At the digital ding, Willow quickly clicked on the yellow flashing alert icon in the center of her laptop screen.
"Special package tracked in Los Angeles. Situation elevated to level Delta in all US locales."
"Any news on our slippery, psycho Slayer yet?" Xander asked as he made his way into the family room, slipping his brown suede jacket on as he moved.
"The Council just sent word she was spotted in Los Angeles," Willow said, gesturing to the computer. "But CoW intel also reported sightings in Billings, Montana and Las Vegas."
"Vegas?" Xander shot her a concerned gaze. "That's Rona and Vi's territory, isn't it?"
"Way ahead of you. Already called and they're both doing great. Rona's attending a private school on an archery scholarship and Vi's working toward her citizenship. They're still studying with that Watcher that Giles handpicked for them and the Council has them under lock and key." Willow paused. "Not literally, figuratively... as in no actual bondage but safe and sound and..."
"I got the picture, Will. No more suspicious suicides, then?"
"Nope. Which is good news but it still means our crazy, vengeful Slayer could be anywhere and smart enough now to keep a lower-than-low profile."
"The CoW-boys are on it. They'll get together a posse and wrangle her up in no time."
"I hope so." Willow relaxed. "So how was your first day back? Any suspicions about the new eye at work?"
"Naw, the contact lens is a pretty solid color cover and they seem to buy into the whole ‘miracle ocular replacement’ story." Xander shrugged. "It’s not like trying to sell the whole Weapons of Mass Destruction thing. Most of the guys at the shop didn't even notice."
"That’s great." Willow looked at the clock on the wall. "Hey, it’s a bit early for lunch, Xander. What are you doing here?"
His face broke into a boyish grin. "Can’t a guy stop in to see my bestest friend in the whole wide world?"
"Wait… you're dressed way too pimp daddy for work." Willow smiled at Xander who was wearing his nicest black jeans, freshly pressed, and a new solid maroon shirt. "Let me guess. You're stopping in at school for some extra special nursing?"
"That's touching a bit on the personal side. More like molesting, but yeah..." Xander smiled. "Gonna see my girl."
"Business or pleasure?"
"A little of both, actually. Using business as an excuse to swing by and hence, pleasure will ensue. She needs a quote on a new sectional desk, a loose door knob replaced, a latch fixed on her cabinets, a squeaky leg repaired on her chair..."
"She's running out of things to break, isn't she?"
"Yeah, school board is about to cap her annual supply budget. Seems all these little expenses are adding up."
"Lucky for them she happens to know a good carpenter and handyman."
"Isn't it though? And Tony at work doesn't mind 'cause I won the bid for refurnishing the faculty lounge."
"Very scheming of you but in a romantic, smoochies kind of way. Say 'hi' to Carrie for me." Willow returned her attention to the laptop screen.
"Will do. Oh, can you do me a favor when you swing by the coven and ask Lessa if we're still on for Friday night?"
"It's a day of the week but that isn't important now." Xander grinned. "All Night Monster Fest on the Horror Network. Carrie's invited everyone over. Lessa's in charge of chips and dips. Even though she made it an open house for all, Dawn's planning something with Mark the Majestic and Buffy and G-man will be doing their 'usual'." Xander punctuated the final word gesturing quote marks.
"And what exactly is their 'usual'?" Willow asked hopefully.
"I believe that is more commonly referred to as training." Xander shook his head. "And since you missed the breakfast briefing with your early morning commune with nature, you might not have heard that Buffy took the day off today for some extra special training."
"Oh really? I'll be sure to do an extensive Q and A with her later."
"Please do. I only get scraps of ew's from Dawn and Giles is being too much the gentleman to give me anything. The entire concept of locker room jock talk is beyond him."
"We don't have a locker room."
"Never stopped me from talking about sex and/or the lack thereof." Xander began to walk toward the front door, talking as he went. "You're welcome to join in the Monster Fest if you want."
"Think I'll pass. I get enough of the monster mash as it is. But I'll deliver the message. I'm sure Lessa will be excited. She loves having a chance to make her Caper Dill Dip. See you later."
As Xander shut the front door, Willow redirected her attention back to her email and clicked on one from Percy.
"Willow, when you have a free moment please glance over this report and then update Rupert on the situation. And speaking of dear Rupert, is there any news regarding the possibility of upcoming nuptials? Do keep me informed as my wife has her heart set on a June wedding."
"What do you think about this one?" Dawn turned the magazine around and shoved it across the cafeteria table to Mark.
He looked at the picture. "It's pink… and fluffy."
Dawn sighed. "It's blush peau de soie satin that gracefully sweeps over layers of bashful tulle and has an unforgettable glittering rhinestone brooch that beautifully accents a pleated side."
Mark looked again and then shrugged. "If you say so. It still just looks pink to me."
Dawn pulled the magazine back across the table and began flipping pages. "The prom is only a six weeks away. That doesn't give me much time to find the right dress."
"It takes forty-two days to buy a dress?" Mark asked, propping his elbow on the table and resting his chin on his palm.
Dawn shook her head. "Of course not. Three weeks to find the dress, ten days for the shoes and jewelry and five days to decide on the perfect hairstyle."
"That's only thirty-six," Mark pointed out.
Dawn gave him a pitying glance. "That leaves me a mere six days to change my mind and exchange everything. Barely enough."
"Oh." Mark sat quietly for a moment thinking it over. "I'm glad I'm not a girl. It sounds really complicated."
Dawn gave him a slow smile. "I'm glad you're not a girl too."
Mark blushed. "Thank you from the bottom of my XY chromosome pattern."
"So you don't have a place yet?"
"Not anymore. I was staying at a hotel in the far side of town but was put out recently by a rather uncooperative gentleman. We actually came to blows over a misunderstanding." Ethan shook his head ruefully. "I just deplore violence, and as a result, I'm not the best at defending myself."
"That's horrible to think you could be assaulted in Whispering Pines," Jo said sympathetically. "Will you press charges against that criminal?"
"Oh no, I thought it best to just let it go for now. But it's been a bit difficult and I’ve spent most of my time since then living out of my car and surviving on the local fast food establishment's menus." He sighed dramatically. "How I long for something not swimming in lard."
Jo glanced at the clock on the wall behind her. "You know, it's just about noon and we usually share a communal lunch. We always have plenty and we are happy to set another place."
"Who'll mind the shop?"
"That's what this inventive little device is for..." she walked to the door and flipped the open sign from 'open' to 'closed.' "Voilà! Free from the shackles of capitalism. I can guarantee a hearty serving of the best caramel apple pie in town. It will ruin you to any imitations."
"You're sure it won't be any trouble?"
"If you can promise that you won't be."
"I can't make any promises, luv."
"Well, I guess I'll just have to take my chances, then."
Slayer and Watcher stalked sideways in the open space of the wagon house, completely focused on each other. They circled left for a few paces then right, neither one willing to make the first move.
"Whenever you're ready," Giles encouraged her.
"Watchers first," Buffy said.
He charged forward with a fury of quick jabs that Buffy easily blocked with swiping forearms. He stepped back and began to sidestep the edge of the space again.
"Had a good teacher."
Giles waited for a moment, giving Buffy the chance to strike, but instead, she continued to move sideways, keeping her distance and locked in a defensive stance. He lunged forward again with a series of more powerful strikes, watching carefully as she blocked some and dodged others. He quickly pivoted on his heel and dropped low to send his leg sweeping around to knock hers out from under her. Buffy leapt up, successfully avoiding the kick and landed steady, returning to the defensive pose. Giles returned to stand upright and planted his hands firm to his hips.
"Is something wrong?" he asked.
"Are you feeling alright?"
"Alright as rain, why?"
"You seem… off."
"Off?" Buffy cocked an eyebrow. "Expand on ‘off’."
"While your defensive skills are quite formidable today, your offense is seriously lacking… bordering on non-existent, in fact. Why aren't you countering?"
"What do you mean?"
"Why won't you fight me?"
She giggled. "See now, there's something most people don't ask for in a relationship."
Giles smiled faintly. "Yes, well, I believe you know what I meant."
She shrugged, diverting her focus to her shoes. "I don't know. I guess I just don't want to hurt you." She glanced up at him.
"Hurt me? Buffy, we've been training for years and you've never held back in our sessions together." Giles stepped towards her, gesturing for her to come at him. "I know this must seem redundant and unnecessary, but we must work at keeping both defensive and offensive proficiency at peak levels. So please, practice routine bare-handed skirmish tactics, including attacks, if you would." He took a defensive posture, arms raised before him.
Buffy nodded uncertainly and readied herself to strike. After a brief hesitation, she tried a slow, broad punch that Giles blocked effortlessly with a forearm. She followed with a series of weak jabs targeting oddly high on his torso and finished with a half-hearted kick to his midsection. Giles easily blocked each blow and stepped away from her, obviously frustrated.
"What's going on, Buffy? Talk to me."
"What? I did what you asked. I attacked."
"That you did. You also dropped your shoulder, tensed your elbow, flexed your calf, inched your foot, telegraphing each and every strike in some form or fashion. You were basically pulling your punches and intentionally warning me before each assault. Why?"
Buffy let out a long drawn out sigh and slowly approached him, reaching out to press her hand to his abdomen; the location of the ragged spear scars. "I can't get these out of my mind, Giles."
"Buffy, really, believe me. They're nothing."
"Then why won't you let me see you?" She slipped her hand lower and began to tug the material of his sweatshirt up. He gripped the fabric and held it down. She looked up questioningly.
"Please don't," he said softly and covered her hand with his.
"We need to talk about this, Giles." She pulled back. "Is this why we're waiting, why you won't let me touch you?"
"We talked about waiting, Buffy, and we agreed to go slowly. As for these… the responsibilities of a Slayer are difficult enough. You shouldn't have to be reminded of the horrors of life when you look at me... when you want to touch me."
"Don't you want me to touch you?"
"Of course I do!" Giles let out an explosive breath before continuing more softly. "But every mark holds memories and I see no need to revisit those hard times. I don’t want them to be an issue for us."
"Maybe I need to face them. Maybe we need to... together." She stepped towards him again. He stood there, staring into her adoring face.
"I love you, Giles. Let me touch you."
With that, she reached out and delicately slipped her hand beneath the material. Giles let her draw the material up his abdomen and torso, watching her face as Buffy examined them with reserved awe. After a moment, she gathered the sweatshirt up and over his head, guiding his arms to allow her to undress him from the waist up. He followed her silent directions without uttering a word.
The shirt fell discarded to the woodchips and dusty ground. Buffy never let her eyes stray from the sight of his marked chest shining in the sunlight streaming though the wagon house windows.
"Tell me about these," she asked, gently brushing her finger tip along a patch of circular scars.
Giles inhaled deeply and nodded. "Cigarette burns from Spike and Angelus." He watched the regret cross her features. "Are you sure you want to hear this?"
She nodded determinedly. "I need to know. Please, tell me everything."
"Everyone must be in the kitchen." Jo wandered past the study, living room and dining room. "Probably still gathering up the fixings. Come along and I’ll introduce you to the gang."
"Sounds lovely." He inspected the rooms as they continued further inside, peering down the halls, peeking past doors. "Must be convenient to have the shop in such close walking distance to the old homestead."
"It is. Makes it easy for shift changes and emergencies."
"Emergencies? What would that entail exactly, an outbreak of good tidings?"
"I get the distinct feeling you’re mocking us and our quaint, townsfolk ways."
"I wouldn’t dare," he said with a smirk. "I would think you’d grow tired of such a sheltered life, that’s all. No excitement, no adventure."
"You’d be surprised. Besides, most of us have had our fill of what the world has to offer. We find this so-called ‘sheltered life’ preferable to what else is out there."
"I have to admit I find it all very intriguing."
Jo looked at that mischievous dark gaze again and responded with a smile. She held open the kitchen door for him, gesturing for him to enter. Inside, working diligently, three younger ladies and one older were gathering up the necessary plates and silverware.
"Hello everyone, I’ve invited someone to join us for lunch. Hope you don’t mind."
"Always room for one more." Lessa practically skipped over to introduce herself but was quickly outflanked by Sarah.
"New friends are always welcome. I’m Sarah."
"It's a pleasure to meet you." He took her hand, giving it a polite shake.
"While you’re gallivanting around here with outsiders, who is minding the shop, Joanna?" Deborah interrupted Lessa, causing Sarah to roll her eyes.
"Didn't we tell you?" Lessa stepped forward and winked playfully at the guest before returning her attention to Deborah. "We've hired on Old Man Finch. Said he'd take special care of it for us." She offered the stranger her hand. "Hello, I'm Lessa and that’s Katrina."
Katrina waved from where she was preparing a huge salad.
Ethan took Lessa’s hand and lifted it to his grinning lips, placing a gentle kiss there. "How very fortunate I am to meet such beauties. Might I inquire what it takes to join this coven?" Ethan chuckled softly. "If it at all persuades you, I do windows, am very willing to work odd hours and you haven't lived until you've experienced one of my margaritas."
"Such an enticing offer. I'm afraid, however, that our quota for overconfident lady-killers is filled at the moment," Deborah said, her sarcasm softened by a hint of a smile as she continued to gather the supplies.
"I’m nothing of the kind. I fancy myself the loyal type and quite the incorrigible romantic."
"I don’t doubt the incorrigible part." Jo laughed.
"You're breaking my heart, Jo. And here I thought we could make such marvelous magicks together." He glanced around the room, taking a good look at all the faces present. "Such a spacious house and what a charming location." He paused thoughtfully. "Actually I happen to be looking for a place of my own and I believe there was an estate on the other side of town quite similar to this one. May I ask how many rooms here?"
"There are seven bedrooms in this building, and then we have a few private cottages and other buildings for storage or workshops as well," Sarah answered smiling enthusiastically at him. "It's a lovely complex."
"And larger then I thought. We're missing quite a few faces then, are we?" Ethan inquired.
"Actually, yes. A number of us are on retreat right now, so it's kinda quiet. But we really have more space then we need because we keep a few rooms empty for guests," Lessa explained.
"Ah, yes. I remember reading an article in the Gazette about how you generously opened up your home to some of the unfortunate Sunnydale survivors. It must have been quite the ordeal for both you and them."
"They were no bother at all," Sarah corrected. "They're good folks and we always enjoy the occasional company."
"Still, it's very kind of you to offer such hospitality to those in need of a place to stay."
"Are you 'in need'?" Jo asked suggestively.
"You have no idea."
"Well, then. Perhaps if you pass the lunch test, we'll see if we’d be kind enough to put you up for the night," Jo said with a broad smile.
Ethan grinned broadly. "What shall it be, then? Multiple choice or essay?"
A knock sounded behind Carrie and she turned see a grinning Xander peering around her office door.
"Hey." He gave a little wave.
"Hey yourself." She smiled and welcomed him in with a wave. "Just finishing up some monthly reports. Make yourself at home."
"You really don’t want that."
"For me to make myself at home. Usually that requires me stripping down to my baggy boxers with a bag of cheesy chips and a brewsky , all of which I would guess the school might frown upon. I did enough trouble-making on my own high school; I really don't want to carry on with the tradition."
"You might be right. So make yourself comfortable within reason."
"Delighted to, if you wouldn’t mind giving me a hand with these…" He stepped out from behind the door to reveal a bouquet of flowers generously wrapped in brightly colored tissue paper.
"I get flower treatment? What gives?"
"You always give me the benefit of the doubt and I really appreciate it." He handed the bouquet to her."
"Wait a minute…" As she accepted the gift, she looked closer, "Are these chocolate flowers?"
"I kinda thought I’d skip getting both flowers and a box of chocolates and try for efficiency." He shrugged. "Plus these won’t die on you."
"I like how you think." She set the chocolate flowers on her desk and pulled him in for a kiss. They held each other for a moment before Xander took a half step back.
"So what has the doctor ordered today?"
"Squeaky drawer in the oak filing cabinet." She gestured toward the top drawer of the cabinet. "Grease me up, Toolman!"
"Have I ever told you that I love my job?" He pulled her in for another kiss, blindly kicking the door closed with the heel of his shoe.
"Hmm, I don't recognize that voice. We must have a visitor," Elspeth said to herself as she entered the kitchen, straightening her shawl.
A tall gentleman stood with his back to her, clearly charming the ladies as they prepared the meal. She went unnoticed to the stove where she put on the kettle. As the water began to heat, she turned toward the group loitering in the middle of the large kitchen space. The stranger offered a friendly nod and smile as she stepped forward to introduce herself.
Elspeth froze, staring at the man's face. He smiled at her and she put her hand to her head and closed her eyes, frowning.
Jo noticed the elder Wicca. "Elspeth, I'm so glad you're here." She gestured invitingly. "Come on over and meet our guest!"
"Ethan," the elder woman gasped, opening her eyes in horror and staggering back, stopping when her hip pressed against the counter edge.
"Y-yes... I'm sorry, have you two met before?" Jo turned confusedly to Ethan who stared calmly at Elspeth.
"I don't believe I've ever had the pleasure," Ethan responded evenly.
Elspeth's trembling hand reached out for the phone on the wall. As she lifted the receiver, the air crackled and the plastic melted in her hand. She jerked back with a cry, dropping the phone. Lessa, Katrina and Sarah all rushed forward to help her and Deborah dropped her cleaning rag and turned towards to the door.
She was stopped as Ethan moved quietly to block the door leading to the main hall and front door. He gestured at her to step back and she did, moving to stand by the others. Elspeth reached out and grabbed her hand.
Ethan waited patiently for their attention to return from Elspeth to him. "Tsk, tsk, it seems my reputation precedes me. Oh well, I’ll just alter my plans a bit. Ladies, my most humble apologies but I must insist on all of you assembling within the dining room."
"What's going on?" Jo asked, seeing the horror in Elspeth's eyes.
Ethan waved his hand dismissively. "Nothing you need to worry about, Jo, dear. We will proceed with lunch as planned. I think, though, that we shall skip the food portion and get right to the meat of the matter."
"Ethan, what's the meaning of this?" Jo insisted.
"I'm afraid there are ulterior motives in my visiting you kind ladies today. And if you all cooperate like the intelligent and meek little Wiccas I know you are, this shouldn't take more that a few moments from your gardening time." He gestured toward the open double doors leading to the dining room. "If you will..." No one moved.
"Who are you?" Jo demanded.
"I’m the last person you’ll ever see if you don't follow my every direction, luv."
The Wiccas stood firm. Lessa crossed her arms and glared at Ethan, while Sarah and Katrina moved to stand on either side of Elspeth and Deborah.
"How defiant. I like that… I really do. Fine, allow me to persuade you." Ethan dipped into his leather coat pocket and revealed a large handgun. "I'd rather not introduce you to the business end of my more unforgiving associate here. Let's make this as painless as necessary and shuffle off to the dining room."
Deborah and Elspeth exchanged glances and nodded at each other. They stepped forward and one by one the women nervously walked past him and toward the dining room.
"Step lively, ladies... we haven't got all day."