Tears streaming down her face, Willow looked up at Buffy and held her hands out. They were red and, and the tips were starting to blister. "I don’t know."
"Oh, God. Dawn, get the first aid kit." Buffy hurried over to Willow and helped her stand so she could go to the couch. "I thought you were just meditating this morning."
Willow winced as Buffy turned her hands over to look at them. "I was. Honest! I was even doing a good job of shutting out sounds."
Buffy frowned at the other woman’s hands as she examined them closely. "It looks like the burn is fading."
Her breath hitching slightly, Willow sniffed and said, "It doesn’t hurt as much. I think you’re right."
"I heard a shout. Is everyone alright?" Giles entered the room quickly. He went over to the couch and sat on the other side of Willow. "What happened?"
Hovering a small distance away, the first aid kit in hand, Dawn answered before Willow could. "Me and Buffy…"
Giles’ tone was distracted as he corrected her with, "Buffy and I."
"Fine. Buffy and I…" Dawn made a face when she was interrupted again.
"I was meditating," said Willow, her voice tremulous. "And I was doing really good. The next thing I knew, pow! Explosion of magic and burned fingers. And pain. Lots of pain."
Giles frowned at Willow’s damage-free fingers. "There’s no evidence of a burn."
Buffy shook her head. "Her fingers were red when I first came in, and there were blisters. They went away pretty quickly, though."
Giles brushed Willow’s fingers. "Are you in pain now?"
"No. But I was." She sniffled and wiped at the tearstains on her face.
His face and voice grave, he told Willow, "I’m very glad you didn’t suffer lasting damage, but we need to understand what happened here."
"Giles, I was only meditating!" Willow looked up at him, concerned. "I wasn’t trying to do anything. I don’t understand it."
Giles nodded. "Indeed. But something did happen, Willow. I think a chat with Elspeth might be in order."
Dawn looked at the other three. "Talk to Elspeth about what? I don’t get it. Willow’s fine now. Right?" When no one answered, she repeated more softly, "right?"
Xander dropped to his knees and ripped off his safety glasses, removing his eye patch at the same time. He put both hands over his left eye socket and groaned, half sobbing.
In a few long moments, he started to calm down and hesitantly pulled his hands from his face. When nothing else happened, he hit the emergency power cut-off for the saw and then slumped in relief and tried to catch his breath. He dropped his head to his chest and let his tears continue to make tracks down his face.
He didn’t look up until he heard a very testy, "Oh crap."
Dawn climbed into the back seat of the SUV. "Did anyone leave a note for Xander?"
"You know what he’s like when he’s working with wood. We’ll probably be back before he comes up for air." Buffy paused before she climbed in. "Willow, do you want to sit in the front?"
"No thanks, Buffy." She continued to the rear passenger door. "And really guys, I could drive myself there."
Giles closed Dawn’s door, then got in himself. "It’s no trouble at all to drop you off. The sooner you determine what happened with your magic, the better for everyone."
"You don’t have to make it sound so bad!" Willow looked hurt. "We don’t know if anything bad happened. My fingers are fine and nothing else was wrong." She frowned. "There was just some… sparkage."
With a quick look between Giles and Willow, Buffy held up a hand to prevent further discussion. "He didn’t mean it like that, Will. We’re just worried about you is all. Please, let us drive you to the Coven?"
Xander shook his head and tried to back away from the person in front of him. Though stopped by the workbench, it didn’t prevent his legs from continuing to push against the floor in an effort to move away. "Oh God. Not again. Please not again."
"What are you talking about? Not again what?"
Xander managed to push himself far enough from the workbench that he could start to stand. He swayed a little bit as he straightened up and put a hand out to steady himself. "Buffy destroyed your army. You’ve got nothing here! Nothing!"
"What army? Xander, it’s me, Anya." She stood there looking cross and out of sorts. She was wearing a bright orange, short-sleeved smock made of a thick, coarse-weave polyester which was covered in snags, and her hands were stuffed into the lime green, neon pink and royal blue plaid front pockets. Her trousers, made of the same material as the top, ended two inches above her ankles and her knee-highs sagged above her black orthopedic shoes. On the left side of her chest, she had a large black button with glittering white letters. It read, "Hello! I’m Aud!"
"Like I’m gonna believe that? Anya’s dead. Andrew told me all about it."
"Of course I’m dead! That stupid Bringer sliced right through me. Did you know the little weasel didn’t even warn me it was back there? He just cowered there while I died."
A triumphant look on his face, Xander pointed at her with a knowing, "Ah ha!"
"‘Ah ha’ what? Harris, have you been drinking? You’re not making any sense."
"You’re The First! You can’t fool me. Plus, there’s no way my Anya would be caught dead looking like that."
She muttered, "A lot you know," as she glanced down at her outfit. She bent over and tugged the knee-highs up, but they fell almost as soon as she straightened up again.
"And that button says you’re Aud, not Anya," he said, sounding triumphant. "As soon as I tell Buffy you’re back, she’s so gonna send your incorporeal ass back to Hell."
"If you really knew me, you’d know that I was Aud before I was Anyanka before I was Anya. Not that any of that matters now." She sighed impatiently. "This is absurd," she said, before stepping up and slapping his cheek.
"Ow!" Xander put his hand up to his face and looked betrayed. "That hurt! What’d you do that for?"
Her hands lifted, she raised her face upward. "Do you see what I had to put up with when I was human? Do you understand now?" She lowered her head to look at Xander. "If I were The First, could I have hit you like that?"
He blinked. And then he blinked again. It was another moment before he could speak. "Oh. Good point." Xander giggled self-consciously just before he fell flat on his face.
Giles pulled up to the Coven’s main building and stopped, leaving the SUV running. "Are you sure you don’t want me to go in with you?"
"Did you feel the magic, or did you just hear me scream?"
"Just the scream, but I still might be able to help."
"Maybe. But I’m thinking that since you didn’t get any sense of me doing magic, it’s something I have to work on by myself." After she stepped out and closed the door, she paused at Buffy’s open window. "Don’t worry about picking me up. I’ll get Lessa to give me a ride back."
He nodded as Buffy leaned out slightly to address Willow. "If you change your mind, give me a call on the cell."
She smiled a little. "But Giles will have the car since he’s dropping you off at the mall."
Buffy looked back at Giles with a mischievous smile. "He only thinks he’s dropping me off. Today’s the day he’s getting a new summer wardrobe."
"Today? But I have… things… things to take care of."
Buffy’s quirked an eyebrow up. "Oh? What kind of things would those be?"
He stammered, "Just things… work things. You know… for students." His face brightened with a hopeful smile. "Can’t let my students down, after all. You were the one who pointed out how much they like me."
Willow smiled as she moved away from the SUV and turned to go to the house.
"So you care more about your students than you do about me?"
"Of course not! But…"
"You’ve been putting me off for the last two weeks. We’re going."
"What about all those things you made me buy last year? I’ve barely worn them."
"You went shopping without me or anyone else with an ounce of fashion sense helping you choose. And now that you have money to spend and me at your side, you can get things you’ll actually look good in."
The look he gave her was a mixture of pleading and hope. "Can’t you just… I don’t know… buy clothing for me without me actually having to go along?"
She responded with a glance of pure mischief before slyly adding, "I could, but then who would help me pick out a new bathing suit for myself?"
"Er… a new bathing suit?" He blinked several times before he turned to face the drive again. "I didn’t realize you were planning to shop for yourself as well."
Dawn smirked as Giles started to pull away. "You are so whipped."
In chorus, Giles and Buffy issued a stern, "Dawn!"
"Xander!" Anya knelt down and lightly slapped his face. Her button flashed and glittered with a new command, "Live today as if you were going to die tomorrow."
He batted her hand away, his face a study of irritation and fascinated horror. "What are you doing?"
Exasperated, she put her hands on her hips and glared at him. "I’m trying to wake you up. You passed out just now."
"I got dizzy for a minute, that’s all. Right before you popped in, I was hit with a blinding headache."
She peered more closely at him then. "A headache?"
He started to sit up, but she just pushed him back down, leaving her hand on his shoulder to make sure he stayed put. He settled back against the workbench. "Maybe not a headache. More like something set fire to my left eye socket."
She frowned at that. "Eye socket? Not your eye?"
He took a deep breath, then tapped his left cheek. "I know it’s been a while, but you do remember Caleb poking out my eye, don’t you?"
"Of course I do," she said dismissively. She cocked her head. "When you woke up this morning, how many eyes did you have?"
"How many eyes… ?" He stared up in confusion. "How badly did your brain get scrambled when you died?"
She glared at him. "Answer the question, Harris. One or two eyes when you crawled out of bed?"
"Did you get a glass eye?"
"There you have it then!" With a look of complete satisfaction, she smiled at him.
Xander started to reply, paused, then tried again. "There I have what?"
She stood up and dusted off her slacks. "There you have the reason for the pain and dizziness."
"Ahn, you lost me. What the hell are you talking about?"
She tsked impatiently. "Close your right eye."
He gave her a deeply suspicious look. "Why?"
"Just do it," she snapped.
His right eye closed, he looked at her and said, "Now what?"
With a look of confident superiority firmly in place, Anya held up her hand. "How many fingers am I holding up?"
"Only the one, and how many times do I have to tell you not to hold up your middle…" Xander stopped speaking suddenly.
Anya cocked her head slightly. "Now do you see?"
She looked at his face critically. "I don’t know who grew your new eye for you, but the least they could have done was make sure it matched your other one."
He blinked at her. "What do you mean?"
"Your new left eye is blue."
Willow knocked on the door and waited for someone to answer. When several moments passed, she knocked again before grasping the doorknob. She hesitated briefly before she tried to turn it.
When the door opened for her, she cautiously peered inside, then called out, "Hello? Anyone home? It’s Willow."
There was no answer, so she stepped inside. "Hello?"
From the back of the house came the faint sound of music and the slightly louder sound of singing. Willow’s grin disappeared quickly when the singer hit several sour notes in quick succession.
She hurried toward the kitchen, and when she got there, she saw Lessa sweeping the floor, oblivious to everything around her. She was singing ‘I Need A Hero’ and drowning out Bonnie Tyler in the process. Willow winced as she went to the CD player and turned it off.
One chorus later, Lessa finally looked up and squeaked when she saw Willow. "You scared me!"
"Like your singing didn’t terrify me?"
"Hey!" In mock outrage, Lessa made as if to sweep Willow out of the house. Willow danced out of the way of the broom as Lessa followed.
The chase ended when the two of them were laughing too hard to continue. Willow went back to the CD player and removed the disc. "This? It’s gone. Seriously. I can’t have you torturing the rest of the Coven like that."
"As if." Lessa rolled her eyes before she snatched the CD out of Willow’s hand. "And anyway, the others are running errands."
Willow’s face fell at the news. "They are? Will they be back soon?"
Lessa put her arm around Willow’s shoulders and steered her to the table to sit. "Hey now! What am I? Chopped slug?"
Willow laughed. "No, you’re way above slughood." She turned more serious. "It’s just that I had an accident this morning, and I wanted to talk to Elspeth."
"What kind of an accident?"
Willow gulped, and looking slightly guilty, answered, "Magical."
Xander stood at the mirror in the Manor’s first floor bathroom. He kept his right eye closed as he stared at his reflection. Anya stood behind him, her arms crossed and her foot tapping out an impatient rhythm.
Finally, she put her hands back on her hips. "Are you satisfied, Harris? The eye is real and it’s blue."
"This is pretty major, Anya!" he protested.
"And your dead ex-fiancée showing up out of nowhere isn’t? I’m not supposed to be here!"
Xander opened his mouth to reply, but the words died on his lips as he turned to face her. Horror crept over his features, and he turned pale. "Oh god. No. Please. Not that."
Confused, she said, "Not what?"
"Who did it? Who resurrected you, Ahn?"
Her confusion changed to impatience. "Resurrected? Have you…"
"Did they rip you out of heaven? Was that…" He broke off at her burst of laughter.
"Are you serious? Heaven? Me?"
Defensive, he crossed his arms. "You’re supposed to be dead, but you’re standing right there, wearing…" He gestured towards her with his right hand, waving it up and down in front of her. "Wearing..."
"Don’t go there, Harris. I’m warning you." The message on her button shimmered and changed to, "Avoidance isn’t a valid deathstyle choice."
Xander gulped at the look on her face and nodded. "You’re solid, so you aren’t a ghost. What else am I supposed to think?"
"Not that I was ripped out of heaven, that’s for damn sure!"
He straightened at her tone. "So you weren’t resurrected?"
"God, you really are delusional, aren’t you?" Anya shook her head in disbelief. "I was a vengeance demon for eleven hundred years. What makes you think I ever got near heaven?"
Xander flushed, then paled at her comment. "But you… you died helping save the world. You should have…"
"I helped avert an apocalypse or two. So what? All that did was give me a get-out-of-hell-free card." She reached into her front pocket. "Would you like to see it? I keep it with me at all times."
"No," he said, shaking his head. "That isn’t right. You should have gotten more than that. You should have gone to heaven. At the very least, you should have gotten something better to wear."
"Forget the way I’m dressed!" She looked at him sadly, and her voice softened. "Eleven hundred years is a long time, Xander. You know all those stories about the so-called Scourge of Europe?"
He nodded, and she continued, speaking softly and with regret. "I never made a point of saying anything about it, because I was afraid you would leave. But you have to understand that compared to me, Angelus was nothing more than a small boy playing harmless pranks."
Lessa look confused. "What spell were you doing?"
"That’s just it," Willow said, her voice a soft wail. "I wasn’t trying any magic at all. I was just doing a new meditation."
"Was it from that book Jo gave you the other day?"
"Yeah. I wanted to practice getting into a trance state when there were distractions, so I tried Torelli’s Meditation." Willow looked miserable as she continued. "It took me a few minutes to settle down, but when I did, the noises started falling away, just like they were supposed to."
Lessa waited for Willow to continue, and when she didn’t, she asked, "What happened?"
"I don’t know. Just as I hit the first stage of the trance, I felt a sudden burst of magic from my fingers. It hurt!"
"How are they now?" Lessa asked, turning Willow’s hands over to look at them.
"The tips were red and blistered, but the burns went away pretty quick," Willow said.
They looked up at the faint sound of the front door closing, and Lessa called out, "Who’s home?"
"It’s Jo. I forgot my list. Did you need to add to it?" She walked into the kitchen, stopping in surprise when she saw their guest. "Willow? Were we supposed to meet this morning?"
"Not exactly," she said ruefully.
Giving Willow’s hands a quick squeeze, Lessa turned to Jo to answer. "Willow had some sort of magical accident this morning and wanted to talk to Elspeth. No one was hurt," she was quick to reassure. "She was just about to fill in the details."
"Details? I told you what happened…breakfast, meditation and burned fingers."
"But you didn’t tell me. With Elspeth away this weekend, I’m more than happy to help." Jo put her purse on the counter before joining the other two at the table. "My grandmother always used to say the devil is in the details, so if we get enough information from you, perhaps we can sort out what happened and why."
Blushing slightly, Willow grimaced. "Sorry… you’re right. I was a little too much into the guilt of unplanned magic." Panic flittered across her face. "Magic! Magic that I didn’t control. What have I done?"
Jo spoke reassuringly. "I don’t hear the world ending, so let’s assume for now that this isn’t a disaster, alright?"
Lessa smiled. "I’ll make a pot of tea, and then you and Jo can go over your morning step by step, okay?"
Xander and Anya stared at each other for a long moment. "No," he said, shaking his head. "I don’t believe you. You weren’t that bad. You couldn’t have been."
Her explosive sigh made him jump. "The stories I told you were what I thought you could handle."
"You thought I could handle hearing about making men trying to devour themselves?"
Her face troubled, she reached for him, then let her hand drop before she touched him. "I never told you the worst of it."
"No. I don’t want to hear this." He moved to the door, but Anya blocked him.
"You never wanted to hear any of it." Her arms were stiff at her side. "You really are very good at denial, you know that?"
He tried to push past her, but she refused to move. "Let me out."
"No. Not until we talk," she said, standing firm.
"I don’t want to. There’s nothing else to say." He tried again to leave the bathroom, but she put both hands on his chest and pushed. He stumbled backward and managed to remain upright only by grabbing the sink.
"I disagree, so too bad for you." For a moment, she didn’t look like the young woman he’d fallen in love with. Instead, she looked as if she’d seen eleven hundred years of humanity at its worst.
"I don’t get a say in this?" He snapped, stepping forward again.
"I didn’t get a say in our wedding being canceled, so why should you get a say in what I want to talk about?"
"I thought we settled that."
"The wedding? Yes. Me? No. Now where was I?" After a moment, her expression brightened with a smile, and she continued. "That’s right. I was talking about how evil I was when I was a demon." She paused, looking at him expectantly.
He frowned. "You weren’t evil!"
"I was when I was a vengeance demon, but you never gave me credit for that."
Disbelief shaded every syllable he spoke. "I… You’re upset because I didn’t think you were evil?"
Patiently, as if to a small child, she said, "I’m upset because you never took me seriously. You never saw me for who I was." The button changed to bright red letters on a deep yellow field and read, "Remember! Vengeance is an ugly stain on a beautiful soul."
He stood straight at her accusation. "I saw you, and I took you seriously!"
"No you didn’t," she said bitterly. "When I was human, you treated me like a dimwitted child as you so ‘patiently’ explained life to me."
Xander held up his hands and repeated the quote signs Anya had made when she stressed "patiently" and asked, "What’s this for? I was patient."
"No you weren’t! You were patronizing and rude, and you encouraged everyone else to treat me the same way." Her face sharp and pinched, it was easy to see the old pain.
He sighed. "I didn’t mean it like that, Anya. You knew that. You told me you knew that."
"I only told you that so you wouldn’t leave." She stared at him as she added quietly, "But every time you made fun of the way I talked, I... I felt like I was less than nothing. I hated it."
Xander looked queasy. "Why didn’t you say something?"
"Don’t you ever pay attention when I’m talking? I told you… I didn’t want you to leave, so I didn’t say anything, and I prayed to every god I could think of that you would stay long enough for me to learn how to be human again. Not that it worked." Her voice cracked slightly, and she hunched her shoulders.
"You left me at the altar, because I wasn’t human enough for you."
"Anya, no… that wasn’t it at all."
As her button flashed to "I spent a month hanging over the pit of despair, and all I got was this lousy button!" she shook her head. "And if I couldn’t be human enough, why bother trying? It’s why I became a demon again."
"You were more than human enough for me," he said softly. With a sudden move, Xander pulled her into his embrace, and with his arms around her, she started to cry. "I’m sorry. I’m so sorry…"
Willow sipped the tea slowly, eyes closed.
Jo said gently, "It’s time to take me through your morning, Willow."
She opened her eyes and took a steadying breath. "All of it, or just the part where I was meditating and it went kerplooey?"
"All of it, please." Jo gave her an encouraging smile. "You never know where a clue might be hiding."
Willow nodded unsteadily, and she began to describe her morning. "I woke up just after seven, and I took a shower."
"Is that your normal routine in the morning?"
"Um, yeah," she said. She took a deep breath and looked at Jo. "So I woke up right around seven, and I took a shower, just like always. And before you ask, no, there was no new shampoo or soap. After I put on my make-up and got dressed, I went down to breakfast…"