A few more gargoyle demons had joined their brethren, and there were now six of the towering monsters, all moving slowly to herd the Sunnydale High graduates toward the front of the stage. The room reeked of fear and was in utter chaos with horror, panic and anger bubbling together. Occasionally rising above it all was the bitter complaining of someone waxing at length about their utter loathing for California.
The Scoobies hadn't yet fled their table, and were quite calm, comparatively speaking.
Oz raised a dubious eyebrow at the stony monsters. "I'm pretty sure these guys weren't in our class."
"We have to do something!" Cordelia insisted as the crowds were shoved closer and closer together.
Tara regarded the close-knit throngs with concern. "Someone could get hurt, all these people ..."
"There's gonna be considerably less people if we don't do somethin'," Xander hurriedly noted. "These guys look big and hungry, and I doubt the Vienna sausages are gonna cut it."
Angel said nothing. He turned to the stage and almost instantly caught Buffy's eye. They nodded to one another – no words exchanged, but a message being communicated nevertheless.
"Tara, you're a witch right?" confirmed the vampire, warily keeping watch on the approaching demons. "Can you cast some sort of protection spell over these people?"
"Yes," she replied without hesitation, "but I'll need them to stay together. I can't cover them all if they're spread out like this."
It was all Angel needed to know. "Cordelia, you help Tara. The rest of us—"
"Full frontal assault on Hulky the Rock Creature?" guessed Xander. "Sounds fun."
"Consider it a critique on neo-gothic architecture," Oz suggested.
"Actually, I was gonna consider it me running into the side of a mountain with my head."
Oz shrugged. "Whatever works."
A plan in place, Angel glanced to Buffy again. They both tensed, preparing. Then Buffy nodded and Angel gave the command.
The Scoobies exploded into action. In one smooth motion, Xander was out of his seat and had scooped up the vacant folding chair next to him. He spun around like a discus thrower in the Olympics and let the metal projectile fly toward the head of one of the demons. His aim was true and it should have connected solidly, but the monster moved far faster than anything with that bulk had a right to move. Its gigantic stony fist shot up and snatched the chair easily, then crushed it between both palms like a soda can.
Xander blinked, impressed despite himself. "Suddenly, I'm thinking of a hundred uses for one of these things." He only barely had time to dive out of the way as the now crumpled chair was returned to him at Major League Pitcher speed. "Okay, a hundred and one," he amended as he scrambled back to his feet.
Close by, Oz was the picture of concentration, despite the frenzy of activity around him. He simply stood, brow furrowed, and when nothing seemed to be happening his usually stoic features were awash with surprise.
He looked almost as surprised as Tara. She had moved further into the room, toward the nearest huddled mass of people, and her arms were extended before her in a casting position.
Cordelia stood at Tara's shoulder, urging the frightened crowds together, despite seeing no results from the witchcraft. "Protective and invisible," she said to Tara. "I'm impressed."
Tara could only frown, her arms still raised. "Don't be. I'm not doing anything."
"I'm not casting. I can't." She turned worried eyes to Cordelia. "My powers are gone."
Angel had taken the direct route, choosing to engage in hand-to-hand with the rock demons. "I'm sure there's a pun in here somewhere," he quipped, cocking his am back and clenching his fist, "but mostly I'm just thinking—"
He let loose with the punch, putting behind it every ounce of his massive vampire strength. It landed in the direct center of the gargoyle's chest, resulting in a satisfying crunch. From Angel's hand.
"Ow!" he exclaimed, then paused, forgetting his pain momentarily. "Ow?" he repeated, as though the sound couldn't possibly have come from him.
He looked up, just in time to see a rocky fist hurtling straight toward him.
Meanwhile, on the stage, Buffy stalked toward Slone. Contrary to what would ordinarily be the norm, he didn't look at all intimidated. The cocky smirk he wore, in fact, quite seemed to deny the possibility of becoming intimidated any time soon. Buffy didn't let it throw her off her game, however.
"The monsters were a nice touch," she complimented, edging forward. "Gives it that extra oomph of Sunnydale realism."
Slone seemed genuinely pleased by her positive critique. "Thanks. I try."
"I think you forgot one thing, though," pointed out the Slayer, coming to a halt just a foot away.
In a blur of speed, Buffy had grabbed two fistfuls of Slone's shirt.
"I don't much like monsters."
With that, Buffy shifted her center of gravity, making as though to throw Slone to the ground. He wasn't a particularly large man, but regardless, he hardly moved. Puzzled, Buffy tried again with similar results.
Slone was terribly amused. "I know one thing I didn't forget ..." he began, then brought his knee up hard into Buffy's stomach, doubling her over. Taking full advantage of her prone position, he backhanded her, sending Buffy sprawling to the stage floor. "That you're the Slayer," he finished with a sneer.
"Okay, that's it, buddy!"
Willow had seen more than enough. She leapt out of the line, standing between Slone and her friend, her palm thrust toward her opponent. "Now you're gonna—"
Nothing happened. Willow frowned and pulled her hand back to regard it quizzically. She shook her wrist, as though something might've gotten loose and then tried again. Still nothing.
"Oh." She blinked. "That's new."
On the floor, Buffy groaned and began to try to get to her feet. Willow rushed to help, reaching down and supporting the Slayer's elbow.
"What's going on?" she whispered to Buffy. "Magick go poof, a-and not in a good magickal poofy way."
"No powers for you either, huh?" Buffy got to her feet with a disgruntled sigh. "Man, I really hate it when this happens."
There was a loud crash as Angel landed in a crumpled heap not far from the stage.
"Me too," he moaned.
Watching as Angel slowly hauled himself upright, Slone let out a hearty laugh of complete enjoyment. "This is going to be fantastic. Finally, after all this time, I'm going to—"
He whirled around to see Buffy getting ready to attack again and waggled his finger at her admonishingly. "Ah-ah, Miss Summers," he chastised. "I wouldn't do that. Not unless you want my boys here to rip apart each and every person in this room. I really don't want to do that, but if you force me ..."
It was with reluctance, but Buffy backed down and scanned the crowd. The people had been corralled in front of the stage – not packed like sardines, but forced into quarters that were likely closer than they would really have preferred with individuals they hadn't seen in five years. The gargoyle monsters had retreated again, content for the moment to simply stand nearby and ensure nobody even thought about trying to move. The Scoobies had all worked their way to the front of the stage, as close as they could get to Buffy, Willow, and Slone.
"Okay," the Slayer began curiously, "so you don't want us dead, what do you want?"
"I'm so glad you asked. But before we get to the exposition, back in line." Willow and Buffy began to move away when Slone instructed, "And not together. Miss Rosenberg, over here." He directed her to the end of the line closest to him, ignoring Willow's furious little glare. He pointed to the opposite end, farthest away. "Miss Summers, over there."
When both women had returned to their appointed places, Slone clapped his hands together and rubbed them briskly as he turned to the crowd. "First, a poll. A quick show of hands – who here remembers me?" He smiled at the assemblage. "Be honest now. Richard Slontowski."
He waited a moment. People looked to their neighbors with blank expressions, but met only shrugs or shaking heads.
"Anybody?" he asked, but still nobody responded. "Let's see, I had Parkinson for homeroom Senior year? Was in the Math club? Played French horn in the band?"
It didn't help. Nobody seemed to be able to place him.
Slone's face began to flush, and he stomped across the stage. "Four years. Four years I was with you people." He glared at the crowd contemptuously. "Eight hours a day, five days a week. Day after day, year after year ..." His rant was beginning to gain serious momentum, as was his pacing. "And not one of you remembers me? No one ever remembers me!"
"Hey," an uncertain voice called out, "were you, like, on the yearbook staff or something? Cuz I think I remember you on the yearbook—"
"I wasn't on yearbook!" he raged. The brave audience member tried to make himself look very, very small. Slone took a deep breath, held it for a moment and then let it out slowly. When he spoke again, he was much calmer. "I remember most of you, though. Especially you." Slowly, he turned toward the line of people behind him, a chilling smile on his lips. "The 'Class Favorites'. The best of the school, weren't you? Everyone knowing you, everyone voting for you ... You'll never be forgotten, none of you. Your name lives forever."
Xander was beginning to catch on. "So this is some crazy 'you ignored me thing'?" he guessed in a hushed tone to the other Scoobies. "He couldn't have just turned invisible like normal people?"
"Something tells me this guy's pretty much never been classified as 'normal people'," Oz responded skeptically.
"You all take it for granted," Slone continued, pacing slowly before the Favorites and glaring at them each in turn. "I can see it. The popularity, the fame ..."
"Fame?" Willow couldn't help but question. "We had fame?"
Since brute forced was out for the moment, Buffy seemed prepared to try reason. "Richa—"
"Slone!" he shouted, but quickly regained control of himself. "It's a nickname. I thought it up myself. It's cooler, don't you think? More memorable?" He seemed to genuinely want her opinion.
"Sure, whatever. Look, the class favorites thing? Okay, so you didn't win. I'm sorry." Buffy spread out her arm to encompass the entire room. "We're all sorry we never got to know you. But it was five years ago! Nobody. Cares. I mean, how petty do you have to be to still be hung up on a dumb contest?"
Unnoticed, Xander and Cordelia huffed.
"There's plenty of stuff just waiting to suck around the corner," Buffy encouraged, "so why waste time with ancient history? Now just call off the walking gravel piles, and let's get back to the lameness that is this reunion."
A smile began to spread across Slone's face. "No. No, I don't think so. I think we're going to have another election."
Buffy couldn't help it, her eyes rolled of their own volition. "Oh for— Look, if you want to be Class Protector, fine! You're Class Protector."
On the dance floor, Tara's gaze swept across the gargoyle monsters that surrounded them, ready to rend anyone and everyone limb from bloody limb at the slightest command. "'Class Protector'?" she repeated dubiously.
"Maybe we can make up a new category for him," Oz theorized. "I'm thinking 'Most Ironic'."
Slone shook his head earnestly. "Oh no. You can't just give it to me," he replied in complete seriousness. "It wouldn't be real that way."
"Definitely 'Most Ironic'," agreed Xander with a firm nod.
"Or 'Most in Need of a Tiny Room with No Windows'," Cordelia hissed to the others. "Is he serious?"
Angel's expression was grim. "Deadly."
"It has to be a vote," Slone decided, and raised his voice so that everybody could hear. "The class is all going to vote. For whoever you want, of course – me, or the old winner. No pressure," he assured. "I want it to be honest."
Buffy narrowed her eyes and glared at the back of Slone's head. "Why do I not believe you?" she muttered to herself.
"And after the new elections, we can just get back to having fun! Well, except the old favorites, of course," he added as an afterthought. "We can't have two running around after I win, can we?"
Reaching into his jacket pocket, Slone pulled out a gun to a smattering of screams from the crowd. With an ominous click, he pulled back the hammer and pointed the gun at the temple of the Favorite closest to him – Willow.
"Oh that's right," Buffy growled, still talking to herself. "Because you're freaking insane."
Some time later, Slone had moved to the front of the stage, his arm wrapped tightly around Willow's waist, pinning her closer. The gun barrel rested against the side of her head, and she didn't look particularly happy about it. Person after person would, as Slone glared at them, call out "Richard Slontowski". Slone had started from the back and worked his way forward, and he was almost out of voters.
Still in her place at the far end of the line, Buffy was a bundle of anxious, pissed-off energy. She looked around, trying to find something – anything – to help, when she spied Harmony standing off to the side, watching the events unfold with interest.
"Harmony!" Buffy hissed, attracting the vampire's attention.
Afraid she'd miss some critical moment, Harmony refused to take her eyes from Slone, but she joined Buffy in the line. "Wow, it looks like Willow's gonna lose by a landslide," she observed. "Do you think he'll really shoot her?"
"I really think I don't want to find out," Buffy countered. "Your vamp powers, do you still have them?"
Harmony huffed mightily. "No, and it's extremely annoying. I mean look at this place – all that yummy fear?" Her aggravation was so great, she actually glanced away from the action, just to fully convey it. "Do you have any idea how much better blood tastes when there's really good fear in it?"
"First – no. Second – you're disgusting. Third – how did he do all this?"
"I think he called around and found a convention hall that was cheap," Harmony replied, happy to share information, "and then he just had to get the old class records for names and—"
The Slayer's fairly limited patience had completely evaporated under the strain of the evening. "Taking away our powers!" she clarified through gritted teeth. The pull to carry out her sacred duty on the nearest available vampire was strong, and would likely have been fulfilled within seconds if moving wouldn't have come with the added bonus gift of getting Willow's head blown off.
"Oh!" Harmony clearly had no idea how close she was to becoming just another bit of after-party detritus. "I don't know. If he had a big plan, he didn't tell me about it. Which is sort of insulting, you know? I mean, I'm evil – he's evil. Like I wouldn't have helped or something?"
On the dance floor, the Scoobies had put their heads together – metaphorically – and were speaking in intense but hushed voices.
"We have to do something!" Tara urged.
Oz nodded his wholehearted support to Tara. "I emphatically agree."
"I know," acknowledged Angel. "We just have to find a way to get up on stage without anybody getting shot."
Peering over her shoulder at the gargoyles, Cordelia added, "Or ripped into tiny pieces by Stonehenge."
Xander spared a moment to glare balefully at the stage, where Slone and his hostage were clearly visible. "You know, I wish I did remember this guy, just so I could savor any memories that might've involved him, me, and a well-placed dodgeball."
"Joke later!" snapped Tara, the gravity of the situation having completely drained her usual forbearance. "Right now we have to help—"
The Sunnydale High graduate next to Tara chose that moment to nudge her rather roughly. Surprised, Tara's head jerked up, but her mouth hadn't yet received the "shut up" command, thus she was still talking.
As soon as the name was spoken, an almost preternatural silence enveloped the room. On stage, Slone looked genuinely shocked. Tara seemed a little shocked herself at everyone's reaction, and she glanced around, baffled.
Slone couldn't believe it. "You voted for Willow Rosenberg?" he asked, completely incredulous.
"What?" asked Tara. Then, like being smashed in the forehead with a brick, understanding struck and her eyes widened. "Oh! Oh, well ... Just ... Willow's such a Big Brain and everything. I-I'm sure you're super smart too," she added hastily, not wanting to offend the crazy man with the sidearm, "but she's my girl, and—" Tara sighed, giving up. "You know? I never even went to Sunnydale High. So- So maybe my vote just shouldn't count?"
The suggestion seemed quite reasonable to Tara, and she smiled her most charming smile. Or what was supposed to be her most charming smile – the effect was somewhat muted and weak. She glanced around, only to see that everyone who wasn't a Scooby had given her a wide berth, creating a vacuum that was currently being filled by the new stream of nervous chatter from the onlookers.
Visibly drooping, Slone regarded Tara with a wounded expression. "No, no. That's okay. I did say you could vote for whoever you want."
Anxious murmuring became surprised, and the crowd nodded to one another with approval.
"Of course, I was lying."
Faster than anyone could have expected, the arm Slone had wrapped around Willow's waist instead lashed around her neck and jerked her to the side; she was still trapped, but not obstructing his line of sight. With murderous intent, Slone leveled the gun at Tara.
"NO!" Willow screamed, her hands scrabbling ineffectually at the arm around her throat.
Slone ignored the bloody gashes Willow was ripping into his arm. His aim was steady and there was no hesitation.
He pulled the trigger.
The firing of the gun was deafening, drowning out the sounds of the crowd's terror. Willow's struggles intensified, verging on blind desperation. Buffy was already in motion, running at Slone, prepared to do whatever it took to stop him, although she knew she was already far too late.
And Tara, after a tense moment, tentatively opened one of her eyes to see the bullet hovering in midair, just a fraction of an inch from her chest.
Lacking an expected corpse, the Sunnydale High graduates quickly transitioned from fear to bewilderment. It was the dominating emotion in the room – even Willow stopped just short of gnawing off Slone's arm as, from the shadows, emerged Jane the punch bowl girl.
"Hey," Jane greeted everyone casually.
She waved her hand nonchalantly, and the frozen bullet dropped to the floor with a metallic tink. It was easily audible, given that even breathing had become an activity requiring an intense mental focus that nobody seemed to possess at the moment.
Slone in particular was having difficulty in making sense of these new developments. "Jane?" he asked, dumbfounded. "But ... Why? I thought you ..."
"Bent on revenge, teamed up with you, gonna get 'em all, I know." She stepped past the Scoobies without a glance, coming to a halt before the confused man and staring up at him. "But see, here's the thing, Rich ..."
"Slone," he corrected automatically, if absently.
She didn't bother to acknowledge her error. "You're a loser. I like winners. And since I'll be lifting that dampening spell oh right about now—"
Jane snapped her fingers, and a flash of light enveloped the room.
"—I think it's pretty clear who the winners are gonna be."
Immediately, an unseen force propelled Slone backward as the sounds of Scoobies Versus The Gargoyles: Round Two filled the convention hall. Slone managed to stay on his feet, although just barely, and his gaze locked onto Willow.
The redhead's face was contorted in a vicious snarl of hatred, and her eyes were deep, soulless black. Energy crackled visibly all around, dancing on her skin like it was alive. Slone took another stumbling step away, then seemed to remember his weapon. He brought the gun around, holding it before him in a trembling grip. Before he could even think to use it however, Willow glared at the sidearm. It began to melt, turning into a sort of mercurial liquid in his hand and splattered to the stage floor, useless. Slone peered at his now-empty hand in shock, and before he had time to blink, Willow was there.
The witch seemed to tower over him despite being almost a foot shorter, and Slone nearly fainted in terror. Willow's voice seemed to echo unnaturally, her words being pulled from the very depths of the earth.
"I. Don't. Like. Guns."
Slone barely had time to process what Willow said before her fist lashed out and connected squarely with his jaw. He spun around a full 180 degrees and fell heavily to the floor, unconscious.
Willow continued to glare at the prone body, the darkness in her eyes giving way to their usual green, although her abhorrence for Slone never lessened. She wallowed in the satisfaction of knocking him out for a good long moment before looking at her fist.
"Ahhh-hh-hh..." she winced painfully, shaking her hand in the air.
Nearby, the decapitated head of a rock demon landed on the stage and promptly fell through the wooden platform. Eyebrows raised, Willow turned to the dance floor. "Need help?"
Evidence of a brief but furious battle was littered across the reception hall. Angel threw a final punch, jarring a few pebbles loose as the last gargoyle creature teetered and crashed in a heap of rubble. The reunion-goers had all gathered like sheep against the farthest wall – they weren't having a particularly good day. A gray, hairy creature took a parting snap at the ankle of a felled gargoyle before transforming back into a now quite naked Oz. Luckily Xander was approaching with a tablecloth, so Oz's modesty didn't have long to suffer.
At the center of it all, standing atop a mountain of cleaved gargoyle-parts, was Buffy. She looked vindicated as she smiled at Willow. "Nah, we're good," she assured, then began to mutter to herself. "Try to take away my title, you big jerk ... " Louder, she called out, "Hey Will, wanna kick him for me?" The muffled sound of a foot connecting with cheap polyester came from the direction of the stage. "Thanks!"
The Scoobies gathered together in a relatively clear patch of floor, taking in the disheveled state of the room.
"Do you think there's a clean-up committee?" Xander wondered aloud as he nudged a rocky forearm with his toe and watched it roll across the ground.
"You want to sign up?" asked Cordelia.
Xander shook his head. "Mostly I want to laugh and point."
Surprisingly at ease in his tablecloth toga, Oz glanced around at the carnage. "Did I miss any vital exposition while I was out?"
"We haven't gotten that far yet," Buffy replied, and she marched purposefully to Jane, who had been standing safely to one side and watching with amusement. The Slayer crossed her arms and favored Jane with her best no-nonsense stare. "Okay, what's the deal?"
"Weren't you listening to him?" Jane indicated the still blissfully unconscious Slone with something resembling contempt. "Really, do we have to go through all this again?"
Angel turned on the full power of his impressive scowl. "How about the abridged alternate version with you as the lead? Emphasis on 'abridged'."
Jane sighed deeply before answering, sounding put out by all the incessant questions. "Rich and I started talking. I agreed to help. I enchanted the punch, you drank it, no powers, the end."
Standing guard over the prone body of Slone, Tara had joined Willow on stage. The redhead was still giving her a thorough surface scan for any injury, heedless of Tara's assurances that she was fine.
"But why?" Tara questioned Jane, having kept a careful ear on the proceedings.
Willow stepped in front of Tara, keeping the blonde's hand clenched tightly in her own. Her eyebrows were furrowed together in deep thought. "Yeah, you didn't seem to care about the ..." Her voice trailed off as realization set in, and eyes began to widen.
"No," Jane agreed, "my interests are a little more ... specific."
"Amy." The single name was stated flatly, but managed to convey the depth of Willow's ire all the same.
"Finally," huffed 'Jane'.
Cordelia peered at the unassuming blonde girl. "Amy? Rat Girl Amy?"
Magicks began to swirl around 'Jane', and in a shower of bright sparkles, Amy appeared in her place. She stepped toward the stage, a confident smirk etched onto her features.
"I think we can safely drop the 'rat' motif," observed Oz dryly.
"Oh no, it still applies, trust me," Xander growled. If looks could kill, Amy would have been little more than a twitching corpse.
The animosity didn't seem to bother her. "I was beginning to agree with Rich on the whole 'Most Intelligent' thing," she told Willow. Her head cocked to one side, amused. "For someone so smart, you can be really dumb, you know that?"
Willow's eyes never left Amy; she barely took the fraction of a second necessary to blink. "What do you want?" she asked dangerously.
"Oh, nothing now. I already got it," Amy dismissed airily, then her tone dropped into a warning. "Don't try it, heroes." Behind the witch, Buffy and Angel froze in their slow approach. "Not unless you want encore for the rock concert. And I promise they'll be a little harder this time around. No pun intended."
"Got it?" repeated Willow, confused. "Got what?"
"Your debt to me, of course." Amy's smile was smug and infuriating. "I was thinking at first I'd just save you. Well, actually," she amended, "at first I thought I'd let him kill you, but lucky for all of us, I got a better idea." Her eyes flicked to Tara, who was doing her best to step around the overprotective Willow with only limited success. Head tilting to the side, Amy considered Tara with interest. "I was surprised to see you again, with the walking and talking and not being dead."
"Yeah, I get that a lot," Tara admitted.
"Cute. But you know it's not natural, right?" It was clear that Amy already knew the answer, and the question was completely rhetorical as far as she was concerned. "I mean, you shouldn't be here. Pretty much an affront to nature, you know that."
Tara looked as though she might say something to refute the charge, but she only frowned.
"Correct me if I'm wrong," Angel mused, "but didn't I say 'abridged' version?"
Amy didn't bother to turn to the vampire, content to simply wave off his pointed comment. "So there I am, watching the show when Rich gets the itch and pulls the trigger." She looked to Tara again, her expression conveying her humor. "I actually find the thought of you getting resurrected just to be shot all over again to be really pretty funny on a cosmic joke scale, but I'm thinking not everyone would agree."
A quick glance to Willow, face red and twisted with anger, confirmed Amy's suspicions and she smiled knowingly. "In that moment – the one where you knew it was too late and you couldn't do anything but watch her die all over again – you begged, didn't you? In your heart, you begged for someone to do something to stop it."
Amy paused, and any playfulness evaporated. Her eyes locked onto Willow, gravely serious. "You prayed ... and I answered. Before Lilith, I have fulfilled my task and done that which was supplicated. Until such time as the scales between us can again achieve balance, Willow Rosenberg, you are in my debt."
For several heartbeats, nobody said anything.
"So this was just a big set up to get a favor out of Willow?" Cordelia summed up in utter disbelief. "God, obsess much?"
Amy brushed the implication aside. "It used to be cheese. Now it's her. Well," she corrected, "power and her ..." Her amusement had returned full force, and she grinned at Willow. "But they're almost synonyms, aren't they?"
Willow could only shake her head, unsure of what to say. "Amy ..."
"In my debt, Will," she promised. To the rest of the room, Amy invited, "Enjoy the reunion! You probably shouldn't have any more punch, though."
Then there was a swirling rush of magicks around Amy, starting at her feet and quickly enveloping her. When they dissipated seconds later, Amy had vanished without a trace.
For a long while, it seemed nobody dared to speak. Until Harmony's voice piped through the speaker system.
"Anybody got a broom?"
At first glance, the casual onlooker might never notice that the in-progress reunion had, just a short while before, been overrun by bullets and giant stone monsters. Having grown up in Sunnydale, the attendees each possessed, for the most part, an uncanny ability to roll with the punches and ignore the more unpleasant and unexplained bumps in the road of life. Most had reclaimed possession of the now-clean dance floor, and were thoroughly enjoying the return of the DJ and his music.
Shirley and her husband sat off to the side of the room. He wasn't looking particularly well, having paled to the color of a bleached bed sheet and doing little but staring straight ahead. Next to him, Shirley patting his hand understandingly.
The rocky remains of the creatures had been shoved against a wall and arranged to be part of the décor, rather than simply consigning them to piles of unsightly rubble. Little crypts and tombstones completed the faux graveyard setting, and someone had even gone so far as to tack a banner on the wall nearby reading, "Sunnydale Cemetery #183 – it's just like home!" Tara and Oz were admiring the diorama.
"Artsy," Oz remarked.
Tara ran her hand appreciatively over one of the markers. "It's impressive what you can do with a bunch of smashed gargoyles."
"I always throw mine out."
The two of them lapsed into a silence that wasn't entirely comfortable. Oz seemed content to stare at the frozen features of a disembodied head perched atop a tomb-facsimile, while Tara's eyes refused to remain still and she looked absolutely everywhere but at the man next to her.
"I wanted to apologize," he finally stated. "For trying to eat you that time."
"Oh. Th-That's okay." Tara shifted her weight from one foot to the other and shook her head. "I didn't take it personally."
The corner of Oz's mouth twitched upward. "It sorta was."
"I know," Tara replied. "I was just being polite."
"Manners are good. Seriously though, I'm glad I didn't. For more than the obvious cannibal repercussions."
"I'm pretty glad you didn't too," she deadpanned.
Seeming buoyed by their conversation thus far, Oz continued. "It was a long time ago. I just wanted you to know, I don't feel like that anymore. And I was sort of hoping we were, you know ... cool. The eating thing aside," he acknowledged.
Tara's smile was genuine. "We're totally cool."
It was just the answer Oz was hoping for, and he looked as pleased as his naturally stoic demeanor would allow. "Cool."
The hush that now settled between them was far more relaxed.
"Though," Tara broached with a tiny bit of reluctance, "when you were, you know ... changed a little bit ago? All that snarling at me and stuff...?"
"Well the wolf still has his issues," Oz explained. "He's wacky like that."
"Those ... wacky wolves!" she laughed nervously. To herself she muttered, "I'm never getting a dog."
Buffy and Willow were dancing together nearby, enjoying the music as best friends so often tended to do. The bad guy had been defeated, nobody had died, and they were happy to let all the stresses of the evening be washed away by an energetic beat. So it was with some surprise that Willow happened to catch the eye of a man and a woman sharing the dance floor. The couple was staring openly at her and Buffy. They spoke no words, but their expression seemed to say everything.
Curiously, Willow's gaze swept across the room, only to land on a man watching them from one of the many tables. He too said nothing, apparently content to leer quietly.
Willow's curiosity was slowly losing ground to the encroaching forces of suspicion as she caught sight of another guy watching her and Buffy intently. He looked as though he were Fox Mulder and had just received incontrovertible proof that, yes, the truth is in fact out there, and he was watching it dance before him to Third Eye Blind. Feeling paranoia creep up her spine and build a summer home there, Willow leaned over so she could be properly heard.
Totally into the music, Buffy's hair was whipping back and forth wildly and it seemed as though her every fiber was attuned to dancing. Still, she was the Slayer, so multitasking was a talent she'd learned to cultivate. "Yeah?"
There was no easy way to put the question into words. "Have you ever...? I mean, you know, way back when, did you maybe hear...?"
Buffy cracked open an eye and grinned affectionately at Willow's false starts. "Completing a sentence would help me out so much right now," she teased.
Willow took a deep breath. "I think there may have been this- this teensy little rumor sort of all over the entire school ..."
Well out of earshot of Willow's nervous babble were Angel and Xander. They two men stood side-by-side, leaning against the wall and facing the makeshift graveyard. As they spoke to one another their eyes remained straight ahead, neither favoring the other with so much as a glance.
"So. Head of EvilCo, huh?"
"It's not really evil," Angel defended automatically. Then with a resigned sigh he corrected, "Okay, it is really evil. But we do a lot of good. Through the evil."
Xander didn't even try to repress his snort. "Can I just say, so not surprised?"
"I knew you'd judge," responded Angel defensively.
"Who's judging?" Xander asked with pseudo-innocence.
"WHAT?" Buffy bellowed, half a room away.
Both men completely ignored her.
Turning to address Xander directly, Angel insisted, "You are. You're standing there saying, 'Angel's bad'."
"I'm also saying 'Angel's a big sissy whiner'," Xander shot back. "That's not judging, that's concluding."
"Well I'm concluding that you're judgmental," the vampire huffed, facing straight ahead once more. "And directionless, and annoying."
"That's fair," shrugged Xander after a moment.
They both stewed petulantly.
"You've got cars, though?" Xander suddenly inquired with no trace of peevishness.
Despite not breathing, Angel puffed up with pride. "Whole garage full of them. Lot of classics in there. I actually have Elvis' pink Cadillac. The real thing," he assured, "not a replica like at Graceland."
"It's evil though," Xander stated definitively.
"Well the car's okay," noted Angel. "The garage – that's pretty evil, yeah."
That seemed to be the end of the conversation. Until Xander could resist no longer.
"Can I come see it?"
"Around noon tomorrow work for you?"
An exasperated Cordelia joined the two men. "I found Harmony. She said she's heading to New York. She enjoyed doing this so much, she wants to open a nightclub or something."
Narrowing his eye, Xander wondered, "And we never stake her why now?"
"I don't know," answered Cordelia, as though she'd never given the query much thought until now. "She just ... It's weird. It's like, she's my friend – although I never actually liked her all that much – and when I see her, that's what I remember. The friend part, not the not liking part," she clarified.
"What're we talking about?" Oz questioned, as he and Tara joined the trio.
"Not staking vampires when we probably really should," explained Xander.
Angel frowned. "Don't look at me when you say that."
"Harmony, specifically," Cordy elaborated.
Tara chewed her lip in thought. "If you're worried about her, maybe we can do the ensouling spell?"
"Honestly?" Cordelia shook her head dubiously. "I doubt we'd notice a difference."
Forming a complete set of present Scoobies, Willow and Buffy joined the gathering.
"I'm sure it wasn't—" the former was trying unsuccessfully to soothe.
"Did anybody see Scott Hope here?" demanded Buffy, her face like very scary thunder. "Because I suddenly have this burning desire to reunion his nose with my fist."
Willow clapped her hands together and looked at her friends anxiously. "Okay! Thinking we should leave now!"
"You guys about done here then?" Tara asked the others.
Buffy's gaze swept the room, taking in everything – the decorations, the old classmates, the ancient memories. "Yeah," she replied confidently. "Yeah, I really think we are."
In unspoken agreement, the group turned away from the remnants of the reunion and made their way toward the exit.
"We could get dinner," suggested Angel. "I know this little Italian place not far from here. Good food, good blood."
"All the endorsement any restaurant should need," Xander added.
"I'm in," Cordelia hastily agreed. "Maroon and yellow are colors that should be kept apart by necessity, and that includes on my food."
Willow looked to both her right and left, making sure to include everyone. "But we had fun, right? I mean, apart from the awkward conversations, the public humiliation and the near-death hijinks."
"Just like high school!" pumped Xander with amplified enthusiasm.
Typically, Oz had the perfect words to sum up the evening. "It was definitely an experience."
"It really was," Buffy concurred wholeheartedly. "And at the end of it all, you know what I learned?"
The Scoobies waited expectantly while Buffy looked to each of them in turn.
"High school blows."