Faith woke up in the guestroom of Scobie Manor and leapt out of bed in a defensive position before she realized that the shouts were coming from Dawn and Xander in the kitchen. She relaxed and studied her surroundings.
"What's with the color scheme?" she snickered to herself. "It's like Tarzan meets Brady Bunch in here." She glided her fingers along the handsome oak dresser and glanced at the framed forest landscape photos decorating the walls. "Someone sure has a thing for nature. Workin' the wood, liking 'em tall, dark and stiff." She haphazardly pulled the quilt cover spread up the bed, not bothering to match the corners.
"Still, step up from your rent-a-porn-set slummy hotel I'm used to." She sat on the bed and bounced a couple of times.
"Lucky me, getting to break this puppy in."
As she looked again around at the furnishings, she spotted a photo on a nearby dresser and examined it. It was of Xander playfully pinning Dawn to the carpet of the living room, tickling her as Giles and Buffy watched on fondly, arms comfortably curved around each other.
"And what is this? Maybe things aren't quite like old times, are they, B?" Faith let out a heavy sigh. "At least one thing hasn't changed; I'm still the odd Slayer out."
"Breakfast! Eat now or forever hold your peace!" Dawn hollered and everyone quickly entered the dining room.
"Was that pea's or peace?" Xander grinned. He was the first to take a seat at the table. Buffy hobbled in and Giles held out her seat and then sat next to her at one end. Dawn entered and began filling glasses with orange juice. Willow carried in some napkins and a plate of bagels and muffins.
Faith arrived last, her face lighting up when she saw the banquet laid out before her. Stacks of pancakes, a serving dish of scrambled eggs and hash browns, a platter of bacon and sausage, a bowl of stewed tomatoes, and a selection of fruit decorated the table.
"Quite the spread. I'd forgotten there were food groups."
"If it was up to Xander, there would be only one. Pizza," Willow teased.
"Pizza is the food of the gods. It contains every food group known to mankind," Xander reasoned.
"Minus one very important one," Willow argued, "the all important chocolate group."
"Not to be forgotten. It's the most valuable of the food groups, the comfort food group," Dawn agreed.
"I figured it’s been a while since you had a home cooked meal." Buffy served up a heaping plateful of food and offered it to Faith as she took a seat across from her.
"This is..." Faith couldn't mask her pleasure,"...it's way cool. Thanks guys."
"No problemo. We need some serious brain food to track down the rogue Slayer, and we all know a hungry Slayer is a..."
"Bitch," Dawn suggested, receiving a glare from Buffy. "What? It's true isn't it?"
Buffy shared a grin with Faith. "I was going to say an unproductive Slayer, but she's probably got something there."
"I would have preferred the term grumpy." Giles frowned at Dawn, glaring from over his glasses before turning to Faith. "We try to eat at least one meal together since we have such busy schedules during the day. On Sundays, we do brunch." He helped Buffy serve up the food and distribute the overflowing plates accordingly.
"Speaking of the upcoming busy day, let’s talk. Let me see if I have all the reports right." She counted them off on her hands as she spoke. "Last night before bed, Willow hacked the records of Hiram Scobie Hospital and the local police reports and found nothing. Xander asked around the seedier parts of town, playing on his reputation as a tough guy, and Giles did a sweep of the local homeless shelter. So far no sign of crazy Slayer girl or her wounded Watcher."
"Gotta hand it to them, they’re pretty slick. This Watcher knows how not to be found." Faith ate a forkful of hash brown potatoes and couldn't help her smile. "Man I miss this."
"What's that, Faith?" Xander asked.
"Food, real food and not that plastic sugar crap from local snack shacks."
"Just be glad we don't let Dawn do the household shopping or our kitchen would be like aisle five at the Buy and Fly Mart." Willow teased, eliciting a sheepish grin from Dawn.
"Dawn’s shopping habits scare me. Let’s talk about the much less frightening psycho Slayer. I want to know more about her and her Watcher," Buffy suggested. "Faith, what tipped you off to foul play? Why did you think the suicides were a set up?"
"The whole suicide song seemed pretty weak to me. I know there've been some since Sunnydale, sure, but some of these girls just didn't fit the profile. I mean, I got to know Kennedy pretty well and I never heard or saw anything that..."
"Kennedy?" Willow's voice cracked with shock and everyone froze, all eyes shooting to Faith, stunned by the news.
"You didn't know?" Faith shook her head, her expression remorseful. "Shit, I thought you'd heard. Oh god Willow, I'm so sorry. I figured with you keeping up on the Council press..."
"She's dead?" Willow asked, jaw clenched, face stiff with muted anger. "When? How?"
"Cleveland, her apartment three weeks ago. Overdose. It looked like a suicide to the authorities." Faith looked to Buffy, nervous eyes begging apologies. "I'm so sorry."
Willow stood, turning from side to side, trying to decide where to go, what to do, "I... I have to go." She hurried out the dining room to the front door. With the slam of the door, Buffy swiveled around to Giles who was already moving after the upset Wiccan.
"This is so messed up," Faith mumbled, dropping her fork to her plate. "I shouldn't have come."
"It's not your fault, Faith. The Council should have told us." Buffy’s voice was bitter.
"You think Kennedy actually killed herself or was it this Slayer killer?" Dawn asked softly, uncertain, folding her napkin and setting it on the table.
"The Council wasn't sure. As I said, Kennedy didn't have that look or feel to her."
"There's a look to suicidal? Like a style or something?" Xander shook his head. "They get something out of Death Wish magazine?"
"It's not that I doubt you, but how would you know the symptoms...?" Buffy stopped when she saw the wounded look in Faith's eyes. "Okay, so you know."
"Willow," Giles called out, shutting the door behind him as he spotted her marching toward the car. " Willow, please stop for a moment."
"I can't. I need to do something," she said in a frustrated stupor, continuing forward, fumbling for the keys within her pockets.
"I'm so sorry. If I had known, Willow, I would have told you." Giles finally reached the car and leaned back against the door, blocking her. "The Council must be keeping this quiet, trying to prevent the spread of panic. We have lost too many of these girls to the syndrome."
"I know." Willow looked up at him with a determined stare. "It has to stop."
"What do you intend to do?"
"I need to know what we did, Giles. Nothing’s been right since we did that spell, and I have to find out why."
"At least tell me where you're going."
"To see Elspeth." Willow could see the objection in Giles’ eyes, and she continued on, speaking quickly. "Maybe she can see what's been happening to these girls. We're losing them, Giles. It's got to stop."
"Willow, you have to understand that you can't control what she sees. The magicks she’s touched by when she uses the sight are potentially harmful. I cannot allow her to be put through that when there are other methods at our disposal."
"I won't… Girls are dying out there, Giles. Girls who are scared and angry and alone. And I made them that way."
"No matter how much you want to blame yourself, you must realize that it was never your fault. What we did in Sunnydale had to be done."
"Maybe, but everything is connected. There are consequences for everything -- you taught me that -- and we need to know what the consequences are." Willow reached for the car door latch. "You guys will have your hands full with Faith and this rogue Slayer. Call me if I can help, but right now, I need to know what's happening with my magicks... with these girls. Let me do this."
"Be careful, Willow. Tapping into Elspeth's powers is akin to opening Pandora's box."
"I know. But I have to take that chance."
Giles returned to the dining room to find the others clearing the table.
"Where’s Willow?" asked Buffy. "She okay?"
"She’ll be fine. She just needs some time.” Giles picked up his orange juice. "She’s gone to the Coven to talk to Elspeth.”
Buffy frowned. “Is that a good idea? The last time Elspeth helped, she didn’t look so hot afterward.
Giles, a grim look on his face, replied, “No, I don’t think it’s a particularly good idea, but Willow wouldn’t be dissuaded. I can only hope Elspeth has sense enough to say no to her.” He paused for a moment, then added, “We need more information if we're to solve this problem. I’m afraid I’ll have to press all of you into research duty."
"Me, too?" Dawn picked up the last muffin as she reached for the serving dishes.
"You have homework and you promised to clean your room," Buffy reminded the teenager. "Remember our deal about chores first?"
"Fine." Dawn tossed her hair over her shoulder and turned to leave the room. "But you know I’m almost as good as Willow on computer searches. You’ll be wanting me later, I know it."
"Giles, I’m no researcher," Faith said firmly. "I’m going to look around town again. Maybe I’ll get lucky."
"Be careful, Faith. Don’t take these two on alone. Wait for Buffy and me to help."
"Oh yeah, like Gimpy the Vampire Slayer there is going to be a big help."
Buffy raised a finger toward her. "Hey, I'm neither green nor gummy so lay off me."
"She said gimpy, not Gumby," Giles corrected with a smile.
"Oh," Buffy huffed. She thought for a moment. "Not liking that one any better. You’re a ranking Council member now. Can you make her run laps?" she asked hopefully.
Giles rolled his eyes. "If only my position as a senior Council member provided me with such powers…"
Faith raised her hands in defeat. "Alright, you win. I'll be a good little Slayer."
Dawn clicked on the send button and then stared at the computer. "Why do I do this to myself?" she grumbled as she stared at her mail inbox. Filling the screen from top to bottom was a column of old emails. "Why don't I delete these when I'm done reading them?"
She began hitting the delete button, sending each to a virtual grave until she came upon an old email from him. From Randall. From Ethan. She paused, her finger hovering between the delete and enter buttons before she reached for the mouse, gliding the cursor over the message and letting it rest over the document icon. She swallowed hard then double-clicked the file.
Dawn scanned the false reports of his progress with the Council. When she read the closing line, she couldn't help the tears that fell.
"What would I ever do without you, Dawn?"
Her finger stabbed down at the delete key, obliterating the lies one stroke at a time.
"Can you help me?" Willow looked at Elspeth, who sat on the other side of the mahogany table. The older woman's kindly features were wrought with concern as she stirred her tea.
"As with Rupert, I must be certain you understand that your past, present and future can be revealed in this. For better or worse, the glimpse can be a heavy burden to bear."
"I don't want to burden you, Elspeth. But these girls are hurting. I have to help them."
"I wasn't referring to the burden I bear in the sight; I was referring to the burden of having such revelations revealed to you. It is quite possible that a solution may not be found or that you will not like the answer given."
Willow’s expression hardened into resolve-face. "I'm ready when you are."
"You are as stubborn as Rupert, I fear." Elspeth smiled gently and raised a finger when Willow began to speak. “You both mean well, I know.” She nodded. "Finish your tea, and then we will begin."
"May I ask what you saw with Giles?" Willow took another sip of a soothing blend of chamomile and peppermint, displaying her nervousness with her trembling hand.
"You may ask." Elspeth drank and offered Willow a gentle smile. "But it's only for him to tell."
Willow blushed slightly at the gentle rebuke. "Do they hurt? The visions, I mean."
"Not physically as such, though I suppose the answer largely depends on how you define pain. But magicks always come at some cost." The older woman set aside her cup of tea and reached out for Willow's hands. "Shall we begin?"
"Sure," Willow's voiced cracked with worry as she clasped Elspeth’s hands.
"Close your eyes and open your mind."
Willow took a deep, cleansing breath.
"Think of your actions that day. Think of the young girls, the Potentials. Of Buffy and Giles and how you came to be in that place at that moment of time. Think of the scythe and the powers of the Slayers of ages past flowing through you."
They remained still, concentrating in the quiet room. After a moment, Willow heard Elspeth's breath catch, she opened her eyes to see the older woman staring at her with a look of absolute horror.
Willow pulled her hands free from the troubled woman's grip. "Elspeth, are you okay?" Willow leaned forward to touch her. "What did you see?"
Elspeth pulled away and rose to her feet. She looked down, extraordinarily sad. "It’s what I saw in Rupert. You share the same darkness in your future. Your magicks are entangled…"
Teresa ran her normal afternoon path through Indian Hills Park towards the University campus grounds. She crossed the open field and heading down toward the lake. She was making good time and her heart rate monitor showed she was in the cardio zone. As she came up to the old knotted oak tree, she stopped to check if she had enough cash to treat herself to an evening mocha at Cafe Caffeine.
Out of the shadows stepped two tall, dark figures. She looked up warily.
"What'cha got there?" One of the masked men asked in a mock childlike tone. "Anything for little old me?"
"Hey, baby... could you spare a dime?" The other joined in. "Or maybe we'll just help ourselves to the whole thing!"
"Help!" Teresa screamed out and took off in a blast of adrenaline and the two muggers followed quickly. She continued yelling for help along the way, knowing someone would have to hear her. As she reached the edge of the University grounds, she glanced back. There was no sign of the tall, dark figures. She could just make out the silhouette of one short, thin person. Then, in the blink of an eye, the slight figure was gone.
"I know we've not had that much success recently with this locator spell, but perhaps if we try..."
"Darkness," Willow blurted out, making Giles pause in his pacing.
"It's what Elspeth saw in her vision." Willow's concerned stare lifted to meet Giles. "That's what she saw in you and in me and in our future. She said our magicks are tangled up together."
Giles ran his hand through his hair and with a sigh, he took a seat beside Willow. "I'd have to assume some form of mystical connection was established with our..." He hesitated as if searching for a delicate way to phrase it, "...with our bonding at the Magic Box, but darkness?"
"That's what she saw Giles, and it terrified her." She shook her head. "I remember what you told me... *everything* you told me. I know you said this isn't a hobby or an addiction, that this magic is a part of me and always will be, but I can't help but worry about what could happen if I tap into that power."
"You don't want to attempt another spell," he replied, making it more of a statement than a question.
"It's not that I don't want to. If I knew I could stop the Slayer suicides with a spell of some kind, I would do it. It's just... I hate to think I've lost what I had, but even more than that, I hate to think I might lose control over it. I don't know what to do. I feel like I'm being pulled in two different directions."
"There is no certainty in the world, and we can't hide ourselves away for fear of failure."
"Easy for you to say. All you did was raise a demon. I almost destroyed the world."
Giles reached out and took her hand, squeezing it slightly. "But you didn't. The world is still very much here.”
"Promise me you won't let me go that far again." She gave him a pleading look.
"I have faith in you, Willow. I always have, even in your darkest days." Giles wrapped his arm around her. "But from the sound of Elspeth's visions, we may both need to tread lightly in this."
"Maybe if we do the location spell together?" She suggested, trying to be optimistic. "If our magicks are entwined, maybe they’ll work better together."
Giles gave her a confident nod. "Good idea. And we'll watch each other's magical back from now on."
"Slow down, Zach. Tell me again." The hulking gang leader ordered as he stormed across the grass to his cowering underlings.
Zach backed away from the tall, intimidating man, and tried to calm down. "There were two..."
"Maybe more!" Kenny suggested nervously, ducking back behind his friend.
"I couldn’t get a good look ‘cause they moved so fast." Zach continued.
"That’s the second time now, boss." Murray pointed out in frustration, tossing a rock across the lake with a hard throw. "Time to put out or get out before they be gettin' any more ideas."
"I think we got ourselves a couple a heroes, boys," Krane growled as his eyes searched the landscape of the park barely lit by the early light of dawn. "Let’s change their minds."
"It's been days now, and nothing. A complete bust. Normally I like busts, but in this case, not so much." Xander grumbled, reaching for his evening snack of a box of animal crackers. He made short work of tearing into the box as Willow held out her hand for Xander to share his bounty. He gave her a generous portion and set the box nearby.
"It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack," Willow observed, pouring her catch upon the table.
Xander paused and raised a finger. "Which is probably why we can’t find them. We’re too busy looking for those darn needles."
"Yes, a rascally bunch indeed," Giles added with a grin, stealing one of Willow's unattended cookies away from her. "Well, a bit of good news. Willow’s locator spells seem to be gaining in strength, not to mention growing in reliability. We’ve managed to pin it down…"
"Pin it down," Dawn snickered, shrinking back a bit when Giles sent her a weary glance. "Sorry, I’m still hanging back with Xander and his needles."
Giles gave a patient nod, reaching out to steal another of Willow's cookies, only to be stopped by a warning slap to the back of his hand. He grinned unrepentantly and continued. "There have been reports on the daily news of a recent spree of good Samaritan acts in the park by the university. Thwarted muggings, a drowning prevented."
"You think it may be crazy Slayer girl and her sidekick, seeping flesh wound man, who are workin’ the south side?" Xander asked, decapitating his lion with a vicious crunch.
Faith let out a frustrated sigh. "They kill Slayers, Giles, innocent girls. Why in hell would they give a fu... why would they care?"
"Because in the end, they are who they are -- a Slayer and her Watcher. They know they have a duty to perform. They have to help when they see a problem." Buffy shifted uncomfortably in her chair and Giles moved to help adjust the pillow helping to prop up her leg.
"And the dead girls they left in Dayton, Jersey, Vancouver? Killing them is part of their duty, their purpose?" Faith asked sharply. "What about Kennedy?"
"Of course Buffy’s not agreeing with their actions," Giles spoke quickly with a hand raised to stop further comment. "However we cannot assume anything, particularly in regard to their motivation."
Xander offered the open box of cookies to Faith and she refused it with a curt shake of her head. He then presented the box to Giles, who took a handful.
"So wacky Watcher and psycho Slayer are moonlighting as local park ranger super heroes?" Xander asked.
"I think the Watcher is out of the running," Buffy speculated. "That was a bad wound. Maybe fatal. He’s gotta be laid up somewhere. If he’s still alive, we might be able use it to bring her out. Try and get her to seek help for his sake and nab them when they show." She reached for the box.
"Or we could bait them," Dawn suggested, blocking Buffy's attempt to reach the snacks. Giles rolled his eyes and offered Buffy his share, placing his hand on her shoulder and leaving it there as he shifted behind her. Faith watched the tender gesture thoughtfully.
"Somehow, I don’t think she’d fall for the old Slayer-wandering-alone-in-the-park-at-night gag," Xander noted.
"No. She knows Faith and I are working together. She’ll be cautious," Buffy agreed.
"I wasn’t talking about using Faith or Buffy. I meant a victim. Someone to walk the park to lure a real mugger so that maybe she’ll come to save the day."
"You’re suggesting we send someone in to purposely get assaulted just so we can get an insane Slayer to be the hero of the piece?" Buffy shook her head.
"Too risky." Giles thought for a moment. "But perhaps if Xander and I masquerade as the assailants, we could ensure the apparent victim will be left unharmed."
"Then you’re setting yourself up as crazy Slayer bait," Buffy pointed out. "Not liking that idea."
"She's a killer. She needs to be stopped," Faith said bluntly. "I say we do what we can to get her to poke out her crazy little head so I can chop it off."
"Or something a bit less dramatic, perhaps. I believe Xander and I can manage to avoid serious injury," Giles assured Buffy, smiling down at her with confidence.
Buffy frowned and then nodded. "Okay, we'll give it a shot. But you guys better be careful." She pointed a warning finger to Giles. "No telling what she might do."
"I'm afraid I've got to tutor tonight. Also, Jo offered to help me with some focusing techniques so I'm coven-bound afterward," Willow mentioned. "So, who'll be the bait for the bait?"