Stevenson Hall; U. C. Sunnydale 3:47 p.m. December 19, 1999
"Do my ears deceive me," Buffy joked as she tossed some shirts into her suitcase, "or do sounds of happiness emerge from the boom box of Willow?"
The red-haired computer hacker turned from her packing and looked toward her roommate/best friend/Slayer, answering as she made a rude face, "I extend my tongue in your general direction."
"Some places in SoCal, you can charge $75 dollars for that," Buffy quipped.
"Sorry, Will," Buffy answered, giggling, "I just love making you turn that particular shade of red. Matches your hair."
"That’s it, Slayer," Willow Rosenberg shouted gleefully, grabbing the nearest object from her bed that could be used as a weapon, "Throw pillows at ten paces!"
"Hey, hey," Buffy said, trying not to giggle as she made a ‘Time Out’ sign with her hands. "Can we postpone the duel of honor until after we pack? You know, finals done, ready for the winter vacation?"
"Okay, Buff," Willow fake-grumbled.
"Seriously," Buffy added as she removed several pairs of blue jeans from her dresser. "It’s good to see you happy, Will. You’ve been on a Counting Crows/Alanis Morrisette binge ever since, well, you know--"
"His name is ‘Oz’," Willow answered, "and I won’t go into screaming mimis if you say we broke up. That’s what happened. Old news."
"Yeah, I know, but I know that it still hurts some. I remember what it was like when Angel finally left." I also remember a wonderful red-headed Wiccan holding me while I cried my eyes out, Buffy thought. God I’m glad she’s a part of my life.
"Yeah," Willow sighed as she sorted through her sweater collection. "But both Angel and Oz did what they had to do. I’m good with that. Besides, I still have you and Xander and Giles, and I guess Anya," she strained to say it, "plus Tara. So friend-wise, I’ve got nothing to complain about."
"You and Tara’ve been pretty tight lately, I noticed."
"Yeah," Willow admitted. "She’s good. She’s the only person in the local Wicca group that seems to take it seriously. She and I work well together." She looked at Buffy’s face, and noticed that she seemed a little distracted. "But don’t worry, Buff, you’re still my numero uno compadre. I would never forget you."
Like I ever could, Willow admitted silently to herself. Ever since she had met Tara, she had been conscious of her attraction to the shy young blond witch. So much like herself. Yet so different. Shortly after those weird silent demons, the Gentlemen, tried to steal the voices of the people of Sunnydale, Willow was confronted with her attraction for Tara. Whenever she was near Tara, she was aware of the erotic tension between the two of them. This excited Willow, and scared her too. She never entertained thoughts about loving another woman, especially since her conservative Jewish background frowned on homosexuality, but Tara had really gotten to her. But the last time she saw her, the tension was less. At first, Willow thought that she was going through a phase, that Tara was a one-time only infatuation.
But then she saw Buffy that one night last week. Sleeping soundly after a quiet patrol. Willow spent an entire hour just watching her best friend sleep, memorizing the lines of her face, the sweep of her neck, the delicate rise and fall of her chest as she breathed. When her sleep grew more fitful, with evidence of one of the many nightmares that plagued the Slayer’s nights, Willow fought down a desperate urge to climb into Buffy’s bed and hold her, to protect her from whatever was harming her in her mind.
More and more, she started to notice Buffy. The long blond hair, the graceful neck and waist, the firm muscles of her arms and legs from all her working out as a Slayer. The perfectly proportioned athletic body. Man, if it weren’t for the Slaying, she could be an Olympic gold medallist easy. And last but not least, that wonderfully expressive mouth. On those infrequent occasions when she did smile, Buffy could exorcise storm clouds. Those bright sweet lips, what would they taste like? Ooh, bad Willow! At some point, Willow didn’t know when, it dawned on her.
She may have been attracted to Tara.
But she was in love with Buffy.
In the brief silence that followed these thoughts, the Sting song was closing. Among the last lines of the song were two that thoroughly encapsulated what Buffy meant to Willow, what Willow could never confide in her friend for fear of losing her;
"You’re the hub of my rotation, You’re the sum of my equation."
"It still hurts a little," she continued, trying to distract herself from these decidedly unwholesome thoughts, "but you know what hurts more? It’s knowing that I’d been a total bitch while dealing."
"Willow Rosenberg, you listen to me now, you are many things, most if not all of them wonderful, but you are not now, nor have you ever been a bitch."
"Huh, aren’t you the one who nearly married Spike because of my stupid spell?"
Buffy winced at the thought of her happy-making spell a few weeks back, and its wacky consequences. "I didn’t say you weren’t accident prone, I said you weren’t a bitch."
"Okay," Willow conceded, "maybe ‘Bitch’ is too strong a word. But I can’t think of anything else that fits."
Buffy thought for a second, and suggested, "How about, ‘in touch with your inner Cordelia’?" This reference to their sometime friend got a laugh out of Willow.
"Oh, speaking of Her Royal Skankiness," Willow remembered, "I got an e-mail from her."
"Is she still working for Angel?" Buffy asked.
"Uh-huh. And guess who else they ran into?"
"Uh, Jennifer Love Hewitt?"
"Ha, ha. Wesley."
Buffy dropped her head in her right hand at the name of her wannabe watcher and groaned. "Wesley "Stiff-upper-lip-while-spine-goes-gelatinous" Price? I guess that Angel’s curse still holds. First Cordelia, now Wes."
"I already sent a sympathy e-mail card." Willow answered as she pulled one more sweater from the closet.
"Oh, Will?" Buffy asked. "I know that you’ll be spending Chanukah with your folks, but you got plans for New Year’s Eve?"
"Mom wanted me to invite the Scooby Gang over for a Y2K survival party. You in? It’s kinda pot luck, but--"
"I’ll bring the guacamole," Willow volunteered. "You bringing Riley?"
"Uh, no." Buffy suddenly sounded less than sure. "Riley and me, we’re taking some time apart."
"Oh?" Willow’s heart threatened to leap out of her chest when she heard this news. Was this an opportunity for her and Buffy to--she dashed these thoughts from her mind immediately. Buffy was confiding in her, it was time for best-friend mode, not potential lover mode. Taking supreme control of her voice so that it wouldn’t squeak, she asked, "Was it something he said?"
"More like what he didn’t say," Buffy answered. "Like, ‘Oh, by the way, Buffy, I’m with a paramilitary demon-hunting organization called the Initiative. You’re cool with that, right?’"
"Paramilitary--" Willow started putting two and two together and hoping the answer wasn’t twenty-two. "You mean those guys that ‘fixed’ our favorite Sting wannabe Spike?"
"Them’s the ones. I found out about that during that incident a couple of weeks ago with the Gentlemen. I was fighting one Gentleman off, some khaki Rambo-ettes show up. I’m fighting, I don’t notice it’s Riley until he nearly pulls some kind of ray gun on me and I draw a crossbow on him. Not exactly the high-point of romance. We agreed that we had to talk, but so far that’s all we agreed on. Except that we need to take a step back. He’ll be heading for Iowa to spend Christmas with his family, I’ll be with Mom, we need the time apart to think, y’know?"
"Aw Jeez, Buffy," Willow answered, genuinely moved by sympathy for her friend. She turned to Buffy and gave her a friendly arm around the shoulders. "I was rooting for you two."
"Hey, maybe it’ll still work out," Buffy said half-heartedly. "I just wish I knew more about the Initiative to trust them. To trust Riley. He’s the first guy I really liked since Angel left, I just wanted someone normal."
"Maybe if he’s a demon hunter, and you’re a vampire slayer, you could go into business together. Two slayers, no waiting!"
"I dunno, like I said, there’s something about the Initiative that has my Spider-sense going off the meter. Still, it would be nice to love someone who could understand why I do what I do."
Like me, Willow thought but didn’t say.
She would have liked to hold on to her friend forever, but real life interrupted in the form of a ringing telephone. "I’d better answer that," stammered Willow, as she disengaged their hug. "It could be the phone." She wasn’t sure, but Willow could have sworn that Buffy was reluctant to let go as she was.
She picked up the handset and started talking; "Hello. Oh, Mrs. Summers. How are...Buffy? Nothing’s wrong, she’s...Please, Mrs. Summers, she’s fine. I don’t understand..."
Buffy’s attention had turned toward the phone conversation between her best friend and her mother. Willow’s voice sounded more distressed as she spoke, evidently mirroring her mother on the other end. "I assure you that she’s fine. I...I’m standing not four feet from her...No, Mrs. Summers, I’m not covering up for her, I’m...Just a second."
She handed the handset to Buffy, saying, "Your mother sounds nearly hysterical. I can’t understand a word she’s saying. Can you talk to her?"
"I’ll try," Buffy answered as she took the handset and began to speak into it. "Hey, Mom? Yes, it’s me. Mom? Mom, are you crying? Calm down, Mom, slow down... breathe...inhale...and exhale. Okay. Tell me everything from the beginning. Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Hmmm. Yeah." She listened intently for a few more seconds, and then answered, "Okay, Mom. This is why having a Slayer for a daughter is a good thing, ‘cause this is the kind of thing I deal with all the time. I’ll call Giles and the gang, and we’ll meet you at home and figure this thing out. Don’t worry, we’ll get the 411 on this. Okay, I’ll be there in ten. ‘Bye."
Buffy placed her finger on the cradle button, and then started to dial Giles’ house. She shifted into full Slayer-mode as she spoke to Willow; "Scooby Gang situation, Wills! Defcon Four!"
"Something wrong with your mom?"
"Apparently. According to her, I’m lying on her sofa in her living room. Unconscious, and missing my right arm!" She waited for Giles to answer the phone. Willow stood beside her friend, a vague dread creeping up on her soul.
It was going to be one of those nights.
Rupert Giles’ townhouse;
"Now the ‘D’ and the ‘A’ and the ‘M’ and the ‘N’ And the ‘A’ and the ‘T and the ‘I-O-N’! Lose your face, lose your name, Then get ready for eternal flame!"
Anya bounced along to the swing-rock stylings of Squirrel Nut Zipper, in what she called ‘low-impact aerobics’, while Xander, who sat on the couch and watched her work, would call it ‘a religious experience’. The earthbound demon, who had in her former life wreaked terrible vengeance against men, now seemed to live to please one man, Xander Harris. Her total lack of social graces or any sort of tact however, has led to some interesting confrontations since she and Xander became, in her own characteristic turn of phrase, "orgasm buddies".
Although he had been living in his parents’ basement since he finished high school and drifted from job to job, he and Anya preferred to hang out at Giles’ place. The former watcher and unofficial den father for Buffy and the Slayerettes was slightly more accommodating than Xander’s uncaring parents. The fact was that he found something admirable in Xander; his glib humor in the face of danger, his unwavering courage, even when he claimed to be shaking in his boots. He admired that quality in him.
It would be a cold day in the Hellmouth, however, before he admitted it out loud.
Giles entered the room with a hot cup of Darjeeling as Anya concluded her dancing. "Xander Harris," he griped, "don’t you have anything better to do than watch your girlfriend display her body in such a vulgar fashion?"
"Not a thing in the world," Xander replied with a smile that seemed to extend beyond the confines of his face.
"The man is a walking hormone," he griped to Anya.
"And this is a bad thing, how?" she answered, her grin matching Xander’s.
"Meet Mrs. Walking Hormone," Xander extended his hand to Anya, who grabbed it and allowed him to pull her on his lap. Giles threw his hands up in disgust and sat down on his leather highback chair.
"You two are a perfect match," he grumbled. Desperately hoping to change the topic of conversation, he asked, "Have either of you two seen Spike?" Giles had recently become the host to the neutered vampire, once one of Buffy’s most implacable enemies, now a pathetic shell of his former malevolent self.
"I think he said something about seeing ‘The Sixth Sense’ for the fifteenth time," Xander said. "I think he only goes for the first fifteen minutes, long enough to shout from the back row, ‘Bruce Willis’s character is dead’, before being bounced."
"Charming to the last," Giles harumphed as he sipped his tea. "I suppose as long as he’s under the influence of the Initiative and their implant, he’ll be no danger to others."
"I don’t understand why we allow him to live," Anya commented as she combed her hands through Xander’s hair. "I mean, he’s a vampire, Buffy’s a vampire slayer, I say we get those two together and let her do what comes naturally."
"While I echo your sentiments, Anya," Giles admitted, "he’s of more value to us alive. He’s our only link to the Initiative, and we need all the information we can get on them. Besides, as long as we can keep tabs on him, he’s no threat. I’d rather have him where I can keep an eye on him."
"Keep your friends close and your enemies closer, is that it?" Anya asked.
"Something like that," Giles started to expound when the phone rang. Xander picked up the phone and greeted the caller; "Cavanagh’s Crematorium! Hey, Buffster, ‘sup? Sure, I’ll get him for you. Yo, G-Man!" He handed the handset to Giles, who took it silently, having given up the long fight to stop Xander from calling him ‘G-Man’.
"Hello, Buffy. Yes. Yes. One arm, you say. Yes. I can understand how she would be upset. We’ll be right over. Do you need a lift? We’ll be there in five minutes. See you then." He handed the handset back to Xander, who hung it up. "There’s some sort of trouble at Mrs. Summers’ house." He explained the situation as Buffy explained it to him.
"One arm, you say?" Anya mused. "That’s one less than most people."
"This is serious, Anya," Giles snapped at the ex-demon. "Either someone is playing a cruel joke on Buffy’s mother, or this is a sign of something far more sinister. Either way, we have to get to the bottom of it."
"Right, Giles," Xander stood up, and in his best Adam West-era Batman voice, said to Anya, "To the Watchermobile!"
In the cramped confines of Giles’ Citroen, Willow became more acutely aware of Buffy’s presence. Xander and Anya were in the back seat, getting cozy, and Willow’s reaction to having to sit next to them when Giles picked up her and Buffy was summed up in two words; "Eww much?" From the days when she was nursing the Mother of All Adolescent Crushes on Xander (she always capitalized the words when she thought of them), she had been uncomfortable with the girls Xander would date. First Cordy, Queen C herself, now Anya, the former vengeance demon. Willow still remembered how Anya had used her to summon an evil vampire Willow from a parallel universe. So to make the trip more tolerable, she leaned forward, to where Buffy was riding shotgun.
This placed her head in close proximity with Buffy’s, and her nose right near where Buffy normally dabs her perfume. The subtle floral smell interacted with Buffy’s natural body smell, and the mix was nearly overpowering for Willow. She tried to block the increasingly sexy thoughts she had been nursing regarding her best friend, and concentrate on other things.
"You know, Buffy," Willow commented, "I know we call ourselves the Scooby Gang, but there are times when I wish that we really were like the Scooby Gang."
"Explain the logic, Wills," Buffy inquired.
"You know, we’d come upon a haunted house, or an abandoned carnival, then we’d get chased by a vampire or demon, then we’d chase him back, all to the tune of some lame ‘60s- esque music, then we’d all land on him in a dog-pile, then take off the mask, an it’d turn out to be Mr. Deevers, the disgruntled groundskeeper."
"And he would have gotten away with it to, if it weren’t for them meddling kids!" Buffy shouted happily.
"I get dibs on Shaggy!" Xander chimed in.
"What does that make me then?" pouted Anya. "If you’re Shaggy, Buffy’s Daphne, and Willow’s Velma..."
"Let’s put it to you this way," Willow answered with an evil grin. "How do you like your Scooby snacks?" Anya shot Willow a look that would melt ice at fifteen yards.
"How about Sandy Duncan on a guest shot?" Buffy offered. "Besides, why does Willow get stuck with Velma? She’s much better looking, and has never lost her glasses once!"
"Hey, I could be Fred," Willow squealed.
"Nah," Xander said, partially distracted by something Anya was doing with her right hand. "That means you’d have to wear an ascot."
"I’ll pass," Willow conceded the point to her childhood friend.
Giles, for his part, ignored this compelling discussion, as he often did. He didn’t grudge them their interests, far from it. He simply thought them beneath him. However, he did understand their need to talk about such meaningless minutiae, especially when dealing with menaces like the Master and Angelus on a regular basis. Sort of like whistling past the graveyard.
"Hey, meddling kids," Buffy interrupted. "Looks like we’ll have to table this conversation. Mom’s house, dead ahead." Giles pulled up to the curb, and he and the four Scoobs bailed out of the car. Buffy and Willow led the way to Mrs. Summers’ porch, and Buffy slowly opened the door.
"Hey, Mom?" she called out. She saw her mother tending to a figure lying on the couch. Joyce turned toward the door as she heard her daughter’s voice, and saw her face peek in the door. Joyce stood up, walked to the door on unsteady legs, and stopped just short of Buffy. Buffy saw the haggard look on her mother’s face, the red-rimmed eyes, the copious rivulets of tears streaking her face. Now her face was contorted into a look of startlement at the sight of her daughter.
"Buffy?" she asked hesitantly. "Is that really you? Oh, dear God..." she could speak no more. She dissolved into tears again as she grabbed her daughter in a desperate hug. All the while she murmured, "Oh my God, my baby’s all right!"
"Yeah, Mom," Buffy responded, her voice straining against the powerful hug. "And if you could loosen up your grip, I could maintain that trend." Joyce immediately let go of her daughter, apologizing profusely. "Hey, Mom, it’s okay. From your voice on the phone, you got a serious wiggins."
"So we’re here to de-wigginize the place," Xander answered as he and Anya entered the room.
"May we see her?" Giles, bringing up the rear, asked.
"Oh, certainly, Rupert," Joyce answered. "I’m sorry. It’s just been a series of shocks, seeing my Buffy...well, look at her!" she motioned toward the couch. Buffy and her cohorts gathered around the couch, and immediately understood why Joyce Summers was so rattled.
She lay sprawled upon the couch, wearing clothes that hadn’t been washed, or probably changed, in at least several weeks. She slept fitfully, her exhaustion finally catching up with her. Her legs, visible through shredded jeans, were badly scraped and bruised, and her left arm bore severe scars. Her right arm was missing, hacked off at the shoulder apparently. Her hair was matted against a drawn and roughened face.
The face of Elizabeth Anne "Buffy" Summers.
For fifteen seconds, no one dared speak. Finally, Xander announced, "I believe I speak for everyone when I say, ‘Jinkies’!"