Suggested listening:

"I Walk On Gilded Splinters" by Dr. John
"Superstition" by Stevie Wonder
"To Bid Farewell" by the Choir

That Voodoo You Do

By

Michael Walker

***

"Would everyone please be quiet!" Rupert Giles glared around his living room, willing the noise and confusion to abate. The hubbub gradually subsided. "Now," he continued, "I know that all of you regard my home as something of a clubhouse, but if you are going to invade it, please, at least be civil!"

"Y'know," Xander Harris drawled, "sometimes I wonder if we're so different from the vampires. We seem to be up all night, racing to get into bed before dawn, serving under an evil overlord." Seeing the evil eye Giles turned his way, he hastened to add, "Of course, we do get to do the 'walking-around-in-the-sun' deal. Usually with no sleep."

Giles ignored him. It was really the only option. He chose instead to scan the room and assess the situation. Xander and Cordelia were seated at the table, Cordelia's head resting on her folded arms. Willow and Oz were on the couch, bracketing a silent Buffy. Faith, the new, or duplicate, or whatever Slayer, and her Watcher, Lindsay Maeda, sat on the stools by the pass-through window into Giles' kitchen.

"Screw civil," Faith sneered. "I wanna know why I got knocked off a vampire."

"Because it was Angel," Willow protested.

"So?" Faith did not seem impressed by this argument. Lindsay placed a hand on the girl's arm.

"Do you think he's here to help the Reverend?" the new Watcher asked.

"Who?" The question was a general chorus from the Slayerettes.

"He shouldn't be here at all," Giles said. "It's very, very complicated, but I'm almost certain he's not here because of the Reverend."

"Hey, hey, who's this Reverend guy that you keep talking about?" Xander demanded. "I hate characters who appear out of nowhere. A little back story, please."

Giles and Lindsay exchanged looks. He held out his hand toward the group. "You might as well tell them," he said.

She looked doubtful. "Rupert, they're high school students."

Giles ducked his head. "They are also the Slayer's friends and allies. I know this seems strange to you, fresh out of your training, but I will vouch for them."

"Oh, Giles," Xander mock-sobbed, "that's beautiful."

"Well, maybe not for him." Giles shot Xander another look, then turned back to Lindsay. "It's better for them to know than not."

She nodded. "All right. If you say so." She stood up. Since the stool was tall and Lindsay wasn't, there was no huge difference in her height. "Faith and I have been pursuing an alpha vampire across the country."

"Yeah, we know," Willow said. "Mr. Trick."

Lindsay shook her head. "I have no idea who this Mr. Trick is, but the vampire we're after is the Reverend."

"Who?" Cordelia raised her head.

"His life-name was Othniel Hampton. He's known as the Reverend because he was a minister." Lindsay looked over at Faith, then back at the group. "It's important to stress that he's insane."

"You're talking about a vampire. That goes without saying." Xander said it anyway.

"Perhaps you should elaborate," Giles prompted.

Lindsay nodded. "I'm sure that you all know how vampires keep a person's memories and something of their personality. Othniel Hampton was a devout man, a true believer. The shock of what happened, the... blasphemy, in his view, caused his mind to snap."

"Drusilla." The name popped out of Willow's mouth. Giles closed his eyes and nodded.

"Something like that," he said.

"All of the zeal and fervor that the Reverend Hampton possessed are still present but, as I'm sure you can imagine, warped beyond recognition." Lindsay licked her lips as though her mouth was dry. "He believes that he is the sword of Hell, sent to cleanse the earth of both the good and the evil. He is, in short, a complete nihilist."

"We are the knights who say Ni!" Oz murmured under his breath.

Buffy stirred for the first time. "That's what Spike said about Angel."

Everyone in the room turned toward her. "What?" Giles said.

Buffy's face looked hollowed out, her eyes dry and lusterless. "Spike said that he only talked about destroying the world, but Angel really meant to do it."

"That, uh, that broaches the next question," Giles muttered, removing his glasses and cleaning them. "How and why is Angel back?"

"Where was he?" Faith asked. Giles and the Scoobies turned to Buffy. She closed her eyes.

Giles put his glasses back on. "That's not important. Let's just say that he was... He shouldn't have returned from... There's no reason for him to be here."

"I'm not real interested in 'how,' and for 'why,' I think we should skip vacationing and go straight to apocalypse." Xander's fists clenched.

"And I think you're jumping to conclusions." Willow's voice was tight and strained.

"Will's right." Buffy's voice was barely above a whisper. "He's not Angelus anymore."

"Do you have any proof?" Xander demanded. "Or is this your inner Sandra Dee talking?"

"Well, you've never liked Angel!" Willow's eyes flashed.

"Guilty as charged," Xander said, raising his hands. "I'm funny that way about vampires."

"And why are you always dumping on Xander?" Cordelia challenged Willow. "Why are Buffy's warm fuzzies for Angel always beyond question?"

"They're not." Giles' words ripped through the air like a crosscut saw. "But bringing up old resentments and issues will not improve our present state."

"Why all the debate?" Faith snarled. "He's a vampire. See him, ice him, walk away whistling."

"It's not that simple," Willow protested. "Angel has a soul."

"Had a soul," Xander grumbled.

"Oh, and let's not forget that he was Buffy's boyfriend." Cordelia's tone was caustic in the extreme. "That's what started this whole thing."

The room became as still as a mime on curare. "Well," Giles said, then cleared his throat. "Well, I believe that we should probably end on that note, sour as it is." As everyone began to rise, Giles caught Willow's eye. A surreptitious nod of his head brought her across the room.

"What?" she asked.

Giles spoke in a low voice, just above a whisper. "I need to help Ms. Maeda and Faith get settled. Could you and Oz make sure Buffy gets home all right?" He glanced over Willow's shoulder. The redhead followed his look. Buffy stood in front of the couch, hands dangling at her sides, eyes downcast. She looked bereft of motivation. Willow turned back to the Watcher.

"Okay," she said, trying to smile. She went to Buffy and put an arm around her shoulders. "Come on," Willow said, pulling her friend toward the door. Buffy came with no resistance; Willow thought that she might have been able to guide the Slayer off a cliff. Oz caught her gaze and lifted an eyebrow. Willow replied with a tiny shake of her head. Oz fished out the keys to his van and opened the door. Willow paused in the doorway and looked back. Lindsay was engaged in conversation with Giles, who kept glancing toward the door. Faith stood behind them, not bothering to hide the fact that she was staring at Buffy. Xander and Cordelia stood by the table, unreadable looks on their faces. Willow turned and went out the door. It closed behind her with a frighteningly final-sounding 'boom.'

***

"He's coming." The news traveled around the room in urgent whispers. The scuzzy basement hideout was suddenly alive with activity as the cadre of vampire responded to the news. The cutthroats sprawled on the dilapidated sofa rushed to sit up straight. The rococo garments that had been assembled into garish outfits were checked, tugged in here and there to be more presentable. In mere moments, the character of the room transformed.

The reason for their metamorphosis ducked through the doorway. He was very tall, with an angular face that, even in life, had featured pronounced cheekbones and a prominent brow. A century-and-a-half of death had tightened and emphasized those features, until his visage looked like parchment stretched tight over the framework of his skull. His right eye had a slight cast to it, not immediately noticeable, but unnerving if looked at for long. Since no one tried to look him in the eye for any length of time, it was not usually a problem.

He swept his gaze over them. Demon-spawn who'd taken more human lives than they could count suddenly found their shoelaces fascinating, or realized that they'd never noticed the intricacy of a water stain on the wall.

"A moment," he said, his voice sharp and grating, "a moment in remembrance of our comrades who gave their all last night." He bowed his head and the others followed his example. He held the pose for a full minute, then lifted his head. "Now," he said, "let us begin to plan how to make this town pay ten-fold."

***

Oz's van pulled into the Summers's driveway, shoved the shifter up into 'Park', and looked over at Willow. She sat sideways in the passenger seat, the better to keep an eye on the Slayer. It was an unnecessary precaution. Buffy had not moved nor spoken since their departure from Giles' house.

"Buffy," Willow said, her voice low and gentle, "we're at your house."

"I can't do this, Will. I can't take it." A knife stabbed through Willow's heart when Buffy said these words; not because of any tears or shakiness in the Slayer's voice but rather their absence. Buffy's voice was steady and cold, devoid of hope or doubt, devoid of anything but the certainty of more pain.

"No, no, that's not true." Willow reached out, placed her hand on Buffy's. "We're here for you. We'll help you get through this."

Buffy shook her head, her eyes unseeing, or perhaps seeing something known only to her. "It's too much. I mean, what's next?" A high, brittle laugh escaped her. "What's next, y'know?"

Willow looked at Oz, staring into his eyes and jerking her head toward Buffy. Oz cleared his throat. "Uh, maybe... maybe Angel being back is a good thing," he said. "What with Mr. Trick and this new guy, this other new guy, maybe he can help."

"Yeah, yeah." Willow patted her friend's hand. "Maybe that's it." Buffy did not answer, only stared at the floor between her feet. "Come on," Willow said, tugging on her friend's hand. "Let's go." She maneuvered the Slayer out of the van and walked her up the steps. They paused on the porch. Willow wrapped Buffy up in a hug. It felt like hugging a column of ice.

"Promise me you'll be at school tomorrow," Willow whispered.

"What?" Buffy asked.

"Promise me. Promise me you won't hide. Promise me you won't wear Kleenex boxes for shoes and let your fingernails grow."

"Jeez, Will, I don't think I'm ready for the Howard Hughes hall of fame just yet." The faintest trace of annoyance edged the blond girl's voice.

"I know," Willow said as she broke the hug. "I'll call you tomorrow before school. Just to make sure." She turned and started down the steps.

"Will?"

The redhead turned back at the sound of Buffy's voice. "Yeah?"

The Slayer pressed her hands to her forehead. "Thanks."

Willow smiled. "Forget about it."

***

Cheryl McGinley trotted up the steps of Sunnydale High. It was half an hour before first period, but she could probably get into the library. It seemed as though Mr. Giles was always there. A half-hour of quiet research would really help with that report on the ecological impact of waste disposal for her Contemporary Issues class.

She slipped in the door and hurried down the hall. She was a tall girl, whisper-thin, with big dark eyes and dark hair that could have been quite attractive. As it was, she simply pushed the wavy mass off her face and held it there with a red band, throwing her fine, sharp features into distinct relief.

Sure enough, Mr. Giles was already in the library. He came out of his office when he heard her enter. The expression on his face clearly indicated that he was expecting someone else. Still, he smiled and asked her if she needed any help. When she declined, he nodded and went back into his office. Cheryl headed for the stacks. That was one of the things she liked about Mr. Giles; if you didn't need him, he tended to leave you alone.

She ran a quick search and found three articles that might be useful, including one on the use of wetlands to treat wastewater, and started printing them. While she waited for the computer to finish spitting out the pages, she searched the Reader's Guide to Periodic Literature and found a couple of magazine pieces she might use. She grabbed the magazines, picked up the thick sheaf of papers from the printer tray and went to the back of the library, to hide in one of the study carrels back there.

Her thirty minutes passed way too quickly. The bell rang. Cheryl shoved the articles into her backpack and returned the magazines to the periodical stand. She was rushing toward the door when Willow Rosenberg opened it.

Willow Rosenberg! Willow the only child, Willow with the successful, professional parents, Willow, who seemed to have endless amounts of time to hang out with that friend of hers, the one who was with her right now, that blond girl, what was her name? Buffy, that was it, Buffy Summers. Willow, who always had on some cool, eccentric outfit that proclaimed how carefree she was, Willow who had even managed to worm her way into the company of the school's head cheerleader and most popular girl, Cordelia Chase, although if the gossip was right, it was more a matter of Queen C suffering a fast and furious fall from grace that had landed her in Willow's circle.

Cheryl ducked her head and hurried past, even as Willow said, "Hi."

"Who was that?" Buffy asked.

"Oh, that's Cheryl McGinley. She's in my Political Ideas class."

Giles heard them and came out of the office. He stopped short when he saw the Slayer. Buffy looked pale, her hair a haphazard mess. She wore a denim shirt, tails out, over pink jeans. One sleeve of the shirt was rolled to her elbow, the other to mid-forearm.

"Um," Giles said, brow creased with concern, "are you all right?"

Buffy leaned on the counter. "Not really."

The corner of Willow's mouth corkscrewed. "I pretty much had to drag her here."

"Well, that would explain the clothing." Giles adjusted his glasses.

"I have to go to the counselor's office," Willow said to Buffy. "Will you be okay?"

"I'm not a candidate for America's Most Pulled Together, but I think you can call off the suicide watch," Buffy said. "Why are you going to see Dortmann?"

Willow tossed her head. "Not Dortmann. The other office. I have to see Ms. Dietz." She turned to Giles. "Will you keep an eye on her?"

Giles nodded. "Of course."

"Gee," Buffy said, voice dry. "You sound so enthusiastic."

***

Ms. Dietz pushed the file drawer closed and went to her desk, manila folder in hand. A blue tab was affixed to the folder. She sat down and opened the folder. Willow watched from the visitor's chair, hands folded in her lap. Ms. Dietz leafed through the file, looked at a particular sheet, then pulled it out of the file and extended it toward Willow.

"I understand that you're taking the SATs next month," Ms. Dietz said.

"Yes ma'am," Willow replied, taking the sheet of paper.

"Well, I'm meeting with all the seniors prior to their SAT date, sort of letting them know where they stand right now." Ms. Dietz picked up a pen and pointed at the paper Willow held. "If you look at the top row of numbers, just under your name, those numbers represent your scores on the standardized tests."

Willow looked at the row of numbers, each score aligned precisely under some sort of testing acronym. "Okay," she said.

"Under that, you've got your GPA, by semester and then you can see where it says 'cumulative,' that's the total for all the semesters, and on the right hand side there is your class ranking."

Willow scanned the page, trying to spot each category as Ms. Dietz covered it. Beside 'class rank', she saw the numeral '1'.

"All you have left is the SATs, and based on your previous performance, I'd say those are a formality." Ms. Dietz leaned back in her chair. "You've built a very impressive academic record, Willow. You should have your pick of schools."

Willow looked up, frowning slightly. "You think?"

Ms. Dietz smiled. "Yes, I think, no doubt about it."

"Oh." Willow looked down at the paper again, staring at the grids of numbers and grades. This was the whole of her life to this point, reduced to a single sheet of paper. She folded it and placed it inside a textbook, which she slid into her backpack. "Well, thank you, Ms. Dietz. It was very thoughtful of you to tell me."

"You should do very well, Willow. I hope so. Your attitude is a pleasant change from so many other students."

"Well, I'm sure we're all doing the best we can." Willow stood, slinging her pack over her shoulder.

***

The door of the counselor's office opened and Cheryl McGinley peered around the corner. "Ms. Dietz?" she said.

The counselor glanced up from her paperwork. "Come in, Cheryl, come in. Have a seat while I finish up here." She returned to her papers. Cheryl edged into the office and lowered herself onto the rim of the chair. One knee jiggled ever so slightly. Her eyes followed Ms. Dietz as the counselor went to a file cabinet, took out a file, and returned to the desk. She took out a sheet of paper and handed it to Cheryl.

"...and on the right hand side there is your class ranking." Ms. Dietz finished her presentation. Cheryl looked at the paper in her hand. In the lower right corner was the numeral '2.'

"All you have left are your SATs. You've always tested well, so you should do very well. I don't think you'll have a problem gaining admission into any school you choose."

Cheryl was still looking at her class ranking. She looked up, her eyes wide. "It says here I'm number two in my class. How far away am I from number one?"

Ms. Dietz frowned. "Number two is a very high ranking, Cheryl. Salutatorian is quite an honor."

"Yes, but my financial aid package--"

"Cheryl, you've got to stop worrying so much. There should be plenty of financial aid for someone with your--"

"But, but the schools I've been looking at, the difference in scholarship money between first in your class and top ten is really big."

"Cheryl." Ms. Dietz' voice was quiet but firm. "There will be money available for you to go to school. You've can't focus on what you aren't. You've been a wonderful student. In any other year, you'd probably be valedictorian, but finishing second doesn't take one thing away from your record, which is excellent. Be proud of that."

For a moment, Cheryl looked as though she were going to say something else. Finally, she nodded once and got to her feet. "Thanks, Ms. Dietz," she said, her voice tired.

***

Buffy dropped another textbook in her backpack and hefted the canvas burden. "Sometimes I wonder why I even bother taking books home. All they do is give me curvature of the spine."

"Hey," Willow said, "your grades are better than Xander's."

"Oh, thank you." The sarcasm in Buffy's voice was withering. "Next you'll be telling me I can be valedictorian in summer school."

Willow looked down at her feet and around at the students passing them. "Speaking of valedictorian, Ms. Dietz says I have the number one GPA in the class." Buffy stopped packing her books and stared at her best friend. "I'm sorry," Willow said. "That sounded terribly stuck-up, didn't it?"

Buffy shook her head. "No, Will, it didn't sound stuck-up. It's great. Just be careful hanging around me. The stupid might rub off."

"Hey, you're not stupid, you're just... preoccupied." Willow's nose scrunched up. "I must admit, I got a little stoked when she told me."

"Well," Buffy said, turning to her friend, "as long as you're doing it clean."

"Really though, it's not that big a deal. I mean, my mom and dad would be really proud, and I'd enjoy it, but it's not life or death, you know?" Willow twisted a strand of hair around an index finger.

"Hey, no need to rationalize it to me. If you've seen my grades, then you know it's obviously not life and death with me." Buffy slammed her locker.

As they walked away down the hall, neither of them looked back, so they didn't see Cheryl McGinley close her locker.

***

The front door of the two-story house on Wallingford burst open. Three boys and a girl tumbled in, the boys wrestling their way across the living room. The girl, an eighth-grader named Laura, looked at her brothers, lip curled, and stepped around them. The door stayed open.

Cheryl trudged through the door. Mrs. McGinley hurried into the room, fastening her earrings.

"Honey," she said to Cheryl, "Dad will be home in a couple of hours. Dinner for you guys is in the fridge. Just put it in the oven at 300 for about thirty minutes. Sorry I'm in such a hurry, but I've got to run by the bank before I go to work. Robbie, put down that pillow! Have a good night. I love you." She bent down and gave Cheryl a quick kiss on the cheek. "Tell your father I'll be home around midnight."

Her mother snatched up her purse from an end table, kissed the younger children, and hurried out the door. The room was quiet, then the sound of a car engine starting broke the silence. Robbie threw the pillow he held at his brother Ned. This prompted Ned to tackle his sibling, which knocked the oldest brother, Rory, off-balance, an insult that justified his jumping on both of his brothers.

Cheryl stood stone still for a minute, then shouted, "Okay, shut up!" She pointed at the other children. "Get to your rooms and get going on your homework. I'll start dinner."

Robbie looked up at her from his spot underneath his brothers. "You're not the boss of me," he panted.

"Yes, I am the boss of you." Cheryl's voice was dangerously steady. "Now get going!"

The younger kids scrambled up the stairs. Even doing their homework, they were noisy. Cheryl went into the kitchen. She turned on the oven, then opened the refrigerator.

A casserole dish sat on the top shelf, covered in aluminum foil. A pink Post-It was stuck to the foil. Cheryl slid the dish out, reading the note.

300 - 30 min. Love you. So proud of you. Mom.

She plucked the note off, slid the dish into the oven, and set the timer. She leaned back against the counter, head down.

***

Buffy ducked the clumsy swing and swept Giles' feet out from under him. The Watcher landed with a solid 'thud' that would doubtless have produced severe injury if not for the padding he wore. Buffy squatted beside him.

"Giles, is this fun for you?"

Still prone, he removed his helmet and shook his head. "Not particularly. Why do you ask?"

She shrugged. "I thought maybe you were getting some kind of sick thrill, since you insist that I do it so often."

Giles got painfully to his feet. Buffy stood with ease.

"You must remain in top condition. A few small bruises--" Giles bent at the waist and winced "-- and one apparent internal injury-- are a small price to pay."

"Okay." Buffy sounded unconvinced. "But, and I don't mean to be insulting, but sparring with you is not the same as going against Trick."

Giles looked at her. "Oh, I don't see how that could be construed as an insult." He shook his head. "No matter. 'Eternal vigilance' must be our motto."

Buffy's lip curled. "Couldn't our motto be 'You deserve a break today'?" She gave Giles a beseeching look.

It didn't work. The look he gave her was stern. "Buffy, I realize that this is boring. I understand that to you, combat training is like practicing scales was for Mozart. It is beneath your gift. But any slippage in your skill level could allow an otherwise unimpressive opponent to, well, to..."

"To kill me?" The Slayer arched her eyebrows. "Giles, a little respect here. I understand the seriousness of what's going on. I think I've proven that."

Giles considered her statement for a moment. "Yes," he said, "you're quite right." He turned and winced again. "And today's session has been remarkably... productive. Very well, training is done for today."

Buffy began stripping off her sparring gloves. "Goody. I can grab a shower before I head to Willow's."

"You're spending the evening at Willow's?"

Buffy nodded. "Yeah. Study buddies. If I access every molecule of Will's brain power, I might pull my European History grade up to a C." She looked at her Watcher. "What are you doing?"

Giles shrugged, hands in his pockets. "I suppose I'll meet with Ms. Maeda, try to get some sort of handle on what can be done. Make sure that she and Faith are settled in."

"She makes you nervous, doesn't she?" Buffy smiled.

"Why would you say that?"

Buffy gestured. "Hands in the pockets. Guys always do that when they're nervous."

Giles took his hands out of his pockets. "She's just so... so young." Buffy took a scrunchie out of her bag and pulled back her hair. Giles fidgeted for a minute, then blurted, "But she's a fully trained Watcher."

Buffy concentrated on rearranging the contents of her bag. "Everything's really messed up, isn't it?"

"Excuse me?"

She shrugged with one shoulder and tossed her head. "Two Slayers, two Watchers, Angel... it's all a mess, isn't it?"

Giles watched her rifling through her bag. "Are you sure you're all right?"

Buffy made a point of not looking at him. "No, I'm not all right. But I'll be okay."

"How--" Giles cleared his throat. "How do you know that?"

Buffy turned and looked him in the eye. "Because it doesn't matter. No matter what I do, it's not enough. Whatever monster I kill, another one takes its place. There'll always be another bad guy. And I'll always fight them; I'll fight them because I'm a freak. That's all I am-a freak. So what if Angel's back?" Her eyes began to glisten. "Doesn't matter. Doesn't change my job." She grabbed her bag and stormed out the door.

Giles took a step after her, then stopped. He would not know what to do, even if he caught her.

***

The fuzzy blare of a badly dubbed heavy metal cassette being played through a too-small speaker clanged through the hallway. Cheryl McGinley tried to block it out, along with the chatter of the TV, which her dad had turned way up in order to hear over the commotion of her brothers. She looked down at her book. Was she ever going to get the solution to this problem? Dropping her pencil, she picked up a well-thumbed book from the corner of the desk. She looked at the cover for perhaps the ten-thousandth time. Her eyes drank in the scenery, the buildings.

With a weary sigh, she put the Stanford catalog back in its place and turned back to her assignment.

***

"I'm lost again." Buffy jabbed a finger at her book. "First he's Charles I, then he's Charles V. Is it the same guy, or two different guys?"

Willow kept her eyes on her own book and continued writing. "Same guy."

"How can he be the first and the fifth?" Buffy sounded indignant.

Willow put down her pen and turned to her friend. "Remember, he became king of Spain? That's when he was Charles I. Then, when his grandfather died, he became Holy Roman Emperor, and King of Spain. That's when he became Charles V."

"He just changed his number."

"Uh-huh."

"Well, that stinks. How am I supposed to remember history if people just change their number whenever they feel like it?" Buffy scowled.

"Don't worry," Willow said, returning to her book. "You'll get it."

Buffy watched her friend for a couple of minutes. "What's the secret, Will?"

"The secret to what?" Willow's attention stayed on her book.

"Your secret for remembering all this stuff. How do you do it?"

Willow shrugged. "I don't have one, really. It's just there when I need it. Kind of like your Slayage ability."

"How nice for you." Buffy's voice was chilly.

Willow stopped writing. "That sounded sort of mean."

"I'm feeling mean. Someday you'll be rich and famous for inventing something, or you'll get some sort of scientific award, and I'll just be a broken-down old ex-Slayer in a paper hat flipping burgers. If I get to be old, that is."

Willow scratched her nose. "But, you're saving the world. That's pretty special."

"You'd think, but the world doesn't say 'Thank you' very often."

Willow's lips pursed. "Would it help if I said thank you."

There was a moment of heavy silence, then Buffy said, "I'm sorry. It's not your fault I'm stupid."

Willow's temper flared. "Don't say that! You're not stupid. It makes me so angry when you say that."

Buffy's voice was quiet. "You know, sometimes I envy you, Will."

"What? Envy me? That's... that's... stupid!"

"See?" Buffy flashed a bitter grin. "No, I mean it. Look at you-- you're the smartest kid in school, you've got a great family, you're so non-neurotic and together--"

"Me? Together?" Willow's voice shot up like a bottle rocket. "Not neurotic? I almost became the love slave of an Internet demon. My boyfriend is a werewolf. My best friend spends her evenings stalking the undead. I'm having intermittent bouts of otherworldly static. And weirdest of the weird, Xander is dating Cordelia." Willow rolled her eyes. "Yeah, I'm the queen of Togetherland."

"Okay," Buffy said, somewhat chastened. "Point taken."

"No," Willow said. "This isn't about school. This is about Angel. It's about your Slayerness." She placed a hand on Buffy's shoulder. "I'm sorry about all you've gone through. I know you're wiggin' right now. But I'm here. We're all here."

Buffy shook her head. "You'll never be able to understand."

"I know that. I'm the smartest kid in school, remember?" Willow was gratified by the momentary smile that flitted across the Slayer's face. "But even if I can't understand it, I'll still be here. For you. Always. Whatever you decide to do." The redhead turned back to her book. "Now, you better get back to Charles."

***

Cheryl ran a hand through her hair, making it stand up even more. Her dad was watching the late news on TV; she could hear the broadcast. Her brothers had confined themselves to their room, still emitting the occasional thump or rumble. Laura bounced into the room and slammed the door.

"Hey!" Cheryl barked. "Could you keep it down? This is trig I'm trying to do here."

"So?" her sister said, reaching into her mouth and pulling out a long strand of her chewing gum, admiring the arc it formed. "Ask me if I care." She put on her Walkman headphones and cranked the volume. The dull roar of her brothers, the high-pitched buzz of the Walkman, and the background cacophony of the television were more than Cheryl could stand. She dropped her pencil and pounced on her sister.

"Give me those!" she cried, grabbing for the headphones. She got her fingers under them and jerked. They flew off Laura's head, the jack popping out of the cassette player. The headphones flew into the corner.

Laura twisted and pushed, throwing her older sister off the bed. "Man," she said, "it looks like it's somebody's time of the month."

"Get out!" Cheryl screamed. "Just get out!"

"Fine. It's not like I want to be in here with you anyway." Laura stuck her tongue out and exited the room, slamming the door again. Cheryl scrambled up onto the bed and collapsed, lying on her back, fists pressed to her eyes.

***

"Yeah?" Faith said as she yanked the door open. That librarian guy, Buffy's Watcher, stood on the concrete square outside the door of unit #6. He looked uncomfortable, an impression aided by the bare yellow bulb in the fixture over his head. He'd traded the tweed for a dark sweater and black and gray glen-plaid pants.

"Let me guess," she said. "You're here to see Linz." She stood with one hip cocked out, a butterfly-light hand resting on it. She turned her back on him, leaving the doorway clear. She wore cut-off jeans and an oversized black T-shirt with a white ace of spades on the front. "Hey, Linz," she shouted, "library guy's here."

"Faith, you shouldn't--" Lindsay Maeda came out of the bathroom, drying her hair on a towel. She stopped when she saw Giles standing in the open doorway. He glanced around the room, taking in the twin beds covered in thin, faded spreads, the mismatched desk and chair, and the color scheme that was just about to come back into style. Lindsay wore a white T-shirt, blue plaid flannel shorts and thick white socks scrunched around her ankles. Her black hair splayed across the white towel looped around her shoulders.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I had no idea Faith had let you in." She looked down at her outfit. "I'll go change."

"Sorry," Faith said as she closed the door, "I got the bathroom."

Lindsay's hands twisted together and she offered an embarrassed, apologetic smile to Giles. "I really don't... I wasn't sure... I don't usually dress like this."

"Quite all right," Giles assured her. "If there's one thing I've learned here, it's to never judge by appearance. You're a fully qualified and trained Watcher, regardless of apparel... How old are you, anyway?"

"Twenty-six." Lindsay gestured toward the desk. "Would you sit down?"

"Of course." Giles lowered himself onto the straight-backed chair as Lindsay flopped onto one of the beds, drawing her legs up butterfly style. Giles looked around the room. Lindsay noticed.

"It's not much, but it didn't take a lot of paperwork, so here we are." Her hands fluttered like broken-winged birds.

"Well, I'm sure that we can find you a nicer place once we have some sort of handle on our situation." Giles smiled to reassure her.

The bathroom door opened and Faith came out, dressed in red leather pants, a black tank top, and a white shirt tied at her beltline with the sleeves rolled up.

"I'm going out," she announced. "Gonna hit that club we were at last night, then maybe troll for baddies."

"Don't be too late," Lindsay said as her Slayer exited. "She's, uh, she can really be a handful."

"Tell me about it." Giles grinned. "I think the modern Slayer poses a different set of challenges."

"Then Buffy... ?"

"Yes, sometimes she makes me want to tear out my hair."

Lindsay shook her head, a rueful expression on her face. "I think I'm just making it up as I go."

"How so?" Giles shifted in the chair.

"Well, first of all, I thought it would be a few years before I received an assignment. I'm just out of training, and I'm learning on the job, and then we take off across the country." She ran a hand through her damp hair. "That wasn't in the catalog."

***

Buffy fidgeted in the chair, trying to find a comfortable position. Ms. Dietz sat behind her desk, reading from a file and making disapproving noises. The silence stretched out until Buffy thought she would go mad, then the counselor spoke.

"Buffy, you're a bright girl, but you're not applying yourself. The grades I see here are just so average, but every evaluation from every teacher mentions your high potential."

"They do?" Buffy was unable to keep the surprise out of her voice.

"Mmm-hmmm." Ms. Dietz looked up at her. "Unfortunately, potential does not, as my grandmother used to say, feed the bulldog."

Buffy said, "Oh."

"It may not seem important to you now, but in a few months you'll be thinking about college. How will you feel if you can't get into the college you want because of these mediocre grades?"

Buffy searched for a reply. "Well, maybe there are more important measures of a person than just grades."

Ms. Dietz smiled, an expression full of kindness and benevolence. "Buffy, that is a wonderful idea. Sadly, it has nothing whatsoever to do with the real world."

***

Willow put her books down on the table and flopped down on the sofa. As she opened her notebook, she noticed someone else in the lounge. Cheryl McGinley sat at the table, three books open.

"Hi, Cheryl," Willow said. "How's it going?"

The dark-haired girl waved a hand, barely looking up. "Honestly, it's a little frantic. This honors comp is about to bring me down."

Willow made a face. "I took it last year. It's pretty tough."

Cheryl glanced up. "How'd you do?"

Willow shrugged. "I did okay."

"You got an 'A', didn't you?"

"Yeah... but you'll do great. You've always done well."

Cheryl picked up her pen and resumed writing. "I'd better. Have you picked out a college?"

Willow wagged her head. "I've narrowed it down to five or six. You?"

Cheryl kept her head down. "I'm shooting for Stanford. That would be so great."

Willow's hands flapped. "Stanford? That would be pretty cool. Oh, you might meet Chelsea Clinton!"

"Yeah," Cheryl grumbled, "if I get in. And if I can pay for it."

"Yeah, it is expensive. Even the old college fund wouldn't pay for Stanford."

Cheryl squinted at her. "College fund?"

"Oh yeah. Every month since I was a baby, a little money goes in the college account. My parents said that if I don't use it for college, they'll use it to go on a cruise."

Cheryl returned to her books. "Must be nice," she muttered.

Willow felt her stomach sink. "Don't you... ?"

"No, I don't have a college fund. My folks got married after high school and had five kids. They both work full time and the ends just barely meet."

Willow tried to put a positive spin on things. "Well, there's always--"

"Forget it, OK? It's not your fault. It's just my bad luck. My dad's not a doctor, my mom's not a psychologist."

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to..." Willow stopped, unsure of what it was she didn't mean to do.

Cheryl gathered up her books, her face closed like a clenched fist. "Like I said, it's not your fault." She slammed out of the lounge. Willow tried to sink into the sofa. She was still slouched there when Xander vaulted over the back and slammed into the cushions beside her.

"Hey, Will, what's up?"

"I'm a yutz." Willow's chin rested on her sternum.

"Say what?"

Willow turned to him. "Do I take things in my life for granted?"

Xander shook his head. "No. Not at all. You're a very insightful, caring, and giving person. Give me a dollar for a soda."

A distracted Willow rummaged through her backpack, found a dollar, and handed it to him. Xander spun up off the sofa, leaving her alone with her self-reproach.

***

Cheryl scowled, head down, as she walked through the hall. She was so deep in her funk that it Ms. Dietz had to call her name three times before the girl responded.

"Here," the counselor said after she caught up to Cheryl. Ms. Dietz rummaged through the stack of correspondence in her arms and handed Cheryl a manila envelope. "This is the scholarship information you requested."

Cheryl looked down at the envelope, her face blank. "Uh, thanks. Thank you."

She had the envelope tucked in her backpack when she entered Advanced Bio. Willow Rosenberg was in her usual spot, two rows over and three seats ahead. When the bell rang, Ms. Hitchcock began handing back the test from last Friday. Cheryl's paper slid onto her desk, smooth as a whisper. She turned it over. Her score was inscribed in red ink-98/100, a red 'A' next to it. She looked up as the teacher slipped Willow's paper to her. Cheryl leaned forward, squinting. Willow turned her paper over. Cheryl's heart dropped and her stomach turned to ashes. She could make out Rosenberg's score-104/100. The little witch had found a way to get extra credit!

Cheryl stared down at her desk, fighting the urge to vomit.

***

"Why are we going in here?" Cordelia asked as Xander dragged her into Sunnydale Books.

"It'll only take a minute," he said as the door swung closed behind them, the chimes above the door tinkling. "I want to see if the new issue of Fangoria's in."

"Suit yourself." Cordelia waved a hand, dismissing him. "You know where I'll be." The 'Beauty' section was about midway down the wall on the left-hand side of the store. Cordy pulled a large book from the shelf and flipped it open at random, grimacing at the photo. "Ewww," she sneered. "Somebody should get sued for malpractice." She leafed through a few more pages then replaced the book. She turned to go and almost ran smack into a skinny girl with a sharp face and dark hair going every which way, a book clutched in her hands. Excuse you!" Cordelia snapped. "Pay more attention next time." She glanced down at the girl's book. It was a green and purple volume entitled "Voodoo & You."

Cordelia looked up at her. "That's nice. Looking for a spell to whip some life into that hair?" The girl ducked her head and hurried away. Cordelia shook her head and wandered into the romance section. She lasted for about three minutes before heading back to the front of the store. Xander was talking to the girl with the hair. He'd already paid for that awful magazine.

"Are you ready to go?" Cordelia asked.

Xander winked. "Does Jackie Chan do his own stunts?" He waved to the girl. "See you at school."

As they left the shop, Cordelia asked, "Do you know that person?"

***

Cheryl sat down at her desk and slipped the book out of its paper bag. Laura was sleeping over at a friend's house and the boys were out back. Cheryl opened a notebook and began to read, taking careful notes.

***

"You are shittin' me! You are absolutely shittin' me!!!" Mr. Trick's voice went up a perfect fifth as he read through the thin sheaf of papers Delilah had dropped on his desk.

She shook her head. "I wish I was."

"Ah, well," he said, tossing the report onto the desktop, "I guess the hellmouth always has a trick up its sleeve, don't it?"

"You don't seem very concerned."

He shrugged. "I'm not. Another raggedy-ass vampire in town. Film at eleven. Doesn't affect the project. I'm not in a territorial pissing war here. Besides, if he messes with us, we'll turn him and his folk into something only an Oreck could love." He winked at his assistant.

***

Willow took a brush out of her backpack and ran it through her hair, then looked in the mirror. Not exactly Vogue, but not bad either. She threw the brush back in the pack, zipped up, and left the bathroom.

A few seconds after the door clunked shut, one of the stalls opened. Cheryl McGinley came out and went to the sink where Willow had been standing. She looked over the counter, taking care to be thorough and efficient. Her diligence was rewarded; she gleaned three red hairs.

***

Xander and Cordelia walked hand-in-hand down the hall. As they passed the library, familiar sounds drew them toward the door. Xander peeked in the window.

"Kajagoogoo!" he exclaimed. Cordelia shouldered past him and looked. Buffy, clad in spandex tights and a black sports bra, was sparring with Giles, who looked rather woozy in spite of his heavy padding.

Cordelia punched Xander in the shoulder. "Let's roll up our tongue, shall we?"

"Ow," Xander said, rubbing his arm. "You know, I've been thinking... I bet Buffy gets bored just training with Giles."

"So?"

"Well, I thought maybe you might like to change into something more comfortable and... "

Cordelia looked disgusted. "Could you be more perverted?"

Xander shrugged. "Trust me, you've only scratched the surface."

"Sometimes you disgust me."

Xander lowered his voice to a confidential whisper. "Sometimes, if I'm lucky and I do it right, I disgust myself."

Cordelia began to walk away. "And you wonder why I balk at being seen with you in public." Xander rushed to catch her.

"So," she said, "did you have your meeting with Ms. Dietz?"

He nodded. "Yeah, this afternoon. You?"

Cordelia glanced at him briefly. "Yesterday afternoon. What did she tell you?"

Xander shrugged. "That I'd never see the inside of a college that didn't begin with the words 'beauty' or 'clown'."

***

Giles mopped his sweaty face with a towel. "What are your plans for tonight?" he asked, his breath coming in short puffs.

Buffy shrugged as she tossed her sneakers into her bag. "Faith and I planned to go patrolling together. You know, show the new girl all the hot spots in town-where the undead hang out, favorite haunts of the ghoulish persuasion."

"That is an excellent idea. Be good to have someone along with you if you should encounter Angel."

Buffy's face darkened. "We won't. He's been skulking in the shadows like, like... some sort of skulker guy. I don't think he'll show now."

"Do you think he won't, or do you hope he won't?"

Buffy cocked her head toward her Watcher. "Giles, this unhealthy interest in semantics has got to stop. Think, hope, the important thing is that I'm not going to see Angel."

"But--"

"Look!" The Slayer whirled, pointing at Giles to emphasize her point. "I know that everyone wants to be involved in the ongoing soap opera that I call a life, but some things belong to me, just me. There is way too much going on, and this thing is way too weird for me to deal right now. So avoidance is the plan. Got it?"

***

Cheryl felt the brown paper of the sack crackle under her fingers. Her heartbeat thumped an erratic rhythm against her rib cage. The man at the magic shop had barely looked at her; she wondered if people bought this sort of thing every day. Of course they did; how else did a magic shop stay in business?

Cheryl entered her house and went right upstairs. Today was her mom's appointment at the HairHut, and she, Cheryl McGinley, had actually slipped out of school before seventh period. She had about an hour before the thundering herd stormed through the front door.

She opened the door to her closet. She had prepared the space with great care. Kneeling, Cheryl picked up the ball of twine she'd brought up from the kitchen. She cut a long piece and looped it into a circle. The small blue saucer went inside the circle. Hands shaking, the girl reached into her backpack and took out a small white envelope. She shook the contents into her left hand. The three red hairs rested there, insubstantial and ready to fly away in the slightest breeze. Cheryl took a short piece of string in her right hand. It was a little harder than she imagined, but it took very little time to wind the hairs around the string and knot the whole affair together. She placed it inside the circle.

Here was the point of no return. She wondered if she was just going crazy as she reached into the paper bag and brought out the knife. Actually, it was more of a letter opener, shaped to look like a dagger, but the blade was flint, and that was the important fact. Hands trembling, Cheryl extended her arms over the saucer. Placing the flint blade against the ball of her thumb, she pressed down and drew it across the flesh. A dark red line welled up in its wake. Wincing, she held her thumb over the saucer as the wound began to drip. She put the knife down and used her right hand to squeeze her left thumb. The blood began to flow in a steady dribble, pooling in the bottom of the saucer. She let it ooze for several seconds, then used a paper towel to stanch the flow. As she held the dressing, she began to repeat the words she'd written phonetically in her notebook. As she continued her incantation, the air above the circle began to twinkle, as though she'd tossed a handful of glitter through a sunbeam, only these sparkles did not fall, but swam through the air and began to coalesce, converging to form a hemisphere above her circle.

***

Buffy knocked on the door of #6 and waited, looking around at the faded siding and scabby brown weeds growing in the gaps of the gravel scattered around the foundation. She had exhausted her interest in these subjects when the door opened, framing Faith.

The new Slayer wore black BDU pants and a black tank top. Buffy noticed the ribbon tattoo on the other girl's upper arm. "Hey, B," Faith said. "Ready to do some major damage?"

"Read my mind," Buffy said. "You?"

"Cocked and locked, baby, cocked and locked." They bumped fists. Faith spoke over her shoulder. "Hey, Linz, I'm heading out."

Lindsay Maeda's face appeared over the girl's shoulder. "Hi, Buffy," she said, then turned to Faith. "Do you have your key?"

Faith nodded and tapped one of the pockets on her pants. "Five by five."

"Good," Lindsay said. "Don't be out too late."

"I won't, mom," Faith said, pulling the door closed behind her. They headed into the night.

"So," Buffy said, "Lindsay seems to be of the okay."

"Yeah," Faith said. "She's a peach."

"You guys getting settled in all right?"

Faith shrugged. "The ValleyView Motel; no valley, no view. Just two beds, one room, two suitcases. Not a lot of settling required."

They walked a while in silence, then Buffy said, "So, how's your family with the Slayer-tude?"

Faith snorted, a bitter parody of a laugh. "I suppose if I had a family, they'd be shittin' bricks right now."

Buffy winced. "Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't know--"

"What's to know? Oh, it's not like I'm an orphan or anything. Got no idea who or where Daddy is, but Mom's back in Boston. Hell, being the Slayer's the best thing ever happened to me."

"Really?"

Faith nodded. "Yeah. I went from being a kid who dished out wicked ass-kickings to white knight in about ten seconds. Plus I'd never have met Lindsay."

"She's a good Watcher?"

One corner of Faith's mouth lifted. "I don't know. I've never met any other Watchers. Thing is, I think that, even if I wasn't the Slayer, Lindsay would still give a rat's ass about me."

Buffy nodded. "That's good."

"Hey, not that Tweedman doesn't seem okay." Faith stretched out her arms. "Man, this is a pretty nice little spread you got here."

"Sunnydale?" Buffy looked around, trying to see something new in the familiar surroundings. "If you say so."

"Hey, after Southie, this is the shit. All these houses, spread out on nice lawns. It's so Californ-eye-ay."

"I guess," Buffy said. "Still, there is the trade-off."

"Oh, you mean that the place is crawling with critters like that gentleman over there?" Faith pointed off to the left.

"Exactly," said Buffy.

"Bet I get there first," Faith said.

"Like hell," Buffy replied, sprinting away to catch the dark-haired girl.

***

Cheryl sat on her bed, her head resting on her knees and her arms encircling her shins. She felt nauseous and dizzy. The rest of the brood was eating dinner. She had begged off. She knew this feeling wasn't caused by blood loss; she simply hadn't taken that much. So why did she feel as though she were riding in the front car on the vomit comet? Moving in miniscule increments, she stretched out on the bed, careful to turn her head to the side.

***

"That was a major rush." Buffy shook her head, tossing her hair in the night air. "How are you feeling?"

"Me? I'm five by five, girlfriend." Faith raised her arms, letting the cool darkness dry the sweat. "What say we hit the Bronze?"

Buffy thought about it for a moment. It was late and the Bronze would be closing in half an hour, but they had taken out six vamps. They worked as a well-oiled team, as though golden threads connected them. That was worth some celebration.

"The Bronze it is," Buffy said.

***

Cheryl McGinley's eyes opened. The bedroom was dark, the house still. She could hear Laura breathing in the other bed. Cheryl turned her head. The nausea was gone. She wondered why she could see so well in the darkened room before she realized that it wasn't as dark as it should be. She lifted her head. A faint green line traced the bottom of the closet door.

***

He was kinda cute, Faith decided. Not a great dancer, but okay. The DJ had put on a good song; she thought it was by some English band. The buzz from the night's hunting was still flowing as she moved in closer to her partner, hips swiveling, her flat belly brushing ever so lightly across his groin.

He grinned as he leaned in over her. She leaned back, matching his movement. His arm went around her, his hand supporting her back. She winked. His other hand traced down her arm, along her rib cage, caressed the round swell of her breast.

Faith moved back a couple of steps, shaking her head, but the smile never left her face. He followed her, closing on her again. They moved together, his right hand sliding up her thigh until it was cupping her ass. Faith leaned in until her lips grazed his ear.

"This is the second warning," she said, just loud enough to be heard over the music. He looked puzzled as she widened the distance between them.

He closed the distance, encircling her waist with an arm and pulling her close to him, his crotch grinding into her. Faith grinned, a lazy, almost sleepy expression.

"You think you're man enough? Let's find out." Her hand slid down between them, past his belt, and for a moment an ecstatic expression flashed across his face.

"Ooooh, sorry, you're not." Faith squeezed and his eyes bulged; his complexion turned the color of wet ashes. She continued dancing close. Sweat beaded his forehead. A trail of spit dribbled down his chin. He made choking noises, his eyes pleading with her. One corner of her grin curled up as an eyebrow arched. She puckered her lips in a soundless kiss as she released him and stepped back. He caught himself before he fell to his knees. She turned her back and left the dance floor before he could stand upright.

"What was that?" Buffy asked.

Faith swung up onto a stool and shrugged. "Guy thought he had privileges. He knows better now." She scowled. "Wanna call it a night?"

"Fine with me." Buffy led the way outside.

"Hey, bitch!" They stopped in the middle of the street and turned. Faith's dance partner stood outside the door, only now a couple of his friends, his rather large friends, were on either side of him.

"What's the prob?" Buffy asked.

The guy pointed at Faith. "Your friend's a tease, that's what."

"A tease? That's the best you can do?" Faith laughed.

The trio of guys started toward them. "Maybe we can do better," one of them said.

Faith's voice was almost excited. "Let's see you try, dickhead." Buffy felt Faith step away from her. She shot a quick glance in the other girl's direction. Faith stood with her hips cocked, one hand hanging loose, but Buffy could see the muscles working. This was heading toward the serious.

"Hey, guys," Buffy said, stepping forward, hands raised, "it's a misunderstanding."

"Yeah," a new voice said from behind the guys, "and I think I know who's at fault." The boys turned. Larry Blaisdell stood behind them. He came forward, placing his hands on the shoulders of two of the guys. "Fellas, no matter what signals you thought you got, no means no. It's not a hard word. What part of it don't you understand?"

A great deal of shuffling and mumbling ensued. Larry nodded, smiling. "Listen, I think everything's cool if you'll just head on home, okay?" Nodding, eyes down, the three guys walked away, glancing back a few times. Larry walked up to Buffy.

"You okay?" he asked.

"Yes, Larry. Thanks so much." Buffy played the just-rescued damsel to the hilt.

Larry shook his head. "No problem. Don't hold it against them. Lotta guys can't separate anger from sexuality." He winked. "See you in class tomorrow." He stuck his hands in his pockets and sauntered away.

Buffy whirled. "I see you're not really up to speed on the secret identity part of the gig."

Faith's nostrils flared. "We could have kicked their asses."

"Yeah, but I don't think we wanted to." Buffy made a back-and-forth gesture. "See, we are high school students. As far as most people are concerned, that's all we are." She looked over her shoulder. "Good thing Larry happened along."

"Yeah, who was the meat?" Faith asked.

"Oh, him?" Buffy shrugged. "That was our gay All-State linebacker."

"Oh," Faith said. "Cool."

***

Willow paused at the top of the steps, breathing hard. She blinked a couple of times, trying to clear her head.

"Hey, Will, what's up?" Xander pulled up beside her. Cordelia was with him.

"Yeah," she said. "Just because your hair's lifeless is no reason not to comb it."

Willow squinted at them. "Thanks for the commentary. I'm a little under today."

"Too much par-tay with Oz?" Xander nudged her shoulder.

She rocked off-balance. "No," she replied when she was steady again. "I just didn't sleep well last night. Maybe I'm coming down with a cold."

"Well, don't breathe on me," Cordelia said. "Homecoming's in a couple of weeks and a cold is the last thing I need."

"We seem pretty certain of our victory," Xander said.

"Harmony may be the bitch of the year, but Homecoming Queen is my birthright," Cordelia said.

"There's a worthy life goal," Xander said. He turned to Willow. "Hope you feel better. Anything we can do?"

Willow shook her head. "I'm just off my game."

"Okay," Xander said. "Catch you later." He took Cordelia's hand and they walked away.

***

"You look pale," Oz said, reaching out to touch her hair.

Willow lifted her head off her folded arms and looked at him, her expression less than charitable. "I'm always pale," she said.

"Still," Oz replied, "even factoring that in."

"I'm just tired," Willow said. "I didn't sleep well last night."

***

"Do you think this has anything to do with your little... problem?" Buffy pulled her locker door open.

"You mean my little interludes of twitch'n'shake? I don't think so." Willow leaned against the lockers, backpack dangling from her hand. "I don't feel sick or anything, just different."

Buffy nodded, shouldering her own pack. "Well, you should go home and rest. I have to go train."

"Oh, well, have a good session." Willow smiled, a lopsided grin. "Don't beat Giles up too much."

"Not a problem. Faith's joining us today." Buffy touched her friend on the cheek. "Sure you're okay?"

"Yeah." Willow sighed. "I just can't get real excited about moving."

***

They were a blur of arms and legs, the sound of flesh hitting flesh mixing with grunts of exertion and the scuffling of shoes across the grass. A maelstrom of punches and kicks were exchanged, ending with the two combatants facing each other, arms up, knees flexed, ready for the next sortie.

Faith grinned. "You're good, B."

Buffy arched an eyebrow. "Not bad yourself," she said. She spun into a roundhouse kick, but Faith anticipated and caught it under her left arm. Left leg pinned, Buffy dropped to the ground, her hands catching her in a push-up position. Her free right leg whipped up and back, trying to take off Faith's head. The dark-haired girl released Buffy's leg, flipping herself to the left and executing a perfect shoulder roll as Buffy completed her mid-air three-sixty and popped to her feet.

"Wow," Lindsay Maeda said. "I've never seen anything like that."

"Neither have I," Giles said.

Lindsay shook her head. "This sounds weird, but it's almost beautiful."

"No, it does possess a certain... elegance." Giles reached into the picnic basket beside him and took out an apple. "Care for one?" he asked.

Lindsay shook her head. Her eyes focused on the battling Slayers. Both girls were sweating like Pentecostal preachers on a July Sunday morning, but neither appeared to be getting winded. "They're magnificent," she said.

Giles swallowed. "They have to be to survive," he said.

There was silence for a moment, then Lindsay spoke. "I'm not sure that I'm the best Watcher for Faith."

Giles glanced at her, his brow creased behind his spectacles. "What do you mean?" he said.

Lindsay picked at the grass. "Faith needs someone more... I don't know, experienced."

Giles pondered this for a moment. "The council goes to great lengths to match Watchers and Slayers."

"Mr. Giles, if I saw someone keeping a pet in the kind of home where I met Faith, I'd call the ASPCA. She has no stable family, and then she's the Slayer. One minute she's another white-trash tenement kid and the next she's the hope of the world. It's a lot to handle." Lindsay's jaw clenched for a moment. "I don't know if I can help her overcome that. I just feel so young and stupid sometimes."

Giles watched the ebb and flow of the Slayers' contest. "If you are her Watcher, then you have what she needs. You will be fine."

Lindsay swallowed. "I don't know. I... I watch you and Buffy and I feel so... clumsy and stupid."

"Because of me?" Giles's eyebrows went up.

"To take a Slayer with no previous training, and to guide her through the Harvest, and then the Master's release, the whole Angelus business... I couldn't do it."

Giles adjusted his glasses. "That rather brief synopsis makes me seem much more competent than I felt. Thank you."

"False modesty on your part won't help me," Lindsay said. "Sometimes I wish they'd given Faith to a different Watcher."

"Why? Why do you feel that way?"

Lindsay looked at him, disbelief plain on her face. "Why? Look at her." She gestured toward the girls.

Faith balanced on the balls of her feet, dark hair flowing in the breeze. A glistening sheen covered her face and arms. Her teeth were bared in an almost hysterical grin, blinding white against her wine-red lips. She was alive and electric. Even at rest, she seemed to ripple with energy, almost ready to burst from her skin.

"Yes," Giles said. "She does seem to be quite challenging."

"She can be, but that's not the point. There's so much potential there, Mr. Giles, and I don't just mean as the Slayer. She can do so much, but she needs focus, and discipline." Lindsay's jaw tightened, the muscles at the hinge standing out. "If I screw her up, it will be a tragedy."

"You won't." Giles looked up at the blue sky. "If you care about her that much, you will be the Watcher she needs." He poked at the grass with a forefinger. "It's very easy to forget that these are still very young women, as gifted as they may be. They need more than advice on battle tactics and weaponry. They need to know that they are not alone. You do that for Faith and you will be an excellent Watcher."

"Hey, old folks." Giles looked up. The Slayers stood there, arms tossed around each other's shoulders, faces flushed. Faith continued speaking. "If you two are finished resting, we're done with the training."

"Yes," Giles said, getting to his feet. "And it looked like an excellent workout."

"The kind of excellent workout that I believe deserves ice cream," Buffy said.

Giles put his hands in his pockets and made a great show of thinking, squinting with the effort. "Oh, all right," he said at last. "My treat."

***

"Xander? Xander! What are you doing?"

"Uh, sorry. I got a little distracted."

Cordelia glared at him as she tugged her sweater into place. "The SATs are next month, and we're supposed to be studying for them, remember?"

"Yeah," he said, "I have a vague recollection of that." He trailed his fingers over the sleeve of her pink sweater. "It just seems that I can find so many things that seem worth doing right now." His fingers drifted down her back. Cordelia's spine arched and her eyes closed. Xander's hand rested at the small of her back. As Cordelia took a deep breath, his hand slipped under the sweater's waistband and began to glide upward, the tips of his fingers caressing her warm skin. A small noise escaped from her throat. Xander's hand moved around, sliding along her ribs, the satin of her bra cool and slick under his fingers, then the firmness of rib and muscle gave way to that intoxicating softness, that wonderful-

"Xander!" Cordelia twisted away from his touch, wedging her elbow underneath his arm and levering it aside. Her face was not happy. "We, okay, I have to study. Besides, do you really want to go there again?"

"I'd settle for going there once," Xander said.

Cordelia sighed. "Xander, you know what the limits are."

"Yeah," he said, grinning, "but it's my nature to test those limits."

She wanted to be angry with him, she really did, but as she looked at him, at that black hair falling into his eyes and that crooked grin, her irritation melted away.

"Well," she said, putting her pencil down, "I suppose a fifteen minute break wouldn't kill me."

***

Oz ducked his head, trying to see into Willow's eyes. "Are you okay?" he asked.

"Yes," she said as she searched through the papers piled at her right elbow. "I just can't find my study guide." She rested her forehead on a clenched fist and closed her eyes. Her left hand tapped at the table.

"Hey, hey." Oz leaned over, putting an arm over her shoulders and covered her shaking hand with his. "Let's take a break, okay?"

"Yeah. Yeah. A break might help." She folded her arms and laid her head down.

***

Buffy frowned. "Are you sure you're all right?" she asked.

"Why does everyone keep asking me that?" Willow replied in an irritated voice. Buffy surveyed her friend's tangled hair, dry lips, and the dark circles under her eyes. The circles looked even darker against Willow's skin. Pale at best, today it resembled parchment soaked in chlorine.

"Oh," the Slayer said, her head bobbing, "no real reason."

"I have to get to class." Willow turned to go. She turned a little too far and had to adjust her path down the hall, but she overcorrected. For the first ten feet she was quite wobbly, but the oscillations became smaller as she proceeded. Buffy watched her go. As the redhead disappeared into the stream of students, the Slayer headed toward her own class.

***

Willow blinked and stared at her paper. Why didn't any of this make sense? It was written in English; she spoke English. It was, in fact, her native tongue. So why didn't any of these sentences seem to have a point? Her eyes bugged with the effort of trying to extract meaning from these symbols. She tightened her grip on her pen and felt it sliding away from her. She watched in sluggish fascination as the point skittered across the paper, as though the pen were dragging her arm behind it rather than being guided by her hand. It approached the edge of her notebook, dropped off the page, and tumbled through the air, striking the floor with a sharp 'click'.

"Are you all right, Ms. Rosenberg?" The teacher looked over her shoulder, chalk poised in mid-air.

"Uh, yeah, uh, I-I don't know." Willow closed her eyes. "Maybe I need to go to the nurse."

"Let me write you a pass." The teacher put down her chalk and scribbled on the form as Willow gathered her books. She kept her head down, watching her feet as she approached the desk. Pass in hand, she left the room, clipping the doorway with her shoulder as she exited.

The hallway was a thousand miles long. She concentrated on walking in the middle of the hall; she seemed to have developed a tendency to weave. She could see the nurse's office, just ahead on her left, when her legs stopped listening to her. She lurched to one side, colliding with the wall and sliding down. Looking along her legs, she saw that her skirt had slid up, bunching around her waist. She needed to pull it down, to cover herself. So why wouldn't her arm obey her? Instead of grasping the fabric and pulling, her arm flopped around, executing only the broadest of commands. Her books and papers were in disarray around her, and the jerky movements of her limbs scattered them further, until they were strewn across the hallway.

A shoe squeaked to her left. Willow rolled her eyes. The nurse stared down at her, eyes wide.

"Oh my God," the nurse said, kneeling down beside her.

***

Buffy held Willow's hand and touched her hair. Willow's throat worked. "Are you gonna blow?" Buffy asked.

"Nah," Willow said in a soft voice. "I don't feel sick, just kinda... slow."

Buffy could hear the nurse's voice. "That's right, an ambulance to Sunnydale High, right now. I have a student who requires immediate admission."

Buffy looked at Willow and knew that her best friend had heard. "Buffy, I'm scared. What's happening to me?"

"I don't know," the Slayer said. "But the doctors will find out."

"It's like my arms and legs aren't listening to me."

"You'll be all right! Listen to me, Willow. You're going to be fine!"

Willow blinked. "Thanks for coming."

Buffy shrugged, trying to make the gesture nonchalant. "Hey, any excuse to get out of class."

"I didn't know who else to ask for." Willow swallowed. "Am I going to die?"

"What? No! Don't even think that. They'll find out what this is and you'll be out in no time."

Willow smiled. "Will you ride with me in the ambulance?"

Buffy nodded. "Sure. I'll see if we can get them to turn on the siren."

***

Oz rushed out of the elevator. Xander and Cordelia followed. The elevator opened onto a combination lobby/waiting area. Giles sat on one of the electric-blue chairs. He stood when he saw them.

"Hello," he said. "You, um, you certainly got here quickly."

"Cordelia drove." Xander jerked his head in her direction.

"Hey, it was that or all of us try to fit into that Tinker Toy that Giles drives," she said.

"What did Buffy tell you?" Oz asked.

Giles shook his head. "Only that they have admitted Willow and are performing neurological tests." He started down the hall. "Buffy's this way."

They found the Slayer in the NICU waiting area, pacing in front of a window. She chewed on her nails as she paced. When she saw them, she rushed across the room.

"Have they told you anything?" Xander asked.

Buffy shook her head. "The doctor should be here any minute."

"Can we see her?" Oz asked. Buffy shook her head.

"Where are her parents?" Giles asked.

Buffy ran a hand through her hair. "They, uh, I think they went to the cafeteria."

Oz nodded. "I'm going to find them." He hurried away.

Cordelia said, "We came as soon as school was out."

Giles looked down at the floor. "Not to be abrupt, but what happened?"

The Slayer lifted her hands. "They came and got me out of class. They said Will was in the nurse's office asking for me. By the time I got there, they were calling the ambulance."

Before Giles could ask another question, a tall man with thinning hair, wearing pale green scrubs and a white coat, entered the room. "Is the Rosenberg family here?" he asked.

"We're with them." Xander raised a hand. "They stepped out."

"How is she?" Giles asked.

The doctor shook his head. "I don't know. We can't find anything wrong with her. Her EEG is perfectly normal. So far, all her blood work has been absolutely what you would expect."

"So you have no idea?" Buffy sounded a bit indignant.

His lips compressed into a tight line. "Her chart shows that she was here last spring with a head trauma. It's possible that it's some sort of delayed reaction. We also have not ruled out some viral agent, but her symptoms are inconsistent with that." He looked around at them. "I'm Dr. Wylie, by the way."

Giles stepped forward. "What symptoms does she exhibit?"

"She's lethargic and becoming more unresponsive."

Cordelia frowned. "She's paralyzed?"

Wylie shook his head. "No, she has full neurological function and sensation. She responds to pain and has good reflex response. It's very unusual."

"Can we see her?" Xander asked.

"Completely out of the question. Her parents can see her briefly when they return. No other visitors." He looked around at them. "I'm sorry I can't tell you more." He ducked his head and left. They stood there in silence.

"I hate this place," Cordelia said, her voice shaking. Xander put his arm around her. She leaned into him. "We are spending way too much time here." She buried her face in Xander's shoulder. He put both arms around her.

Buffy looked at them. "My thoughts exactly."

***

The house on Wallingford was quiet. No music wailed; no television flickered. Cheryl McGinley sat at the desk in her room and did her homework at a feverish pace. This was what she'd needed all along, some peace and quiet. Every so often she glanced at the closet door. That weird glow still twinkled beneath the door. She sighed and smiled, then turned back to her work.

***

Cordelia looked at Buffy, slumped in one of those awful waiting room chairs. The Slayer was asleep, her torso twisted to one side, her knees drawn up in a rather fruitless attempt to find a comfortable position in the chair. Cordelia leaned down and placed a hand on her shoulder, shaking gently.

Buffy's eyes popped open and she took in a deep, rasping breath. She blinked several times as she pulled herself into a more conventional position. Cordelia held out the cup of coffee she had brought. "Here."

"Oh, thanks." Buffy took a sip, then another. "What time is it?"

"Little after ten."

Buffy looked around. "Oh man, I've been here over nine hours. I gotta call my mom."

"Xander called. She came down, but you were asleep and I convinced her that you should stay here. Call her when you're ready to go home."

Buffy stared at her, a little wide-eyed. "That was... sweet of you. Where's Giles?"

Cordelia sat down in a chair across from the Slayer. "Everybody else is in the hall."

Buffy drank more coffee. "How's Willow?"

Cordelia shook her head. "Not good. The doctor can't find anything wrong. She just keeps getting weaker." She paused, then plunged ahead. "She could die, couldn't she?"

Buffy looked down at the floor, then up at Cordelia. "I'm afraid she might." Cordelia shuddered and turned away. Buffy frowned and put her cup down on the floor.

"Anything wrong?" the Slayer asked. The other girl shook her head, still looking away. "Cordelia?"

Cordelia picked at the arm of her chair. "I'm really sorry about breaking down out there before. I just flashed back to waking up in the emergency room with those bandages on. I was so scared that I'd have scars."

Buffy crossed the narrow aisle and sat beside the other girl. "It's okay. Besides, I'm gripping big time myself." She laid a hesitant hand on Cordelia's back.

Cordelia's voice was small. "Willow's really scared, isn't she?"

Buffy nodded. "She's scared."

Cordelia tossed her head back. "It's just so weird. It's like somebody put a spell on her or something."

Buffy's eyes widened. "Cordelia," she said, getting to her feet, "you are a genius."

"What?" Cordelia said as the Slayer grabbed her and pulled her to her feet. "Wh-What are you talking about?" she stammered as Buffy hugged her. The Slayer sprinted out of the waiting room as Cordelia stood there, shock and bewilderment on her face.

***

Xander hung up the pay phone. "Well," he said to Giles, "now my mom's not expecting me. Like she ever is."

"Giles!" Buffy raced up to them. She grabbed the Watcher's arms. "Listen, I have an idea. Cordelia gave it to me."

"Really?" Giles said. "It must be later than we thought."

"No, listen to me. She said it was like somebody put a spell on Willow. Could that be causing this?"

Giles frowned. "I suppose it's possible." He looked at Buffy. "Cordelia said this?"

"You know-forest, blind pig, acorn." Xander put his hands in his pockets.

Buffy ignored him. "If it is a spell, what do we do?"

Giles looked like a man waking from sleep. "First, we have to determine the nature of the spell, but do we have time? The doctor says that her condition is very serious."

"Then I'd say it's time for an all-nighter." Xander looked shocked. "Hey, when was the last time you heard me say that?"

***

"So, you think someone put a hex on Willow?" Oz straightened up a little.

Buffy bit her lip. "Honestly Oz, I don't know, but it's worth a shot. How is she?"

Oz shook his head. "Not good. She can't move. She can barely talk. It's like she's not there."

Buffy touched his arm. "Oz, I'm so sorry. But we're going to find out what's wrong. Stay strong."

Oz took a shuddering breath. "Doing my best. But it's not right, y'know?"

Buffy nodded and left. Oz leaned back against the wall, looking down at his feet.

***

Cheryl looked at the clock beside her bed. 2:30 am. She snuggled down into the covers, stifling a giggle. She squeezed her eyes shut, but sleep did not come.

***

The first pale rays of the morning sun entered the windows of the library and cast long bars of light across the floor. Dust motes danced in the shafts of sunlight. The dust was as silent as the occupants of the room.

Giles turned a page; the rustling sounded quite loud. Xander's head nodded, dipping toward the polished wood of the tabletop. Cordelia was asleep, her head pillowed on her forearms. Buffy's head rested on her balled fists as she looked at a book.

"Damn," Giles said, stretching his neck. "This is like looking for a needle in a haystack."

"I do believe that you've chosen exactly the right cliché," Xander said.

Buffy frowned. "There's got to be something here. It made so much sense. I mean, what about that time I was under a death spell? You know, that bloodhound whammy?"

Giles winced as he leaned back. "That was a bloodstone vengeance spell. Willow has shown none of the behaviors associated with it. There was no manic phase, no disturbing vital signs. If it's magic, it is something different."

"Where am I?" Cordelia awoke with a start. She looked around, eyes bleary. "Have we been here all night?"

"Hello, Miss Morning Breath," Xander said.

Cordelia glared at him. She stood and stretched, arms reaching over her head. Xander watched her, smiling.

"Well," he said, "there's a fine 'good morning'."

Cordelia's arms dropped and she scowled at him. "Very mature. Willow's at death's door and you're playing dirty old man. I'm going to get something to drink." She stalked out of the room.

Buffy smacked herself on the forehead. "Why are we wasting our time in here?"

"Excuse me?" Xander said. "This was your idea."

"Yes, but we don't know what we're looking for. Maybe we should call someone who would." Buffy started to rise.

"Who do you have in mind?" Giles asked.

"Amy. Remember who tried to shuffle me off this mortal coil, and as far as Xander's concerned--"

"Hey!" Xander said. "I thought we agreed never to speak of that again."

Buffy held up her hands. "Okay, we all remember what she did to Xander."

Giles frowned. "I'm not sure if that's wise, Buffy. Amy's command of magic seems... precarious at best."

Buffy shook her head. "I know we tried to discourage her from practicing magic, but she's a natural witch. What if she has some sort of magical antenna that could tell us what this is?"

Xander shrugged. "No one's asking me, but I like your thinking, Buff."

"Thank you." Buffy looked back at her Watcher. "Do you have a better idea?"

Giles fumed. At last he said, "No, I don't. But how would we do it? Amy would have to be in physical proximity to Willow."

Buffy set her jaw. "We can do it. Xander, call Oz. I'll call Amy."

Xander looked from Giles to Buffy. "What should I tell him?"

Buffy was already moving toward the door. "Tell him to have the room empty in forty-five minutes."

***

Cheryl opened the closet door. She looked at her little collection. There they lay, seven pieces of string, all inside the circle. She smiled and closed the door.

***

Oz followed Willow's parents down the hall. He glanced back over his shoulder just before they reached the elevator, then stepped into the car behind them.

"Okay, they're on the elevator," Buffy whispered. She felt Giles and Amy standing behind her on the landing. She watched as Xander and Cordelia crossed the hall. He stuck his head inside the room, then stepped back. His hand made a small motioning gesture.

"There's the signal," Buffy said. "Let's go." She pulled the door open. The three of them tried to hurry down the hall without seeming to hurry. They ducked into Willow's room as Xander and Cordelia assumed their posts outside the door.

Buffy choked back a gasp. Willow lay on her back, her skin almost as white as the hospital linens. Her breath came in slow, shallow gasps. Her eyes roamed around the room, landing on them as they approached her bed.

"Buffy?" she asked, her voice a slow, slurred whisper.

Buffy took her hand. "It's all right. We're going to find out what's wrong."

"What do you want me to do?" Amy asked.

Buffy looked across the bed at the blond witch. "See if you can detect any witchcraft, spells or hexes or stuff. You know, like a magic Geiger counter."

Amy nodded. She placed her hands on either side of Willow's head, a light touch. The redhead rolled her eyes toward Buffy, who patted her friend's hand to reassure her. Amy's head bowed and when she raised her face the eyes were solid black. She leaned over, her face close to Willow's. The sick girl lay still, either afraid or unable to move. When Amy straightened, her eyes were normal.

"She's practicing Wicca?" Amy asked.

"What?" Giles said.

Buffy shrugged, making a so-what face. "Maybe. Is that what's wrong?"

Amy shook her head. "No, I just sensed it. Whatever's causing this is something else."

Giles rubbed a hand along his jaw. "You don't know what it is?"

Amy took a sharp breath. "There's something there, but it's so weird--"

One knock came at the door, followed by Xander's voice. "Nurse at twelve o'clock. Plan B."

They looked at each other for a split-second, then rushed toward the bathroom. Buffy and Amy ducked behind the door. Giles stepped into the shower area and closed the curtain. They tried not to breathe as they heard the nurse enter, her shoes squeaking as she crossed the floor. Other sounds followed, the soft murmur of a voice, then the shoes squeaked again as the nurse left the room. The door opened and closed and they all began to breathe again.

Buffy eased the door open and stuck her head into the hallway. Xander and Cordelia stood there.

"Are we trying to make this more exciting?" Xander asked, arching his eyebrows.

"Amy, what did you see?" Giles asked.

"Pardon me for being the practical one," Cordelia said, "but could we take this someplace less conspicuous?"

They went to the waiting room, gathering in the far corner. Giles said to Amy, "What did you feel?"

Amy crossed her arms. "There's something magical there, but I'm not sure what it is."

Cordelia frowned. "Isn't magic just magic?"

Amy shook her head. "Different forms have different... signatures, I guess."

Giles pressed the point. "Could you recognize anything about it?"

Amy looked apologetic. "I can't be sure, but it felt like... vaudun."

Giles snorted. "Vaudun? In Sunnydale? Impossible!"

"Excuse me," Buffy said. "Why are you saying anything's impossible in Sunnydale?"

Giles opened his mouth, realized she was right, and said nothing.

"'Scuse me." Xander raised his hand. "For those of us in the peanut gallery, what the hell is vow-doon? Anybody care to share?"

Giles waved a hand at him. "Vaudun is more popularly known as voodoo. It originated in Haiti among the slave population."

"Voodoo? You mean like, dolls and pins? That voodoo that you do so well?"

Giles blinked. "The doll is one aspect of vaudun. There are many, many ways of casting spells."

"And we believe it to be the culprit because... ?" Xander made a two-handed 'come on' gesture.

Amy rubbed her forehead. "I can feel Willow's soul being drawn out of her. That doesn't happen in the magic I practice. I can effect the body. Vaudun has ways of binding and controlling the soul."

Cordelia cut to the chase. "So someone's trying to kill her?"

Amy grimaced. "Not directly, but when the soul is gone from the body, the body begins to decay."

Cordelia said, "Isn't that what dead is?"

Amy looked away. "Her body will still be functioning. Willow will be conscious and feeling while her body rots."

Cordelia turned away, eyes wide. "Okay," she said. "Officially gross. I'm sure I'll never eat again."

Xander said, "That sounds like a zombie."

Giles said, "No, a zombie is a corpse re-animated, a dead body with the soul forced back in."

"Morbid, much." Buffy looked like she was gagging.

"It is part of the same religion." Giles sounded apologetic.

"Huh." Cordelia looked thoughtful. "I wonder why that girl was buying a book about it."

"What girl?" Giles and Buffy spoke simultaneously.

"In the bookstore." Cordelia turned to Xander. "That girl you flirted with. She was buying a voodoo book."

"Hey, I think 'flirting is a little strong," Xander replied.

"What girl?" Buffy repeated.

Xander turned to the Slayer. "Cheryl McGinley. I saw her at a bookstore. Next to Will, she's like the smartest person in school."

"Isn't it strange," Cordelia said. "You always know the smart people, yet you never are one of the smart people."

Xander stood up straight. "I'll ignore that."

"Why would she want to harm Willow?" Giles asked.

Buffy turned toward the door. "I don't know, and I don't care. Xander, do you know where she lives?"

"Yeah."

"Great. You're coming with me."

Buffy spoke to Giles. "How will we know if she's cursed Willow?"

"Vaudun believes that spirits are tied to objects. There will be something that represents Willow. That's what will hold her soul." Giles's hands grabbed at the air, as though he was trying to pull the facts to him.

"Hey, hey, hey." Xander looked from one to the other. "Aren't we taking a leap of faith here? Cordy saw Cheryl buy a book. That's not exactly an iron-clad case."

Buffy raised her chin. "If we're wrong, we'll apologize. This is Willow's life."

"How do they undo the spell?" Cordelia asked.

Amy said, "It's not a spell; it's a curse. That's like a step up from a spell."

"Correct her later," Buffy said. "How do we reverse it?"

Giles and Amy exchanged looks before the Watcher spoke. "I'm not positive, but I should have a book--"

"OK, plan," Buffy said. "Xander and I will go to Cheryl's." She pointed at the others. "Giles, you take Amy and Cordelia. Head to the library. Find out how to reverse a voodoo curse."

Cordelia groaned. "Oh great. The library again. Why do I always get the library?"

***
Dr. Wylie hung the chart at the foot of Willow's bed. The girl's eyes drifted toward him. That was new; she'd lost the ability to move her head. It took him a couple of minutes to realize that she was trying to lift her arms. He stepped to the head of the bed.

"Where... where is... Oz?" she said, her voice little more that an articulated exhalation.

"He's outside."

"Could... could I... see him?"

"You're not supposed to have visitors."

She looked at him. "Please," she said.

He said nothing as he leaned down to shine a light in each eye. He noted the reaction of the pupil, then listened to her heart and lungs. He straightened, looking down at her.

"I'll see what I can do," he said.

***

Buffy and Xander stood on the sidewalk and looked at the house. It was a small two-story home, identical to the houses on either side of it and across the street. Xander shuffled his feet.

"Okay," he said. "One more time, what's the procedure?"

Buffy stared at the house. "We go in. We call Giles. He tells us what we're looking for. We find it. He tells us how to undo it."

"What if Cheryl tries to stop us?"

Buffy continued to look at the house. "It's the middle of the day. She's at school."

Xander nodded. "And of course no one in Sunnydale would skip school due to the black arts."

Buffy threw him a quick glance. "Good point."

"So, if she's home?"

Buffy's eyes narrowed. "I wail on her."

Xander cocked his head to one side. "Crude, yet appealing in its simplicity."

"Let's do it." They went up the steps. Buffy tried the knob. The door was locked. She took a deep breath, leaned into it, and pushed. The door popped open with a small squeal.

"After you," Xander said. "I insist."

***

Cheryl's head snapped up. Her eyes were wide, accentuating the dark circles forming around them. She raised her hand.

"Yes?" the teacher said.

"I gotta go to the bathroom."

"Make it quick."

Cheryl jumped up from the desk and hurried out of the room.

***

Xander and Buffy stood just inside the door, looking around the living room. It was spotless; everything gleamed.

"Creepy," Xander said.

"Does look awfully neat for a family with five kids."

Xander frowned. "That's not it. This place is making me tingly, and not in the good way."

Buffy looked around. "We need to find a phone."

Xander scanned the room, pointing toward a doorway. "That looks like the kitchen. I'll look in there." Buffy nodded and began searching the living room.

"Oh shit!" Xander screamed. It really was a scream, not a shout. Buffy crossed the room in three strides and almost piled into him. He stood just inside the doorway, staring at the far wall. Buffy rose up on tiptoe to peer over the table.

A man, a woman, three boys, and a girl were arranged in a neat row on the floor. They were all slack and unmoving, except for their eyes, which were fixed with a feverish mixture of horror and hope on Buffy and Xander.

Buffy nodded. "Okay, I think that's proof that we're in the right house. There's the phone. Call Giles, pronto."

***

Dr. Wylie came out of Willow's room. Oz stood up.

"Did the nurse bring you a chair?" Wylie asked, pointing.

"No," Oz said. "I sort of liberated it from the waiting room." The doctor nodded. Oz continued. "How is she?"

"Are her parents here?"

Oz shook his head. "Mrs. Rosenberg fainted. I think they're admitting her. I could pass along anything you tell me."

Two deep lines bracketed Wylie's face as he frowned. "Are you her boyfriend?"

Oz nodded. "Yeah. Is there a problem with that?"

The doctor sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger. "Look, I don't know what to tell you. Her lungs are clear. She has no fever. Her EEG shows normal brain activity, but she is profoundly non-responsive to stimuli and her swallow reflex is beginning to fail. There is no medical explanation for this."

Oz tried for hopeful. "So, she'll get better, right?"

"That depends on your definition of 'better'. Medically, there's nothing wrong with her, although obviously something terrible is happening." Wylie looked up and down the hall. "I know her visitors are supposed to be limited, but why don't you go in? I don't see what harm it could do."

Oz pushed past the doctor. The interior of the room was dark and still. Weak light filtered through the blinds. Willow lay on the bed, her face turned to the window, like a flower searching for regeneration in the sun's rays. Oz took her hand. Her eyes turned to him; her lips struggled to form his name, even though no sound emerged. Oz swallowed, trying to keep his voice steady. "Don't try to talk. Just listen. Listen to me. You'll be all right. Buffy's on the case. And Giles. And that girl, the one who's the witch. They think they know what's happening, and they're going to fix it, but you've got to hang on. You can't quit." He brushed a lock of hair from her forehead. "You cannot let go. You cannot leave me." He watched her lips move. She had to repeat it three times before he understood.

She was mouthing "OK".

***

Cordelia and Amy sat across from each other, but their attention was focused on Giles as he talked on the phone.

"There must be a physical object that represents Willow. It could be a crude doll, a scrap of cloth, a piece of knotted string, almost anything."

***

"So, how will we know?" Xander asked. He stood in the living room of the McGinley home, phone glued to his ear.

"Whatever you find will have something of Willow's on it."

"Like what?"

Giles sounded exasperated. "Strands of hair, fingernail clippings, that sort of thing."

"Sounds hygienic." Xander shifted the phone to his other ear. "After we find it, then what?"

Giles' voice sounded tinny in his ear. "The method of reversing the curse varies. Call back after you find the totem."

Xander nodded. "Gotcha." He broke the connection, turning to Buffy.

Before he could say anything, the door burst open and Cheryl charged into the room. Buffy turned as Cheryl bowled Xander over, grabbed a lamp off the end table and clubbed him over the head. She turned on Slayer, lamp in hand.

"Why are you in my house?" she screamed.

Buffy nodded. "Okay, I guess that would make you Cheryl. We know about the curse you put on Willow. I'm here to reverse it."

The other girl screamed, "Never!" She waved the lamp as she backed away to stand at the foot of the stairs. Buffy looked at her, then up the stairs, then back.

"So it's upstairs," the Slayer said. "Are you going to get out of my way?"

Cheryl's face was mottled purple as she screamed, "No!"

Buffy shrugged. "Your call." She pivoted on the ball of her right foot, unleashing a spin-kick that smacked into the side of the other girl's head and sent her slumping to the floor like a sack of potatoes. Buffy jumped over her prone form and raced up the stairs.

She turned left at the top of the steps and got lucky. The bedroom was a girl's room; this had to be Cheryl's. The Slayer went inside, looking around. She spotted the eldritch light underneath the closet door. She hesitated for a moment, then flung the door wide. The knotted strings lay there. Buffy hesitated, then reached down. When her hand touched the flickering hemisphere, a blinding flash erupted. She stumbled back, her hand tingling. Turning, she sprinted down the stairs.

Once again she hurdled Cheryl's supine form. Xander had pulled himself into a sitting position while he rubbed his head. Buffy grabbed the phone off the floor and headed back upstairs, dialing the library number as she went. Cheryl groaned.

"Okay," Buffy said when Giles answered, "I've found it. It's a bunch of strings tied in knots."

"Excuse me?" Giles said. "Did you say 'strings'?"

"Yeah, seven of them, and her family's laid out in the kitchen. I'm guessing that whatever mojo she did to Willow worked so well that she did it to them."

"Good God." The Watcher's voice rasped through the handset.

"Oh, there's more good news. There's some kind of shield covering the string."

Giles sounded relieved. "All right, I know what that is. It's a circle of power, very easy to reverse. You have to take the witch's knife and trace around the circle in a counterclockwise motion."

"What kind of knife?"

"The witch's knife, the blade used to activate the spell."

Buffy frowned. "How will I know when I've found it?"

"It will have a blade of stone."

"Well where on earth--" Buffy stopped. A low, keening sound came from the doorway behind her. She turned. Cheryl stood in the door, eyes wild, a knife with a stone blade held in her right hand.

"Giles," Buffy said, "I think I've found it." She tossed the phone away as Cheryl charged, shrieking. The Slayer stepped to her left, allowing the knife to slip past as the other girl stabbed out. A wild backhand slash was ducked with ease. Popping upright, Buffy threw two quick jabs. Both landed, rocking Cheryl back and leaving her wobbling. The Slayer drew back her right hand.

"Normally," she said, "I'd feel bad about this, but..." The right cross turned Cheryl halfway around. Her eyes rolled up and she collapsed to the floor. Buffy caught the knife as it fell. She picked up the phone and went to the closet.

"Okay, Giles, what do I do now?"

***

Cordelia's heart pounded as she watched Giles. The Watcher clung to the phone, trying to hear what was happening on the other end. The frown lines on his face grew deeper and more plentiful, then-

"Trace around the circle counterclockwise. That will open it. Then untie the knots. The souls should return to their owners."

Amy realized she was holding her breath.

***

Buffy knelt by the circle, the knife in hand, taking a moment to remind herself which direction was counterclockwise. She took a deep breath, then placed the chipped point of the blade on the ground and traced around the circumference.

The hemisphere glowed and shrank in for a heartbeat, then exploded outward in a shower of sparks that vanished before they touched anything. Dropping the knife, the Slayer grabbed the strings and began frantically untying them. As each knot was untied a glow like a small flame rose from it. They hovered in the air, then zipped out the door. Buffy collapsed forward, forehead hitting the floor. She jerked upright when she heard Xander scream.

She staggered to the head of the stairs. The lights were suspended in mid-air quivering. Xander stared at them, eyes wide. One of the lights split from the groups and shot out the front door. The remaining six floated through the living room, disappearing through the doorway into the dining area. In seconds, sound of movement could be heard.

***

Oz's forehead rested on the cool metal of the railing around Willow's bed. He tried to swallow even though his throat felt dry and clogged. The room was dim; the door was closed and the blinds pulled.

Willow rolled her eyes toward the door, or rather in its general direction, since she was having trouble focusing her vision. A dim glow, barely brighter than the small slice of light filtering around the door, could be seen above the portal. The brightness seeped through the crack and re-formed as a tiny luminescent orb. It drifted across the room, delicate as a soap bubble blown by a child, lit from within by no visible agency. It hovered above Willow for a second and then, light as an innocent thought, it descended. The light touched her forehead, quivered for a moment, then spread, covering her body in a heartbeat. For the briefest instant of time, she was covered in its shimmering golden radiance, then the light sank into her skin. She drew in a shaky breath.

"Oz?" she said.

"Hey." His head came up. "You talked."

Willow swallowed. "Could I have a drink? I'm so thirsty."

Oz was shaking. "A drink? A drink, yeah, I can do that. Oh man, it must have worked. How do you feel?"

She wiggled the tiniest bit. "A little stiff."

***

"You know, that really hurt." Xander touched the lump on his head and winced. He and Buffy stood across the street from the McGinley's house, watching the paramedics wheeling in stretchers.

"Oz called." Buffy jumped at the sound of Cordelia's voice. Queen C continued. "Willow's snapped out of her funk."

"How is everyone here?" Giles asked.

Buffy shrugged. "I'm fine. Xander's got a goose egg on his head, courtesy of Cheryl."

Cordelia snorted as she stifled a laugh. "Way to go, Rambo!"

"I'll have you know I was ambushed. She had a lamp." Xander scowled.

"Cheryl and her family are all really out of it, but nobody seems to be suffering permanent damage." Buffy pointed across the street.

"Who notified the authorities?" Giles asked.

Buffy looked at him. "We did. Made an anonymous call. Said there was a gas leak."

"The all-purpose excuse," Xander said.

"When this crowd thins out a bit, I'd like a look at that circle." Giles sounded thoughtful.

"I can get you in now, if you'd like," Amy said.

"No, no. I'll wait." Giles spoke in haste. "Let's let the uncanny lie dormant, shall we?"

Xander touched his head again. "Yeah, whatever Giles said."

***

"Let me see if I understand this. Cheryl got the spell wrong?" Buffy was having a hard time believing what she was hearing. The Slayer sat on the Sunnydale High lawn, sharing the shade of a large oak tree with Amy, Cordelia, and Willow.

Amy nodded. "Vaudun always calls for a blood sacrifice, a goat or a chicken usually, but Cheryl didn't have an animal. So she used her own blood."

Cordelia made a disgusted face. "Excuse me while I yak."

Amy continued her explanation. "It made the curse more powerful than she intended. She only wanted to hold Willow back in class, but ended up siphoning away her soul. Same with her family. She wanted them quiet and almost killed them."

Buffy held up a hand. "Why did Cheryl go all Karloff?"

Amy said, "Giles thinks that using her own blood bound her to the curse-- made her part of it, I think."

"Could we change the subject before my lunch is part of this lawn?" Cordelia insisted.

The Slayer looked at her best friend, who had remained quiet. "We are sounding tre ghoul. Sorry, Will."

Willow offered a small, shy smile. "Oh, it's okay."

Buffy arched her eyebrows. "You almost died, and it's okay if we talk about it?"

Willow tossed her head. "I actually think I'm getting accustomed to being in jeopardy."

Buffy leaned forward. "There's a truly frightening thought."

Willow looked up at the leaves above them "Tell me about it. But I've thought about it, and I've decided to look at it this way. It was a spell--

"Curse." Amy insisted on correct terminology.

"Excuse me, curse, which is better than a disease, because once the curse is lifted, it's gone forever, but a disease could recur." Finished with her statement, Willow leaned back, her arms bracing her.

"That's the creepiest thing I've ever heard," Cordelia said.

"What other choice do you have when you live on a hellmouth?" Willow looked at Buffy.

"What choice, indeed." The Slayer stood up.

"Leaving?" Amy asked.

"Yeah," Buffy replied. "I've got to see someone. I've been putting it off, but it needs to be done." She looked at Willow. "You can't run away from some things."

Willow stood up as well. "I have to meet Oz after school. We have something we need to do."

Cordelia grinned, a brilliant flash of perfect teeth. "I'll bet you do."

***

Buffy paused outside the door of the old mansion. She reached out, her hand caressing the weathered wood, then she pushed it open and entered.

The entry hall was dim and cool. She paused, waiting, but nothing jumped out of the shadows. She crossed the hall and went into the great room. It was empty, as was every other room she went into. The last room she searched was the pantry.

Memory pressed in with an almost physical force as the door opened, the hinges voicing their need for oil. As she looked into the long, narrow room, she could reconstruct the scene in her mind's eye. There was where Spike had stood, there was Dru's spot. The chair where Giles was tortured was still there. The ropes even lay on the floor. Her eyes drifted to the left. That was where...

But now it was vacant, barren and still. She bit her lip; her eyes stung. She walked along the right hand wall, her hand trailing over the rough stone, until she came to the door.

The late afternoon sunlight slanted across the garden, casting long shadows and bathing the far wall in its particularly golden hue. He sat on a bench, back against the outside wall of the mansion, protected from the light by the building's bulk and the overhanging foliage. He picked up a pebble and tossed it across the flagstone-paved space, watching it rebound off the far wall.

"I know you're there," he said.

Buffy stepped out of the shadows behind him. "Hello, Angel."

He looked over his shoulder. "You'll understand if I don't rush to greet you. Things didn't go well the last time we were face to face in this garden."

She lifted her chin. "I'm sorry about that--"

"Oh, that's sweet. You're sorry." He turned away.

Her chin quivered. Fighting to keep her voice steady, she said, "I am sorry. I've cried over it every day. But it had to be done."

"I know." He stood up with a quick, fluid motion. Buffy took her first clear, prolonged look at him. It was still Angel, still tall and strong, the jaw still square, but the narrowed eyes held something new, some combination of defiance and pain. "Why did you come here?"

"Why?" Buffy spread her hands. "Angel, we were... I loved you."

"And I loved you," he said. "That didn't stop you from sending me to Hell."

There it was. Buffy's eyes burned; her throat felt thick and choked. It was impossible to breathe.

Angel pressed on. "What? Did you think you were going to come in here and say 'sorry' and I was going to say 'It's all right' and everything would be just like it was?"

In a trembling voice, Buffy asked, "Then why were you following me?" He reared back as though he'd been slapped. As the tears spilled down her cheeks, Buffy asked again, "Why were you following me?"

They stared into each other's eyes. He looked away, then down at his hands. Buffy held her ground, blinking to clear her vision.

"Because... because I wanted to make sure you were all right." He looked at her. "Why did you come here?"

Buffy swallowed hard and took a deep breath. "I don't know what you went through. I know I can't understand it, but you can't understand what I went through either. That's the past, anyway. We're here. How are we going to handle it?"

His laugh was harsh but filled with pain. "What's to handle? News flash, sweetheart. A sword through the guts that casts you into outer darkness is a very effective breakup technique."

Something snapped inside Buffy. "I thought you'd gotten your soul back. Now, I'm not so sure."

He took one quick step toward her before catching himself. "Don't you ever say that again," he said, voice gritty in his throat. "I'm not Angelus anymore. If I were, you'd be dead now. But I can feel a pain that he could never experience. I know what it feels like to be betrayed."

Buffy's breathing was fast and shallow. "I thought this was a good idea. Now I think it might have been a mistake."

"Yeah," he said. "You know where the door is."

She fled just before the dam burst. As the door slammed behind her, Angel took two steps across the space, his arms rising before he checked himself.

***

"May I help you?" The nurse was seated at the central desk.

Willow looked over the stack of books she carried. "The front desk told us that Cheryl McGinley's room is on this floor."

The nurse pointed. "Just down the hall on your left."

"Thank you." Willow turned back to the nurse. "How is she?"

"She was dehydrated, lightheaded, a little disoriented. She has a slight concussion, but should be able to go home by the end of the week. You're welcome to go and see her."

Willow shook her head. "No, but I'd appreciate it if you would see that she gets these." She put the books on the counter. She rested a hand on the pile. "It's her assignments and books from school. She'll want to keep up."

The nurse smiled. "That's very nice. Who should I say brought them?"

Willow thought for a moment. "Just tell her it was a friend. A friend who'd like her to get better." She stepped away from the desk, taking Oz's hand as they walked toward the exit.

"Now, tell me again. You're doing this why?" Oz looked at her. Willow stopped. She looked in the direction of Cheryl's room, then back to Oz. Her face was very solemn.

She said, "Let's just say it has to do with the quality of mercy and the luck of the draw."

Oz nodded, a mysterious smile on his face. "Ah, so you choose to be cryptic. How exciting."

They pushed through the double doors, still holding hands.

***

End of "That Voodoo You Do"