Applying the brakes with delicacy and no little skill, Tara brought the fishtailing vehicle back under control. It screeched to a halt no more than a foot before careening into the trees. Though visibly shaken, neither woman had suffered any fatal injuries and they let out a collective sigh of relief.
"Nice moves," remarked Kennedy, rubbing a bruised kneecap.
"Thanks," Tara replied, shaking out hands that had been clamped rigid upon the steering wheel. "I always knew driving my father's truck in the middle of winter would come in handy one day." She paused. "Actually, I didn't, but anyway." She glanced into her rear view mirror but could see nothing untoward. "What was that?"
Rolling down her window, Kennedy peered at the road behind them. "I don't know."
The pair started as a sudden booming roar echoed through the area. They looked around wildly, but failed to locate the source.
"... but if we find that? I'm guessing we'll have our answer," assured Kennedy.
Tara laughed nervously. "Ignorance is bliss?"
"So's kicking ass." Turning, the Slayer pulled a crossbow from the backseat and quickly readied the weapon. "Wait here," she commanded.
Tara protested. "But I—"
Kennedy affixed the witch with an uncompromising stare. "Wait. Here."
Seizing a quiver of arrows and throwing it over her shoulder, Kennedy opened the door cautiously. She exited the car, eyes searching in every direction but all was tranquil and eerily silent. There was a light fall of snow swirling all around her and an icy layer crunched beneath Kennedy's boots as she moved away from the SUV. She paid the noise no attention, her every sense tuned to the environment surrounding her. The Slayer's gaze narrowed as she constantly scanned for any sign of movement. She slowed to a halt and tilted her head, ears straining for the slightest sound of danger. She could see nothing and hear nothing until Tara's voice rang out.
Whirling, Kennedy was only barely able to avoid the aimed blow from an immense fist that whistled past her right ear. Recovering with incredible speed, she counter-attacked with a vicious kick to the creature's midsection, but made contact with nothing but thin air; there was no sign of her opponent. The Slayer blinked and straightened, head snapping from side-to-side.
"What the—" she muttered and then turned to Tara who was now standing outside the SUV. "Where did it go?"
Tara extended her arms and shrugged. "I don't ..." She shook her head in bewilderment. "It's like it just vanished."
"Something that big?" rejoined Kennedy. "Doubtful. It's probably just—"
Dropping to one knee, she spun quickly and fired a bolt from her crossbow toward a thicket of trees. However, the arrow obviously missed its intended target, given the fact that the monster – disappointingly whole and unscathed – came lumbering toward her. It was an enormous beast, perhaps as tall as twelve feet, very muscular and covered with silvery-yellow shaggy hair. With remarkable presence of mind, Kennedy began to calmly reload her weapon. Apparently, however, the speed with which she was doing so didn't sit very well with Tara, who promptly took off at a run.
"Kennedy!" she called, instantly attracting the creature's attention. It tilted its head to one side and abruptly changed direction. Kennedy's eyes narrowed as the monster shuffled toward the blonde.
"Dammit," she cursed. "I said stay in the car!"
Pulling herself up short, Tara blinked at the monster, which continued its ambling gait toward her. It grunted loudly and made peculiar guttural noises as it approached. A puzzled frown crept into Tara's features and she moved forward, as though to take a closer look. Scrambling to her feet, a worried Kennedy sprinted across the snow until she stood between prey and predator, now no more than an arms length away. The brunette threw a powerful roundhouse punch but the creature, despite its massive bulk, easily evaded the tightly clenched fist. She followed swiftly with a well-aimed jab, which also missed unfortunately, but at least served to send the beast momentarily off-balance.
Kennedy spared a quick glance to Tara, who appeared to be frozen in place. "What part of 'stay in the car' is confusing?" she all but shouted. "I can't fight this thing if I gotta worry about you too!"
Wonderingly, Tara shook her head. "There's something weird about—"
Another wide swing kept the beast at bay. "We can do the National Geographic bit later!" she told Tara sharply.
However, the monster had apparently grown tired of the confrontation and, with a mighty roar, rambled back into the woods from which it had emerged. In a heartbeat, all sight and sound of the creature had vanished.
Tara carefully scrutinized the area of disappearance as she moved to stand next to Kennedy. "It's got this sort of ... weird emptiness around it, like—"
"Down!" came Kennedy's abrupt warning as a smallish tree, roots still dangling, came hurtling toward them from a densely forested location to the far left of where the monster had evaporated into the gloom. The missile traveled with startling speed and unbelievable accuracy. Acting on instinct, Kennedy seized Tara about the waist and hurled herself to the ground. Almost immediately, the tree sailed above their heads, missing them by mere inches. The pair landed in a jumbled heap, just as the trunk made impact with a row of slender firs on the opposite side of the trail. The saplings snapped easily beneath the force.
Neither moved for several seconds. Kennedy's posture was rigid like a stone statue, head cocked and ears pricked, her eyes narrowed with concentration. Tara, however, being pinned by the other woman's weight and apparently not entirely at ease with the proximity, had more pressing matters at hand. She shifted uncomfortably. "Uhm ..."
Without looking down, Kennedy jammed her forefinger against Tara's mouth. "Shh," she commanded.
Tara blinked but ceased to fidget – even her chest barely moved as she breathed as quietly as possible. Kennedy continued to listen intently to her surroundings. Then, in a blur of motion, the brunette brought around the crossbow still gripped in her hand and fired. The bolt's flight was straight and true, hitting the monster squarely between the eyes. But Kennedy's self-satisfied smile faded fast into one of bafflement as the projectile simply sailed gaily on its way, leaving behind no sign of injury. Nonetheless, the monster waved its arms in a threatening gesture and bellowed loudly before quickly scampering back into the safety of the trees.
"Did you see that?" whispered a dumbfounded Kennedy, even though Tara, still firmly immobilized, couldn't see very much of anything.
This was a condition that Tara obviously was keen to rectify. "Uhm ..." she murmured a little more forcibly.
Kennedy glanced down and for the first time, appeared to realize Tara's predicament. "Oh! Oh. Sorry." Rolling smoothly to her feet, the Slayer extended a hand. Tara accepted gratefully and began to brush melting snowflakes from her shoulders.
"I hit it," Kennedy insisted, still somewhat mystified. "Or, well, I should've hit it, but nothing."
Tara shook out her soaked gloves. "Do you maybe get the feeling we're being kinda ... tested?"
"Starting to," the Slayer scowled. "I'm not much appreciating it either."
"I didn't think so." The blonde regarded Kennedy with a small smirk. "You know, I have actually been doing the monster fighting thing for a little while, you don't have to protect me."
Kennedy went back to scanning the immediate vicinity. "You're the important one here. I'm the security." She shrugged. "Besides, this is my first big solo mission. How's it gonna look if I get you all killed?"
"That works then, I'm not much in the mood to die. Again," Tara frowned for a moment, but quickly shook it off for more pressing matters. "I've got a plan. Can you keep it busy?"
As if on cue, an ear-splitting yowl echoed from behind.
"Shouldn't be a problem," assured the brunette as she whirled to face the monster.
Without further hesitation, Tara raced to the SUV, threw open the door, and began to rummage through the untidy pile of bags that had been thrown into the back seat. She glanced back briefly toward Kennedy, who was apparently working methodically through her extensive repertoire of attacks, but meeting with little if any success.
"C'mon, lemme land at least one," coaxed the Slayer. "It'll help my fragile ego."
The monster's response was a hefty punch, which Kennedy avoided with relative ease.
"By the way," she continued smoothly, "the Hair Club for Men called – they'd like you to be their poster child success story."
This barb was met with minimal reaction, save the mutual swing-and-miss exchange that seemed to have become the temporary norm. Kennedy audibly 'tskd' with disappointment. "Oh come on," she urged. "I was a good two minutes thinking that one up, you could at least pretend to be a little pissed."
A high-pitched whistle effectively put a halt to the skirmish and both combatants turned to see Tara standing nearby, a powdered concoction of unknown origin nestled within her outstretched palm.
She smiled sweetly at the creature. "I think maybe you have reality issues," she said with mock concern. "We can help."
Puffing out her cheeks, she blew the loose mixture into the beast's face as Kennedy took an involuntary step backward. The powder swirled about the monster, and it shook its shaggy head in confusion.
Taking full advantage, Tara began her incantation:
"Mother of dreams,
From the depths of night,
Remove the veil,
Bring truth to my sight."
The concoction began to twirl more rapidly. The creature watched the spiral guardedly, batting at the close-knit particles as though trying to swat away a swarm of pesky mosquitoes, but the effort brought no satisfaction. Without warning, the powder exploded, effectively blasting the beast like a sandstorm. The eruption swiftly eroded the illusion of a yeti-like monster, leaving in its wake an extremely svelte and slender being, perhaps two feet tall. Dressed in a thigh-length tunic of emerald, it fluttered a pair of vaporous wings as it hovered in front of Kennedy's face. A cap of the same color, which had obviously been placed with utmost precision between two pointed ears, rested upon its long platinum hair.
The bright blue eyes, narrowed with vexation, became saucer-like with apprehension. "Crap," came the nettled utterance. Quickly altering its flight path, the being attempted to flee and its trajectory was indeed speedy, but Kennedy was ready. Reaching out, she snagged it by one wing.
"Ow!" The being glared at Kennedy over its shoulder. "Do you mind?"
The Slayer shrugged and pinched a little harder. "Not so much."
Staring intently, Tara joined Kennedy and examined the small struggling creature with much fascination. He treated her to a scowl and then returned to the business of freedom. With noisy protestations, he tried unsuccessfully to liberate the entrapped wing.
"Who are you?" asked Tara curiously.
The being huffed and puffed as he ineffectually jerked within Kennedy's grasp. "I am ..." He waved his hands desperately as he tugged. "Quinstharyn ..." The feet were also pedaling violently in mid-air now. "... of the—"
With one final yank, he gave up the ghost and, sighing in defeat, leaned on Kennedy's outstretched arm.
"Besides being tremendously undignified," he stated with a frown, "this is, in fact, rather painful. Please let go. I promise not to run."
Kennedy's response was a scornful chuckle. "Right, and you've obviously proven yourself to be so trustworthy so far."
The being turned its pleading eyes toward Tara, almost as though appealing to her better nature for support on his behalf.
Tara thoughtfully considered the unspoken request for clemency. "I-I think you can let him go."
"Sure, so he can play dress-up some more," scoffed the unrelenting Slayer. She peered at the little individual loafing on her forearm. "What's next on the creature feature, going to turn into Mothra or something?"
The attractive but somewhat epicene features contorted into a lascivious leer. "Only if you two lovelies will be my Cosmos twins."
Kennedy rolled her eyes. "Oh, so no."
"Really, you can let him go," coaxed Tara. "I can cast a spell on him if I need to." Meaningfully eyeing the creature, she assured, "He won't be going anywhere."
Rather reluctantly, and standing ready to enforce another snaffle if need be, Kennedy released the small being. Her arm dropped immediately, and as his support disappeared, gravity kicked in. He let out a yelp of surprise, but his recovery was swift. As he floated back to eye level, he exuded an aura that screamed 'I meant to do that'.
With as much nonchalance as he could muster, the creature flexed his emancipated wing and massaged it gingerly. He glowered at the kink and palpitated both wings until the crimp had all but straightened itself out. That task accomplished, he removed his cap with a flourish and hung it on nothing at all. It remained stationary on its invisible hook while he pulled a small mirror from the pocket of his tunic and began to alternately fluff and smooth his silvery tresses with the utmost care.
Tara was unable to entirely stifle a chuckle at his vanity, but she appeared to be the only one amused by the show. Kennedy favored the blonde with a dubious look, prompting Tara to clear throat and interrupt the grooming session. "Mr. Quinstharyn—"
"Just 'Quinn', sweetie," interrupted the creature with a beaming smile as the mirror vanished and he set about replacing the cap upon his head just so. "Since we're all such good friends now."
The witch's eyes betrayed mild amusement. "...Quinn," she corrected. "What are you ... I mean, what was with all the ..." She waved her hand abstractly around his figure.
"Oh, that?" replied Quinn dismissively. "Just a little diversionary protection. Got to keep the nasties away, don't we?" He crossed his legs as though seated upon an invisible chair and traced the line of his chin with a delicate finger. He considered first Tara and then Kennedy with open approval. "Mm, but no nasties here."
The attempted charm had no effect on Kennedy – save perhaps to make her further aggravated. "So it was all illusions?" she asked, sounding thoroughly annoyed.
"Every bit," Quinn admitted with extreme pride. "Sight, sound ..." He polished his fingernails on his tunic. "I've been working on them for years. They're some of my best."
Tara nodded appreciatively. "It was very impressive."
Quinn glowed at the compliment and his wings quivered with delight. "Thank you, love! Aren't you just the sweetest thing? You should see my one-man presentation of Rent, it's to die for."
Kennedy puffed with exasperation. "God, I hate magic," she muttered darkly.
Quinn appeared not to have heard the observation as he happily continued. "Better to be safe than sorry, especially these days. But congratulations to you two!" He bounced in place and clapped his hands with unbridled pleasure. "We can go as soon as you're ready."
Kennedy and Tara exchanged a look of confusion.
"Go?" queried Tara.
"To see the lady of the house, of course," Quinn tutted at their apparent slow-wittedness. "Didn't come all this way just for the scenery, did you?
Night was beginning to fall, enshrouding the cemetery in a patchwork of darkness. Both Faith and Hazel were clearly on the hunt, their eyes alert and constantly seeking out threats lurking in every shadow.
"How you doing?" Faith eventually broached, her attention not wavering from her surroundings.
"Little chilly," Hazel told her. "I should've worn a thicker jacket."
"No," the older Slayer replied. "I meant about the, y'know. Parents."
"Oh." Hazel turned to Faith and shrugged. "Okay, I guess." The bulk of her focus returned to the patrol, but she easily continued as they prowled. "I talked to my dad this afternoon. I got the after school special speech, about how this is about them and not me. I actually sort of was thinking it would help, since it always seems to make the kids on TV feel better." She chuckled at her naivety. "No go, though. It was all sort of anticlimactic. Just as well I've never used drugs, cuz I don't see their generic intervention stuff doing much better."
Her confession complete, the duo lapsed into silence once more until Faith suddenly broke it to ask, "You like ice cream?"
"Isn't it physically impossible to not like ice cream?" returned Hazel. She thought for a moment and then added, "Though I guess if you're lactose intolerant ..."
"Yeah, then?" queried Faith with mild irritation.
The Junior grinned at the display of low-grade impatience. "Yes, Fiver, I like ice cream. Why?"
"Cuz I bought some for you," she answered. "It's back at the base."
Coming to an abrupt halt, Hazel turned to look at her companion with astonishment. "You bought me ice cream?"
Before Faith could supply an answer, a vampire leapt from the shadows, flying at Hazel in a tackle that sent the girl rolling to the ground. Standing back, Faith crossed her arms and watched carefully while making no move to intercede. The scuffle proved to be amazingly short-lived. With relative ease, Hazel thrust her legs upward, throwing the vampire to one side. She then rolled back onto her shoulders and flipped nimbly to her feet, just as the vampire was about to launch a second attack. Glancing expectantly toward Faith, she extended her arm and deftly caught the stake that the Senior Slayer tossed toward her. With a smooth motion, she drove it into the vampire who promptly disintegrated into dust. Hazel looked down at the pile of ashes and shrugged before casually flipping the stake back into Faith's outstretched hand.
"Nice," Faith told her approvingly.
Hazel smiled proudly. "Thanks. It's amazing how much better fighting evil can make you feel. Sort of puts everything else in perspective you know?"
"I'll take your word for it," smirked Faith.
Rubbing her hands together, Hazel's tongue poked out from between her lips. "That ice cream is sounding really good now, though. What kind did you get?"
There was the slightest hesitation before responding. "Chocolate chip cookie dough. I thought maybe it'd ... I dunno, make you feel better."
A tiny frown crossed the younger girl's face and almost immediately, Faith initiated a severe assault on her idea. "I know, dumb," she snapped, sounding intensely irritated at herself. "I knew I shouldn't'a listened to Oxford. It's just that ... See, I really wanted to try and make you feel better, right? But I ain't built for that sorta thing, so I scoped out B an' her little gang. Figured they're pretty much the group that invented the warm fuzzy."
Pausing to take a breath, she rolled her eyes. "Hangin' around 'em can make ya a little sick sometimes, but they're all big on the group hugs an' gold stars, so seemed easy money. But all I basically got was 'Friends', some number thing, an' food."
She glanced toward Hazel – whose mouth was now agape at the lengthy explanation – before continuing. "Food came up twice, but wasn't no way I was gonna bring you a week's worth'a Ho Hos." She noted the younger girl's raised eyebrow and hastened to clarify. "X-Man. He was on some Hostess kick, I didn't stick around to figure it out. Ice cream seemed okay though, so ..."
Faith shrugged, her expression a strange mixture of anger and embarrassment. "But yeah, stupid idea. Sorry."
Hazel waved her hand, as though trying to back up the conversation. "Wait, so you spent all day, running around town, tracking people down, asking them for ideas on how to make me feel better?"
Faith frowned and inspected an offending clump of dirt clinging to her heel. "Uh-huh."
"And you got me ice cream?"
Shaking out a cigarette, Faith dragged a match along the top of a nearby headstone. "It was the best I could come up with," she admitted grudgingly. "I know it's lame, but—"
She dropped the blazing match as Hazel enveloped her in a huge bear hug. Her eyes widened in shock and the unlit cigarette tumbled from her lips to the ground. On automatic pilot, Faith tried to step backward and away from the embrace, but Hazel held her fast.
"Oh my god, that's probably the sweetest thing anyone's done for me. Ever!"
Gingerly, awkwardly, Faith patted the other girl's shoulder. "It's just ice cream, yo."
"No! It's ..." breaking the hug, Hazel stared into Faith's dazed face. "You spent the entire day trying to come up with some way to cheer me up. It doesn't matter that you 'only' got ice cream – which I happen to love, by the way. But you cared that much."
Tilting her head, Faith considered the statement. "Yeah?"
"Yeah," confirmed Hazel.
With a tiny smile, Faith gave a satisfied nod. Then, she resumed her search through the graveyard, Hazel following happily in her wake.
"You tell anyone about this an' I kick your ass," Faith warned.
Hazel placed a hand over her heart. "Your secret dies with me."
The Senior Slayer shot her a quick look and then elbowed her playfully in the ribs. Hazel let out a mock groan and staggered before grinning broadly. Faith rolled her eyes at the younger girl's antics as they continued on their patrol.
The SUV pulled to a smooth stop outside a quaint but rather nice little cabin. The light of the sun was on its last legs for the day and the retiring rays painted the darkening sky in delicate shades of pale pink and muted orange. The snow had stopped falling and the entire area was quite beautiful in its peace and tranquility. Despite the cold, an old woman wrapped in blankets and, to all intents and purposes, fast asleep, sat in a rocking chair on the front porch.
The passenger door opened and Quinn immediately flew out, wings fluttering. He carelessly zipped past Kennedy's ear on the course of his journey and although she appeared to be far from pleased at the affront, she said nothing. Tara exited from the driver's side as Quinn approached the cabin and called out in a singsong voice, "Here they are!"
He hovered in front of the old woman's nose, but her eyes continued to be tightly closed and she was ostensibly ignoring his announcement. He glowered at the bundled figure. "I know you felt them coming," he accused. "Time to get up now and play hostess."
The crone grumbled under her breath but otherwise made no movement. Rolling his eyes in disgust, Quinn looked over his shoulder at the two younger women. "Up this way, loves. You'll probably find it all very anti-climactic." He refocused on the old woman. "You couldn't at least make a showing? Honestly, after all my hard work on the yeti ..." He tossed his head, apparently working himself into something of a snit.
Curiously, Tara and Kennedy approached the cabin, but Kennedy's attention was primarily diverted in examining the immediate area, getting a feel for the lay of the land.
Tara took the wooden steps of the porch slowly and then looked down at the figure. "Ma'am ...?" she murmured softly.
The old woman cautiously cracked open one eye and blinked. Tara's face was shrouded in shadow cast by the fast-disappearing sun behind her. Indeed, she appeared almost entirely in silhouette form, save for the bright nimbus of brilliant gold and shimmering amber that circled her blonde head.
"The Curat ..." whispered the old woman.
Tara frowned. "I'm sorry?" She moved closer, her features now becoming visible, and the crone blinked once more before fully opening both eyes.
"Oh, nothing dear," she smiled.
"You'll have to excuse her," Quinn stated firmly, reclining in his invisible chair and manicuring his nails with a Quinn-sized emery board. "She's senile," he added cheerfully.
The woman treated the faerie to a dark glare, but Quinn seemed thoroughly unimpressed with the fixed gaze and not in the least intimidated by it. "I am not senile, you irritating little gnat," she snapped.
"Please," Quinn snorted. He looked to Tara. "Just wait until you see her housecoats, sweetness. If she's not senile, then she's just given up the most flattering excuse I had."
The crone watched Kennedy step onto the porch and studied her briefly for a moment as well, but there was no flare of recognition.
Neither Tara nor Kennedy noticed the scrutiny. The Slayer in particular was busying herself with appraising the cabin. "Nice place," she admitted. "Looks pretty secure."
The answering chuckle was reminiscent of scratchy sandpaper. "I'd certainly hope so. I haven't spent the last 20 years or so building up the area for nothing."
With narrowed eyes, Kennedy gave the old woman the proverbial once over and looked her up and down several times. The crone seemed rather amused at the prolonged examination and bore it without comment. With a shrug, Kennedy appeared to reach the conclusion that the object of her inspection was nothing special. "So you're the Keeper of the Wing, huh?" she asked, her tone indicating that the title held little weight in Kennedy's world.
An expression of pride crossed the crone's face and she drew herself up straighter in the chair. She opened her mouth as though to provide a response but was cut off by Quinn's derisive chuckle. It earned him another dark look, but he appeared equally as unperturbed as before.
"Ooo, 'Keeper of the Wing,'" he jeered mockingly with a dismissive wave. "Her name's Ruth."
The old woman visibly winced. "Was that really necessary?"
Flitting to his feet, Quinn placed his hands on his hips. "Well if you think I'm going to listen to them fawn all over you with this 'Keeper of the Wing' nonsense for the next few days ..."
Crossly, the crone frowned. "But honestly. 'Ruth'. It ruins all the atmosphere. Where's the mystery in 'Ruth'?"
Quinn sighed. "Oh don't worry, there'll be mystery enough." He turned a cautioning eye toward Tara and Kennedy. "She made meatloaf," he confided in a loud whisper.
Both young women seemed at a loss for words, the exchange clearly failing to be what was expected in almost every possible way.
Tara was the first to recover. Shaking her head, she made a supreme effort to get the situation back on track and into some semblance of order. "Mr. Giles said you had information for us?" she queried gently. "That you could help us figure out what's going on."
Ruth regarded the blonde with great seriousness. Her eyes were clear and sharp, the outward indication of a mind far from addled in its thought processes – one as active and intelligent as any other, if not more so.
"Indeed I can, Tara," the crone nodded sagely. "I can help you figure out a great many things."
Blinking at the peculiarly intense reply, Tara was taken somewhat aback. Kennedy, on the other hand, was all business.
"Well great," commented the Slayer. "Let's get you all bundled up in the car and—"
Ruth abruptly shook her head. "My dear, we shall do no such thing." She ignored Kennedy's obvious attempt to go on the offensive and simply continued. "Not tonight, at any rate. What we are going to do—"
Her voice dwindled into a strangled groan as she began to rise from her chair. She moved slowly and it was apparent that the effort brought with it no small amount of pain. Instantly, Quinn dashed behind and began to push upward as both Tara and Kennedy offered a helping hand. Once on her feet, Ruth smiled gratefully at Tara and patted Kennedy's hand before turning toward the cabin. Her hand snuck into the crook of Kennedy's elbow and the Slayer had no choice but to allow her arm to be used as a brace as she walked alongside.
"What we are going to do is have a nice dinner," Ruth informed her visitors in a tone that brooked no debate. "And then you girls are going to get a good night's rest."
Nonetheless, Kennedy obviously felt obliged to voice a protest. "But we—"
"Ah-ah!" The old woman wagged an arthritic finger and Kennedy's mouth immediately snapped shut, obviously conditioned from a very young age to not argue with grandma.
"Dinner," continued a smiling Ruth. "Sleep. Possibly some 'Wheel of Fortune'."
Quinn brought up the rear. "Be still my heart," he muttered.
"Quinn will get your bags, won't you, Quinn." It was an order rather than a question.
Tara objected. "Oh, I can—"
"You can come help me get dinner ready. Thank you, dear," responded Ruth, opening the door. She directed both women into the small cabin, pushing them ahead of her. "Now why don't you two freshen up first. The washroom is right upstairs, second door on your left."
Tara and Kennedy appeared uncertain, but Ruth nodded her encouragement and regarded them expectantly. Sharing a look of resignation, they headed up the stairs. Once gone from sight, the old woman sighed heavily and her face became less animated, visibly showing the signs of her advancing years.
Nearby, Quinn hovered, watching the pair disappear from view. Cross-legged, he floated a millimeter or so above Ruth's shoulder, careful to avoid sitting on the bony projection. "She's young," he observed.
Ruth nodded. "And yet, so old."
He leaned forward and peered into Ruth's eyes. "She's not what you expected, is she?"
The Keeper sighed again. "No, she's exactly what I expected. That's the trouble."
There was a brief and quiet moment of shared thought.
"You're not really going to make them eat that dreadful loaf-thing of yours, are you?" asked Quinn, visibly shuddering.
With a sideways glare, Ruth simply said, "The bags, Quinn?"
With a roll of his eyes, Quinn flew out the door and toward the SUV while Ruth continued to stare sadly in the direction taken by Kennedy and Tara.
At the Scoobies' house, the living room was in even more of a shambles than it had been earlier, although it was apparent that the evening was now winding down to its conclusion. A DVD was playing on the television, but it was largely ignored. Most of the lights had been dimmed and the floor was virtually covered with discarded wrappers and empty boxes. However, perhaps the most prominent picture to be seen was that of Willow, crumpled on the couch like a limp Raggedy Ann – not simply asleep, but totally passed out into oblivion. She looked rather like a puppet whose strings had suddenly been severed. Her arms and legs were all akimbo and both Buffy and Xander stared at her curiously.
"I think it was the Super Fudgey Fudge Chunk Cookies that finally did it," Buffy nodded wisely.
"I gotta say, I'm actually kinda glad it came to this," admitted Xander, gently massaging his stomach.
Buffy tutted disapprovingly. "You had to know this would happen. All that sugar, all that caffeine ..."
"The girl was a walking spaz attack." He glanced toward Buffy. "Did you even get what she was talking about in the end?"
Buffy shook her head. "I caught something about water and potassium, snakes, ladders, and Tara and Kennedy running off together." She paused. "I guess the last one's technically true." She turned to Xander with something of a wicked glint in her eyes. "Still, I guess she showed you in the end, huh?"
She held aloft the little whiteboard, now loaded with hash marks. Xander impassively took in the superior black-to-red ratio on display under Willow's name, but Buffy continued to gloat on behalf of her comatose friend. "Rosenberg comes from behind to scoop out the Xan-Man."
"Nah." Waving his hand, Xander brushed aside his crushing defeat. "This wasn't the real deal." At the Slayer's perplexed expression, he explained. "Earlier today, I bet Will I could make her forget all about the stuff that's gettin' her down." He gestured toward the prone figure. "I'd say for the past couple hours, there wasn't much on her mind but scarfin' back more junk than me. Ergo, she had forgotten about everything else; ergo, mission accomplished." He nodded with utmost satisfaction at a job well done.
Buffy's eyes betrayed approval. "I'm impressed." She blinked and glared miserably at her stomach. "And also very bloated and uncomfortable."
"I echo all of these things, and more," commiserated the carpenter.
"Help me get her to bed?" requested Buffy, getting to her feet.
Xander pushed himself up from his position on the floor and then his complexion suddenly turned ashen as all the color drained from his face. Buffy's eyes widened and she moved toward him, but Xander held up a finger and shook his head.
"Sure ..." he muttered. "Just let me ..." He clutched his midsection. "Oh god."
With one hand clamped tightly across his mouth, Xander pounded up the stairs. With a shake of her head, Buffy watched his desperate departure before turning back to the passed-out Willow.
"At least some of us will have a nice of peaceful rest."
Ensconced in the cabin's comfortable spare room, Tara and Kennedy shared a queen-sized bed. Tara occupied approximately one-quarter of her half, while Kennedy had laid claim to her entire side. However, it was apparent she was well aware of her bedmate and she seemed to be making an obvious effort to stay within the boundaries of her allotted space. There was an almost palpable tension in the room, though both women seemed determined to avoid any reference to their awkward situation and the discomfort that accompanied it.
Kennedy sighed and stared at the ceiling, her arms folded under her head. "I just keep thinking about everything. I can't figure this woman out."
"She's very ... unusual," admitted Tara, inching just the tiniest millimeter over to avoid falling on the floor.
"Unusual?" scoffed the Slayer. "She's freaking weird. And that brownie thing of hers—"
"Faerie," the blonde corrected.
"He's a faerie. I think," responded Tara. "Brownies are more sort of ... terrestrial. No wings. And they like housework."
Kennedy rolled her eyes. "Whatever. I'm just saying, it all seems pretty out there to me."
"Yeah, it is," agreed the witch. "She's powerful, though. Very powerful. I really think she can help us."
"And no negavibes?" asked Kennedy, rising up just enough to flip her pillow around to what would hopefully be a less lumpy side.
"Nope. I'm not sure what it is exactly that I'm getting from her, but it's not bad."
Smirking, Tara turned toward the Slayer. "You sound almost disappointed."
"Maybe a little, on a purely selfish level," conceded Kennedy. "It would've given me a chance to actually do something, you know? I've been pretty useless on this trip so far."
The smirk turned into a frown. "You haven't been useless." Taking note of Kennedy's dismissive shrug, Tara reiterated, "You haven't been."
Kennedy's ceiling inspection seemed suddenly engrossing. "Right. I was a big help against the thing-that-wasn't-really-there," she responded bitterly.
"You saved me from that tire-killing demon," the blonde reminded.
"Sure," Kennedy chuckled sardonically, "but if I'd just let you fix the tire in the first place, we wouldn't have been there long enough for it to even attack." She sighed heavily and waved her hand in the air, allowing it to drop back down where it bounced on the mattress. "It's just like ... I'm a Slayer, right? I'm supposed to be the big defender. Kill the baddies, protect the innocents. But when the innocents stop needing protecting, then what's my point?"
Tara studied Kennedy's profile – the tiny frown of annoyance and the determined set to the jaw line. "You're a good Slayer, Kennedy. I-I mean I know I haven't really known you very long, but ... you're good at what you do."
The brunette snorted a laugh. "Because when you think 'Slayer', the name that leaps immediately to mind is 'Kennedy'."
"Maybe you need better PR," Tara suggested, eliciting a tiny chuckle. She thought for a moment then asked, "So you have to be ... the Slayer?"
"No, of course not," replied Kennedy. "But I'll be honest – it'd be nice. I spent I don't know how many years hearing about Slayers, actually thinking maybe I'd get to be one. It was everything to me. You know, you start buying into the whole mess ... The Chosen One, the lonely life you'll lead. Just you, alone, protecting the world."
Whatever romantic notions the prospect might hold for Kennedy, it was obvious Tara didn't share them. "That sounds horrible. I think I'd be glad I didn't have to be alone."
"Oh, no, totally," the Slayer readily agreed. "It's great to know the girls got your back." Her brow furrowed deeper as she tried to explain. "But at the same time, there's something about it. Knowing that the world gets to keep turning just because of you." She paused and shrugged. "At least it was something in my head."
"But you did save the world," the witch stated.
"No," came the pointed answer. "Buffy saved the world. Willow saved the world. I got to deliver an oversized letter opener."
Tara smiled briefly at the vehement protest. "Well Buffy's had a lot of practice."
"Exactly. Which is why Buffy's The Slayer. Capital 'T'. I'm a Slayer. That'd be a little 'a'."
"You're your own person, Kennedy." Tara's tried to persuade. "You're not in Buffy's shadow."
This was also met with denial. "No, I am. Faith's too. I mean, they're the real deal. The rest of us ... we're the by-product. I'll always be 'the other one'. No matter what I do, no matter how hard I try, I can never be the Slayer that they are."
Tara considered this for a moment. "Well no, probably not."
Kennedy swallowed hard at the affirmation, clearly indicating that although she had total conviction in her own words, it was nevertheless a bitter pill to take when voiced by another. However, Tara was not yet done.
"Because you're Kennedy the Vampire Slayer," continued the blonde. "You're brave and you're resourceful. You're an incredible fighter and a good teacher. And I'm gonna hazard a guess and say you kick demon butt just as much as the next girl. Probably better. So if you can be all that, why would you want to be them? I dunno, if it were me? I'd probably just worry about being Kennedy the Vampire Slayer." She blinked in the darkness. "O-Or, well, I guess 'Tara the Vampire Slayer'. But that doesn't sound as cool."
Turning her head slowly, Kennedy regarded Tara seriously. Somewhat embarrassed, the witch grinned a little shyly. "If it were me," she repeated with a shrug.
Kennedy's smile was one of gratitude. There was no 'thank you' forthcoming, but the expression said it all. "That was the other thing I wanted to learn," she nodded to herself.
"What's that?" queried Tara.
"Why you," Kennedy told her. "Now I know."
Totally abashed, Tara rolled over and gazed at her side of the wall. A resolute Kennedy shot her quick glance and then propped her elbow on the pillow. She cupped her cheek in her hand and soberly regarded the back of Tara's head. "So, what's the biggie?"
The blonde frowned in confusion, but didn't turn around. "What's the...?"
"The biggie," persisted the Slayer. "The biggest reason why you're so ... well, pretty much so miserable all the time."
"I really don't think now is the time," Tara bristled.
"No, now's the perfect time," Kennedy countered. "Cuz see, I know I'm tired and I know you're tired, but I'm not letting this drop until I get at least one big thing out in the open. So in the interests of actually getting some sleep tonight, you'll tell me."
Tara appeared to view this as a challenge – and one that she clearly had every intention of meeting head-on. Clamping her mouth in a tight line, she turned and faced the Slayer with an arched eyebrow. The conveyed message was perfectly plain: 'No syllables shall escape these lips', but Kennedy simply grinned in response.
"For real," she insisted. "See, Slayers? We can function on forty-five minutes, an hour of sleep tops. I'm pretty sure witches need more recharge time. I can go all night and still be fine tomorrow."
This seemed to do nothing but strengthen the blonde's resolve to not succumb, resulting in Kennedy's grin adopting a slightly evil curl.
"Though laying here in silence," pondered the Slayer in a tone filled with far too much innocence to be genuine, "I'd probably start getting bored. You never know what I'd have to do keep the monotony at bay. I might even have to sing." Tara quirked both eyebrows at this announcement. "But not just any old song, oh no," Kennedy shook her head. "I'm thinking something really ... catchy. The sort of song that burrows into your brain and nests there for two or three weeks, you know the kind. Something like ... 'Copacabana'."
Tara's eyes widened with abject terror. "You wouldn't."
Now, it was Kennedy's turn to quirk an eyebrow. "So what was that big thing?"
Crossing her arms defiantly, the witch refused to buckle even under threat of torture.
"Her name was Lo-la," Kennedy sang in a soft, teasing voice. "She was a show-girl ..."
With a burst of laughter, Tara threw the bedclothes over her head and disappeared beneath the covers. However, Kennedy was relentless and she leaned over the huddled figure, chanting even louder.
"With yellow feathers in her hair and a dress cut down there, she would mer-en-gue—"
The covers exploded back and Tara reemerged from the not-so-protective cocoon. "Okay, okay!" she relented, pleading mercy.
Blissfully, the Slayer stopped singing. "Oh, good," she declared. "You did not want to let me hit the chorus." Settling back against her pillow, Kennedy watched as Tara rearranged the coverlet, pulling it up to her chin. A few more moments passed as the blonde fussed with the arrangement of the sheets and blankets.
Kennedy shot her a sideways glance. " ...and do the cha-cha..." she resumed with a warning timbre.
A serious expression crossed Tara's face. "Okay."
Inhaling deeply, the blonde held the breath for a moment before letting it out slowly. Kennedy gave her time, waiting patiently as Tara inhaled for a second time.
"I would have killed her," she announced flatly.
"Willow," confirmed the Slayer.
Tara nodded. "I had the knife in my hand. I could see myself doing it. I was going to do it." She fell into wretched silence.
Kennedy frowned. "Okaaay ... So that's—"
"I was going to kill Willow," the blonde clarified firmly, since it was so patently obvious that brunette hadn't heard properly.
"Yeah, I got that part," verified Kennedy gently.
"Don't you—?" Tara clenched the hem of the sheet tightly in her fists as she attempted to explain once more. "I was taught to respect life. That life is sacred, and precious. And my whole life, growing up? I was terrified that I'd become something horrible. Something evil that would ... would kill without hesitation. Something that would hu-hurt the people I love most. When I found out that was all a lie? It was probably the best day of my life."
She shook her head sharply, fighting against the tears that prickled and then turned toward Kennedy in an almost challenging fashion. However the Slayer was simply regarding her with an expression of empathy.
"But now," continued Tara, staring into Kennedy's eyes and regaining some of her composure. "I'm not so sure it was a lie. I would have killed her. The most incredible person I've ever—" She effectively severed that line of thought and swallowed. In a low, almost detached tone she recited, "I would've taken the knife, and I would've s-stabbed her, and stabbed her, and I wouldn't have stopped until she was dead. And ..."
Tara's voice caught as tears threatened once more. Her eyes traveled to the ceiling, the words resuming only after she was safely free from meeting the Slayer's intense gaze. "And if I hadn't found out she was okay ... I know I'd make the same choice." She lay there in misery, struggling with her emotions and meeting with only marginal success. "God," she whispered, "what kind of person does that make me?"
"A damned courageous one," Kennedy stated without question.
Tara blinked in surprise, this clearly not being the reaction she was expecting.
"You would've killed her, yeah, and murder is pretty high up on the 'damning' meter. Things aren't always so black and white, though." Leaning forward, Kennedy did her best to make sure Tara could see her without encroaching. "When you knew you could do it, when you got ready to ... What were you thinking?"
"That ... That I had to stop her," she replied quietly.
"Why? Specifically," the Slayer pressed. "Tooo ... help Buffy? To save the world?" With a failing smile, Tara shook her head. "To save Willow, right?" Kennedy gently asked.
The replying nod was almost imperceptible, but the Slayer caught it easily. "I get that," she told the witch.
Tara gave a hapless chuckle. "No, you don't. I would've—"
"I get that," insisted Kennedy, "because I almost did too."
Stunned, Tara turned to regard Kennedy with pure amazement.
The Slayer threw herself back against the pillow, though still maintaining the newly reforged eye contact. "The night before we went into the Hellmouth, to face off against the First ... Willow was petrified of the spell she'd have to do. The magic stuff had been giving her wiggins pretty much since ..." She gestured in Tara's direction, which earned a nod of understanding, "...and she already knew the First could get to her like that. So she asked me – she begged me that if there was a hint, even the slightest suggestion that she was going evil again, she wanted me to kill her. She gave me a dagger and told me to stab her in the heart."
At the blonde's shocked expression, Kennedy smiled wryly. "And I denied it, and I argued, and I swore a whole lot," she added, "but she made me see that it wasn't all about what I wanted or what I needed. It was about what Willow needed. I loved her enough to give her what she needed, regardless of what it'd do to me. I still would." She shrugged. "So sorry, if you were looking for me to give you more fuel to hate yourself; you've come to the wrong place."
The two women faced each other for a heartbeat longer and then Tara's eyes returned to the ceiling. She said nothing further, locked in her own world.
Kennedy's gaze lingered, then she duplicated Tara's upward concentration. Neither spoke for a while.
"Everything's so screwed up," sighed Tara eventually.
"Pretty much the only guarantee you get with life is that it'll suck," Kennedy agreed.
Silence reigned once more. This time, it lasted for a long while and it might have been safe to assume that both women had fallen asleep until Tara spoke.
"Yeah?" came the wide-awake reply.
"My parents are good people, but their music tastes, what's the word ... suck."
Yet another hush descended until Kennedy broke the silence.
"Yeah?" came the drowsy reply.
"I'm thinking we shouldn't mention this whole single-bed thing to Willow."
"Uhmmm ... no," responded the blonde stifling a yawn. "That's probably a good idea." She grinned a little wickedly in the darkness. "Though I almost want to, just for the look she'll get on her face."
"Oh my god," chuckled Kennedy sinfully. "Wouldn't that be something? Her face would go all red ..."
"Her eyes would get wide enough to practically engulf her entire head," added a mischievous Tara.
The Slayer laughed and gave her pillow a good thump. "That's our Will. The girl of a million facial expressions, and every one of 'em adorable."
Willow's eyes opened gingerly and she squinted at the weak morning sunlight filtering through the window. Sitting up in bed, she ran slack fingers through her hair and winced at the jumbled mass of tangles. Staring contritely at the bedclothes that had landed in an untidy heap on the floor, she swiped a flaccid hand across her drooling mouth and grimaced. She blinked stupidly for a moment or two and then flopped back onto her pillow with an audible groan.
At the cabin, Kennedy and Tara, looking moderately refreshed, were determined to get an early start. They busied themselves with loading the SUV, carefully moving bags and other items around to ensure that Ruth would have plenty of room for whatever she might chose to bring along with her on the trip. Squinting at the sunlight, the old woman emerged with a large steamer trunk floating behind her. She glanced at the chest and it promptly moved to the side of the porch. Turning, she sharply called out, "Quinn!"
The sudden sound caused both Tara and Kennedy to jump slightly, but they quickly returned to their packing.
Ruth tapped her foot impatiently and peered into the cabin. There was no sign of the faerie. She took a deep breath. "Qui—!"
But suddenly, there he was at her shoulder, tugging on his boots. "I'm right here, no need to shout," he griped. "We're not all as deaf as you."
"Are you ready?" she snapped.
Quinn fussily positioned the bottoms of his jeans over his boots and straightened up to smooth his platinum hair. He checked the baby blue sweatshirt, whose front posed the question 'Fancy A Flutter?', for wrinkles and then smoothed his hair again before brushing non-existent specks of lint from the shoulders of his shirt. His hand was about to return to his hair once more when Ruth gave his wing a vicious flick with her gnarled finger. Quinn yelped indignantly.
"You're ready," she told him firmly.
"Honestly, that's very rude," chastised the faerie. "I suppose you were born before they invented manners, hm?"
Obviously deciding that his jibe warranted no answer, Ruth simply stared at him. A grumpy Quinn, followed by a small trail of luggage, moved toward the car. Pulling the door of the cabin shut, the old woman locked it with an ornate brass key, which she then placed in the pocket of her heavy woolen cloak with extreme care. Taking a rickety step backward, she waved her hand. The cabin shimmered for a moment and then disappeared, leaving behind only the porch. She turned and looked at the trunk that, as if obeying some silent command, slowly began to rise. Before it could go too high, however, Quinn had returned to Ruth's side.
"Let me," he insisted with a long-suffering eye-roll. "If you strain anything, we'll hear nothing but you complaining about it all the way there." With a grand gesture, he assumed control over the chest and pointed imperiously toward the car. In dutiful deference, the trunk floated over to the SUV.
"A chest?" came Kennedy's irritated observance from behind. She proceeded to complain bitterly about limited space issues and old ladies who over pack. With an expression of barely restrained tolerance, Quinn fluttered his wings and went to join her, presumably in an effort to lend assistance.
Ruth didn't appear to care very much one way or the other as she made her way down the porch steps with a stiffened gait. As she cleared the last one, the wooden stairs also faded from existence to be replaced by a thick crop of trees. Their emergence was most effective, completely obscuring even the space occupied by the cabin. Noticing the old woman hobbling toward her, Tara rushed forward and took her by the elbow. This action was rewarded with an endearing smile of gratitude.
"Such a sweet child," Ruth murmured, reaching up to affectionately cup one of Tara's cheeks. The words were spoken with sincerity, but laced with just the faintest hint of sadness. An expression of confusion invaded the blonde's face, but Ruth did not elaborate. Upon reaching the vehicle, Tara handed jurisdiction of the old woman to Kennedy and moved to the driver's side.
"Shotgun!" came Ruth's instant demand.
Kennedy was taken aback. "What?"
"I call shotgun," Ruth repeated stringently.
The Slayer frowned. "What? But ... but I'm sitting in the front."
The old woman smiled reprovingly. "Did you call it, dear?"
"Well no," Kennedy admitted, "but I thought—"
Ruth tutted. "Then it's the back seat for you. You can keep Quinn company."
The Slayer regarded the rear of the vehicle with some alarm. Quinn had already stretched out and commandeered as much of the seat as his two-foot frame would allow. He waggled suggestive eyebrows in Kennedy's direction and patted the cushion invitingly. Kennedy's expression quickly moved from being dumbfounded into a scowl of irritation.
Turning toward Tara accusingly, Kennedy snapped, "Next time you take your own damned road trips."
Grumbling loudly, Kennedy climbed into the back seat as Ruth turned to wink at Tara. The blonde shook her head admonishingly, but couldn't hide the grin as she fished the car keys out of her pocket.
Casting a wary gaze at the sky, the old woman's eyes narrowed and all traces of humour swiftly evaporated. "We must hurry," she urged. "There isn't much time left. Not much time at all."
The main conference room used by the Assemblage was as different from the Circle's as were their respective leaders. Brightly lit but sterile, each piece of paper and every pen had a very exacting and specified place. Madrigan gazed at his surroundings with an expression that betrayed his innermost desire to simply start knocking random things off shelves. Or possibly even to neatly relocate a stack of papers from one end of the table to the other. Both actions would have likely precipitated the same result.
With a longing sigh, Madrigan refrained, instead walking with Robespierre into one of many highly efficient and entirely generic hallways. Silent as always, Seneca followed behind, a small spiral notebook and nicely sharpened pencil floating in front of him. He appeared to be thoroughly absorbed in the conversation taking place between the two men as his writing implement moved rapidly across the paper, seldom remaining still for very long.
"I want no further delays," Robspierre announced with a frown.
"Really?" queried Madrigan. "And here I thought that patience was one of your few remaining virtues."
"There is patience and then there is procrastination," came the sharp reply. "Fortunately, I'm aware of the difference."
"Oo, that was good," Madrigan responded with mocking appreciation. He glanced over his shoulder to Seneca. " Write that one down."
The pencil flew even faster as Seneca nodded sagely, as though he would do no less than note with due diligence every single nugget of wisdom formed by Robespierre's vocal chords.
"The Council was once a proud society," continued a wistful Robspierre. "So noble." He sighed and his tone returned to its normal abrasive timbre. "A little narrow visioned, perhaps, but I truly believed it was the gateway to a better world. A world that brought forth sense from the senseless."
Cocking an eyebrow at the melodrama, Madrigan dropped back to inspect Seneca's writings. He grinned to see the page mostly covered with stick figure drawings. Though very crude and largely unflattering, they were undoubtedly renditions of Robespierre – tiny body, gigantic head, and greatly exaggerated scar. Each little image was engaged in a different activity, such as spouting fire or waving a small circle-fist attached to a skinny stick-arm.
Seneca and Madrigan exchanged a moment of glee before Madrigan moved forward again to join Robspierre. The mage immediately disguised his amusement to adopt a rapt expression of keen interest as he listened to Robespierre's words of wisdom.
For his part, Robespierre was apparently oblivious to everything but the music of his own voice. "But this ... farce that dares call itself the Council of Watchers. They have no focus, no defining purpose besides this impossibly nebulous idea of protection." He snorted with disgust, his voice dripping with loathing. "Slayers giving orders instead of following them. Children commanding the world's greatest forces. That laughable excuse for a Watcher overseeing them all like a benevolent Alexander."
"Plus I hear they get cable," added Madrigan, which earned the mage a look of utter contempt.
Rounding the corner, the three men stopped outside of a huge training facility. Almost every machine was in use, and the open mats teamed with pairs and trios of young girls. They all wore the same generic workout uniform – gray sweatpants with a black tank top. The clothing was, by its nature, only able to cover so much. The marking of an eye atop a key plainly visible on each and every girl.
This marking aside, there would have been nothing to distinguish one girl from most of the others. But some could no longer claim that ability. Their symbols pulsated with a bright blue, visible even through the fabric of their shirts, and their eyes glowed with the power to match. Every girl was training, hard and fast, but there was nothing performed by one that could not be outdone by one infused with the cool blue glow.
Pride openly displayed on his now satisfied countenance, Robespierre stood in the doorway. Instantly noticing his arrival, the Super Slayers, acting as a single unit, ceased their strenuous pursuits and turned to raise their hands in a venerable salute. Eyes shining, Robespierre acknowledged the gesture with a nod and they promptly returned to their workouts.
Madrigan glanced to Seneca, who performed a sloppy, limp-wristed parody of the gesture behind Robespierre's back. The mage grinned in appreciation, but his attention was soon diverted to the huge mirror positioned at one side of the room.
The reflective surface began to shimmer and almost immediately, Judith emerged. Spying Robespierre she grinned and then snapped her heels together, saluting him in the same manner as had the other girls. Robespierre beamed with pleasure. He leaned toward Madrigan, eyes still transfixed on Judith who continued to hold her respectful pose.
"They cannot be allowed to interfere," he muttered through thin lips.
Madrigan regarded Robespierre's grim profile with all due solemnity as he surveyed the busy hive of Super Slayers. He threw a companionable arm around Robespierre's shoulders. "Then stick around," he advised. "You won't wanna miss this."