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If You'd Still

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With the others, Willow watched the tape from the dress shop, the strange beast leaping for the boy in the tuxedo and mauling it. Just what Sunnydale needed right before the prom, some kind of weird creature on the loose.

Giles frowned at the screen. “You say the creature just … stopped?”

“Yeah.” Xander pointed, getting to his feet to make sure they could all see what he saw. “Right there.” They watched as the creature got off the boy and ran away. “See, it’s like he just realized he forgot to put money in the meter or something.”

“You know the part that totally weirded me out?” Cordelia asked. “That thing had good taste.”

Willow rolled her eyes. Of course that would be the part Cordy would get stuck on.

“I mean, he chucked Xander and went right for the formal wear,” Cordelia continued.

“That’s right. He left behind his copy of Monsters Wear Daily.”

It was nice now that Xander was snarking at Cordelia again, instead of having his tongue down her throat. Willow did her best to keep that sentiment to herself, for many reasons, but she couldn’t help feeling it anyway. After spending all of grade school being able to count on Xander against Cordelia, it had been disconcerting to have him suddenly on her side and not on Willow’s.

“I’m serious,” Cordelia snapped. “Look at the outfit that Xander’s wearing. Now look at the kid that the monster went after. Very smooth lines … ‘til he was shredded.”

Xander moved to rewind the tape. Buffy got to her feet, walking away from the group and the TV. “I don’t want to see it again.”

“Buffy … um …” Giles fumbled for words, surprised that this should send her over the edge. “It is horrible, but … if you’re going to hunt this creature, you should study it.”

“Think I got it,” she said. Willow could hear the pain still in her best friend’s voice; she was surprised Giles couldn’t.

“She’s right,” Willow said loyally. “I mean, you’ve seen one big hairy bringer of death, you’ve seen them all.”

Naturally, Wesley felt the need to correct her. “Not really. If I’m not mistaken, this is a hell-hound.”

Giles got to his feet, his eyes fixed on the screen. “Yes. It’s particularly vicious. It’s a sort of a … demon foot soldier bred during the Makhash wars. Trained solely to kill, they feed off the brains of their foes.”

“Look!” Cordelia shouted into the silence that followed his words. “Right there. Zoom in on that.”

“It’s a videotape,” Xander reminded her.

“So? They do it on television all the time.”

“Not with a regular VCR, they don’t.”

“Perhaps we could stay on the topic for once?” Wesley asked plaintively, and Xander and Cordelia looked away from each other as Cordelia sank back into her seat. As she did so, Wesley continued, “What, uh, were you doing with Xander?”

Willow rolled her eyes again. What did all these men see in this shallow twit, anyway?

“What?” Cordelia asked, startled by the question and sounding as though she didn’t want to answer it. Willow felt a stab of jealousy and panic. They weren’t starting that up again, were they? Looking at Xander, Cordelia said, “Um … I was …”

“Burning a hole in Daddy’s wallet as usual,” Xander jumped in. Something wasn’t right there. The words sounded normal, but they were acting strange. Willow tried to remind herself that she did not care. “I just bumped into her in my tuxedo hunt,” Xander continued.

“What’s that?” Oz asked, and Willow was grateful to him for keeping them on topic. “Pause it?”

“Guys, it’s just a normal VCR!” Xander snapped, holding up the remote so they could see. Then he looked at it again himself. “It doesn’t … Oh, wait, it can do pause.” He turned back to the TV and hit the button, and they all looked at the kid in the background. “Hello, hell-hound raiser.”

“I know that kid.” Oz got up to grab a yearbook, flipping through to the picture. “Tucker Wells. He was in my chem lab.”

“Let me guess,” Wesley said. “He was quiet, kept to himself, but always seemed like a nice young man.”

“Well, he didn’t seem the murderous type, anyway. Something must have happened to him.”

Xander went by the table, carrying an armload of books. He was the first person to approach the stairs where Buffy had taken up residence since she’d walked away from the TV. “How’s it goin’ over there, Buff?”

She didn’t look up from the book in her lap. “Fine.” Still fragile voice. Willow hoped her friend would be able to pull it together, or the Mayor really would win. She sympathized with Buffy—and she could have choked Angel, if choking him would have done any good—but they didn’t have time for the Slayer to fall apart.

Xander wasn’t taking ‘fine’ for an answer. “Well, I just wanted to say that your impersonation of an inanimate object is really comin’ along.”

“Thanks.”

Xander gave up, at least for the moment, and walked away.

Willow managed to find Tucker’s password and get into his email. Giles got up and came to look over her shoulder, but Buffy barely even glanced in her direction.

“Listen to this message Tucker sent to this kid David Metz at school last week. ‘The Sunnydale High lemmings have no idea what awaits them. Their big night will be their last night.’”

“So, we have a threat against the students on their big night,” Giles said slowly, “a hell-hound trained to attack people formal wear …”

“Oh, are we all catching up now?” Cordelia asked.

“This Tucker is planning to attack the prom tonight.”

“Once again the Hellmouth puts the special in ‘special occasion’,” Oz observed.

Xander exclaimed dramatically, “Why do I even buy tickets for these things, I ask you?”

Willow sighed. “I wonder if I can take my dress back?”

“Don’t you dare.” They all turned to stare at Buffy, who hadn’t moved from the stairs.

“But Tucker’s gonna—“

At last, Buffy got to her feet. “No. You guys are gonna have a prom. The kind of prom that everyone should have. I’m gonna give you all a nice, fun, normal evening—if I have to kill every single person on the face of the earth to do it.”

Willow was glad to see Buffy’s protective spirit had been awakened … but she wasn’t sure if Buffy was in quite the right mood for this. Tucker was just a kid, after all.

Xander tried to look enthusiastic, but the final threat had been a bit much for him. “Yay?”

But Buffy was on a roll, now, and no one was getting in the way of the Slayer at work. “Okay, Wes, why don’t you go to Tucker’s house? He’s probably not there, but it’s worth a shot.”

“All right.” He glanced at Cordelia and then pretended he hadn’t. “Perhaps strength in numbers would be a ...”

“You can take Cordy.”

“If that’s your plan, all right, all right.” His show of reluctance was no more convincing. “What about the others?”

“Oz, you said you know this David kid that Tucker emailed? Why don’t you and Will track him down. See what he knows, if he’s involved.”

“We’re on it.”

As Wesley and Cordelia were on their way out, Buffy turned to them, “And you know what, could you two check the magic shop?”

“Magic shop?” Wesley repeated.

“Yeah, it’s right next to the dress store on Main.”

“I can swing that one,” Xander volunteered. “What’s the mission?”

“See if anyone’s been in buying supplies to raise a hell-hound.”

“Gotcha. Or check and see who’s been stocking up on hell-hound snausages. I hear those pups will do anything for a tasty treat.”

And they all headed off, leaving Buffy to whatever part of the plan she had kept for herself. Willow hoped her friend would find work therapeutic … and that she wouldn’t run into Angel in the process.