For the second time that day, Giles presided over a meeting in the library. The Scoobies were again gathered, save Dawn who was still in school. Buffy held the center of attention, all eyes fixed on her.
"An army?" the Watcher was asking dubiously.
Buffy nodded emphatically. "That's what Sam said."
Xander puffed heavily and threw his leg over the arm of the chair. "Can I just point out that I'm getting really sick of super-strong armies?"
Giles remained unconvinced. "Can we trust her?"
"Pretty sure so," confirmed Buffy. "By the way, do we have a credit line at the Farmer's Market?" She waved a dismissive hand at the Watcher's inquiring glance. "Never mind. Yes. I think this information is the real deal."
Willow sat cross-legged on the floor at Tara's feet. "It's sort of a shame that this Hitanko person's all evil and stuff, because if you look at it strictly from a numbers standpoint? She's a regular Eliot Ness." She frowned and then added, "Of evil."
"That's why there's been less vamps and stuff around town," Tara concluded. "She's recruiting them all."
"And killing the ones don't enlist," agreed Xander. "Persuasive and efficient."
"Sam overheard a couple vampires talking a few nights ago," Buffy informed the assembly. "Apparently our little friend has been sweeping through Trillium, rounding up the stray vamps and taking out any demon groups with even a whiff of power, whether they're actual threats or not."
Tara leaned forward. "But why?" she asked curiously. "Why go to all the trouble?"
"Removing the competition?" suggested Giles, beginning to pace. "Perhaps her goal is to take over the town."
Willow rested her head against Tara's knees. "But'cha know, if she wanted a place of her very own, why pick the one spot in the country with the highest Slayer per capita?"
"Good questions," mused the carpenter, swinging his leg back and forth, "which you'd think might've been answered with several hours of the most boring thing I've ever done."
"You couldn't find her," Buffy interpreted.
"Oh, I found her, but you wouldn't believe how many old Watcher's diaries I had to read through." Xander's gaze transferred to Giles. "You've seriously gotta think about teaching creative writing or something. Cuz this stuff? Not soon to be a major motion picture."
Giles bristled at the criticism. "The Watcher's diaries are- are important historical documentation, not the latest novel by Tom Clancy," he clipped.
"Which is a pity, cuz I think a few guns and submarines might've really spiced things up from the 'suicidally dull' to the 'I would rather be having a root canal'."
Recognizing that the looming battle might extend long into the night, Buffy prodded the important parts along. "What did you find, Xander?"
With a minimum expenditure of movement, the carpenter retrieved his notebook from a nearby table. "She's only really mentioned once, and the translations are pretty rough." He flipped over a couple of pages. "She was a vampire, no big surprise there. Based in the Osaka region in Japan. She turned up one night all vamped, the then-Slayer did her Slay thing, the end."
Tara's brows knitted. "Well except for the part where she's, you know ... not Slayed."
"There's that," admitted Xander.
Giles' pacing slowed to a stop. "If she were, in fact, not destroyed ..." He paused and then turned to the carpenter. "Xander, what was the date on those diaries?"
Xander hastily scanned his scrawl. "Uhhh ... 1600s."
"A 400-year old vampire," mused the Watcher.
Buffy exhaled slowly. "Well that explains the part where I didn't just kick her ass."
"Quite extraordinary," Giles continued to ruminate. "A vampire that old should have at least one volume devoted solely to her." He looked sharply to Xander once again. "But you said there was no more information?"
"Nope," verified the carpenter, flipping the overhanging pages back to the front of the legal pad. "Just that brief mention. Seems she was a one-hit wonder."
"They didn't know," murmured a thoughtful Tara. "The Watchers. They thought she was dusted, right?" She glanced at Xander for affirmation, which was duly given. "So nobody was looking for her. All she had to do after that was just ... be sneaky. Not cause a lot of trouble, and nobody would even know."
Giles thrust his hands deep into his pockets and began pacing the floor yet again. "Not quite in keeping with the traditional vampire mentality, but ... yes, that's possible. But then why resurface now?"
"She's— The Tri-Mouth," Willow suddenly blurted. "She's here because of the Tri-Mouth. I-It's gotta be. I mean, why else come here? Why come now?"
The Watcher's eyes glittered behind his glasses. "The convergence ... Of course. She must plan to- to ... open it, o-or harness the energies."
Buffy looked at Giles suspiciously. "Okay, I already don't like the sound of this. What would that do? The opening or the harnessing?"
"Well ... I don't know," hesitated the Watcher, fishing for a handkerchief. "There's never been anything quite like the phenomenon here. When we closed the Hellmouth in Sunnydale, the mystical energy – rather than dissipate – simply ... relocated. Became infused with other potent Hellmouths." He vigorously polished his glasses. "How or why those powers are now channeling here in Trillium ... I haven't a clue. To the best of my knowledge, nobody's ever permanently sealed a Hellmouth before."
Pumping his fists ecstatically, Xander exclaimed, "Gosh, it's fun to be pioneers!"
"Whatever it is she's gonna do," said Willow with grim confidence, "I'm bettin' it's not for the benefit of us."
Buffy was in complete agreement. "No, good call."
Tara's gaze encompassed the group. "So we find her and stop her."
"Don't suppose Sam the Helpful had an address?" asked Xander, quirking an eyebrow.
"Not so much," acknowledged Buffy grudgingly. "She said that they mentioned a meeting place somewhere off Highway 15, by Jefferson, but that was it."
"Strange place for vampires to hang out," Willow frowned. "It's all woodsy up there. Pretty sunlight-rich."
Xander was inclined to agree. "Yeah, it's mostly just for the tourist types. Lots of trees, some deer. I think the only other thing even close by is the ..."
His words trailed away as awareness slowly invaded the room.
Giles completed the thought, sounding vaguely stricken. "The hotel."
The Slayer's expression was equally concerned. "The nice, isolated, 10-room bed and breakfast hotel."
"The hopefully abandoned for the fall hotel?" ventured Willow.
Buffy frowned darkly. "I'm not taking any chances."
"Quite," the Watcher quickly concurred. "Take the girls currently here. We can pull some out of school if you think you'll need them?"
"Not just yet," replied Buffy, shaking her head and gesturing to the windows situated around the room. "It's daylight, so I'm thinking we'll have the advantage." She swiftly surveyed the gathering. "You guys ready?"
Xander was immediately stirred from his lethargy. "No more reading? I am so ready."
Using Tara's knees for leverage, Willow hauled herself upright. Tara stretched out her legs then joined the others. "We're good to go too," she announced with a confirming nod from Willow.
The group headed for the door. All that is, but Giles. Instead, he told them, "Good luck. Check back in as soon as you can."
As one, they hesitated and then turned to look at him. With folded arms, he leaned against one of the tables.
"You're not coming?" asked a puzzled Willow.
The Watcher regarded Buffy soberly. "Do you think you need me?"
The Slayer opened her mouth as if to speak, but said nothing. Her forehead creased and she tried again. "Well ... I mean we always need you," she maintained.
"But for this venture. Specifically," persisted Giles.
Three pairs of eyes, plus one, exchanged a doubtful look.
"No, I ... I suppose not," Buffy responded with confusion.
Giles flashed a brief smile of reassurance. "Then I have some work here that I could be doing in the meanwhile."
Buffy frowned again. "Okay ..."
The Watcher turned his back and began to sort through the papers which littered the table. "Good," he reiterated. "Remember, contact me as soon as you can."
The Scoobies lingered for a moment, then on some unspoken agreement, all filed out of the library.
As soon as they had left, the Watcher tossed his glasses onto the table and pinched the bridge of his nose. Then, with a small sigh, he made his way to where Xander had left the notepad. Picking it up, he began to read.
At the sound of a loud bang, Faith instantly awoke. Sitting up in bed, dagger already clutched in her fist, she looked around wildly for a second before recognizing the intruder. At another resounding bang – the noise of a dresser drawer being slammed shut – Faith rolled her eyes and deposited the weapon on a small nightstand next to the bed. Grabbing a pack of Marlboros, she lit up and propped her pillow against the wall. The flickering cigarette illuminated the purple bruises on her face and a rather nasty split lip, but Faith seemed unaware of her injuries as she leaned back and watched the would-be burglar with some curiosity.
"Hell're you doin'?"
The answer was the sharp closing of a third drawer as Kennedy methodically dumped Faith's belongings into an open suitcase on the floor at her feet.
"Packing," Kennedy replied without further elaboration.
Faith arched an eyebrow. "You goin' somewhere? With my stuff?"
"Not quite," refuted Kennedy. "Your stuff's going somewhere, but you're going with it."
"That right?" queried an amused Faith, carelessly flicking ash onto the carpet.
Kicking the case along in front of her, Kennedy moved to a small closet. Tugging shirts and jeans free from their wire hangers, she tossed the items over her shoulder where they landed, with remarkable accuracy, into the open bag.
With an air of nonchalance, Faith puffed out a long stream of smoke. "An' I'm goin' where again?"
At the single word, some of Faith's cockiness slipped away. "Excuse me?"
"You're going back to Trillium, Faith," Kennedy informed matter-of-factly. "I've already talked to Giles. The plane will be fueled up and ready for you tomorrow morning."
Faith angrily stuffed her cigarette into a nearby beer can. "Screw that!"
Pausing momentarily in her packing activities, Kennedy turned to face the woman glaring at her from the bed.
"I did some thinking last night. You remember last night, right?" She ignored Faith's frown. "No actually, come to think of it, you probably don't, seeing as how you were drunk off your ass. Which means you probably also don't remember getting that." She jabbed an aggravated finger at Faith's split lip.
Faith peered down at herself. "Getting what?"
Kennedy rolled her eyes. "Exactly." She returned to the task at hand, hurling more articles of clothing into the suitcase.
Faith sneered in the direction of Kennedy's back and then winced at the stab of pain. She gingerly probed the outside of her mouth with a delicate tongue. For her part, Kennedy continued to lecture.
"I'm pretty familiar with it though, what with the hauling you out from under the pile of guys you picked a fight with. Again."
Nodding, Faith reached for another cigarette. "Ah, yeah, okay. Comin' back to me now."
"I'd hope so," grumbled Kennedy, "seeing as how that exact scenario describes a good third of the time you've been here."
"Consider me intervened," Faith soothed sarcastically, settling her shoulders more comfortably against the pillow.
Kennedy sighed heavily. Never having been much inclined to beat around the bush, she came directly to the point.
"You're drinking too much, you're smoking too much, and you're fighting too much."
"And you're talkin' too much."
The barb was ignored as Kennedy pressed onward. "I thought ... I dunno, I thought maybe being here would be good for you. Let you settle in, away from everything. That maybe after a little while, you'd deal with Hazel and Judith–"
Faith's eyes narrowed. "Judith's 'dealt with', alright? She's dead. Don't get much more 'dealt with'."
Kennedy's mouth grew tight as she spun around. "And what about you? Huh? I may not win the Miss Empathy crown, but you think I can't see what you're doing? A semi-retarded box turtle could pick up on all this self-destructive crap." Her expression softened just a little. "Now maybe you don't care and maybe you think I shouldn't, but ... I do."
Faith said nothing, her only response being an undisguised snort and the averting of her astounded gaze.
Kennedy threw up her hands. "You won't let me help you. Fine. Then we're gonna give someone else a try." She continued to relieve the closet of its contents.
"Who's that?" queried Faith scornfully. "Buffy and Pals? You know, maybe you didn't catch this, but there's this little thing called 'history'. And let's just say that when it comes to me and dead people, we've got it. I already know how that story ends."
The wire hangers rattled furiously. "Yeah, so? That was then."
"You don't get it," gritted Faith.
"No, I get it just fine," countered Kennedy briskly. "You killed Judith. So what? She was a rabid dog that deserved to be put down. You think they won't see that?"
Speaking slowly, as though she were conversing with a naive simpleton, Faith replied. "No, you know, I really don't think they will."
Kennedy fought valiantly to keep a rein on her fast-ebbing temper. "Then I think you're in for a surprise. People change, Faith. None of you are the same people you were ...what? Five, six years ago?"
Faith shook her head. "Some things don't change."
"I guess we're gonna test that theory."
Using her foot to shove the suitcase along the carpet, Kennedy moved to the bedside table and, dropping to her knees, reached for the handle of the top drawer.
Faith's eyes became little more than infuriated slits. "And wouldja stop going through my stuff already?"
Ignoring the command, Kennedy tugged open the drawer. Faith's hand snaked toward Kennedy's wrist.
"I said stop!"
But it was too late. The collection of articles stowed in the drawer was plainly visible. Kennedy blinked at the first item in view and turned slowly to Faith. Unable to meet the other Slayer's eyes, Faith glanced at the door. Carefully, Kennedy removed the framed photograph of Hazel and Faith taken in happier times and regarded the captured expressions – Hazel beaming and Faith rather self-conscious. She moved sympathetically toward Faith, but Faith would have none of it.
"Faith, it's okay," assured Kennedy. "Hazel was a great kid. I know you still miss her, I do too."
Faith stared at the ceiling, the forgotten cigarette almost burning her fingers. "Oh, and that makes everything better."
Snatching away the smoldering butt, an infuriated Kennedy waved the picture frame in Faith's direction. "See, this is what I'm talking about. You're not dealing." She nodded with determination, as though Faith's reaction only confirmed everything she had already been thinking. "You definitely need to go back."
Faith threw off the coverlet. "Okay, you know what?" She swung her legs over the side of the bed and was on her feet in an instant, glaring down at Kennedy "I think I'm a big girl and can decide for myself where I need to go."
Kennedy was unfazed. As though Faith hadn't even spoken, she tucked the photograph between a stack of tee shirts in the suitcase and continued to clear out the end table. She threw Faith a keen sideways glance.
"That's certainly your opinion. But you're going anyway, even if I have to knock you out and throw you on the plane myself."
Apparently, this was precisely the brand of violent threat Faith had been waiting to hear. Standing straight, she loomed over Kennedy and adopted an aggressive posture. Her hands clenched as an open smile of derision played about her lips.
"You think you can take me?"
The corners of Kennedy's mouth turned upward with amusement as she regarded Faith, now towering at her shoulder. "No, I know I could take you."
With a meaningful tilt of her head, Kennedy focused once more on the suitcase, attempting to cram every inch of space so it would close. Faith was far from pleased at being dismissed so offhandedly.
"Come on then, Sparky," she urged, bouncing lightly on her toes. "You're so big and butch, let's see whatcha got."
Kennedy refused to rise to the bait. "I'm not fighting you, Faith."
"You just need the right motivation."
The words had barely been spoken before Faith lashed out with a kick designed to catch Kennedy squarely in the ribs. But Kennedy was prepared. She twisted to one side, easily avoiding the attack. Faith recovered quickly, raising her fists and taking a step backward in readiness.
"Oh please." Kennedy's eye-roll was blatant and exaggerated.
Faith launched another kick, this one aimed at Kennedy's head. It was no more successful than its predecessor.
Looking up, Kennedy puffed out an exasperated sigh. "I have way too much respect for both of us to do this. I'm won't fight you, Faith. But you are going back, one way or another."
"Screw that," scowled Faith. "And you know what? Screw you too. You want me gone, I'm gone, but I'll be damned if I'll go back there. Don't even know why I stuck around here."
She reached down for her suitcase, but was diverted by Kennedy seizing her wrist.
"Because you need someone," Kennedy told her quietly. "You could've left any time, we both know it. Just run off, and nobody would ever know where you went. You want someone to help you, Faith, whether you'll admit it or not."
There was a moment of silence and then, Kennedy released Faith's wrist. Faith made no further move to claim her belongings, nor did she make any attempt to leave.
Kennedy got to her feet and faced the other woman. "I want someone to help you too." Her tone was sincere. "So if you won't do it for you, then do it for me. And if not me, then Hazel. There's no way she'd want you to be like this. Don't you owe it to her to try?"
Again Faith's eyes dropped and she began to fidget uncomfortably. Kennedy couldn't help but allow herself a small smile.
"And if that's not enough ..." she added defiantly, "then do it because I dare you to."
For a long moment, Faith didn't move a muscle. Eventually, a tiny, challenging grin cracked her face.
Crouching in the cover of dense and snarled undergrowth, Buffy, Xander, Willow and Tara took stock of a large stone-and-wood building no more than fifty yards in front of them. Even limned in bright sunlight, it exuded something of a sinister air, bearing no resemblance to what should have been pleasurable, albeit temporary, accommodation for holidaymakers in search of fun and a little relaxation.
The rear guard consisted of approximately fifteen to twenty Juniors, all of whom were armed to the teeth with swords, crossbows, axes and almost every other type of weapon available in Slayer Central's extensive armory. In addition to her personal crossbow, Buffy's katana was sheathed at her side. The quartet spearheading the attack conversed back and forth, working out their options.
"It's quiet," commented Willow, raising her head a tad.
"If anyone follows up with the obvious, I'll poke them with my sword," announced Xander, jabbing fiercely at a nearby bush to emphasize his point.
Willow sighed. "I'm just— You think they're in there?"
"Guys...?" interrupted Tara.
Every gaze followed Tara's pointing finger, which led to the flagpole situated in the open courtyard of the hotel. A new flag fluttered in the light breeze. No longer did it bear a welcoming image of comfort. Instead, it displayed a symbol reminiscent of a moon blotting out the sun – the same symbol that had been carved into the flesh of the tortured demon. Other examples of the insignia also littered the exterior; banners draped from windows and daimyo flags flanked the entrance. The hotel had been branded. This was now Hitanko's territory.
"They're in there," Buffy stated confidently.
She turned to the Juniors, who were instantly alert to her words.
"Okay, here's what we're gonna do. Will hacked into the hotel's booking system before we left – as of this morning there were seven families in there; about 22 people, plus any staff. Getting to them and getting them out is your top priority. We have no idea how many vampires are in there, but be ready for a fight."
The Juniors looked at one another with skepticism.
"You can't seriously think anybody in there's still alive," scoffed Melanie, rolling her eyes.
"What I seriously think," Buffy retorted, crossing her arms and leveling a glare at the younger woman, "is that we're going to assume they are and do everything we can to save them."
It wasn't much of a contest. Melanie almost immediately backed down, although Buffy continued her reproachful stare for a moment longer, just to make her point perfectly clear. When satisfied, she glanced over her shoulder. "Xander?"
With a hard swallow, Xander nodded as much to himself as to Buffy, but the fleeting second of nervousness vanished as he stepped forward with authority.
"We'll split into three groups," he crisply informed the Juniors. "Katie, Xue, Brig ..."
Satisfied, Buffy smiled at his tone of self-assurance before breaking away and approaching Willow and Tara. With eyes closed, the two witches had joined hands.
"Anything?" asked the Slayer expectantly.
Locked within their concerted efforts, neither woman spoke for a moment but then, their fingers disentangled and both looked to Buffy.
"No magick traps, which is yay," reported Willow, yet her brow was furrowed. "I-I can't tell if there's anybody still–"
"They're alive," interrupted Tara.
Willow's frown deepened as she turned to Tara with a look of surprise. A thousand questions appeared in the redhead's expression, but she gave none of them voice.
"Some of them, anyway," Tara was continuing, not having noticed Willow's reaction. "I can't pinpoint where exactly, but ... They're scared."
Buffy's chin jutted with determination. "Let's see what we can do about that."
She glanced over her shoulder at Xander, who confirmed the readiness of his troops with a staunch nod.
"Group one, you're with Xander," she directed.
The carpenter immediately headed for the rear of the hotel with a third of the Juniors in tow. "We'll look for a back door."
Buffy purposefully loaded her crossbow and smiled. "I prefer the direct approach."
Stealthily, Buffy made her way forward, the rest of the small army following. Not uttering a word, the group moved in silence and reached the front of the hotel without incident. Hefting her crossbow, Buffy signaled at two of the Juniors, each similarly armed. The pair ran swiftly to the entrance – one taking up position to the left and the other to the right. They held their crossbows pointed upward and at the ready, bearing more than a passing resemblance to police officers.
Dropping to one knee, Buffy took careful aim and nodded once to the girl on her right. Seizing the handle, the girl twisted the knob and then pushed open the door. Between the three of them, they had all sides covered. Which was just as well since two vampires were standing guard in the darkened foyer, though both were taken completely by surprise at the intrusion. They reacted speedily – but not speedily enough. Before either could do much more than snarl, they crumbled into twin piles of neat dust. As Buffy and one of the Juniors were reloading, a third vampire emerged from behind the front desk. The girl who had yet to fire let loose with her bolt but missed the target and the vampire made a mad dash for the stairs.
"Will!" urged Buffy, her crossbow not yet ready.
"Slayers!" the scurrying vampire hollered frantically. "We're und–"
His warning fizzled as he became engulfed in flames, igniting so quickly that he didn't have time to even voice a terminal scream.
Willow's face broke into a broad beam of delight. "Hey, how is a vampire like a Quiznos sub?" she queried chirpily.
A few of the Juniors snickered, but a glare from Buffy swiftly brought them back in line. She moved cautiously further into the lobby, the younger Slayers fanning out behind her.
Lingering on the doorstep, Willow pouted a little. "I never have any fun."
With a consoling pat on the redhead's shoulder, Tara entered the foyer. Willow sighed in resignation and followed. The sounds of vampires disintegrating could be heard coming from all directions. The Juniors who had been dispatched to check out adjoining rooms swiftly returned to the main group.
"Clear," announced one, twirling her stake with expert precision .
Another emerged, brushing dust from her shirt. "I got two. Clear now."
Buffy nodded her acknowledgment before asking, "Tara, can you feel where the people are?"
Tara closed her eyes, forehead furrowing with concentration.
"I think ..." she began hesitantly. "I think they're below? In a cellar or something maybe?"
Buffy's gaze swept the hotel lobby. "There's probably a basement level. We'll head that way. Will, you and your team ..."
"Upstairs," confirmed the redhead. "Got it."
Six of the Juniors immediately made their way to the foot of the wide staircase, where whiffs of smoke continued to drift upward from the smoldering vampiric ashes. As Willow began to follow, Tara seized her hand, causing the redhead to stop.
"Be safe," Tara told her firmly.
With a smile of reassurance, Willow squeezed Tara's hand and then headed after the Juniors who were already on their way up the stairs.
Buffy, Tara and the remaining girls entered the adjoining room where two vampires had been staked only minutes before. They met with no further interference and Buffy wasted little time in assessing her surroundings. She gestured at a heavy wooden door to the left and quickly made her way there. Pressing her ear against the jamb, she listened intently but could hear nothing. Crossbow at the ready, she turned the handle, but there was no threat lurking on the other side. She flashed Tara an inquiring glance and the witch nodded, indicating that she had sensed the presence of humans in that direction.
The hallway into which the rescue party moved was cramped and stifling, forcing the team to travel in single file. The lighting was poor, causing many of the Juniors to peer nervously into the gloom. Leading the way, Buffy checked behind each and every door that lined the narrow corridor. Some revealed themselves to be small pantries, while others were merely storage cupboards for cooking utensils or gardening tools. None proved to be the makeshift holding area they were seeking. However, at the end of the hallway stood another door – by all appearances, seeming to be more sturdy than those that had gone before. Buffy approached with extreme caution.
Twisting the knob as silently as possible, Buffy was taken off guard by the vampire who was there to greet her. He was already nearly on top of her, and the close quarters provided little fighting room. Acting on instinct, Buffy physically thrust her crossbow forward and buried it into the vampire's chest, where it failed to puncture the heart. He treated her to a contemptuous sneer, but the smug expression was fleeting at best and was soon transformed into a look of shock when Buffy pulled the trigger at point-blank range. He continued to appear stupefied even as he turned to dust.
Not wasting any time, Buffy rushed down the steps of the cellar, the sounds of whimpering and subdued pleas easily reaching her ears. She came to a halt halfway down, extending her arms and effectively stemming the tide of those who followed. Huddled in the corner was a group of terrified individuals, perhaps twelve in total. Surrounded by a party of threatening vampires, the miserable captives clung desperately to each other and regarded Buffy with petrified eyes. The Slayer swiftly took note of the circumstances. Her team was outnumbered, but not overwhelmingly so.
"They're here!" she called, vaulting the banister to land squarely in the center of the basement area.
With sufficient room now to make their descent, the Juniors poured down the stairs. Those with crossbows held their fire for fear of hitting the innocent, who were clearly panicked and in a state of shock. As the Slayers engaged the vampires, Tara hurried toward the cowering prisoners.
She swept a howling toddler into the crook of her elbow and helped the more timorous to their feet. "Come on! This way!" she coaxed urgently, ushering them toward the stairs. She thrust the squirming child into another captive's arms as a woman scurried past.
Just as the last of the hostages was on his way to safety, Tara found herself being seized from behind and tossed in the air like a rag doll. The attacking vampire caught her about the waist as she fell, pulling her close with a triumphant snarl.
"Didn't your daddy ever tell you it's not polite to touch someone's stuff without asking?" he leered. Tara visibly flinched at his acrid breath.
Whipping out his free hand, the vampire grabbed her around the throat and dangled her aloft. Unable to break the suffocating hold, Tara's feet kicked ineffectually in mid-air, while she scrabbled desperately at the constrictive fingers. Gasping for oxygen, she tried to call out for help, but could make no sound.
"I think someone needs to teach you a hard lesson, little girl," growled the vampire, shaking her violently for good measure.
Upon hearing those words, Tara's eyes grew wide with terror. Her body became rigid, seemingly paralyzed with fright. The vampire chuckled as he tightened his grip. Tara was dangerously near to losing consciousness when she was abruptly released. Collapsing upon the ground, she stared up at her assailant, who was blinking in confusion at the business end of a stake that had punched its way through his chest.
"School's out, teach," Xander told him cheerfully.
Tara shielded her head with one hand as the dust swirled and spiraled. Her body trembled as she coughed harshly and massaged her raw throat. She dragged at the air with quivering, hard-fought breaths.
Concerned, Xander knelt down beside her. "Hey. Hey, Tara, you okay?" He placed a comforting hand on her shuddering shoulder.
For several heartbeats, she failed to respond, simply staring fixedly at where the vampire had been standing. A worried Xander maintained his silence, stroking her back and staring into her face with concern until she finally blinked and met his gaze. The quick flash of her smile was grateful but embarrassed, and she ducked her head before taking a deep breath. A moment later, Tara looked to Xander again, notably avoiding any glance at the pile of dust on the floor just a foot away.
"I'm okay," she replied. "Thanks for the save."
"It's what all the dashing young knights of the realm are doin'," he dismissed with a relieved grin.
Hauling himself to his feet, the carpenter offered a hand to Tara, which she thankfully accepted. With the arrival of Xander's entourage, the few remaining vampires were swiftly dispatched and Buffy hurried toward them.
"You guys alright?" she asked with a frown.
Xander pooh-poohed the idea of anything being otherwise. "No problem. I can think at least a few families who'll probably give some serious thought to Disneyland next year, though."
Satisfied that no one was hurt, Buffy hurried back up the stairs with the others in tow, following in the wake of the terrified hostages. Returning to the hotel proper, they quickly made their way into the lobby where the rescuees had gathered. Most appeared to be incredibly agitated, despite the Juniors' best efforts to calm them down.
"You don't understand!" protested a balding, overweight man, struggling valiantly, if in vain, to push past a small brunette Slayer. "She's still here!"
A wild-eyed and disheveled woman clutched Melanie's wrist in a vice-like grip. "Please, my little boy. You have to help him!" At a loss for words, Melanie could only pat the claw digging into her flesh while simultaneously trying to exercise enough force to pry it loose without causing serious harm.
"What's going on?" Buffy demanded as she approached.
One of the Juniors hastened to explain. "They said people are still here. Wives, husbands, children ..."
"They were split up," Xander realized, gripping his axe tighter. "The vamps kept the families apart."
Buffy nodded her agreement. "What better way to keep each group under control?" She raised her eyes to Xander. "Hey, did you see Hitanko? Short, black hair, kinda irritatingly strong?"
Xander thought for a moment. "Nope," he told her. "Plenty of vamps, but just your average, garden variety."
Tara surveyed the area, her forehead beginning to furrow. "Where's Willow?"
Willow gritted her teeth and executed one awkward sword stroke after another, spitting words out with each swing. "Why! Did I pick! Upstairs!"
Stuck in something of a crunch, the redhead's forces were outnumbered and surrounded on every side by vampires. To make matters worse, most of their efforts were focused on protecting a dozen or so captives who, much like those imprisoned in the basement, were terrified to the point of immobility. The battlefield appeared to be a large study, lined wall to wall with books, and while Willow and her troupe were holding their ground, they truly couldn't make any headway.
Lynn grimaced as she narrowly missed getting snatched by a particularly grotesque, but apparently incredibly limber, specimen of the vampiric variety. "What happened to toasty?" she yelled over her shoulder.
"With all this flammable stuff around?" responded a breathless and grim Willow. "Not a good idea unless you're made of asbestos!" Then, her expression brightened considerably at the sound of clamoring from the hallway.
"Will?" came Buffy's most welcome inquiry.
"In here!" replied the redhead. "What took you so dang long?"
Outside in the hall, the Scoobies and a hefty company of Juniors were battling their way toward the entrance to the study. It was obviously only a matter of time before they gained the upper hand but for the moment, things were a little on the chaotic side within the cramped area. Buffy deftly swung her katana and decapitated a lunging vampire. She hesitated for a moment and then instinctively gazed along the corridor. At the far end, well removed from the violence, stood Hitanko.
Despite the spear balanced in her hand, the girl made no move to engage herself in the fight. Locking eyes with Buffy, she inclined her head in respectful greeting before slowly moving away to the side and disappearing down a hallway. Buffy quickly checked the conflict arena and, realizing that their victory would be inevitable, pushed through the crowd to follow Hitanko.
Rounding the corner, she found herself at the bottom of yet another staircase that led to a higher level. Taking the steps two at a time, she emerged into a renovated attic. The area was huge and open, seemingly having been converted into a studio apartment. There was an easel and artist materials in the far corner. Plants lined the baseboard of one wall, while an ornately carved four-poster bed dominated another. An antique dresser stood to the left along with other assorted decorations, but they were sparse in nature and the overall effect was one of almost limitless space.
Buffy blinked at the bright sunlight invading the room. It streamed through the overhead skylight and numerous windows, affording a spectacular view of the surrounding woodlands. There were no curtains to filter the penetrating rays but even so, there were places aplenty for lurking shadows. In the center of this panorama, Hitanko waited with tranquil patience.
She smiled enigmatically at Buffy's cautious approach and bowed her head slightly. Both kept a firm grip on their weapons.
"Your presence honors me," Hitanko welcomed. "Your death shall honor us both."
"Yeah," Buffy said with a shrug, sounding almost bored. "Sorry to spoil that, but I got plans tonight that – huh, funny – don't involve me dying."
Finding no use for bravado, Hitanko declined to verbally respond. Instead, she merely tilted her head in acceptance. Still though, the gesture conveyed a condescending 'Whatever you say' attitude, which Buffy found supremely annoying.
The Slayer assumed a deceptively casual pose. "But before me and my friends go help those poor people find the number for a good therapist, why don't you tell me what you were doing with them?"
"The humans were to be a fine banquet," responded Hitanko calmly. "It has been disrupted." She dismissed the inconvenience with an elegant wave of her hand. "We will find more. There are always more."
"And the Tri-Mouth?" pressed Buffy. "What about that?"
Hitanko seemed puzzled. "I do not know of a ... Tri-Mouth." She had trouble pronouncing the word and it sounded odd as it slipped awkwardly from her tongue.
"The convergence thingie," clarified Buffy, growing fractious. "The mystical triangle here in Trillium."
A light dawned in Hitanko's almond-shaped eyes. "Ah. It is potency. It is strength." She cocked her head and frowned at Buffy. "You do not feel it?" Allowing her eyes to close, the vampire seemed to drink the sensations. "It sings in my blood. If my heart were to beat, it would surely keep time."
"Very power ballad," Buffy replied, entirely unimpressed. "But what were you planning to do with it?"
Hitanko regarded Buffy with a great deal of curiosity.
"You are strange, Slayer," she mused thoughtfully. "You care for your quarry. You permit yourself attachments, heedless of the weakness they bring you." The ghost of a smirk formed on her lips. "And I think you talk too much."
Buffy didn't seem to take it personally. "I get that a lot," she confided.
Hitanko allowed her gaze to drift toward the katana in the Slayer's hands. "It is fitting."
Then she attacked.
Hitanko took a single step toward Buffy, thrusting her spear at the Slayer. At least six-foot long, the weapon gave Hitanko considerable reach, but Buffy was able to easily parry the attack with her sword. Instantly Buffy lunged, taking advantage of the opening, but Hitanko was already in motion. She calmly took a step back, well beyond the sword's extension, and swept her spear in a lethal arc. Buffy ducked, only barely able to avoid decapitation, although several strands of hair were not so lucky.
Although Buffy's katana was the faster weapon, Hitanko twirled her spear with no more effort than she might a pen. The Slayer grit her teeth in frustration when attempt after attempt failed to gain her the advantage. The battle had degenerated into thrusts, parries and ripostes, with neither combatant significantly improving their situation. However, Buffy was slowly being forced backward, losing ground to Hitanko's whirring spear and unerring skill with the weapon.
With less than fifteen feet remaining before she found herself pinned against the wall, Buffy switched from defense to offense. The speedy transition seemed almost desperate, but the aggression behind the sudden onslaught of counterattacks proved effective – at least for a moment. Hitanko quickly regained her momentum and immediately capitalized on the Slayer's reckless defenses. Her blade effortlessly sliced through clothing and flesh, leaving Buffy with a torn shirtsleeve and neat but bloody gash on her left arm.
Then came the opening Buffy needed – anticipating an easily avoided slash, she directed her weapon at the vampire's head. Hitanko was already recovering and brought her spear around to deflect the blow, but by the time she realized Buffy's true goal, it was far too late. Adjusting her aim at the last moment, Buffy's blade sliced through the spear's wooden shaft, cleaving the weapon in two. With a clatter, the head of the spear fell to the floor between vampire and Slayer. For a moment, both could only stare at it, transfixed.
"Well, then," Buffy declared, clearly approving of the tide the battle had taken. "About that—"
There was no warning. The wooden remainder of the spear clutched in Hitanko's hand was already in motion. The vampire first struck Buffy in the back of her hand, loosening the tight grip on the katana enough for a follow-up strike to knock the weapon from the Slayer's hand. The sword went spinning across the floor, well out of reach. Unwilling to be the only one unarmed, Buffy's hand snatched out and grabbed the remainder of the spear. The vampire's grip was unbreakable however, and the two were now grappling for control of the weapon.
"No way," Buffy grunted as she tried to wrench the staff free. "You may be hot stuff with the whole Kabuki thing, but I'm the champ at 'Mercy'."
"Slayer should know nothing of mercy," was Hitanko's response, the ruggedness of her speech proving a revealing sign to her own strain.
With no progress being made in a battle of brute strength, Buffy dug in her feet and, instead of continuing to pull, she shoved forward. The sudden change in force came as a complete surprise to the vampire, and the midpoint of the staff connected directly with her ridged forehead. Two loud cracks resounded in the loft – one from the impact and the other from the snapping of wood as the shaft broke into two halves.
It was an unexpected result, and Buffy wasn't prepared for it. Her hold on the staff was lost, and Hitanko wasted no time. The two wooden implements whistled as they cut the air, the vampire whirling and swinging them like a pair of lethal batons. Able to attack nearly twice as fast, she rained down blow after punishing blow on the Slayer.
Finding herself once more losing ground, Buffy circled around, trying to find some reprieve. But Hitanko was everywhere, remorselessly driving the Slayer back. Then Hitanko spied the katana nearby, glinting in a beam of sunlight. Realizing that Buffy had been guiding her to this spot, Hitanko's lips pulled back in a snarl and she swung both shafts at Buffy's head. Had the blows connected Buffy's skull would have been shattered, but she was prepared. Dodging out of range of the weapons, Buffy allowed her momentum to throw her into a tight roll. She bounced out of it a few feet away, momentarily safe in a halo of sunlight and once again armed. She lunged decisively, aiming to strike at the vampire's head, but the wooden clubs were there first – each locked on one side of the blade, bracing it in a strong, if tenuous grip.
Both of Buffy's fists were clasped around the hilt of her weapon, seeking some way to free it, but she found Hitanko's hold impossibly strong and immobile – still, the vampire required both hands to be in use, and Buffy had no such limitations. Freeing one, the Slayer drove the heel of her hand into her opponent's jaw, pulled back, and repeated the blow. Instinct took over and Hitanko's grip slipped. Buffy didn't hesitate; she plunged the katana into the vampire's heart.
Amidst a low cry borne of equal parts surprise and pain, one piece of the now-broken staff fell from Hitanko's numb fingers as she was forced against the nearby wall. Buffy followed each step of the way, sword point first, until the tip of the blade exited the vampire's back and scraped against brick.
Her hand trembling only slightly, Hitanko raised the remaining fragment of her staff and swung it toward Buffy's sword arm. But the Slayer easily caught the weapon, twisted it free and flung it to the far side of the room.
Her vampire visage retracted, and from appearances Hitanko was no more than a frail, young girl. It was the look in her eyes that betrayed that illusion. Hatred burned as she glared at Buffy. Unflinching, impassive, Buffy met her gaze steadily.
"You know this will not kill me," Hitanko spat. It was a challenge.
"No, it won't," agreed Buffy. "Bet it hurts, though."
With no warning, Buffy twisted her sword savagely and yanked it free, forcing a cry from Hitanko as she nearly doubled over in pain. In one smooth motion, the Slayer spun around, the blade extended. Her aim was true, and like slicing through butter, she decapitated the vampire.
Hitanko's eyes continued to bore into Buffy, even as her head crumbled to dust, her body quickly following. The vampire's remains settled on the wooden floor as Buffy watched, moving to a nearby window to draw warmth from the sunlight that bathed and welcomed her.
"Truth or dare?" asked Buffy, unwrapping a Dubble Bubble gum ball and popping it into her mouth.
"Truth," replied Xander with conviction.
The trio were strolling down the deserted street, caught somewhere between nightly patrol and simply hanging out – though the assorted in-hand beverages tended more toward the latter.
"Uhmm ..." pondered the Slayer, chewing contentedly as she gazed up at the night sky. "Okay, what was the scariest moment of your entire life?"
Willow jumped in quickly before Xander even had a chance to respond. "I'm gonna guess and say it has something to with Uncle Rory and some bizarre manner of stuffed beast."
"True Tales of Terror and Taxidermy?" suggested Buffy.
Xander's feet ground to a halt. "Girls, please," he scoffed. "After all the stuff we've faced? I have seen the worst this world has to offer, and more than my fair share of badness from other dimensions. I've had the gateway – the very mouth of hell open beneath me, just waiting to dine on a succulent meal of oh so tasty Xander flesh." He continued his casual stride. "My Uncle Rory doing 'Who's on First' with a stuffed Persian is nothing compared to that."
"Even though he was in his underwear?" Willow inquired dubiously.
"I'm not saying he doesn't rank," admitted the carpenter. "I'm just sayin' – not the scariest."
Buffy imploded her pink bubble with a loud pop. "So what moment rockets to number one?"
Xander gave the question due consideration. "Probably those tense few moments when I thought I'd actually failed Algebra and I'd have to retake it in summer school. Summer school." He shuddered violently. "Those two words have no business being linked in our vocabulary. It's just unnatural."
Willow meditated for a moment. "Didn't you get a D?"
"D minus," corrected Xander with some pride. "And I earned every point. Now your turn – truth or dare?"
Willow sucked noisily on her straw. "We have so got to get a new game," she mumbled and then took note of the anticipatory stares being pointedly directed her way from Xander and Buffy. "Okay, okay," she caved. "Sheesh. Truth."
Xander openly leered. "What's the naughtiest thing you've ever done?"
Willow treated him to a flat look. "Ya might wanna put some restrictions on that one, since I sorta reset the bar on naughty not too long ago."
"Point taken," he readily agreed. "Okay, the naughtiest thing before your 18th birthday."
"Before my 18th birthday, hmmm ..." mused Willow, burrowing into the depths of her memory bank. Her eyes grew wide. "Oh! Yeah, okay. So- So it was early junior year. You guys were all really busy doing something or another and I was feelin' pretty lonely an' I didn't want to just sit at home and mope and stuff. So I went to the Bronze and I told them that it was my birthday even though it wasn't, and they gave me a free muffin."
There was a long pause.
"That was your naughtiest pre-18 event?" queried Xander doubtfully.
"Free muffin?" accused Buffy in an injured tone.
Xander shook his head. "You're an animal, Will."
"I didn't know the Bronze gave out free muffins," pouted Buffy. "Why didn't anyone ever tell me about the muffins? Maybe I wanted a free birthday muffin."
Xander patted her hand comfortingly. "Buff, you're lucky you didn't get a free birthday decapitation, let's not push our luck."
"If it helps, it wasn't very good," added Willow with a distasteful grimace. "It was sorta stale, a-and I think it had weird fuzz on the top." She probed the recollection. "Though maybe those were poppyseeds? It was really dark." The redhead dismissed the mystery as now unsolvable.
Buffy continued to pout all the same.
Reaching around the Slayer to poke Willow's arm, Xander attempted to move things along. "You're up," he told her.
"Right." She turned to Buffy with the inevitable question. "Truth or dare?"
Buffy didn't hesitate for so much as a nanosecond. "Dare," she announced immediately.
The only answer was a collective audible groan.
"What?" demanded Buffy peevishly. Her nose wrinkled as the sweetness of her gum began to seriously deteriorate, and she spat it into a nearby trashcan with perfect aim.
"You always pick dare," Willow complained.
"I sort of have that prerogative," the blonde informed them. "It's not 'Truth or Truth'. 'Dare' is a valid option here."
"Yeah, I know, but—"
"But it's startin' to get repetitive," Xander interrupted with exasperation. "Plus, I mean, Slayer powers. It's an immediate unfair advantage."
"You guys are my best friends," protested Buffy. "You already know everything about me."
"Humor us," urged the carpenter.
Buffy's reply teetered on the delicate precipice between brusque and whiny. "Oh fine. Truth."
"Yay!" exclaimed Willow, unable to completely suppress a hop of joy. As they came to a halt on the street, a hushed silence fell over the group. Willow's entire being funneled without reservation into mining this rare moment of 'Truth or Dare' gold for every precious nugget.
After a long moment – during which Buffy squirmed uncomfortably – Willow spoke. "Alright, who was—" She broke off abruptly as a brand new question occurred to her. "No. Off the top of your head, what's the first happy moment you can think of. Just off the top of your head."
Buffy's brow furrowed in deep thought. "Happy moment ..." she repeated in consideration.
She glanced to her right, where Xander was waiting expectantly. Looking to her left, she noted an equally attentive Willow. With a broad smile, she extended her arms, throwing one around Xander's neck and the other around Willow's shoulders.
"Nice night, yummy beverage, best friends," she declared. "This doesn't suck."
Willow and Xander beamed in return as the three best friends resumed their walk down the street.
Xander's voice floated upward on the brisk breeze. "The best you could think up was 'doesn't suck'?"
"Well maybe next time you guys'll won't push for truth."
"And miss out on the warm fuzzies?" Willow asked in completely disbelief. "We wouldn't dare."