Disclaimer: Not mine, FOX. Put away the gun. It's all yours...and Joss'
It was the morning of Buffy Summers' 24th birthday. Not really a traditional milestone, but being the oldest, living vampire slayer who'd died twice, every year she still breathed was an achievement. She'd taken the proper precautions, too--there would be no partying, as death and mayhem usually gravitated toward formal celebrations of her birth. Though technically, since her rebirthing, the date on her certificate was a lie. Meaning today had no significance anymore. Huh.
There on the spot, Buffy decided that from this birthday forth, they'd have to become about recognizing and appreciating the physical and emotional fourteen hours of pain and trauma her mother went through to bring her into the world the first go-round. And with that settled, she wanted to be near or semi-near friends and family right now, but the flight didn't take off until later. They’d been apart. It had had to be this way. For all of them.
When you were trying to recruit people spread out across the world to join an army of young slayers--soldiers and higher organization personnel alike--separating the core group of four to go act as ambassadors seemed the logical decision. Until everything was properly arranged and functioning, anyway. Having done that for somewhat over half a year at this point, their main, "Slayer HQ" was finally off the ground in the Scottish Highlands. No more being not together.
Initially she, Willow and Xander thought it'd be good to do their own thing a while. Not only to get their bearings after Sunnydale was swallowed, but to find out how they'd fair going it alone. They'd been practically inseparable for seven years, and by the end, had lived under the same roof. Separation felt overdue, so they tried. Xander resided in Africa briefly, Willow in Brazil, and Buffy and her sister, in Italy.
Except, laying roots was never the plan. The "Scooby" trio had quickly realized being one of those families that only saw each other during special occasions wasn't working--there were strong, close-knit bonds and severe, severe missage. Experiment failed. Besides, they were the core of this worldwide operation. Cores had to be joined. A solid, centralized command unit.
But as the reunion remained hours off, they had to settle for communication through technology. Buffy sat at a table in her air-conditioned hotel suite in Mexico City, laptop and webcam ready; Willow was in much the same position, albeit waiting at Heathrow for her flight into Edinburgh; and Xander was already there, readying the final odds and ends for her inspection. It wasn't ideal, but they'd take what they could get. Hugging and possibly the eating of cake--informally, of course--would come very soon.
"You smell like an undead monkey..." Xander's voice sang through two sets of laptop speakers, causing two females to glare from across cyberspace's wide expanse. Yet his bonus stanza of "Happy Birthday" continued. "...and I am so screwed."
"Mm. Way to bring it home, Xand. Started off a tad shaky, but that last verse? Surprisingly accurate." Buffy pointedly said to watch him squirm. "Don't you think, Wi--?" The redhead's cam showed her typing, and entirely focused on the monitor. "Willow!" The slayer huffed, then pouted. "Okay, rewind. First I stink like the primate house at a zoo for zombies, now I'm the new Marcie. That was quick. Remind me again why we're friends?"
"Cause we were all you could afford, and inflation's a bitca?" The one-eyed man chipped in good-naturedly. "Duh." To which the petite girl rolled her eyes.
Willow was paying attention now, and looked appropriately guilty. "Sorry, Buffy. I was, uh, blogging. You know I blog."
"Yeah, and I surf to. For my daily dose of Willowness. But it still sounds like a sex thing. A Faith sex-thing." Buffy stated, and the look the witch gave her suggested that they'd had this argument before. "What? It does."
Then Willow smirked. "Really? How wouldja know about Faith and her sex things?"
"Um, because I have to hear about 'em in between every guy she's with? From her?"
Disappointed frown. "Oh." After a few moments, a delayed blush finally settled on her cheeks. "*Oh*."
"Uh huh." The slayer nodded, blushing a little herself. "At least she's evolved to actual dating, instead of just--"
"Emasculating every once-manly fella that gives her a happy?" Xander coughed when he remembered he was being watched. "Heh. Who's bitter?"
"Five years and you still haven't swallowed that pill?" Buffy had a wry smile on her face.
A couple days ago she got an early birthday present in the mail from her sister slayer. Jamaican rum, straight from the source. How Faith landed such a cushy assignment (even if just a couple days) on an island paradise Buffy didn’t know, but the gift and attached note were much appreciated. It said:
Way to stay ahead of the curve.
Take a swig for me.
She could say with absolute certainty that the bottle was enjoyed to the fullest extent possible, but that was getting off the subject. Her issues with Faith were in the past, and while Xander's were as well, a piece of him was clearly stuck back there. Holding a grudge.
"Oh, I gulped." He replied, defending himself. "And it caused serious damage to my esophagus on the way down, lemme tell ya. What with all the jaggedy-sharp, edge having."
"Too bad this isn't ten years ago." Buffy mused. "You and Alanis coulda been like, kindred spirits. And hey, I thought you were seeing someone. An African someone." She searched her brain for the name. "Dallia, right?"
Dallia was someone he'd met while traveling to a village to give his pitch to a fourteen-year-old, newbie slayer. The woman had studied teaching in England, and then returned to pass her knowledge onto the native children. She'd been just what he needed to heal after losing Anya and half his seeing power. Translated into English her name meant, "Gentleness is her soul," which he found a very apt description.
"Was. Sorta." He half-confirmed. "Just not biblically. I dunno...it was a whole lot of me yapping and her listening to me yap. Sounds selfish, one-sided, and not at all juicy, but man, it got intense. Like, 'Yoda Wisdom' without the backwards funny. Or a floating spaceship." He sighed, thinking he wasn't explaining this well. Maybe there was no way he could. "She shook me up but good."
"So it was like going to therapy, but, spiritual therapy?" Willow surmised, trying to nail down the relationship.
"And now you're spiritually scrubbed and rinsed?" The other female added.
"Mildew-free and ready to ride that crazy, winding road called 'Life.'" Despite going along with the humor, his calm and confident expression said it was all true.
Buffy smiled warmly at her friend. "Look at you, all Zen--m'glad you're in a good place."
"Also me." The witch concurred immediately, raising her hand, yet her furrowed brow betrayed her. "Only, there wasn't even a *teeny* time of not-gazes with flirty undertones?" She seemed dubious. "I know you, Alexander LaVelle Harris."
"Where there's a womanly shape and hopefully flesh, so goes my eye. And trust me, 'exotic beauty' doesn't oversell, but after our first chat...wasn't what it was about. Good times were shared, but she had her thing, I have my thing, and we left it there. Which is cool." Xander explained, and then tacked on as an afterthought, "'Course, in the future, if the possibility hasn't retired and moved to Boca..." He trailed off before switching tracks all the sudden. "Who cares about my romance-that-isn't, though? We already know Willow's turnin' the world into her big, ol' lesbian playground everywhere she goes--"
Shock and awe, followed by some silent gasps, and a feverish check of her surroundings to see if anyone heard.
"--but does the Buf have a new beau? Maybe in a small, ungay sandbox somewhere in the corner of said playground?"
Buffy hesitated to answer while making a decision she hoped he didn't notice. "I can honestly say, 'Nope.' I lack Beau. And even sadder, Jeff." She saw Willow's look. Thankfully Xander appeared to assume it was part of her reboot process due to his comment. "Still on a 'guy sabbatical' for the foreseeable. I mean, considering the fact that the bulk of my relationships have been with men who don't plan on dying and can go from Good to Evil--when they're not being just plain ambiguous--if there's a change in wind direction, can you blame me?"
"*Men*. Poo." Willow re-entered the conversation, feeling that even though it was an obvious comment, it had to be spoken regardless. "So how was Mexico? Did you bag a Chupacabra? Cause, those poor goats."
"Hefty bagged and Zip-Lock sealed; the world is safe for goats everywhere. On the monster front, anyhow." The redhead visibly relaxed at Buffy's news. "We got a new trainee outta the trip, too--helped us track it. After she settles some stuff, she's gonna come join. I was impressed."
"Everything else...? That's good, too?" The concern was back.
"Really is. I'm still getting used to the fact that it's good, but yeah. No worries." Came the reassurance prior to a question of her own. "And you're sure you--?"
Willow cut her off. "I'm Sure-y St. Surely. But never 'Shirley.' Unless there's been margaritas. For dollars. During those nights when they are."
And at this juncture, the carpenter was officially banished from the loop. "Speaking for everyone named Xander whose hometown is a highway crew's worst nightmare...Airplane reference aside, whatthehuh?"
"Never you mind, mister!" The redhead told him sharply, only half-kidding. "When I get my hands on you, you're gonna be *so* a toad! Clichés and stereotypes be damned!" She threatened, and then her eyes drifted upward. To a clock, presumably. "And I have a gate to get to." Xander shrunk under the weight of her stare, while for Buffy, she switched to a grin. "I wanna pick you up from the airport, okay? Just look for the huge, 'BUFFY' sign; it'll be blue magic marker-ed. Oh, and sparkled. Then we hafta make a quick stop."
"Ooh, for cake-getting?"
"Shoosh. No questions."
"Shooshing." Buffy tried to stay serious, but couldn't help the chuckle. "See ya soon, Will. Have a safe flight."
"You too." With a final parting glare meant for Xander, Willow's window went dark.
"Bout time I, uh, got gone, too." He said nervously, looking over his shoulder. "There’s a security system to double and triple-check, and I oughta take a gander before I get all wart-having and can't. We're on schedule; your room’s all dusted and cobwebbed out."
"Can't wait." Then she smiled sympathetically, offering a piece of sage advice. "Use the next few hours to prepare decent grovel, and you'll probably skirt the wrath. For the millionth time."
"Well, in case it falls horribly apart, it doesn't hurt to practice--ribbit." He waved to the camera, a smirk firmly in place. "Ribbit, says I."
Buffy shook her head in response. "Bye, Xander."
And the connection was broken. That's when Gwen came up behind her chair, clad in only a bed sheet, and used her mouth to soundly kiss Buffy good morning, when the elder slayer tilted her head to meet it.
"Feliz cumpleaños, babe." The professional thief said to her girlfriend when there was air again.
Six months prior, Gwen Raiden was no one to Buffy. She'd gone to Cleveland at Faith's request; there was some big, demon brouhaha going down, which her darker half wanted to handle "old school”--i.e. the Chosen Two against god-knows-what. Buffy pretended to grudgingly indulge her, but inside she was thrilled. She hadn't done any actual, physical slaying in quite a while.
She'd missed it. As complicated, gray, and morally ambiguous as the world was--topped with their global ambassador responsibilities--sometimes the hands-on act of staking and/or lopping off bad guys' heads was a simple, welcome joy. Especially with Faith. She envied the next generation; they always had a partner who knew. They wouldn't have to suffer the loneliness, the disconnect she used to spend so much time combating. To say it was a relief would've been understating.
But anyhow, speaking of combating, the original duo laid waste to an honest-to-goodness evil hatchery, where baby demons were being birthed. Most likely the things would've been recruited into some army whose plan was war with the slayers in the future, but as they exterminated and destroyed all eggs and hatchlings present, they didn't truly know for sure. Their opponents had bird-like features with large, snapping beaks containing many sharp teeth--survival won out over a Q & A.
Afterwards Faith took her to a club to celebrate. However, she had another motive she hadn't advertised: playing matchmaker. It started with an offer of alcohol. Specifically beer.
"What's your brand?" Faith asked over the din, her face betraying a hint of anxiousness now that the set-up was imminent.
This should've tipped Buffy off, except she'd needed to pee since the last half-hour of the fight, and was to busy holding it to notice the fleeting expression. "Surprise me!"
Smirk. "You're the boss."
Hearing pouring, the blonde's bladder would no longer be denied, forcing her to scout for the bathroom. "Be right back!"
Pushing open the women's bathroom door, Gwen hurried to check for damage in a mirror. Once recovered from the lightning blast, she ran around, unseen, to a kitchen entrance. Scrutinizing her chosen wardrobe, she wiped the long, slit-sleeves of her forest green v-neck; the same was done to white, corduroy pants. The nervous response wouldn't eliminate holes or scorch marks, it just gave the professional thief something to do until she relaxed.
Fingers raked through hair next, thankfully not coming across any newly changed strands. Her mostly dark brown, wavy locks reached mid-breast before stopping. Though the consequence only happened after strike number one--tonight made seventeen--whitening still remained an unfortunate, nagging concern. As a reminder, she'd streaked one set of affected strands red, the other golden blonde, on both sides of her face. For balance. Permanent and noticeable, they didn't quite mix with the rest.
And usually, she didn't quite mix with society-at-large either, as she tended to don different clothes. Some form of midriff-baring top, along with tight, spandex pants, primarily either red or black. Together with the odd dye-job, people believed her less than virtuous. But she promoted that image due to necessity; her generally male clients got a free, cheap thrill that won her contracts, as well as sent the message she was a bad ass. Except she wasn't actually the "daring vixen." Not even close. The real Gwen, staring from the glass, was far more cautious.
Turning her attention to the "watch" on her wrist, everything appeared fine, but she grabbed the leather gloves hanging out her back pocket, anyway. Nothing could go wrong...she wouldn't chance it. Just as she was slipping on the protection, someone barreled through the door and into a stall, nearly giving her a heart attack.
Sounds of relief emanated from the stall, which she glared at through the mirror. "Didn't your mother ever teach you to go before leaving the house?"
"She tried--I never learned. Now shut up so I can go, Whoever You Are."
Grinning, the thief complied until she heard the toilet flush. "'Gwen.'"
The slayer came out a few seconds later, going to the sink to wash her hands as Gwen put on the left glove. "Huh?"
"My name. I figured since I kind of, burst your private moment there, I owe you that much." Now the right glove.
"Oh." Buffy nodded, turning red at the use of the word "burst." "Well it's...less syllables, so, easier to say." Suitably scrubbed, she got some paper towels from the dispenser and dried her hands. "'Buffy.' Is mine. Hi."
Shock registered on Gwen's face. "What?"
"Uh...'Buffy'?" Confusion. "Two syllables."
"Crap." Gwen cursed herself and turned tail, leaving a bewildered Buffy behind. She was quickly caught up to. "*Crap*." Hell of a first impression.
"Okay, why the weird reaction? Is my name like, repulsive to you or something?" The blonde wondered as they found their way to the bar. "Because I don't usually get that a lot. At least not from..." She was going to say, "Humans," but bit her tongue. "...random people I just met."
Seeing them together, their mutual acquaintance--meaning the raven-haired slayer--looked a little shocked herself. Faith tried to smile. "Guess we're skippin' the intros?"
Both women were not amused. Especially Buffy, as she began to quickly figure out that this night wasn't just about two once enemies beheading for the sake of beheading. "So...not *that* random."
"All I'm saying," Buffy spoke past the toothbrush in her mouth, as she stood at the sink in their hotel room, "is you've been here before, and I was hoping we'd stay at a place more...cultural. Not a Holiday Inn." Then she spit. "And that we wouldn't eat at the Hard Rock every night. Why's world travel so touristy?"
"Because tourist cash spends--especially if it’s got a dead Prez. And the farther away, the closer to home. Long as they get to sell us 'authentic' sombreros made in Taiwan before we hit customs," Buffy looked at the sombrero hanging on the room's desk chair, and pouted, "everybody’s all smiles." Gwen spouted off from the bed, removing the damp towel from atop her head. "That town with the Whatever-the-Hell? Culture. But people don't want a close-up of 'poverty.' Probably wouldn’t even notice, anyway. Kids’d be too busy asking Mom and Dad why they can see Billy’s insides."
The slayer gargled water and spit again. "All right, good answer." She grinned, then. "Follow up question: if you wanted the comforts of America, *why* a Holiday Inn? I didn't think my ridiculously rich girlfriend would be so cheap."
"It's called 'laying low.' Habit." The thief smirked. "You shoulda let me take you to Tahiti."
"I go where the bad is."
"Nothin' bad about Tahiti."
"But when I take an actual vacation, you definitely can. First, I just have to get settled in the castle someone bought for me." Buffy still couldn't believe she *could* take vacations now. Barefoot, but in a tank top and shorts, she sat next to Gwen on the bed. "Happy you came this time, though--did you meet with the guy?"
"Yeah. Transaction's done." Gwen said, instinctually jerking away when she felt the hand touch the small of her back through an opening in the towel she donned.
"You've gotta stop that." The blonde softly admonished, tracing the scar where Morimoto's team sub-dermally implanted the finalized version of the first L.I.S.A. "You always wig at touch one. Only you're not gonna fry me, Gwen. She's not the prototype anymore."
After discovering that that prototype did control her "problem," Gwen returned it to the man she stole it from, intact and undamaged. Some might have said she was a fool, but she knew Morimoto's people would've dogged her until they got it back anyway, then killed her. She wanted to deal. She'd pull jobs pro bono, if he let her have a L.I.S.A. when it was ready to go to market. She'd even be a guinea pig.
Those terms were acceptable to him. She tried not to dwell back on those jobs, but he held up his end. With the touch of a button--on the watch-looking gizmo she wore about her wrist--she could turn the new L.I.S.A. off and on, allowing her to take advantage of her unique body chemistry when necessary. It seemed perfect, what she'd always wanted. And it was. But...
"Tech breaks." The brunette countered.
"S'not like dying's new to me." Buffy said, nonchalant and jokingly, her sense of humor still not recovered from years of morbid-ness.
Real fear of that outcome flashed in Gwen's eyes, even as her girlfriend's mouth drew nearer. "Am I supposed to laugh now?"
"*And*, it’s not like I wasn’t already electrocuted once, you know. By a possessed, computer nerd."
Gwen smiled despite herself, Buffy's breath tickling her face. "You're such a freak."
Buffy smiled also. "Takes one to know one." Then the kiss.
They were very practiced at this, and as it wore on, Gwen had to lay back on the bed, because she couldn't hold herself up. Buffy stayed with her, draping herself over her lover's body, so the kissing could continue unabated. Gwen had to fight not to cry every time. She'd never felt anything this good her entire life, and that she could feel at all was still a miracle. While not the same, Buffy understood exactly what that was like, in her own way. They couldn't go back.
Finally, it ended, hazel staring down at blue. "I'm *so* glad we didn't kill Faith that night." Flushed, Gwen just nodded below Buffy. "C'mon, Elektra, we better hurry; we have a plane to catch. How packed are you?"
The slayer reluctantly removed herself from off the warm body of a person her feelings ran pretty deep for, sliding her leg across the place that would always make the thief gasp. She loved that. Gwen sat up again, more flushed, and slightly ticked.
"That movie sucked. Take it back."
She had her own ace in the hole, though. All she had to say was that Angel could kiss better.
"Explain." Buffy demanded of Faith some twenty minutes later, back in the bathroom while Gwen sat at the bar anxiously sipping a Redcoat.
"Me and Willow thought--" Her sister slayer began.
"*Willow*?" She knew her redheaded, best friend was in the middle of a "I just broke up with my girlfriend, and I wanna fix all my friends up so I can be envious" phase, but this was crazy. "Did she forget how I'm not gay? And how do you two know Gwen, anyway?"
Faith grinned, pulling herself up onto the sink counter. "Already on a 'first name'? Wicked quick, B." She winked, only to have two eyes narrow at her. "Last year, soon as Giles heard that Angel went 'dark side'? He had Willow dig into the Big Guy's L.A. years, checkin' out anybody whose path he mighta crossed. To get a feel for whether he was playin', or being played. Gwen made the list, I tracked her down."
"How'd she know him?"
"Remember when they had their whole Apocalypse going, same time ours was revving up? Sun got blocked by that 'Beast' fucker--"
"You mean the giant that kicked your ass?" Buffy jibed, teasingly.
"I gave as good as I got." Faith argued, very into revisionist memories. "But the dude was a walking *rock*, okay? Damn." She needed a cigarette. "Look, she stashed this 'totem' guy for Angel or somethin'. And, uh, Gunn helped her swipe--"
"Whoa, 'swipe'? What is she, a cat burglar?" The blonde quipped, but stopped smirking when Faith didn't refute her. Her eyes bugged. "So not only are you trying to set me up with a girl...you're trying to set me up with a girl who's also a professional klepto? You can't seriously think--"
"Know ya never sold anyone on that ‘Gimmie’a boy scout and I’m five-by-five’ act, right?"
Buffy wagged her finger at the girl on the sink, ignoring the implication. "Hah! *Boy.* As in, 'male.'"
"You don't hafta feel the 'Pride' full-on to enjoy ridin' a curve." Faith said, suggestively. "Couple times we almost got hot and heavy. You can't deny it's there."
"That is totally not..." The elder slayer wanted to maintain a wall of denial regardless, but it faltered. "Shut up." She breathed out a long exhale.
"You've been workin’ the Five Sisters overtime.” She moved wiggled her fingers. “We know you, B. You're the type of chick that lives for the long-term, hand-holding shit, and that ain’t what they’re for." Nodding, Buffy conceded the truth. "You and Gwen? Might have somethin’ in common." The younger encouraged. "Girl wanted to explore her options, I talked you up. Don't make a liar outta me."
"Fine. We'll chat." Buffy acquiesced. "But don't get your hopes up." Beat. "Do I look okay?"
Smiling victoriously, Faith hopped down to the floor, and went to push open the bathroom door, holding it so the other girl could pass.
Buffy walked out, but turned her head back. "How come I get the feeling there's something you're not telling?"
"Go chat, could find out."
"Just for the cryptic, Faith? I *promise* to grill you about Robin before tonight's over."
In the new world, when Gwen and Buffy were airborne several hours later, there was something happening on the coast. A man in a suit sat in the back of a limo on an empty highway. He held a cell phone at his ear.
“Yes, sir. They’re in place.” He listened. “Understood. It’ll be in play shortly after the target lands.” Then he hung up, and made his window recede. The darkly cloaked figure waited on the other side. “It’s a go. Make sure this doesn’t get any bigger than a 4.8. We don’t need the President flying in, declaring a state of emergency. Our contacts inside FEMA have their hands full being ineffective elsewhere.”
The figure didn’t move.
“If you want your bonus, get chanting. I don’t think you appreciate how...costly, a gallon of baby tears is in today’s economy, even for Wolfram and Hart.” Beat. “And you and your brethren better not forget about the barrier.”
Up went the window, and the AC. California was hot as hell.
“Lawyers.” The figure groused to itself in a pissed, otherworldly voice.