Chapter Twenty-one: Preying Of A Different Kind

Sunnydale High School, Sunnydale

February 4th, 1997


Xander couldn't help thinking that the past month had been a rather interesting one, all things considered.

First off, he had gotten his revenge on Cordelia for kicking him in the nuts – hey, not a doormat, and he refused to let her just dump all over him – but the whole thing had later left a bitter taste in his mouth. There was no real sense of accomplishment, anyway; like the old saying went, when it comes to women... even when you win, you still lose.

Plus Coach Benson had called for new cheerleader tryouts, not long after the Harvest. Xander didn't know why, but it had nonetheless been quite the spiritual experience watching Buffy try out for the team. Despite all the pleading Mr. Wyndam-Pryce – or Wes, as the Buffster called him – had done, trying to talk her out of it.

(Kinda weird how the guy had stopped barking orders at her, actually. He didn't know why, but if the Watcher-man wanted to act like a human being, he didn't have any problem with that.)

It had also been quite the experience watching Cordelia try out as well, looking annoyed as only Queen C could – irritated that someone had even dared to question her worthiness to be part of the squad. Maybe unsurprisingly, it had quickly become impossible for him to remain mad at a girl capable of being that stretchy, and with a rack that amazing –

Seriously, fleets had been launched by tits less awesome than hers!

And too bad for Buffy that she hadn't succeeded competing against the likes of Cordy and Harmony and the other Cordettes, only managing to become alternate cheerleader: a substitute if any of the other girls got sick or something. But it didn't really matter; he had learned that Slay-gal had eventually decided to quit after her 'night job' got in the way of after-school training, the dream of reliving her glory days at Hemery quickly turning sour.

(The fact that the Chosen One simply didn't look as hot as Cordelia in that yellow and maroon cheerleading outfit was, of course, completely irrelevant. At least to his way of thinking.)

Not long after, Driver's Ed. class had become the latest hot topic, as the Cordettes all competed to see who would be the first to be able to legally drive their own set of wheels. Curiously, Aura had won that race; more importantly, though, Cordelia finally managed to get her driver's license.

And Xander knew how, given the way Queen C drove, this meant he was going to have to get out of her way immediately if – when – he encountered that girl behind the wheel of her BMW, on the streets of Sunnydale.

Speaking of cars, he and his dad had finally finished working on that '69 Shelby. She was one sweet ride nowadays, that was for sure – and Xander had been touched that his dad had offered to let him drive it to school once he got his own license. He had briefly been tempted – the GT500 model car was definitely a chick magnet, and hey, he was still a red-blooded American teenager no matter what Madam Devora had done to him – but eventually, he had decided against it.

Not only because he didn't want that sort of attention from anybody, especially the school's popular crowd, but the school bullies would slash the tires and key the sides of the car the first chance they got. Kyle and Rhonda would, for sure; maybe Tor and Heidi as well, even if that possibility was growing increasingly doubtful to his mind.

Anyway, there had been some other stuff as well – Buffy's surprise birthday party, the Mayor of Sunnydale getting killed during some sort of 'gang violence' at City Hall – but other than that, apart from school he had mostly just hung out at the Bronze with Buffy, Willow and Jesse. And Angel, on occasion.

Xander frowned, thinking of his undead acquaintance. He suspected that the ensouled vampire sought him out not only to remain updated about Buffy – Angel really was jonesin' for her, even if the two-plus centuries age difference squicked him out completely – but he also assumed those meetings at the Bronze were to get him to relax his guard enough to confess why it would be a good idea for that vamp to become human.

Still, he had no intention of doing that. If anyone who was part of the undead scene – even an ostracized outcast like Angel – learned that there was a chance their species would be utterly annihilated in three to four months? Xander knew he would be hunted down with extreme prejudice, once the news leaked out. Him and Buffy both.

It was bad enough he lived with the constant fear that that nutcase Drusilla would somehow learn the truth, and then come gunning for him – along with her boyfriend, and all their minions!

"Hey, Xander," Jesse greeted him in the main quad. "What's up?"

"Nothing much," Xander shrugged, as both of them came to a halt. "You?"

"Yeah, same," his best friend shrugged back. "So. You and Cordy still aren't on speaking terms?"

Xander stiffened, not expecting a question like that. "Nope. So, uh, what brought this on?"

Jesse sighed. "Gotta confess, bro; Willow called me last night, apparently she finally lost all patience with you and decided to talk to Cordelia in private about your breakup –"

"Hey, we didn't break up! I mean – Cordy and I were never together. Well, not officially," he interrupted angrily, before forcing himself to calm down. "Anyway, what did Will say?"

"Not a lot; just that Queen C told her that you acted like a total douche, and that she kicked you in your special place – I'm quoting Willow directly here, bud – after you dumped her," Jesse confessed, shaking his head. "Sounded painful."

"It was. And I didn't dump Cordelia," Xander insisted, pushing away the memory of that girl kicking him where it really hurt. And how he had made her regret it, afterwards. "I just told her we should avoid each other completely from now on, and live our own lives –"

"Which explains why she's been dating that collection of jocks over the past month or so, including Blayne Mall," Jesse interrupted. "So, is Cordy's attempt to make ya jealous working?"

"Can we please change the subject, pal? Like, have you started crushing on Slay-gal? Or are ya trying to make Cordelia think she's got competition, nowadays?"

"Huh?!" Jesse stared at him, a befuddled look appearing on his face. "What? I mean, what the hell? What are ya talkin' about, Xan?"

"Okay, my mistake. Sorry," Xander apologized for his incorrect assumption. Then he saw Buffy and Willow approaching from another part of the school quad. "Women incoming, two o'clock. We better talk 'bout something else."

"Like what?" Jesse asked, still looking kinda freaked.

Xander shrugged, "Well, 'how about them Broncos' always works for me..."

"What are you guys talking about?" Willow asked, flipping her hair over her left shoulder – she had definitely let it grow a bit over the past few weeks – as she regarded him and Jesse curiously.

"Oh, wow," Jesse suddenly breathed, as he stared wide-eyed behind Buffy and Willow. "Uh... huh, uh..."

The girls turned to stare at the beautiful dark-haired woman approaching them, but Xander quickly averted his gaze. The response was instinctive nowadays; and even though he couldn't help but be aware of that incredible body – and Hecate's tits, what a body it was! – he wasn't instantly reduced to a semi-drooling mess like his best friend.

Briefly, he couldn't help wondering why that was...

The brunette came up to them and said simply, "Can you help me?"

"Uuuuuuhhhhhh... yes!" Jesse finally managed to say, and Xander couldn't help noticing Willow and Buffy exchanging amused looks. Jesse then added, "Yes, yes, I definitely can! Uh – what can I do to help you?"

"I'm looking for the Science building. Room 109?" the newcomer asked, before looking around at Buffy and Willow and himself hopefully. Xander stayed silent, even though he knew the older woman was expecting a response of some sort; so he just kept his gaze away from her, hoping that she wouldn't address him personally. People expected you to make eye contact when that happened, after all.

"I, uh... I go there just about every day, it's, um, uh..." Jesse gestured vaguely in the direction of the football field. "Over there, uh, somewhere?"

{ Smooth, bro, very smooth! } Xander sighed to himself, before Blayne Mall showed up and offered to escort the new arrival – whose name was Natalie French – to where she needed to go. { And to think – last year, that woulda been me! }

As Miss French and Blayne left, Buffy and Willow started to tease Jesse about his new crush, but Xander didn't pay any attention. The others moved off towards the main school building, and he trailed after them slowly, still thinking about Miss French.

{ What's someone that babe-licious doing here at Sunnydale High? } Xander suddenly asked himself, a paranoid frown appearing on his face. { And why do I get the feeling something's definitely not right about this? }


Science class, Sunnydale High

A while later

Cordelia was not in a good mood. Hadn't been for nearly a month, now.

Ever since the day the Unmitigated Asshole had hurt her in a way that she'd never even imagined was possible, it had just been one bad day after another. And even though she had tried her best to put all that behind her – to move on, as Harris had put it – at times, the anger surfaced all over again. And when that happened, all her friends knew they had to either get to minimum safe distance or end up verbally eviscerated by the leader of the elite.

It had given her something of an unwanted reputation, Cordelia knew that. The bitchy queen of mean, plus the girl who never let any guy go beyond first base any longer. But she simply couldn't help it. The feeling of a boy's lips on hers – well, any boy who wasn't him – did absolutely nothing for her anymore. And that pissed her off more than she could describe!

{ It's not supposed to be like this, } Cordelia thought to herself bitterly, as she noticed the Library Loser Legion walk into the classroom. { Dammit, what's wrong with me? The Asshole made it clear that it's over between us! So why can't I get over him, already? }

Putting such thoughts out of her head, she listened as the dark-haired woman with the obvious surgical improvements said, "Hello, everyone. My name is Natalie French, and I'll be substituting for Dr. Gregory today."

"Do you know when he's coming back?" Buffy asked, after raising her hand.

"No, I don't, um..." Miss French checked her roster, "...Buffy. They just call and tell me when they need someone, and where they want me to go."

"I'll tell you where I want you to go," Blayne muttered, causing Cordelia to glare at him and slap him on the back of his head. She thought to herself angrily, { That's it, buster, you can forget about any more dates with me! }

"Excuse me, Blayne?" the teacher asked, looking over at him.

"Uh, I was just wondering if you were gonna pick up where Dr. Gregory left off?" the jock asked, rubbing the back of his head.

Miss French smiled, "Yes, I am. Now, according to his notes, you were right in the middle of insect life..." She picked up a mantis mounted in a clear plastic box and said, "The preying mantis is a fascinating creature. Forced to live alone. Who can tell me why? Buffy?" The teacher put the mantis back down, and looked at the Slayer.

"Well, the words 'bug-ugly' kinda spring to mind," Buffy replied, which caused muffled laughter to erupt throughout the room.

"There is nothing ugly about these unique creatures. The reason they live alone is because they're cannibals!" Miss French replied passionately.

"Eww!" Cordy muttered. Just about everyone in class made similar noises, and she couldn't blame them for it one bit!

"No, no, it's not their fault! That's just the way nature designed them: noble, solitary and prolific. Over 1800 species worldwide, and in nearly all of them, the female is larger and more aggressive than the male," Miss French insisted, walking back towards her desk.

"Nothing wrong with an aggressive female in my book," Blayne whispered, and Cordelia rolled her eyes in disgust. That line just totally made her skin crawl!

Miss French picked up her notebook and started to walk around the room. "The California Mantis lays her eggs, and then finds a mate." Cordelia suddenly realized Miss French was looking at Xander, even though he avoided her gaze, before the substitute teacher kept walking and added, "The male's role is to fertilize them. Once he's played his part she cannibalises him, covers the eggs in a protective sack and attaches it to a leaf or twig. Some place out of danger. And if she's done her job correctly, in a few months she'll have several hundred offspring."

By this point, the teacher had made her way back to the front of the class and put down her notebook. "You know, we should make some model egg sacks for the Science Fair. Who'd like to help me do that after school?"

To Cordelia's total lack of surprise, all the boys immediately raised their hands. No, wait – the Unmitigated Asshole wasn't eagerly volunteering like all his hormone-crazed male classmates! Reluctantly, Cordelia couldn't help feeling somewhat impressed. Even Stalker Boy couldn't help being part of Miss French's adoring fan club – huh, either Harris must have developed some serious willpower after breaking up with her, or else –

"Good!" Miss French interrupted her thoughts in a pleased tone of voice. "Now, can someone please tell me, where exactly was Dr. Gregory up to in your textbook?"

Willow raised her hand and said, "He told us to study chapters six through eight yesterday, Miss French."

"Alright..." For the next forty-five minutes or so, the substitute teacher continued to speak, and Cordelia was amazed despite herself. All the boys were eagerly listening to her every word, and even most of the girls paid attention, as Miss French definitely knew her stuff where insect biology was concerned. But then the bell rang, and the class ended.

"Mr. Harris – Xander – please stay behind a moment, I'd like to talk to you in private," Miss French asked, after dismissing the rest of the class.

Cordelia couldn't help noticing that Unmitigated Asshole looked trapped, and for a moment she felt sympathy for him. Then that feeling vanished, and the vindictive anger took its place as she walked out the door. { Serves him right, whatever the new teacher does to him – }

"Hey!" she yelped, as a soft hand grabbed her left shoulder and turned her around. Cordelia then glared at Buffy and said, "What the hell do you think you're doing?"

"Talking to you without your friends present," Buffy said firmly. The Slayer paused, looking around and making sure they were alone before adding, "Tell me something, Cordelia. How long are you gonna keep punishing Xander for trying to do the right thing by you, last month?"

"None of your business! And what the hell would you know about that?" she instinctively snarled.

"I know that if you're out to make Xander miserable, you're succeeding. But see, here's the thing – I need him –"

"I knew it! I knew you had a thing for him! Of all the lousy, no-good, boyfriend-stealing –"

"I need him to help me get rid of all the vampires a few months from now," Buffy kept going, causing her to grind to an abrupt, embarrassed halt. "Bottom line? Cordelia, I need the guy to get his head in the game. That means I need you to lay off trying to torment Xander the way you've been doing these past few weeks, okay? After May, far as I'm concerned – you can do whatever the heck you want. Make him yours, drive him crazy with jealousy, whatever. But until all the vamps are gone –"

Buffy abruptly cut herself off, looking to be in pain as she lifted her hand to her left ear, before sticking a finger into her earhole and rubbing gently. She then headed back to the classroom door, and opened it up –

Straightaway, Cordelia could hear a dissonant, inhuman, squealing noise. Oh, geez, it was coming out of the Dorkhead's mouth – his eyes were green and sparkly, and he was staring at Miss French, doing the whole Oracle thing! She was immediately reminded of that night in the Delta Zeta Kappa basement, when Xander had done something similar for that snake demon, Mikado or whatever its name had been –

No, wait, something didn't add up here. Why would he-? Miss French was as human as the rest of them, wasn't she?

"OH MY GODDDDDDD!" Cordelia screamed, as the new teacher rotated her head a full one hundred and eighty degrees – something straight out of The Exorcist – and stared at her and Buffy. Then the teacher's human form vanished, and standing right in front of her was a, a –

A huge, monstrous, insect-like thing. A giant preying mantis, like they'd just been discussing in class!

"Wrong time, wrong place, and wrong conversation to interrupt. Now I'll have to kill you both," Miss French said threateningly, her human voice now at odds with her horrific appearance.

{ Why do these things keep happening to me?! } Cordelia wailed, instinctively running to grab Xander as Buffy rushed in to attack Miss French, barely managing to haul Idiot Boy out of the way just as the fight started.

"What the hell is going on? What –" the Big Dummy started to say, looking freaked as Buffy battled against Preying Mantis Lady, quickly delivering a swinging kick to try to sweep the monster's legs out from under her. Unfortunately, it didn't work as the mantis-demon moved out of the way with inhuman speed.

"C'mon! We gotta get outta here!" Cordelia told him, trying to pull Xander along with her.

"No, you run, I gotta help Buffy!" The completely fucking retarded moron pushed her towards the door, before starting to look for something. A weapon of some kind, probably, but what –

Xander picked up the model of the preying mantis mounted in that clear plastic box, and waited for an opportunity to strike. Cordelia was unable to move – she saw the demon swing with her claw, but miss the agile Slayer. Then Buffy slammed her fist into her enemy's midsection, but that had no effect as the she-mantis swung again, her claws again barely missing Buffy's head. Moving quickly, the Slayer punched the insect demon once more, before doing a roundhouse kick to the stomach and backhand punching Miss French again, forcing her backwards.

WHACK!

Cordelia winced as Xander hit the preying mantis over the head with the plastic box, and then she screamed again as Harris was swept aside with a swipe from one of those evil-looking claws. Then she noticed Buffy –

CRUNCH!

"Ewww!" Cordy exclaimed in disgust, as the Slayer hit the fake teacher with the biology lab's silver fire extinguisher, almost caving in one side of the preying mantis's head completely. The demon was obviously in pain, collapsing down onto its knees when Buffy followed up with another blow to the head – and this time, the she-mantis went down and stayed down, blood starting to leak out of its ears.

"Come on! We gotta get Xander outta here before anyone comes in, and finds us like this," Cordelia heard Buffy hiss at her. "Help me get him up, already!"

Feeling dazed and in shock, Cordelia numbly obeyed the Chosen One's orders. "What about – her?" she asked, pointing at the insectile body on the floor.

Buffy had her hands full with the unconscious Dweeb, but she nonetheless gritted out, "I'll get a machete or whatever from the library, make with the slice and dice; and Wes can help me get rid of the remains. But right now, you gotta get your ex over to the school nurse's office!"

{ Oh, God, she's right. What if Xander's seriously hurt? } Cordelia thought to herself in sudden horror.

The irony didn't escape her that barely an hour ago, this would have been like a happily vengeful fantasy come true; but here and now, all she could do was hope and pray that the Dimwit she'd lost her heart to would somehow be okay.


Sunnydale Zoo, Sunnydale

The same time

{ The hyenas are on their way. Finally! } Dr. Weirick thought to himself happily, tightly clutching the approval form from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the government agency's shipping manifest. { Another sixteen to nineteen days, and they'll be here in Sunnydale! Now, if only I could figure out that darn trans-possession ritual – }


Nurse's office, Sunnydale High

Later that day

Principal Bob Flutie was greatly concerned.

First off, there was a worrisome bullying problem in his school. And the worst perpetrators of that sort of thing were Tor Hauer, Kyle DuFours, Heidi Barrie and Rhonda Kelly. Four kids who, quite frankly, he was starting get completely sick of. Secondly, there was a major issue with regards to staff turnover; the latest teacher to go missing, Dr. Gregory, only served to underscore how hard it was keeping experienced, skilled and talented people around here.

Of course, he had other problems as well –

"Just what kind of school are you running, Mr. Flutie?" Mrs. Harris demanded, she and her husband had shown up here not long after their son had been carried to the nurse's office with some kind of head injury. "I mean, it wasn't that long ago Xander was hit in the face with some kind of ball during gym class, that bully almost broke his nose – and now, someone's knocked him unconscious?!"

"Please, Mrs. Harris, if you'll just calm down –" he tried to placate her, but then the boy's father joined in.

"Don't tell my wife to calm down, mister. Because I'm seriously considering hiring a lawyer to sue your school for damages! Now what the hell happened to our son?" Mr. Harris wanted to know.

"I don't know details yet; just that he was assaulted in one of the science classrooms. Miss Chase said she wanted to speak to the both of you first, once she learned you were coming here," Bob told them.

"Cordelia? She was involved, too? Is she all right? Where is she?" Mrs. Harris asked immediately.

"She's fine, in fact she was the one who brought Alexander to the nurse's office. She's with your son right now, I'm told she refused to leave his side – uh, Nurse Greenleigh? Could you please ask Miss Chase to join us?" Bob asked the school nurse diffidently.

"Of course, Principal Flutie. Just a moment." The woman slipped into the adjacent room, and returned a few seconds later with the cheerleader in question.

"Hey, Mr. Harris. Mrs. Harris," the girl said courteously, smiling as the nurse vanished into the other room again to check on her patient.

"Hello, dear," the mother smiled back at the new arrival, but then she quickly got down to business. "Cordelia, what happened to Xander?"

"He got attacked by the substitute teacher," Miss Chase said simply.

"WHAT?!" Bob exclaimed. "What are you talking about? I don't believe it! What are you –"

"You think I'm lying, Principal Flutie?" she interrupted, the girl's megawatt smile suddenly turning shark-like. "Well, I'm sure Daddy would be interested to know that. And so would the school board! And so would Daddy's friend in the Sunnydale Police Department, Detective Paul Stein I think his name is –"

"No, wait a minute! I, I mean, there's no need for the police to get involved here. Is there?" Bob could feel himself starting to perspire heavily.

"You tell me, Principal Flutie," the Chase girl said coolly, almost sounding like she was the one in charge of the school instead of him. "Thing is I've already told some of what happened to Mr. Wyndam-Pryce, the librarian – he was passing by at the time, and he helped me bring Xander here – but I can go into detail now, if you like?"

"Go ahead, girl, tell us what happened," Mr. Harris nodded, before Bob had a chance to say anything.

"Well. I noticed Miss French staring at Xander a lot during Biology class, which kinda got me suspicious. I mean, he wasn't doing anything weird or whatever, so I couldn't help wondering – why would she focus on him so much? Then when Miss French asked him to stay behind after the bell rang, my suspicions about her being some sorta cougar only grew worse! So I hung around outside the classroom after everyone left – and when I went inside again, I saw Miss French looking completely pissed and Xander looking totally stunned! Well, things got a bit confused after that – I mean, there was some yelling and screaming – but then she took a swing at him, and Xander couldn't get out of the way fast enough, so he went down hard. And I don't know where Miss French is now; I was too busy running over to check whether the big dummy was okay..."

Worried, Bob could see the angry eyes of the parents immediately swing around in his direction. He stammered, "Uh, Mr. and Mrs. Harris –"

"What kind of teachers do you have in this school?!" the red-haired woman shouted.

"Hell with it, I'm calling a lawyer," the father grunted.

"I can recommend the firm Daddy uses, they're very good – and they might even give you the Chase family discount on their hourly rates," the cheerleader said brightly.

"Please, uh, there's no need to get the lawyers involved," Bob stammered. "At least not yet, surely! I, I –"

A knock on the door to the nurse's office distracted everyone at just the right time, and Mr. Wyndam-Pryce came in. The British man looked disturbed as he said, "Ah, excuse me, Mr. Flutie. Could I possibly have a word?"

"Have a sentence, even," the Chase girl said flippantly, ignoring the annoyed look the librarian sent her.

"Is this about the substitute teacher? That Miss French woman?" Mrs. Harris demanded.

"Well, yes, actually. I was just with the headmaster's secretary, you see, and, and she supplied Miss French's personnel file to me in order to give to him. And, err, I'd say he needs to look at this immediately; especially the woman's year of birth," the librarian said, before handing over a yellow manila folder.

Bon frowned, opening the folder and examining the listed date of birth. His eyes grew wide as he exclaimed, "Natalie French was born in 1907?!"

"What? That's crazy! Miss French wasn't, like, ninety years old! She was in her late twenties – early thirties, at the most!" the Chase girl said emphatically. "Are you sure you're looking at the right personnel file?"

"I think it's safe to say that we can be sure of very little right now, Miss Chase," the librarian straightened up, looking at her with disdain.

"He's right. Assuming these records are accurate, then this... this is identity fraud on a major scale," Bob said, suddenly seeing some light at the end of a very dark tunnel. "I'm sorry, Mr. and Mrs. Harris, but in light of this new evidence – well, this is obviously going to become a criminal investigation of some kind, and so it wouldn't be proper for me to say anything more about this matter right now. After I contact the Sunnydale PD, though –"

"The machinery takes over, the police interviews start, blah, blah, blah," Miss Chase cut in, looking annoyed. "And I bet they're gonna want to interview me, right? Just great! That's all I need – being forced to spend time in some smelly interview room, and trying not to gag on the lousy excuse for coffee the Sunnydale cops have!"

Bob said nothing, even though he noticed how the Harris parents were smiling indulgently at the brat's self-centered whining. Good, let them be distracted by her childish antics, he needed a chance to –

"Principal Flutie! Principal Flutie!" his secretary suddenly rushed through the door, looking very distraught. "Come quick! They just found Dr. Gregory!"

"Well, that's good –" Bob started to say.

"No, it's not! He's dead! A couple of students found his body in the school cafeteria's freezer! And, and his head was missing! Dr. Gregory was murdered!" the secretary added, sounding hysterical.

"Murdered?!" Miss Chase echoed, now looking pale and frightened.

"Excuse me, all of you. Obviously, I need to contact the police at once," Bob said, just before he hurried out of the nurse's office.

The way he saw it, he now had an excellent excuse to say that the assault by Miss French (or whoever she really was) on a student wasn't such a big priority, anymore; but on the other hand, he definitely needed to figure out how to prove that this latest fiasco – a murder on campus, no less – was in no way his fault!

TBC…


A/N: Okay, here's the thing - I always found the events of "Teacher's Pet" to be a bit contrived...I mean, masquerading as a substitute teacher if all you needed was a couple of male virgins to mate with, and fertilize your eggs? You may as well just grab your targets outside the Bronze, or whatever - and I didn't bother with the whole claw-hand vampire sub-plot, mostly since the Master is gone in this AU and that vamp never would have needed to do 'penance' that way. Just assume that Buffy will encounter that guy at some point, and slay the vampire with extreme prejudice.

And as for the events of "The Witch", I mostly skipped over them because, if you recall, both Amy and her dad have left town and Catherine Madison is nothing but a rotting corpse by this point. I did my best to hypothesize on how and why Buffy would have eventually quit the cheerleader squad; please tell me if it works for you, and what you thought of this chapter overall!

My thanks as always, of course, goes to everyone who is still reading and reviewing and sending feedback to me about this story!