Buffy sat in her room looking at the picture of her mother. She traced her face with a gentle finger and smiled sadly. “Mom, I miss you. It's my birthday and you should be here. So far nothing bad has happened, but the day's not over yet. Of course, you're not here. That's a bad.” She sighed. “I never thought I'd outlive you. I mean, with the Slayer gig and all that, it just doesn't seem right. Of course I can't seem to stay dead…” Her voice trailed off and she looked outside at the sunny yard again.
Finally, she turned back to the picture again. “Ok, enough with the morbid. Things are okay now and I wish you could see us here. It's nice. You'd hate the rain of course, but I think you'd be happy for us. It's starting to come together. Dawn is doing okay. She's a little wild, but she's a Summers, so I understand that. Willow's having magick issues, but they are way less bad then the black-vein magick issues she had in Sunnydale, so I consider that a mark in the plus column. Xander's adjusting. He's had it rough.” She mentally counted Xander's losses and sighed again. “I wish you could be here for him as well. I think you were always more of his Mom than Mrs. Harris was.
“And thank god for Giles. When he left me before, when he left all of us, we fell apart. If he had left again, I don't know what I would have done.” Buffy hesitated, tracing the frame thoughtfully. “Mom? Can I tell you something?” She laughed sadly, almost bitterly. “Of course I can. I can say anything I want. Silly me, sitting here, talking to a picture. People are going to think I'm crazy. Crazier. But I've missed you so much. When Sunnydale collapsed, it took you with it. It took me a while to realize how much of me was in that damn hole. The house. The Bronze. You. And everything that I had that reminded me of you.
“When I realized that, I hated the Hellmouth all over again, perhaps more than I've ever hated it. We were in this hotel and I went to talk to Giles. I was so angry! Everything had been stripped away from me again. And you know what he gave me? Mr. Gordo Two.” She reached out and pulled the stuffed pig close. “And suddenly I realized I still had him. Giles, I mean, not Mr. Gordo. Well, I had them both. And I had Dawn and Willow and Xander. And we had choices too. For the first time in a long time, we had choices about the future.”
She sat silently for a long time. “That's not what I was going to tell you, but I think I'll wait on the rest. Right now, I think I need to see if I have another choice in my future or not.”
Buffy stood up and walked to the dresser. She put the picture on the dresser and pulled open the drawer to remove the envelope. With a deep breath, she turned the letter over and put her finger under the edge of the flap. “Ok, Mom, I'll look. But I bet this is it. This is the birthday disaster, right?” She paused, as if waiting for an answer.
The phone rang and she quickly shoved the letter into her pocket and went to answer it.
"He's so dreamy."
Ethan noticed how her blue eyes seemed to twinkle with an internal light, making him wonder if it was just another ingredient of her hidden energies. He hoped otherwise. "Brian or Legolas?"
"Both," Dawn bit into her cookie and gave Randall a shy smile. "I'm sorry. I've been rambling again. I'm sure this is just how you thought you'd spend the day. Listening to some kid go on and on about guys."
"Think nothing of it. It's quite invaluable, the education you're giving me; to discuss such matters with such an informative young woman." He sipped his tea, giving her a gentle smile as he took note of the time.
Dawn's face lit up with his choice of words. "And don't think that I didn't notice that you're finally taking a woman's advice." She motioned to his red, three-button pullover, noticing just how flattering it was to his lean torso. "See, casual, understated and approachable. It's warm and practical and yet stylish. Most important, it looks good on you."
He stood up and did a playful spin, careful not to get tripped up in the confining space of the hotel room. "Meets with your approval, then?"
"I give it a solid seven. You lose points for buttoning up, though." She stood up and moved to him. "These are meant to be unbuttoned." Without a second thought, she reached up and started to work the buttons loose.
Ethan stood breathless and motionless, feeling the exciting pulse of her energies as she unfastened the first button. He gazed down into her innocent face, her eyes focused on the second stubborn button, determinedly biting her bottom lip as she worked it loose. Ethan's hand rose, slowly traveling toward her face, mindful to avoid an errant touch but such undeniable power called to him and he could hardly resist. Just before she managed to free the final button, Ethan stopped her, gently cupping her hands in his. The touch was magnificent. It took every bit of his self-control to let her go.
"Thank you. But I prefer them buttoned."
"Oh," Dawn pulled back. "Okay."
"It's not that I don't trust your recommendation. It's just that I have..." He paused, feeling her energies shift and he wondered if it were a reaction to his rejection. "Stuffy British guy, remember?"
"You're not stuffy." Dawn smiled.
"But I'm no Legolas."
"Nope. You're more like Gimli." She giggled at his objecting expression.
Willow sat, cross-legged on the earth. Taking a handful of dirt, she poured it from one hand to the other and then back again, finally dividing it up evenly in both palms. Holding the dirt in her palms, she raised her hands as if two trays on an assayer's balance and closed her eyes. Taking a deep breath she began to ground herself, imagining her spine extending from its base down into the earth, rooting her as her veins tapped into the energy of the earth. A light feeling swept over her, signaling that her core chakra had settled, metaphysically attaching itself to the center of the earth.
Holding her breath for a few more moments, she finally exhaled, and as the air flowed smoothly out of her, her hands simultaneously turned over, returning the dirt back to the earth like the sands in an hourglass. When the first bit of dirt rejoined the forest floor, a gentle breeze flowed over her. Nearby trees rustled, as if acknowledging her request to heighten her connection to nature, and a warmth began to flow up through her chakras , filling her with the vibrant and pure energy of life. Finally, as the influx of energy reached and topped off at her crown chakra, a light euphoria took hold. She took another breath, fighting to maintain a balance between her physical and metaphysical existence.
After a few moments, she began to settle and the incredibly calm feeling of true balance moved over her. Empowered by this rare and most efficient interaction between her own energy and the life energy all around her, Willow began to recite the spell. The words flowed smoothly from her lips, as if she'd performed the spell every day, when in fact, she'd only learned it from Giles a year ago. She hadn't even been sure she could remember it all without the aid of a book. However, in such a quiet state, her mind and body worked in unison, almost resonating with the harmony and heightening her faculties. Her memories unfolded like the opening files of a computer database, easily accessible with a mere thought.
Once her reiteration of the spell was complete, she fell silent. All that remained now for the spell to work, was for her to direct her energy to the area that was contaminated. She reached out with all of her senses, searching for the part of the forest most contaminated. Her energies were quickly drawn to a small area just south of her position, near a brook. She gasped as the pain of the Nix's family members immediately surged through her heightened connection. Regaining her composure, she increased her concentration and began the battle to draw out the unnatural substance from the natural surroundings.
The pain she shared with the watery beings began to ease, signaling that the spell was beginning to work. Willow only hoped she wasn't too late. As she felt the toxins move backwards, retracing their steps back to the source of the pollution, Willow gritted her teeth, forcing herself to maintain her concentration. She silently prayed that she could hold out, and those slightest of doubts crept in and caused a hiccup in the flow of the spell. There was a slight surge of pain as the toxins escaped her control. She quickly recovered, however, and the separation of unnatural from natural resumed. After about ten minutes, Willow felt the pain of the Nixes fade entirely away, the purity of their environment restored.
With a sigh of relief, Willow focused on the remainder of the spell, requiring her to turn the containment channel, which had served to draw the contaminants away from the victims, into a closed circle that would be strong enough to hold the toxins in stasis until they could be physically removed from the earth.
As Willow uttered the words, a sudden burst of energy surged up her spine. She gasped at the feeling of her spell being unexpectedly magnified. Despite her fear, she continued. She knew that, no matter what the cost, once the spell was begun it had to be completed. If the containment field fell away, the toxins would rush back into the forest at an accelerated and lethal pace. She fought to complete her spell, and as she uttered the final words, she felt the field close. However, the circular field created, was much smaller than she had intended, resulting in a concentration more intense than a single Wicca would normally attempt alone. The density of the toxins fighting against her magically-imposed restraints drained Willow . And as she uttered the last words of her spell, she fell to her side, spent.
“Giles?” Buffy called down the basement stairs. “You down there? That was Lyle on the telephone. He wants me to come over to the nursery now. There is a question about inventory or something. I think he's missing more gnomes.”
There was no answer. Buffy frowned and called out again. “Giles? Are you there?” She took a hesitant step down into the basement. “Giles?”
A string of obscenities and then a strangled and panicky, “NO!” caused her to rush quickly down the steps.
“Giles? Giles! What is it?” She grabbed a sword from the rack by the base of the staircase and whirled, nearly disemboweling an angry Watcher.
“Buffy! What are you doing? Watch where you point that thing!” Giles sidestepped the sword and grabbed at her hand. “What's wrong?”
“I heard you yelling: I thought you were in trouble. I mean it's my birthday and badness is going to happen because it always happens. There's always trouble with you on my birthday and,” she stopped at his stricken look, horrified at what she just said. “Giles, that didn't come out right. The badness isn't always from you. It's not your fault that… I mean… I didn't mean it that way,” she finished lamely.
They stood silently for a moment, both staring at the floor. Buffy finally looked up at him. “Giles, I'm really sorry. I'm just super paranoid girl about today. I can't stop feeling that something horrible is going to happen.” She tried to catch his eye. “I guess it just did, because I hurt you. I'm sorry.”
He turned away and moved back towards his desk. “It's okay, Buffy. I'm sorry I scared you. I was cursing the computer. And Percy.” He spoke with forced cheerfulness. “And of course I was wishing a plague on all spammers. I just went to read some email from Percy and there was such a huge amount of spam that I started just deleting everything and accidentally deleted the mail from Percy as well.” He sat down at the keyboard and peered intently at the screen. “Again, I'm sorry to have frightened you.”
Buffy moved behind him and put a hand on his tense shoulder. “Giles, really, I'm sorry. What you said this morning was right. I should just leave everything behind, at the bottom of the Sunnydale Sinkhole.”
Giles turned to face her and gestured helplessly. “If I could change the past… If I could…”
Buffy interrupted him. “It's okay, Giles.” She pointed at the computer screen. “You're busy changing the future. No other slayer is going to have a birthday tradition of death and disaster. There will be no more drugs and stupid tests, or cursed boyfriends or demonized Watchers or anything else.”
“And nothing will go wrong today, either, Buffy,” he said softly.
She bit her lip and nodded. Giles stared into her sad eyes and reached out tentatively to touch her cheek. His hand hovered above her skin.
The computer beeped noisily causing them both to jump. "Damn spammers," cursed Giles as he turned back to the screen. He began to hit the delete button repeatedly. "Home loans. Hair growth formulas. And just how much bloody Viagra do they think a man can use? More importantly, why the hell do they think I need it?"
Buffy playfully patted him on the back as she peered over his shoulder to read some of the subject headings as they flicked by. "Take it easy, Giles. It's just spam. They don't know that you're already a real stevedore and don't need to ‘add endurance and stamina to your love-making'…" She turned red. "I mean, not that I'd know that you don't need to! I don't know that. Oh, but that's not to say that you do need to..." She stopped and rolled her eyes. "There's no good way for me to get out of this one, is there?"
“No, I don't think so,” he said, carefully avoiding her eyes as he began to clean his glasses. “We'll just keep the subject between the spammers and me and move on.” He rubbed the lenses intently. “Now, what did you want? Surely you didn't hear me cursing all the way upstairs?”
“No, I came to tell you that Lyle called and asked me to come over. He said omething about missing gnomes, so I should hurry, and I thought you could give me a ride. I can get Brad to bring me back in time for dinner.” She spoke firmly. “No special events, right? We're having a nice quiet family dinner. A birthday breakfast was enough…there is no sense tempting fate.”
“It's okay, Buffy, we have no special plans for tonight. In fact, I'm not sure what time Xander and Willow will be back. So I'll be happy to drop you off and then actually, I want to run out to the Coven.” Giles stood and clicked off the monitor. “Elspeth wanted to talk to me about some strange things she's been sensing in the new Slayers.”
Buffy was surprised at the rush of disappointment she felt at the news but nodded. “Okay, let's go.”
Xander looked over to his right, squinting to see Persephone and her fellow tree creatures. As if only revealing themselves when they wanted to, they all suddenly appeared to Xander, already in position in the heights above. He saw Persephone nod her head to him. He smiled and then turned to his left, to make sure Landon and his friends were in position. Just out of sight of the truck, he found the Nixes gathered in an impressive pool of water. From the calm surface, a liquid hand rose up, signaling they were ready. Xander threw Landon a short military salute, letting him know the forces of nature were all in position. It was time. With a nod to Persephone, their plan was set in motion.
“Are you sure you'll be okay? It looks like they closed early or something. I don't see anyone there.” Giles looked concerned. “And you said that Lyle said something about missing gnomes?”
Buffy got out of the car and spoke through the open window. “I'll be fine, Giles. And hey, gnomes? Not the worst thing that could happen to me on a birthday, right? If they're a problem, I'll kick a little ceramic butt and be back in time for dinner.”
“Well, if you're sure,” Giles said doubtfully.
“I'm sure. I need to face the birthday curse and just deal with it. Go on, Elspeth's waiting, I'm sure.” She turned away and continued, her voice carefully neutral, “and I'm sure Jo is too.”
“Very well then. Take care. Oh, and Buffy,” Giles called. He waited until she had turned and stepped back to the window before flashing her a brilliant smile. “Happy Birthday.”
She couldn't help but smile back. She remained standing there grinning as he put the car in gear and drove off down the road. As she turned back to the store, the envelope fell out of her pocket. Frowning, she picked it up and studied it. “I should open you, shouldn't I?” she said to it. She looked at where Giles' car had disappeared and then at the nursery's door. “But later, I think. There are gnomes to find and grind first.” She stuffed the envelope into her purse and strode forward.
“Quit being such a slacker, Hill,” Jeff said. “Carry your weight or you're gonna throw my back out again.”
His friend scowled and then with a painful grimace, lifted his side of the heavy barrel level with his friend's grip. “There. Happy?”
“Overjoyed. Now can we get on with this? If you take any more breaks, we'll be here until sunset.”
“Yeah, I'm the reason we're running late. Who needed to stop off at the bar on the way for a few beers that turned into four?”
“Oh just get a move on it.”
“Fine. On the count of three. Ready?”
Jeff nodded and together they stepped toward the edge of the water. “One… two… Ahh!” Before they could reach three, the men were interrupted by the heavy metal sounds of something hitting the drum in their hands. “What the hell was that?”
"I don't know. Acorn maybe?” When no other interruption followed, the man shrugged and they restarted their countdown. “One… tw… Oww!”
This time the other man cried out as a branch fell and caught him on the shoulder. “What the hell?” He looked up just in time to see another branch heading for his face. “Shit. Look out!” He tried to pull away, but his friend held fast. “Careful, you idiot! One drop of this stuff and it'll burn a hole right through you.”
The fallen branch however, seemed to have started a downpour, and before the men knew it, they were being assaulted by twigs and other hard objects from above. In the face of the onslaught, they still managed to slowly and somewhat steadily set the drum back down. They looked up trying to figure out what was going on, just in time to hear a cracking noise followed by a tree limb plummeting towards them. The two men dove out of the away, just in time to miss being smashed by the branch.
“Holy shit!” Jeff yelled. He looked over at his friend just as another branch caught him on the leg. “Ahh!”
“Damn it, what's going on?”
He looked up to where the last branch had come from and thought he saw two eyes blink. “Hey, you there! Come down here where I can kick your ass.”
There was no response, and the eyes disappeared. The man rubbed his own eyes to make sure he wasn't seeing things. “Hey Jeff, I think someone's out here.”
Jeff was rubbing at his shoulder, grimacing as it was already beginning to bruise. “Oh, ya think so?” he spat. He stood up roughly, anger on his face. “I'm gonna bust some heads,” he yelled to no one in particular. In response, a lone rose petal floated down toward him. He watched, mesmerized by its path, his large frame swaying back and forth as the red satiny petal floated down like a leaf. As if in the ultimate snub, it landed gently on his nose. Jeff was startled back to reality by the sound of Hill's laughter. Jeff blew the petal off in an angry huff and shot his friend a glare. “You think that's funny?”
As Hill quickly fell silent, Jeff threw his attention back up to the trees. “Come on down here and I'll give you a nice fat rosy lip!” Before Jeff could think of another brilliant threat to add, his eyes went wide with shock. Hill followed his friend's gaze upward, finding a red eclipse as thousands of rose petals fell down on them. The weight of the massive amount of petals, turned a normally graceful descent into a menacing downpour.
“Oh shit!” Jeff yelled as he threw his arms up in a helpless defense. With a loud whoosh, the two men were blanketed in red. After a few moments, however, Jeff realized the downpour had not been accompanied by any pain. A satisfied grin slowly crept over his face and he emerged from his defensive position. “That all you got?” he taunted.
“Uh Jeff,” Hill muttered.
“Not now,” he scolded. Then yelled back up to the trees. “I said, is that the best you got?”
“Jeff,” his friend muttered again. The trace of fear caught Jeff's attention and he looked over at his friend. It was only then that he noticed that they were basically buried to their knees in red. It wouldn't have been so alarming, if he hadn't seen the difficulty Hill was having in trying to lift his legs and move around. The petals, normally weightless and gentle alone, were weighted and menacing en masse. Just then, Jeff heard another crack from above. He and Hill shared a panicked look before both looked up.
“Ahh!” Hill screamed at the sight of a second blanket coming their way, only this time it was made of hundreds of twigs and branches. Their arms immediately went up to shield them and they fought with muffled curses to pull their feet from the depths of the petals. The flowery lake slowed their progress.
“Head for the truck!” Jeff yelled. Fighting against the rose quicksand, the two men cried out and cursed at the onslaught of the air raid. They slowly made their way to the truck, amassing arms, hands and faces full of scratches and bruises.
As they made it toward the outer edge of the rose petal lake, the red menace grew more shallow and their progress increased. However, just when they thought they were home free, the two men began tripping repeatedly . Despite pulling themselves up and scrambling onward as fast as possible, they couldn't seem to stop tripping over roots and stones. Finally, with scratched up limbs and cheeks and scraped up and bruised knees and shins, the men made it to the doors of their truck.
Jeff and Hill scampered into the truck and quickly locked the doors, thankful that the windows were already up. The petals and twigs seemed to have followed them, now rising up to the windows, as if to barricade them in. As they looked at the impossible sight, the cab was filled with the sounds as an onslaught of twigs and branches began to dent the top of the vehicle.
“Hurry, man! Get us outta here!” Jeff yelled.
Hill fumbled through his pocket for his keys, beginning to whimper as his haste made the simple task that much harder. Jeff's annoyed and panicked curses were not helping. Finally, Hill managed to retrieve the keys and jammed them into the ignition. With a forceful turn, he prepared for the welcome sound of the engine firing up. However, nothing happened, not even a clicking sound of the engine trying to turn over. He turned to his friend and retried it. Still no sound. Just then the two looked out the windshield to find a young, dark-haired man with what looked like an eye patch, dangling the distributor cap and spark plug wires with a pleased grin.
Jeff fumed and threw his shoulder against the door, trying to open it and charge the man. But in his anger-driven haste, he forgot the door was locked, and further bruised his already-sore shoulder. “Ahh,” he cried out. “You're dead,” he mouthed to the man with a seething look.
Xander taunted the men with a laugh.
Jeff's eyes went wide with shock at the young man's brazen challenge. He yanked up the lock on the door and pulled on the handle, determined to end the man's taunt and life. However, when he took a step out of the truck, his foot landed in several inches of water. “What the?” He looked down to see water quickly rising up. What had once been dry land, recently covered with twigs and rose petals, now was a muddy forest floor. His foot sunk a few inches into what was now becoming a quickly flooding lake. “Holy shit!” he yelled, scrambling back into the cab. He used the leverage on the door to pull his foot free of the suction, losing his shoe in the process. He left it sticking half out of the mud, and watched as it was quickly submerged within seconds. He quickly shut the door and re-locked it.
”W-what's wrong?” Hill asked.
”The damned forest, you idiot,” Jeff said. Just as he finished, they felt the truck shift and sink a little beneath them. Jeff's anger was quickly replaced by outright fear. Both men looked outside of their windows and were immediately stricken by panic as they realized water was now up to the door handles. They looked ahead and saw the one-eyed man now standing on a dry rock that seemed to be rising up from the earth, its sole purpose to keep him dry. The man folded his arms, as if pleased with the elements for obeying his commands.
Jeff and Hill stole a glance at each other, just as the truck rocked again. Suddenly, Hill looked down and screeched when he found his feet quickly, being covered in water. The floorboards were already filling up. “Ahhh,” Hill yelled, looking up at the man out front as he begged. “Please. Let us out!”
Xander just grinned and shook his head with a smirk.
The water inside the cab rose quickly, first covering their ankles and then moments later, halfway up to their knees. Gripped by panic from the more immediate death by drowning, the two began to scramble in an attempt to get safely out of the vehicle, suddenly no longer concerned with the painful air assault. However, it was already too late. The water level had now risen to the point that it held the doors closed, and without power, the automatic windows were useless. The men were trapped.
Like two rats caught in a sinking ship, they began to scramble up to the highest point in the cab. The water was now nearing the dashboard level. Another lurch and they felt the truck sink further down on the driver's side, raising the cab water level on that side well up the steering column. Hill practically scrambled onto Jeff's lap as Jeff cursed.
Xander laughed at the image that played out before him, but he finally raised his hands and called out, “That's enough, guys.”
Immediately, the forest fell silent, save for the panicked cries of the two men. It took a few moments for them to realize they were now the only source of noise and that the water had actually leveled off. As they quieted down, they looked around. The sun was shining, the forest was still, but they were stuck in their truck, buried up to the windows in the rose petal and twig-strewn muddy water.