Author: Kirk Baldridge
Willow and Tara, in their street clothes, walked into the infirmary to see a dark-haired woman in a lab coat with her back to them. She was alternating between reading from a stack of papers and typing on a computer and didn't notice the newcomers until the redhead cleared her throat.
"Oh. Hello Miss Rosenberg. Miss Maclay. What can I do for you today?"
"I've told you before. Please call me Jenny."
Tara nodded. "All right. Jenny. We've come to see our friend Buffy. Is she all right?"
"Ah yes. Miss Summers." The Facility's doctor newest nodded to a bed with a curtain around it. "Still very much unconscious, I'm afraid. Whatever happened out there must have put incredible stress of her nervous system." Her fingers flew across the keyboard and charts neither Tara nor Willow understood popped up. "Look at that. I know I've seen readings like this somewhere, I just can't put my finger on it."
"Will she be okay?" Tara asked.
"I believe so, but she's definitely going to need her rest. You can try back tomorrow if you like."
"Thanks, Doc." Willow put her arm around Tara and they left the infirmary. "I hate that place."
"Yeah. But at least the doctor's cute, don't you think?" The blonde smiled when she saw her lover's blush. "What do you suppose happened to Buffy up there?"
Willow shrugged her shoulders. "Maybe she had some kind of a nervous breakdown. It certainly wouldn't be the first time we saw a newbie crack under the pressure."
"What pressure? She was standing up on the roof by herself. She wasn't anywhere near the fighting." Tara shook her head. "Still, she is a Flamer, and their powers are connected to their emotions. There was a moment it looked like we were going to lose. I suppose she could have, I don't know, lost control?"
"Maybe we should check her record. If she does have some kind of an emotional or power control problem, we need to know about it."
Tara nodded. "Let's go ask X. I'll bet he already has." She pushed the button for the elevator, and when it opened she saw Wesley inside. "Oh, hi Mr. Pryce."
"Ms. Maclay. Visiting Ms. Summers, I assume?" The blonde nodded. "Excellent." He cleared his throat. "You've both been here long enough to know, but I feel I must remind you nonetheless."
Willow put a hand up. "Wait, let me guess. We're supposed to report in as soon as we get back, especially when one of our team members is injured. Right?"
"Indeed." Wesley clasped his hands behind his back. "So?"
"Not much to tell, really. We fought Nightmare and Vipera. We beat Nightmare and Vipera. Buffy tried to blow up a building." Willow shrugged her shoulders. "That's pretty much it."
"I see. And you're saying you have no idea what transpired on that rooftop?"
"Either she was attacked or she went crazy," said Tara. "If it's okay with you, we were going to check with X and see if he found out anything unusual about Buffy in her file."
Wesley nodded. "Very well. Carry on."
He didn't say anything else to them in the elevator, and he got out on the next floor. Willow and Tara continued on down to the next to the last floor of the Facility. They weren't bothering to go to X's room because they knew he was never there except to sleep and, occasionally, to clean up. X spent every waking hour that he wasn't fixing something in his private workshop, which was really just a converted storage room.
X was, at the moment, sitting in a recliner he'd designed and built himself. It had, among other things, a variable speed back massager, a cordless phone inside the left arm-rest, a mini-fridge beverage container inside the right, speakers in the headrest that transmitted directly into wireless earphones he was currently wearing, and a remote control pad on the footrest he could activate with his feet.
"Hey, ladies." He turned off the earphones and climbed out of the chair. "What do you think? I'll bet I could sell a million of these things."
Willow nodded. "Sure. And if you sold them for a million a piece, you might actually make a profit."
"Ouch." X put a hand over his heart. "That gets me right here, Will."
"Yeah, the truth hurts," said Tara. "X, we actually have something serious to talk about."
"You checked out Buffy's file right?" Willow asked. "We know you like to look and see if the new girl is hot so you can hit on her."
"I resent the implication, Will."
"You don't deny it?"
"No, but I do resent it. I'll have you know I also check to see if she's straight before I hit on her. You remember what happened between me and Shriek."
Tara nodded. "The name she chose should have been a warning. Still, you have to admit, because of you, she and Destiny ended up being a pretty good couple."
"Oh yeah. I'm a regular matchmaker...for everybody else." X crossed his arms. "Why did you guys want to know about Buffy anyway? Hey, you saw her, right? How's she doing?"
"Doc says she'll be fine after some rest," Willow replied. "We were wondering about her psychological profile, and how it relates to her powers. Has she ever, say, blown up before?"
X shook his head. "No. As a matter of fact, she has one of the most stable evaluations in the Facility. Only Tara here scored higher, or lower, depending on how you look at it."
"So it probably wasn't a breakdown," said Tara. "Which means what, exactly? If she was attacked, who was it, and how did they manage get away so fast? I don't remember seeing anyone."
"Send her records to our room, would you?" Willow asked. "I want to take a look at them myself."
X nodded. "Sure thing."
"I need a shower," said the redhead. "And then I'm firing up the TiVo."
Tara followed her lover out of the room, shaking her head.
X watched them go, then flung himself back into the recliner and reached for his earphones.
"Honey, listen to this."
Tara was sitting on one end of the couch with Willow's computer in her lap while the redhead was sitting on the other end watching TV.
"Buffy apparently got her powers when she was fifteen years old. Can you imagine? We didn't get ours until we were... what, nineteen? Twenty?"
"Something like that." Willow was listening, but never turned away from the TV.
"Anyway, she was in the car with her mother and her sister, and there was some sort of accident. The car caught on fire. They both died, but Buffy's powers saved her life." Tara shook her head. "The poor girl. It's so sad. I mean a spontaneous activation of S-genes is hard enough to deal with for any teenager, but couple that with losing your entire family at the same time? It's a miracle she survived."
"Is that it? Is that all it says in her file?"
"No. Oh, this is interesting. Buffy spent the next couple of years in a Council sponsored mental institution. The doctors, who also helped her deal with her powers, said for the longest time she blamed them...I presume they're talking about her powers and not the doctors, for her mom and sister dying. Once she finally came to realize that her powers were not to blame she entered the training academy."
Now Willow finally did look up. "So you're saying she really did have a breakdown?"
"I don't think so. According to a dozen medical and psychology experts she's stable. For to blow up like she did would require a major trigger event. What could have happened on the rooftop in so short a time that we couldn't see or hear or sense, to make her go critical like that?"
"Anxiety. I don't know. I only ever took an intro level psychology class."
Tara started to say something to that but then the phone rang. Being the closest, she answered it. "Hello? Oh, hi Dr. Calendar. What? Right now? All right. Good-bye." She hung up.
"What is it?"
"I'm not sure. She said she needs to see us right away. Sorry about your show."
Willow turned off the TV and stood up. "It's all right. I wasn't really in the mood anyway."
A few minutes later they walked into the infirmary, to find Dr. Calendar looking at something on the electronic readout panel above Buffy's bed which monitored her vitals signs and would alert the doctor to trouble no matter where she was in the Facility. It was all very Star Trek-like, courtesy of X.
Willow cleared her throat and the doctor turned. "Ladies. Come in please. Thank you for coming so promptly. I hope I didn't...interrupt anything important." She pressed a button and the readings changed. "What you are seeing is a sample of Ms. Summers brain patterns over the last several hours. You remember that neurological damage I said before I thought I recognized?" They nodded. "I was right. It is a result of high intensity electrostatic genetic scarring, practically on the molecular level. You know who does that?"
They both stared at her blankly, and the doctor sighed.
"Pain. She was exposed to direct, constant, and what must have been agonizing S-gene pain stimulation. In other words, I'm afraid Ms. Summers had the misfortune of encountering..."
"Malice," Willow said in sudden realization. "Damn. She zapped Buffy? How is she still alive?"
"For that matter, why would Malice attack her?" Tara asked. "Was is just chance? A random encounter?"
"I wouldn't put anything past her. The witch is totally out of her mind."
Tara's eyes widened. "Wait. Will, Nightmare and Vipera could never have escaped Walsh on their own. You can bet it was probably Malice who helped them, in exchange for her own freedom. Now, I don't know why she'd hurt Buffy and not us, unless...oh no. What if she sent Nightmare and Vipera to attack the Bronze to lure us into some sort of a trap? Only Buffy got in the way?"
Willow nodded. "That could be. She tried to fight her, and look what happened."
"If Malice really is out," said Tara. "You know the first thing she would have done is contact..."
Willow held up a hand. "Don't say it. Please. I really don't want to think about her."
"I've lost track." Dr. Calendar looked back and forth between them. "Who are you talking about?"
"Never mind." Willow turned to Tara. "If Malice is involved with Nightmare and Vipera then she might have had her powers boosted too. And she was incredibly dangerous before."
Upon leaving the infirmary Willow and Tara were summoned to the office of the Director of Operations of the Facility. Rupert Giles was a handsome, older man with salt and pepper-hair, an impeccably tailored charcoal gray suit, and glasses that perfectly fit his face. He sat behind an ornate oaken desk they guessed cost more than all of their furniture combined, with his hands clasped in his lap.
"Are we supposed to talk first?" the redhead asked. "Or..."
Giles held up a hand. "One of my operatives was injured, on what was supposed to be merely a training mission, and no one seems able to explain to me why or how."
"It was Malice," said Tara. "We just came from the infirmary. Malice attacked her."
"I see." Giles steepled his fingers in front of his face. "Well. That does present a bit of a problem. Ms. Madison is one of your more formidable foes, is she not?"
"We always handled her," Willow replied.
"But not usually without great personal loss on your part. And that's not even taking into account..."
Willow sighed. "I know. Why does everybody keep bringing her up?"
"Everybody doesn't," said Tara. "The three of us are the only ones who actually know."
"Only because I do not believe personal relationships are appropriate for our official records," said Giles. "Nor for our business. Usually I would seek a transfer for such individuals. However, seeing as the two of you are my most successful operatives, I am willing to make an exception."
"Your benevolence has nothing to do with the fact you can't actually stop us, right?" Willow asked.
"Indeed." Giles cleared his throat. "It would behoove you to find Malice before whatever devious intentions she has planned for you and our city come to fruition. As usual, I shall put all of our resources at your disposal. Now please, leave my office."
Out in the hall, Willow smiled. "I think he's loosened up since the last time, don't you?"
They stopped in the infirmary to check on Buffy. Dr. Calendar informed them she would likely be unconscious for some time, but promised to alert them immediately if her condition changed one way or the other. They went on up to the roof. As they stepped out of the elevator they saw someone standing there, arms crossed, staring out at the horizon. She turned as they approached.
It was Amazon, the final member of the Facility's super-staff. A tall, muscular dark-haired woman with piercing brown eyes and a penchant for black leather. She had exceptional physical strength, was very difficult to hurt, and healed at a rapid rate. Policy dictated that one Super must stay behind at all times, except in a dire emergency, to protect the vortex and the Facility itself. Because her powers did not allow for rapid movement, like Thunderbolt and Lightshield, she had been selected for what amounted to permanent guard duty.
"Hey Faith," said Tara. "What brings you up here?"
"I hear you guys are going after Malice."
The redhead nodded. "Unfortunately."
"Wish I could go with you," said Faith. "Hey, I did some checking. Last time Malice was out she was seen in the docks area. You might want to check around there."
"That's a good idea," said Tara. "Thanks."
Willow winked. She and Tara transformed into their costumes. They actually only had one set of clothing but it was made of special material which reacted to the unique energy their bodies gave off. In street clothes a certain energy pulse realigned the molecules into costume-form and vice-versa. Buffy would eventually get a suit of her own, allowing her to use her fire-powers to the fullest without having to fear of ending up naked, as she had when her powers went out of control on the roof.
Thunderbolt gave Amazon a mock salute and leaped off the roof. "See you later."
"Bye." Lightshield followed her lover and they shot away into the city.
Faith waited until they were gone then touched the communicator in her ear. "It's me. They're on the way. I sent them to the docks just like you said." She smiled. "Right."