Part Nine

Weeks passed. They had a funny way of doing that, when you weren't paying attention. Glory had been quiet, at least as far as her quest for the Key was concerned. The Key herself was healing nicely, able now to converse through scribbled notes, although still bound to the hospital by doctor's orders.

Tara was no longer Willow's Significant Other. They'd never really discussed it, but both knew it, and that was sufficient. Things were even more awkward between them than they were between Anya and Xander, and when the four exes were all together in one place, the air had a kind of substance to it, it was so thick with discomfort.

The Watchers had disappeared - they hadn't mentioned leaving, but the Unity members hadn't seen them since they'd gone over the test results, and didn't really care to, either. They were aware of their "new" ages, and had been provided with paperwork supporting that, to head off questions. Xander still had to think when someone asked his birthdate, though - 1975 just sounded weird. They also found out that they all possessed a modicum of "Slayer strength," and a few other medical details. There was no question in their minds that they hadn't been told everything. After all, this was the Council.

There had been a two-bedroom apartment in Xander's building come open, and the Unity snapped it up. They'd really have preferred three, just for the extra space, but they'd make do. The Rosenberg's were a bit disturbed by the idea of their daughter moving off campus, but since there was no additional cost (actually, it was cheaper), and she would be with Xander and 'Bunny,' they finally accepted it. Not that they paid all that much attention, but certain things did get their notice. Willow was sure this would be the last she'd ever hear about it. Joyce was completely in support - she almost felt like she understood the Unity better than she had the whole Slayer business. She just found it reassuring that Buffy was a part of a group of people who loved her so much, and there was strength in numbers. And while the other three had apparently always helped Buffy, this new arrangement made them far more effective. Besides, Amy had moved in with her, and she felt like she had a third daughter now. It made releasing Buffy to this new existence a tiny bit easier.

Buffy still patrolled, and the Scoobies still helped. Sometimes, just for a change of pace, Unity would patrol. They'd become better at slipping in and out of the bond, although they still had a disconcerting habit of finishing sentences for one another right after dividing. Still, they were basically themselves, and life had fallen into a routine of work (for Xander, Buffy and Giles) and school (for Willow), with nights at the Bronze or on patrol for the whole gang.

But the idea of a normal life, or as normal as life can be for one soul sharing four bodies, was antithetical to everything the Hellmouth stood for, so it was bound not to last.

@~~`~~~

Xander could hear Amy's voice as he walked into the shop. "...Yeah, sometimes I really miss my wheel, but Joyce has a treadmill, and that helps some. I did get thrown out of Chuck E. Cheese's, though. They said grownups couldn't crawl through the tubes. I couldn't help it, though - they looked so much like home."

A rough and vaguely familiar voice answered her. "Gotcha. I can't even go in pet shops anymore. They smell like prisons to me."

Xander rounded the corner, and saw his guess was on target. "Oz," he greeted the wolfman pleasantly.

"Xander," the shorter man nodded. "Willow?"

"School," Xander responded in understanding, then turned within. "She'll be done in about ten minutes, then she'll walk over here," he went on after a short silent pause. At the questioning look on Oz's face, he assured him, "Don't worry, it'll be a surprise. I didn't tell her, and I'm blocking her now." A raised eyebrow joined the puzzled expression. "We have a new - connection," Xander explained. "Her, me, Buffy and Giles sort of have built-in cellular service these days."

"Odd," the werewolf offered.

Xander cracked up. "I really have missed your acerbic monosyllabic wit, Oz-man."

"You," Oz commented, "have been spending way too much time with Giles."

The taller man grinned crookedly. "You have no idea."

*Speak of the devil,* Xander thought, as Giles breezed in the door with a box load of books he'd found at a local antique shop.

"I would prefer you find non-demonic forms of address for me in the future, Xander," Giles responded good-naturedly to the mental comment. The younger man crossed to his friend, throwing a brotherly arm around his shoulder.

"Why don't I take that, G-man? We've got company." He pulled the box from Giles' grasp, tossing his head in Oz's direction and scooting back into the storeroom.

"Oh, my," Giles breathed. "Oz. What a surprise."

*In answer to your unasked questions, yes, he wants to see Willow - she's on her way here. No- I don't think she's still interested, but if you'd stake your bloody claim, you wouldn't have to be worrying about that, now, would you?* Xander communicated from his position in the back room.

The Watcher never responded.

"Hey, Giles," Oz replied laconically. Looking the older gentleman over critically, he raised a brow. "You must be eating your Wheaties, man. Looking decent."

"And the surprises are gonna just keep on coming," Xander offered, emerging from the back. Giles shot him an angry glare.

The younger member of Unity was concerned about Giles. He hadn't had a male friend in a long time - not since Jesse, really, although he and Oz had almost kinda sorta - and he hadn't thought of Giles that way in the past. But now, with the connection, the discovery they had a lot in common, and the fact they were suddenly nearly the same age, he considered Giles his best friend. Stuff he could never really share with Willow and Buffy, he and Giles would spend hours arguing over, dissecting and reconstructing. Important stuff - like if going back to college would help him if he wanted to continue in construction, eventually owning his own company. Silly stuff - like whether or not bologna could actually be called "meat." Guy stuff - like wondering if Pamela Anderson was a natural blonde or not (and about the naturalness of other parts, as well). And of course, they talked about "their" girls.

He still teased Willow and flirted with her, but she was Giles' to take the shot with, as far as Xander was concerned. And he knew that G-man had only fatherly feelings for the Slayer, no matter what their respective ages. But none of that changed the fact that they were both afraid, for different reasons, to mention anything about their feelings to the objects thereof.

Giles was sure that Willow still thought of him as the "stuffy older guy," in spite of the change. After all, Buffy had all but said *she* did - even if it had been in a teasing way. And then there was the whole sexual orientation difficulty - what if Willow had a crush on Buffy or something? *That* thought had given Xander major wiggins for *days.*

And Xander had been going through the "love Buffy, can't talk to her about it" thing for so long, he wasn't sure he knew how to handle it any differently. Sometimes he picked up stray thoughts that indicated she might possibly feel similarly, but for some reason, she had a major block going there, just as Giles had with Willow. It struck him as strange he could read many other emotions off the group, but some simply acted as conductors, not signals. But he was pretty sure he knew why.

He'd finally permitted himself to look at the color strands that ran between the members of Unity. He'd noticed the green that ran from Buffy to her mother also ran from Buffy to Giles, and back to the Slayer from both. It also ran between Joyce and Dawn. He'd decided it indicated a parental relationship, emotionally. From Buffy to Willow, and back, he saw blue. The same color ran between Buffy and Dawn, and himself and Willow, Dawn, and Giles. He did notice that the strands from both Willow and Dawn to himself were streaked heavily with white, and the one from him to Willow was also, although not as much so. Blue, he was fairly certain, was a sibling-type emotion.

Red sort of frightened him. He'd not seen anyone yet with a pure red strand running from him or her to another person, but he'd seen some rather nasty actions from people with even a little red between them. It was nearly always mixed with purple, and often other colors as well. Xander was pretty sure red indicated either anger or hatred. He hadn't quite gotten a handle on purple yet. And there was a nice soft gold that seemed to mean friendship - not quite as close as a sibling, but warmly connected. Those strands ran from Amy to Joyce and all of the Unity members, for example.

It was white that made him a little nervous. He was seeing a lot of it in their little group, and he wasn't totally sure what it meant, but neither of the meanings he could come up with were easy to handle. Pure white ran from Giles to Willow, as well as from Xander to Buffy. The return strand from Willow to Giles was tinged with green, although he'd noticed it fading in the past few weeks to become whiter each day. And there was a white strand that ran from Buffy to himself.

See, Xander knew how he felt about Buffy, and pretty much how Giles felt about Willow. So white had to mean either romantic love or simple sexual attraction. Since Buffy had never given any intimation of feelings of a squishy nature for her Xander-shaped friend, he had to go with the sex one. After all, she'd been single for some time, and lived in the same apartment with him. Relationships outside the group had so far crashed and burned. He seriously couldn't envision Buffy as a monk, and she saw Giles like a father, so she probably saw Xander as the only outlet for those kinds of needs. Although he was reasonably sure she would never act on that view, nonetheless. Monk Buffy it was.

Besides if white meant anything romantic, he'd been seriously wasting his time, and she was an awesome actress. Nope - had to be sex.

Which of course meant that Willow had the hots for Giles. He grinned at that thought, as one of the subjects of it walked in the door.

"Hey, Xand," Willow greeted him, kissing him quickly on the cheek. She and Buffy had started that recently, with both Xander and Giles. The Unity members had, since the beginning, touched when they met, but now the girls had taken it the next logical step. He thought it was kind of nice, and kissed her back. "Rupe," Willow continued, interrupting Xander's thoughts. He watched Oz's reaction as Willow bussed the other man on the cheek, throwing in a brief hug. The wolfman nearly showed emotion for a second, and focusing on the colors, Xander saw a small and swiftly extinguished flash of purple and red aimed at both Giles and himself. The other colors he saw from Oz were white, towards Willow, and after the flash, gold, towards himself. Good, Oz had really forgiven him for the mess back in high school. But the werewolf was still in love - lust? - with Wills. Not necessarily good.

He didn't have to read Willow's colors when she saw Oz. He could hear her thoughts if he wanted to, yes, but he knew her expressions well enough. Surprise, joy, confusion, fear and a little anger all danced rapidly across her face. "Oz," she breathed so softly he wondered if he was hearing her mind instead of her voice. Without trying, he could clearly see the purple strand running from Giles to Oz, and it came to him with stunning clarity. Fear. Purple stood for fear.

@~~`~~~

Joyce was where she usually was - sitting in Dawn's hospital room. She'd been going over some of her younger daughter's homework after the tutor had left for the day. That new principal - Mrs. Anderson - was far more reasonable and helpful that that horrible Snyder man had ever been, and as a result, Dawn had kept up with her high school class work with little difficulty.

The young intern who was handling Dawn's case was talking to her, explaining some of the things that would be happening in the next few days, when Dawn finally returned home. She would still be medicated, but the dose would be continually reduced, and she would be coming back to the hospital almost daily for a while, for both speech and physical therapy, and to see him as well. Joyce was mentally trying to work out a schedule where she could keep up her duties at the gallery as well as shuttle Dawn around, and she finally decided, albeit reluctantly, that the Unity members would need to help her out.

"Mrs. Summers?" the young man said, in a way that indicated it hadn't been the first time he'd called her.

"Sorry," Joyce responded, flustered. "What?"

"Can I put you down for a standing appointment at 10 a.m.?"

The time was no better and no worse than any other, and she shrugged. "Sure. Is it okay if her sister or some of her sister's friends bring her sometimes?"

"Perfectly fine," he agreed, scribbling on the chart. She rose as he turned to go.

"Thank you, Doctor...?" She must have been distracted - Joyce couldn't remember the young man's name. She held out her hand to shake his.

Taking her hand with confidence, he answered. "Ben. Just call me Ben."

@~~`~~~

Buffy was bored. Bored Buffy. Boo-hoo, Buffy bored. Bah! She shook her head. This was getting her nowhere, fast.

She'd finished the work that was supposed to take all day in no time flat, and had made coffee for the rest of the office staff, sharpened everyone's pencils, even emptied the pencil sharpener. She was now trying to find another way to kill time.

Think about friends - always a good time-filler. After a quick listen in to check that everyone else's mind was too busy to eavesdrop on hers, she thought about things as they now were.

She and Willow shared a room, a bed even, and though this might have made her uncomfortable before Unity with Willow's sexual preference and all, now it just made her privy to the witches' dreams occasionally. They were interesting and confusing, and Buffy wished she'd listened better in Freshman Psych when the symbolism of dreaming had been discussed. She did know that guys featured in Willow's nightlife fantasies as often, if not more often, than girls. And recently, one formerly middle-aged, now looking buff and youthful, former librarian had been a frequent subject. She was amused at the thought that her Watcher might be the dream guy for her best friend, but she wasn't blind enough to wonder why. He looked great these days, and dressed appropriately for his new age. He and Wills had always had a lot in common, and Buffy only hoped that Giles wouldn't be as blind as Xander had been to the redheaded witch for so long.

Xander - now there was a horse of another color, as her grandmother used to say. Buffy checked - the others were still preoccupied. She hadn't just recently noticed that Xander was hot. The idea had been stored in the half-price bin in the dusty back corners of her brain since that whole swim team thing in high school. She just refused to take it out, clean it up and put it on the shelves for a lot of reasons. But lately, for the first time since she'd known him, there it was, at the top of the heap, begging for display case status. And even more thought provoking was the fact that she was about ready to buy into the whole Xander package - lock, stock and barrel. She was reasonably sure he'd been interested in her before Anya came along, and quite possibly still was. They just had to come to an agreement. One that could be sealed with a kiss, perhaps?

Ooops - Buffy caught some dissonance on her mental radio - K-Friends was playing disturbing relationship thoughts from the rest of her little group. It might be worth listening in, after all.

@~~`~~~

Willow was free-falling. She felt as if she couldn't get her feet on solid ground. Her life, already complicated enough by all the changes lately, just took another hairpin curve into a place she never thought she'd be again. The old "who might I want to be with" dilemma. Although she had to wonder if the Unity was going to limit her choices.

Tara - she and Tara weren't exactly broken up, they just weren't *anything* anymore. Tara seemed to be handling it well enough - they still saw each other around school, and she'd sometimes come by the Magic Box to talk to Anya, who had indeed become a very good friend of the blonde witch. Things were strained at first, but they seemed to be easing slightly now.

Then there was Xander. The old flame hadn't ever really gone out, although it certainly didn't burn the way it did before. Even if he wouldn't admit it, she knew that his feelings for Buffy would never let him give himself properly to any other girl. She knew he loved her, and he always had, but not really in that way. Finally, in her time with Tara, she'd discovered that was enough. She still wouldn't kick him out of her bed. She nearly gasped aloud at her own audacity with that thought.

Which turned her thoughts to Buffy. She'd actually wondered if there could be anything beyond friendship with her, but she just couldn't visualize it. Buffy had never shown any leanings toward even bi-sexuality, although there was some kind of spark between her and Faith, Willow always thought it was mostly on Faith's part. She'd already nearly lost one good old friend to the intricacies of sexual tension, and she wasn't going to go there again. No - decidedly not Buffy.

Willow was almost afraid to think about Rupert Giles. She'd had a crush on him in high school for a while - he seemed to appreciate her in a way none of the others did. He saw her intelligence as strength, not just as a helpful tool. He even needed her sometimes. True, it was just to surf the net and hack into other computers, but still, she liked being needed. Then she began exploring Wicca, and he could relate to that pursuit, although he often worried too much about her involvement in it. Still, he had always been way too much older, and not the sort of older man, she was certain, to get involved with a high school student for any reason. Then there was Jenny, and his period of mourning after she was killed. Then Olivia. And of course, Willow was gay...

Okay, Xander was right. Not so gay, after all. Bi, probably. And Rupe, as she had started calling him, was no longer so much older, or she some innocent high school student. And he looked good, even when older, so the fact he looked good, younger, wasn't too surprising. For the first time since they'd know each other, the planets were all in alignment, and she'd been thinking, since neither was involved with anyone anymore, that maybe they could give it try. She hadn't worked up her nerve to mention it yet, though.

Then in walks Oz, from somewhere beyond. Oz, who she'd cheated on, and who had cheated on her. Oz, who she'd turned away because of Tara. Oz, who'd been her first. How dare he come back just as she was settling down, sort of? Just to make her life more complicated.

"Willow?" Oz's voice broke through. "You still in there?"

The witch blushed, realizing she'd been not only mentally babbling again, but frozen to the spot where she'd stood since she first saw her ex-boyfriend in the store. She shook her head to clear it. "Here. Yeah. Uhm, hi?" She grinned weakly. "You passing through?"

"Naw. Back - staying." She nearly laughed - he still was able to distill most things to a couple of words. She had loved that about him, especially since she herself was so incapable of such simplicity. "Devon's new bass player is gone. I wasn't committed elsewhere. Hence - back." He looked around, sensing every eye and ear in the room was focused on the two of them. "Wanna go someplace? Talk?"

Willow looked around, too. *Well?* she asked her bond-mates mentally. *Advice?*

*I'd go,* Buffy responded first from where she was, physically. She'd obviously been listening in. *Talking isn't a commitment.*

*Talking isn't even an event with Oz,* Xander said sardonically. *Ten words out of him, you two'll be done.* Buffy scowled at him mentally, and he shrugged. *Yeah, you should go talk. You owe it to him, probably. And you can have the fun of explaining Unity to him.*

*Unity won't bother him,* Willow said assuredly. *Very little does.*

"Will?" Oz asked somewhat hesitantly.

"Huh? Oh, yeah, talk. Let's talk." She spun on her heel, breezing out of the door with Oz following her obediently. Xander was fairly certain none of the others had noticed Giles' miserable silence.

@~~`~~~

"I wonder what the Slayer is doing? I thought for sure after I broke her little sister, she'd come around looking for me. What is it with these humans - can't they figure anything out properly?" Glory was admiring herself in the mirror, talking to her own reflection, although one of her fawning acolytes was standing nearby.

"Humans seem to want to spend large amounts of time with the injured during recovery, Glorious one. Perhaps she is tending to her sister. She is only one person, after all."

"Which is exactly what is so infuriating," the rogue god whined. "I should have crushed her by now, only one person like she is. If she doesn't fork over my key real soon, I may *have* to kill her, and then tear down this town and start sifting through the pieces to find it. And that's so messy - it always ruins my nails. I'd really rather not."

"It does have a certain elegant simplicity to it, as plans go, however."

She flicked her fingers at the minion. "Perhaps, but Ben gets so upset when I do things like that. I wonder how my Benny is doing? I hate that I can't see him while we're here. We can't even talk." Glory pouted at herself in the glass. "Even if he is soft, he's still family. I wonder how he likes this little dump? Probably more'n I do, no doubt."

"I could take him a message for you," the acolyte offered.

"No need, right now." She looked down at the UPS woman lying on the floor, giggling senselessly. "Right now, I just need you to clean up after dinner."

@~~`~~~

Quentin Travers turned away from the TV monitor as Andrea entered the room. The two Watchers had found a lovely place where they could keep close tabs on Unity - ironically enough, Xander's old apartment, just a couple of doors away from the quartet's new home. He was reasonably sure the group thought them gone - and certainly would never suspect that they were really, thanks to a glamour Travers had found in one of his simpler magical texts, the two old biddies down the hall. He and Andrea were traveling Sunnydale these days as the Benton sisters - elderly, dotty and totally harmless. If approached by anyone, they immediately started fluttering and fussing, and even the hardiest souls were run off in a heartbeat. Particularly in this town, where life tended to be nasty, brutish and short, old people were nearly invisible anyway. It had proven to be the perfect disguise.

"Anything new?" Andrea asked as she set the grocery bag down on the counter. They had planted surveillance cameras in most of the locations the Unity members frequented - the Magic Box, the college, that Bronze place. They'd tried to get one into the other apartment, but the little witch had some serious bans up, and they hadn't been able to get through. Probably wise, in a town like Sunnydale, but frustrating to the two Watchers.

"Yes. There appears to be a new planet in the Unity's little solar system - a young man they've only referred to as 'Oz.' Why don't you fire up the computer and find out what you can about him." A printer to his left chugged out a page. "Here's a shot of him from the camera in the shop. Have a go." The Council was adamant that every person who had more than casual contact with the Unity should be catalogued, since they rarely made the same mistakes twice. Quentin and Andrea sent the tapes to the Council once a week, which some junior grade Watcher would go over with the proverbial fine-toothed comb, but they kept an eye on the monitor as much as possible in order to catch things quickly.

"Fine," Andrea sighed. "Put the groceries away, would you?" She found much of the Watcher's Council business distasteful - being a voyeur was only one unpleasant thing in a list of many she'd already done. She wondered if she could ever just turn off the caring, the way Quentin seemed to have done. A small part of her hoped not.