Joyce Summers wasn't sure she could take anymore. She'd known for a while that her older daughter was the Slayer. For somewhat less time, she'd been aware that her younger daughter was created and given to her because she was some mysterious energy known as "The Key," and it was Buffy's job to protect her. Normal didn't begin to describe her family life.
It was bad enough when she'd come home and found Dawn missing, and a ransom note addressed to Buffy from the rogue god named Glory. She'd been about to call Buffy when the girl breezed in the door with Chinese carryout for dinner. But after her mother's quick, ragged explanation of the situation, Buffy had turned inside herself, and seemed to be carrying on a mental conversation, to judge by the expressions parading across her face. Apparently finished, she looked up at her mother, her eyes narrow.
"Mom, I need to warn you about something. There've been some new developments in the Slaying business. You know I quit school to be more available for a new challenge that has to do with Glory. What you don't know is..."
Buffy stopped talking, and her eyes grew vague and unfocused. In an instant, she seemed to cease breathing, and collapsed in a heap on the ground. Before Joyce could even shake herself out of her shock to go check on her daughter's condition, Buffy's body shimmered and faded away, reappearing a moment later in an altered state.
The body was her daughter's, but the face wasn't, quite. When she spoke, the accented alto voice was both vaguely familiar, and not one she'd ever heard before. "You need to call Amy Madison at the Magic Box for the full story. We have to go."
Joyce grabbed the girl's leather-clad arm as she rushed by. "Who *are* you?"
Pulling away, she threw the answer over her shoulder as she ran out the door. "We are Unity."
Joyce sat down on her couch, resting her head in her hands. "I really only saw one girl," she said to no one.
Unity was mumbling a locator spell as she ran, certain it would be useless. To her surprise, the trail was clearly marked with Dawn's essence. *A trap?* the Spirit asked Knowledge. *No,* the other Part replied, *overconfidence.*
*Or,* her Emotions worried, *a message.*
"The car," she said aloud to herself, as she neared the spot it waited. The keys appeared in her hand, and she jumped into the driver's seat, squealing the tires as the red BMW left the curbside. Following Dawn's unique marker, she raced through the early evening.
Tara didn't know where else to go when Willow disappeared. She stumbled into the magic shop, finding Joyce Summers there, talking to Amy. "No, really. I never got to apologize properly for that whole MOO thing," Buffy's mom was insisting.
"Amy," Tara gasped. "Were they called?"
"If what Mrs. Summers just told me is any indication, I'd guess so. Mr. Rupert wasn't here, so I didn't see it." She started shuffling through an appointment book. "Okay, there's the number for Xander's job for tomorrow. I'll make his excuses."
"Let me call Anya first," Tara insisted. "Make sure she's all right." Just then, the aforementioned woman burst through the door.
"That's *it*!" she screamed. "I will *not* stay with a man who evaporates during sex."
"Um, Anya. Too much information?" Tara tossed her head in Joyce's direction.
"It's all right, dear," the older woman soothed. "Although I will have to revise my mental picture of Xander as an eager little puppy-dog kind of boy, now. I sort of knew it was outdated." She thought a moment, and looked generally around the room. "I don't want any more redecorations to my mental landscape tonight, however."
"He usually is pretty eager, though," Anya said helpfully. Joyce pretended not to hear.
The former demon turned to the two witches. "It was the Unity thing, right? I mean, Xander didn't just die on me or anything, did he? 'Cause I was really scared, then I got mad, and I need to know if I should be scared again." She wrung her hands anxiously.
Tara put a comforting hand on her arm. "It's Unity. I saw Willow disappear, too, although under different circumstances." She didn't add that had it been a bit later, she might have had the same circumstances. "Glory has Dawn."
"Oh," Anya gulped, turning to Joyce. "I'm supposed to say I'm sorry, right? Because I am - sorry. She's cute. Xander really liked her."
"Anya. Try to avoid referring to the living in the past tense, even if there may be doubt about the 'living' part," Tara whispered to her. "Correction - *especially* if there's doubt about the 'living' part." Joyce's pleasant expression had faded back to stunned and overwhelmed. She wandered aimlessly away.
"I'll make coffee," Amy said as brightly as she could. "It looks like it might be a long night."
"Once we divide, one of us is going to start a petition drive to get these old warehouses torn down," Unity grumbled. "They're hazardous." She was creeping along the side of the one at the end of Dawn's trail, towards the door. She talked to herself, which was less redundant in this case than it was for most people. "I really hope Dawnie's okay. She has to be." A brief moment of decision at the locked door. "Break in or magic in? Yeah - magic. Quieter."
Focusing on the door, she mumbled some words in Latin, and the knob glowed and turned, the door swinging in. "Much quieter," she mumbled, slinking silently inside.
She could hear the mad god chattering cheerfully in a back room. "You could make this easy, you know. We do the whole sleepover thing - I fix your hair, you paint my nails, you tell me where your sister put my damned KEY!" Glory's voice had risen to a shriek, but when she spoke again, was almost normal. "I forgot - you're tied up. You might have trouble with the nail polish part." Unity crept to where she could see through the open door, although neither the captive Dawn nor Glory were looking towards her at this point. "I hope your sister has my message by now. I tried to make things as clear as possible, but she might not be a very good map reader."
*Trap,* the Intellect conceded. *But decidedly overconfident, as well.* The Body took control, and stepped inside the doorway. "Let her go," Unity demanded.
Glory whirled towards the door. "You're not the Slayer," she pouted. "A pretty good resemblance, though." Dawn was bug-eyed, overwhelmed by dealing with her insane captor and her shock at this Buffy-like rescuer. "I do like the leather thing," Glory continued conversationally. "It looks pretty hot on you." Suddenly, she moved toward Unity and threw roundhouse kick at her, which the other woman easily blocked, countering with a punch of her own, which Glory ducked. "Not the Slayer, but you fight like her. Interesting." She tossed a wave of magic at Unity, who warded it off with ease. "Slayer can't do that, though." Glory frowned. "If you aren't the Slayer, you don't have what I want." Pointing a finger at the chair Dawn was tied to, she gestured, and the girl convulsed in pain. "I could kill her, but this should get the point across. Next time, tell the Slayer to answer her own messages." Another hand gesture, and Dawn screamed, blood running from the corner of her mouth. "It's been fun. Ciao!" The mad god vanished, and Unity ran to the girl, calling out a healing spell as she went.
She untied the girl, who crumpled to the ground before Unity could catch her. Dawn's breathing was labored, and there was a slight rattle with each inhalation. "Her larynx is damaged," Part of Unity assessed, "and there are heavy internal injuries." The girl groaned, and coughing weakly, spit out more blood. "We need to get her to the hospital. Spells can only do so much. And if we wait for the ambulance, we might loose her." She gathered the child in her arms and moved her quickly but carefully to the car. After arranging Dawn on the back seat, the entity jumped into the driver's seat and tore through the quiet streets of town.
Unity was more than the sum of her parts. She was stronger, more intelligent, more magical than any human could ever be. Unfortunately, this also meant her emotions were stronger. Keeping them all in check while she delivered Dawn, filled out the papers and called Joyce was difficult but doable. That completed, she went outside to a secluded spot, dropped to her knees on the ground, and howled her anguish to the sky. And there, some time later, Whistler found her.
"Ya might need to back off for a while," Whistler said to Unity. He'd led her inside, settled her in a chair and gotten a cup of coffee from the machine. "The bond is still too new, and ya ain't used to working together - this much together - yet. And she is strong, real strong."
"No stronger than we are," the entity insisted. "She ran for that reason. She attacked Dawn instead of us for that reason." The tears once again began to flow from the soft brown eyes.
"Youse all love her like family, don't ya? Glory picked her 'cause she was the Slayer's sis, but couldn't have known she'd chosen the perfect target to get to the Unity. The one *all* of ya want to protect." Whistler scratched his head.
"At least Glory didn't know she had what she wanted in her hands," Unity said quietly. And with more determination, she continued, "And she didn't know who she was up against, either. It's even more personal, now."
"I think youse oughtta take some time, get more comfortable with the bond," Whistler reiterated.
"No," the red-haired figure said vehemently, and her contact saw something dark flash in the chocolate eyes, "We'll find her, and get rid of her. She's gone too far this time."
She saw Joyce coming in the door, and rushed over to her, leaving the demon to shake his head. "Houston, we got a problem," he murmured to himself.
Anya and Tara followed Buffy's mother into the waiting area, spying Unity heading their way. She skidded to a stop in front of the three other women, and there was an awkward silence.
Joyce spoke first. "I know we need to talk, but first, have you seen Dawn since she got here?"
Unity wore the reserved manner of her Intellect. "They have her in surgery right now. There was a lot of internal damage to be repaired - it could be a while. They were very encouraging, though. Joyce..." seeing the look of distress on the older woman's face at this choice of addresses, Unity seemed to morph into an even more Buffy-like appearance. "Mom," she said in the lighter voice, "We can take her, the one who did this. We're as strong as she is; she just had the element of surprise on her side this time. She won't be so lucky next time. And she won't get her hands on Dawn again, trust me."
Buffy's mother shook her head. "You really are all in there, aren't you? You, and Xander, and Willow..." her voice trailed off in confusion. "And Rupert?" Unity nodded. "Oh." The overwhelmed expression was back. "We'll talk," she muttered, wandering away to the chairs.
"We tried to explain it," Tara volunteered, "but it's tough to get a grasp on."
Anya's eyes were flashing. "I need to talk to Xander. Like NOW."
Unity drew up, disgust drawn on her pretty face. "Listen, ..." Before she could finish, something changed in her demeanor, and her accent grew more pronounced. "I think Joyce needs to see her real daughter now, too. The one that isn't hurt." Turning to Whistler, who had approached them from behind, the redhead asked, "Can you find us a room that's vacant? I don't think the waiting room is ready for witnessing our division." The demon nodded, heading off to find a good place to deconstruct the quartet.
Anya, Tara and Whistler waited outside the previously unoccupied family room. It was for small group private visits, with a couch, a couple of chairs, an attached bathroom and a locking door, and had been ideal for their needs. Willow, Buffy and Giles emerged. Willow forced a grin. "We're..."
"Back," Buffy finished. "There's a small..."
"Problem," Giles went on. "Xander dematerialized..."
"Naked," Anya finished for him. The whole group looked at her bug-eyed, and she shrugged. "I was there, so I knew what they were gonna say. So I take it he reappeared the same way?"
Giles giggled inappropriately, then glared at the blonde Slayer who the sound should have come from. He gathered his dignity. "Yes, so would you..."
"Go to the apartment and get..." Willow went on.
"Him something to wear?" Buffy completed.
Anya headed out the door right away.
Without warning, the trio winced together, as if in pain. "...hurts," Willow moaned, as if finishing a sentence they hadn't heard the beginning of. Her eyes teary, she said, "Sorry."
"It does," Buffy went on for Giles. "One of us..."
"Will be right there. I'll..." Willow started eagerly.
"Go." Buffy headed for the door as she spoke.
"No." Giles stopped the blonde before she went far. "Your mother..."
"Needs you now," Willow said. "Willow..."
"Should go to him," Giles ended the thought, not at all bothered by the witch referring to herself in the third person. The redhead turned and headed for the closed door, her girlfriend moving behind her.
"Wait," Tara called. "I'll come along."
Willow whipped around, her green eyes flashing, but it was Buffy's angry voice that rang out. "No! He doesn't need..."
"You," Tara's love finished seamlessly. "He'd only..."
"Be embarrassed," Giles explained. Then he nodded, and the witch went into the room. Reaching out, the Watcher took Buffy's hand. "That..."
"Helps," she agreed. "Let's go see..."
"Mom." Giles smiled while Buffy grinned from ear to ear.
Seeing Tara's lost expression, the two turned to her. "We didn't mean to be..." Giles began gently.
"Mean," Buffy went on. "It's just that..."
"As long as we're touching another..."
"One of us afterwards, we're..."
"All right." Giles' eyes grew a bit misty. "If not, it can..."
"Physically hurt," Buffy finished. "He was hurting and..."
"Naked, and Willow was afraid..."
"If you went in, he'd..."
"Do what he felt was right and..."
"Not let her touch him." Buffy blew out a breath, and Tara felt a bit dizzy. It was the longest exchange she'd ever witnessed while the group was in this condition. But they weren't quite through.
"Two of us," Giles pressed on.
"Together like this," Buffy held up their joined hands.
"Can keep it between us."
"But being totally alone..."
"Right after the division..."
"Makes you feel..."
"Like you want to die," Giles said sadly. Then he smiled slightly. "After all,"
"You can't even," Buffy grinned too.
"Finish your own sentences." They both laughed together, and even Tara smiled a little.
"Here," the young man moaned from the couch. He was pale and shivering, and the room wasn't cold. True, all he was wearing was a small white hospital towel tastefully draped over his lap, but his face was drawn with pain, indicating the cause of the shaking. The petite redhead ran to him, throwing herself almost on top of him. "Thank..."
"You," she finished for him. "Better?" He simply nodded, wrapping his arms tightly around her as she rested her head on his bare chest. He sighed, the tension flowing from him in waves, and the pained look disappeared.
"Buffy and Giles..." he began somewhat questioningly.
"Are talking to Joyce," she answered. "Let's not..."
"Talk out loud right now," he agreed with her. *This is less work,* his mind spoke to hers.
*Yeah, and easier to tell who's who, since we're touching and all.* She shifted so that she rested beside him on the couch, his arm draped over her shoulder. Somewhere over the last couple of weeks they'd discovered that any two of them, touching, could carry on a private conversation mentally, without the others interrupting. Buffy and Willow used that loophole a lot, to giggle and girl talk. Xander didn't feel quite comfortable sharing with Giles in that fashion, though. *Anya mad?* he asked, already knowing the answer.
*Ballistic,* Willow assured him. She frowned. *Tara seems a bit unhappy, too.*
*Think about it, Wills. You're sitting in a locked room with a naked man draped all over you. A naked man you spent at least twelve years in love with, who's kissed you, and recently shared a body with you, not to mention nearly your every thought. Your lover is supposed to do what? Go "La-di-da, no biggie?"*
Willow pouted. *I'm gay.*
*I share your mind, remember? You aren't as gay as you like to think you are, and I'm pretty sure Tara can tell. I've noticed a couple of guys catch your eye, as well as a couple of other girls. You're looking, Wills, and not in a way that somebody in a committed relationship ought to be. You aren't just admiring, you're shopping.*
*Okay, I admit the bloom is off the rose. I still love her, but I'm not in love with her the way I was at first. I still don't want to hurt her.* She ran her fingers suggestively over Xander's chest. *And I admit to being with one of the few guys who could convince me to go back to the other team, right now.* She grinned at him cheekily, taking some of the sensuality out of her gesture.
Xander caught her hand, bringing it to his lips and kissing it lightly. *Remember, I'm still 'in love' with my girlfriend.*
*And Buffy,* the witch teased. He nodded in acknowledgement. Willow's face grew serious, and her gaze was sad. *But you're still losing her,* she sympathized.
His deflated figure sunk back into the couch. *Probably.*