At Tara's insistence, Dawn continued to lie down. Though still visibly shaken, she was making a swift recovery from the ordeal. Tenderly employing a damp washcloth, the blonde witch cleaned away the dried blood, carefully checked the open wounds and comforted the teenager with soothing words. Willow had taken it upon herself to rifle through the personal belongings left atop the rickety desk when had Dante made good his escape.
Reentering the room through the now thoroughly smashed door, the two Slayers were locked in a discussion.
"...run or used magic or somethin'," Faith was commenting.
Tara glanced in their direction. "Any luck?"
"Lots. All of it bad," Buffy told her ruefully.
Faith's attention turned to Dawn and she took a step toward the bed. "How you doin', Pint Sized?"
But before the completed question had been given voice, Buffy moved in front of Faith and hurried to her sister's side. Faith slowed to a halt and pressed her lips together tightly. Her expression was not so much one of ire as bitter resignation.
"Are you okay?" Buffy inquired anxiously of Dawn before her eyes flew to Tara. "Is she okay?"
Tara nodded and allowed herself a smile at Buffy's near-panic, having now arrived in the absence of all possibility of beating up the bad guy. "She's fine. The cuts are more superficial than anything. Nothing even deep enough for stitches."
"Superficial?" squeaked an incensed Dawn.
She thrust out her arm. The lengthy jagged gash traveling from the wrist to her inner elbow was prominent, red and angry-looking against the delicate skin.
"Do you have any idea what this is going to do to me?"
"Remind you not to go outside alone when we're hunting a serial killer maybe?" chastised Tara gently.
Dawn appeared not to have heard. "Ruin me!" she declared vehemently. "I've lived through one 'Dawn cuts herself' debacle. And the kids around me are older now! That means they know more words! My life is over." She slumped dejectedly against the mattress.
"No, and you know what?" Buffy snapped. "You're lucky it's not." This time, fear and panic were washed away with her relief, and she eased seamlessly into righteous indignation. "What were you thinking? Were you thinking?"
Dawn blinked. "Well I—"
"You scared the hell out of me!" Buffy informed her sister sharply. "I told you to stay put in Slayer Central!"
"You didn't actually say that ..." Dawn protested weakly.
"Well I meant it!" came the curt response.
Leaving the Summers girls to squabble, Faith approached Willow with some caution.
"Need any help?"
Willow looked up abruptly, having been unaware that Faith was drawing near. She gazed at the Slayer for a moment, her expression revealing no sign of what she might be thinking. Then she simply nodded.
Standing next to the redhead, Faith began to sift through the scattered papers and small piles of trash that Willow had thus far unearthed. A tiny smirk crossed her face.
"What exactly am I helpin' you do?"
Willow smiled wryly. "I'm looking for ... well, anything really." She shrugged. "Something that'll maybe point us to The Tattooed Man. Tell us who he is, how we can find him, anything. So far, all I can tell is he probably likes Whoppers."
Wrinkling her nose, she held up a discarded Burger King bag between her thumb and forefinger, before tossing it to the floor with an expression of disgust. The pair continued with their task in silence for a few moments, Willow casting a nervous glance over her shoulder as Buffy's third degree of Dawn persisted.
"What have I told you about nearly getting killed?"
The redhead turned back to Faith. "You moved pretty quick on that other guy." She gestured toward the pile of ash. "I was all ready to fling some mojo, Flo Jo. But – no need!"
"Yeah, well ..." replied Faith dismissively. "Torture brings out the bad side in everyone, I guess."
"I guess," echoed Willow thoughtfully.
A hush fell as they resumed their search.
"...grounded for the next three thousand years!" Buffy announced with finality.
"Well if you would've just let me help—!" objected Dawn, her temper obviously beginning to bubble.
Tara leaned forward and laid a hand on Buffy's shoulder, assuming a neutral position somewhere between the sisters.
"Okay," she recommended, with a calm but nevertheless firm tone, "so I'm thinking we should probably get Dawn home and cleaned up right about now ..."
Buffy inhaled deeply. "Yeah. Yes. Tara, would you...?"
"Of course. " Tara began to get to her feet, however Dawn hadn't yet flipped off her attack mode.
"Because when our friends are in trouble," stated the teenager pointedly, her voice climbing a decibel or two, "we help them instead of 'staying put', and you were like fighting the Council and the government and giant freaking snakes when you were my age." She waved her hand at Buffy's outfit. "And that is totally my shirt and—"
"Dawn," came the matriarchal reprimand. Dawn's mouth snapped shut with an audible click as her eyes flashed in Tara's direction.
"Home," was the clipped instruction.
The teenager's jaw began to work again in protestation, but the unspoken dissent was promptly stifled by Tara's arched eyebrow. Jutting out her chin, Dawn's expression grew sulky, but she offered no further argument.
"Be careful," cautioned Buffy. "I figure he's gone somewhere to lie low for tonight, but ..."
Tara tucked her hand into Dawn's elbow and acknowledged the advice. "We will be."
The Slayer watched them as they moved toward the door before turning to check on the progress Faith and Willow were making.
Spinning around, Buffy looked into the face of her sister.
Dawn's smile was muted but grateful. "Thanks."
"I love you." Buffy simply replied. "Stop getting kidnapped."
The two locked eyes for a few seconds longer before Tara steered Dawn from the room while Buffy joined the others. Their heads were close together as the pair closely examined something Willow was holding.
Buffy peered over Faith's shoulder. "What've you got for me, Will?"
The redhead almost sparkled. "How about the break we were looking for?"
She held aloft the item she'd found. It was a dog-eared snapshot picturing a young woman beaming proudly for the camera. Though not beautiful in the supermodel sense of the word, she was certainly extremely attractive, blessed with the type of classic bone structure which persisted even with advancing years. In her arms, she carefully cradled a bundle swathed in a pale pink blanket. The adorable screwed-up face that peeked out from the folds seemed to be no more than a few days old.
Bright sunshine cast shadows on the ground, but a small area of the building behind the mother and infant could be seen. It was somewhat blurred, not being the focus of the photograph, but a sign just to the left of the blissfully happy woman identified it as St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa Bay.
Morning sunlight sparkled on the surface of a man-made lake. A flock of ducks, squat tails wagging back and forth, skillfully navigated the surface and then dipped glossy heads to gobble the pieces of bread that Dante tossed into the water from a nearby bench. A stiff breeze ruffled the overhead leaves as it meandered through the trees. Capturing tiny crumbs in its wake, the wind swept them along the path, where hungry sparrows eagerly pounced upon them. In the distance, a few dedicated joggers were beginning their day with a brisk trot along the nature trail, but it brought them nowhere near Dante's chosen location and otherwise, the park was peaceful – save for the occasional noisy quack of a protesting duck who had been cheated out of its breakfast.
Approaching from behind, Buffy, Faith and a company of Juniors advanced toward Dante. At Faith's signal, the young girls fanned out. They gave the man sitting on the bench a wide berth, but diligently covered all escape routes, essentially acting as a rear guard while Buffy and Faith continued forward. The movement of the Senior Slayers was somewhat casual but nonetheless cautious. Initially, Dante gave no outward indication that he was aware of their presence, but he clearly knew they were there all the same. His greeting, when finally delivered, was cordial.
Buffy's response was curt and somewhat accusatory. "Dante. Mark James Dante, in fact."
An expression of surprise mingled with amusement crossed his face.
"That's a name I haven't heard in a long time." He glanced over his shoulder and assessed the two Slayers with an appraising eye. "You're not ordinary little girls, are you?"
Faith shrugged. "Whatever 'ordinary's supposed t'mean."
Dante chuckled. "Point taken." He faced front once more and shredded another slice of bread, throwing the pieces into the water. A brace of ducks that had been hovering hopefully on the gravel path quickly turned and waddled back to the lake in hot pursuit. Buffy and Faith parted company, each circling to either side of the bench. Dante noted the subtle action with a small smile.
"How did you find me?"
Buffy thrust the photograph in front of Dante's nose. His features became darkly twisted and, for a moment, he allowed the savage and feral killer that lurked within to emerge. But it was only a fleeting glimpse of the internal monster and composure was regained almost immediately.
He reached for the snapshot. "That's mine," he told Buffy quietly, his tone flat and emotionless.
Buffy jerked it beyond his grasping fingers and shook her head. "That's evidence."
Dante refused to fight for possession. Instead, he tossed yet another handful of bread at the ducks.
"She loved ducks," he mused, as much to himself as to the Slayers. "Well, I thought she did, anyway. She couldn't actually talk yet to tell me so. But when she heard them quack and saw them waddling around she'd just smile and smile ... I'd bring her to watch them every day at the end."
Buffy's reply was not unkind and even verged on sympathy. "Yeah, we know. We contacted your mother-in-law. She told us about ... about everything. She said that after your daughter died, you practically lived in the park for a week."
Dante nodded his agreement. "The ducks were good company." A frown creased his forehead. "What's really funny is that I can't even remember her name now."
"Your daughter?" queried Faith.
Dante vigorously shook his head. "Oh no, I remember her. Abigail. It means 'a father's joy', I don't know if you knew that." His eyes traveled skyward. "I remember everything about her. The first time she smiled at me. That was just a few hours after she was born." He smiled fondly at the memory. "The way she'd ..." He paused to pantomime the action. "... she'd grab my finger in her tiny little fist. Her laugh. It was like she could turn sunlight into sound. I was there for her first breath ... and her last." He considered the statement briefly. "I always thought that was fitting."
With a shake of his head, he thrust those memories aside and waved dismissive hand. "It's the other one I can't remember."
"Your wife. Cynthia," reminded Buffy.
Her words seemed to carry little significance. "If you say so."
Dante refocused on the ducks and fell into silence. Buffy and Faith exchanged a quizzical glance and then, the blonde pushed on.
"The photograph has a date on the back. With that and the hospital, we were able to do some research," she informed him. "It took a while, but we found the records for Abigail. Birth and death."
The man on the bench remained motionless and Faith took it upon herself to further the story.
"Said she died of some sorta disorder. Her body didn't recognize her insides – her heart, lungs, stuff like that – so it turned on itself."
A heart achingly sad expression invaded Dante's face as he nodded miserably. "It took weeks. Months. Forever. It still wasn't enough time."
"About three weeks later they found Cynthia," continued Buffy. "She'd been mutilated. Ripped apart. But the police reports noted that the amount of blood at the scene wasn't consistent with her injuries. I thought at first it was maybe ... something else. But it was you, wasn't it?"
Dante nodded again. This time, the gesture was more forceful with no trace of regret.
"The doctors said it was something in our blood," he explained. "When we created Abby and our genes merged ..." He shook his head – the hows were no longer important. "She was fine at first. Strong. Then she got sick and none of the doctors could explain it. But I knew. She was a witch."
"Abigail?" asked Buffy.
"The Bitch," Dante spat, his tone harsh. "She tricked me. Tricked me into loving her. Tricked me into marrying her. And then her magick killed my little girl."
Faith was obviously puzzled. "But the doctors—"
"What do they know?" scoffed Dante, clenching his hands until the knuckles showed white. "They don't know anything."
Buffy was still trying to piece it all together. "Cynthia's blood...?"
With a smile in the blonde's direction, Dante's fingers tugged at the collar of his button-up shirt. He parted the fabric to reveal the ornate design tattooed upon his upper chest.
"I took her power," he muttered with satisfaction. "I'll take all their power."
A perplexed and increasingly irritated Faith struggled to comprehend. "That doesn't make sense," she disputed. "If it killed someone you loved, why would you even want it?"
Dante shot her a look of open derision. "She took from me, I took from her. That's just the way it is. Anybody who doesn't agree ... well, then I guess they never lost anything important, wouldn't you say?"
Eyes narrowing, Faith only frowned at the response.
"And everybody else?" charged Buffy sharply. "This isn't new – Cynthia died eleven years ago."
"So did Abby!" Dante growled viciously. "My baby ... Why should she die? Why should she die and not us?"
A look of realization flashed in Faith's expression. "You were tryin' to kill yourself." She returned his penetrating stare, nodding to herself confidently. "Your blood an' your wife's blood ... It killed your kid an' so you figured, 'Hey, if I mix 'em, it'll kill me too.' You were tryin' to die like her."
Dante considered the proposition. Then, almost reluctantly, he shrugged and vaguely waved his hand. "I don't remember," he sighed. "I suppose ..." There was a moment of hesitancy. "All I know is they all have to die. The work won't stop until then."
Shading her eyes, Buffy peered into the distance. Standing close to a small group of watchful Juniors, Willow held her cell phone to her ear. Catching Buffy's inquiring glance, the redhead gave the thumbs-up. Buffy's attention returned to Dante.
"Actually, I think it'll be stopping for the next, oh, thirty consecutive life sentences," she informed him with certainty.
"Will it now?" Dante answered with a knowing smirk.
"Cops're comin'," Faith added crisply. "An' you may not know us, but trust me – you're surrounded and ain't no way you're gettin' outta this park."
Buffy crossed her arms and stared at Dante, who remained surprisingly calm. "We've got you, eleven years of unsolved murders, an apartment full of evidence, a surviving witness in the form of my sister, and some fairly inexhaustible resources to tie it all together in a nice, neat 'throwing the book at you' bow."
Dante's mouth began to twitch. Slowly, a smile spread across his face. Then, he threw back his head and began to roar with laughter. The genuine hilarity of the sound bore no hint of insanity, no maniacal connotations. It echoed with the pure and simple merriment of one who had just heard something incredibly funny.
As the laughter died away, he wiped his eyes and grinned at Buffy, bearing his teeth. "You think that will end it? It began with me, little girls, but by no means does it end with me. Eleven years, you said? Do you know where I've been in that time? What I've seen?"
We're all looking for something to hold onto.
A man loitered on a street corner, watching a young girl not yet in her teens. Standing before the bedroom window, she wiggled her chubby fingers and then chuckled with sheer delight as two of her Barbie dolls twirled in a magical mid-air waltz.
Something we can believe in – a person, an idea ... Anything will do. Just some chance to make a difference and leave a mark on the world. So a year, ten years, a hundred years from now, somebody somewhere will remember we were ever here at all.
A loathsome grin appeared on the lips of her spectator, distorting the already bizarre tattoos that adorned his face.
A young man, in his late 20s or perhaps early 30s, was chatting intimately to an attractive woman at the bar. The intent was obvious: he was working on a likely pick-up and she was plainly interested.
That's why we even bother to socialize, isn't it? The vain hope that we'll leave an impression and finally matter. But see, here's the secret, girls: it doesn't matter who you are, it's what you do.
She leaned forward eagerly to catch his every word as her fingers lightly traced the fascinating tattoos gracing his forearm.
You as a person, you're nothing. Just a flimsy sack of meat and fluids. Who you are starts to die from the moment you live.
Yet another man, equally as decorated, stood over the sprawled corpse of a woman not long dead.
But what you do, what you can pass on to the next person, and they to the next ... it never dies.
With an approving smile, the man nodded at a younger male who crouched by the side of the lifeless figure. This youth sported a hood, black and with a single eyehole. Streaks of fresh blood glistened wetly upon his chest and hands, but he bore no tattoos – not yet.
That part of you is immortal. It can't be buried, it can't decay.
Dante continued to stare at the ducks that had now resumed their leisurely and apparently aimless journey across the placid waters of the lake. "The Bitch stole away my only girl ... but that's okay." He nodded with conviction. "Through the work, she still lives. We'll both live together. Forever."
He took the last slice of bread from the plastic wrapper and shredded it with expert fingers before tossing the crumbs into the water. Spying the unexpected extra treat, several ducks made a beeline for the fast-sinking bounty as the shrill sound of sirens permeated the air.
The vigilant Juniors began to gather nonchalantly in tiny groups, conveying the impression of curious onlookers rather than appointed guards. The substantial army of policemen waved them out of harm's way, sprinting with firearms drawn toward the man seated calmly upon the wooden bench, but he made no effort to escape or make a play for freedom. As two officers seized his upper arms, Dante's wrists were grabbed from the rear and a pair of handcuffs swiftly secured his arrest. He stared impassively at the row of gun barrels as yet another member of the constabulary began to read his Miranda rights.
Buffy and Faith watched in silence as Dante was hauled away. He glanced behind only once, but it was not upon the Slayers that his eyes lingered. His gaze was concentrated solely on the ducks and he seemed to snap a mental picture as a smile of contentment invaded his lips.
Resting upon her elbow, Faith lounged on the front steps of Slayer Central and gazed upward at the stars. A cigarette was held loosely between her fingers and she dragged the smoke deep into her lungs before exhaling with a gratified sigh. Willow emerged from the building behind and watched for a moment. The burning tip was a brightly glowing beacon in the darkness.
"Hey," the redhead called as she made her way down the stone steps.
"Hey," returned Faith, turning to look at Willow.
An awkward silence settled, during which Faith quietly smoked and Willow absently wrung her fingers.
"So it looks like we won't be seeing much of Mr. Dante any time soon," Willow stated pleasantly. "He's wanted in like twenty states, so the FBI'll have a field day. Giles made a few phone calls too; we won't be too tied up in it. All the credit's going to a promising young agent, brimming over with ambition and possessing dubious moral boundaries." She waved her hand and grinned. "The media loves that sort of thing, they'll eat it up."
"Cool," acknowledged Faith. "Wasn't lookin' forward to the next few months'a Katie Couric an' Star Jones all in my face."
There was another long pause. Neither woman seemed particularly comfortable. Again, it was Willow who shattered the uneasy hush.
"Thanks, by the way. For Tara. Playing bodyguard, I mean. Even if there wasn't much call for guarding of that particular body."
Faith shrugged. "No big."
The conversation continued to wallow in its death throes as Willow fidgeted, rocking back and forth on her heels. For her part, Faith seriously contemplated the length of ash threatening to fall from the end of her cigarette.
"Okay," Willow finally announced, taking a step back toward the building. "So, bye then."
The redhead's departure went unhampered by Faith. Willow took no more than three paces however, before she heaved a reluctant sigh that smacked of internal chastising. Firmly squaring her shoulders, she turned around.
Faith's forehead became furrowed in outright confusion as she regarded Willow with a quizzically arched eyebrow.
"How you're feeling," Willow attempted to clarify. "The being an outsider, not knowing where you stand with everybody ... I get that." She nodded to add apparently required emphasis. "I so get that."
Faith considered this for a second. "Guess you do, yeah." She exhaled sharply with something like a laugh. "Thing is, they all forgave you."
After a moment's hesitation, Willow moved to join Faith on the top step. Faith looked somewhat surprised at the gesture, but grabbed her cigarette pack to clear the space next to her and Willow claimed it. She didn't speak at first, but the silence was thoughtful this time, rather than uncomfortable.
"It took a little while," Willow confided, "but ... yeah, they did. Everything changed though. The things I did ... they're out there, you know?" She sighed a little. "Not that anyone ever talks about it, but still. They all know what I'm capable of. They saw the worst in me, and even if they don't say it or even really know it, it's still part of it. The irrefutable Me-ness of Me."
"Can't ever escape the past, huh?"
"Not without some really tricky magicks, which I don't recommend," smirked Willow.
Faith took a long pull on the Marlboro, considering the situation. "You'd think I'd know that by now." She shook her head at her own naivety. "Things you see, things you do ... None of goes away."
The Slayer shot Willow a sideways glance. "What's the point then?"
The redhead dug deep for a satisfying response. "I guess ... I guess to try and not make that all of you. You know, to leave behind something better."
Faith flicked her cigarette butt into the bushes. The glow persisted for a few moments and then abruptly expired like a blown light bulb. "That work for you?"
Willow smiled. "Sometimes. Think it'll work for you?"
In the training room, a group of ten or so Juniors waited impatiently for their instructor to put in an appearance. Among their number were a lofty blonde, a girl with incredibly blue eyes and another wearing sweatpants of a nauseating lemon yellow. As the Senior Slayer entered the area, the level of excitement heightened instantly and expressions visibly brightened with anticipation. Faith regarded every girl in turn. As she glanced in their direction, each straightened her back and stood taller.
With a clip of her chin Faith moved to the side of the room. Selecting two stout quarterstaffs, she promptly tossed one to the nearest Junior, who caught it squarely and confidently in the palm of her hand. The girl threw Faith a huge grin and assumed a guarded posture as Faith immediately launched into a series of skillful maneuvers. The Junior's eyes widened with appreciation. The Senior Slayer then encouraged her young charge to imitate the actions. The girl was mobile in less than a heartbeat, exhibiting an abundance of enthusiasm and admirable ability.
Nodding in satisfaction, Faith balanced the staff in her hands and stepped forward. The Junior was ready and the two began to spar lightly while the rest of the group looked on, watching and learning.