Soul Scars
by Pat Kelly

Territory in California, May 1899

Yes, this was going to work out just fine. It wasn't as sterile as he would've liked, but considering the types of forces he dealt with in order to get the position, being given an office as clean as this one was a miracle; even though he didn't put much faith in that kind of thing anymore. Nothing came without a price -- promises would need to be fulfilled, and there was plenty he would owe once his term ended. Thankfully, he didn't plan on letting his constituents down, human or...miscellaneous. When they started arriving, he'd provide them with a prosperous, caring, multicultural community in which to live. He had a goal, and to reach that goal, the majority had to remain content. He wasn't foolish, however; there was a long road ahead, and loss would occur along the way.

Sometimes it'd be necessary loss, an inevitable fact that he'd accepted, but they'd all learn to respect each other's differing needs. Pleasing everyone was impossible, though his best efforts would be put forth, nonetheless. If a certain element became troublesome, taking action was well within his power. Especially if it interfered with his ideals. As with all politicians, his own agenda, of course, had the utmost priority. He convinced his 'supporters' that he could handle the task, and if he didn't satisfactorily meet their demands, the eternal damnation of his soul would be the least of his problems. With that thought in mind, he carefully placed the last of the many idols to which he paid tribute, in his cabinet. You had to give before you could receive.

Going to his desk, he sat down in his chair just in time to greet his first visitor. He wasn't expecting him so soon, but it was better to get the minor issues out of the way now. In most cases he held the elderly in the highest regard, but when they refused to adapt to the ever-changing world, they sadly chose not to become productive members of society, and that made them a 'troublesome element.' He had a strict policy, but he was not without a rational, compassionate side. Beginning the journey to a new future on a sour note would be such a downer, so he'd give his guest a final chance to be a team player. It was good that patience was one of his virtues.

"Hi there! My name's Richard Wilkins, and it's a pleasure to finally meet you," He said cheerily, extending his hand and turning his charisma on full blast, "Mr. Tanrael, isn't it?"

One of the few Old Ones still surviving in this dimension, Tanrael was rather surprised that a mortal would call him by name. After staying hidden for over a thousand years keeping the human pestilence out of his territory (though sometimes he'd let them settle just so he could one day see their faces as those they cared for were stricken with disease or punished with death), he had woken up to suddenly discover that buildings and streets had been erected on top of it. His true visage was more horrible than any written depiction, and it was only because of his ability to shape-shift that he was able to fit within the confines of the office. He took the form of an elderly gentleman with long-flowing white hair wearing a red cloak, and his features almost seemed chiseled -- he resembled a more aged Rasputin, actually. Settlers often figured him to be the stereotypical warlock they'd heard about from some drunkard, and left immediately.

They had no idea he was something much worse. Very rarely did he have to demonstrate his power or bring wrath to the lesser beings. He'd seen the biggest of men weep and then relieve themselves, terrified simply by imagining what it was that he might do. But the man here now, had no fear of him; the man just took a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped off the nameplate on the desk. The ancient demon bellowed at this ignorance, added a screeching roar for effect, and then the seat placed on the opposite side of the desk was shattered to pieces with a look. Either to show that he could easily end the one-sided chat they were having, or that he just preferred to stay standing.

It was slightly disturbing to hear such an unnatural sound come from a human mouth and to see nice furniture go to waste, but the soon-to-be mayor of the brand-new town wasn't disturbed for long.

"Somebody doesn't practice good hygiene." Wilkins said, retracting his offered hand and fanning it in front of his face. "Where are my manners?" He reached into the desk and retrieved a small box. "Mint?" When it wasn't accepted, he popped it into his own mouth. "Where was I? Oh yeah. That's a shame, because my mother always said that fresh-smelling breath is the first step toward making friends. Do you have any friends?"

Tanrael remained silent, though he wanted to laugh at the question. Why hadn't he destroyed this bag of flesh yet?

His redheaded host frowned. "No, I didn't think so." It was clear that no other solution was going to present itself, so Wilkins rose from chair, made his way around the desk, and noticed the glow coming from inside his cabinet. "Well, I took my mother's advice to heart, and I'm glad I did. You see, she was right. Friends are important; you have to be there when they need you, because darn it, sometimes they're all you have. And boy, am I lucky to have lots. Wanna meet them?"

At this point Wilkins was behind the demon, and a rift opened up to the left of them, by their feet. Only one demon was strong enough to punch a hole into this reality from the other side, and when the realization came to Tanrael, his human eyes went wide with fear. The Old One had not only kept out humans, but others of his kind as well. They were mixtures, though; they weren't of pure blood. They were abominations. Still, he should've known that his selfishness would catch up with him, that he couldn't keep the land covering the Mouth of Hell for himself, but it was too late now. Heat, and energy visible because of its pinkish hue emanated from the rift, but he felt the chilling touch of invisible, ghostly fingers enveloping him.

"I didn't want it to come to this; we could've made swell partners. Ushering in a new era..." The Mayor-Elect sighed. "I'm sorry, but I think it's time you went back home." He said, looking at the dimensional hole in his floor. "Oh, before you'd be a real big help if you could just tell me where the orb is."

No. Tanrael had kept that well protected, and Gyrnn would make sure it stayed that way. He turned to face the human, who backed up just in time to avoid being lunged at and grappled. Within moments, the guest was being forced to leave, becoming formless as he was dragged down into the rift, moaning desperately. Straightening his tie as everything returned to normal, Richard Wilkins took a deep breath and rubbed his palms together. He had hoped to accomplish more, but he wasn't too concerned at the moment. The orb would be discovered in time -- which was one thing he wasn't going to run out of. There was only one problem with his town that he could see, and even though he'd talked it over with that kind, yet worried priest a few days ago, he still wasn't any closer to a decision.

What was he going to name this place?


Sunnydale, September 1998

The fast approaching start of senior year was putting a slight damper on the final couple days of summer vacation for a cheerleader and her girlfriend, even though the sun was reflecting brightly on the water of the backyard, in-ground pool they were both occupying. Thankfully, the sunglasses Cordelia was wearing, along with the extensive amount of sunscreen she had on, shielded her from the full force of the UV rays. It was her pool, and she didn't want anything to ruin her relaxed state as she lounged on a float. She didn't use the pool that much, but now that Buffy had more or less spent the entire summer here (a certain rule of Joyce's left them no choice), she was beginning to appreciate its benefits.

Buffy was doing laps up and down the length of it, coming dangerously closer to splashing her girlfriend with each pass. Still, when the blonde came down her way, the brunette lowered her shades just enough so they rested on the tip of her nose, and then she allowed herself an eyeful of a tanned, lean, well-toned Buffy Summers in a white, thin two-piece that left little to the imagination. However, there was no objection, because in this case reality managed to surpass fantasy. And Buffy had another suit that she wore to the beach -- this one was just for her. It was a good thing, too, because Cordelia was territorial to a fault.

As the slayer turned around and started swimming back, she looked in Cordelia's direction and caught her staring. She grinned when their eyes locked, and the cheerleader matched it -- but only after her sunglasses were once again situated correctly on her face. Buffy waded over to Cordelia, the grin becoming a smile. She liked being admired by the girl she regularly made love to. Two people in a relationship having a mutual attraction towards one another seemed to be pretty healthy. And the way Cordelia's abs were glistening thanks to the mixture of SPF 30, oil, and Mr. Sun, how could she not be attracted? You'd have to be a corpse not to; the kind that stayed dead, obviously.

"What're you looking at?" The brunette asked, and the blonde gaped.

See, the brunette was clearly looking up at the sky, so how in the hell could she have seen anything? It just didn't make logical sense. It went against all the laws of nature, for one. Sure, technically it was possible to twist and bend nature with the right magickal know-how and do-hickeys, but laws were still laws. They were cornerstones, and any rational person would tell you that...that she was probably able to see out of the corner of her eye, under the helpful cover of her black shades. Whew. Buffy was glad she had figured that out on her own, because she would've sounded like an idiot saying it out loud.

"I could ask you the same thing." Buffy responded huffily, but also with a hint of playfulness. "Say, you think this thing can hold both of us?"

She pressed on the float, testing it.

Cordelia immediately clutched the two sides of her lounging device, trying to steady it to prevent shaking. "I doubt it, and don't you dare."

"You doubt it?" The determined expression that suddenly appeared on Buffy's face was not a good sign. "Well now I have to, cause that sounded like a challenge to me."

"It wasn't. Really. You're...'Flockhart Thin.'" Cordelia cringed as soon as it was out of her mouth. "I mean...damn it."

"So first I'm a blimp who's gonna tip the thing over, and now I'm 'Anorexic Twig Girl'?" Buffy huffed. "Um, those are two, pretty extreme ends of the scale, you know. Which is it, Cordy?"

The cheerleader slid her glasses on top of her head, and in a last ditch effort used pleading eyes to get her girlfriend to rethink things. "It's whatever the happy medium is, okay? Please, just don't get on the float."

Buffy grinned again; she didn't break that easily. "Safe answer, I've gotta give you credit there, but I'm afraid that wasn't a choice. Thanks for playing, and oh, here's your lovely parting gift."

Cordelia's "no" died on her lips the second she saw Buffy deciding the best way to tackle the problem. So she closed her eyes and waited, feeling the float dip a little as the extra weight was added to it, and as a result, she felt water tickling the underside of her legs. Boy, it was cold; it took all of her willpower not to jerk at the change in temperature and knock them off. A few squeaks and a couple of splashes later, Buffy was sitting over her girlfriend's pelvic region (the least uncomfortable area), with her feet hanging off the sides. Then Cordelia opened her eyes.

"This has got to be against the law somewhere in the world." Cordelia wasn't exactly cold anymore. She swallowed and bit her lip as the person above her adjusted herself. "Not that I'm complaining or anything."

"Geez, the last thing I wanna do is get us into trouble." The blonde said, innocently. "I can --"

"No!" The brunette exclaimed. "It's probably only illegal in Alabama, anyway. As long as we don't make any sudden movements, we should be fine."

Buffy pouted. "But I thought the whole point of this," The slayer moved her finger back and forth between them, indicating their position, "was to move as much as possible."

"Not in the middle of the afternoon, Buffy." Cordelia told her in a matter-of-fact voice.

"How about in the middle of the night, then?" The blonde wondered.

"We'll see. Only if you're good." The brunette responded.

They smirked.

"If I'm good, huh? Is this good?" Buffy leaned down to risk kissing her trapped girlfriend, and she was successful. "And I'm going to pretend that you didn't just spoil the moment by sounding like my mother."

"Yeah, that was pretty good, I guess. But try harder next time...Dear." Cordelia grinned evilly. "Want me to show you how it done?"

"I might as well get into the school spirit now. Go ahead -- teach me. I'm a learner." Buffy was always game when the girl below her got that look in her eye.

"You asked for it." Cordelia winked.

And then with one, almost superhuman bucking of her hips, Cordelia sent Buffy flying off of her and crashing into the water. Then she gracefully slid off the float, stood by it, and waited for the slayer to surface. She ended up being the most surprised, though, because she felt arms go around her waist and pull her under. Buffy was nice enough, however, to provide Cordelia with air as she brought their mouths together. They stayed under for a minute at least, arms encircling the other's neck as they rolled and kissed.

The girls came back up at the same time, trying to catch their breath.

"Whaddaya know? I did learn something." Buffy said, raggedly. "That it was your abnormal size that caused me to go airborne, and I had nothing to do with it."

Cordelia made a 'grr' sound, and smashed the water with her fists. "Let's go down the list for a second. Since you've known me, you've been insulted by association and thrown into a pool. Since I've known you, I've been kidnapped by Frankenstein monsters, invisible girls, and vampires."

"Uh, actually, only that last one's plural." The slayer pointed out.

The cheerleader just kept going. "I've been struck blind by a witch, I almost got eaten by a snake, and I've seen way too many graveyards after dark. And I know I left something out, but I think I've proved my point."

"What is your point?" Buffy innocently asked, feeling slightly guilty.

"All right, so it's less of a point, and more a question. Which is, why do I continue to put up with you?" Cordelia glared.

"Cause you love me?" Her girlfriend offered, hopefully.

"Oh yeah." Cordelia smiled, pushed Buffy up against the side of the pool, and started to kiss her again. "I stayed home instead of going on a three-month vacation to Jamaica with my parents for you, so that must be it."

Buffy smiled. "I'm real happy you did, by the way."

"You better be. Cause my father was two seconds away from having a heart attack when I told them the reason I wasn't going; my mother said she'd handle the damage control, though." Cordelia was glad for that. "But do you have any idea how clean the beaches are there?"

Buffy planted her hands on the outside edge of the pool, and hefted herself out so she was sitting on the concrete. "They don't still wanna meet me, do they?"

Cordelia reached her hands up, and once she got to her feet and bent down, the slayer lifted her out. "I had to go through it, and so do you."

"Man, it's freezing." Buffy commented, hugging herself. Dripping, they walked onto the deck where there were towels waiting on chairs. "It's just...I'm not good at being all fancy and elitist-like anymore. Your dad doesn't have a phony British accent and wear one of those spectacle thingy's with a top-hat, does he?"

"Remember that talk we had about stereotypes?" Cordelia questioned as she grabbed two towels and shook her head.

She took one for herself and then put the other around her girlfriend's shoulders.

"Thanks. And you know I'll do it, but I had to try at least one lame excuse." Buffy smiled at her. "Hey, isn't the gang coming back today? We should have an 'End of the Summer Party' at the Bronze tonight."

Willow, Amy and Miss Calendar had dragged their men to some sort of Witch/Wicca/Pagan/Magick-Related festival that was somewhere upstate, for the weekend. It was open to all practicing witches, and any guests they wished to bring along, provided that they were open-minded. Oz went to support his girlfriend's new interest, and Xander went because he heard about the festival Miss Calendar had gone to the previous year that had naked mud dances.

Cordelia and Buffy knew they should've paid more attention when they were being told the details, but they were too thrilled about having a weekend all to themselves, that they weren't able to hear much else.

"I'm in." The brunette said, getting behind the blonde and pulling her into an embrace. "But technically, we can still have one more day of this."

"Yeah, you're right. Lucky us." Buffy said, happily. "Oh! Thanks to Willow, we'll have all the same classes."

"Wanna bet on who'll get sick of who, first?" Cordelia smiled.

"Well, it won't be me. I'd get an 'A' before I get sick of you, and we both know how far down the possibility scale that is." Buffy smirked.

"Come on, think positively." Cordelia encouraged. "I'm sure with all the studying we'll be doing after school, you'll even impress Snyder."

"Right. All the 'studying.'" Buffy made quote marks with her fingers. "The Pope coming to bless our school wouldn't impress Snyder, so what chance do I have?"

"It could happen." The cheerleader began kissing the slayer's neck. "It's not likely, but it could happen."

"Do this while we study, and it'll be hopeless." Buffy remarked contentedly, closing her eyes. "It's very --"

"Distracting?" Cordelia grinned.

"Something like..." In the midst of the slayer's response, the ground started to rumble violently, and they stumbled and rocked, but before they could grasp anything it was over, and the plug at the bottom of the pool straight shot up into the air before plopping back down. "...That."

They turned to each other with wide eyes, and then ran to the pool to see that while the water had begun to recede, the sewage coming up through the drain stopped the process. The sight made them glad that they got out when they did. It was green and brown and goop-like and it was mixing with the chlorinated water, but most of all, it was just plain disgusting.

"My parents are so gonna find a way to blame this on me. Gross!" Cordelia commented, and then she paled. "Where're my sunglasses?"

The slayer frowned, and they both bent over to peer into the sludge. "Say a prayer for them, and hope they've gone to a better place." Buffy put a hand on her shoulder. "Sorry, Cordy. They're goners."

Somehow, Cordelia managed to go even whiter. "Oh no. What if...?" She ran inside, and quickly called out. "Yuck!"

Buffy continued to stare down at the water, figuring that what happened here probably happened everywhere in town, but she didn't think it was an earthquake. Either the Mayor had a major public works issue to address, or this was somehow going to become part of her job. When she heard the deep, quieter rumble (which her slayer hearing told her was more of an animalistic sound), she had her answer.

"And yet again, the Hellmouth signals the start of what's sure to be another thrilling school year." Buffy muttered.

With a sigh, she went inside to greet the mess.


Willow looked in the rearview mirror of Oz's van from her spot in the passenger seat, initially seeing only Xander and Amy sitting where the band's equipment was usually stored; her friends smiled at her, and she gave a weary smile in return. But then, as she remembered the adults that had gone with them, her eyes found Giles' Citrogen out the windows of the back door. She felt sorry for Miss Calendar, though luckily, they had just turned onto his street; which meant that their trip was almost officially at its end. Before she could even finish that thought, the van was pulling up to the librarian's house and coming to a stop.

Her boyfriend turned to her, so she shifted her attention to him as she unbuckled her seatbelt, her smile expressing more sadness than the weariness it had moments ago. He didn't notice, and she knew that, but they both had understandable distractions on their minds -- what she didn't know, was if she'd ever be ready to share hers. His was a happy thing; at the festival he met a record company executive who was interested in hearing the band play. The guy was dragged there because 'mystical things' fascinated his wife. Even though Oz wasn't jumping off the walls, he was still excited, and she was excited for him. But she had no idea where it would all lead; the possibilities of it scared her, and not just the start of his musical career, either.

As she sighed, their friends slid open the side door and got out.

"Hey, we've got our very own welcoming, uh...duo." Xander said, seeing a ragged-looking Buffy and Cordelia slipping off the gloves they were wearing and coming side-by-side to greet them after they'd stood up from their slouched position against Giles' front door. "Are they super-glued together? Cause I don't think they can live like that. People need space; it's a fact of life. Is anyone else feeling like separation has become a foreign concept to them, or am I alone here?"

"I think it's sweet." Amy countered, eyeing him. "Love's cool...isn't it?"

"Uh...uh huh. Absolutely. You bet your broomstick it is. It lifts us up where we belong, it's all you need..." He flashed her an, 'I'm in a hole, but I didn't mean anything by it' smile, she punched his shoulder, and then he turned back to the girlfriends, wounded. "But come on, it's gotta be a little unhealthy. I mean, we've only been gone two days, and look what happened. They've turned into a new form of white trash. Attractive white trash, but still."

For once, Xander wasn't quite so far off. After swimming, they had both changed into pairs of old, ratty jeans, unfashionable, white tank tops, and worn sneakers. Two bandanas that they'd found in the attic, one red (Buffy's) and one black (Cordelia's) successfully completed the look. With Marta having the weekend free, it had been up to them to deal with the areas of the Chase house that were ravaged by the town's very inconvenient plumbing problem. The bathrooms were the worst, and they both agreed never to speak of the events within those tiled walls again. The hours seemed to last forever, and the grime just wouldn't wash away.

Once they cleaned all that they could with the rags, towels, plunger, and cleaner available to them, they went to the slayer's house and graciously helped Joyce tackle her mini-explosions of grossness. It was the one time that Buffy was glad her house wasn't the size of her girlfriend's. Finished with that task, they used up what remained of their energy to trudge over to the watcher's house and warn him about the sight he was going to witness when he opened his door. Now they were tired, and had straggly, itchy hair. Mixed splotches of various unnamed substances were on their faces, tops, and some of it was under their fingernails. To top it all off, since showers weren't an option, they carried a stench that would frighten skunks away.

Reaching the group, it was clear that they were somewhere in between miserable and ready to snap.

"Something tells me I should hang out here." Willow said to Oz, seeing the state her other friends were in, and hopping out. "Are you gonna go tell Devon?"

"Yeah. We need the practice; definitely gotta learn more than three chords. Scary territory." The guitarist joked, but you wouldn't know that by his face. "Love you, Will."

The hacker leaned over the passenger seat, he moved to meet her lips for a quick kiss, and then she shut the door. "You know I think it's great news, right? It really is, and I'm sure you'll be awesome at any new stuff in no time. So good luck and all."

"Thanks." He said.

"Bye, Oz." She watched him drive away and waved, knowing that she'd sounded dumb, before addressing Buffy and Cordelia. "What happened to you guys? Is everything okay? You didn't have a fight, did you?"

"I'm gonna go with 'Major Cat Fight in a Dumpster.'" Xander added on, trying to block the smell by pressing the back of his hand up against his nostrils. "I've heard nothing but good things about soap; you should try and get your hands on a few bars."

Buffy just stared at him blankly, but his comment lit a fire in Cordelia, who lunged forward, prepared to strangle his throat. The blonde got in between them immediately, and held her girlfriend's arms while Xander jumped back, blindly swatting the air in an attempt to defend himself. The tension and murderous rage slowly left the brunette, and she allowed her limbs to be gently guided down into a neutral position at her sides, being convinced by Buffy's eyes that crushing his larynx wouldn't solve anything. Though who'd convict her?

The slayer turned to the terrified male, looking apologetic. "She's...kinda edgy, so you might wanna shelve the material for later." Buffy advised.

"Edgy or homicidal?" Xander asked in a higher pitch than normal.

"Try me." Cordelia challenged through clenched teeth. "Please."

He checked to make sure his neck was still there. "No, no, I'll pass. How 'bout a rain check? Like, say, sometime during the tail end of never?"

The brunette began opening her mouth, but Buffy quickly clamped her hand over it while Amy pulled Xander down the street, away from any more trouble.

"We'll catch up later?" The witch asked.

Buffy nodded in agreement, her voice taking on a sarcastic tone. "Welcome home." The couple was nearly at the other end of the block before she called to them. "And whatever you do, avoid pipe-heavy areas!" She removed her hand from her girlfriend's lips.

"Avoid pipe-heavy areas? This whole town's a pipe-heavy area -- the miles and miles of sewer?" Cordelia reminded her.

"Yeah, I know; still good advice, though." Buffy shrugged.

Willow's concerns left her then, as her friend's warning puzzled her. "What's so bad about pipes? They have water that let's you drink and take showers and --" Buffy and Cordelia were on the verge of tears. "Oh." She frowned. "What's wrong?"

The adults had been silent up to this point, but when the cheerleader exhaustedly rested her head on the slayer's shoulder, Miss Calendar chimed in. "Girls, what's going on?"

"Find out for yourself." Cordelia suggested.

Giles got the distinct impression that he was supposed to dread entering his home. Keys in hand, he led the four females to his door, stuck the right key in the lock, and turned. There was an audible gasp from the Englishman when his door swung open, and he came close to collapsing, thanks to the view he saw. The redhead and the techno-pagan stopped that from occurring, though.

"Good lord." He finally said, while turning to his slayer and her girlfriend with a slightly accusing stare.

Two, gaping mouths was the response he received. But then their jaws became firmly set, and their hands crossed over their chests, as they met his stare, indignant.

"Does he think...?" Cordelia asked Buffy.

"I think he does." The blonde answered.

"Thought so." The brunette nodded.

"Offended?" Buffy wondered.

"Oh yeah." The cheerleader glared. "Deeply."

"Me too." The slayer concurred.

There was another tremor at that moment, and after it subsided, they turned on their heels and left the watcher to fend for himself.

Willow watched the dumb-founded older generation for a second, before deciding to speak. "See? That's what you get for going around placing silent blame all irresponsibly."

She ran after her fellow Scoobies, finally noticing the partially flooded street.


"A press conference was held outside of City Hall just a few hours ago, in which Mayor Richard Wilkins III addressed the town's recent plumbing problems. He assured citizens that crews are working around the clock to determine the cause and the extent of the damage. Once they've come up with an answer repairs will begin immediately, and we'll all be thankful for that, won't we, Diane?" The anchorman said from the television in Angel's mansion.

Why did he have such a technological marvel in his rather bare home? Because Willow insisted that since he was a "human vampire" full-time now, he had to stay up on the world's current events; after all, he was a part of it. So at the start of summer, she dragged him to the mall and helped him pick out a TV, which was paid for with money he'd been collecting over the centuries. That got the redhead listing the benefits of a well-managed bank account (there was also a story about her piggy bank and it's plummeting demise), and she quickly launched into his options on the computer front. But he needed to ease into this with some kind of step program. Like the VSEA -- "Vampires Souled for Eternity Anonymous."

He was grateful for her encouragement, though. She was his biggest, and maybe only, supporter. What she went through...well, nothing he could ever say would be enough. Thanks to her, somehow the guilt wasn't plaguing him nearly as strongly as it had, leaving him to actually enjoy her gift. Simply put, that gift was contentedness, despite the demon remaining inside. Whether or not he felt he deserved it was a different matter entirely, but Willow refused to listen to his negativity. How she managed to remain constantly cheerful was a mystery. Hopefully her attitude towards him would rub off on the others, whom he'd have to fight alongside again, and tension easily led to mistakes in a situation like that. Also, he just wanted to regain their trust; which he couldn't do until they gave him a chance.

It wasn't as if he expected them to come knocking on his door and asking him to hang out or anything -- he didn't even know how to do that -- however, he wouldn't turn down an acknowledgement. Given the news report he'd just seen, however, the vampire figured that no one would be dropping by; not even Willow, who seemed to be visiting less and less lately. Where had she been? He worried about that; it made him think he did something to scare her off. And after everything that had taken place, that was the last thing he wanted to do. He hadn't suddenly become ignorant of the scars he continued to carry with him, not at all. They were scars etched on his soul, and because they were there as reminders, they weren't going to fade. He'd do what was asked of him until the day he was allowed to find true peace -- that was his promise.

Killing his own kind was part of the deal, and it was satisfying. Almost a bonus. But tonight, with the smell practically being absorbed by every human in town, his extended family probably wasn't risking getting too close to the usual meal. It was one thing to live in the sewers, but it was another thing to taste their aroma on the flesh you're sinking your teeth into. Personally, Angel was sticking to the first floor of the mansion where the scent wasn't as bad; away from the bathrooms and the places hardest hit. Still, it wasn't hard to pick up. He knew there was more to the problem, that much was clear, but it wasn't his place to make a move. He was here to help, not to lead. Someone else had already assumed that role.

"Wow. I never thought I'd live long enough to see you vedge in front of a TV." Buffy commented, having apparently entered his home. "Consider your mysterious image tarnished. Probably forever. Was it fun while it lasted?"

She was standing to the left of the couch, watching him watch the screen, and he hadn't heard her come in. He'd figured wrong.

"Buffy...I, uh...was just..." Angel was grasping for words. "How are ya?"

"I stink. You?" She responded in a pseudo-conversational tone. He was caught, and blank on things to say. "And the awkward moment gets filled with dead silence." She smirked. "At least Will didn't turn you into a chatterbox. It helps that some things stay the same."

She sat on the arm of the steam-cleaned sofa, trying not to remember why that had been necessary, but failing miserably. He had to get it done because she'd shoved a sword through his throat, thus causing his blood to stain the fabric. When he cringed, she thought that he was remembering, too -- except he wasn't. He was worried that the fresh, new furniture smell would be gone, and you rarely got it twice. She eventually caught on, and stood up, her face displaying how sick she was of having to live like this.

"Be nice if indoor plumbing was one of those things." The slayer continued with annoyance.

"Do you need something?" Angel asked, attempting to maintain his composure and not back away from the blonde in an effort to avoid the odor.

"Yeah." She sighed. "Everyone else gets to quarantine themselves, but Giles says I have to 'Investigate the Sewers.' It's his revenge, I swear." She was unhappy, and that was understandable. "Up for a little recon?"

"You heard it, too." He realized, referring to the aftershock-like rumbling and the primal noise hidden behind it. Her silence was answer enough. This wasn't going to be fun. "Sure. Let's go."

"Thanks." Buffy said, relieved. "I appreciate it."

Angel smiled at her, and then began looking around at the sofa for something. "Just let me turn off..." He was puzzled. "Where's the remote?"

"Uh, it's behind you. Stand up, you'll see it." She wanted to laugh, but she bit down on her lip to squash the impulse. He did as she instructed, and still was coming up with nothing. The object was planted firmly and horizontally deep behind the cushion, so its black color was only faintly visible. "No, it's stuck between the cushion and the back."

"Where?" He looked up at her.

"Couch potato is not gonna be a good look on you." A hint of her girlfriend's influence had crept into that statement, as she impatiently shook her head. "Move; I'll get it. And I don't wanna hear any comments about germs or smells. If you'd learned how to find your own remote, it wouldn't have had to come to this."


The Bronze was definitely out, which ticked Cordelia off, though not because she was really in the mood to dance. If she were at the club now instead of lying face up on the floor of her bedroom smelling like crap, it would mean that her and Buffy's plans hadn't been interrupted -- that was the reason for her anger. She hated being forced to change them, and she hated that her girlfriend had to be the one to fix things so they'd still have a Bronze to eventually go to. Maybe one day she'd understand how Buffy could do it, but in her mind, it was unfair to lay that responsibility on a girl. It scared her more than she let on, the possibility that the blonde wouldn't come back. It's why she made her ask Angel to tag along.

Both she and the vampire didn't want to see anything happen to her, and whereas he could protect her, she was limited to waiting for her phone call. The cheerleader wondered if she'd ever stop being blown away by how attached she was to one person. Well, she was, and this was going to have to change. She was no slayer, but she wasn't totally helpless, either, and sitting around like a nervous housewife wasn't her style. Reaching for her phone on the night table, she smiled at Sir Sno-Paw, who was situated up at the head of her bed, as an idea came to her. Buffy was getting a training partner whether Giles liked it or not. Though until that could happen, worrying was her only available option.

And she was still ticked. What she needed was to vent and bitch to somebody, so she dialed a number, and then waited as it rang.

"Hi..." She said, hearing a male voice she didn't recognize. "Is Amy there? It's Cordelia."

After some shuffling noises and a yell or two, the witch got on the phone.

"I got it, Dad!" Amy said before addressing her. "Cordelia?"

"Hey." The cheerleader greeted, her eyebrows raised slightly. "Don't you have your own line?"

"Are you kidding? I live with my dad. He doesn't understand a lot of things. Put 'teenage' and 'girl' in the same sentence and he just zones completely." Amy joked, and Cordelia snickered. "Um, so why did you call?"

"Because Giles is..." Cordelia bit her tongue. "He knows how wiped out Buffy is, but he made her go out anyway, just cause we didn't help him clean his lame house." The brunette explained as calmly as possible, though her voice still escalated. "Can you say, 'petty'?"

"She is the Slayer, you know. It's also just what she has to do." Amy offered the simple counterpoint.

"You're defending the wrong side." Cordelia warned her. "And my point can't get any more valid."

"No, I agree. You're doing your job as a girlfriend." The witch responded quickly, chuckling a little. "Geez."

"What?" The brunette questioned.

"Nothing. It's just kinda funny. The odds of you calling me used to be...pretty damn low. Especially about stuff like this. I mean, when we were growing up you wouldn't give me, Willow or Xander, the time of day. I could never figure out if it was because you didn't like us, or you just didn't have a watch." Amy explained.

Cordelia sighed loudly into the phone. "Reputations suck."

They did. For years she had worked on hers, thinking it had been the greatest achievement ever when she could keep people at a distance with a look. It had its benefits, but then there were those rare times when she wanted to let people in, and they didn't dare. It was true; the reputation had backfired a lot. That is, until Buffy came along, being the first person to not run away out of fear, and they had become something great because of that. She planned to be more careful on the reputation front -- if she ever escaped the sphere of high school, where the 'Idiot Majority' had already made up their minds about her.

Yes, that was slightly cruel, but consider the alternative route she could've taken. If she hadn't grown, she would've called entire hallways to attention, and easily insulted whole masses of students right to their faces. The new her was more self-censoring; she was making progress. Baby steps, really.

"I don't know; I think it depends on what it is. I'd like Buffy's." Amy admitted. "Nobody messes with her."

"Good -- she's mine." The cheerleader said with conviction.

"You two are so cute!" The witch laughed. "Frightening when you get protective, but overall, I'd go with cute."

"No, we're hot. Didn't you see the yearbook?" Cordelia quipped. "I like the way my life is now; I just hope I'll still like it in January."

"Cause that'll be the one-year mark, right?" She could hear the smile in Amy's words.

"Huh?" Her and Buffy's first anniversary; she was still deciding what to do. "Oh...yeah. That's right."

"What were you talking about?" Amy wondered.

"Nothing. Thanks for reminding me." The brunette avoided quickly, and therefore without her usual creativeness. "I'd be dead if I forgot her birthday and our anniversary."

It was weak (how could she forget those?), but hopefully Amy wouldn't notice.

"Welcome. But you owe me for saving your relationship." The blonde teased.

And it worked. She wanted her and Buffy to have a future, and she was positive that they could, but she was also a realist. Long-range plans were shaky when you were involved with a slayer, so she picked a random month to reach. Like a goal. Was it an accident that the month chosen happened to contain a date that was equally important and significant to both of them? On that silent question, it was 'veer the topic' time. It was hard enough just realizing that things could be cut short; talking about it, well, she wasn't ready for that.

"As long as it doesn't involve me being your magick guinea pig or whatever, we'll see if we can work something out." Cordelia told her, very serious about the 'guinea pig' part. "Speaking of...did Xander enjoy himself at the witch thing?" She asked, sarcastically.

"Most of it went over his head." Amy said, disappointedly. "There was this muddy area there, and he kept expecting all the girls to go roll in it."

Color her surprised. Not.

"He's not exactly the poster-boy for maturity." Cordelia stated, but then thought maybe that wasn't really a wise thing to say. "But I'm sure he's got...good qualities somewhere."

"Thanks." Amy clearly didn't buy her little addition.

Thinking about Xander led her to thinking about their mutual redheaded friend. She and Buffy had assisted her in cleaning her house, because the Rosenbergs' were out of town. Working together, the job had gotten done, but it was an odd experience. The hacker barely said anything. Cordelia knew her well enough to know that that wasn't normal, and actually, Willow seemed sad. She hadn't dwelled on it much at the time, but because Amy spent the weekend with her, Cordelia figured it wouldn't hurt to ask if something was up.

"Still there?" The witch questioned.

Cordelia cleared her throat. "Spaced. Sorry." She paused. "Hey, um, is Willow okay?"


"Why wouldn't she be?" Buffy answered Angel as they walked down Main Street. His eyes were trained on the darkness, and he didn't respond right away. "Angel?"

"Just...haven't seen her lately." He finally spoke, distractedly.

The slayer knew the guilt would come (along with the tenseness) when she came to the vampire for help. Willow was really the only one in the gang to see him on a regular basis -- the rest of them just didn't feel comfortable about dropping by after all that had happened. She realized how unfair that was; punishing him for something he'd had no control over. And when he was able to gain control, he'd saved Giles' and Miss Calendar's lives. Willow told her that he needed to be given a chance. That he had to experience the world to make any kind of difference in it. What Buffy didn't grasp was the extent of his pain, but she made a silent promise to herself, then. She'd be there for him if he wanted her to be, and encourage the others to do the same, too.

But her redheaded friend's lack of visitation was news to her; though she could see how that would hurt Angel. She had noticed Willow's quietness earlier, but overall, the hacker seemed okay, having apparently felt no aftereffects from the spell. Then again, Willow had made it a point to pop into the vampire's home every day since the start of summer; her being a no-show was sort of odd. Hmm. Buffy thought that maybe she should check up on her. They'd all been kind of involved in their separate relationships the past few months -- even when they went out together. It wasn't something the members of the gang set out to do deliberately; young love just had that effect. Well, in Giles' case it was old love, and that was as much as Buffy was willing to dwell on his relationship.

Not only because it was disturbing, but also because she was unhappy with him at the moment, as he was keeping her from Cordelia. She didn't like worrying her.

"I bet she just..." Buffy trailed off when she saw him with a finger against his lips.

The blonde saw what he saw -- three city workers in orange outfits and hardhats, standing over a manhole. She followed Angel's lead, rushed into an alley, and peaked around the corner. Even though she wasn't sure why they were doing it. Other than forcing her to cut the sewer investigation short (which she'd be real broken up over), there was nothing wrong with the men. They were there to go fix the plumbing problem; that was a wonderful thing. She wanted to throw them a parade, she --

"Vampires." Angel clued her in. "Didn't realize Sunnydale was hiring."

As they each jumped down the manhole, their faces shifted to demon form. Damn it. There went her chance at an early shift.

Buffy sighed. "Is this the part where we go find out when they started earning government paychecks?"

He turned to her. "You ready?"

"As I'll ever be." She muttered. "Least I can't get any dirtier, right?"

Ask anyone, and they'd call that question a great example of famous last words.


The Mayor stood in his darkened office, staring out the window at his town. It had almost been one hundred years, and the only things that had changed were styles and transportation. Clothing, automobiles, architecture...they were meaningless changes. He wanted just one thing to change, and he was beginning to lose hope that it would. Oh, he had remained the leader of Sunnydale, which was great, but the orb still wasn't in his possession. Now that the creature had made its presence known (and in the process making all of his voters horribly filthy), the opportunity had arrived. He had to capitalize on it -- or there'd be trouble he couldn't talk his way out of.

His Deputy Mayor, Allan Finch, entered the room. "Sir?"

That's right; people changed as well. For some reason, though, his deputy mayors were always very tense and agitated.

"Allan!" Wilkins said cheerily, looking at the younger man. "Have we made any progress?"

"I'm afraid the crew hasn't reported in yet." Allan said, nervously. "They're twenty minutes late."

"Well, that's sad news." The Mayor frowned. They were supposed to take care of it.

The townspeople weren't the only ones going through hell because there were no working showers. It didn't matter how many times he changed suits -- he never got any cleaner.

"Devastating, sir." Allan quickly agreed.

Wilkins sighed. "Looks like we'll have to see if the finance committee's in a generous mood, huh?" He couldn't stand it anymore. Picking up a towelette from his desk on the way to the cabinet, he thoroughly scrubbed his hands. "I hate to do this, but...a good politician has to be willing to make sacrifices. And I've had to make," He chuckled, "a heck of a lot to stay here, believe me."

He opened the cabinet doors and took out one of his many idols. The statue looked like a freakish, vein-y, blood red Buddha. An angry, freakish, vein-y, blood red Buddha.

"Still, take my advice, Allan -- don't get yourself into debt. It never turns out well, and unfortunately, I'm in pretty darn deep." The Mayor said, inspecting the statue.

Hopefully, this would repair the damage and occupy the creature long enough for the Slayer to deal with it. It wouldn't be the first time he'd relied on her to remove unpleasantness from Sunnydale, and given her track record, he believed that she would come through once again. Then maybe he could have what he'd been searching for all these years.


Buffy returned to her house an hour and a half after she had jumped down into the sewer, and she was even crankier than she had been before. She was covered in a rather runny, translucent substance, and at this point, she didn't think it was possible for her to care less about what the stuff would do to the hardwood floor of the foyer, than she already did. Trailing the vampires ended up being not such a great idea; she and Angel clearly hadn't been prepared for what they'd found. The vampires were dead, but no because of her or anything they did. She wished it was that routine -- her eyes still hurt from the light.

Wait. She heard voices. Who was here?

Her mom had guests. Sounded like Miss Calendar, and...Giles. It was all his fault. She waited for them to come greet her, trying to contain the rage that was begging to spill out of her mouth. As they got closer, she smelled something -- something nice. Soap! And scented body wash! The adults were clean? How? This revelation only increased her rage level. Here she was, smelling and looking like she'd rolled around in the back of a garbage truck, and they were fresh and clean and smelling like tropical fruit. She was going to make her watcher pay. And pay, and pay, and pay.

"Buffy, guess wh..." Her mother began to say, but stopped at the sight of her. "What happened?"

The slayer stared the watcher down, and he came real close to hiding behind his girlfriend. "Ehh...nothing much. There's just this humongous demon in the sewer who's allergic to vampire dust." She said, nonchalantly. "Wanna know how I know that?" Her voice took on a 'pissed off' tone, and they backed up as she stepped forward. "Yeah, that's right! I'm covered in demon snot!"

"Oh." Joyce said, not knowing how to respond to that. "We were just having dinner."

"The water came back on, so we finally got showers," Jenny said, "and then your mom invited us over."

Buffy nodded. "That's nice."

"Cordelia called about ten minutes ago." Joyce remembered. "She said to call her back."

"Here, Giles." Buffy tossed him the mucous-drenched, green amulet that she was carrying in her hand. He shakily caught it. "One of the vamps dropped it before he got eaten. Better see what it is."

"I'll...I'll start researching first thing in the morning. Principal Snyder's allowing faculty back into the school tomorrow, so I should have access to the library." Giles explained.

The blonde thought she was doing a fine job of restraining herself. All she did was smile when she saw his hands suddenly unclean. "Great." Then her smile became a fake, tight-lipped one. "I think I'll get a shower now. 'Cuse me." She started ascending the stairs.

"There should be plenty of hot water, honey." Joyce told her. "When you're done, do you wanna eat? I saved you a plate."

"Nah." Buffy shook her head. "No, I'm just gonna take a shower, and then I'm gonna go sleep over at Cordelia's. That's okay...isn't it, mom?"

"It's fine." Joyce confirmed, taking pity on her daughter.

She was just glad Buffy didn't have to worry about getting pregnant. When the girl disappeared upstairs, she and Miss Calendar turned to Giles.

Jenny smirked. "Wow. I've never seen her that mad at you, Rupert."

"At me?" Giles was flabbergasted. "What did I do?"

"Half the time I don't think we're supposed to know." Joyce told him as they went back into the dining room. "But you should've learned something about teenage girls by now."

He cleared his throat. "Yes, well...apparently I haven't."

"Then you've got a problem." His girlfriend informed him, grinning. "Your only hope is Cordelia, now."

"Why would...?" He blushed, holding up the amulet. "Right. I, uh...I'm going to wash this off."

If the cheerleader couldn't help the slayer 'forget,' then Giles was going to wish he could fast-forward through the next few days.


"It was pretty ick-worthy, yeah. It was big, and it had four legs. Probably came from some evil kennel in Hell. It gets loose and says, 'Hey, lemme try and screw up the plumbing on Earth. Demons don't bathe, so why should humans need to?'" Buffy told Cordelia as they lay in the cheerleader's bed, taking creative license with the creature's back-story, while enjoying the afterglow. "But this always makes the bad imagery go away."

Their heads were turned, facing each other on the mattress; the pillows were across the room. It was a wonder the sheets hadn't joined it.

"What, sex?" Cordelia asked, smiling.

"Sex with you." The slayer corrected her girlfriend, her nails going back and forth along the length of Cordelia's arm. "Just laying next to you, even."

The cheerleader snickered. "You're so tough." She said with sarcastic emphasis. "Are you sure slaying vampires is your big destiny? Cause Nora would kill for lines like that."

"Fine -- you don't like compliments, I won't give you them anymore." Buffy grumbled. "And like you're one to talk. Imagine what would happen if everyone knew that the 'Mega Bitch' of Sunnydale High has multiple copies of When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle...just in case she can't find one."

Cordelia gasped. "You wouldn't."

"Not unless I was forced to." The blonde grinned, and then kissed the person beside her. Cordelia actually looked scared. "Relax. I'm feeling pretty content, so I'd have to have major incentive to blab."

The brunette narrowed her eyes. "I decided something while you were busy getting sneezed on." Cordelia propped herself up and moved overtop of Buffy, so she was staring directly at her girlfriend. There were only mere inches separating their bodies from touching completely -- the slayer was well aware of the power Cordelia had over her at that moment. "Now, if you're smart, you'll support it."

"You're never gonna believe this --" Buffy started, wondering if her voice was still audible.

"I already don't." The cheerleader cut her off. "I wanna train with you. I get that you don't have a choice -- you have to go risk your life every night whether you want to or not. It sucks, but that's the way it is." She paused, gauging Buffy's reaction. The slayer was listening patiently. "What I don't get, is why I have to just sit there, reading books that were written in the Thirteenth Century, till you come back. Cause Giles tells me to? Please." Her eyes rolled. "I'm your girlfriend, damn it, and I'm sick and tired of this 'bystander' thing." She clearly was. "It's a pain in the ass waiting around, hoping that you're not dead somewhere."

"That's what I love about you, Cordy. You can be so sweet when you wanna be." Buffy smirked, and Cordelia lowered herself for just a second, causing the slayer to hiss. "Could...break a nail, you know." She tried pushing it, and as soon as that gleam appeared in Cordelia's eye, she caved. "God...all right. We start tomorrow."

Passion got the better of them for several seconds, as Cordelia let herself go with a smile, and the girlfriends' mouths shared the same oxygen; as well as a few other things. When the two sets of lips parted, the slayer was on top, brushing stray strands of dark hair away from the flushed cheerleader's eyes. Looking at one another quietly, happily, they took a couple minutes to catch their breaths before they spoke again.

"I wanna learn stuff cause I care." Cordelia explained. "About you." She added for clarification. "Not being able to do anything...I hate it, Buffy."

"I know." Buffy smiled appreciatively, understanding how Cordelia felt. "I care about you, too." She paused, her expression turning serious. "So you can't go all, 'Prom Queen Vigilante' on me. It'd be awesome having you there on patrol watching my back," They both grinned, then, "but you hafta be careful. Promise?"

"Promise." Cordelia swore, allowing herself to be overwhelmed for the billionth time. "You drive me nuts, you know that?"

Buffy winked. "Feeling's mutual." Lips connected again, and then thoughts of their earlier conversation distracted the slayer. "When do you think we should talk to Willow? Don't forget the plan to annoy Giles, either."

"In the morning." Cordelia answered fast, pulling her down.

The blonde had no objections. "Works for me."

"And I am too sweet." The brunette insisted, playfully thwacking Buffy's arm.

"Yeah." Buffy agreed with her partner, grinning mischievously. "You are." Then she slid downwards.

It was funny; they had complained endlessly about having no way to shower, but now that they could (and most likely needed to), they didn't seem to be in a rush to do so. Strange.


"Like Ghostbusters?" Xander questioned, picturing the beast looking like those Claymation dogs in the movie.

Buffy lunged forward with the sword, piercing the air. "Nope. It was larger...and uglier." She waited for Cordelia to copy her move, and was impressed at how fast the cheerleader was learning. "Weapons are definitely your area, honey."

Cordelia got out of the stance, and lowered her blade. "Think so?"

She'd tied her hair back before they started, not wanting to risk giving herself chopping any of it off, but it looked like she hadn't needed to.

"No doubt about it." The slayer answered proudly.

The gang, despite students not being required to show up until tomorrow, had been sitting in the library all morning, assisting Giles with the research (who was suffering through his initial punishment -- having to listen to No Doubt's, 'I'm Just a Girl' during the training...over and over again). He was sitting at the table with Xander, Willow was at the computer, Amy was at the magick shop trying to find out what the amulet was used for, Oz had left an hour ago to go practice again (because Devon wanted the band to sound flawless), and Miss Calendar was supervising the installation of new computers in the lab. But just because they were all hard at work didn't mean they wanted to be there.

Giles had been looking at a drawing of the creature while reading, trying to find a corresponding picture in the book. He handed it to Xander. "Angel left this on my doorstep."

The sound that came from Xander's mouth was close to a yelp. "Holy Hell-Beast, Batman!" He composed himself. "Egon wouldn't even go near this thing; we'd get stuck with Slimer. It's... "

"Really big and nasty?" Willow supplied, still focused on the screen.

"You have a knack for understatement, Will." He dryly responded. "Did anybody else think Zul was attractive?" Silent stares were his answer, and so he coughed. "Jewel. I said Jewel."

"Your soul isn't the only thing that needs saving." Cordelia quipped.

Xander just stared down at his book, while Buffy tried hiding her smirk. As the girls went to put the weapons back into the book cage, her thoughts drifted to Angel (she asked him to do the drawing and give it to Giles). The picture was a big help; he was making an effort, and that was good. After shutting the cage, she sat on the steps with Cordelia, and then turned off the CD. Leaning back into her girlfriend's arms, she thought she could see the migraine lines dissolving off of the Englishman's forehead. But the break was temporary -- soon the humming would begin.

"Anyway," The slayer interjected, "it's nothing we can't handle."

"Even though you ran away from it." The cheerleader said, innocently.

"I didn't run away. I walked...uh...quickly." Buffy explained, shyly. "And I didn't actually fight it, so --"

"Except for that showdown with the flying wad of evil mucous." Xander remarked.

She narrowed her eyes, and continued as though she hadn't heard him. "-- Technically, I didn't lose. That was just me and Angel, though. With the whole gang together, it doesn't stand a chance." The blonde looked around at her friends. "Right, guys?"

"Right." He paused to gulp, looking down at the drawing. "But since when do we need to be in the middle of a battle with the forces of darkness to feel the togetherness, huh? Can't we bond anywhere?" He questioned. "I'm picturing someplace far away that has thick, steel doors and lots of missiles."

Willow turned away from the computer. "They're not gonna let us live in the Pentagon, Xander." They'd had this discussion for years.

"Okay, so it's probably a long shot...but you still don't know for sure." He responded challengingly, and then slowly smiled.

The redhead smiled back at him before looking at the watcher. "It's pretty vague, Giles."

"What did you find?" Giles asked, willing to take anything at this point.

Cordelia started to hum as he spoke, but when he finished his question and turned to her, she was quiet, looking very interested in the carpet on the stairs.

"Not much. Just a few, old newspaper articles and stuff. People thought they saw a huge monster, and then it was gone like a second later. They go back almost a hundred years, but there's nothing specific." Willow answered.

"How do you know it's the demon that's in the sewer?" Cordelia wondered. "They could be talking about any giant --"

"There's a sketch. Kinda looks like Angel's -- it's not as good, though." The hacker interrupted.

"I guess we should be happy that he can draw other things besides people." The brunette said in a biting tone. "People who think they're alone."

Buffy frowned. "Cor..."

Cordelia knew it wasn't him, that he wasn't responsible for what had happened, but she hadn't gotten over his psycho vampire antics, yet. "Sorry." She apologized, hugging her girlfriend tightly.

The slayer noticed that Willow's expression had gotten less cheerful. And not just that -- she'd gone pale. They had to talk.

"Well, we have to deal with it. Before the water shuts off again." Buffy told the group, seriously. "If we have to fight it not knowing what it is, then that's what we hafta do. We can't hide and hope it goes away."

Xander was visibly disappointed, but stayed silent. Cordelia, however, had started to hum again...louder than before.

"Hopefully when Amy returns, she'll be able to tell us something about the purpose of the amulet." Giles wanted to remain positive, though as soon as he was finished, he stared disapprovingly at Cordelia. "Could you please stop that?"

"Stop what?" Cordelia asked, a grin on her face.

Buffy stood up, then, and the cheerleader followed, grabbing her bag from the table. "Bathroom break. Be right back." They walked over to Willow. "You have to go, too."

"I do?" The redhead said with surprise. Her friends just stared at her until the realization hit. "I mean...I do. Real bad." She faked a grimace. "Ouch, my kidneys...gotta hurry."

When the girls had disappeared past the library doors, Xander commented, "What is it with women and bathrooms?"

"I believe that's a mystery better left unsolved." Giles advised.

"Yeah," The younger man nodded, "especially cause you're already on the List."

"What list?" The watcher queried.

"I thought you limey bookmen were supposed to know everything." Xander said, shocked and disillusioned. Giles wasn't in the mood. "Every member of the opposite sex has a List, and you got yourself on Buffy's. It's like being on Nixon's...only worse." He elaborated, seeing the fear on the man's face. "Don't worry, G-Man; we've all been there. I was on Cordelia's for sixteen years. But they're taking it easy on you, so I give it a week. Tops."

"Don't call me that." Giles instructed the teenager, putting his head in his hands, and sighing.

What did he do?


When the girls walked into the bathroom, Cordelia turned to Willow.

"'Ouch, my kidneys'?" The cheerleader questioned.

The hacker frowned. "Too much?"

"Maybe a little." Cordelia smiled, and went to look in the mirror above the sinks.

Buffy and Willow shook their heads, as the brunette took the tie out of her hair and started 'fixing herself' using the cosmetic necessities stored in her bag. Cordelia saw their reactions past her reflection, and made a 'Yeah?' face at them. The slayer put on her best, exaggerated, 'I'm sorry' expression, and mouthed, 'Love you.' Cordelia rolled her eyes, barely keeping the smile off of her face, and went ahead with the application. They weren't in here to talk about her or her love of makeup; they were in here to talk about Willow and what was bothering her.

"So, uh, what's up?" The redhead asked, concerned.

"We were gonna ask you the same thing." Buffy answered, watching as Willow's eyebrows moved to show her confusion. She put a hand on her shoulder. "You okay?"

"I'm..." Willow hesitated, not sure what to say.

She could lie, say that she was fine, or she could tell them the truth. But she couldn't tell them everything, because then they' She'd handle it.

Cordelia had finished the beautifying process, having rinsed her face and put fresh lipstick and blush on; she was now turned around, looking at her expectantly. "Willow?"

They knew something was wrong -- if she lied completely, they wouldn't buy it.

"It''s Oz." The hacker said, and it was partially true.

"Oz?" Buffy repeated. Oz was bothering Willow? That didn't seem right.

Willow nodded, and smiled sadly when Cordelia came up behind the blonde and started to gently massage her shoulders. She didn't think either of them realized it; it was just something they'd gotten used to. The girlfriends did lots of little things for each other, not even consciously aware of it -- she'd noticed that about them. She and Oz weren't as in tune, and instead of working towards that, they were drifting. The problem was, she was the only one who could see it. Though, to be fair, it wasn't like she had made an effort lately. At least this wasn't going to be a total lie.

"What'd he do?" Cordelia wondered.

"It was the retreat." The redhead told them, but she admitted to herself that it started before then. "The record company guy." That was when the distancing really got worse, though. That was when it stopped being all her fault. "I know music is a big part of his life, and that's cool. I like having a boyfriend who's in a band. A-a lot. I like going backstage and me being the only girl he's interested in." She continued at their smiles. "But ever since he talked to that guy, it's sorta been the whole part."

"He's crazy about you, Will." The blonde assured her.

"He has the 'Puppy Love' look going every time he's around you." Cordelia said, not believing for a second that he'd forget her. "Literally."

"I dunno." Willow sat herself up on an unoccupied spot of the counter, beside one of the sinks. "I know he loves me...but he loves playing, too. What if the Dingoes get big? They could, you know. Then Oz'll go on tour and have tons of groupies and..." She sighed. "I don't wanna get in the way."

Buffy felt the brunette's hands slide off her shoulders, and then she hoisted herself up next to her friend. "You'd never get in his way." She paused. "But if it really bugs you, just talk to him. I heard somewhere that communication's important in a relationship."

"She didn't hear it from me." Cordelia joked, and Buffy glared at her in mock-anger. "Anyway, and I hate to admit this, she's right. Talk to him before you make yourself nuts."

"He is a good listener." Willow said, smiling. "The best."

"See? And," The slayer put an arm around her shoulders, "it's only been two days." She reminded her. "We're going to the Bronze tonight, Hell Beast or no Hell Beast." She swore with a smirk. "How bout then?"

The hacker's smile faltered. "Tonight's a wolf night."

"So leash him. He won't be able to get away." Cordelia suggested.

Willow couldn't help herself -- she laughed. "All he'd do is growl at me."

"Why do you think I gave up on men?" The cheerleader grinned. Buffy and Willow hopped back down to the ground, and Cordelia caught her girlfriend around the waist. "Love you, too."

Buffy smiled, though focused on Willow. "Just don't forget, Will."

"I won't." The redhead promised, and was immediately unsure as to whether or not she'd live up to it. They headed for the door as soon as the brunette had her bag. "Hey, Buffy? Is Angel mad?" She wanted to go, but she found it hard to anymore.

"No." The blonde said, quickly. "I think he misses you coming by, though."

Before Willow could respond, Amy burst into the bathroom, excited. "It's a Khul's amulet! The shop sells newer ones that have fake crystal, but the one you found was at least a hundred years old, Buffy. The owner wanted to buy it off me."

"A what?" The girlfriends echoed after a few seconds, needing to backtrack.

"Basically, it's like a conduit." Amy answered. "For transmogrifying things."

"Really?" Willow had read about transmogrification, but had never thought she might get a chance to see it happen. "Whoa."

The slayer and the cheerleader just had blank looks.

"I'm sure we'd be impressed, too...if we knew what the hell you were talking about." Cordelia remarked sarcastically, and Buffy nodded in agreement.


Transmogrify: to change or alter greatly and often with grotesque or humorous effect. That was the definition Willow had read to a befuddled Buffy, Cordelia, and Xander, before they started making plans. They'd pretty much figured out that the vampires from last night were trying to change the large creature into a form that was easier to handle. Whoever sent them had the right idea, and trying the same thing seemed to be their only option. Amy said she could pull it off. While Giles didn't doubt the witch's skill, the spells for 'activating' that particular amulet had been lost for centuries. If something went wrong, he hated to imagine the potential consequences.

The sun had gone down, and so had they, bringing along as much weaponry as they could carry. He and most of the children were in the sewer now, heading towards the direction of the tremors, which were considerably less intense then they had been. With each step, the staff he was holding made contact with the sewer floor. Also making the trek, were Angel and Miss Calendar (Oz was back at the library, safely secured inside the book cage, and being watched by his girlfriend). Needless to say, the vampire's joining them was causing tension; though they had managed to mask their discomfort fairly well. Surprisingly, when he met up with them at the school before they headed out, Willow, the one person who should've been at ease, wouldn't look at him.

Hearing the splash as her girlfriend stepped into an uninviting puddle of sewage water, Buffy turned to Cordelia as they walked, glancing at the sneakers on the brunette's feet, that had been there since their training. "Aren't you glad you didn't change?"

"Uh huh." Cordelia responded quickly, attempting to block out what could possibly be on the bottom of her sneaker. "Cause two hundred and fifty dollar, designer shoes weren't meant for this." She felt like retching, but never went further than a grimace. "God, how can anything live down here?"

"I don't know," Xander took in his surroundings, fixing the strap of the bag that held the weapon backups on his shoulder, "if I had a biohazard suit, a lifetime supply of beef jerky, and about a billion rat traps, I could see myself going subterranean." Another tremor was then heard and felt, causing the group to temporarily halt. "Now that I think about it, the terranean life isn't that bad. I probably should give it another chance."

"Let's keep moving." Buffy said before anyone suggested leaving, and then lowered the axe so at hung by her side, as she moved closer to her girlfriend to whisper. "I can't believe Willow's missing this."

The redhead had appeared excited at the prospect of witnessing a transmogrification -- her volunteering to stay behind was a little unexpected.

"Somebody had to stay with Oz." The brunette told her, readjusting the grip on her sword. "And you heard her; maybe she's taking whatever time she can get."

"Maybe." The slayer conceded; however, she wasn't quite convinced by her friend's 'confession.'

"If it were me, though, I wouldn't put up with it. She only gets to see her dog of a boyfriend while she's sitting at a table and he snarls and drools in a cage." Cordelia stated, somewhat incredulous. "Oh yeah, that's quality time."

Buffy caught the double meaning of the word, 'dog.' "Nice."

"Thanks." The cheerleader accepted the compliment.

"But I know what you mean." The blonde continued.

"Amy, how do you intend to do this?" Giles asked, interrupting the girls' discussion.

Miss Calendar was relieved; at least one of them had the courage to say something. She hated to admit it, but as much as she liked Amy, the witch scared her when it came to magick. The teacher was primarily a techno-pagan, and then a gypsy, second. However, even though she wasn't a full-fledged, traditional, practicing witch, she still knew that when someone's eyes went black while casting a spell, strong energy was coursing through them -- energy that wasn't very pure. Normally she and Rupert wouldn't question her, but Amy was going to attempt to "turn on" an amulet that had immense power without a formal spell; that was dangerous thing to do, and they felt responsible for these kids.

Amy was wearing the amulet around her neck. "Every amulet has specific magicks locked inside of them, and they're pretty useless without their spells -- which are like keys. But since we don't have the key for this," She gripped the object in her hand, "I'm gonna ask the Goddess if she'll make it work for us."

"You can do that?" Xander asked, impressed.

His girlfriend had a direct line to the Goddess. How many guys could say that?

"Gonna try." The witch smiled. "Transmogrification isn't exactly natural, so Hecate's our best chance." She didn't miss the worried expression on Giles' face. "Just because myths lump her in with the underworld doesn't mean..." She sighed, hating having to defend her craft. "What'd the Greeks know?"

"You went to History last year, didn't you?" Cordelia asked in return, surprised that she was still able to remember anything that she'd learned.

Xander put his arm across his girlfriend's shoulders in a show of support, as she nodded, frowning. "Relax, it's all Greek to me. And not in a good way."

The cheerleader groaned at his lameness, but Amy smiled at his attempt.

"I just remember being taught that taking the time to recite a spell is a sign of respect." Jenny said. "What if she gets offended?"

"She won't. We'll be fine." Amy promised. "Look, if anybody has a better idea..." No one voiced any suggestions, so she decided to go with her instincts and tell them what she'd felt for the last couple minutes. "It's weak now, but I think there's magick down here already."

"It's demonic." Angel explained further, speaking for the first time. "Somebody must've made a deal with another god." The mystical energy he was sensing didn't come from this dimension. "Gods are territorial. She wants this thing gone, she just needs an excuse to step in."

"Wait. How do you know it's evil mojo?" Xander inquired, and then he nodded, as if he suddenly understood. "Oh, that's right. When you were evil you probably --"

The group glared at him...even Cordelia. He shut up. Finishing that remark wouldn't have helped to ease the tension. But if Angel heard the teenager, he ignored him, as he was busy motioning them to get up against the wall. He peaked around the corner into the large open area, which was reminiscent of the Master's lair, and just spacious enough to fit the creature.

"This is it." The vampire told them with a quiet voice.

Buffy risked taking a look at the creature. "It's sleeping?"


"Yes, I put her to bed an hour ago." The woman was telling him as he walked around her almost bare living room.

In his opinion, the structure barely qualified as a house; compared to where he used to live in Ireland, that is. Built by hand, brick by brick, it was a poor place to raise a family. The wooden furniture was even shoddier. One well placed spark, and within seconds there'd be nothing left. She was risking quite a lot having a fire burning, but he wasn't here to criticize the home. He was an invited guest, after all.

"And what's the wee one's name?" He asked, turning to face her.

"Katie." She smiled.

He smiled, studying the picture he'd picked up off of the small, wooden table. "Such a pretty child. She'll make a fine lass some day."

"Um...thank you." She didn't want to be rude, but when he took a seat in Brady's chair, she had to say something. "Excuse me, sir, how do you know my husband?"

"From the city. We were supposed to meet for a pint, but he never arrived." He answered, returning the picture to its spot. "Photography is an amazin' thing, don't you think?"

"It is." She agreed. "Brady calls pictures, 'Memories which are frozen in time.'"

"My, isn't that a poetic description?" He responded, impressed. "Well, a man that wise surely can't have lost his way. I have a habit of worrying too much." He moved to rise from the chair. "Forgive me for calling on you this late."

She brought her hand to her mouth. "Is he in trouble, Mr. Angelus? Has he gotten himself into debt playing at the pub?"

Angelus shook his head, standing. "Of course not; his skill at cards is well known -- as is his temper." He jokingly assured her. "No, he needn't be concernin' himself with debt collectors; not when the night is full of so many other perils."

The woman didn't know whether to be relieved or alarmed. She always warned him about his temper. "Yes, I suppose you're --"

She stopped herself as she faced her out of breath husband, who was running through the doorway.

"Claudia, wake Katelyn, we have to..." Brady saw the man sitting in his chair and turned white. "Back away from it! Hurry to me!"

"What are you going on about? This is..."

Angelus made sure his feral visage greeted her as she looked at him. "You should mind your husband, Claudia."

Then she screamed.


"Is it dripping what I think it's dripping?" Cordelia spoke softly, having had her scream stifled by Buffy's hand. "Cause if it is, count me out."

"Hooves? But...they crush." Xander pointed out, beginning to sweat. "Not a huge fan of the claws, either."

"Its skin looks fairly tough. Weapons could have a hard time penetrating it." Giles noticed. "And small pores covering its body are probably more dangerous than they seem."

"I just hope it doesn't feel a cold coming on." Buffy chipped in, disturbed by the memory. "The amulet has to work."

"As long as nobody wakes it up, we won't have anything to worry about. So let's try and be careful." Jenny advised.

While Amy stared at the creature with Angel, whose drawing didn't do justice to its size, she knew that waking it up was the last thing she wanted to do. Her certainty had been for show; she didn't have a spell, and to get the Goddess' attention, more energy would be required from her. And the amount of energy that'd be necessary to change this thing into something else could leave her seriously hurt -- or worse. The other problem was, without a spell and the right bloodstone, she didn't know how to control what the creature would become.

Ever since she found out that she had inherited her mother's gift for magick (dark magick, to be precise), she had used it to make things easier for herself. She got out of homework. If she was late for school, one snap of her fingers, and she was ready to go. But with the gang, she could use her talents to assist others; the darkness could be used for good. It was up to her -- she wasn't going to let them down, even if it meant putting her life on the line. She took a deep breath, and saw why the creature was sleeping. It probably tired itself trying to escape the magickal cage it was contained in.

"There's where the magick's coming from." Amy gestured to the fluctuating yellow light surrounding their enemy. That's when she realized that Angel had been watching her. "What?"

"Give me the amulet. I'll do it." The vampire said, holding out his hand.

He knew.

"I can --" The witch started to object.

"You're not strong enough." He cut her off. "Get her attention...I'll deal with the rest."

If Angel wanted to win back their trust, he had to show them that he was on their side, no matter what the risk. Xander looked ready to get in his face, but Amy handed over the amulet, her features relaxing. Buffy pulled her friend away from the vampire, and took the bag from his shoulder.

"Not now." The slayer told him, opening the bag. "Anyone who isn't talking to an omnipotent being, have something to fight with." She said, checking to make sure the Big Ugly was still snoozing. "Whatever this thing's gonna turn into, we need to be ready." Xander grabbed another staff, and Miss Calendar and Amy grabbed knives. "Go for it, Amy."

The witch and the vampire both sat on the ground, opposite one another. Angel gripped the amulet, while Amy closed her eyes and began to say words in Latin. Giles was able to translate for himself:

"Queen of blackest night, we beseech you; awaken the power within this amulet! The power to make anew its body! To change this ancient evil into a creature the Warrior may conquer! Give us the strength to endure! Hear my call! We beseech you, Hecate, help us! Accept our love and bless us; reclaim the dark!"

Amy repeated the words again and again, never stopping. The amulet began to vibrate in Angel's hand, so held it tighter. Faster and faster. Then came the pain; Angel cried out, which caused the creature to stir. Seeing intruders it rose up quickly, the ground shaking in the process. The barrier was still holding, though.

"Don't freak." Buffy said to her friends, calmly.

"Easy for you to say." Cordelia said back to her.

The blonde looked at her significant other. "Wanna bet?"

Amy felt like her eyes had been forced open, so she could see the agony that Angel was enduring in her place. His arm was shaking, and rays of red light emanated from the amulet. She wanted to take over, but it was too late; whatever was going to happen, was going to happen. She stood, facing the creature with the rest of them. It was ramming into the barrier, attempting to break free. Every time it did, they all had to work hard to maintain their balance. With one, final, determined bellow, the creature charged through the barrier, collapsing it for good.

"Now you can freak." Buffy gave her permission. "I'll try to distract it, and you guys stay out of its way."

The pores that Giles mentioned each held a tentacle. One of those tentacles had shot out, almost snatching Amy, but her boyfriend pulled her out of the way. While her friends scattered, Buffy judged her options. The best way for her to injure the beast was something she wasn't going to enjoy. Taking the axe, she made a beeline straight for it, narrowly avoiding the stamping hoof, and sliding underneath her target. With a swift strike, she planted the axe in its stomach.

"Is she crazy?" Cordelia wondered, fear in her eyes.

"Yep." Xander said.

When she saw that her weapon didn't do anything, and after the shock wore off, she removed the axe and rolled out of the way before the creature could lower itself on top of her. Not being able to get at the slayer, it reached for Miss Calendar, wrapping a tentacle around her ankle. It started dragging her along the ground, and then lifted her above it.

"Jenny!" Giles called out.

Both he and Cordelia rushed to the teacher's aid, and the cheerleader sliced the tentacle that had claimed her. The watcher caught the techno-pagan, and the three of them observed the severed tentacle uncoiling itself from her ankle. Cordelia thoroughly stepped on it, before turning to the adults with a smile.

"This won't get me out of Computer, will it?" The brunette asked, and Miss Calendar shook her head. "Damn."

Prepared to rush in and rescue her girlfriend, Cordelia saw that Angel had gotten up and already shoved the slayer out of harm's way. She didn't have time to be annoyed, though, because he threw the now pulsating amulet at the creature, and for what seemed like an eternity, all she could see was red, and all she could hear were unnatural screeches. When it was over, a very different form stood in the creature's place, and they were wide-eyed. It had been placed in the body of a vampire.

Angel's body -- with his vampiric face.


Angelus took hold of Claudia's throat. "You ought to be willing to stand up for yourself after you insult a man."

"You're not a man! You're a demon!" Brady proclaimed.

"There you go again." The vampire looked disappointed. "Perhaps I gave your husband too much credit. Only fools don't know when to hold their tongues." He squeezed, and she gagged. The baby was crying. "I'd hate for little Katie to discover what a shameful person her father is. Not a single cross to protect his family." He smiled evilly at the head of the household. "And you call yourself a Catholic."

"Please, let us be." Brady pleaded, unable to do much else.

"Where's the fun in that?" Angelus asked, snapping Claudia's neck and dropping her to the ground.

Brady was horrified, and he wept, falling to the floor. "You monster!"

"I see what you mean, manners at all." Darla had come in behind Brady, and when he turned around, her yellow eyes were staring at him. "Grab the child."

"No! Katie!" Brady tried to get to his feet and run to the nursery, but Darla caught his arm and proceeded to sink her fangs into his neck.

Angelus went to retrieve the baby, and when he came back to the living room, it was strangely quiet in his arms. "Don't kill him."

Her mouth bloody, Darla dropped the severely weakened human to the ground. Angelus handed over the child to his sire, so he could break off a chair leg. He stuck it in the fire until a flame caught on, and then threw it in the direction of the nursery. The vampires left the home, ignoring Brady's moans. Once they were a safe distance away, they watched as the house slowly went up in flames.

"It's times like I these I wish I had a camera." Angelus revealed, entranced by his carnage.

"We'll have to pick up one in Paris." Darla said. "All the best photographers are there, you know."

"What shall we do with her?" He asked.

"We'll eat her along the way." Darla shifted back to her human face. "Unless she starts crying again. I can't stand the noise." She handed Katie back to him. "Come, darling! France awaits!"

Willow's eyes abruptly opened. She had reached the end of another one.


"The amulet must've used Angel as a blueprint." Giles said, looking on.

"Ya think?" Xander remarked.

That thing wasn't Angel or Angelus; it was only a shell. But to the Englishman and the real Angel, that distinction was hard to make. The vampire tackled his double with energy supplied by rage; as far as he was concerned, he was looking at his demon, and he wanted nothing more than to destroy it. Buffy had rejoined the group, but wanted to go back and help him. Her watcher stopped her with a look, so they watched as the two vampires fought.

When the transformed creature would try and head for them, Angel would pull it back. They through each other into walls, exchanged blow after blow, kick after kick. Angel was bruised, bloody, and his shirt was torn, but he had gotten hold of its arms, and was struggling to pin them behind its back. Angel then locked eyes with Giles. All the memories of what Angelus had done to him and Jenny had been haunting him them both all summer, and their anger had just peaked.

"Cordelia, hand me the sword." Giles requested. She did, and he walked to Angel "Stand it up." With a lot of effort, Angel maintained his grip and pulled the creature up. The sword rose. "It's all right."

The very second that Angel released his hold on his double, Giles removed its head. As the dust rained down, Angel's legs gave out on him, so the librarian had to help the man to his feet. Amy rushed over to help, and Xander followed. They took over for Giles, each supporting an arm, already beginning to walk home. Cordelia, Buffy and Miss Calendar went over to an oddly relaxed Giles, who returned the sword to the cheerleader.

"I'm gonna see if they need help." Cordelia announced. "Still going to the Bronze?"

"Yeah." The slayer smiled, giving her a kiss. "You don't have to rush, though."

Three of them were now left standing there.

"That was, uh..." Miss Calendar was searching for a word, putting her hand in her partner's.

"My thoughts exactly." Buffy said, tiredly. Then she looked on the ground; a black orb, slightly larger than a baseball, was sitting there. "What's that?"


The redhead picked her head up off the table, looking around the library in fear. She was just glad that she didn't scream this time. Her heart was racing -- they never got any better. She looked inside the book cage, wiping the tears from her eyes; Oz was still there. That was a relief. If he got out, she wouldn't be able to forgive herself, and Giles...well, he'd be unhappy. The watcher got scary when he was like that. Though not as scary as Angelus. The worst part about the nightmares was that she wasn't just that --

The librarian had just walked in. "Did you have any trouble?"

"Are you kidding? He's like a puppy." Willow said, just as the Oz-Wolf attacked the cage with a growl. "You know...generally." She remembered where he'd been. "How was it? Really bad? Is everybody okay?"

"It was...cathartic." Giles answered with a weary smile. "And we all survived."

She didn't quite get what he meant by that, but she didn't question him any further. "Oh. Good."

"Buffy, uh, told me to tell you that they're heading for the Bronze in a little while. I can watch over Oz if you like." He offered.

"Great. Thanks." She more or less leapt from the chair, intending to take full advantage of the out she was given, going for the door. "See you tomorrow, Giles. Hey, it'll be the first day of school."

"Yes, you're right. Which means people will actually have to come in here." Laughing, he figured that talking to could wait. "Goodnight, Willow."

When she was gone, he entered his office and sat at his desk. He retrieved the black orb from his jacket pocket, but besides knowing that the material was obsidian, he had no clue what its purpose was. He sat it on his desk, unsettled by the fact that he hadn't known what the creature was, or where it came from. He would've been even more unsettled if he could've heard the voices crying out inside that orb:

"Eh-Woo-Too! Eh-Woo-Too!"

"Bestia de Infierno!"

"El Mago! El Mago!"


"Explain how this is taking a break." Cordelia said to Amy, as they perused the magick shop.

Her friend sighed. "I'm just browsing -- haven't touched my supplies in a week, or looked at my books. I said I was gonna lay off the heavy spells for a while, and I meant it." She then swiftly changed the subject. "How's the training going?"

She had fun with that glamour she did a few weeks ago, however. The girlfriends had still been mad at Giles, so they had enlisted her to make him think that the entire library was in shambles. Books were lying everywhere, torn were pages floating around, the card catalog had spilled its contents all over the floor...the look on his face was priceless. Of course, as soon as he saw it, the glamour dissipated, returning reality to its normal state. And that marked the end of Buffy's torture of her watcher, much to his relief.

That favor, coupled with the transmogrification spell, had drained the witch. Not just physically, but mentally as well, so she'd decided to temporarily step away. Her reliance on magick was getting greater and greater every day, and it had begun to scare her. A little time to recharge and rethink things would do her good. It was already working, but she had come here to find a Cleansing Crystal that'd help her even more. She didn't have to do anything; she just needed it to be near.

It simply assisted in purging the body of any negative energy and healed, which was what Amy needed. Something pure.

"Actually? Pretty damn good." The cheerleader spoke without hesitation, exuding confidence. "Giles is even surprised that I'm picking stuff up so fast. Guess I'm a slaying natural." She praised herself, glowing. "Not that I'm bragging or anything."

"Cause you'd never." Amy smirked as they approached the counter.

On it was a glass case similar to those that held jewelry in department stores, only this held crystals. Of various size, shape, and color. There were tags beside each one, listing names and properties. As the shopkeeper was busy at the register, Amy looked inside while they waited for her to finish, because the protection spell around the case had to be removed by an employee if she wanted the merchandise. Luckily, the store had the right crystal.

"Hell no." Cordelia confirmed, unable to not grin. "And thanks for skipping over the disturbing area of the store."

Amused, the witch chuckled. "You mean the shelves with the eyeballs and dismembered body parts?" Following her question, she thought she saw the brunette turn slightly green, so she took pity on her. "You're welcome."

The woman who owned the shop was in her late twenties, and had long, chestnut-brown hair. When she saw the girls inspecting the crystals, she walked to them and flicked her hand at the case. "Eximo theca." Once the invisible barrier revealed itself, turning pink and then vanishing, she swung open the glass door, smiling at her potential customers. "How can I help you?"

"Hi, yeah, I need a Borcali Crystal." Amy said, pointing at it.

"Wow. Trying to cleanse all three, huh? Mind, body, must've gotten in over your head." The shopkeeper was sympathetic.

The young witch's voice was low. "Could say that."

The woman studied her carefully. "You need this." She brightened, then, turning the case around to grab the correct item. "Tell you what -- lemme go ring it up, and we'll halve the price."

Amy was dumbstruck -- it wasn't cheap. "Uh...thanks. That'd be great."

"Good. Just take it easy, okay?" Violet crystal in hand, the shopkeeper moved to the register. "Works wonders, guaranteed. A hot bath comes close, but this is better."

While the two, magickally-inclined females went to complete their transaction, Cordelia's curiosity made her reach in to grab a very ordinary-looking, clear crystal that was about the size of her palm. The tag said, 'Unbinding Crystal (Therio).' Before she could concentrate on deciphering that information, the object glowed a bright gold in her hand. What happened next nearly caused her to drop it -- her senses were assaulted. There was no other way to describe it.

Odors from the herbs and powders and body parts, people's perfumes and colognes...floated up in through her nostrils, and she smelled them all at once. She could even tell who had recently showered, and who needed a shower, because she could smell the soap and the sweat. Her hearing suddenly improved, too. All the conversations going on in the store, which moments before sounded muffled, were now easily heard.

She would direct her attention to a certain person or persons, and their words became plain as day:


"Have you seen our credit card bill? Debt is the last thing we need right now."

"And I don't need to hear this right now. It can wait till we get home."

"That's the problem. You always put things off..."

"I locked the front door, didn't I? Can't be too careful. Buncha crazies in this town."

"Where's the broomsticks?"

"You're so close-minded."


And the minute her eyes zeroed in on the thin, stray thread on the shoulder of a guy's jacket, she wanted to scream.

"Cordelia, are you all right?" Amy rushed to her, having glanced at the cheerleader from the register. "Your eyes were just..."

"What? They were just what?" Cordelia demanded to know, restraining herself from going postal.

"Sorta cat-like." The witch answered nervously, and the brunette swallowed hard, bringing her hands to her face. "Is that a crystal?"

The shopkeeper joined them, having instructed her assistant to take over the store for a little while. "You didn't know."


The proprietor, whose name they learned was Reneé, took them through a door in the back, which had stairs leading to the roof. Up there was a large, Oriental rug, and she gestured for them to sit down. They did. It was quieter here; Cordelia could calm herself. The pollution in the air was more noticeable now, and she could smell the scents of mocha coffees wafting up from below, but it was less intense. However, when a crow cawed over on the next building, the noise echoed in her ears, and she jumped.

"Anybody wanna give me a clue? Sooner rather than later would be nice." The cheerleader was understandably on edge.

"I come up here to meditate and relax. Thought it might help." Reneé started off by saying, making the girl feel guilty. "That crystal...let your shifter side loose."

"Shifter?" Cordelia questioned, and then shook her head. "Look, I don't care what it did. Just undo it."

"I can't. If you weren't a Shifter, it wouldn't've done a thing." The woman explained, calmly. "And you'd've found out eventually...probably in the next few weeks, considering how quickly you gained the heightened senses. It just sped things up."

" should still have a sign warning people." The brunette said lamely, and Amy mouthed, 'She did.'

Reneé stared at her, serious. "Someone who has an adept, magick user for a friend should have enough common sense to know not to handle strange crystals."

Cordelia cleared her throat, shamed. "Sorry."

"Be careful, that's all. Next time you might grab the wrong one." The woman smiled, showing her that she wasn't upset. "Are you in a serious relationship?"

"Why's that matter?" The cheerleader was wary.

"Because shifters can go their whole lives having no idea about...what they can do. What triggers it a lot, though, is when they get really protective of someone they love. You have. You said the training was..." Amy cut in, but stopped herself when she remembered that this woman didn't know about Buffy. "Anyway, the animal side wants to protect the mate, so --"

"Hold it!" Cordelia interrupted. "First it was 'shifter,' now it's, 'animal side' and 'mate.' Pick a term and go with it."

"What she's saying is," Reneé came in again, "the power of your feelings, and your desire to keep your partner safe, kicked your shifter side into gear -- a breed of cat that's most likely wild. It has strength and skills you don't have in human form, and it wants to be there for its mate. Which means whoever you're with is a Shifter also, and the same animal."

"So basically, we're Were-Cats?" The brunette's eyes widened in shock. "We weren't bitten, were we? Cause I think I'd remember that. No, I know I'd remember that."

"A person who becomes a were-creature," The shopkeeper clearly didn't like the word, "through a puncture or the mixing of blood, is...unfortunate. It's an unnatural, forced change, and the human and animal almost always split. One side doesn't know what the other's doing -- they never learn control." She paused, considering her words carefully. "You've had the potential to shift for years. I don't know why; no one does. Mystical, biological...could be both. Or not."

"Did I miss how that was supposed to help?" Cordelia wondered, sarcastically.

Reneé rolled her eyes. "I know you're scared, but in your case, it is a gift. Not a curse. If you let yourself, mentally you'll still be you, and you'll be in control. The cat isn't separate; it's part of you. It is you."

"Oh." Was all that the once, normal teenager could say.

"Do me a favor -- try to use 'Shifter' or 'Theriomorph.' 'Were' has a bad connotation." The pleasant woman informed her. "Too Hollywood."

Her expression revealing that she was zoning, the cheerleader nodded slowly. "Uh huh. No problem."

"You oughta talk to Buffy. I bet she doesn't know, and she's gonna want to." Her friend advised, sensing that her brain was on overload. "We'll um, buy both crystals. Thanks for everything." She said to Reneé, sincerely.

They all stood.

"I'll go put 'em in a bag. Take your time." Reneé offered, getting ahead of them and then looking back. "Good luck."

The stupefied girl didn't acknowledge the well-wisher, and if it weren't for the way her arm was being yanked, she wouldn't have known to walk. "I like cats. I have nothing against them. I even think they're interesting. Who wouldn't want nine lives?" She paused to think. "Sure, maybe there're times when I envy the lifestyle, and yeah, maybe I wore a cat outfit for Halloween last year, but...that doesn't mean anything. Right?"


"That was really good, Mrs. Summers." Cordelia said, complimenting the cook and the food they'd just eaten.

"Thank you." Joyce responded, smiling.

The normalcy of the evening so far had settled the dinner guest's nerves. She could almost forget what she'd learned today, and what she had to tell the petite blonde once the adult left. Amy had explained it several times -- she was pretty sure she got it, now. Most of the witch's understanding came from her crazy mother's books, and people online who claimed to be shifters.

Genuine, physical shifting ability was rare; it was usually a hoax. Mental and spiritual shifting -- through astral projection and dreams -- was more common. But the cheerleader and the slayer were supposedly the real deal. Cordelia knew that Amy was barely containing her excitement when they left the shop. The girl wanted to see it happen; she wanted to see the change.

Not yet -- it was something the couple had to experience themselves, first. Once Joyce was gone, and they'd cleaned up the mess.

Buffy, her girlfriend, and her mother got up from the dining room table then, taking dishes with them; the slayer was going to head for the kitchen, but the cheerleader nudged her in the side and stared expectantly at her. "Yeah, Mom -- it was great."

Now that she had complied, Buffy was free to go with them. The guest, not even being asked to, opened up the dishwasher and began putting her plate, glass, and utensils in it. When she finished, she looked at her girlfriend, once again expecting her to follow along. Buffy was shocked by Cordelia's willingness to do what she protested against, and was usually forced to do. What kind of a teenager freely volunteers to do chores? There's always an ulterior motive.

"Here...I got it, Mom." Buffy said, an eyebrow quirked at Cordelia while taking Joyce's dishes.

Such as trying to appease a significant other, or trying to stay on good terms with one's parent. For instance.

Joyce smirked. "I can't believe it. You're actually helping out and not complaining. She's a good influence on you."

The daughter's eyes grew big in disbelief, but she wordlessly filled the washer to capacity and shut it. "Sticking plates in a machine isn't really that hard."

"Then why don't you do it more often?" Her mother pointedly inquired.

Buffy quickly glared at Cordelia. "Happy?"

"It'll do." The brunette said, hiding her grin. She hit the button to start the cycle. "Thank God Xander isn't here. He'd make some dumb comment like, 'Wow! Cordelia knows how to use a dishwasher!'" She'd never grasp his logic. "If I can operate appliances, it means the world's coming to an end. That's the way his mind works."

Buffy smiled. "I think he's got this block when it comes to you, still. But he'll get over it sooner or..." Suddenly trailing off, she became quiet, and appeared lost in thought. " know how to use a dishwasher? Since when?"

Cordelia realized that she had asked for that, but she wasn't willing to let the girl slide. "That's funny. I'm gonna laugh any minute."

Before Buffy saw what she was doing, the cheerleader had the detachable sprayer from the sink pointed at her. She put her hands up. "Mom, you wanna step in here?"

"As long as she's got good aim, I'm not getting involved." Joyce stated her position, amused. "Watch the floor, Cordelia."

"You're in cahoots now? Well, that's just great." Buffy huffed, cautiously backpedaling. "And I don't even know what a 'cahoot' is." She stopped, and looked at Cordelia, challengingly. "You don't have the guts."

"I don't?" Cordelia questioned, as if it was something she hadn't been aware of. A mischievous gleam was shining in her eyes. "Come on, know me better than that."

The blonde knew that particular gleam. "Okay, maybe you do." Then she turned on her heels and booked it into the living room, while the small stream of water just missed her back.

"Chicken!" The brunette called, tossing the sprayer into the sink and chasing after her.


Buffy closed the front door as the Jeep pulled away, loving the happy, lighthearted feeling. She and Cordelia were going to go on patrol, followed by a movie, and then they were coming back to an empty house, because her parent was leaving town on gallery business. Returning to the living room, she expected her girlfriend to still be on a victory high after tackling and subduing her, to share her joy, but that's not what she saw.

On the couch, she saw a conflicted brunette. She was probably the only one who could read her, and understand what was honestly taking place behind her eyes. Something was bugging; the blonde wouldn't allow that. She went and snuggled up against her, silently requesting thoughts to be spoken aloud. When Cordelia slowly exhaled, Buffy watched the 'serious face' make an appearance. Whatever it was, it was important.

"K, what's the deal? You were being extra chummy with Mom earlier, and now you're doing the heavy contemplation thing." Buffy commented, running her fingers in a circle along the top of her girlfriend's hand. "Is it me? Cause you gotta tell me when I mess up, you know this."

"It'" Cordelia then shook her head, changing her mind. "No, it's us. We're officially freaks." She was not at all adjusted to the developments, and therefore, tact got thrown out of the window.

The slayer smirked. "And this is news?" She waited for a response, but none was forthcoming. "We're not. I mean, I kill demons and you make human pyramids for fun, but there's definitely freakier people. Like the guys who created Cheez Whiz. We're the special kind -- they're just weird."

"Well, we raise the bar for special freaks. I'll deny it to anyone else, but it's the truth." The cheerleader grumbled, reaching for her bag that she'd placed on the coffee table before sitting down. She retrieved the guilty crystal from inside, and showed it to the confused girl. "Get ready." She warned, preparing to tell the story. "And remember, I'm not crazy."

Buffy's eyebrows raised at that remark, but she stayed silent until the tale of Cordelia's day was completely finished, and released a very long breath. "Oh, how I love my life." She bit her lip, mulling over something for a few seconds. "We're...uh, mated? The cat us's?" Getting a nod, her lips formed a small smile. "That's kinda neat."

"Yeah, it kinda is." The brunette smiled, too -- it was a bright spot, at least. "But still freaky." She added, a tad more unconvincingly than a minute ago.

"How come I don't totally buy that?" The blonde suspiciously asked, watching a blush settle on Cordelia's cheeks. "You can't wait to try it, can you?"

"If I get to choose, you know, when it happens, it could be..." The cheerleader glared at Buffy, who was sporting a large grin. "Yes. I want to, all right? God." She got quieter, next, though. "I dunno, it's...easier to handle. We're talking a few hours here, and already I can stop the super hearing and sight from switching on. I can't explain it; I just do it."

This animal really was a part of her, then. Of them.

"So you think," Buffy searched her memory for the name, "Reneé, was for real? It wasn't an 'Evil, Money-Grubbing Witch' routine?" In answer, Cordelia closed her eyes, and as she opened them back up, there was no mistaking it -- they were the hazel-colored eyes of a cat. The slayer's breath caught in her throat. "Oh my God. Cor, that's..."

Before she could complete her sentence, the blonde's lips were on the brunette's. She knew she shouldn't be, but she was rather turned on by her girlfriend's new look. And, if she thought about it, she'd concluded that that was ultimately a good thing. They were both mated were-cats, and repulsion wouldn't have been a positive sign. But clearly that wasn't the case, so she wasn't concerned -- even though it all sounded bizarre in her head.

It took every ounce of Cordelia's self-control to halt one of their favorite pastimes, but they weren't done discussing this yet. "Your mom thinks I'm a good influence? How'd I pull that off?"

Buffy smiled coyly. "Your secret's safe with me."

"Oh yeah, " Her eyes human-like again, the cheerleader nonchalantly revealed Freaky Fact #2, "you've got a scent. I could smell it as soon as I came in."

"What do I --?" The slayer began, curious but sort of not.

"Like you." Cordelia cut her off, shrugging, unable to go into detail. "And it's pretty strong, so could you kill the hormones?" She didn't notice Buffy flush as she kept talking. "Anyway, I'm trying to convince myself that this is a good thing. We can turn into animals -- ooh. So what? Where's the benefits?"

"Patrol. Once we figure stuff out, you could like, hold the vamps down on the ground while I stake them." The blonde suggested, helpfully. "Or you could do the staking, and I could do the holding. Cat strength and all. And the roaring. Don't forget the roaring." Cordelia smirked at that. "Maybe we need to talk to Giles."

"Before we tell anybody, can we shift together once?" The brunette asked, hopefully, looking at her with a, 'Please Get It' expression. "I want it to be a private thing -- just you and me. Plus, if I completely lose it, no one else is gonna wanna stick around."

Buffy did get it, and smiled reassuringly. "What're we waiting for?"

She was handed the crystal, and it glowed, but not as brightly as it had for Cordelia. She expected to feel the rush of new sensations like her girlfriend had described, however, she felt no different. They both frowned, disappointed at the lack of happening going on.

"Is it broken?" The slayer shook the crystal several times.

The cheerleader was annoyed, and somewhat hurt. Reneé and Amy said that Buffy was one, too. "We're going to Giles'. Now."

The movie date was cancelled right then and there.


"Are the 'Oh My's' and 'Dear Lord's' out of your system yet?" Cordelia questioned about twenty minutes later, inside the librarian's flat. "Cause this is serious."

"There' need to be rude, Cordelia." Giles admonished.

"Who's rude? I'm being me." She countered.

Buffy was sitting on the sofa away from the volatile, tension zone, her watcher was at his desk examining the crystal after witnessing the eye-shape trick, and the cheerleader was standing over him. They wanted answers, but were getting the feeling that he didn't have many to provide. Which just increased the brunette's agitation level, and made the blonde think that her inability to share what her partner was experiencing, was her fault somehow.

"The Council has subscribed to the theory that, uh, 'Were-ism,' is an infection. For centuries. They've never been able to determine the cause of it, or how such a potent, mystical anomaly began to be transmitted through the blood." He explained to them, and Cordelia removed herself from his personal space. "Most of their research concerns wolves, and little else. Also, the animals aren't true wolves, but a supernatural hybrid of sorts. In his werewolf state, Oz doesn't resemble any known species." He pointed out. "He becomes a primal beast, lacking the capacity for rational thought."

"You couldn't say that in the non-longwinded way?" The brunette asked, shaking her head in disbelief. "'Sorry, girls. I don't know a thing, because I work for a bunch of stuffy, tea-loving morons who're so old they probably need to invest in a dust-buster.' See? It saves time."

"On the contrary," Giles shot her a glare, "I have heard of 'shifting,' and find it fascinating. Being able to change at will, to keep hold of your humanity while gaining animal instinct and skill, is an attractive concept. Though, until now, I've always believed it was impossible, and that those who called themselves 'shifters,'" He coughed, speaking into his hand, "were mad."

Cordelia gasped. "You want mad? I'll give you mad!"

Buffy had planned to interject with, "'Mad' is British for 'whacko,' honey. Don't help him be right," but things started spinning. When the spinning ended, she was staring out across a desert landscape. She saw two figures: one was an African girl, who was kind of hunched over, in an attack position. The other was a wild cat, whose whiskers glistened in the sun. Its mouth was opened wide, revealing two pairs of long, sharp, canine teeth -- one at the top, and one at the bottom.

Its tawny fur, which turned white around the mouth -- going down the neck, stomach, and the inside of its legs -- was coated with black ovals of various sizes, some geometrical, some not. The backs of its ears were solid black, while its nose was pinkish in color. Nearly three-feet in length, the same size as its body, the thick tail was encircled by dark rings. Its eyes were a feral yellow, only the girl didn't appear to be frightened of them. If she was, she hid it behind her dreadlocks and white, face paint.

All Buffy could do was watch, as they charged one another. Two, angry predators battled and clawed, for what seemed like forever. Blood covered them, they were in terrible pain, and yet still they fought. Pouncing, rolling, snarling. Occasionally, the spectator would be taken away from the scene, but when she returned, no victor had been decided. It was pointless to her. Neither was going to surrender, so what was the use?


Giles stood over his bed early the following morning, watching as his charge tossed restlessly under the sheets. Hoping it was natural causes, overexertion or something just as easily explainable, he and Cordelia waited, and the blackout turned into a feverish, painful malady. Buffy's skin was pale, but it burned, while her body seemed to expel every last thing it kept inside. He'd never seen her so incapacitated.

When she slept, it wasn't peaceful, and when she was awake, she was non-responsive. The only logical conclusion was that it all had something to do with the crystal, with the new discoveries the girls had made. He was at a loss as to how to be of use, so Cordelia wasted no time in calling the magick shop, to get the help of the owner there. She was on the phone right now. He'd have to call Jenny and inform her about what was going on.

Buffy cried out then, and to the Englishman, it appeared that her partner's arrival was instant. He stepped back to allow her room, because his offer to help would be declined.

"She's coming." Cordelia told him, before tuning him out completely.

He didn't bother with a response to the good news -- it wouldn't have been heard. Moving further and further towards the doorway, he was amazed by the cheerleader. Absolutely amazed. There were times when, still, he questioned her sincerity where Buffy was concerned. He was developing a fatherly affection for the unorthodox slayer, and areas of her life to which he once remained indifferent, were becoming more noticeable.

Cordelia was the largest of those areas. The side of her personality he saw the most, was the one responsible for most of his headaches, and the one presumably incapable of the feeling she was currently displaying. Around Buffy, she underwent a remarkable transformation. The emotion in her eyes was equal to the strength in them; love, compassion...they outweighed the fear. Everything she had, she was giving to the ailing girl on the bed. Her heart was no longer hers.

She knew when Buffy was going to get sick, and didn't shy away. She hurriedly sat her up, talking to her calmly all the while. Trying to ease her suffering the only way she had available. At their age he'd had no clue what loving someone meant -- truly loving someone. These two did. It meant taking the high points with the low. Sacrificing a part of yourself. Giving that part to someone else. It meant that despite her girlfriend being seriously ill and not much fun to be near, she didn't want to be anywhere else.

Feeling like an intruder, he quietly left, shutting the door behind him with a smile. Buffy would be all right. Cordelia would make sure of it somehow; she would keep her alive through sheer force of will, if need be. With that thought came the, 'What if,' and he preferred not to consider that. He had gained an affection for the brunette now, too; he could see the depth of what they'd formed together. The alternative would destroy her.

The other children were stopping by soon. He'd tell them that it was the Flu. No sense in them worrying yet. It'd give the couple privacy.


This time, suddenly, it was done. The combatants approached each other -- the cat licked the red from its mouth, and the girl kept her head low, gripping her arm. Then the sand blew up into the wind, and there was a flash.


For two days, the slayer was wracked with sickness and dreams. She stayed in Giles' bedroom with a fever so high it almost busted the thermometer, awakening just long enough to empty her stomach into a basin beside the bed. This morning, however, the fever broke, and she was fully alert. Weak, achy, and not enjoying the feeling in the back of her throat, she had no energy to move. She eyed a relieved Cordelia smiling at her, and though pleased, she had no recollection of what had transpired.

"Giles, she's awake!" The cheerleader announced, beaming. She wiped the sweat from her forehead as she had for the last forty-eight hours, with a damp, cold rag, praising the invention of weekends. "I want you to know, you're the only person I'd go this long looking crappy for."

She had limited herself to brief showers. Her beautifying process was put on hold without a second thought. In the middle of the night, she was there helping Buffy through the sickness as best she could. She would help her lean over to reach the basin and rub her back, making sure her hair was in the clear. She would risk losing dexterity in her fingers, allowing the unnaturally strong girl to crush them during the worst parts. When there was screaming, she would soothe it away. And despite having seen things she hadn't wanted to, she'd do it again.

"What's going on?" Buffy asked softly, resting her hand on her lover's forearm.

"You're better -- that's what's going on. When Reneé said we had to wait it out, I wanted to strangle something, worked." Cordelia said, recognizing the, 'Million Questions' face. "Your mom called here about to spaz, but I covered. Angel's been patrolling, and Xander and Willow just think you had a major case of the Flu."

The blonde nodded, accepting all but one thing. "What did I have?"

"A whole lot of inner turmoil." Reneé answered, following Giles into the room. "How're you feeling?"

"Like my body hates me." Came the light quip, as the petite teenager sat up, being supported by her girlfriend. "Reneé, right?"

"Nice to meet you." The woman cordially said. "If I'd known you were a slayer, I would've told Cordelia to expect this."

Buffy looked to anyone for explanations, and her watcher decided to offer them. "Cordelia went to Miss Troyer when we couldn't agree on the best way to treat your illness." He and the cheerleader comically avoided looking at each other. "She reasoned that it was a result of your being both the Slayer, and a shifter." He paused to smile at her. "It's, uh...good to see you well, Buffy."

She smiled back as Reneé picked up where he left off. "You already had a unique, mystical power. The Slayer energy is ancient and territorial; it'd been keeping the animal in you, quiet." She told Buffy. "But you touched the crystal, finally giving the animal an edge. A chance to fight back."

"That's what made me sick?" The slayer asked, not exactly comprehending.

"Yep." Cordelia's tone was sympathetic and laced with guilt. She gently brushed Buffy's hair back. "While they were busy trying to one up each other, your body got dragged through hell."

Her dreams made sense, but Buffy didn't feel at ease. "They're gonna play nice from now on, aren't they?"

"Since you appear to be recovering, it's safe to assume that they've chosen to coexist within you," Giles stated in his proper, English way, "but it'll require extra effort on your part to make sure they remain civil. More training, more have to want to master this. I'll assist however I can, but the responsibility ultimately rests on your shoulders."

"Does it ever rest anywhere else?" The blonde's sarcasm meant, that yes, she was back. She turned to Reneé. "How do you know so much?"

"Because it happened to me, too." Reneé revealed, shocking the others. "Not as violently, but it did. I'm a witch like your friend, Amy -- I was born with whatever it is that makes magick possible. So my animal had to adjust."

"Which animal?" Cordelia, Buffy, and Giles wondered in unison.

The shop owner chuckled.


"Eat. The food feels rejected." The cheerleader encouraged the rapidly recovering slayer later that day. The bowl wasn't emptying any faster, though. "Hey, I slaved -- appreciate it."

"I do." Buffy slurped a spoonful of warm soup to prove it, sitting at the table downstairs. "But I thought we forced Giles to leave so we could go feline without distractions. Come on."

"You hafta relax." Cordelia argued, sitting opposite her patient. "It might sound hard, but it's really not."

"No," The blonde disagreed, "I hafta shift. I hafta get used to it, because I still feel off, and not cause of hunger issues."

"Fine," The brunette lost the staring match, "but you're eating afterwards. I was there when your stomach went on strike -- nothing got left in it, trust me."

Easy, Buffy, don't force it. I know it hurts. There...great job.

Can you breathe for me? Slow...slow...good. Perfect. Love you.

Screw the odds. You're gonna be okay, I promise. Ready to lay down again?

I don't even care that you're doing everything I say. It's boring.

You've gotta get better so I can be pissed off when you argue with me.

Damn, your temperature is h...lower. I think it's lower.

Shh, I'm right here, baby. And I'm not moving.

"How gross was it?" Buffy cringed at the silence, which told her everything. That Cordelia was there during her most unappealing moments, made her feel even luckier. "Thanks."

Cordelia got out of the chair, walked around to her, and pulled her up into a hug. A fierce one that communicated just how glad she was that she could still do this. Buffy didn't say a word as she returned the embrace. It was her turn to comfort, and nobody had to twist her arm. She enjoyed having the task of bringing a smile to those lips. Sometimes she wasn't sure who saved whose life in this relationship; the lines had blurred considerably. There were no roles anymore, not to them. Satisfied that they weren't going to disappear, the contact ended with a soft kiss, and mutual smiling.

They would've been more than happy to remain like that, to remain quiet and connected until Giles tossed them out, but they couldn't keep putting this off. What they'd built they were proud of, and adding another dimension to it, was scary. How would it change things between them? How would the animal affect them once they let it free? They were mated. What if one of them was in danger, would they know? Would the primal desire to charge into the fray totally hinder their ability to function on a higher level? And if it got worse than that...well, these were the thoughts racing in their minds.

Plus how cool it was going to be.

"Me first." The cheerleader said firmly.

"But --" The slayer was silenced with a look, and she pouted, not missing the smirk. "You know, I could just kick you out of the bed. I could turn prude."

Cordelia wasn't intimidated. "You could, but you won't."

Buffy crossed her arms over her chest expectantly, her jaw set. "Don't think I can't be surprising and wacky -- I can."

Yep, the brunette had missed this. "I know you can."

Her girlfriend gestured for her to get the show on the road. There was no trick to it, no abracadabra-type wording. Actually, she didn't know what to do. Reneé didn't tell her how to go about it, and it wasn't like she had an instruction manual. She just closed her eyes, and pictured herself changing. First, she saw her ears becoming those of a cat. They moved higher on her head, and were shaped triangularly, but curved at the tips. Rather than pointing up, they pointed slightly to the sides.

While she pictured, Buffy witnessed firsthand. The physical shift left the observer speechless. As Cordelia thought, it happened. A lengthy tail protruded from behind her, her hands and feet formed broad paws, and instinctively, she lowered to the ground. Her clothes, touching her skin, faded away. They didn't tear or shred, they just vanished. It was like the cat knew it was a counterpart to the human, not a replacement, so when she changed shape, anything that the human wore went with it. Smooth and painless.

The only things that didn't were her shoes -- they didn't have direct contact with her body, and they fell off during the shift.

Her face sloped downward and came out, her nose and mouth now cat-shaped, with whiskers protruding from either side. She lost height and weight; her legs shortened. All of this occurred in a matter of seconds. The slayer barely blinked, and fur had grown to cover flesh. Cordelia's cat resembled hers, but had two, main differences: a silvery-gray coat (though it did have black, oval-shaped spots), and instead of yellow eyes, they were a sparkling hazel. She was still there.

Upon completion, Cordelia sat there, paws in front of her, tail whishing back and forth on the floor, and her head cocked, questioningly. Well?

Buffy knew she heard that, but there was no mouth movement. "You're in my head. Your voice."

Seriously? Was the intrigued response. So I did it? Hey, how come I can understand you?

"Must be because we're the same breed or something. Giles has to research; I wanna know what we are." The blonde was beginning to get excited. "This is gonna awesome. You"

Do I...? Cordelia's query tapered off, when the front door to the house opened.

"Buff!" Xander called, seeing her as soon as he came in, Willow trailing behind him. "We heard you were mobile again, so we --" His eyes traveled to Cordelia's new form, and jumping, he screamed. "Geahh! It's a cheetah! An evil cheetah! Buffy, get back! Quick, Will, call the zoo!"


"She's not a cheetah!" Buffy insisted for the umpteenth time, sitting on the floor beside Cordelia, who had laid down out of boredom. "Yeah, I know, honey...I swear." Her friends stared at her like she'd gone insane. "She doesn't wanna be pet."

"Who? What? Huh?" The male teen fired off, dumbly.

Buffy sighed. "Better show 'em, Cor." She grew quiet, listening to the un-vocalized words. "No, I will...After...No, you won't be naked...I'm almost positive.If I'm wrong, I'll buy you those pants you liked..." She grinned. "Not the knockoffs. Slayer's honor." She gave a mock-salute.

Willow's eyes bugged out as Cordelia appeared in the cat's place, in the same position. Xander was frozen, gaping, and the cheerleader rose to smack him again and again.

"The zoo? Dork!" She snapped, her fuse blown. "No jokes, either! Got it? You know what I mean." She felt a little wobbly.

Upon seeing this, the slayer grabbed her by the waist. "Somebody went bipedal too fast."

"So, uh, yeah, o-okay. First...hey." The redhead sputtered, groping for something productive to say. "Second, um...oh, if you don't wanna answer I won't push, like, at all, cause certain things are personal, and it's important that people respect personal things, people like me, long have you, uh, been not a cheetah?"

"Technically? Two minutes." Cordelia supplied, and then glared at Xander. "It would've been longer if 'Idiot Boy' hadn't been...such a total idiot!" She growled, and whether that was just her or the animal, she didn't know. "They should put you in a zoo! In the 'Brain-Dead Exhibit' with all of nature's other rejects!"

"She's never gonna forget that, is she?" Xander realized, speaking to his tough, super-powered protector.

Buffy shook her head, barely preventing the brunette from lashing out at him. "Wouldn't count on it." She dwelled for a moment, coming to a decision. "Might as well get this over with."

Releasing her hold on Cordelia, she followed the earlier example and closed her eyes. Like her girlfriend had done, she transformed into her cat-self. It required no effort or adjustment on her part. She mirrored the sandy-colored cat in her dreams, except, as her mate had, she kept the hazel in her eyes. It could've been that the yellow-eyed cat in her dreams was how the breed usually looked, but because there was sharing between two halves, the eyes were a compromise. A window into the humanity. Or it was something else entirely.

Xander raised his hand. "I vote, 'dream.'" He was convinced of that now. "I ate some bad, leftover meatloaf, and I'm in the Land of the Cat People. It's a fantasy homage to 'Thundercats' -- only less animated. Yeah...that's it."

The two shifters yelled simultaneously, but only one was heard in the traditional sense:

Shut up, Xander!

"Shut up, Xander!"

Sorry about the lack of private. Buffy apologized to Cordelia, circling her legs and testing out the new tail. It curled around them as she passed. We tried.

"It's not your fault." The cheerleader assured her, just pretending they were alone. "And watch that thing. It doesn't feel weird, though, does it?" She laughed, listening. "I love this. You're learning." Her expression was one of puzzlement, then. "Who cares? He asked for it."

"Asked?" He gulped, backpedaling, his back to the door. "I didn't ask. Some guys are askers, and I can see the upside, but I'm more of a stater. I'm comfortable with that."

"Is that really Buffy?" Willow wondered, addressing the brunette.

"It really is." Cordelia confirmed, not understanding why the shape-shifting was so difficult to believe. "But hang on -- I don't wanna miss this."

If Xander didn't know better, he would've thought the Buffy-Cat was eyeing him in a very predatory, stalk-ish type manner, and the way in which she slowly approached him didn't ease his fear. Not getting a chance to dissuade her (it wasn't like she could comprehend his non-shifter, human speech, anyhow), she snarled and revealed her four, extremely pointy canines. And he dropped like a sack of potatoes, just as Giles and Miss Calendar made their entrance.

I like how that went. Buffy happily said, sniffing her passed out 'prey.'


Willow sat at the table with the two adults, while they tried to identify the species of cat Buffy and Cordelia were. Giles had books spread out, Miss Calendar had her laptop. The watcher wouldn't admit to it, but he was trying to find the information faster than his significant other. He wanted to prove that old-fashioned methods of research were still useful. Normally, it'd make her want to laugh. Turning her attention to the two cats (Cordelia had shifted, demonstrating) that were lounging on the floor in front of the sofa, she sighed.

She and Xander heard the full story, but whereas she stayed, he went home to wig in peace. At least she wasn't the only one having dreams with negative effects. But hers were purely psychological, and now she was beginning to have them nightly. Not every other night, not two a week, and not occasionally. All the time. She promised herself that she would deal; she did the spell, the consequences were hers to bear. They had to stop sometime, though they weren't regular dreams. Or even nightmares. She saw through a monster's eyes, and as it was happening...

"Extraordinary." Giles spoke, garnering the focus in the room. Except for the felines, obviously, and he glanced in their direction. "Buffy, would you please remove yourself from my couch? I vacuumed just the other day, and I'd prefer it if the cushions weren't scratched or torn."

Was it time for her to go meet Oz yet? He wasn't going to like that he was unnatural werewolf, when he found out about Buffy and Cordelia. Well, she'd be the girlfriend and cheer him up. The upbeat, fun girlfriend.

"She can't understand you, Giles." The redhead told him, fighting a giggle.

Nope, but she can read lips when she feels like it. The slayer commented to no one, nice and comfy where she was.

Besides, she was amusing herself, batting her front paws on the couch's arm. Cordelia was just getting a kick out of watching her new limbs bend and move. Once and a while she would tickle her mate's nose with her tail, because then Buffy's eyes would close, she would sneeze, and her tail would be swatted away. It was cute. However, they needed open space to run around. Housecats they weren't.

And they were positive now, that something heavy was plaguing Willow. Her body radiated unease as well as tension -- they could clearly see it, smell it, and hear it in the way that she was breathing. She was holding her breath a little longer than was the norm, while the exhales were slow and controlled. She wasn't okay if she was consciously thinking about her oxygen intake. Where it was coming from was a mystery, but not forever. They were goofing off, yes, and also observing.

What's he want? Cordelia asked, feigning interest. Besides you off the couch so he doesn't have an aneurysm.

I think he had a 'Eureka' moment. Without actually saying, 'Eureka.' Buffy informed her, swinging her back legs off of the couch and unceremoniously slid herself backwards to the floor, paws sliding down fabric, just to see her watcher squirm. Let's head over. And we're keeping an eye on Will.

Good idea. They walked side-by-side, and feeling a deep rumbling throughout her body, Cordelia touched her nose to the side of Buffy's face, affectionately. It wasn't planned, but she did. I think I just purred. And nuzzled. That's like kissing for cats.

Well, you're a cat, I'm a cat...where's the bad? If the slayer could have grinned, she would have. But try not to purr so loud next time. There's people around.

Buffy! The dark-furred shifter mentally exclaimed.

Once at the table, they returned to their more common forms. Standing, Cordelia grabbed a seat quickly, learning her lesson from the first time, and Buffy claimed a spot on her lap.

Giles knew he was staring, and he blushed when Jenny cleared her throat. "Ah,'s simply that this is all quite remarkable."

Willow nodded. "Yeah, make very pretty animals." She said sincerely, before quickly wanting to take it back. "Not that you aren't pretty usually...which you are, cause I've noticed, in-in a strictly platonic..." She grabbed the babble by throat and squeezed. "...But, uh, its just that animals are pretty in a different way."

"We're familiar with that way." Buffy spoke, relaxing her friend.

"We've also done amazed already. Can we skip ahead?" As Cordelia voiced that request, it wasn't with her typical tone.

Instead, it was light, and she smiled genuinely at the still flustered foreigner.

"Yes, let's." Jenny offered her opinion, closing her laptop -- he had won. "Enlighten us, Rupert."

"Gladly." He allowed his enthusiasm to reach peak levels. "Willow's right -- Clouded Leopards are...very pretty creatures, but their appearance is only the beginning." Having them hooked now, he was ready to meet his girlfriend's challenge. "Like the snow leopard, Neofelis nebulosa is not a true leopard, but is considered to have similar characteristics of that subfamily. In fact, it is the only cat in its genus."

"Clouded Leopard." The blonde repeated the name. It sounded tough and mysterious; she approved. "Great. Now get to the good stuff. How's its roar? Its scary, right? Cause we haven't yet."

"You haven't because you can't. It purrs, and can snarl rather viciously, but it's prevented from roaring by the bone below --" Giles began, and was interrupted.

Buffy quickly became depressed. "No roar? None?"

"What a rip-off." The cheerleader complained.

"At least you can snarl viciously." The redhead reminded them. "That's the best kind of snarl."

"It's not the same." The slayer moped with a sad shake of her head. "Keep going."

"The animal, uh, got its name due to the spots on its body, which are thought to resemble clouds." He continued, skimming through a book. "It's called a 'modern-day saber-tooth' because of its long teeth, and predominately resides in wooded areas in various parts of Southeast Asia...interestingly, it's a bit of recluse, so information on their behavior in the wild is hard to come by. That works in its favor, actually -- the species is endangered."

"Does than mean if somebody catches us, we're going to the zoo?" Cordelia was horrified. "Xander is damn lucky he never made it to a phone."

With wide eyes, slayer instructed watcher to move on, before her girlfriend started flipping. He did as he was told. "Here's something you should find worthwhile...the animal is a climber. It can stalk its prey -- it's a hunter of a wide variety of mammals -- from trees or on the ground, hang from branches with its hind legs, and climb out of trees head first."

Buffy felt her happiness come back. "Then what are we still doing here? Let's go to Breakers Woods, and --"

"You've pushed yourself enough today." The librarian interjected. "You need rest, and tomorrow morning I'll see you in the library. We'll discuss how to modify your training. You ought to start right away."

"It's three in the afternoon!" The blonde fussed, discontentedly.

Giles handed her a book. "Plenty of time to read up on your new species, then. And ring your mother; she was concerned."

"You're supposed to lighten him up." Buffy told the computer teacher after briefly debating with herself about shifting, and then threatening to bite him. "I don't see progress."

Miss Calendar smiled sympathetically. "I'm trying. It takes work."

Willow rose from her chair. "Come on, Buffy. I'll call Oz, then we'll go get Xander and Amy and all read together. We've gotta help him."

The girlfriends got up, too, and the brunette asked, "Do what? Get a life? Cause that's hopeless."

"Cordelia." The blonde and the redhead said, sternly.

On their way out, Willow had a question. "Can I pet you guys? Just once?"

"No." The couple responded as if it were a reflex.

To Be Continued...