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Imperfections

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“Hey,” Faith tossed a box of Pop-Tarts to Giles, “can we get these?”

Giles gave Faith a long-suffering look and said, “Bloody hell, I’ve got two of them now.” Jen started laughing.

“What?” said Faith defensively.

Jen tried to speak through her laughter, waved a hand vaguely, and kept laughing.

“Ms. Calendar always tries to sneak Pop-Tarts in,” Oz explained, placing a few cans of soup into the shopping cart. “Last time she and Giles had a tug-of-war in the juice aisle.”

Faith looked at Giles, looked at Jen, and handed Giles five more boxes of Pop-Tarts.

“Stop that,” said Giles indignantly. “Jenny, stop laughing, this is your Slayer we’re talking about. You should be concerned about her eating habits.”

“I found the eggs, Giles!” Xander called, running up with four cartons in his arms.

Giles pressed his hands to his face. “They’re breakable.

Jen seemed to finally manage to stop laughing, took the Pop-Tart boxes from Giles, placed three in the cart, put the rest back, and said, “Xander, really, you’ve got to be more careful with the eggs.”

“We’re keeping three?” said Faith with satisfaction.

“Oh, completely,” Jen agreed. “Okay. How much stuff do we have that’s actually on the shopping list?”

“Fruit,” said Buffy cheerfully, placing a box of raspberries carefully on top of one of the remaining Pop-Tart boxes. “And I’m pretty sure Willow’s off getting baking chocolate.”

“Where’s Cordelia?” Xander asked, looking around with genuine surprise. Jen took the eggs from him.

Buffy frowned. “You know, I’m actually not sure.”

“Hey, Giles, do we need Easter Peeps for whatever it is we’re doing right now?” Cordelia asked, hurrying up to the group with a large bag of brightly colored marshmallow chicks.

“It’s my first round of shopping for our holiday dinner in December,” said Giles exasperatedly, “and I made sure to tell you all that in the car, and no, we already have Pop-Tarts. That’s enough artificially flavored garbage to—”

“Aww, Easter Peeps!” Jen hurried past Giles, taking the bag from Cordelia. “I don’t care that we’re winter-solstice shopping, those never go out of season.”

“For the love of—” Giles stepped forward, trying to tug the bag away from Jen.

“I’m sorry, tug-of-war? Are we five?” Jen said with mock indignance, and stepped on Giles’s foot, taking this opportunity to pull the bag of Easter Peeps away from him and collide with a shelf of cat food.

“This is great,” said Xander to Willow. “I wish my parents fought over Easter Peeps in the middle of a grocery store.”

“No. No, you don’t. Stop encouraging her.” Giles took the bag of Easter Peeps from Jen and handed it back to Cordelia. “I am trying to draw some kind of line.”

“What if I said they were for me?” Jen inquired.

“And me,” said Faith hopefully.

“Oooh, Easter Peeps!” said Buffy with interest.

Jen smiled a little wryly. “Fine,” she said, “I see your point. No Easter Peeps.”

“Communication is an important part of a healthy relationship,” Willow teased.

Faith gave Jen a brief grin before taking a look at her copy of the shopping list. No one had gotten the frozen peas for Giles’s chicken pot pie yet, so she decided to go and get those. “Be right back,” she told the group, and headed into the frozen section.

To her surprise, she saw that pretty blonde physics teacher from school crying directly in front of the frozen peas. Great. Now Faith was going to have to walk past her to get the peas, and there was going to be an inevitable awkward moment whether or not the physics teacher recognized her. Trying to decide how best to play this one, Faith hovered nonchalantly by the aisle.

A short woman with caramel-colored hair came up to the physics teacher. “I’ve found the cupcake mix,” she announced. “We can do some angry-vengeance baking together now.” She hesitated, looking at the teacher. “You feeling a little better?” she asked sympathetically.

Relieved, Faith took a step forward. Maybe now they’d leave.

“Oh, yeah, crying in a grocery store does wonders for morale,” sniffled the teacher. “I’m pretty sure I already saw five people I know here, and two of them are faculty members.”

“Come on.” The other woman patted the teacher awkwardly on the shoulder. “Buck up. We can go get some hot chocolate and talk about—”

God, I wish no one could see me like this!” the teacher burst out. “Or—or even hear me!”

Faith was just about to decide that the frozen peas were definitely not worth watching this mortifying spectacle and leave, but then the other woman’s face—changed. It wasn’t exactly horrifying, but it was definitely not human. “Done,” said the woman, and suddenly the pretty physics teacher was gone.

“Hey!” Faith shouted. The woman turned, her face still creepy and very demon-y. “What the hell did you do to her?”

Behind her, she felt a hand on her shoulder. “Faith,” said Jen a little reprovingly, and then, upon seeing the demon, “Oh. Wow. Okay.”

Without a word, the demon vanished.

“Oh, wow, that’s reassuring,” said Jen, her grip tight on Faith’s shoulder. “Did she—you’re okay, right?”

“What?” Faith looked over at Jen. “No, I’m fine. I’m more worried about the other lady.”

“The other who now?” Willow inquired from next to Jen.

Buffy sprinted into the aisle, fists up. “What’s going on?” she demanded.

“Faith’s shouting at nobody in a grocery aisle,” said Cordelia, strolling over to stand next to Buffy.

“Not nobody,” said Faith indignantly.

“Yeah, there was a creepy demon lady who disappeared a few seconds after I showed up,” Jen added helpfully.

And the physics teacher,” Faith put in.

Giles frowned, rolling the shopping cart up to the group. “The physics teacher?”

“Shit,” said Faith. “Uh, I don’t remember her name. Blonde lady, really pretty. Lots of crying.”

Jen’s eyes widened. “Ms. Emerson?”

“Yeah!” Faith beamed at Jen. “That sounds familiar. Ms. Emerson—why do you look so worried?”

“No, it’s just—” Jen waved a hand. “Some substitute teacher was asking me about Ms. Emerson a few days back.”

“Substitute teacher?” Xander repeated warily.

“Ooh, yeah.” Willow winced. “Substitute teachers do tend to be a little weird in this town. Remember that one who was a praying mantis?”

“Awesome,” said Jen exhaustedly. “I turned on a demon teacher’s computer.”

“Is that a euphemism?” Xander asked.

So not the time,” said Cordelia pointedly.

“Let’s not jump to any unwarranted conclusions,” interrupted Giles. “Faith, what happened to Ms. Emerson?”

“Well,” said Faith slowly, “she was crying about something with her friend, and she was all I wish no one could see me like this, and then the friend turned into that demon and Ms. Emerson disappeared.”

“No one can see her,” said Giles slowly. “Perhaps—”

“—her friend took that one literally,” Jen finished. “Where was Ms. Emerson?”

“In front of the frozen peas,” said Faith. “Why?”

Jen stepped forward, giving a worried-looking Giles a reassuring smile. Carefully, she walked towards the frozen peas, reaching out in front of her. “Ms. Emerson?” she said carefully. “Are you there?”

“Oh, right,” Faith added hastily. “Ms. Emerson also said something about how she didn’t want anyone to hear her.”

Jen yelped and tripped over something, grabbing at something else to hold her steady. “Hey, Rupert?” she called. “Can you come over here for a second?” She shifted to a kneeling position on the floor, placing her hand on thin air. “Hi,” she said. “Okay. Just—hold on to me, all right? We’re going to try and fix this.”

“Ah,” said Giles weakly. “She’s found Ms. Emerson.”

“So I’m guessing we save shopping for a later date?” Xander inquired uncertainly.


 

Willow carried a grocery bag in, handing it off to Faith when she entered the kitchen. Buffy and Faith were putting the groceries away, Giles was making pasta, and everyone else was clustered awkwardly around Ms. Calendar and Ms. Emerson at the kitchen table.

“Hey,” said Ms. Calendar with a tired grin. “Thanks for finishing up the shopping.”

“No problem!” Willow smiled back. “How’s Ms. Emerson doing?”

“Pretty well, considering that this is her first contact with the supernatural world,” Ms. Calendar replied, pointing to the pen and paper in front of Ms. Emerson. “She’s been communicating with us via more traditional means. Turns out that the substitute history teacher is some kind of weird demon lady, because she’s the person who Faith saw with Charlotte.”

“Charlotte?” Xander repeated.

“Ms. Emerson,” Ms. Calendar explained, glancing over at the empty chair next to her. “She and Anya have been pretty close for the last few days. Apparently, Anya’s provided something of a listening ear through some hard times.”

“Someday,” said Giles, placing a stack of plates down on the table, “Snyder will get what’s coming to him for all these bloody demons he keeps putting on staff.”

“Oh, no, I think the praying mantis was actually thanks to Flutie,” said Ms. Calendar thoughtfully. “Also, I really want to hear more about that tape Buffy said you made on proper filing.”

Ms. Emerson tapped the pen pointedly against the table.

“So how exactly do we fix this?” Cordelia asked. “Anya’s vanished into thin air, and we don’t know if she’s coming back any time soon.”

“Before we figure out how to help Ms. Emerson, don’t we need to figure out why Anya came here in the first place?” said Oz thoughtfully.

All eyes turned to him. “What do you mean?” said Willow, surprised.

Oz smiled at her. “Well,” he said, “if we know why Anya decided to grant Ms. Emerson’s wish, we’ll know why she was there for Ms. Emerson to begin with. And if we know that, we’ll know how to get her to come back.”

“That is a really good point,” said Ms. Calendar, jumping up from her chair and crossing the room to Giles. “Rupert, put someone else on dinner duty. You and I need to get into research mode.” Without waiting for Giles’s answer, she grabbed his arm, pulling him into the other room. Over her shoulder, she called, “If anyone wants to ask Ms. Emerson any useful questions, definitely do that too, okay?”

“I think you should cover that, Will,” said Xander, nudging her gently.

“Yeah, Willow,” said Faith in what was a surprisingly genuine tone of voice. “You’re a smart chick. Go for it.”

Quietly, Willow slid into Ms. Calendar’s seat, feeling a little weird to just be looking at an empty chair. “Um, hi,” she said.

The pen moved. On the paper, Ms. Emerson’s neat cursive spelled out hello.

Willow tried to think of a useful question she could ask. “So, um, how did you meet Anya?” she asked carefully.

She was in the staff room at the same time I was, Ms. Emerson wrote. She made me a cup of coffee.

“Hey,” said Faith suddenly. “Was there anything weird about Anya?”

“Well, duh, she can turn people invisible,” said Cordelia, examining her nails.

“That’s not what she means,” Willow realized aloud. “Ms. Emerson,” she continued, “was there anything distinctive you noticed about Anya? Like, a birthmark, a scar, some weird piece of jewelry—”

The pen began to scribble very fast.

“Bingo,” said Faith, beaming at Willow.

Willow peered over at the piece of paper. Anya gave me a necklace to wear, it read. She said it was a good-luck charm. I don’t have it on me anymore—I think it disappeared along with her. Is it possible that this necklace could be linked to her somehow?

“All right, someone go tell Giles and Ms. Calendar about this,” Willow instructed the room. “Ms. Emerson, can you draw what the necklace looks like? Just a rough approximation should be fine.”

“Ooh, you’ve got the leader thing down pat,” Buffy teased gently, pausing by the table to smile at Willow. “I’ll finish up that pasta for everyone.”