Joyce saw her daughter approaching, wearing the proper hair and eye color, holding Rupert's hand. The level of shock she would have normally registered at that last sight didn't stand a chance against all the other shocks she had already suffered that night, so she let it slide. "Buffy," she sighed.
"Yeah, Mom," she answered.
"I'm back," the man finished for her. This, Joyce had to question.
"Watcher duty now includes talking for her?"
Giles sighed. He should have expected this. "It's an aftereffect..."
"Of the Unity bond," Buffy explained. "We don't..."
"Separate completely right away."
There was so much Joyce Summers couldn't control. She couldn't control that her husband had left her. She couldn't control that her eldest child had been called to a life-threatening occupation before she was even old enough to drive. She couldn't help that her youngest daughter wasn't even the child of her loins, yet she loved her like life itself. And she couldn't control the fact that that same child was now in an operating room hovering between life and death. Right this moment, she also couldn't control her anger at all these things, and more.
"Are there any other side effects of this little game?" she spit out icily, staring at Rupert Giles. "Like maybe something that makes you prey upon females *half your age?*" She was screaming - people were staring. She didn't care.
She saw the horror, identical on the two faces before her. She saw self-loathing, and an echo of the fear she herself felt. She realized that she had just deeply hurt a man who loved both her daughters, insinuated something nasty about him. In fact, if she understood Amy and the other girls correctly, what he was doing would require great sacrifice on his part, and he was only doing it to help save Dawn. And she could see that by hurting him, she'd hurt Buffy as well. Joyce crumpled back into the chair, and the hysterical sobbing she had fought so hard to keep back finally made it to the surface.
Rupert sat beside her, gathering her into his arms. "Go ahead," he soothed.
"Cry," Buffy cooed from the other side. "Let it all out. We're..."
"Here," the Watcher finished, as his arm and Buffy's stayed in contact across the woman's back.
"Is it?" came the two voices from within the room.
"Willow Rosenberg? Are you in there with *my* boyfriend? My *naked* boyfriend?"
Anya heard the click of the door unlocking. "Yup." The redhead plucked the clothes from the other woman's hand and the door swung closed, and the lock clicked again.
"D'Hoffryn!" The former demon wailed. When no answer came, she growled, "I am SO going to kill her. I should have done that instead of what Cordelia wanted in the first place. She even has a history of this - with HIM! I knew that whole 'gay' thing was an act." She paced in tight circles in front of the door, until it opened again and her now dressed boyfriend emerged, the witch clutching his arm.
"Hey, babe, did you..."
"Bring shoes?" the hated one finished for him.
The blonde woman exploded in fury. "YOU!" she screamed nearly incoherently at the other woman. "You lying, cheating, scheming," every word punctuated by a finger stabbed to Willow's chest, "BITCH!"
Willow backpedaled, and Xander stepped in, pulling his girlfriend away from his best friend. "I thought you two..."
"Settled this after the troll almost killed me," Willow went on in a shaky voice.
"She was in the room with you - naked," Anya howled. "Well, you were naked, she was in the room... whatever. The point is, what the HELL was going on?"
"I needed someone..."
"With me. Being alone..."
"Hurts," Xander and Willow explained.
"Wearing a towel." Xander held up the small scrap of terrycloth he'd been clutching in his hand. Anya stared at in incredulously.
"That red Speedo you own that I can't get you to wear to the beach covers more. Besides, if you couldn't be alone, why didn't she go get the clothes, and I could comfort you?" For once, Anya was too upset to even play the obvious sexual innuendo in that statement.
"It had to be one..."
"Of us - the Unity."
It would take a blind person not to read Anya's obvious disgust with the Unity. It was written clearly on her face.
"Willow," Xander said, and it was apparent he was struggling to pull free of the bond prematurely. "I," he dragged his hand away from his friend, "have to," he gasped slightly, unwilling to let her take the rest of the thought from him, "talk to her." He stopped, forcing the words again. "Alone."
Concern painted the witch's face. "But, Xan, it'll..."
He wanted so badly to finish it for her, to say, "hurt." But that might upset Anya further, and she didn't need that. This was hard enough for her. "I know." He frowned again in concentration. "I... have... to." He grimaced, keeping his face away from Anya's line of sight. "Go..." he couldn't articulate the whole sentence quite yet, "Buffy." Another labored breath, "Giles." He took his girlfriend's hand, and went into the room, closing, but not locking, the door behind them.
"Yo, Watcher Guy."
The voice pulled Quentin Travers from an interesting dream, the details of which were slipping away as he opened his eyes. There was just enough light from the streetlamp outside his window to illuminate the uninvited guest. "Whistler?" The Watcher glanced at his clock. "What the bloody hell do you want at *five o'clock in the damned morning?*"
The demon shrugged, unperturbed. "It's nine p.m. in California. We gotta talk."
"About your disregard for time zone differences?" the British gentleman growled, climbing out of bed to get his dressing coat and his slippers.
"About Unity. One of the problems in usin' humans may have just surfaced."
Travers' blood ran cold. They had tried to discuss every possible difficulty amongst the Council, but none seemed insurmountable. He doubted the demon would be here, though, if the problem were small. "Come into the kitchen. I'll make us some tea."
"That drink is the English answer to everything, ain't it?"
"Ya sure you don't have no beer?" Whistler asked, studying the amber liquid before him. Travers just scowled at him, and the demon raised his hands in surrender. "Okay. Don't getcher knickers in a wad. Geez."
"Are you going to tell me what the problem is with Unity, or sit here making lame attempts at American humor?" The Brit sipped at his tea.
The demon's forehead creased in thought. At last, he looked up and began. "Well, the thing is, angels don't have no darkness in 'em, right? Or else they wouldn't be angels. Seems to me fallen angels have a different name. The good guys fight 'em." He looked down into his cup, stirring the liquid with his finger. "People got dark sides, Quent. These people maybe more'n most."
The Watcher stiffened. "Explain."
"Well, youse already know about Ripper, don'tcha?" When the other man nodded, Whistler went on. "An' I know ya knows what kinda darkness a Slayer carries - it's, like, in the job description. Remember Faith."
"But the other two are innocents, mostly. Aren't they?" Honestly, the Council hadn't spent a lot of time going over the background of any of the people they'd interviewed in Sunnydale. They knew a lot about William the Bloody, but everything else about everyone except for the Slayer and her Watcher had been gleaned from Rupert's sometimes less than descriptive reports.
"Betcha didn't know the witch was offered a job as a vengeance demon by D'Hoffryn himself?" The look of horror on the other man's face answered the question. "She turned 'im down, a'course, but she coulda done it, let me tell ya. And the kid ya wanna call "boy?" He was possessed by a Hyena Spirit - almost raped the Slayer. It was a while ago. Then he stood down a pack of zombies plannin' ta blow the high school ta smithereens, with everybody that matters to youse guys in it. Takes a dark soul ta be able to run a whole night with zombies while you're still alive, then be willing to die to stop them. Oh, and there was the soldier thing at Halloween..."
"So you're saying the Heart of Unity is a heart of darkness?"
"If ya wanna go all Conrad on it, sure. He's just a human, though, mostly, with a lotta Hellmouth experience thrown in. They're all just human, at the end. And most, naw, I'd bet all, humans have a dark side. Some can control it, and others just hide it good."
The Watcher stared into space. Finally, he looked at the demon. "We are so screwed."
Joyce had calmed, partly due to the nurse who'd emerged, telling her Dawn was out of the operating room and the doctor would be along shortly with news. She wanted to know exactly what the situation was, and couldn't grasp it unless her head was clear.
Buffy had released her hold on her Watcher long enough to go get her mom coffee, and they'd managed to communicate with the frazzled woman without words whenever possible. She still seemed a bit unable to handle the tag team statements they made, so they made as few as they could get away with. They'd been carrying on a vigorous mental conversation, however.
*Well, you did sleep with her. She has reason to think the worst of you,* Buffy was protesting, defending her mother's earlier attack on Giles.
*I really do wish you'd stop throwing that up at me, Buffy,* the man sighed mentally. *I was under the influence at the time.*
*So, you'd never have slept with my mom if you hadn't been under a spell. What's wrong with her?*
*There is no possible way for me to come out of this without looking vile, is there?* Giles mused. He was aware from his place inside her mind that Buffy had forgiven him at last for that humiliating experience, and he was actually enjoying the banter - enjoying everything more these days. It was as if he was back under the spell of those candy bars, but without the embarrassing lack of self-control He had his current intelligence and maturity, but he felt younger, somehow. Being connected with the young people was good for him, it seemed.
It would surprise him to know Joyce was having similar thoughts. She couldn't help but notice that Rupert, a man she was sure had a few years on her, moved and acted more like a man close to her daughter's age. His skin seemed smoother, and the little wrinkles she'd noticed before around his eyes (he was good looking man, after all - she did notice little things like that about him) seemed fewer. There was less grey in his hair. His eyes themselves were clear and bright, and there was a spring in his step in spite of the solemnity of the current situation.
She also noticed that, although they weren't clinging to each other's hands like a lifeline anymore, Buffy and Giles would reach out, every few moments, and casually touch each other. Her hand on his arm, he softly brushing hair from her face - it was as if they were young lovers, unable to keep their hands off each other. Yet there was no lust in the touches - just a deep intimacy based on love of another kind.
He had always been like a father to her daughter - to both the girls. And in spite of their brief - she didn't even want to dignify what had happened that night with the band candy by calling it a fling - encounter, he'd never pressed with her, although he was probably lonely, so far from his home and with only children as close associates. She deeply admired that man, and then and there she decided that whatever was going on with him and Buffy (and Willow and Xander, as well, she supposed), would have her full support.
Movement from the couple she'd been contemplating drew her eye, and she looked over, seeing them wincing and back to clutching at each other. They both spoke at the same time. "Xander." Then they leapt up and tore away down the hall.
*Focus, man,* Xander Harris berated himself. Anya had been crying, and he'd just held her for a while. It helped keep the discomfort at bay. He decided if he didn't call it pain, it might not hurt as much.
He couldn't keep Willow out of his head, but he was doing his best to ignore her. He knew she was worried about him, but this was something he had to do. "An?" he said gently, brushing the hair away from his girlfriend's flushed and swollen face.
She looked at him, and he was struck again by the fact that this beautiful woman loved him. But the sadness in her eyes cut him deeply. "We can't go on like this, Xander," she said, looking down.
"I know." He'd found if he kept his statements short, he could fight the desire to let his other Parts finish them for him. "Love you," he said, comfortingly.
Tears welled up in Anya's eyes again. "I know you do, and that's what makes this so much harder. I love you, too, but you aren't all you anymore. Or maybe you're *more* than you anymore. You're Buffy and Willow and Giles, too. And although I like them all well enough, I love you. Just you. But there isn't a 'just you' these days."
He knew, but he had to ask. Taking her face in both of his hands, he smoothed the new tears away with his thumbs. "Leaving?"
She nodded against his palms. "I have to. Being without you may make me nuts, but not as nuts as being with you has, lately."
He let his eyes flesh out the question he couldn't. "Sunnydale?" he asked.
Anya reached up and pulled his hands down, holding them in both of hers. "No, I'm gonna stay here. I've got my apartment, my job, school, even friends. You'll still be my friend right?" He nodded.
Then he couldn't fight the pain anymore. He groaned, a spasm slamming him back into the couch. The colors swirled and danced, and the darkness refused to come and release him. He wasn't even aware as his fingernails tore a hole in the vinyl sofa. He wasn't aware of anything but the overwhelming pain. He didn't even hear Anya scream his name.
Willow was angry and upset. Tara was trying to help, hovering around, making worried noises. She knew she should go to Buffy and Giles, but she couldn't leave Xander when she knew he'd need her soon. He needed her now, but was fighting it with all his strength.
She also knew, without knowing why she knew, that she needed to calm her emotions. He was the Emotions, the feelings, the Heart, and if her emotions were in an uproar, it would put him under more strain. She knew what was happening in there - she was focused on him, and he was under stress, so she was reading him loud and clear. And the wound he was suffering went all the way through his emotions to tear his spirit, and that was her territory, so she was suffering with him in that area.
It was for the best, she kept trying to make him hear. This is for the best. She looked at Tara, sweet and worried and concerned, and realized that the fallout from their Unity wasn't going to be over after this, either. Moving to her lover, she slid into her embrace. "Gonna...need you," she forced out, since Xander wasn't going to be helping her voice her thoughts right now. Tara's smile was warm and loving, and Willow felt badly that she couldn't explain herself well in this situation. She tossed her head towards the closed door. "Anya...will."
The hurt danced across Tara's face like a wisp of cloud - barely visible. Then she smiled again, and squeezed Willow tightly. "I'll be there. She's become a good friend."
His agony hit her like a ton of bricks, and her knees buckled. Tara caught her, or Willow would have hit the ground. The minute she was sure her legs would support her, she flew to the door and into the room.
He was writhing on the sofa, clawing at the vinyl. Anya was whimpering his name, obviously at a loss. Willow grabbed him, clutching his hand in one of hers while she worked at the buttons on his shirt, trying to establish the maximum contact between them.
The spasms stopped, but he was still in pain. Fortunately, Buffy and Giles burst through the door, and the Slayer simply ripped the front of Xander's shirt open, laying her cheek on his chest. Giles sat beside him, both his hands on Xander's face, as Willow wrapped both her small hands around the one large one she'd claimed earlier. "Xander," the Watcher called.
"Come back..." Willow begged.
"To us," Buffy wept.
His breathing slowed, and his tight face relaxed. Tara watched from the doorway, where Anya had spotted her and launched herself at her as soon as the witch entered. Holding her friend in her arms while the other woman cried, Tara noticed that the four were all breathing in sync.
Willow began to gently chastise him. "You tried..."
"To break the bond..."
"Too soon," Giles agreed with the other two. "You couldn't..."
"The extra emotion..."
"On top of that." When Buffy finished the last bit, Xander nodded weakly.
"Sorry," he hissed, straining.
"Shhhh," the other three soothed together.
Whistler had ceased pretending he was interested in the tea. Quentin Travers wore a dazed look, probably a combination of being awakened in the early morning hours, and the shock of the information the demon had wakened him to share.
"What happened?" the Watcher finally asked, after a long minutes of uncomfortable silence. "...That made you realize this would affect Unity? What happened?"
"Glory scored big without realizing she had. She hurt the Slayer's little sis. They all love the kid in their own way. Big time. Almost as much as they love each other." He seemed to gather his thoughts, and went on after a moment. "I tried to do my job - advise 'em, let 'em know how ta deal - and they wouldn't listen. The Emotion kid's got a real temper, and every one of 'em's stubborn as the day is long. They're gonna go off if Glory tries anything else like this. And she will, fer sure."
"What makes you so certain?" Travers asked, genuinely curious. While TPTB knew limited things about the future, he was reasonably sure that one of the reasons they were so concerned about Glorificus was her unpredictability.
"We hadn't told you everything. Unity knows, but we was hiding the information for good reason." The demon had the good grace to look guilty. "The kid - Dawn? She's the Key."