffy asked, all excited.

"I don't, uh, know yet," Faith frowned. "I mean, I haven't finalized anything; still got a few ideas I'm kicking around to see which bounces best, ya know? Wanna surprise you."

"Okay. Well, I'm sure whatever your final decision is, it'll be awesome."

"Yeah, for sure; you know me, B. Do I ever do anything less than awesome?" Faith stood up, seeming as tense again as she had five minutes ago. "Anyway, I gotta go finish tiling a shower block, so I'll see you later, yeah, when you get back from Columbus."

"I can't wait," Buffy promised her, tilting her head back for a goodbye kiss.

"Yeah, it's gonna be great," Faith muttered, leaning down to give her a quick peck on the lips. As she was heading for the back door, she threw over her shoulder, "By the way, babe, your top's on inside out."

Xander started laughing as Buffy looked down at her chest again, exclaiming, "I knew something didn't look right!"

Twenty minutes later Buffy had dressed herself properly and was waiting outside with Oz. She was feeling more awake now as she rested her arms on the open passenger window of his van, making small talk about the day ahead.

She wanted to say something to him about Xander's little bombshell while they waited for Willow to finish getting ready and join them, but she hadn't come up with a good reason for sticking her nose in yet. She liked Kennedy - a fact that still surprised her - but if Willow chose to go the other way, well, Buffy would support her wholeheartedly, because that was what best friends did.

She really needed to speak with Willow about it, not Oz, who wouldn't tell her anything he didn't want to and so was hardly a credible informant. Not that she hadn't already talked to Willow about this many times - many, many times - in the past two weeks, but maybe she wasn't being entirely honest; or maybe she was just subconsciously crushing on Oz again and that was what all these little wolf missions to various parts of the State were about.

It was a bit suspicious, how Willow kept complaining that Kennedy was being awkward and distant, but at the same time was spending a good number of days a week with her ex-boyfriend. Whether there was anything going on or not, Buffy knew she'd be jealous in Kennedy's situation.

Willow was her best friend, though, and so got all the benefits that came with. A sympathetic ear to barrage with complaints; a chaperone so she could have her frosty cake and eat her ex... well, not eat, because that was kinda the point of her chaperoning in the first place. Willow got burgers at The Mouth to get away from Kennedy's silence at the dinner table and cocoa in Buffy's room at night to put off going to her own tension-filled room.

On top of all that, Buffy was running with Kennedy in the morning, letting her pound her in sparring matches in the afternoons and then taking over her patrolling so that Kennedy could go out every evening.

Truthfully, Buffy would much rather be spending all that time with Faith, but with Faith so busy all the time too... Buffy just bit her tongue and did it all with a smile on her face.

Maybe it was cosmic payback for their first couple of months here, when Buffy's pity-fest had been a drain on Willow's time and Kennedy's patience. She'd left the slaying completely to the younger, inexperienced slayer, not to mention training up the even newer newbies.

Actually, maybe the cosmos had nothing to do with it and this was just Will and Ken's payback.

"So, we'll be back between five and six," Oz was saying. "If the traffic's okay."

"That late," Buffy whined. "I thought this was a morning meeting."

"It is, but Willow's arranged to see a guy she met online in Wooster after."

"See, this is why I say the internet is bad," Buffy groaned. "You start off in some harmless chat room for the K.D Lang-obsessed and the next thing you know you're off to Wooster to meet strange men."

Oz cracked a smile, "It's a Wicca thing. This guy is like a major mogul. It's big that Willow's getting to meet with him."

"Okay, I suppose a day-trip isn't really a day-trip if it doesn't last the whole day, right?" Buffy shrugged. She just hoped whatever Faith arranged for their date wouldn't start too early. She added nonchalantly, "But if it's such a big thing, how come Kennedy isn't going with Will?"

"I don't know," Oz met her gaze, unblinking, unbothered. "Maybe she isn't that interested in Wicca."

Buffy accepted that with a nod as Willow came flying out of the back door, running towards the van as she pulled her coat on. "Sorry, overslept! If Kennedy hadn't woken me I'd still be in snoozeville. I haven't made us too late, have I?"

"No, we have time," Oz smiled.

Buffy greeted her friend with a grin as she pulled the passenger door open.

"Morning, Buffy," Willow grinned back, ready to climb in and slide along the bench seat.

"Oh, wait, Will." Buffy pulled her back out gently by the hood of her coat. "I should probably sit in the middle, you know how car sick I get if I have to be by the window."

"You do?" Willow frowned, but moved out of the way to let Buffy get in first.

"Oh yeah, all the time," Buffy lied.

Climbing in next to Oz, she gave him a bright smile. He returned a mellower version, but didn't seem put out by the new seating arrangement.

As Willow slammed her door and Oz started to drive, Buffy took a deep breath, thinking, 'Please be wrong, Xander!'

Dawn opened her locker, and then jumped slightly as Fen bounced her shoulder loudly against the one next to it.

"Happy Halloween." Fen gave her a wicked smile as she chewed her gum. "Looking forward to tonight?"

"Oh my God, you have no idea how much!" Dawn promised, pulling out her books. "My last couple of Halloween's have kind of blowed; and I've never been allowed to an actual party before."

"But your sister knows you're going tonight, yeah? Not that I'm trying to discourage you from breaking the rules or anything," Fen winked. "But you would lose so many cool points if she comes and drags you out."

"She was dubious," Dawn admitted. "But she's been a lot less controlling since Faith turned up. Typical Buffy, she starts having sex and I drop way down the list of her priorities. Plus, when she heard the Sl... girls were coming with me, she kind of figured I couldn't get into too much trouble."

Fen didn't notice her slip, or found it uninteresting enough to ignore. "Sweet. So how many are coming? I know some of the boys have been dying to meet your delinquent chicks."

"They're not delinquents!" Dawn chucked. "And I'm not sure. Miranda, Cici and Alison already said yes. I know Vi has to, uh, study tonight, and Rona said she'd let me know later. Ooh, Andrew and Craig are coming, so Nay might tag along, but I haven't asked her yet. And, of course, Reece is coming with me," Dawn smiled.

"Of course," Fen grinned.

Dawn slammed her locker shut and the two girls headed to Homeroom. "Uh, Buffy did want to know where it was going to be, though."

Fen looked alarmed. "You didn't tell her did you?"

"Well, seeing as I don't even know where it's going to be, I couldn't. So I just made up a guy and said it was at his house. I've been making up random facts about him all week to drop into conversation, just so she wouldn't get suspicious."

Fen laughed, "I knew there was a reason why you're my best friend."

"I'm your best friend?" The news surprised Dawn because, well, Fen was so cool, and popular, and rich - three things Dawn most definitely wasn't.

"Sure," Fen linked her arm through Dawn's and they squeezed through the classroom door together. "I'm not gonna settle for less than the smartest chick in school, am I?"

Dawn blushed as she sat at her desk and whispered, "So where is the party?"

Fen did a couple of eyebrow lifts as she grinned. "It's awesome. I'm going to check it out with a couple of the guys this afternoon. You wanna come?"

Dawn nodded, excited.

Is an increase in unsightly body hair getting you down?

Do you suffer from monthly bouts of amnesia?

Do you like your steaks rare; your eggs with a complimentary chicken attached?

Do you ever get so wild you just want to howl at the moon?

If you think you are suffering from any of the above it's possible you have a rare lunar-related condition known as Lycanthropy.

Call or email today for a free consultation.

Buffy read the printed words on the little white business card again, a slight smirk tugging up one side of her lips. Who in their right mind would respond to something like this?

Apparently, the smart, sexy-looking navy-blue tailor-suited woman currently sitting in a very expensive office behind a very important looking desk would. Whether she was in her right mind was still on the cards and what Willow and Oz - sat on the opposite side of the desk - were trying to find out.

Buffy was staying in the background, checking out the titles on a few of the zillion smartly-bound books on the shelves - she didn't understand any of them - and the framed diplomas and certificates on the walls. The woman had more letters after her name than in her name.

Apparently the woman was a psychologist. Had they been lured here under false pretenses? Maybe the woman didn't even think she was a werewolf, she'd just seen the ad and saw her chance to get a bunch of crazies off the street. She probably wanted a shot at analyzing the kind of weirdo that really believed in werewolves - this could be a big career break for her.

Buffy didn't know how to take psychologists. On the one hand, she could probably benefit from several...hundred... hours of therapy herself, but on the other, there was the bad taste in her memory of Maggie Walsh, her Psych professor back in college. The woman who had truly put the psycho into psychology.

That whole affair had put her off more than a little, but was it fair to assume all psychologists wanted to play mommy to a modern day Frankenstein's monster? They couldn't all be evil; probably some of them were even mostly normal.

Therapy though?

Someone whose sole mission one hour a week was to listen to you talk about you! Someone who wasn't allowed to get bored and turn the TV on halfway through your heartfelt rant. Someone to unload all the crap of your day onto so you could go about your business crap-free.

It sounded awesome if you put it like that.

Joking aside though, there was the talking to a complete stranger about the stuff on your mind, and not just the annoying stuff, but the big stuff too. And there was the poking and probing into the dark places you'd really prefer to keep everyone else out of. And there was the chance that they might realize you actually were complete and totally batshit crazy and section you under the mental health act of whenever whenever...

Faith had to go and see a psychologist soon.

Deb Devenrowe was setting it up. She said it was standard procedure. Buffy wasn't sure if she believed her, but then how many parolees did she actually know? Deb Devenrowe had also said that it was Faith's decision, but she highly recommended it.

Faith had agreed more readily than Buffy would have imagined.

More readily than Buffy had when Deb Devenrowe had suggested that her presence would probably be beneficial at some point in the future. Faith had looked at her, one eyebrow raised - leaving the decision to her - but it had been obvious Faith was hoping she'd say yes.

And so Buffy had. And now she was crapping it, and Deb Devenrowe hadn't even found anyone yet. Apparently, after a conversation with Giles, she agreed that - providing he paid for it - someone outside the parole system would probably be a good idea. Buffy had a feeling it was going to be a Council Psychiatrist they brought in, but no amount of bugging Giles was getting her the info.

This session - when it happened - wasn't going to be all laying on a comfy leather couch and talking about her dreams. And it wasn't going to be lying on an uncomfortable tomb and talking about her daddy issues either. Or maybe it would be, but the dreams would be of the stalking Faith through a graveyard before stabbing her to death kind, not of the waking up naked with a zebra in front of her Math class kind. And if she did have to talk about all the ways she felt her dad had screwed her over, she couldn't have the satisfaction of dusting her counselor afterward.

Buffy wasn't stupid, she knew there were things - dark, horrible things - in her and Faith's past that they were going to have to deal with. Stuff, that if it stayed buried, would rise up at a later date and be as dangerous to their relationship as a vampire would be to their lives - more dangerous in fact. In truth, there was so much badness in their history that it was crazy to fall in love with Faith...

But it had happened, and now Buffy just wanted to bury her head and enjoy it. Why pick at scabs that might just get infected and slowly poison that love? Why couldn't they at least leave the picking until they were more solid, more sure of their new role in each others lives?

'For the same reason I can't sleep with her yet,' Buffy answered herself. For the same reason Faith found the streets a better place to be than with me for a week.

Buffy looked up as Willow left the desk and joined her by a large inset aquarium. Some tropical fish were doing what they do best inside.

Buffy, head on one side as she watched, wondered, "How do you think they get the fish in and out?"

Willow pondered briefly and shrugged, "Maybe there's a secret tunnel in the wall."

Buffy accepted that as a plausible theory and nodded her head in the direction of desk. "So kook or wolf?"

"Definitely wolf," Willow grinned, "Which is a relief, because the last three people we met with were definitely all kook."

"Probably not much relief for her."

Willow's grin dropped to a sheepish smile, "Probably not, but, hey, at least she knows what's going on now. Way better than just waking up naked on a sports field and not knowing why. Oz is just doing his 'This isn't the end of the world, it can actually enhance your life' bit." Her grin came back tenfold, "He's really good at it."

Uh oh, thought Buffy, but decided not to mention it.

"Well, I'm not surprised you're getting a high number of cranks." She handed the business card back to Willow. "Isn't it a bit risky putting the word lycanthropy in there?"

"A little," Willow admitted. "But I spoke with Giles about the wording and we agreed that anyone who knew what the word meant, but didn't have any of the symptoms we mentioned, would just take it as a joke, just another screwball on the 'Net. And those that do have the symptoms wouldn't be quite so freaked by the word lycanthropy as they would by the word Werewolf."

"Okay, but what about the so-called experts, like the Government or that hunter-guy that came to Sunnydale after Oz?"

"Oh, well, for those types..." Willow lowered her voice even further. "The email account is brand new, set up under a false name at an internet café in Cleveland. The phone number is for our monster hotline..."

"Monster hotline?" Buffy smirked. "I didn't know we had a monster hotline."

Willow grinned, "I ran a secure line into Giles' office, no one can tap it or trace it, and if they try I'll know about it. It's the big old fashioned black phone on his desk. Xander and I wanted him to get a bright red one, you know, like Danger Mouse, but he chose to go another way."


"It's as safe as it can be, which still isn't as safe as Giles would like, but this is an important project, Buffy. It's worth a little risk."

Educating Werewolves and keeping them off the streets at night was a very good project. Also, a Slayer without a tranquillizer gun was pretty much a dead Slayer when it came to the single-minded kinda supernatural; and according to Giles and the coven in England, there was still hundreds of Slayers out there that hadn't been found yet.

She didn't know if Werewolves were drawn to Slayer meat in the same way a Vampire was drawn to Slayer blood. She couldn't remember Oz ever showing any special interest in her when he was wolfisized. In fact he'd always seemed to make a beeline for Willow's throat.

Damn demonic creatures and their desire to turn/kill/torture their mates!

In their silence, both women had tuned into the conversation at the desk.

"I have a fiancé. Does he have to know?" The woman still sounded all business.

"He might wonder where you are three nights of the month if you don't tell him," Oz replied in his usual one-tone-fits-all voice.

Buffy watched the woman nod slowly and make a note on the pad in front of her. Was she planning on Memo-ing her fiancé about it, or was she making notes on Oz? The thought of Oz visiting a therapist was funny; the shrink would probably find herself being shrunk.

"We were planning to start a family in a year or two. Will that still be possible?" The woman sounded like she was asking about the possibility of a vacation.

Hopefully Faith would end up with a therapist a little more human.

"Yes. The conversion doesn't damage your human physiology at all, except for the three nights a month you're a wolf obviously," Oz told her.

Just don't screw your honey when you're wolf-shaped, Buffy thought as Oz went into a slightly more lengthy answer about her reproductive paraphernalia. Or you might find yourself with a litter.

Willow changed the subject. "So where is Faith taking you on the big date tonight?"

"Oh, I..." Buffy hesitated as a big smile took over her face, "...have absolutely no idea. I was kinda in shock when she asked and she was all cagey with the details."

"Was she all sweet and shy?" Willow asked, grinning along. "Or all smooth and confident?"

"Actually, she was giving off more of an edgy, detached vibe," Buffy admitted with a small shrug.

"Oh," Willow looked surprised. "You don't think she was nervous, do you? I mean, why would Faith be nervous? She's been with millions of peop..." Willow saw Buffy frown. "Well, not literally millions... probably. Uh, my point is; what was my point? Oh yeah, she doesn't come across as the type who wastes time on dating angst."

"If the dental-extraction look wasn't down to nerves then that doesn't forebode good things for me," Buffy pointed out. "Plus, as far as we know, she's never experienced the angst of dating before. Faith never did dating back in Sunnydale, remember? Xander can testify to that."

Willow looked down at the luxurious deep red carpet, a twinkle in her eye. "And me."

"What?" Buffy fired the word out loud enough that Oz and Wolf-woman stopped their meeting and looked over.

"Just kidding," Willow looked up again with a big grin on her face. Buffy's eyes narrowed and Willow hurried on. "So, the nerves thing probably explains it then. Case closed. Although, I still don't get why, it's not like you two aren't together now. You weren't going to say no."

"Well, no, I wasn't going to say no," Buffy's eyes followed an electric blue fish as it darted around the tank. "But we're not really, as in totally, one hundred percent together... yet. We're kinda still in pre-togetherness time."

"Oh," Willow said again, looking confused. "But there are smoochies... actually there aren't... I mean, there are, but not as many as I expected. Whenever I pictured you and Faith together it was always big with the indecent displays of affection."

"Pictured?" Buffy raised an eyebrow.

"Not pictured! I mean, when I imagined, in a totally abstract way with absolutely no pictures of any kind at all!" Willow rushed out, but couldn't help the evil little smile at the end. She seemed extra extra chipper today.

Buffy smiled too, sighing, "Well, there will be, I expect, one day, but right now we're keeping it - or I'm keeping it - to polite, kid-safe kisses... most of the time anyway. I have a tendency to forget my good intentions when she comes to say goodnight."

Buffy blushed slightly and pressed her forehead lightly against the fish tank as she remembered going pantiless the night before. It hadn't been completely deliberate. She really had been planning on keeping Faith out of her room, but she should have known she wouldn't stick to it. Teasing Faith like that though was probably a bad idea, especially with all the stress the other Slayer was already under, but Buffy was finding she kinda enjoyed teasing herself.

"But why does being with Faith fall into the bad intention category anyway?"

That was a good question, and it had a good answer, usually. "Well, there are issues," was all she could come up with right now.

Willow nodded, "Your issues kinda have issues."


"Your last boyfriend was a violent, blood-thirsty fiend!"


"Not like you haven't dealt with this stuff before," Willow gave a little shrug. "And at least Faith doesn't literally get thirsty for blood, so there's one less issue right there."

"As much as I'd like to refute your wacky logic, I find myself Willow-stumped. But..." Buffy sighed deeply, "Spike would have brought me flowers - okay, so they'd be stolen - but, he'd have written me poetry and... and serenaded me under street lights and stuff."

"Spike?" Willow frowned, "I think you're romanticizing your ex-cold blooded killer. And... and that's not really fair on your current cold blooded killer, is it?"

"Will!" Buffy gave a choked little laugh and smacked her best friend's arm.

Rubbing her arm, Willow grinned, "I'm right! You can't compare Faith to Spike. You should never compare any relationship you have to Spike. You and Spike were... were... I don't even have a handy analogy for how stupid the two of you being together was. But you and... Faith..." Willow's voice petered out.

"Just as stupid?"

"No..." Willow winced a little. "Buffy, have you thought about celibacy, I mean, really considered the option, 'cause I think it might be the way to go."

Buffy stared at her best friend, her jaw locked in a scary, teeth-grinding smile. "Well, look who got out of the funny side of the bed today. How come you're so darn chipper anyway? Last I heard, your love life was sucking harder than mine."

"Can't a girl just be happy that she's having a day out with her best friend?" Willow grinned. "We never do stuff together any more."

"We've been doing stuff together every day for the past two weeks."

"I know, it reminds me how much I miss the old days, ya know? Back when we were in high school and all we had to worry about were swim team monsters and Zombie gatecrashers."

Uh oh, Buffy thought again.

"You really miss high school, though?" She said aloud.

"Not most of it," Willow admitted with a little shrug. She glanced across at the meeting still taking place, maybe a little too casually.

Okay, Buffy thought, enough about me then.

"Sooo, how are you and Kennedy doing? Things getting any better?"

Willow gave a slight grimace and turned her eyes to the big fish tank. "Yes and no. So where do you want Faith to take you tonight?"

"The opera. What does yes and no mean?"

"Since when do you like the op...?"

"Okay, scuba diving. Have you two even tried the communicating thing yet?"

"Yes!" Willow finally looked at her. "I'm large with the communicating, I'm.. I'm communicating my ass off! And Kennedy's just... impervious."

"So things aren't better?" Buffy asked gently.

"No, they are," Willow slouched, looking tired. "Things are better, but that doesn't seem to be making things - as a whole - better."

Buffy's expression obviously said it all, because Willow went into a deeper explanation.

"We're talking, but it's like we're friends, nothing more. We sleep in the same bed every night but that's all we've done in it since the lust spell. She kisses me on the lips, but she might as well be kissing an attractive, non-blood related aunt. It's like she's there, but she's not there, ya know?"

Buffy nodded. Willow sounded really distressed with the situation. Her chipperness all chipped away.

"I thought I had her last night." A little of Willow's smile came back. "We kissed and it was like old times and I thought, yay, we're getting somewhere, but then she pulled away like she'd just realized she was kissing a nasty old frog, that I was a nasty old frog, and then she went out with Vi."

"Yeah, she's not been patrolling much recently," Buffy downplayed Kennedy's complete lack of patrolling.

"I know, and that's not Kennedy. Kennedy loves patrolling! She's always been so Slayer2000, like it was what she was built to do, and now she's just not interested. And I feel like it's my fault, and I haven't done anything wrong!"

"Maybe you two just need a break."

"But I don't want to break up with her!" Willow's voice grew louder.

Buffy saw Oz glance over; actually it was more of a stare than a glance. When he finally looked back at their - was client the right word? - Buffy said,

"I meant a vacation or something, maybe a weekend away for the two of you."

"We don't have time for that," Willow griped. "Or any money until Kennedy gets a job."

"Well what about a date?" Buffy suggested. "You could take her out somewhere tonight."

Willow looked thoughtful for a moment. "Well, I guess we could double with you guys; Kennedy might be more interested then."

"No, no, no, no," Buffy said quickly. "This is our first date, and I think it's going to be interesting enough with just the two of us."

She didn't want to be mean, but this was her night and something she'd been thinking about and looking forward to long before Faith even asked her. The last thing she wanted was Willow and Kennedy putting a dampener on it.

"Anyway, I think it would probably do you both more good to go alone."

"I guess," Willow sighed, before brightening a little. "Actually, maybe you're right and this is just what we need. I'll ask her when we get home."

Buffy's grin of encouragement was only slightly muted by noticing Oz was staring over again; his face quietly thunderous.

Kennedy was in the training barn. She'd already been for a run with Vi, and then spent some time working with the newer Slayers. Eventually though, all their whining about if it was their night off shouldn't it be their day off too, had driven her mad and she'd given them what they wanted. She'd skipped for half an hour, and then wailed on a punch bag for another, but it wasn't as distracting as something that could hit back.

Now she was working with the weights, which also didn't do anything to redirect her thoughts, but she stayed with it, morosely wondering what Willow might be doing at just that moment.

She gave a half-hearted smile as Rona wandered in. "Morning."

Rona grunted to the affirmative and came to sit on the bench press bench. "You do realize you're a Slayer, right?"

"Huh?" Kennedy looked over, but didn't stop curling the two large dumbbells into her shoulders.

"We're already about as strong as we're gonna get," Rona clarified.

"Show me the proof," Kennedy said simply, putting down her weights. "Spot me?"

Shrugging, Rona moved to let Kennedy lie down and picked the barbell up from the rest with one hand. She held it steady for Kennedy to take.

"Proof? How about: I never see Buffy lifting weights, but I've seen her wipe the floor with your ass every day this week," Rona smirked.

Kennedy shook her head as she began her exercise. "Two days ago I managed to knock her to the mat with a single punch."

"What happened then?"

"I'm not sure exactly," Kennedy admitted, "but my shoulder makes this strange clicking sound when I stretch now."

Rona smirked, "How come you're getting the special treatment anyway? Buffy doesn't train one-on-one with the rest of us."

"You have a Watcher," Kennedy pointed out as she pumped the large weight up and down with too much ease. It wasn't taking the edge from her anxiety at all. "Do we have anything bigger?"

Rona took the weight from her hands and checked out what was already on the bar. "I don't have a Watcher, I have a stuck up white boy from England who doesn't know which end of a Vampire to stake, but still keeps trying to tell me what to do."

"That's what a Watcher is!" Kennedy laughed, "And six months ago you didn't know which end of a Vampire to stake either. Besides, Reece might be a creep, but he does know what he's doing; and at least he's invested."

"Yeah, in looking at my boobs," Rona shook her head as she looked through the stack and picked out a couple of 25 kilogram disks. "I have no idea what Dawn sees in him."

"Me neither, but then I'm not about to be entranced by his rock hard abs and broad manly chest."

"I'll take the rock hard abs and manly chest any day of the week," Rona smirked. "It's his personality I can't stand. That guy thinks he's God's gift. I swear I heard him putting the moves on Cici the other day."

Kennedy took the heavier bar in her outstretched hands and tested the weight. It was definitely better; she could actually feel some tension in her muscles. "You should tell Dawn."

"And say what: 'I heard your boyfriend talking to a Slayer'? That's his job! I'll look like an idiot; and besides, Giles keeps saying how we have to forge this relationship together based on trust and respect," Rona sneered a little, "and I don't think ratting him out to his girlfriend comes under either of those categories. Maybe you should tell her; you guys hang more."

"Not since she and Reece got together," Kennedy muttered the truth. And it sucked, because she really could have done with her closest friend right now.

She'd almost tried talking to Buffy a few times but she stalled every time on the first word. She knew Buffy was getting that there was a problem, but she was Willow's bestest ever and Kennedy couldn't be sure Buffy wouldn't pass on information she'd rather keep to herself.

"Anyway, if I said something it would be even less viable. If someone came to me with 'I heard that someone heard...' I'd tell them to go to hell for stirring shit up." Kennedy was feeling a little burn in her muscles from pumping the bar now but it still wasn't helping. She needed a diversion, something to take her mind of her own woes. "But if we could catch him out..."

"You mean like set him up?" Rona asked, interested.

"Not exactly," Kennedy chuckled. "I wouldn't want to put anyone in the position where they had to actually be nice to him, plus if one of us... well one of you, because I'm obviously disqualified, were to try and lure him out, Dawn is not going to be happy with the poor shmuck who gets the job."

Rona suddenly smiled, "Put him at a party with a lot of high school girls, how do you think he's gonna react?"

"Like a bitch in heat," Kennedy laughed. "But Dawn's birthday isn't for a few months yet."

"No, but there's a party tonight. Some McKinley High thing for Halloween, except, not exactly school sanctioned from the way Dawn was describing it. Reece is goin' with her and she invited all the Slayers." Rona was still smiling. "All we need is a camera and for nature to take its course and we have a snapshot of Reece doing the dirty with some poor unsuspecting Junior."

"She never asked me," Kennedy frowned and let the barbell clunk into its stand behind her head.

"She probably thought you'd be busy with Willow."

Kennedy lay on the bench, looking up at the dark, dusty roof of the barn.

Spending the evening with Willow would be her first choice... if it was a few weeks ago. She still could, she knew that. Willow would be home around six. They hadn't spent an evening together in two weeks and Kennedy was missing her like crazy.

But then there was the matter of where Willow had been all day. And who she was with almost every day just recently. And she didn't mean Buffy. It wasn't that Willow shoved her ex's name down her throat all the time, Kennedy did that just fine by herself, but when Willow spoke about her day, it was hard for his name not to come up.

"No, we haven't planned anything," Kennedy said eventually, sitting up and swinging her feet to the floor. "And Will'll probably just want to do her exercises when she gets home and go to bed. She had a really early start this morning. I'll come to the party."

"Sweet! Now we just need a camera."

Kennedy chuckled at how obviously bored Rona was here and gave a slight shrug, "Easy, just raid Andrew's bedroom."

The shower block was silent apart from the soft scrape of the spatula applying tile cement to the bricks. There was a radio in the corner, but Faith hadn't been able to find any station that didn't irritate her, so it was off.

Xander had been absent all morning. After popping in soon after she'd started, just to give her his standard tool maintenance speech like he did every morning, he'd left to do who knew what, leaving her to just get on with it.

It was her third day on this particular job - Xander had helped for most of the first day - and she was nearly finished, just a half a wall to go. She was finding the tiling strangely therapeutic; having this boring-ass task to do was taking her mind off her dilemma.

Setting the spatula aside, she fitted in a couple of dozen spacers just like Xander had shown her and then went to the corner for the next stack of tiles. They were white and boring too, with just a tiny blue rain drop in the top left hand corner as decoration. Yesterday she'd almost gone stark-raving mad just staring at them, but today she was happy for the blankness; happy for the white-out in her brain.

It was better than thinking about Buffy.

Not that thinking about Buffy was ever bad these days, frustrating sometimes, but not bad - but thinking about Buffy this morning would just put her in panic mode.

What kind of dumbfuck asks a woman like Buffy out on a date without planning something first?

She'd racked her brains for the first hour on the job and had just managed to get herself more and more stressed about it. Buffy would be expecting something amazing; she deserved something amazing, and Faith had... nothing at all.

But she wasn't thinking about that, she was thinking about hanging these boring tiles on the wall. One after another, smoosh 'em down like Xander showed her, wiggle 'em a little, make sure they're pushed up tight against the spacers.

Secretly, Faith was hoping if she didn't think about the problem, an answer would just materialize in her head. It worked that way sometimes. True, the answer she came up with wasn't always the wisest one, but it wasn't like she was having a lot luck with going at it head on.

What did people even do on dates?

"I'm not thinking about it," Faith muttered to herself as she stuck another tile to the bricks with the sludgy cement. "I'm focusing on my job."

Which, surprising to her, wasn't going so badly. It beat the hell out of laundering a hundred sheets a day, and even the tedious stuff like this was kind of interesting in a way.

Xander had a strong philosophy when it came to work; he went at it like a good Watcher went at a Slayer. Every little thing was important, right down to carefully putting the little spacers between the tiles and getting the right amount of cement on the little spatula - too much it squishes out the sides, not enough and the tile falls right off - the extreme attention to detail paid off every single time and by following it, Faith was actually experiencing some pride in her work for maybe the first time ever outside of Slaying.

It made Xander feel good to build things or repair things, he took joy in seeing other people take pleasure in the things he built and repaired - Faith still couldn't believe he'd renovated and kitted out the fantastic training barn all on his own - and now his lust for this stuff was starting to rub off on her. It was wicked weird, but it was making Faith feel good too.

Kennedy and Willow's faces when they'd first walked into their bedroom - the one that she had helped repair and then painted mostly on her own - had made her feel good.

And when all the newbie Slayers and the Cadets started using this shower block instead of making her have to queue for the bathroom upstairs, well that was gonna feel frickin' great.

She realized she was humming now, and stopped abruptly. Taking a little pride in her work was one thing, humming was not. If anyone heard her...

There was a quiet chuckle from behind. Busted.

"You're really getting the hang of those tiles, Faith." Xander chuckled again at his lame joke. "Nice to see you happy in your work."

"Thanks," she muttered, choosing to fit another tile than look at him.

"It almost makes me not want to point out that they're all upside down."

"What?" Faith took a step back to check out her work. "Damn!"

They weren't all upside down, but a good portion of the ones she'd hung that morning were. The tiny rain drops in the bottom right corner instead of the top left like the ones on the other three walls.

She obviously hadn't been concentrating as hard as she thought she was. So caught up in the routine of spacer, cement, tile that she'd forgotten to look for the tiny blue motif.

"Do I have to do them all over?" she groaned, facing him.

Xander was chewing gum thoughtfully as he looked at the tiles.

Eventually, with a sly look in his eye and a hint of mischief in his voice, he said, "I guess not... if you tell me where you're taking Buffy tonight?"

"You tell me, dude." Faith looked at the tiles again.

There were at least thirty that were upside down.

"Oh, come on," Xander grinned. "You can't tell me you haven't been thinking about it. Your mind obviously has been elsewhere this morning. The closest I'm ever gonna come to dating Buffy is vicariously through you, so give me a little info."

"I'm not kidding, Xan. I have no idea," Faith admitted. "I don't know why I even asked her."

Xander frowned, "What?"

"Don't get me wrong, I wanted to ask her out. I wanna go on a date with her, but I'm kidding myself if I think I know how."

"Well you already did the hard part, now you just go."

"But where?" Faith couldn't do eye-contact right now; this conversation was hard enough to have without that. So she set up another tile - the right way up this time.

"Well, you could always go for coffee."

"Coffee's lame."

"I'll have you know coffee makes for a very good first date. And at least you don't have to worry about Buffy tying you to a big wheel and stabbing you at the end."

Faith cocked an eyebrow at that but let it go without asking for answers.

"Buffy's going to be expecting something big. It's our first date, man, it should be something frickin' mind-blowing and I'm coming up empty."

"Well, I don't know if it counts as mind-blowing, but there's a Halloween party at Barnies tonight," Xander told her as he pulled a tape measure out of his dark blue work pants. "I was gonna go, but it turns out nearly everyone's gonna be out of the house tonight and that is so not an opportunity I'm prepared to miss."

"Gonna watch TV in your boxers?" Faith smirked over her shoulder at him.

"Yep," Xander nodded as he measured the gap up by the ceiling not quite big enough for a whole tile. "There's a Simpson's' Treehouse of Horrors marathon for starters and then Halloween, Freddie versus Jason, the list goes on; and there'll be no kids around trying to switch the channel to Sabrina the Teenage Witch. It's gonna be sweet; sweet and gory."

"Sounds fun," Faith murmured, fiddling with the spatula. "Maybe me and B should just stay in after all."

"Don't even think it," Xander shook his head. "This is a private party; just me, the TV and a crate of beer in the fridge. A man has to have his time and I am a man, therefore I must have my time. Unless, you know, you and Buffy plan to watch the TV in your underwear too."

Faith rolled her eyes, "Dude, she won't even give me a look at her underwear in the bedroom." She shook her head and went back to work. "So, you really think taking her to this party is a good idea?"

"It's not like you have anything else planned. And it's a costume party so you'll get points for fun-having, 'cause who doesn't have fun at a Halloween costume party? All those Witches and Werewolves and Vampires - not like it's something you see every day... Oh wait..."

Faith rolled her eyes. "Well that's out, I don't do costume parties."

"You didn't do sane-living and relationships until just recently either, but you seem to be enjoying those."

"True, but dressing up? Man, that's lamer than coffee. I wanna take her, I don't know, hang-gliding or scuba-diving or something, ya know, a proper Slayer date."

"If it makes it better, I know Buffy likes dressing up."

"She would," Faith sighed deeply before setting to cleaning the spatula as quickly as possible.

"Hey, what are you doing? It's not knocking off time yet. You still have four more rows to do and then there's the grouting!"

"Later, Xan, I gotta call B and let her know she needs a costume."

As Faith left the shower block to a background of Xander's sarcastic mutterings, she realized she had no idea what to dress up as. She only had about six hours to come up with something that was gonna blow Buffy's mind.

This dating shit just never got any easier, did it?

"You didn't tell me we'd be cutting class!" Dawn whispered to Fen as she kept her head below the windows of Aaron Pritchard's red Chevy Lumina.

"Like you'd have come if I did," Fen grinned, poking her head up a little to see if they were clear of the school drive yet. "Besides, it's only history - it's not like you're gonna learn anything new in there, right?"

Dawn chuckled, pushing herself up in the back seat as Fen did. "I would still too have come; I just would have maybe faked Buffy's sig on a note or something."

"Sunny D, you have to start appreciating the finer things in life a little more. Didn't you say Buffy wanted you to have at least one good year of high school? Well, this is what she meant!" Fen waved her arms around, indicating everything within and around the car.

"I'm pretty sure it's not."

"Oh come on! Cutting class is one of the chief high school experiences. All the cool kids are doing it," Fen winked at her. "Besides, tonight is gonna rock so hard it's gonna be history in the frakkin' making!"

As Fen shouted her enthusiasm, Aaron high-fived with the guy riding shotgun, Charlie someone or other, and they both gave a loud, heartfelt "Yeah!"

Dawn giggled, caught up in their gusto and as Aaron put his foot down, tearing around the next bend on the two-lane blacktop country road, she squealed with Fen, their hands clutching each other in an exaggerated manner.

Thirty minutes later, Aaron pulled onto an unkempt dirt drive and Fen sat forward to see through the windscreen.

"We're here."

Dawn sat forward too. "Where's here exactly?"

"Only the coolest location for a Halloween party ever!" Fen grinned. "No one's ever dared before, as far as I know. Every little kid round here gets told: 'Don't go near it, you'll get eaten by a monster.' And then as you get older it's: 'Don't go near it, you'll get rabies from the rats and fall through a rotten floor board.' It's stupid how much that kid-crap can affect you, but I've lived in the area my whole seventeen years and this is the closest I've ever been to it."

"Where?" Fen's words were sending a shiver up Dawn's spine.

As the car began to crunch over weed choked gravel, Fen pointed out the windshield as she whispered, "Mage Manor."

Dawn looked up at it fearfully, but relaxed as soon as she realized what she was looking at. "It's just a house."

"This isn't just a house," Fen opened her door and jumped out onto the gravel as the two guys did the same. "But I'll forgive your naivety seeing as you're a Greenhorn."

"I'm a what?" Dawn asked, climbing from the car.

"No time; pay attention and I'll give you the skinny," Fen laid her arms on the sun-warmed roof of the Lumina.

Dawn watched Aaron and Charlie go to a partially open window half way along the house and climb through before she gave her full attention to her friend.

"Okay, to start with, there is something you need to understand: This place came first."

Dawn shrugged a little. "Give me a point of reference here?"

"Before Boudenver was here. Before Pleasant Creek was ever settled. For all the records show, it could have been here before Christopher Columbus was even old enough to say the word boat! It's been here forever."


"It's never been occupied!"

Fen said it with enough dramatic effect that the sun slipped behind the only cloud in the sky.

"Never?" Dawn frowned.

Fen shook her head slowly, "Never, ever."

"That's not possible."

"I agree," Fen nodded now. "But I'm just telling you what everyone around here already knows is fact."

"So if no one's ever lived in it, why doesn't someone just knock it down instead of leaving it to rot on this hill?"

"It's been tried; more than once. Did you ever see a wrecking ball swing on its chain like a Tetherball around a pole?"

"I've only ever seen one wrecking ball and I didn't actually see it do anything."

Xander had stopped the machinery by the time Dawn had made it back down from the tower, but apparently it had hit Glory good and hard - she wished she'd seen that, she still had nightmares too often about Ben showing up out of the blue.

Dawn gave a little shrug, "So no."

"Yeah, me neither, but my dad said it was something to see; something real nasty to see. Nobody knows quite what happened, even those who were there, but people died and the house is still standing. That was before I was born. Then, ten years ago, they decided to try explosives. Used loads of it, wanting rid of the place once and for all, fed a detonation line all the way back down the hill this time so no one would get hurt accidentally."

"What happened?" Dawn was hooked on the tale now despite herself. At first she thought Fen was just messing with her, but the look in her friend's eyes was starting to convince her otherwise. "Did the explosives not go off?"

"No, they went off, with a big, loud bang. But the house was still standing afterward, not a scratch on it, not even the dirt and gravel was disturbed."

"How's that possible?"

"It's not," Fen shrugged, "but there ya go." She left the car and walked towards the window the boys had climbed through. Dawn walked with her. "There's furniture and stuff, all real old, so we figure someone did live here at some point, but no ones ever seen anyone coming or going. I've heard rumors that it was a recluse, some old foreign hermit man, but as no one ever saw him, who knows?"

Fen took a deep breath and boosted herself up onto the window sill. It took her two tries before she could get a leg in the window and she sat there for a minute getting her breath back.

"People just tried moving in too. I mean, look at this place; it's huge! Talk about your quality real estate. But no one ever seems too last long."

"Do they die?" Dawn asked, a little quiver in her voice.

"Nah," Fen laughed and jumped down into the mansion. "They just move out real quick. They say it has an unwelcoming vibe. Too draughty, the pipes creak too loud, doesn't matter how hard they try to rid the place of dust it's still an allergy sufferer's worse nightmare."

Dawn boosted herself up and as she rested with her stomach on the window sill and her legs still dangling in the open air, she thought, Ghosts!

That had to be the answer to the mansion's mysteries. None of it made a lick of sense unless you factored the supernatural in to your reasoning, and ghosts, or spirits or whatever they preferred to be called, was the most obvious conclusion.

Dawn hadn't personally had anything to do that side of the paranormal, but she knew Buffy had had a few unfun encounters. She looked around warily now as she half-fell, half jumped into the room with Fen.

It didn't seem spooky, just abandoned.

There was a layer of dust at least two inches thick over everything, including the worn carpet. The sun streamed in from three large windows, making the place bright if not particularly cheery.

The furniture was old, as Fen had predicted. It had probably been old a century or two ago. It looked expensive and finely crafted. There was a chaise-lounge like the kind in Titanic and the red cushion was threadbare in places and the gilt on the arms and legs had long since peeled off, only traces left to give a sparse indication of its one-time beauty.

A large fireplace took up most of the wall to the right of her. The fire pit was filled with thick black soot and the soot was all over the hearth and the carpet too. An elaborate mantelpiece extended from the floor to the top of the fireplace and then up still further, making a beautifully extravagant focal point for the room. It put their tiny but serviceable fireplace back home to shame. And Dawn wasn't known for her skills in geology, but she was pretty sure the mantel was made of white marble too.

She was wandering closer for a better look, when Fen called her over. "Come on, let's go find the guys."

They left the room behind them and Fen called out for some clue as to where the other two had gone. Following Aaron's shouts they finally found a... well, Ballroom was really the only way Dawn could think to describe it.

It was big, much bigger than the gym at McKinley High, maybe even bigger than the school's football field! Again dust covered everything, but the intricate blue-green pattern of the smooth floor was still discernible and the gold trimmings around the walls were still gold.

Dawn felt her eyes drawn upwards by the expanse of the room. "Holy cow!"

"What?" Fen looked up in confusion. "Jeez."

The entire ceiling was a painted mural. It was impossible to make out the whole picture standing in this one spot by the door, and the cobwebs didn't help, but Dawn could make out swirling clouds of purple-green smoke, flying dragons the same blue-green as the floor and figures...

Dawn walked into the center of the room - it took her a minute to get there - and looked up again.

One figure was quite obviously a man. He wore a blue robe and his hair and beard were long and blonde. He was pointing a big stick at the other figure and a stream of something swirly and black was coming from the end of it. The other figure was obviously not a man. He was big and muscle-bound and red paint had been used for his flesh. He had a vaguely human looking face, but was suffering from a severe case of horns - all over his head and shoulders. He was also breathing fire at the robed man.

All in all, it was impressive, but not a particularly nice scene.

"Bet who ever painted that died of neck ache, huh?" Fen grinned.

Dawn figured the painter might have met a worse fate actually, but said nothing as she joined the boys with Fen.

"Did we not tell you this place was the bomb?" Charlie hooted, slapping Aaron on the back as the other boy laid out speaker wire around the edge of the room.

"It's awesome," Dawn agreed, shaking off her worries. Her fears were probably groundless anyway and it wasn't like she could share them with these guys even if they weren't. "So do you even know what you're doing?"

She smirked at Aaron, who'd run out of wire near another doorway and seemed at a loss as to how to handle it. It was funny how she found it a lot easier to talk to the boys at school now she was with Reece. She'd always felt so self-conscious talking to them before, but now, not so much.

"No," Aaron admitted smiling at her. He had a sweet smile; all of him was sweet actually. He wasn't particularly good looking, but he was friendly looking. "But that's not my problem. The dorks from Bou Academy are setting it all up, we just offered to do the heavy lifting," he explained.

"Bou Academy?"

For the first time she noticed there were three other guys in the room. They were up at the far end, all leaning over some shiny hi-tech equipment that looked nothing like a stereo. They were spinning dials, checking clipboards and finely adjusting the instrument they were hovering over.

"The party is their baby," Charlie explained. "And I know, who'da a thought those geeks could have an idea this damn good?"

Dawn shrugged. She didn't know a lot about the Boudenver Academy except that it was a private school for gifted children, whatever that meant. She gave the boys a wave, but they all ignored her.

"What are they doing over there?" she asked.

"Don't know, don't care," Fen grinned. "Just as long as this place is monsterrific tonight."

As Dawn looked around the room again - there was a grand piano in another corner - she felt her skin prickle at her friend's words. She didn't know why. It was Halloween, after all, that meant the ghouls stayed at home.

A sharp kwa-zzing sound filled the air and the smell of burnt dust burst through the room. Dawn felt dizzy and off balance. The room blurred before her eyes and grew warm - she hadn't realized how cold it had been. She staggered a step, strangely disorientated, her eyes on the sparkling blue and green tiles of the shiny, polished floor...

Act Two

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