Barely an hour had passed and the gang had returned to the kitchen, falling back into their raised voices of heated debate.
"What about the peanut butter bandit?" Willow said with an accusatory tone. "You know, the person so sponge-impaired that they refuse to clean off the knife before using it in the jam so it leaves all these goobers of peanut butter tainting the fruity goodness?" She knew it was ridiculous but it seemed so important in the heat of the moment.
"Hey! At least I don't leave a single broken and stale cookie in a package. God forbid you actually throw something away," Xander countered defensively, shaking an almost empty box of cookies to emphasize his point. He didn't know why he was so angry but after every comment, his anger grew stronger.
"I always leave the last of something in case someone else wants it. It's polite."
"It's a cop out!" Xander huffed.
Giles tried to remain impartial, seated again at the kitchen table, silently listening as the disagreement escalated slowly out of control. Though he had no real stake in the matter, he felt anger and frustration with every statement.
"Well… um…" Willow sputtered, her intensifying anger noticeably frustrating her. "This from someone who can't comprehend the laws governing the separation of recyclables. Paper, plastic, glass… it's not astral physics!" Her stomach twisted in knots after the remark, noticing Xander's face fall in a subtle show of defeat. She'd hurt him, so bad that she swore she could actually feel his upset.
Buffy was furious and didn't know why. There was no reason for her to be so angry, yet as she entered the kitchen, she could feel herself growing more and more furious with each step. She tried to ignore the inexplicable emotion and grabbed a soda from the fridge.
"Well… at least I don't tighten all the jars too tight. It takes the Jaws of Life to pry open Buffy's kosher dills," Xander said, recovering amazingly fast with a reinforced feeling of approval.
Giles couldn't help but to join in, adding his agreement with Xander's observation. "It does tend to trounce one's self-esteem, having to wage battle every morning with an impenetrable jar of honey." A second after his comment, an inexplicable sensation of bewilderment washed over him, perfectly matching the wounded expression on Buffy's face.
"How did I get dragged into this?" Buffy asked sorely, watching as everyone's eyes seemed to fall on her. "Fine… you complain now but we'll see who has the last laugh when the hot fudge jar is mocking your manly inadequacies." She could sense a wave of resentment and overwhelming protest with the declaration and couldn't understand why her very own words would cause such a reaction within herself.
"Inadequacies?" Xander huffed, "Excuse us for not being registered members of the all powerful Chosen One club!"
Dawn blazed into the room, drawing everyone's attention away from Buffy and to her. "Stop fighting!"
"Go do your homework Dawn," Buffy ordered.
"How can I get anything done with all the… the um… well, you're bothering me!"
"Go!" Buffy demanded, pointing a finger towards the door.
"I'm a part of this family too, you know. I deserve a chance to be heard!" Dawn countered, and Giles swore he could sense her feeling of entitlement. His emotions quickly shifted back to frustration.
The sisters continued debating the issue as Willow and Xander fell back into their original argument. Giles let his mind stray from the squabbles and concentrated on the increasingly odd sensations that arose after each volley of gripes. It was as if every phrase was triggering a response within him though the words weren't personally directed towards him. Something odd was going on.
"Dawn… how did you know we were arguing?" Giles tried to interrupt. Everyone ignored him so he stood up and took up position in the center of the group. "Dawn!" he shouted and everyone went quiet as all eyes fell on him. "How did you know we were arguing?"
"She can probably hear us in the attic." Buffy didn't care; she wanted to focus on the argument at hand.
"No… no I can't," Dawn said with confusion and shrugged. "I just knew you were fighting."
"We do seem to be stuck on instant replay here," Xander suggested, feeling his anger subside and confusion and worry taking its place, though he didn't know what he should be worried about.
"But you sensed it…?" Giles continued.
Buffy's anger twisted to anxiety and she recognized it as corresponding with Giles' curious questions. "What made you come in here, Dawn?"
"I was angry," she answered. "I don't know why… I just was."
"So was I," Buffy admitted.
Giles flashed Buffy a knowing glance. "I think we have a problem."
"What's wrong? How can I help?" Jo spoke in a rush, hurrying past him and into the house, leaving Giles holding the front door open. As he closed the door, he regretted not offering up any details in his phone call to her; she'd obviously assumed the worst. The unexpected visit by Drusilla had disturbed her more deeply than he'd originally assumed.
"Thank you for coming," he said gratefully as he offered to take her coat. "I hope we didn't interrupt your dinner…"
"Are you alright? Is everyone safe?" She moved into the living room where she found the gang clustered.
"We're fine, Jo. I'm sorry to have worried you so; it's just that I'm unsure of what's happening here. But we're all safe and there doesn't seem to be any immediate danger from our… um, dilemma." Giles watched her features relax.
The gang all offered friendly little waves of welcome as she inventoried their faces. Everyone was present and accounted for. Buffy and Xander were sharing the couch and Willow was by the fireplace, all with reference books in their hands. Dawn was lying on the ground, surrounded by a mote of schoolbooks.
"I'm so glad…" Jo sighed in relief. "I didn't know what to expect." As he followed after her into the room, his body filled with overpowering emotions; anxiety, confidence, curiosity, disappointment, all swimming within him, confusing him from make out his own feelings.
"Thanks for coming," Buffy said gloomily.
"Hi, Jo. Sorry to bother you," Willow said uneasily. "We needed a mystical second opinion."
"Don't be silly." She dismissed the apology with a gentle motion. "What exactly seems to be the trouble, Rupert?" Xander offered her a seat next to him on the couch and she graciously accepted.
"I'm guessing we round up the usual suspects; spell, curse, demons?" Buffy returned to the conversation at hand while working to clear her mind of the mixed messages her body was sending her.
"I don't sense magicks in this. It seems, well… demony," Willow said uncertainly and looked to Jo. The older woman closed her eyes for a brief moment of concentration and nodded.
"There doesn't seem to be any presence of spells or enchantments. But it might help if I knew what was going on." Jo was losing patience.
"As of this afternoon…" Giles started and found himself somewhat at a loss for explaining. "Well… we've acquired a kind of…"
"We're all going crazy," Dawn said plainly. "How are you?"
"We're not crazy, Dawn. We've somehow attained an inexplicable sixth sense," Giles amended. "We can sense what each other is feeling."
"Fascinating… when exactly did you first notice this?" Jo asked, jumping into investigative mode. The gang looked around as if to formulate a timeline and looked to Giles for his answer.
"I can't be sure, but I'd venture a guess around two or three."
"Yep…" Buffy agreed. "I'd gotten off work early, came home, we did our little family dysfunctionalizing and then…" Buffy paused as an overriding sensation of excitement ran through her.
Giles removed his glasses in an animated gesture. "The connections began shortly after our visit from Mister Athy..."
"The door-to-door security system salesman?" Xander asked doubtfully.
"But he was such a nice guy. I mean… no sharp claws or pointy teeth," Willow said disappointedly. "No outwardly menacing agenda…"
"We just can't meet nice people," Buffy grumbled.
Giles shrugged. "Since nothing else out of the ordinary has occurred, I'd suspect he's our trigger."
Xander's eyes went wide with a sudden thought, sending a wave of concern through the others, and he motioned anxiously with his hand. "This isn't some madcap encore of Buffy's aspect of the demon thing, is it?"
"I agree there is a similarity but not as pronounced in this case. I can only speak for myself of course but I'm unable to read the thoughts from any of you…" Giles glanced around to get a consensus. Jo was equally as interested in the answers. Everyone nodded in agreement with his observation.
"Score!" Xander breathed a sigh of relief. "I barely managed the first time 'round with Buffy doing the honors of visiting my perverted mind. Don't need all of you getting a taste of my lack of restraint." He remembered the guest sitting next to him and flushed with embarrassment.
Giles could sense Xander's humiliation and smiled gently to Jo and then to Xander. "Yes, well… your perversity aside, I feel this problematic talent could prove difficult to keep in check. Though I haven't worked out just what the benefit to the demon might be, I feel we shouldn't take this too lightly."
"I'm not hearing voices other than the ones I want to hear, or ignore in some cases, so big plus in the Buffy scale of badness." Buffy's tone seemed much too distant and Giles wished he could make some sense of the conflicting emotions he was receiving from them. Filtering everyone out except for her would be very helpful at that moment.
"I'm leaning more toward this being empathetic in nature. I can only sense your emotions, tap into your feelings at any given time." Giles began to wander around the room as he continued.
"So that's what all the tummy rumblings and fluttering hearts is about?" Dawn asked.
"Yes, our minds have somehow been triggered to receive these normally unnoticed cues from each other. Our brains have been unlocked, if you will… rewired to interpret these unfamiliar signals." Giles paused as he realized what Dawn had said. "Uh… hmm, f-fluttering hearts?"
"I don't seem to be affected so it probably doesn't relate with location," Jo said. "Can any of you sense my emotions?" After a moment, everyone tentatively shook their heads and she was visibly relieved.
"It's difficult to say," Giles explained. "Distance seems to be a factor. I couldn't read your emotions when I met you at the door but in this room… it's like trying to focus on a single voice in a sea of people."
"Well then, your theory about this salesman may be correct, Rupert."
"So, besides the total lackage of privacy thing, what's the damage here?" Buffy asked flippantly.
"Not sure. I'd speculate that our experiencing such conflicted emotions could eventually harbor some ill effect on our psyches. To an extreme, this confusion could render us all incapable of distinguishing our own emotions from each others, leaving us emotionally crippled and inevitably leading us to shutdown." Giles went silent as a disturbing thought crossed his mind. He considered repressing it, but knew they'd already sensed his concern. "Unless we can reverse this… this supernatural sense, I-I'm afraid our only other choice w-would be to... to separate."
All eyes fell to the floor and a moment of uneasy silence lingered in the room as everyone felt and shared the alarm of every other person there, except Jo, who suddenly felt very alone and out of place.
"All in favor of finding a solution?" Buffy raised her hand into the air and the others followed, rapidly nodding their unity. "How do we undo this thing?"
"As is the precedent, we begin with research. I'll need to gather everything I can on empathy demons… species, habitats, diets…" Giles suggested. "I'm fairly certain this effect was activated by touch, as are most sicknesses caused by toxins."
"I'll have the coven look into counteracting agents," Jo said as she got to her feet.
"Better yet…" Xander walked over to the fireplace and took up the fire poker into his firm grip. "Let's go find this guy and beat him into next Tuesday unless he turns us back into the self-centered, insensitive people we know and love." Buffy and Giles shared a worried look at yet another example of the brutish behavior Xander seemed to have taken on. Even Jo sensed his anger… it permeated the room. "What? Don't tell me none of you thought the same thing?"
"Troublesome as this may be, violence rarely solves anything, Xander," Jo said gently, unsure if she'd overstepped her bounds.
"You said it yourself, Giles… not to underestimate this thing…" Xander grew more agitated. "We need to nip this thing in the bud… "
"I'm all for bud nipping but I think we should stick to what we do best," Willow agreed and lifted up a book.
"Come on!" Xander seethed, realizing he wasn't getting anywhere with them. "Fine! You guys can play it all cool and Gandhi-like, but I'm sick of sitting on the fence here!"
Giles decided to try and defuse his friend's overly intense emotions before it got further out of hand. "I don't think…"
"Really…?" Xander interrupted with an acerbic tone. "'Cause that's all you seem to do… think. I'm not so much with the thinking these days… more with the beating!"
"Let's save that as a backup plan." Buffy jumped in. "For now, we research…"
"Says the mighty Slayer… I got this routine down. We wait until you go do your little investigation of this demon and if you see fit, we'll do whatever you choose, right? This guy could be deadly, Buffy! Oh, but you've been there, done that. Didn't seem to make much of a difference then..."
"Xander, that's enough!" Giles' raised voice startled Xander.
"Why? You of all people should back me up here, Watcherman. Her track record with the demons is…"
"Let's not do the digging up of way old, and way, way, dead, topics here, guys. Working together ring any bells?" Willow asked nervously.
"Dead topics, Will…?" Xander grumbled, his anger overpowering everyone in the room but Jo, then in a flash, changing to sorrowful remorse. "Yeah… guess they are…" With that, Xander stormed out into the night, slamming the door behind him. Everyone stayed quiet, unsure of what to say or do.
Buffy focused on the books scattered around the room. "Giles, hit the books… Willow, the web… Jo, find whatever you can at the coven… Dawn, homework…"
"Hey… I want to help," she objected.
"Homework!" Buffy ordered.
"Fine… I didn't want to sit around here and wait till you guys emote me into another 'Deep Thoughts' moment anyway."
"Can't say I'm thrilled with the idea of sharing my inner most Willow with all of you. I mean, I love you guys and all but that's just too close. Not like I can turn it off," the redhead said apologetically.
"Perhaps we ought to part ways until I can gather up some more information on this mysterious visitor? We can avoid any embarrassing interactions by restricting our proximity to each other, until we find a solution."
"Suits me fine, I could use a break from the whole experience that is you guys, anyway," Dawn grumbled angrily and marched off, leaving the others exchanging awkward glances.
"Motion carries…" Buffy she stood up. "Until further notice, we're under roommate arrest. No unauthorized mingling until we find something mingle-worthy."
"Seems so." Giles shot a troubled look to her, noticing her attempt at remaining indifferent, despite sensing her disappointment.
Willow and Buffy slowly began to wander away as Giles' attention fell to Jo. Willow stopped and glanced back with concerned filled eyes. "Find something soon, ok?"
Giles nodded. "I'll do my best," he reassured her, watching as she disappeared upstairs. Buffy glanced back as if to say something then decided against it, moving on into the kitchen. She was confused; a clutter of disappointment, anxiety and jealously and he wondered why.
"I'll call you when I find something," Jo said and took his hand in hers, giving it a tender squeeze. "It'll be ok."
Giles responded to her reassurance with a warm smile and led her to the door, politely opening it. "Thank you… for everything."