Standard disclaimer: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and all such related things, © Mutant Enemy and many other people with big scary lawyers. We're borrowing them without permission, but you said you were done with 'em, so we're hoping you won't mind so much. Stories, images, characters you don't recognize, those are all by 4Paws. Yes, we'll take the blame.

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 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 So if you don't want to wait all that extra time (and really, how could you?), the site is the way to go.

(21 July 2004)


The Chosen: A Buffy Virtual Continuation

Episode 12: "Loves, Labor, Lost"
Story by: Jet Wolf & Ultrace
Written by: Jet Wolf
Additional Material by: Novareinna

Act Four

Buffy flung open the front door to her house with something only slightly less than Slayer strength, which meant that while it was sufficient to alert all inside to her fit of pique, the door remained intact so Xander was free from having to take on any more work. Grumbling angrily, Buffy was muttering only partly under her breath.

Her voice was dripping with disdain, and her sneer twisted every word. "'Oh, Buffy, thank you sooooo much for all your help, just by walking in the room and being repulsive! Let me buy you a meatball sub, it's the least I can do to make up for telling you how unappealing you are for the past 38 minutes exactly!'" Slamming the door closed, it appeared for a moment as though Buffy was planning to follow up with a savage kick, but shied away. Instead, she bitterly spat out, "Stupid dumb stupid-guy."

Shrugging off her coat, leaving her clad only in her outrageous outfit, Buffy jammed the garment onto the rack near the door, nearly toppling it over in her anger. She stomped into the living room to find Willow, Xander and Dawn all seated on the couch, seeming to be waiting for her. Cradled in Dawn's lap was an ancient tome of some sort that very obviously would have been at home in Giles' collection. It was closed, but a piece of fluorescent pink paper dangled from the top to mark a crucial page.

All three wore moderately serious expressions, but Buffy was far too wound up in her horrible afternoon to pay much notice, choosing instead to thrust her finger at Xander. "You!" she accused, then repeated the gesture at Willow. "Both of you! Your friends ... suck!"

"Nice of you to say so, oh friend of mine," smirked Xander, but the association was lost on the fuming Slayer.

"I'm guessin' things didn't exactly click with Kyle, huh?" questioned a disappointed Willow.

The blonde laughed bitterly. "Oh, things clicked just fine for Kyle. Lots of clicking, lost of pieces, just that none of them were Buffy-shaped. They were shaped more like Antonio, our waiter." With a huff, Buffy threw herself into Xander's chair, her anger giving way to an industrial-strength pout.

It took a moment, but then all three seemed to catch on at the same time.

Xander spoke first, his face registering surprise. "You mean Kyle's—"

"Apparently so," complained Buffy. "And it only took three seconds with me for him to figure it out!"

"Ouchie," the redhead winced sympathetically.

"That had to be, like, the most awkward thing ever," marveled Dawn aloud. When she caught Buffy's glare of death, she threw her hands out with an exasperated, "What?"

Xander was still stuck on the afternoon's big revelation. "Huh. So Kyle's gay." He paused for a moment, then jutted his finger out thoughtfully. "You know, that actually explains a lot."

"Have an epiphany when I'm not around, I've had enough of them for one day," griped Buffy. Suddenly overtaken with frustration, she threw her head back in the chair and balled her hand into a fist. "God! I need to beat something up and then take a nap."

Chuckling, Willow leaned forward. "Funny you should mention that ..."

"How about a two-for-one deal?" the carpenter offered cheerfully.

Sighing heavily, Buffy rolled her head to rest against her shoulder and stared at her friends. "I'm tired, humiliated, bordering on depressed, and wearing clothes that better never again find their way into this house. Drop the cryptic."

As though considering that her cue, Dawn leapt in to explain. "Well you know that sleeping sickness thing around town? And your crazy romance novel dreams?" Hefting the book out of her lap, the teenager smiled proudly. "We know what it is."

"Incubus," stated Willow.

Buffy blinked. "Gesundheit."

A snorting laugh from Xander caused the three females in the room to turn toward him. "I did the exact same joke when they told me!" he bubbled excitedly. The glares from Willow and Dawn quickly sobered him, and he added, "It wasn't very funny then, either."

With a final piercing look, Willow focused once again on the Slayer. "It's an incubus. A- A non-corporeal entity, like a spirit, that invades the dreams of women a-and seduces them."

"Can't get a date the normal way?" scoffed Buffy. "I'm so there."

Shaking her head, Dawn responded, "No, it feeds off of sexual energy. And once the woman is entirely under his spell he, uhm ... he- he mates with them." Tentatively, Dawn offered the book to her sister. "It's illustrated if you wanna see."

Instead, Buffy's eyes widened and she flashed an accusatory look at her best friends, both of whom squirmed uncomfortably and averted their eyes.

"Anyway, not the point," interjected Xander, very keen to shift topics. "The point is, we think all the women down with this 'sleeping sickness' thing are under the spell of the pimp daddy playa of the demon world." He cringed. "And yes, I should be shot for saying 'pimp daddy playa'."

"You're sure it's this pimp thing?" Buffy asked, pushing herself upright in the chair with some difficulty.

The redhead nodded, though her expression grew concerned again. "It seems to make the most sense. I was supposed to meet my friend Erin at the library today, but she never showed up. I-I went to her apartment and she was completely asleep, I couldn't wake her up. She'd been telling me about these dreams, just like yours. So I went to the Watchers that Giles put on research duty, and they suggested an incubus." She pointed to the book resting in Dawn's lap. "After a bit of research, it all seemed to fit."

Groaning mightily, Buffy struggled to her feet. She stretched backward, almost parallel to the floor, and murmured appreciatively as she heard several rewarding pops. "Good enough for me," she announced, straightening again. "And I can think of worse ways to make myself feel warm and fuzzy than killing the demonic representation of the male libido."

The Slayer received only blank stares in response.

"What, you guys corner the market on keen observations and symbolic parallels?" Still she received no answer, and she rolled her eyes. "So how do I kill it?"

Her family were still stuck in a stupor. The Slayer cleared her throat, irritation evident, and Dawn was the first to respond. "Oh, uh ... usual ways," she replied with a shrug. "He's not really physical, you know, being all incorporeal and stuff. He mostly relies on manipulation to convince the woman to sleep with him."

"Just like a real boy!" exclaimed Xander, receiving another round of baleful glares.

Shaking her head, Dawn continued. "So yeah, just ... kill him in your dream. Once he's dead, you and everyone else should wake up."

"What are odds I won't be able to wake up from this?" the Slayer asked, not sounding concerned but obviously wanting all the facts first.

"Pretty slim," Willow was quick to respond. "In order for his spell to work, you have to want to stay. You're aware now, so unless he's really, really good, your dream-self should remember that. And if he is that good, then I'm upset you haven't shared yet." A pout threatened to burst forth at any moment, and Buffy smirked in response.

Thoroughly enjoying being a primary provider of information, Dawn was anxious to keep going. "You really need to kill him now, though," she stressed, adding perhaps a dash more urgency than was required, but her point was clear. "Once he knows you're on to him, he probably won't show up in your dreams again, and then we'll have no way of catching him."

Nodding, the Slayer headed for the stairs. "Alright then, so nap and ass-kicking."

"Two things you can do in your sleep!" Xander joked. Once again, no one laughed, and he sighed dejectedly.

"See you guys in a bit," Buffy called over her shoulder.

Dawn smiled happily. "Sweet dreams."

-=-=-=-

Hannah, Wood and Giles were gathered in the Watcher's office. At a small cabinet against a side wall, Giles poured drinks for everyone and then handed them around. "Is everything ready?" he asked.

"Almost," replied Hannah taking a pull on her White Russian. "We still have to stock up on food and such. I'm thinking nothing but jerky and tins of baked beans, you?" She turned to Wood.

"Desperately hoping for some variety," he smirked. "Maybe a nice fruit roll-up."

"And- And everything else?" questioned the anxious Watcher. "You're prepared?"

It was Wood who responded this time. "Well as prepared as we can be, seeing as how we have absolutely NO idea what we're going there to look for. Gotta say, didn't think I'd be returning to Sunnydale anytime ... ever. Hey, maybe while we're there, we can stop off at the high school. I never did get to grab my nameplate." He leaned toward Hannah to add, "Sentimental value." She inclined her head wisely.

"I'm pleased you're both taking this so seriously," snapped a sarcastic Giles.

"Oh, I'm serious," Wood told him. "That nameplate was a gift from the school board."

Nudging each other with their elbows, Hannah and Wood shared a chuckle, amused at the beginnings of an aggravated expression creeping across the Watcher's face.

Hannah grimaced. "We better watch out," she warned Wood. "He's starting to get that wrinkly thing between his eyes. Next he'll start tutting."

Wood nodded sagely as Giles did, indeed, tut more than once in a most disapproving manner.

The blonde exhaled a huge puff of air. "See?" she accused. "Rupert, don't confuse banter for a lack of seriousness. Honestly, you've been working with Buffy and her friends for eight years now and you still haven't learned to tell the difference?"

Giles settled his glasses upon his nose. "Sorry," he sighed. "I just ... This whole Sunnydale mess. I don't like it. And I don't like that I have to send you two out there."

"Well personally," Wood revealed sardonically, "I'm anxious for the chance to get away. I've been here for almost three whole weeks. I feel the wanderlust starting to kick in."

The Watcher gave himself permission to exhibit a tiny smirk. "Just allow me my anxieties, please. Sometimes they're all I have."

Hannah shrugged indulgently. "Oh, very well, if you must."

Giles carried his untouched drink to the desk as Hannah hurriedly supplied a coaster. "Though I must admit," began the Watcher, "it would be a nice change of pace to be worried over nothi—"

The strident clanging of bells interrupted his statement. They seemed to be ringing everywhere. Hannah unceremoniously dumped her glass, sans coaster, on the polished surface of Giles' desk and clapped her hands over her ears. Wood's eyes darted to the red emergency light positioned in the corner of the room that was rapidly flashing its urgent message.

"Oh dear lord," muttered Giles, pushing himself up from his chair and racing toward the door.

"What in the bloody hell is that?" Hannah yelled in an attempt to make her voice heard above the incessant clanging.

"Alarms," bellowed Wood, following Giles out the door.

Hannah was no more than a second behind. "Thank you, Sherlock," she hollered.

In the hallway, the lights continued to flash their demand for immediate attention. With Giles leading the way, the trio sprinted down the corridor. As they ran, the Watcher tried to explain in between gulps of air. "Emergency alarms," he panted. "We have them set up throughout the facility."

Hannah apparently felt no such need for additional oxygen. "I remember you telling me," she remarked, easily keeping pace with her ex-husband. "I don't remember you telling me they were this obnoxious, though."

Pulling a small device from his pocket – something akin to a very flat palm pilot complete with a plethora of buttons – Giles depressed one and the grating siren died with a final wail of complaint, although the lights continued to flash.

Hannah vigorously shook her head but never broke stride. "My eardrums thank you," she said with a puff – not from exertion but relief that there had been no rupturing.

"Where's the trouble?" Wood demanded, bringing up the rear. He skidded to a halt as something solid came hurtling out of the recreation room several feet ahead of them. It could have been a body or an object – it was impossible to tell from the speed with which it traveled.

"My guess...?" suggested Hannah, as the three of them sprinted to the shattered doorway. The scene that met their eyes was one of total devastation.

Holes and cracks were visible in every wall. Tables and chairs were broken, and debris littered the floor. The pool table, video games and television remained intact, but given the rate of destruction there was no guarantee they would remain that way. Strewn about were the bodies of four Slayers, in varying degrees of injury - one attempted to get up while nursing a broken arm, another held her side in a way that indicated a few cracked ribs at the least, and the other two were completely unconscious.

In the center of the room, clear signs showed that the worst was yet to come. Faith, Kennedy and three Junior Slayers were confronting a young female, dressed entirely in black and easily holding her own. Her appearance gave the initial impression of an angel of death, and Giles immediately furrowed his brow, attempting to place the attacker. A frustrated shake of his head indicated he was unable to do so.

Although large, the rec room had not been created for battle, and there was insufficient space for all the Slayers to attack in unison. Instead, they were constantly moving, weaving around each other to launch an assault from seemingly random angles and intervals. Their opponent, however, was able to block most every blow. She displayed little concern for the unbalanced odds stacked against her and she demonstrated not even the merest evidence of fatigue.

Faith delivered a straight-on punch that would have demolished concrete, but her adversary easily pushed it away, even as she sidestepped another swing that moved so fast it seemed almost a blur. Kennedy managed to launch a spinning kick from behind the intruder, but even as the heel of her foot connected with the skull, it did nothing more than cause the girl's head to jerk slightly.

Seizing upon a perceived opening, one of the Juniors leapt forward with a blow aimed at the heart, but the invader's recovery had been instantaneous and, with no apparent effort, she trapped the fist within her hand. Exhibiting an amazing fluidity, the black-clad girl circled around and thrust her elbow backward. As it connected with the Junior's face, a sharp crack reverberated throughout the room, followed immediately by a spurt of blood from the Slayer's nose. She collapsed heavily to her knees.

From the doorway, Wood intently watched the ongoing confrontation. His eyes darted from the girls lying on the floor to the figure that had felled them. Glancing at Hannah, the pair seemed to share a wordless agreement, and together they moved to join the fight.

"No," Giles called out quickly, catching Hannah's arm as she swept past.

The blonde gaped at her ex-husband. "No?" she repeated incredulously, her tone matching the expression creeping across Wood's face.

Allowing his hand to fall, Giles explained, "There's too little room in there. You'll only distract the girls." His brow furrowed as he focused on the tireless series of defensive and aggressive moves being made by the assailant. "And there's no telling what that thing will do to a normal human," he added darkly.

The Watcher's logic was undeniable, but still Hannah and Wood were reluctant as they stepped away from the raging battle, able to do little save observe for the moment. Another round of attacks against the invader met with scant success. For her troubles, Kennedy stumbled beneath the force of a blow to her cheek that, had she not rolled with it, could quite possibly have broken her neck.

Summoned by the flashing lights and now-silenced sirens, reinforcements had begun to arrive from down the hall. A handful of Slayers stood next to Giles, taking in the scene before them with gaping mouths. The group was laden with weapons of all shapes, types and styles.

In frustration, Wood turned to his companions. "We can't just stand here doing nothing!" he exclaimed.

Hannah's eyes were fixed on the newcomers and their assortment of gear. Spotting a tranquilizer gun, the blonde seized it swiftly. Verifying that it was loaded, she vowed, "We won't."

With a quick nod of authority, Giles dispatched reinforcements into the room, where they instantly fell into step with those already engaged in battle. As a whole, the platoon of Slayers functioned like a well-oiled machine, despite the unusual circumstances. Giles then turned to the others, tone urgent but expression stoic. "Robin, carefully as you can, get the wounded out of harm's way."

Wood immediately ducked low and, as inconspicuously as possible, worked his way toward the nearest unconscious Slayer. Slipping his arm underneath the injured girl, he dragged her as carefully as he could toward a point of relative safety, where she would not run the risk of being trampled to death in the heat of battle.

Meanwhile, the Watcher had returned the bulk of his focus to the conflict at hand. His eyes squinted behind his spectacles as he observed the dizzying exchange of blows between the dark-haired aggressor and the seven Slayers now defending against her rampage. His eyes glittered with keen intelligence as his mind rapidly processed the onslaught of information.

For their part, Faith, Kennedy and the Junior Slayers appeared to be adapting to the fight. Realizing they were getting nowhere with straightforward punches, they had turned more to speed and combinations in an attempt to overwhelm their enemy. The approach was having very limited success, but it had at least slowed down the rate of their members falling in battle.

Faith moved in nimbly with a right-handed jab that her intended victim easily snatched and held, squeezing the captured fist like a piece of overripe fruit. The dark Slayer's teeth gritted in irritation as her face contorted with pain. Faith quickly followed up with her other arm, but that too was likewise seized and gripped. Reacting so speedily that she must have expected to become fully ensnared, Faith then rammed her boot full-force into the girl's groin, but the impact was negligible.

Believing the opponent's attention to be fully occupied, a Junior lashed out and connected solidly with the targeted temple. Such was the might of the blow that the interloper's head snapped to the right, where her cheekbone was instantaneously met by Kennedy's fist performing an identical move on that side. The whiplash-style assault managed to stun the invader for a moment.

There was no hesitation – Faith took full advantage and wrenched her hands free, cocking her arm back to deliver a strike to the trespasser's throat. But the girl had recovered, and far more quickly than anyone had expected or been prepared for. Once again, Faith found herself in the grasp of her foe, arm trapped in a vice-like grip that was impossible to break. The shorthaired attacker spared a brief moment to grin viciously at Faith before twisting savagely. A wetly ripping sound echoed and the dark Slayer immediately turned pale and ashen as her arm was contorted into an unnatural position. Effortlessly and with no more care than disposing of a used tissue, the invader tossed Faith aside. Crashing heavily atop the pool table, the Senior Slayer landed with such force that it nearly cracked in half.

From the doorway, Giles' voice rang out clearly and powerfully. "She's relying on strength only! Continue to attack together, and use technique!" he commanded.

With the enemy's back turned, Kennedy took advantage of the opening to grab the neck – her obvious intention being to snap it – but the Slayer's eyes widened in surprise when she realized the muscles were rigid as tempered steel and refused to budge, no matter how hard she struggled. Two Juniors, believing that Kennedy's attack had caused a distraction at the very least, moved into position to strike from the front. They were easily swept aside by a roundhouse kick, executed perfectly despite Kennedy's attempts at restraint.

Darting between the pair of flying bodies, yet another Slayer, armed with a sword, swung savagely at her opponent's chest. At that moment, Kennedy released her grip and instead, seized each of the intruder's arms. With a primal yell of exertion, she pulled as hard as she could and managed to pin them back. The veins stood out like chords on Kennedy's neck with the supreme effort, but her endeavors did provide a small amount of exposure and the tiniest of openings. Even so, the dark-haired attacker managed to move enough to deflect the brunt of the swing, which sliced through her shoulder rather than her chest.

While a normal creature – certainly one which was human quite possibly several species of demon – would have lost an arm as a result of the blow, the blade entered no more than a half-inch into the flesh before stopping.

For the first time, the attacker showed anger, and she immediately shrugged off the hold that had temporarily trapped her. Snatching the blade of the now slightly bent sword, she ripped the weapon from the hands of the astonished Junior. Swinging so fast that trajectory of the sword itself was audible, the intruder smashed the hilt into the side of the young Slayer's head. The girl was catapulted off of her feet and collided with the far wall, the impact of her body leaving yet another hole to join the dozen or so that already marred the plaster. Less than five seconds after initiating her assault, the Junior Slayer slumped to the ground, unmoving.

The black-costumed girl tossed the bowed sword aside in disdain as she slammed her elbow backward, connecting solidly with Kennedy's ribs. The jab was powerful enough to elicit a small cracking sound. The blow left the Senior Slayer stunned and she stumbled, only to find herself instantly unable to breathe. The intruder had wrapped her grip around the Slayer's throat and calmly hoisted her into the air one-handed. Fingers began to tighten, burrowing into the flesh of Kennedy's neck as the Slayer scrabbled to get free.

Failing to pry her enemy's fingers loose directly, Kennedy cocked back her arm, channeling every ounce of strength into a blow aimed for the girl's nose. It connected squarely, but was ineffective. Gritting her teeth with determination, the Senior Slayer tried again with equally unsuccessful results. One of the Juniors leapt to her aid, but the aggressor easily swept the would-be rescuer aside with her free arm. Dazed, the Junior found herself being blasted into the wall.

The crack of Kennedy's straining muscles mingled in a sickening fashion with the sound of the intruder's wound beginning to heal. Glancing at the wound slowly knitting together, Kennedy made a desperate lunge, driving her fingers into the raw skin. The Slayer gritted her teeth as she dug deep, clawing, scraping and tearing. While the initial sword stroke hadn't appeared to cause the interloper any great discomfort, her face now reflected agonizing pain. Her eyes clenched involuntarily as she slammed Kennedy to the floor before reaching up to her shoulder injury.

Gasping for breath and only half-conscious, Kennedy was in no condition to take advantage of the momentary lull. Around her lay almost a dozen other fallen Slayers, the least injured of whom were only just now managing to struggle to their knees. The invader was recuperating exponentially, and as she straightened, her unnaturally blue eyes surveyed the scene and the bodies strewn all around the immediate area.

As the dark-haired trespasser moved toward Kennedy with the obvious intent of finishing what she had started, a sharp whizzing sliced through the air and the antagonist jolted to a halt. Her hand flashed to the back of neck. Wrenching out the tranquilizer dark, she examined it curiously before turning toward the doorway, a snarl etched into her features. Hannah was rapidly reloading the gun, even as Giles boggled at the tranquilizer's total lack of effect.

Whatever kind of match Hannah might have been for a Slayer, she was still only human, and consequently no match at all for the interloper. In less than a heartbeat, the dark-haired girl stood before the startled blonde. Almost petulantly, she snatched the gun and crumpled the barrel in her fist with a single blinding squeeze. Before she could do the same to Hannah, Giles moved to intercept. Retrieving a discarded sword, he was already swinging in a masterful arc aimed directly at the intruder's neck. Had the blade connected, it would have been a killing blow, but it was effortlessly parried by the girl's palm. Once again, she constricted her fist and the blade shattered. Although metal fragments fell tinkling to the tile floor, none of the shards appeared to so much as pierce her durable flesh.

Before Giles could even gather sufficient thoughts in order to react, both the sword and the rifle had been carelessly tossed aside and the attacker had him in a death grip about the throat. Gazing into her expressionless eyes, he saw the reflected certainty of his own demise, but then, a blast akin to that of a gunshot crackled. A powdery explosion erupted behind the intruder and chips of ivory-colored debris spiraled in every direction. As the hold on the Watcher's windpipe relaxed, Giles toppled backward.

Head and shoulders caked with a chalky dust, the girl lurched staggering to one side. Momentarily regaining her balance, she spun on her heels to behold an enraged Faith bearing down on her.

"You owe me a cue ball, bitch!" Faith snarled in a guttural scream of fury.

The charging punch contained all the force of runaway train as it landed square across the invader's jaw. Again, she staggered, if only slightly. Faith's momentum carried her past the girl, but by now, Kennedy had managed to regain her feet and was following immediately with a spinning kick that connected with the other side of the attacker's head. Reeling, the intruder twisted clumsily in the opposite direction, off-balance for the moment. It was all Faith needed, and she rammed her fist into the small of the girl's back, rendering her breathless and suddenly nowhere near as invulnerable as she had originally appeared.

Giles ignored the angry red welts already standing livid on his neck and bellowed hoarsely into the room. "She's wavering! Don't let up!"

His observations where indeed proving to be accurate. While the assailant still remained faster than either Faith or Kennedy, she had noticeably slowed. Despite Faith's left arm hanging near useless at her side, she and Kennedy performed with clockwork precision in unleashing a barrage of seemingly endless blows that simply never allowed their opponent a second to regroup. What was more, several of the Juniors were also recovering sufficiently to rejoin the battle themselves.

Without warning, Kennedy called out, "High ball!"

She directed a short kick at the girls' head, but that was avoided with little difficulty by a sharp bob. The move had been a feint, however, and it smoothly transitioned into a leg sweep that should have brought the attacker crashing to the ground. But this too failed, as the girl leapt into the air with deceptive ease. She whirled gracefully as she jumped, turning her defensive move into one of offense that was aimed in Kennedy's direction.

However, what the assailant had failed to notice was Faith launching at her with a spinning kick. Still airborne, she had no means of dodging. Landing solidly, the blow from Faith's foot sent the intruder smacking into the wall – as she had done with so many others. The plaster almost caved inward as a yawning crater formed from the impact and the attacker tumbled to the ground.

Giles wasted not a solitary second. "Everyone on her, now!" he ordered.

Faith and Kennedy, spearheading half-dozen Juniors, rushed forward and threw themselves upon the intruder, who was already in the process of getting up. She dropped like a stone under the weight of eight forceful bodies. Another burst of plaster and dust tumbled to the floor, but no attention was paid. A dog-pile mass of arms and legs formed, pinning the interloper down and pummeling her repeatedly with an array of fists. From his position in the doorway, Giles couldn't even see any portion of the attacker other than her feet, and after several seconds these too disappeared into the mass.

As though possessed by a flash of precognitive insight, the Watcher' eyes widened. "Move away—!" he began, but it was already too late. An explosion of bodies erupted from the pile, where the invader had tucked herself into a tight ball and thrust her limbs outward in one smooth motion. Scattered, the Slayers landed in various sections of the room, all dazed and comparatively slow to scramble back onto their feet.

Not so their opponent. Almost immediately, she was upright, although far from the all-imposing force she had presented at the beginning of the battle. Her clothing was ripped and dusty, her hair disheveled, and her footing unbalanced. She shook her head, as if trying to clear it of a fog, but her eyes were focused sufficiently to glare at Giles with naked hatred.

Her speech was a harmonic melding of what appeared to be several different and distinct voices. "We're not ready yet." Her tone was flat, but the undercurrent of loathing was undeniable. "But we soon will be."

With that promise, she raced from the room, a blur of speed that left dust literally swirling in her wake. Giles, Wood and Hannah struggled to keep from toppling as the gust swept by them. Faith was the only Slayer back on her feet and without hesitation, she pursued.

For a brief moment, the Watcher stared down the hall where the attacker had retreated, but a groan from amid the ruins of the recreation room quickly attracted his attention. Swiftly taking in the scene, he immediately moved to the closest Slayer. She was clutching her ribs and small stream of blood trickled from the corner of her mouth. Despite her obvious injuries, she was making a valiant attempt to sit up. Giles knelt beside her, placing a gentle but restraining hand on her chest. "Stay still," he said sternly, but with kindness. "Don't try to move."

Wood, Kennedy, and the few remaining able-bodied Slayers were likewise tending to their comrades. Only a few moments passed before Faith re-entered the devastated room, her injured arm dangling awkwardly at her side.

"She's gone," Faith spat bitterly with an angry shake of her head. "So damned fast, couldn't even find a trace of her."

Hannah moved to stand next to Giles, violently shaking the debris from her hair. She glanced down. "What the hell was that?" she asked, a note of grudging awe lacing her voice.

Unable to provide answer, the bewildered Watcher could only look from her inquiring eyes to the shattered door, as he continued tending to the wounded.

-=-=-=-

In the Scoobies' living room, a battle of an entirely different kind was occurring. Dawn, Xander and Willow were all seated on the floor around the coffee table. A river of cards was spread out across its surface, and each participant was holding a selection, guarding them protectively. It was clearly a game of intense concentration, strategy and cunning.

Peeking out from over the top of his cards, Xander eyed Dawn suspiciously. "Any twos?" he rasped.

The teenager beamed and shook her head. "Go fish."

With a 'darnit!" expression, Xander swiped one from the spread and added it to those already in his hand. Looking much more pleased than she had any real right to be, Dawn turned to Willow. "Any queens?"

The redhead grumbled darkly and, not graciously, handed over two. Dawn managed somehow to look even more pleased with herself, and Willow regarded the smug expression grouchily. She glanced over at Xander, who was busily rearranging his hand. "You know how the monks made us think that when she was ten, we could beat her at Candyland?" She sighed with longing. "I miss those days."

Xander's answering nod was emphatic, but any further trips down false memory lane were halted by the sounds of someone coming downstairs. They watched the living room entrance carefully, their game forgotten. After a moment, Buffy limped into the room, looking ragged but very, very satisfied.

"You did it?" the carpenter inquired.

The Slayer's satisfied expression was eerily similar to Dawn's. "Yup. It's a shame it wasn't a succubus. I thought of so many 'suck' puns during the fight, but 'incubus'?" She shrugged. "I got nothin'."

"Wow, you were only gone about 20 minutes," Willow commented after checking her watch, the witch's admiration evident.

With a painful limp, Buffy moved to the couch, bonelessly throwing herself onto it with a huge yawn. "He was a lover, not a fighter," she was finally able to reply.

"How'd you do it?" inquired Dawn turning away from the coffee table where she'd carelessly tossed her cards.

For just a moment, the Slayer hesitated, seemingly uncertain of how best to answer. "I hit him where he lived," she reported diplomatically, and refused to say anything more about it.

Willow bounded to her feet. "I'll call Erin, see if she's okay," she told the others as she left the room.

Buffy only half watched her exit, her eyelids fluttering closed. "Good. Y'do tha' ..." she muttered, her words slurring together. "'m gonna—" A yawn interrupted her sentence and she started to tip over. "—gonna catch a few ..."

Trailing off, Buffy fell the rest of the way over on her side, snoring before she even landed safely on the soft cushions.

-=-=-=-

Buffy and Xander were enjoying an afternoon stroll, albeit that the Slayer was still limping. She smothered a yawn but was unable to stifle a stretch.

"You sure you don't wanna get a few more Z's?" asked the carpenter. "You just put in over 24-hours, what's one or two more?"

Buffy shook her head. "I'm sure. I was having weird dreams anyway." She noted Xander's look of concern and hastened to add, "Not those kind, thankfully, but still. Weird. Something about a clown car, two rakes and a ball of twine. What do you think that was all about?"

Xander shrugged. "I abstain and distract you with news: Giles checked the hospitals, and it looks like everyone recovered. The blood work done on the girls didn't indicate any unwanted demon buns in the oven either, so there's THAT bit of unpleasantness avoided."

"I approve," the Slayer stated with conviction.

"An' in other reports," continued the carpenter, "our little Willow-the-wisp is – get ready for it – on a date as we speak."

Buffy's jaw dropped. "Get out! I'm asleep for a day and Willow's seeing someone? I'm sorry, sleep is no excuse for me not knowing about this sooner. Who is she, how long as she known her, what's she like?"

Xander pondered the urgent queries. "Well, 'date' may have been a bit of a strong term," he admitted. "More like a pre-date date. Sort of like the pre-game show, only with less talk of football."

"Questions. I asked them. They are expecting answers." The Slayer peered into Xander's face with uncontrolled anticipation.

"Her name's Jessica," he informed her, "and they're meeting to talk about ... brainy stuff. I don't know what. Will told me, but it pretty much went in one ear and translated into 'brainy stuff'. They're gettin' coffee before school."

Buffy wrinkled her nose. "When she comes home, I must interrogate then punish."

The carpenter chuckled wryly. "Figured as much. So what about you, ready for another set-up?"

The Slayer visibly shuddered. "Ugh. A bushel of no. Besides," she squared her shoulders and gave a mock swagger, "I don't need a guy. I'm perfectly fine remaining single and independent Buffy. I'm not in the least bit troubled by the fact that the only male who's shown any interest in me of late was chatting up a dozen other women with the exact same lines while trying to trick all of us into sleeping with him." She paused for a moment, considering. "It's sort of like Parker, version two-point-oh."

"Uh-huh," agreed Xander, not sounding in the least convinced. "You actually buyin' any of that?"

Buffy smiled ruefully. "Eh, I'll say it a few more times, it'll stick eventually. Seriously though, I'm fine. It'll happen when it happens I guess, you know?"

Xander nodded emphatically and then turned his attention to Buffy's limp. "Still hurts?" he inquired with sympathy.

The Slayer winced a little. "Yeah. I twisted it pretty bad. Stupid gauze. It was everywhere. I felt like I was a beekeeper. And who puts their bed up on a platform, anyway?"

Xander appeared to be formulating a suitable reason but since it seemed to revolve around scenes of seduction, he regarded her with a puzzled frown instead. "I figured with, you know, super-duper Slayer healing power, you'd be all better by now."

"Yeah ..." responded the blonde, her tone equally as bewildered as the carpenter's expression. "Giles says it's psychosomatic. But I dunno. Maybe I slept on it funny."

He offered a supporting arm. She took it and leaned heavily, straightening her leg and dragging it along the pavement in classic mimic of a member of the walking dead. He patted her hand condescendingly and grinned.

-=-=-=-

Willow and Jessica had chosen a prime table at The Common Grounds. It was well out of the main lines of the shop's traffic and situated at the center of the large plate glass window, which afforded a perfect view of downtown Trillium. The street outside was busy – it being early afternoon – and the town's citizens hurried about their business.

The two women were paying little attention to the activity outside, however. Both were laughing at something or another, and it was clear they were enjoying each other's company very much. The drinks next to them on the table were still warm, but had hardly been touched, each girl more attentive to the conversation at hand.

Wiping her eyes with the back of her hand, Jessica smiled at Willow and repositioned her glasses. "Is there any branch of science you don't love?"

The redhead mulled this question seriously, and declared, "Biology. Too much carvin' up of dead things." She chuckled again before adding, "I get enough of that in my spare time!"

As soon as the words had left her mouth, Willow appeared to want nothing more than to snatch them back again. But it was too late, and Jessica was already giving her a quizzical look.

"Uhh, I mean ..." Desperately, Willow wracked her brain for something plausible. "With cooking. You know. What with the chicken and the cow, though not so much with the pork since, hello, Jewish, but ... whoo. Chicken."

Jessica's expression had hardly changed, and Willow hastily turned the conversation back to safer topics. "Plus in Biology, they always give you frogs. Now don't get me wrong," the witch held up her hand defensively, "I'll dig on in when I gotta, and what girl hasn't had to farm her own amphibian eyes in an emergency?" Once again Jessica looked confused, but Willow wasn't stopping to justify that one and the brunette shook her head as the witch continued. "But then afterward it's all nightmares and green slimy hoppy things and brr. It's just unpleasant," she summed up.

Confusion lingered around Jessica, but she appeared to be taking it all in stride – or as well as possible. "You know I think I could talk to you for years and never fully know you," she grinned, taking a sip of her drink and studying Willow over the rim of the cup.

"Well that's me, Enigma Gal! Who is that masked redhead?" Willow found the thought amusing, but she soon sobered and shrugged at her new friend. "Ehh, I dunno though. The right people – they wind up knowing you better'n you know you, you know? Just gotta find 'em."

"Guess it takes time," Jessica responded.

"Usually," agreed Willow, and then slowly, her smile faded. Her thoughts seemed to have shifted, memories seeping into her consciousness, unbidden. When she next spoke, it was wistful and far away. "Sometimes, though ... it happens right away. As soon as you see them, touch them ... you know her, and she knows you. And somehow, it's like it's always been that way."

Jessica blinked, uncertain of what to say and clearly without a similar frame of reference. Almost immediately, Willow realized she'd gone off on a tangent, and she flashed the brunette an apologetic, if somewhat sad smile. "Ignore me," she stated, waving her hand as though to clear away her thoughts. "My brain likes to go wandering around without me sometimes, and all I've got to go on are the postcards it sends home."

But Jessica chose not to ignore it, and tilted her head to one side as she considered what she'd just heard. After a moment, she appeared to reach a decision, nodding slightly to herself for confirmation and encouragement. "I think I'd like to be someone like that. But I guess we should start out slow first," she suggested. "So, maybe ... dinner? Just ... you and me?"

The instinctive reaction was to be flattered, and Willow smiled warmly at Jessica. The brunette began to return the smile when Willow shook her head.

"I can't," the witch said firmly but with an unspoken apology. "Not right now. Some stuff ... I- I'm still getting over a few things." Willow smiled again, but it was self-assured. "I'm not ready yet."

Initially, Jessica was disappointed, but it was only for an instant. "It's okay," the brunette assured her sincerely, not sounding upset in the least. "I sorta figured as much," she admitted.

"Oh, but we can still be friends, right?" Willow worriedly asked, distress woven into every feature. "I mean, you have no idea how hard it can be to find an intellectual conversation that doesn't revolve around the plausibility of 'Farscape'. And even then I use the word 'intellectual' loosely." That earned her a laugh, and Willow grinned hopefully. "I like talking with you, I just can't—"

"I understand," she promised. "And I'd really like that." With a glance at her watch, Jessica rose, gathering her books together. "I'll give you a call. Maybe we can go to that seminar on quantum singularities next week?"

"Ooo, my brain's all a'flitter." Willow waggled her fingers near her head and the two women grinned at each other.

Flashing a warm parting smile, Jessica grabbed her coffee and exited the shop. Willow watched the other woman depart, obviously feeling pleased with how their meeting had turned out. Once her new friend was out of sight, the redhead pulled close the nearest textbook from the pile on the table next to her. Cracking it open, she began to read as she sipped her drink, becoming thoroughly engrossed in the text almost immediately.

With a abrupt, violent jerk, Willow bolted upright in her chair, like she'd just been shocked by a cattle prod. Her eyes were wide, confused, and her gaze darted all around chaotically. Taking a deep breath to calm herself, she turned her head and peered over her left shoulder. She examined the scene before her – just customers enjoying their coffee, nothing out of the ordinary. Slowly she began to turn her head. Furrowing her brow, Willow studied each new inch of scenery as it drifted into her line of sight, but could see nothing unusual. Still she searched, her head rotating slowly to the right, to the large glass window that dominated the shop's wall. People walked by outside, cars swished past – nobody gave any indication that something was amiss. Then, Willow's eyes were drawn to a figure across the street, and her breath caught in her throat. All at once she seemed to fixate on too many details.

Long blonde hair. Full lips. Blue eyes.

Willow's face crumpled, a sudden intense and indefinable tsunami of emotion. Her throat was raw and constricted. She could only whisper one word.

"Tara?"