Setting: Set in the continuation-verse, which picks up about three months after the end of "Chosen". So, spoilers for pretty much everything, including any "episodes" in this series that have come before it.
Notes: Here we go with my most ambitious 'fic project ... well, ever, basically. A virtual continuation of a show with a whole heck of a lot more story to tell. Since deciding to do this project I've discovered that there are, in fact, many Season 8's ... but this is the only one with the Jet Wolf Seal of Involvement, so that guarantees freshness. Or something.
Episodes are posted to www.btvschosen.com weekly, at 8pm EST on Tuesdays, all pretty and HTML'd with graphics and oo! Credits. We have credits, too. Eps will appear the following Friday or Saturday on ff.net. So if you don't want to wait all that extra time (and really, how could you?), the site is the way to go.
(16 April 2004)
Episode 2: "Human Nature"
Story by: Jet Wolf & Ultrace
Written by: Jet Wolf
Kennedy's hand snaked out to snatch a handful of cheesy curls from the super-sized bag before Dawn had even realized the Slayer was there. "Hey!" she exclaimed angrily.
"Oh, sorry," Kennedy munched, not sounding sorry at all, "I know you only have a few ... thousand left."
With a withering glare, Dawn very deliberately transported the bag to the other side of the computer, out of Kennedy's easy reach. The Slayer crunched extra loudly on the chips she'd already stolen.
"Kinda not the point," growled Dawn. "I bought these with my own money."
Smirking, Kennedy teased, "You sure you're not an only child?"
Dawn didn't bother to justify that with a response, choosing instead to simply glower at the laptop screen and try to ignore the other girl's presence.
Still highly amused, Kennedy also glanced at the computer. "So what're you working on?"
"Stuff," came the curt reply.
Kennedy leaned forward from her perch on the arm of the couch, peering unnoticed over Dawn's shoulder. "'Assisted in the care and maintenance of vehicles crucial to the transportation of disaster victims'?" she read aloud.
The laptop snapped shut and Dawn spun around, irate and embarrassed. Her jaw kept moving up and down, but nothing was coming out.
"Are you talking about that time the bus got a flat tire and you handed Buffy a wrench?" Kennedy chuckled.
"No! I-I was ... Uhhh ... Look, you don't know what I do!" Dawn finally got out, unable to think of anything better.
"Well I know what you don't," came the highly amused retort.
"Don't you have to meet up with Willow or something? Some place that's else?" Dawn asked pointedly.
The Slayer shook her head, cheerfully ignoring the point. "She's got some thing at school."
Dawn regarded Kennedy as though she might quite possibly be the stupidest creature on the entire planet. "Yeah, I know? The tree monster freak out from earlier? I figured you'd be all Dudley Do-Right, so why are you here intruding on my time?"
Her jovial demeanor slipped for a moment as Kennedy filtered through Dawn's words. "Wait, what tree monster?"
Preparing to explain very, very slowly and carefully, Dawn took a deep breath, but stopped when realization hit her. "Ohhh, she didn't tell you." Recognizing that the tables had suddenly turned in her favor, Dawn's eye took on an evil glint. "Funny."
"Yeah, funny ..." Kennedy frowned.
"I guess she figured this wasn't your kind of thing," mused Dawn aloud. "I mean she's going to talk to them, not wave a stake around and make lame jokes. And I'm guessing, stake? Not very threatening when you're made of wood."
"No ... I guess not."
Dawn pressed on relentlessly. "Shame, though. It's probably the sort of thing she could use backup on." She snuck a glance a Kennedy, making sure the Slayer was still listening. "I know that she and Tara were huge with the whole one-with-nature thing. Having someone like that around would probably help." Shrugging, Dawn dismissed the idea. "But Willow's the Big Brain, I'm sure she'll work it through without'cha, completely violence-free." She punctuated the end of her speech with an overly large and bright smile.
"Yeah," Kennedy said distractedly, standing and heading out of the room. "Hey, I'm gonna go ... Go work out or somethin'," she said. She sounded defeated and gestured at the still-closed laptop. "Good luck with that."
"Sure thing!" chirped Dawn, the same smile plastered on her face. She watched Kennedy leave and waited for the sound of the front door closing before allowing the smile to turn into a satisfied smirk. "And Spike thought I never paid attention," she murmured happily, turning back to the computer.
Willow, Giles and Xander filed through the park entrance cautiously, alert for any sign of imminent danger. They were conspicuously weapon-free, a fact which seemed to make Xander particularly nervous; he kept flexing his hand as though wishing he felt something solid, sharp and pointy in it.
The activists, their number reduced to ten or so from when they had been setting up the area, were clustered around the stage, absorbed in whatever they were doing.
"Hello?" Willow called.
As one, the group looked up, startled. Xylia quickly stepped forward, however, and smiled warmly at the redhead.
"Willow! I'm so glad you could make it! Though you're early. We haven't finished our preparations just yet."
Willow fidgeted nervously, wringing her hands when she wasn't gesturing with them. "Xylia, hi. I'm here. Sorry. For-For the early, sorry, not the being here. Here is good, it's usually the best place to find yourself. I mean, if you get lost, you at least always know that wherever you are, you're 'here', right?" She grinned weakly.
Xylia blinked, utterly confused and unable to follow the conversation at all. Giles cleared his throat and Willow took a deep breath.
"I had some questions," she tried again. "Some stuff that was buggin' me."
This made much more sense, and Xylia nodded encouragingly. A short distance away, the other activists watched, curious.
"Okay. Well, there's this ... guy. Frat guy. A-And I know this sounds, you know, crazy, but i-it seems that he's now ... Sorta ..." Unable to find any way to say it besides the direct way, Willow took another deep breath before blurting out, "A tree. I think he got turned into a tree."
The activists looked at one another, as though unsure of what they'd heard her say. Stunned, Xylia merely stared at Willow.
"I know, crazy," interjected Willow quickly. "I was hoping— I mean, I didn't think you guys had anything to do with it." She turned to Xander and Giles. "We'll have to start research, find out—"
"For you to have detected this ..." Xylia breathed wondrously in a near-whisper, "you must truly be one of us!"
"—what could have—" Willow's attention returned to the activist, "Wait, what?"
Xylia gazed reverenly at Willow, making the redhead start fidgeting again. "Your bond with Mother Earth, it's one of the strongest we've ever seen in your kind."
Giles finally stepped forward, pondering Xylia's words. "What do you mean, 'our kind'?"
For the first time, Xylia noticed that Willow wasn't alone. She smiled at the newcomers and then addressed Willow. "And you've brought friends. Are they, too, Kindred? We don't traditionally accept males, however—"
She broke off, stiffening, sensing that something wasn't right. Giles looked to Willow for an explanation, but received only a shrug in response. Then Xylia whirled at Xander, her eyes blazing.
"You!" she practically shouted.
"Oh no, not again," muttered Xander, taking an involuntary step backwards.
"You reek of the spilled essence!" she spat from between clenched teeth, quivering with barely contained fury.
Xander glanced at himself and sniffed experimentally, casting an anxious look to his friends who were equally at a loss.
The enraged woman turned to her fellow activists, thrusting her finger at Xander. "He profanes our sacred place, bathed in the dust of our Sisters!"
"Dust?" Giles repeated questioningly.
Willow puzzled over it for a moment, then her eyes widened. "Ohhhh," she drawled, looking at Xander's shirt.
Following Willow's gaze, Xander looked down at his clothes. He ran a hand across the front, brushing sawdust into the air. His head jerked up and he looked at Xylia, a little panicked.
"I have a hamster?" he offered feebly.
The rest of Xylia's group were converging on the Scoobies, and they moved closer together, slowly backing away as one.
"Xander," said Giles, his eyes glued on the women in front of him, "remind me to never again ask you for a favor when we get out of this."
"Oh hey, the night's lookin' up already," Xander replied.
Willow was intent on the activists, her hands held up in front of her. "N-Now wait just a minute. I know this looks bad, but i-it's just a bookcase. Bookcases are good, they hold ... books and stuff."
"So he desecrates trees," growled Xylia, "warping them into a twisted parody, and uses the results to showcase further evidence of man's relentless disregard for nature!"
Xander grimaced. "Will? Stop helping me."
"Enough," the leader announced, stepping forward. "He has made his choice."
She waved her hand at Xander, and to his horror, his feet began to cover over with a bark-like substance, tendrils reaching into the ground and taking hold.
"Gyyaaahh!!" cried Xander, thoroughly wigged as he started dancing in place. The action afforded no opportunity for his feet to become rooted, a fact which Giles noticed.
"Off the ground!" the Watcher commanded. "It can't take hold if we're not touching the ground!"
Giles scrambled for the nearest table and clambered on top of it. Xander followed suit on a different table, moving with a speed he would not normally be capable of. As he watched, the bark on his feet crumbled and fell to the tabletop. He kicked it away as though it was poisonous and looked down.
"Oh, feet," he cooed. "Precious feet. How I missed you. Let's never almost part again. I've lost enough bits of me for one lifetime."
Still on the ground, Willow was trying desperately to get through to the women. "No, stop!" she pleaded. "He didn't mean any disrespect!"
"They rarely do. Humans, like this male," the leader sneered, gesturing at Xander, "simply do not think. They are selfish and ignorant, and our sister trees suffer and die by the thousands every day as a result. The Dryads will no longer simply stand by and watch as the plague of man spirals the Earth into complete destruction."
Watching from the tabletop, Xander turned to Giles, raising his voice slightly to make sure it carried. "I think we're approaching a Red Alert situation here, Giles! These ... whatever-they-are's are startin' to make Earth First! look like a Tupperware party. I'm thinkin' some backup of the Slay variety is in order!"
This was obviously a conclusion Giles had already reached, and he held his cell phone in two hands, fighting with it. "I agree, but I can't get this unholy device to place a call!" He punched a few more buttons. "Blast!"
Xander turned his attention back to Willow while Giles continued pushing random buttons and swearing. As he watched, the dryads, one after the other, began to shed their human appearance and reveal their true selves.
"And me without my Weed B Gone," he muttered worriedly.
Faith was leading a small group of four girls cautiously through a cemetery on patrol. They moved stealthily, each hardly making a sound. As they stalked, their eyes constantly scanned the shadows in search of for danger. It seemed at first as though there was simply nothing to be found, but then a rustling from the nearby bushes caused five heads to snap to attention.
Faith gestured for two of the girls to get on either side of the bushes. Both complied instantly. The other two girls took up a position on each side of Faith, who was now facing the location of the rustling. All had their stakes out and at the ready. With a nod from Faith, the ones on bush detail yanked it aside. The Slayers raised their weapons, ready to attack ... only to see that the noise was being made by a couple making out.
"Oh for ... " Faith began, rolling her eyes with disgust and lowering her stake. She glared accusingly at the guy, who was scrambling to make himself presentable. "What, you too cheap to spring for a room or somethin'? I mean a graveyard. Come on. You got any idea how tacky that is? I know tacky. This is tacky. " Pointing her finger at one of the Junior Slayers without looking away from the guy, Faith added, "Lynn, I know you're underage."
Lynn blushed a deep crimson and quickly averted her eyes.
The couple, meanwhile, had managed to get to their feet. Disheveled and totally mortified, they were stammering apologies, but Faith cut them off with a wave of her hand.
"Don't go apologizin' to me, I ain't the one you gotta deal with tomorrow morning." She dismissed the pair with a 'shoo' gesture. "Now go on, get outta here. Go make out in your mom's Lexus like good hormone bombs."
They quickly ran off, grateful for the reprieve, and the Slayers watched them for a moment.
"Like people don't die easy enough in this town, they gotta help," Faith shook her head in wonder before continuing her patrol.
The other Slayers fell into step behind her. Heather and Asura, the two who had been closest to the bushes, trailed at the back of the group.
"You know it's a slow night when that's the most exciting thing that's happened," whispered Heather.
Asura grinned broadly. "We're just that bad-ass, girlfriend. When Slayers thrust—" she demonstrated theatrically with her stake, "—vampires dust."
The two shared an enthusiastic high-five. Which was interrupted by Asura being violently yanked backwards. She gasped as she struggled, finding herself trapped in an unbreakable grip. A stronger leg was wrapped around one of her own and both her arms were pinned behind her back. Her head was similarly held immobile. The younger Slayer resisted, whimpering as she realized it was futile. Her whimper soon became a cry of pain and surprise as she felt teeth sink into her neck.
"I'm a vamp," Faith hissed into her ear. "I just ripped your throat out."
Faith pushed the girl away, sending Asura flying into Heather but she didn't fall. She spun around to Faith, shock, anger and respect all warring on her face. Bringing her fingertips up to her neck, Asura pulled them back to check for blood. There wasn't any, but it would be days before the mark disappeared completely.
"Don't get cocky," lectured Faith. "Bein' cocky makes you sloppy. Bein' sloppy makes you dead. Dead Slayer ain't nothin' to nobody."
The loud ringing of her cell phone cut through the night, and Faith pulled it out of her jacket. While she talked, the Junior Slayers gathered together in a tight huddle, all watching Faith closely.
Asura glared openly, still touching her neck. "Bitch is insane!"
"Maybe a little," Lynn admittedly in a quiet voice. "But you know what? I think she's right."
Faith snapped her cell phone closed and turned to the others. "Gotta go," she informed. "You girls go meet up with Vi and Rona's group; they're up in the north part. Tell 'em I need 'em at Penn, Mueller Park. Super fast. Stay together, an' be careful. Remember what I said."
Faith took off without looking back, and the remaining girls ran in the opposite direction.
Lifting it just in time, Giles narrowly avoided a tree-like arm that was aiming for his foot. Another reached out from the side and he kicked it away.
"Faith's on her way!" he called over to Xander.
Xander wasn't faring much better than Giles, possibly even worse considering the bulk of the dryads seemed to fixate on him as their primary target. He had grabbed one of the folding chairs and was using it as both a shield and a weapon.
"Well thank god!" he yelled back. "This is the least fun table dance ever!"
He blocked an approaching grabby hand with the chair, and then swung it around heavily into the head of dryad that was coming a bit too close for comfort. As she fell back, Xander shook his stinging arm, jarred from the solid weight of the creatures. Yet another hand reached out for him while he was distracted, and although it missed him, it did leave a painful scratch on his hand.
"Industrial-strength Jergens, ladies. Look into it," Xander advised. To Giles he asked, "Not that I'm complain', but why are they stayin' down there? Again, I stress the lack of complaining."
"I suspect they're nyfeds, young dryads who've yet to amass the strength necessary to be out of contact with the Earth," Giles explained, still managing to provide the necessary information while ducking and dodging. He swayed on the table's surface for a moment, keenly aware of how rickety and unstable it was. "They also seem rather ... dim, much to our benefit," he added gratefully.
Giles kicked a big bowl of fruit punch directly into the face of one of the dryads. As she stumbled away, he couldn't help but grin, like he'd just scored the winning goal.
Meanwhile, Willow was working on holding the attention of Xylia and the leader, obviously the stronger of the dryads. "This is nuts!" she reasoned desperately. "You can't just go around turning people into either a tree or a dryad! What kind of choice is that?"
"It is the only choice," Xylia patiently explained. "When you are one of us, Willow, you will understand."
"Understand? Understand what? That it's okay to-to torture people? To kill them? Sorry, already learned the lesson, and guess what? It's not okay!"
The leader was unmoved. "But they must be made to suffer," she insisted, "as they have made the trees suffer. The human disease is no part of—"
"But that's just it! Humans are a part! Mother Earth made us, too! A-And yeah, okay, she made us stupid and selfish," Willow admitted, "but she also made us loving and giving. We have ... so much power to do good. We just sometimes lose sight of the big picture. We can't see the forest for the trees." She paused, tipping her head to one side. "Okay, weird analogy, given the circumstances. But you can't just go around thinkin' that no more humans'll mean everything's hunky-dory. We're ... not just some plague blighting the world. We're part of it. And you're giving up on us."
"Your kind gave up on us long ago," the leader replied stonily.
Willow shook her head. "No, we haven't. You said it yourself; there are 'kindred' out there. Maybe they're only 1% of 1% of the people you talk to, but still! That's someone – some human – you've turned to your cause. In a good, natural way, not a ... scary species-changing way. A-And then that person? They talk, an' they listen, an' they convince someone else. It's not the quick and easy solution. It'll take a whole lotta effort and time and patience. Changing someone's nature is hard, yeah, but when it happens, you know it's done forever." She shrugged and smiled. "Besides, isn't waiting patiently for things to grow naturally what trees do best?"
Xylia and the leader regarded at each other, seriously considering the redhead's words. Neither said anything for a long while, and Willow held her breath anxiously. Finally, they looked to her.
"You speak with the deeply rooted passion of the forest, Willow. You would make an excellent Dryad." Willow tensed involuntarily. "But you are right," the leader continued. "It is not ... natural."
The tension flowed out of Willow and she slumped, finally remembering to breathe again. Responding to some unknown cue, the dryads who were still trying to reach Xander and Giles stopped, moving back towards their sisters. The two men looked at each other uneasily for a moment, then Giles took a tentative step off the table. He went to Willow and then glanced over to Xander when he realized the other hadn't moved. Xander stood stock still on the table, hugging the folding chair to his chest tightly and shook his head. He made no move whatsoever to get down from the table.
The dryad leader considered Willow with some regret. "We allowed our rage to blind us to the beautiful latticework Mother Nature has crafted around her children. All of her children. Even those whose actions are less than savory," she added with a meaningful look in Xander's direction. He clutched the chair tighter, and she turned back to Willow. "Thank you for reminding us."
"Well thank you for not ... You know ..." Willow gestured at the gathered dryads and grinned. "Brown's not really my color. I'm more a pastels kinda gal."
Faith burst suddenly into the park, a stake held tightly in her fist. Her eyes darted around, taking in the scene. When she detected a definitive absence of trouble, she frowned and lowered the stake slightly.
"Okay, I'm here," she announced. "Where'd the bad guys go?"
Willow pointed to the dryads. "The bad guys kinda became the good guys," she explained happily.
"Damn, we back to ambiguous evil again?" complained Faith. "Y'know, that's what I always liked about the First. Y'never questioned whose side it was on."
The day was absolutely beautiful. The sun was shining overhead, but the occasional cloud drifted by, ensuring that it never became overpowering, and a cool breeze kept everything well within comfortable temperatures. Xander and Willow walked side-by-side through an open field, toward a line of trees in the near distance. Their pace was casual, neither in much of a rush.
"I did warn you," Xander told his best friend.
"No 'I told you so's, please," she begged. "I feel poopy enough as it is."
"Okay." The pause was brief. "But I did warn you."
Willow's sigh was extremely loud. "Yes, okay, you warned me. You were right, I was wrong. I should, in all matters of the heart and otherwise, defer to the time-honored wisdom of Alexander Harris."
He waved his hand dismissively. "Nah, don't do that. I don't want the blame when I'm wrong. You admitted I was right, and that's enough for me," he remarked with a broad smile. "I can now die a happy man."
"And if you keep this up, you just might," replied Willow in a threatening tone.
"Oo, temper temper." They continued to walk in silence for a moment before Xander glanced over. "Seriously though, Will, you hurt her feelings pretty bad."
"I know," Willow agreed sadly. "A-And I'll make it up to her. Just as soon as she's talking to me again," she added under her breath. Snapping out of it for the moment, she brightened. "But that's for later. Right now is for us."
Xander grinned like a kid on Christmas morning. "And on behalf of us, may I say we're very excited? What's all this about?"
The two of them had reached the trees a few paces back and were now moving through them. They arrived upon a decent-sized clearing, well shaded by the branches of a huge tree off to one side. Nearby, a stream happily flowed, watering the trees and other plants that lined its banks. Then, positively beaming at Xander, Willow pointed out the tiny seedling growing in the center of the area.
He didn't quite get it. "I gotta say, plants? Not as cute as they were a few days ago."
Willow settled on the ground, facing the sapling and leaning her back against the big tree. Xander joined her. They sat quietly for a long moment, simply enjoying each other's company.
"Before they left," Willow eventually began, breaking the silence, "Xylia asked if they could do something special for me. Turns out their power only works one way, so bringin' back the tree people was out." She looked pained for a moment before continuing, "But they were pretty insistent about doin' something, so I thought of this."
Xander said nothing. His gaze was fixed on Willow, patient that all would eventually be made clear.
"I've been thinking about what you said, about there being no connection? A-And I think it's about more than just The Bronze or your apartment. It's—"
She paused, dissatisfied with that train of thought. Taking a deep breath to steel herself, she tried again another way.
"I used to visit all the time, you know? Tara. I mean, not so much once the Bringers started tryin' to kill us all every time we set foot outside. But before, and whenever I could after. When we first got here, we were so busy that it didn't even hit me. Not until later, when I finally had some time to myself and I thought, 'I know, I'll go see Tara'. Then I realized ... I can't."
Her next breath was shaky and her eyes began to tear up. Xander looked at her with an echoing pain, and he gently took her hand. Willow flashed him a grateful smile, but pressed on, well aware how important it was for both of them that she get this out.
"I can't visit her anymore. I can't go to her and talk about my day. I can't tell her how much I miss her. I can't touch her name or bring her roses." The tears were flowing freely now, but Willow didn't bother to brush them away. "She still lives in me, and I feel that, but sometimes ... It's like the rest of the world's somehow managed to forget that it was only bright while she was in it. And without even her grave to remind them ..."
Choking back a sobbing laugh, Willow shook her head. Xander tightened his grip, and felt her return the support.
"God, I cried so hard when I realized, I didn't think I was ever gonna stop. It's been rough, and you guys have helped so much, but what I needed was a place. Somewhere I could go, just to think of her. So when Xylia made her offer to do something ..." Willow inclined her head toward the sapling. Xander looked at it, as though seeing the tiny tree for the first time.
After a brief moment to recompose herself, Willow continued to explain. "It's all connected, y'know? It really is. I helped her imbue it with our thoughts and our love. Not just for Tara, but Anya, Joyce, Ms. Calendar, Jesse, even Spike. And since it's all connected, I think ..." She shook her head, then more forcibly, "No, I know they know. This is our place now. And they'll be here."
Xander was overcome, unable to speak, but his smile said volumes. He gently pulled Willow toward him and kissed her on the forehead, holding his lips there for a long moment. When he finally released her, he slipped an arm around her shoulder, and she leaned against him. The two sat there together, resting against the old, strong tree and watched the new one sway serenely in the breeze.