Buffy flicked through the channels for the second time in five minutes and Xander sighed dramatically.
"Can we just address the elephant in the room?" he asked, turning so he could see Willow and Buffy's faces. Buffy looked confused, but Willow looked guilty.
"I wouldn't say it's an elephant-sized issue," she argued. "More like a miniature pony. I mean, we're still thinking, 'Hey, what's a miniature pony doing in the Rosenberg living room?' but it's not quite as big as, say, an elephant might be or a giraffe." Her voice travelled up the scale. "I mean, does anybody else wonder why we settled on elephants? The blue whale is actually the biggest animal still around. Why don't we address the blue whale in the room? I mean, if there were a metaphorical blue whale in this room. Which there isn't. We've all agreed it's a pony. A miniature one that is only sort of obtrusive and in need of addressing. Someone stop me."
"Inside your head must be a scary place," Buffy observed with a smile.
Xander nodded. "You definitely have too many thoughts," he added. He smiled at Willow and she returned a more tentative version. "So, what medium-to-mythic-sized animal issue are you talking about?" Xander asked.
"Which one were you talking about?" Willow rejoined.
"Only the one sitting on the coffee table making a mockery of us."
Willow glanced at the table to make sure he was being figurative. The only things there were Xander's big feet and a Highlights magazine from Willow's elementary school days. "Yeah, me too."
"And how would you put that issue into words?" Xander prodded.
"How would you?"
"Equality of the sexes."
"Men make more money that women for the same jobs."
Willow frowned, preparing herself for a gripping argument about women's rights.
"Guys," Buffy yelled. "Will one of you get the point?"
Xander looked sheepish. "Cordy hasn't said a word to me since the hospital."
"And I'm nervous our Slayer break is going to kill someone," Willow blurted out.
"Way to one-up me, Will," Xander joked, but Willow looked as apprehensive as ever she could. Xander knew her worry lines well and for a moment, he thought of kissing them away. But his imaginary soldier training had taught him the importance of discipline. Keep the custody of your thoughts, young Private. Sir, yes, sir. He turned his attention to Buffy who was trying to assuage Willow.
"But this break was your idea," she reminded her anxious friend.
Willow squirmed. "I know and it's nice. Not doing or thinking about demons and apocalypses. Only I can't stop thinking that I am keeping you from saving someone's life." Willow wrung her hands and hung her head.
Buffy patted her knee. "Will, chill with the wiggins. Faith is still around. Besides, the vamps have been pretty quiet since Spike got back in town."
"That's a whole heap of not comforting," Xander muttered darkly.
Buffy and Willow spared Xander a questioning glance and Xander continued. "What if Captain Peroxide is up to something ookie?"
"Don't question my verbage. And, speaking of ookie, Cordelia."
Buffy groaned. "She deserves to be ookie. You guys did the smoochies."
"And we both regret it!" Willow interrupted.
Xander searched his best friend's face for a moment, her large eyes, the fall of her hair around her face, all their forbidden love. "Do we?" he asked.
"Yes," Willow declared firmly. "My heart belongs to Oz. And if he forgives me, I intend to reserve these traitorous lips for him alone. Only this time they won't be so traitorous." Willow's face lit up as she had a thought. "You're out of my system now, Xander!"
"Why does that make me think of prunes and stool softener?"
Buffy and Willow laughed.
"Well, I'm happy for you guys," Buffy said. "You've figured out what you want and committed to a course."
"Well, so have you," Willow insisted.
"Oh, no. I only look like I've committed to a course. I am so not committed to anything, least of all any particular love interest I might have had and have no longer." Buffy tried to look convincing.
Xander put an arm around her shoulder. "Don't worry, Buff. We'll be back to dating in no time. You'll date a human and I'll date yet another woman who wants to kill me. What's my number now, counting Cordelia?"
"Three," Willow admitted.
Xander thought about it. "Huh, I would have said there'd been more. Guess near death experiences will do tha."
"Tell me about it," Buffy muttered.
"Fingers crossed that the next girl doesn't try to eat me. Or mate with me. Without my consent. Which I will give, if she doesn't have plans to snap my bones and suck out the marrow."
"No marrow suckage for Xander," Buffy announced and Willow giggled, "Oh darn, there go my plans.
The trio laughed, unaware that Spike sat on the porch of the Rosenberg house listening to their little problems. When you're dead, you won't have a care in the world, he thought maliciously and the thought of their imminent deaths brought a smile to his face and joy to his heart. The night was still young and his temple didn't throb so much from the blender fiasco. Half formed plans danced at the edge of consciousness, but he swatted them away. No plans. Just the call of the blood. He pulled a cigarette from his coat pocket and rustled around for his lighter. He inhaled slowly, his eyes closed, focused on the bitter tang of tobacco on his tongue. He released the smoke and tried to catch the haze in his mouth before it dissipated. "Talk to me, blood," he singsonged as he rested his head on the porch rail. He stared up at the night sky, the only sky he knew with any intimacy. The moon hung low, like fruit on an invisible bough, full and ripe. The moon. The moon. Wolf-boy sure did love the witch, didn't he? She had reeked of wolf that night in the factory—the scent a little confused by the smell of the Slayer's boy. What was the mutt's name? Oz. It had some edge, some mystery to it. Much better than Angel. Not so menacing as Spike. Oz. So the witch liked danger. Oh, he'd give her danger. His blood almost howled. He'd give the little witch more danger than she could take. He flicked his cigarette on the lawn. He did enjoy an inner monologue. He smiled, his fangs extended. He looked in the window at the happy Slayer and her Slayerettes. He sang low.
"Who's afraid of the big bad wolf, the big, bad wolf, the big, bad wolf?"
Giles polished his glasses once again, a sure sign of imminent doom. Willow clutched her hands in her lap, feeling half-moon dimples forming on her palms.
"It seems once again that your personal lives have crossed into the mystical world and now, innocent lives are endangered."
Xander's eyes narrowed in confusion. "Did Cordelia finally turn into a real life harpy? Do those exist?"
Giles's withering glare silenced Xander and tugged the smile from his lips. "This is not about that dreadful girl," he insisted impatiently; his tone was tense with aggravation. "And of course, harpies exist," he added.
"What's up, Giles?" Buffy asked, spooning yoghurt into her mouth. Giles eyed the messy treat and pointedly moved a stack of ancient texts away from his teenage ward.
He turned to Willow. "I'm afraid Oz did not show up last night." Giles knitted his brows with concern.
"Did you guys have a hot date?" Xander asked, wiggling his eyebrows.
Willow groaned. "Last night was the first day of the full moon."
"That is correct," Giles corroborated. "And I can only assume he was reluctant to come here because of Willow. Though it seems dreadfully irresponsible to put his feelings for you above the welfare of—well, everyone."
"Oh," Xander said. "Oh!" Realization turned to panic. "There weren't any attacks, were there?"
"Yeah, that's the last thing Oz needs right now." Buffy turned her face toward Giles expectantly.
"As far as I've heard, no." Everyone breathed a sigh of relief, which Giles quickly stifled with his next words. "But it is only lunchtime and you hardly expect someone to stumble across a dead body while it's still warm."
Xander blanched. "Way to reassure, Giles. You should be a grief counselor or something."
Giles ignored him.
Buffy pulled her backpack strap over her head. "So, what do you want me to do, Giles? Comb the woods for victims? Find Oz?"
"I presume he isn't in school today."
Buffy shrugged and they all turned to Willow.
"I didn't see him," she muttered into her lap. "He could be avoiding me though." She took a shuddering breath. "He told me he needed space. To think." She looked at Buffy. "Which could be good. He hasn't totally written me off."
"There you go, Wills," Buffy said with a sad smile. Willow smiled back, trying to quash her guilt. The new guilt. On top of the old guilt of kissing Xander. She sure had a lot to feel guilty for lately. For some absurd reason, she thought of Spike kissing her in the alley. Well, not kissing her. Crushing her lips against his for disguise purposes. Did she feel guilty about that, too? Or the fact that she hadn't told her friends everything about her brief abduction? Well, how was knowing Spike had kissed her going to help them avoid or stake him? Not one little bit. She nibbled her lip and thought of Oz, his big, green eyes looking at her with such hurt. She trembled under this weight of guilt. Oz was right. She did need him to forgive her for selfish reasons. She didn't deserve him.
But now was hardly the time for mental flagellation.
"Buffy can look for Oz. Xander and I will search the woods for, um, leftovers."
"This isn't a Thanksgiving meal, Wills," Xander reminded.
"Trust me, Willow, you don't want to see firsthand that Oz has—" Buffy didn't know how to continue.
"Gone native?" Xander suggested.
"Well, I have to do something," Willow maintained. "And Oz has made perfectly clear that he doesn't want to see me. And, sorry, Xander, but I doubt he wants to see you either."
"I get it," Buffy interjected. "I'm Swiss cheese!"
"Full of holes and kinda tasteless?" Xander asked.
"No, neutral," Buffy corrected with an eye roll. "Switzerland."
Xander shook his head. "Whatever. I'm with you, Willow."
"It could be dangerous," Giles warned.
"It's the middle of the day," Buffy pointed out. "No vampires."
"Yeah, and what's worse than—"
Giles stopped Xander's word with a glare. "Do not tempt the powers that be on the Hellmouth. A rogue werewolf is quite enough, thank you."
Xander had the sense to look sheepish. He extended a hand to Willow who had gathered up all her books. "Come on, Wills. We've got a class to ditch."
Buffy, Xander, and Willow left the library together. "Don't we have a history test?" Buffy asked.
"Yep," Willow affirmed. Xander glanced down at his friend in surprise. She had her Resolve Face on. Willow must really care about Oz, Xander recognized with a pang, to skip out on school work. He needed to get a hold of himself. No more Willow for him. Her earlobes belonged to a different guy. He wrapped an arm around her shoulder the way he'd done a hundred times before.
"If we can avoid Snyder, we'll be in the clear," he observed.
"Easier said than done, it would seem." Snyder's reedy voice accosted them from behind. The trio revolved to face their school yard nemesis. In the pecking order of vampires, demons, and prophecies of doom, Principal Snyder ranked pretty low, but that hardly put him out of the running for Most Annoying and Ill-Timed Adult Ever.
Snyder smiled. "Well, well, well, if it isn't the queen of the troublemakers herself. Miss Summers."
"Principal Snyder," Buffy rejoined, with a winning smile.
"Don't smirk at me, young lady!" he barked.
"Right," Buffy nodded. "No smirkage."
"Buffy's never smirked in her life," Willow interposed.
"Her smiles are full of respect and good-will toward all," Xander added.
Snyder peered up at the three of them. "You're acting suspicious. I cannot abide suspicious. All three of you. In my office. Now."
"NOW!" he yelled.
Buffy shot a glance at her two friends. They needed to get to the bottom of Oz's absence fast. And more importantly, make sure he hadn't been snacking. For all they knew, Oz had taken off to Los Angeles, leaving a trail of carnage behind him. Well, maybe nothing so dramatic. A trail of carnage was bound to show up on the news. Maybe a spot of carnage in some secluded wood. And they wouldn't be getting answers if they were all tied up with Snyder. She made a noble sacrifice. She raised her hands in a gesture of surrender. "Alright, Principal Snyder, you got me," she confessed.
"I knew it," he said triumphantly. He narrowed his eyes. "What is it? Ritual sacrifice? Money laundering? Littering?" He leaned in greedily, looking like a modern day Rumpelstiltskin.
Buffy leaned away. "Both. I mean, all of them. These two were trying to squirrel me to freedom. But you've caught me and I'll go quietly." Buffy hung her head. While Snyder pulled a pen from his pocket with a dramatic flourish of victory, Buffy looked up at Willow and Xander who shared expressions of confusion and amusement. She winked and jerked her head in the direction of the door. They nodded and hand-in-hand fled the building.
Willow and Xander stomped through the underbrush, wary of the clinging vegetation. So far the most horrific butchery they'd seen had involved a finch and a worm.
"So," Xander said, breaking the silence, "the good news is, it looks like Oz didn't bring his puppy chow to this neck of the woods."
Willow wrung her hands and said nothing, peering from left to right. Worry and nerves pinched the skin between her brows and made her lips part ever so slightly. Still, she looked determined to finish what she had started. Xander tried to imagine how he would feel if he saw Cordelia feasting on the entrails of some innocent camper. Unsurprised, he silently joked, though even in his head, the quip rang hollow.
After a few moments of quiet, Willow put a hand out to stop Xander from walking any further.
"What is it?" Xander asked, his eyes darting around for the macabre.
"I'm having a too-many-thoughts moment," Willow confided.
"So, no mauled corpses," Xander clarified.
Willow shook her head and her face crumpled in the beginnings of a sob. Xander pulled her into a hug.
"You've got to stop beating yourself up," he urged, rubbing her back in large, comforting circles. Willow was taking this guilt thing to astronomically crazy levels.
"It's just," Willow sniffed. "I don't know what I hope to find out here. A horrible part of me hopes he slipped up. Not killing a person or anything. Maybe a poor bunny. Then we'd be even and he'd forgive me. But the rest of me knows that the reason Oz is even in this situation is because of me." She hiccupped on her words.
"Your thoughts are definitely in the deep end of the awful pool," Xander admitted, pulling Willow away from him so he could see her face. Willow shuddered. Xander found it very important to reassure her. "Oz will forgive you," he promised. A tear had caught in Willow's upper lashes, clear and fragile.
"How do you know?" she asked.
"He's a smart guy. I'm no Einstein and I'd love you if you murdered a village of quadriplegic toddlers." Willow looked up at Xander. "Friendly love," he corrected quietly. His hands caught hers to keep her from wringing them into shreds of skin. "Because we're out of each other's systems, remember."
Willow nodded, the air charged between them. Xander leaned forward and kissed her cheek. The corner of her mouth. The cupid's bow of her lips. Chaste kisses that trembled inside him. "Sorry," he breathed and his breath fanned across Willow's cheek.
Willow took a step back. "I wouldn't though," she said, after a moment. They resumed their walk.
"Wouldn't what?" Xander's brain was giving less output than usual.
"Murder quadriplegic toddlers." She paused. "Do I give off that vibe?" she asked.
"Seriously, Willow, I don't think that's a vibe." Xander laughed. "You'd have to wear a name tag. Hi, My name is 'Quadriplegic Kid Killer.' Kinda bad first impression though."
"I don't think I could spell quadriplegic in kindergarten," Willow mused as they continued their search.
"And I couldn't read it if you could. We'd still have become best friends."
"And that's all," Willow said firmly.
It had to be over, for good this time. Even if she never got Oz back, her friendship with Xander had to remain just that. Any romantic path they might have had was choked with their betrayal of other people. Some loves were no good.
Spike growled low in his chest, an almost animal noise. Certainly nothing remotely human—or even wholly vampiric. Only those vampires prone to theatrics growled any more. Maybe his proximity to the wolf brought out some kindred response. It had been laughably easy to get at the boy. And Spike had laughed. A quiet chuckle of evil amusement. Until the whelp's childish threats and small fists annoyed him too much. He'd knocked the wolf-boy unconscious and resumed his prowl across Sunnydale. Now, they were back at the factory. He had chained the boy for the change. He didn't much like his odds against a werewolf under the full moon. The wolf couldn't kill, per se, lacking the opposable thumbs necessary to wield a stake, but he'd probably escape. And then where would Spike be? He needed the witch. And the witch needed the wolf. So Spike needed the wolf. Predator to prey mathematics. Now all he needed from the witch was a little lovelorn locating spell. She could do one of those, couldn't she? Find her wolf. Come to rescue him. She might bring the Slayer. She might not. Might be she wanted some private time with her wolf. To bring him round to love again. He felt a pang for Dru. Dust dust dust. Red would come. Eventually. Red would come for her dog. And if she didn't, he'd try a taste of wolf. Listen to his blood again. Might be this wasn't the big plan after all. The mutt made a sound of pain. Spike glanced over, not overly curious. Oh, the change. It looked painful. Extremely so. He shrugged and shook the small bottle of black nail polish.