Disclaimer: All of the materials borrowed from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel belong to Joss Whedon and to the entities and companies associated with their creation. I have borrowed them for creative and entertainment purposes only. No compensation has been or ever shall be received for the writing below. No copyright infringement is intended.
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Cyber Lair: http://www.dragonwriter17.net/
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Feedback: Yes, but only if it's of the non-flamey variety.
Spoilers: The end of Season 4's "Wild At Heart" and beyond.
Author's Notes: I have kept to the BtVS/Angel canon in some ways, borrowing directly from aired episodes; however, I have also made significant changes: deleting certain storylines, moving some, changing others, as well as adding some completely original plots.
Summary: After Oz leaves Sunnydale, Willow turns to best friend, Buffy, and new friend, Tara, for comfort, resulting in a remarkable new relationship for all three. Amidst the daily dangers of life on the Hellmouth, the three women forge bravely ahead, unaware that their relationship has been predestined.
Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5
Giles and Buffy sat in Giles' apartment as Buffy related the previous night's events: how Veruca had attacked Willow, how Oz had killed Veruca and then rushed Willow, how Buffy had been delayed by some kind of commando in the woods.
"Well, this fellow in the woods," Giles asked, "he was in military garb?"
"Yes," Buffy replied. "And he was toting some serious weaponry. The thing is, I saw some guys dressed exactly like him on Halloween night. I just assumed they were in costume. But maybe they were working. I wanna know what's up. The guy got in my way. I almost didn't catch up with Oz in time. And as it was, I was too late to � "
"You saved Willow," Giles reminded Buffy.
"Right now she wishes I hadn't. Giles, I've never seen her like this. It's like it hurts too much to form words."
"You've...you've felt that way yourself, and you got through it," Giles pointed out.
"Yeah. I ran away and went to hell and then got through it," Buffy said disgustedly. "I'm kind of hoping she doesn't use me as a model."
"Fair enough," Giles conceded.
"I just don't know how they're gonna deal with this," Buffy said sadly.
"They'll manage. And we'll be there to help them," Giles said reassuringly. "I�um�I don't want to add to your burdens, Buffy," Giles said, removing his glasses in his typical worry gesture. "But�ummm�I think you should know that I've gotten reports that�well � "
"Come on, Giles, spit it out," Buffy prodded.
"That Spike is back in town," Giles stated.
Buffy rolled her eyes in annoyance. "Great. Just what I need, a big bothersome bleach-blonde burden." Buffy closed her eyes and shook her head. Then she looked at Giles. "I don't have time for him right now. I need to get back to the room, for when Willow comes back."
"Where is she now?" Giles asked.
"She went to see Oz," Buffy said worriedly.
"Oh," Giles said, nodding, understanding Buffy's worry.
Buffy rose from her seat. Giles stood and gave Buffy's shoulder a good squeeze. Then Buffy left the apartment.
Buffy paced nervously around the dorm room she shared with Willow. For the umpteenth time, she replayed the previous day's events in her mind. She always ended up at the same place: a distraught and sobbing Willow collapsed on the science lab floor.
Oz, I swear to God I wanna kill you! Buffy thought to herself as she slammed her fist into the wall. Buffy blinked and looked at her hand embedded in the wall. Damn! There goes that deposit. Buffy pulled her out hand and examined it. It was fine. Sometimes being the Slayer did have its advantages. Buffy's perusal of her fist was interrupted by the sound of the door opening. Buffy turned quickly to face her roommate.
Buffy's heart stopped when she saw Willow enter the room. Willow's shoulders were slumped in utter defeat. Her eyes were red from crying. She stood nearly motionless as she met Buffy's eyes.
"Oz is gone," Willow said simply.
"What do you mean, he's gone?" Buffy asked.
"He left me, Buffy, he's gone." Willow barely got out the last word before the sobs hit her. She wrapped her arms about her chest and sank to the floor.
Buffy was instantly at Willow's side. She pulled Willow into her arms and held her tightly as the redhead cried her heart out. Buffy stroked Willow's hair, trying to comfort her.
"Oh, Will, I'm so sorry," Buffy whispered.
After a while, Willow's tears stopped, and she was able to sit up. She didn't meet Buffy's eyes. A few snivels made their final exit, and Willow was able to breathe normally. She looked at Buffy and smiled weakly in gratitude.
"Thanks," Willow said before quickly dropping her gaze again.
Willow felt Buffy push the hair out of her face. Then she felt Buffy cup her cheek and wipe away the tears with her thumb. Willow lifted her eyes to Buffy's. She saw the unconditional love and support that was there; it brought new tears to her eyes.
"It'll be okay, I promise," Buffy said. "Not today, and not tomorrow, maybe not even next month. But one day it will be. And until then, I'll be right here for you."
Willow pulled Buffy into a strong hug.
"Oh god, I am so lucky to have you as a friend," Willow cried, hugging Buffy even tighter. "I love you so much!"
"I love you, too," Buffy said, as she hugged Willow back, closing her eyes and nuzzling her nose into Willow's hair. This feels so good, I love the way her hair smells, Buffy mused before clamping down on her inappropriate thoughts and turning her attention to caring for Willow. Buffy pulled out of the hug and held Willow's arms.
"I think the best thing for you right now is to get some rest," Buffy stated in a motherly tone, "so it's bed time for you. I'll even tuck you in."
Willow nodded solemnly. Then Buffy helped Willow to her feet. Willow went to her chest of drawers and pulled out her pink pajamas. She took off her shoes and started to pull off her shirt, but then she abruptly stopped and turned to Buffy.
"Buffy!" Willow said, so suddenly that she startled her roommate.
"What?" Buffy said, jumping slightly.
"Sorry. I�I�never mind," Willow said, turning away again.
Buffy moved closer and touched Willow's shoulder.
"Will, what is it?" Buffy said softly.
"I�I don't want to sleep alone," Willow whispered.
Buffy squeezed Willow's shoulder and then walked around to stand in front of Willow. She lifted Willow's chin, forcing Willow to look at her.
"You don't have to," Buffy said firmly. "Just let me change, and I'll be right over."
"Okay," Willow said.
Buffy returned to her side of the room. She dug her sushi pajamas out of the drawer. Then she pulled off her shoes and clothes and put on her pajamas. As she changed, she watched Willow as she donned her pink pajamas. She looks so cute in those, Buffy thought, smiling involuntarily. Then she chastised herself. Stop it! What is the matter with you?
When Buffy looked up from her musing, she found Willow already in bed, looking at her with a nervous and vulnerable curiosity. Buffy cleared her throat and turned off all the lights. Then she came to Willow's bed and slipped in beside her.
"Come here, you," Buffy said teasingly as she invited Willow into her arms.
Willow gladly obliged, snuggling into a comfortable position with her head on Buffy's chest and her arm wrapped around Buffy's waist. Buffy put one hand on Willow's arm and used the other to stroke Willow's hair.
"Better?" Buffy asked.
"Much," Willow answered.
Buffy could feel Willow's hand on her stomach, just inches below her breasts. She imagined what it would be like if Willow just happened to move her hand up and just accidentally started tweaking her nipples. Buffy felt her heart start to race.
"Boy, your heart's goin' ninety miles an hour in there," Willow stated. "Is it always like that?"
Oh, god, I am so busted, Buffy thought. "Yeah, it is," she lied. "It's a Slayer thing. A super heroine's gotta have a super heart, right?"
"Hmmm. I had no idea. I learned something new about you today," Willow said, pleased with this tidbit of information about her roommate and best friend. She leaned up for a moment to look at Buffy. "I wonder what else I'll learn about you this year?"
"Ohhh, there's sooo�little left to learn about me. You already know everything there is," Buffy said nervously.
"Yeah, right," Willow replied, putting her head back down and snuggling back into place.
The two women were silent for a moment, both of them staring off into space, eyes wide open, sleep the farthest thing from their minds.
"Buffy?" Willow said softly.
"Yeah?" Buffy answered.
Xander sat in Giles' living room, perusing a book while Giles worked on his sketch. Giles made a few more marks on his drawing of the mystery commando Buffy had seen while rushing to save Willow.
"Well, based on Buffy's description," Giles said, "I believe the men that we're after look something like, ummm...like this." Giles held up the drawing for Xander to see.
"The latest in fall fascism," Xander joked. "I like it. A bit full in the hips for my taste, but � "
"I think we can safely assume they're human, so, um, no research needed," Giles said, clearly disappointed.
"No studying? Damn!" Xander said, slamming his book shut. "Next thing they'll tell me is I'll have to eat jelly doughnuts or sleep with a supermodel to get things done around here. I ask you, how much can one man give?"
"Not too much, I'm afraid. Ummm�once again I'd say that you and I will not be needed to help Buffy."
"Really?" Xander asked in disappointment.
"Well, how about this?" Xander said slyly. "We whip out the Ouija board, light a few candles, summon some ancient, unstoppable evil. Mayhem, mayhem, mayhem. Then we show up and kick its ass."
At that moment, Buffy walked into Giles' apartment.
"Wee bit unethical," Giles said quickly to Xander before Buffy made her way over.
"Hello, people!" Buffy said as she came to stand beside Giles. He held the drawing up for Buffy to see. She looked closely at the sketch. "Look, it's my late-night storm-trooper pal," Buffy said.
"It's � it's just for reference, you know, but fairly accurate you'd say?" Giles asked.
"That's your man," Buffy assured Giles.
"Your man, actually," Giles corrected. "You are patrolling tonight, yes?"
"Nope, I am going to a party tonight," Buffy replied. "Hopefully, a no-fighting, no-biting kind of deal."
"Buffy, somebody's got to find out who these people are," Giles warned. "And there's Spike to consider."
"Giles, I live in a dorm now, and the girls in my hall want to party," Buffy insisted. "Besides, Willow needs some cheering up, so I'm going to take her."
"How's Will dealing with � " Xander started to ask.
"With the black hole of despair she's been living in since Oz left?" Buffy finished for him. "She's dealing. I'm helping. It's hard. Ergo, party. You two can take patrol. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go find something slutty to wear tonight."
Professor Walsh's psychology class had just ended, but Buffy was still warring with her ballpoint pen. Ink covered her hands and her notebook.
"Stupid pen," Buffy mumbled before noticing that her notes were now covered with black smudges. "My notes!"
Willow shook her head in a tsk-tsk-like manner.
"Bargain ballpoints can be tricky," Willow teased, a smile touching her lips for a moment before disappearing into a frown.
Buffy and Willow collected their things and made their way down the lectorium stairs. Instead of exiting the classroom, Willow went up to Professor Walsh's teaching assistant, Riley.
"Riley, I noticed you left off a name today in roll call. Osbourne, Daniel Osbourne, Oz?" Willow said nervously.
"He's not in this class anymore. I hear he dropped out," Riley responded matter-of-factly.
"Oh, well, you heard way wrong then," Willow said. "I mean, he's not gone. H-H-He left temporarily to work out a few things. I know that sounds lame in its vagueness, but I assure you, Oz will be back."
"Not to my class, he won't," Professor Walsh interjected. "An educated guess. You know the rules, you know I hate exceptions, and yet somehow you feel your exception is exceptional."
"Oh, but � " Willow said, trying to explain.
"It is. To you," Walsh continued, cutting Willow off. "But since I'm neither a freshman nor a narcissist, I have to consider the whole class. If your friend can't respect my schedule, I think it's best he not come back."
Willow was crushed by Professor Walsh's speech. It was just one more nail in the coffin, one more reality check that said, Oz isn't coming back. Willow didn't say another word, but simply walked off.
Buffy couldn't believe what she had just seen. That Walsh woman was a monster, a cold-hearted, unfeeling monster. And Buffy knew how to deal with monsters. She walked straight up to her professor and confronted her.
"You know, for someone who teaches human behavior, you might try showing some," Buffy said hotly.
"It's not my job to coddle my students," Walsh countered.
"You're right. A human being in pain has nothing to do with your job!" Buffy said before stomping out of the room.
Riley looked on in shock, but Professor Walsh merely lifted her eyebrows, unfazed.
"I like her," Walsh stated.
"Really?" Riley asked. "You don't think she's a little peculiar?"
Xander added another stack to his growing pile of military gear that sat on the table in his basement apartment. Giles poked curiously through the stack.
"Here we go," Xander said, picking up a pistol. "Gear for tonight. If some commando squads are out there, fully loaded, these babies might give us the edge we'll need."
"That's a very impressive array. Where'd it all come from?" Giles asked.
Xander was attempting to open the chamber of the pistol, but wasn't having much luck. "Uh, I requisitioned it. Back when I was military guy."
"That was two years ago. You still a hundred percent?" Giles queried.
"Are you kidding?" Xander replied, still struggling with the pistol. "I put the 'semper' in 'semper fi.' I might not be able to assemble an M-16 blindfolded like I used to or pass weapons drill from the mobile infantry � "
Giles grabbed the pistol from Xander and opened it easily.
"Might as well face it," Xander said sadly, "Right now, I don't have the technical skills to join the Swiss army. And all those guys ask you to do is uncork a couple of sassy cabernets."
"Well, I'm sure you'll be ready when the time comes," Giles responded.
"Oh, fear not. Hand to hand? I'm still the man. Whoever these guys trained with, I'm sure they're not ready to deal with � "
Xander froze momentarily at the sound of his mother's voice calling from upstairs. Then he answered. "Yes, mom?"
"I made up a nice fruit punch for you and your friend," Mrs. Harris called. "Would you boys like some?"
Giles looked up, his interest now piqued. He called up to Xander's mother, "Is it, uhhh, raspberry fruit punch?"
Buffy hurried out of the building and then stood on the steps. She scanned the campus grounds until she saw the familiar red hair of her best friend. Buffy dashed in her direction. Moments later, Buffy caught up to Willow.
"Willow! Wait up!" Buffy called out as she made the last few steps to Willow's side.
Buffy grabbed Willow's arm and forced her to stop. Then she moved to stand in front of Willow.
"I'm okay, Buffy," Willow said in a slightly annoyed tone.
Willow didn't look up, but just stared at her feet. Buffy lifted Willow's chin. Tears were coming down Willow's face.
"You don't look okay to me. Why don't we go back to the room and talk?" Buffy offered.
Willow wanted so much to accept Buffy's offer. She longed to let Buffy hold her as she had done before. She wanted to feel those strong Slayer arms wrapped around her. But she couldn't. She pulled away from Buffy's touch.
"Buffy, I know you have class now. I'm just going to go back to the room and lie down for a while. Okay?"
Buffy tried to hide her disappointment and her hurt at Willow's brush-off. She stepped away.
"Okay. I guess I'll see you later then, huh?" Buffy said.
Willow nodded and then moved past Buffy to continue making her way toward Stevenson Hall.
Buffy watched with concern as Willow strode off for their dorm room.
Willow lay on her bed, her face creased with a frown. Depressing music oozed out of the stereo, making her melancholy even worse.
Damn you, Oz! How could you do this to me? Willow thought to herself. Willow pulled her green afghan from the end of the bed and wrapped it around her legs. She grabbed a nearby throw pillow and hugged it to her chest, trying not to cry. I mean, you screw around with Veruca, and then you just up and leave. Like we couldn't've worked this out. How could you abandon me like this?
A knock on the door interrupted Willow's internal tirade at Oz.
"Come in," Willow called to the door.
Riley opened the door and walked in. Willow was not happy with this development. Riley was the last person she wanted to see right now. No, actually, Professor Walsh might be the last person. Riley would have to settle to for next to last.
"Oh. Riley. Hi," Willow said with no enthusiasm.
Riley took in the sight before him: a clearly upset Willow, wallowing in her own depression. He decided to try and lighten the mood.
"Hi. Gee, I hope I'm not interrupting anything really depressing," Riley joked.
Willow wasn't in the mood for joking. She punched the button on the stereo. "What's up?" Willow asked, even though she was thinking, What do you want?
"Right to the point," Riley said, looking nervous as he sat near Willow. "Okay. I was thinking of asking out Buffy."
God, what a doofus, Willow thought. If you want to ask out Buffy, then why are you here with me? "She's not here," Willow said, pointedly stating the obvious.
"I know," Riley explained. "See, I don't know that much about Buffy. But I'm interested in what she likes, and so far, well, the only thing that I know she likes is you."
"W-W-What do you want me to do?" Willow asked.
"Just tell me something. Anything. Just give me something that will start us talking, you know?" Riley suggested. "I'm thinking that 'how about them Broncos' won't really cut it."
Willow eyed Riley with suspicion. "Ok, say that I help, and you start a conversation. It goes great. You like Buffy, she likes you. You spend time together, feelings grow deeper, and one day, without even realizing it, you find you're in love. Time stops. And it feels like the whole world's made for you two, and you two alone. Until the day one of you leaves and rips the still-beating heart from the other, who's now a broken, hollow, mockery of the human condition."
"Yep, that's the plan," Riley agreed glibly.
"I figured it was," Willow said, vindicated in her suspicion.
"Look, if you want to tell me to go to hell, that's okay," Riley said. "Maybe this is the last thing you want to talk about. I just feel that, well, I've never courted anyone like Buffy before. I don't think I've ever met anyone like Buffy before."
"Why should I trust you?" Willow asked.
"I was just sort of hoping you'd think I have an honest face," Riley said, putting on an innocent smile.
"I've seen honest faces before. They usually come attached to liars," Willow stated.
"All right. I guess I'm not gonna win, here. And I appreciate you wanting to protect your friend," Riley said as he got up to leave.
"She likes cheese," Willow said suddenly.
"What?" Riley asked, confused.
"Well, I'm not saying it's the key to her heart," Willow explained. "But Buffy�she likes cheese."
"That's a start," Riley said, hoping he sounded appreciative.
"She has a stuffed piggy named Mr. Gordo, she loves Ice Capades without the irony, and she's dragging me to this party tonight at Lowell House."
"Oh, you're going? That's my house. I live there," Riley said, excited about the prospect of seeing Buffy there.
"Well, it'll give you a chance to interact," Willow admitted. Then she added a warning: "But don't get fresh!"
"Fresh? I don't even know if we like each other yet," Riley said. Then he asked, "Hey, does Buffy ever talk about me? Like, has she ever said..."
"Sorry," Willow replied, shaking her head.
"That's discouraging. Still, I feel like I have a fighting chance with my new accomplice."
"I'm not your accomplice," Willow said firmly.
"No, no. Of course not," Riley said, backing toward the door.
"I'm not," Willow insisted.
"You're not," Riley agreed.
"Are we clear?" Willow prodded.
"We're clear," Riley responded as he slipped out of the room and shut the door.
With Riley gone, Willow was alone again. Her conversation with him had unnerved her. She had a bad feeling about all of this. Not bad in the sense of impending doom, but bad as in, This isn't right.
Willow wondered why she felt this way. Riley seemed like a nice enough guy, but so had Parker, and look how he turned out. Above all, Willow didn't want to see Buffy hurt. But she also didn't want her own situation with Oz making her unfairly biased against Riley. Riley might be just what Buffy needed.
Willow felt a sharp pain hit her heart. Why does that thought hurt so much? Willow asked herself.
Giles and Xander staked out a patch in the woods, watching for Spike and other ne'er-do-wells. Xander scanned their surroundings with his binoculars.
"Every man faces this moment," Xander said in a low and dramatic narrative voice. "Here. Now. Watching. Waiting for an unseen enemy that has no face. Nerve endings screaming in silence. Never knowing which thought might be your last."
Giles looked at Xander with irritation. "Oh, shut up!"
Buffy and Willow entered Lowell House, where the party was already in full swing. Buffy looked around the room to scope out the place.
"Looks cool," Buffy said hopefully.
"Uh-huh," Willow replied unenthusiastically.
"Look, we could go," Buffy offered.
"No, no. We're here for fun," Willow insisted flatly.
Buffy looked across the room and saw some people she knew.
"Oh, look. Some of the guys are here already."
Willow didn't even look.
"I'm gonna grab a soda. I-I-I'll find you guys," Willow said.
Buffy looked at Willow. She knew Willow was acting strangely, but she couldn't see past the walls Willow had put up.
"Okay," Buffy said.
Willow left Buffy and sneaked over to where Riley was standing. Willow stood nearby facing away from Riley.
"Okay," Willow called over her shoulder in secret agent mode. "She's wearing the halter top with sensible shoes. That means mostly dancing, light contact. But don't push your luck. Heavy conversation's out of the question."
"So what do I do?" Riley asked worriedly.
"Ask her to dance."
"Right. Dance," Riley said as he started to move toward Buffy. Then he stopped dead in his tracks with a look of terror on his face. "Wait! No."
"What's the matter?" Willow asked as she turned toward Riley.
"I can't dance," he admitted.
"Then talk. Keep eye contact. Funny is good, but don't be glib," Willow said. Then she added: "And remember, if you hurt her, I will beat you to death with a shovel."
Riley looked at Willow in shock, while she simply returned his gaze. The girl clearly meant every word.
"A vague disclaimer is nobody's friend," Willow explained. Then she smiled and patted Riley on the shoulder. "Have fun!"
Riley took a deep breath and set his shoulders and headed straight for Buffy. She was standing in a small group. Riley made his way through the crowd until he was right next to her.
"Excuse me," Riley said. "Hi."
"Hi," Buffy replied.
Riley paused, completely lost. "Ummm�Buffy�You do the reading on Chapter 9?"
Buffy looked at Riley like he was crazy for bringing up homework at a party. "Uh-huh," she answered.
"Wow. Some theories, huh?" he said. When Buffy didn't jump on the topic, Riley held up a cube of cheddar on a toothpick. "Cheese?"
Riley sat, dejected, next to Willow, who looked equally down.
"I can't believe it. I choked," Riley said disgustedly.
"You really, really did," Willow agreed.
"You don't understand," Riley said. "I'm good at things. That's what I do. Work hard, apply myself, get it done."
"Well, you failed extremely well," Willow said encouragingly.
"That's a great comfort to me," Riley said as his eyes fell on Buffy across the room, dancing with another guy.
"You need to relax," Willow suggested. "I mean, you're not proposing. You're just making contact, getting a reaction. Any reaction is okay, well, except projectile vomiting. But, what are the chances of that � "
Willow stopped mid-sentence as the party music changed to a 'Dingoes Ate My Baby' song. Willow's face fell. She looked close to tears.
"Are you okay?" Riley asked with clear concern.
"This song�" Willow whispered.
"Oh, yeah, it's a tape of some bands from last year's party. Associations?"
"Big," Willow admitted.
"Bad?" Riley asked.
When Willow nodded, Riley turned to the D.J. and gestured for him to cut the song. The D.J. complied, and the crowd mumbled in complaint, but only until the next song came on.
"Thank you," Willow said as she rose from the couch. "Now go find Buffy," she ordered.
"There's no hurry," Riley said gently as he got up, "I mean, if you want to talk."
"No, I�I want you to find Buffy and tell her that I went home and not to worry about me," Willow said firmly. Then she shrugged her shoulders. "That will at least give you something to say."
"Thanks," Riley said sincerely.
Willow watched as Riley slowly made his way across the room toward Buffy. Willow sighed and frowned and then walked out of the party.
Riley put his hand on Buffy's shoulder to get her attention.
"Hey," Buffy said.
"Hey. I�ummm�I wanted to ask you something," Riley said.
"Ask away," Buffy replied.
"Oh, wait, before I forget, Willow said to say that she took off � "
"What? You let her leave?" Buffy demanded. "By herself?"
"Well�ummm�yeah," Riley stammered. "I mean, she seemed fine. Kind of blue, but otherwise okay. She said not to worry."
"Of course, she said not to worry. She said not to worry because she didn't want us to worry," Buffy stated plainly.
Riley, however, stayed clueless.
Buffy rolled her eyes. "Because she knew there was something to worry about," Buffy explained. "And you call yourself a psychology major!"
Buffy pushed past Riley and headed for the front door of Lowell House.
Buffy ran along the sidewalk towards Stevenson. About halfway there in a secluded grove of trees, Buffy stopped suddenly, directed by her Slayer senses to do so. She felt the hair on the back of her neck stand up. She looked around and settled on a large tree to her left.
"I know you're there. Come on out," Buffy warned. "Come on out, or I'll come get you and drag you out by your � "
"Now, now, Slayer," Spike said, his voice trickling from the darkness. "I don't think you ought to be throwing threats around."
Spike stepped from behind the tree. He held Willow tightly in his grip, his hand covering her mouth.
"Not when I've got Red here," Spike said menacingly.
Buffy's expression changed from annoyance to alarm as she saw her best friend in Spike's clutches. There was blood on Willow's neck, and terror was in her eyes. With one look, she begged Buffy to save her. Buffy turned her attention back to Spike.
"Let her go, Spike. This is between you and me. Leave her out of it!" Buffy warned.
"Damn right it's between you and me! I just took Red here to get your attention."
"You've got my attention," Buffy said calmly. "Now let her go."
"Okay," Spike said, shrugging his shoulders in apparent compliance.
But instead of releasing Willow, Spike picked her up and threw her violently into the side of the tree. Willow hit the tree hard and crumpled to the ground, unconscious.
"Willow!" Buffy screamed as she saw her best friend go down.
Spike took advantage of Buffy's change in attention and rushed her, tackling her to the ground. Buffy kicked Spike off and rolled to her feet. Soon they were in a flurry of punches, jumps, and kicks, and hits, blocks, and misses. After a particularly tricky tangle, Spike pushed Buffy away. Somehow, Buffy came away with his pack of cigarettes. She paused and looked at the pack in her hand.
"Give me those!" Spike yelled when he saw Buffy holding his cigarettes.
"You know I'm glad these can't kill you," she said as she crumpled the package and threw it to the ground, "because I wanna be the one to do that!"
They flew into the fight again, Vampire and Slayer going full tilt. Suddenly, Spike got in a good hit and sent Buffy flying into a nearby park bench. She hit the bench hard, her ribs cracking from the blow. Before she could recover, Spike was on top of her, straddling her, holding down her arms. When Buffy tried to struggle, he just laughed. Buffy looked truly afraid.
"Finally got you right where I want you," Spike taunted, as he morphed into vampire face. "And you know what? As soon as I'm done with you, I'm gonna finish what I started with Red over there. I think she'll look great in fangs."
Spike roared and dove for Buffy's neck � only to have his head suddenly snapped back by Buffy's now-freed fist. Buffy quickly turned the tables and straddled Spike, punching him violently in the face over and over.
"You will not�touch Willow�ever!" Buffy yelled, punctuating each phrase with a punch.
With great effort, Spike managed to throw the maniacal Slayer off his body. Buffy was slow to get up. Spike took his chance and stumbled away, putting a safe distance between himself and Buffy.
"This isn't over, Slayer!" Spike bellowed. "I'll see you dead if it's the last thing I do!"
"Not if I see you first," Buffy mumbled as she watched Spike slip away.
Spike ran until he couldn't run any more. Then he stopped and roared in frustration. He turned and looked back in Buffy's direction, his eyes full of rage and hatred.
"You just wait, bitch," Spike said venomously. "When you least expect it, I'm gonna be there, and when I do�urggghhh�.gackkk!"
Spike's threat was cut off as electrodes embedded into his back, sending a massive shock through his body. He dropped to the ground, immobilized.
Green-clad commandoes inched out of the brush, training their weapons in Spike's direction. When they were sure he was neutralized, they dragged him away.
Buffy cringed in pain as her broken ribs made themselves known. She struggled to her feet and then stumbled to where Willow lay motionless beside the tree. Oh, god, Willow! Buffy thought frantically. She fell to her knees beside Willow.
"Willow?" Buffy said, touching Willow's arm gently. Willow didn't respond. Tears welled in Buffy's eyes, and her expression became desperate. "Willow!" she cried, this time grabbing Willow's arms and giving her a small shake.
When Willow's eyes began fluttering open, Buffy began to cry in earnest, this time with joy and not fear. She thanked all the gods and the powers-that-be and pulled Willow into a fierce hug.
Willow lay limply in Buffy's arms, not yet able to make her body obey her commands.
"Buffy?" Willow whispered weakly.
"Willow, thank god! Are you okay?" Buffy asked as she laid Willow back on the ground. She ran her fingers through Willow's hair to push it out of the way, carefully avoiding the new gash on her forehead. She cupped Willow's cheek. Willow leaned her face into Buffy's hand.
"I think so," Willow said, trying to sit up. She swayed a little until Buffy steadied her. "I'm kinda woozy."
"You've lost blood, and you hit your head pretty hard," Buffy said. "You've probably got a concussion. I need to get you to the hospital."
Buffy helped Willow to her feet. When Willow swayed again, Buffy wrapped her arm around her and held her up. A hiss of pain escaped Buffy's lips.
"Buffy, put me down. You're hurt," Willow insisted, trying unsuccessfully to pull away.
"I'll be fine. Slayer healing, remember?"
"But you're not fine now," Willow countered. "You can't carry me and yourself. Leave me here and go get help. I'll only slow you down."
"I am not leaving you here, Will. It isn't safe. Spike is still out there."
"But � "
"No. End of discussion." Buffy held Willow in front of her and looked into her eyes. "We'll go slow. We'll help each other. Together we'll make it."
Willow's eyes filled with tears, and she pulled Buffy into a hug. After a moment, she released Buffy, and the two women started limping away.
Buffy thanked the emergency room doctor when he finished wrapping her ribs. When he had gone, Buffy gingerly jumped down from her hospital bed. She put her shirt back on and left her room. She moved slowly down the hall and went into Willow's room. Buffy walked to Willow's bed and stood beside it.
Willow had a bandage on her forehead and another on her neck. A pulse monitor was attached to her finger; it beeped softly in the background. Willow's eyes were closed.
Buffy glanced down at Willow's free hand. She took it into her own and stroked it gently. Then she lifted her eyes to look at Willow's face.
"Thank god, you're all right, Will," Buffy whispered. "If anything ever happened to you�" Buffy didn't complete that sentence; she couldn't bear to think of it. She looked away for a moment before returning her gaze to Willow. "I love you," Buffy said softly.
Buffy had said those words to Willow many times, but this time was different, and she knew it. She wasn't sure when her friendship-love for Willow had turned into something else, but she was certain that it had. Now it was something so much more than friendship.
Oh, god, Buffy thought, as she released Willow's hand and turned away. What am I gonna do?
Nothing, that's what, her logical self replied. Willow isn't gay, in case you hadn't noticed. She's heartbroken over a guy, not a girl.
So was I once, Buffy countered. Until I met Faith.
And you see how well that all turned out, her logical self chided. You went from one impossible relationship with a killer to another one. So, don't do it. Don't�or you'll ruin your friendship.
You're right, Buffy reluctantly agreed. Then she nodded her head firmly to seal the deal.
She turned back around and returned to Willow's bedside. She once again took Willow's hand in her own and began to stroke it, trying desperately but unsuccessfully to keep the tears from falling.
"So, Willow's gonna be okay?" Riley asked for the third time.
"Yes! She's going to be fine!" Buffy assured Riley. "Like I said before, it's just a concussion. A few days of bed rest, and she'll be back in the swing of things."
"I feel so guilty," Riley said. "I mean, I let her go, I let her leave the party. I should have known better, with all the vam � ah � very bad people out there."
"It's not your fault," Buffy countered. "Unfortunately, Sunnydale's full of�muggers�and like you say, very bad people. It was just Willow's unlucky day."
"I guess," Riley said.
"I'm sorry I kinda went off on you last night," Buffy said. "I was just worried about Willow. She's had a hard time lately."
"Oz?" Riley asked.
Buffy nodded. "He's her�He used to be her boyfriend. They had a bad breakup, and he pretty much bailed overnight."
"No wonder she was so upset," Riley said.
"Yeah," Buffy agreed.
Buffy looked at Riley intently. He seems really concerned about Willow, she thought. Maybe he's not so bad after all.
"Say, last night, at the party, you wanted to ask me something?" Buffy prompted.
"Oh yeah. Very important stuff," Riley said. "I don't remember any of it now. But you would have been fascinated, possibly even moved. Did Willow tell you I like cheese?
"You're a little peculiar," Buffy teased.
"I can live with that," Riley said, grinning.
Willow stood inside Oz's room and looked around. She walked to his bed and sat down. Then she noticed one of his t-shirts on the bed. She picked it up and lifted it to her face. She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. It still smells like him, she thought. She looked sadly about the room and held the t-shirt to her chest. Oz, I miss you, she thought.
Buffy walked into the UC Sunnydale Student Lounge, on a break between classes. She stopped when she spied Riley on a ladder helping a group of girls put up a lavender banner. He made one final adjustment and then flipped the banner over into place. Buffy smiled when she saw the wording: 'Lesbian Alliance.'
When Riley came down off the ladder, Buffy joined him.
"Oh, hey Buffy," Riley said, his eyes lighting up at the sight of her.
Buffy eyed Riley warily and said, "Is there something you want to tell me?
"What?" Riley asked, truly confused.
Buffy nodded at the banner and raised her eyebrows inquisitively. Riley followed her eyes.
"Oh," he said, realizing what Buffy was getting at. Then with mock sincerity, he said, "Yes, I am a lesbian."
"Well, it's good that you're so open about it," Buffy firmly agreed.
"Oh, hey, you know how we were talking about having a picnic?" Riley said as he went for his backpack in a nearby chair. "I was thinkin', do you ever hang out at Rhode's field? It's beautiful there. Usually not that crowded, either. I thought maybe we could have a little spread � some sandwiches, maybe some ants? It'll be fun."
"We were talking about having a picnic?" Buffy asked, trying to remember when they'd had this conversation.
"So, was that a conversation I actually had, or one I was just practicing?" Riley admitted.
Intrigued, Buffy asked, "Practicing?"
"Okay, yes. I have been known to do a little prep work before our conversations. It's not easy, you know, talking to you sometimes. It's like an oral exam."
"Boy, that's just what every girl longs to hear."
"Well, you're tricky!" Riley insisted.
"Like an exam?"
"I never know how you're going to react to something," Riley explained. "I guess that's why I like you so much. You're a mystery." Riley shook his head at his incredibly stupid line. "Probably every beautiful girl in the world has some jerk telling her she's a mystery, but I swear. You really are. There's a lot about you that needs puzzling out."
As Riley spoke, Buffy began to stare at him with wistful look in her eyes. Riley noticed Buffy staring.
"I lose you somewhere?" Riley asked.
"Right around�'beautiful,' " Buffy said, smiling.
Riley returned Buffy's smile, then blurted, "Hey, don't you just love a picnic?"
Buffy and Willow walked slowly along the road inside the cemetery, finishing one leg of their patrol for the night. So far, they'd seen no sign of Spike. Buffy was telling Willow about Riley's invitation to a picnic.
"It's just, different, you know?" Buffy said, with more than a little nervousness in her voice. "A picnic. First of all, daylight. Kind of a new venue, Buffywise." She looked down for a moment and then began again, this time with more enthusiasm. "And the best part, he said he would bring all the food, so all I have to do is show up and eat. Those are two things I'm really good at."
"So he's nice?" Willow asked, although she already knew he was.
"Very, very," Buffy said assuredly.
Willow looked away. She didn't want to ask the next question. Riley already had an A in the nice category, she thought, if there was chemistry too� Willow shook away the thought and forced the question out: "And there's sparkage?"
"Yeah, I mean, I think so. He's got�" Buffy struggled to think of an appropriate praise-worthy comment. "Have you seen his arms? Those are good arms to have."
"So, you like him?"
"Yeah, I guess I do," Buffy said. It wasn't a lie, she told herself. She did like him. She just didn't like-like him, not yet anyways. But she had to try. As much as Buffy wished otherwise, she knew that Willow was a dead-end. It was time for her to turn around and move on.
Willow could sense that Buffy wasn't completely comfortable with this new development. She decided to push a little more. "But�" she prompted.
"I don't know," Buffy whined. "I really like being around him, you know? And I think he cares about me. But, I just feel like something's missing."
"Like what?" Willow asked, gently.
Like he's not you, Buffy thought. Then she sighed and said, "Like he's not making me miserable? Riley seems so solid. Like he wouldn't cause me heartache."
She's right, Willow thought. Riley would be so good for her. No hopeless situation like she had with Angel. No jerk-wad user like Parker. No � Willow stopped that last thought before it went any further.
"Get out!" Willow joked, nudging Buffy with her elbow. "Get out while there's still time!"
"I know," Buffy said. "I have to get away from the boy thing, I mean, the bad boy thing. There's nothing but pain there."
"The pain is not a friend," Willow agreed.
"But I can't help thinking," Buffy added. "Isn't that where the fire comes from? Can a nice, safe relationship be that intense? I know it's nuts, but part of me believes that real love and passion have to go hand in hand with pain and fighting."
As if on cue, a vampire vaulted over a bush and landed in front of the two women. Buffy staked him nonchalantly, dusting him instantly.
Buffy and Willow resumed their walk as if nothing unusual had happened.
"I wonder where I get that from?" Buffy asked.
"Beats me," Willow answered in a dead-pan.
Willow sat on Giles' couch, pouring over a stack of books. Buffy stood nearby talking with Giles.
"Any sign of Spike last night?" Giles asked.
"Nope. Nary a hair off his bleachy-blonde head," Buffy answered.
"Maybe he wised up and left town for good," Willow offered hopefully.
Giles and Buffy both turned to Willow and looked at her with a yeah-right frown.
"Okay, maybe not. I can hope, can't I?" Willow said.
"We have got to find him, Giles," Buffy complained. "I can't stand this constant looking over my shoulder. I mean, I have to do that anyway, all the time, but now I have to do it extra. It's giving me neck cramps."
"He'll turn up, he always does," Giles said assuredly.
"Hmmm," Willow said, looking more intently at a particular passage in one of her books.
"What is it? Have you found something? A find-the-undead-creep spell perhaps?" Buffy asked as she and Giles joined Willow on the couch.
"Maybe. It's a special kind of locator spell," Willow explained. "It was used by the gypsies to find a person who had wronged the tribe and then disappeared."
Willow passed the book to Giles and pointed out the passage. Giles read the text that Willow had indicated.
"I-I-It looks pretty simple," Willow said. "We can probably get everything we need at the Magic Box."
"Good work, Will," Buffy said proudly.
"Hold on a moment," Giles interjected. "It says here that we'll need something that belongs to the wrong-doer. It won't work otherwise."
"Shoot!" Willow said. "I thought I had something."
"Wait!" Buffy interrupted. "Spike's cigarettes! W-W-When we were fighting, in the woods, he dropped them. If I can find them again�"
Buffy and Willow looked at Giles expectantly as he considered this new information.
"Yes, I think that will work," Giles announced. "Buffy, you look for Spike's cigarettes, and Willow, if you don't mind going by the Magic Box�"
Willow smiled, pleased to be helping out. "Like I'd mind going there!" Willow joked as she took the book from Giles. "I'll pick up what we need and be back in the morning with donuts and..." Willow looked down at the passage. "�motherwort! Among other things."
Willow closed the book, put it in her pack, and swung her bag over her shoulder. "Bye, Buffy! I'll see you at home. Bye, Giles!"
"Great! Thank you, Willow," Giles said.
"Bye!" Buffy called to Willow as she exited Giles' apartment. Then she turned back to Giles.
"Ummm, Willow may have had a very helpful idea," Giles said. "She seems to be coping better with Oz's departure, don't you think?"
"I don't know," Buffy said warily. "She's dealing, but she still has a way to go. Sometimes, she seems like her old self again. Other times, it's like she's hanging on by a thread. I'm still worried about her, Giles."
Willow walked into Oz's room, as she had every night since he had left, hoping he would somehow be there, but always being disappointed. More than disappointment awaited her this time. She found Oz's room cleared out, all of his stuff completely gone. She looked on in shock, then ran to find Oz's roommate, Devon.
Willow lay on her bed, crying, trying to tell Buffy what had happened. Buffy sat on the bed across, her own heart breaking at seeing Willow's pain.
"Devon said that he sent for his stuff," Willow explained in a choked voice. "I guess that means he's planning on settling down somewhere�else. Not here."
Buffy didn't know what to say. "I guess so," she said, lamely.
"I feel like I've been split down the center and half of me is lost," Willow said.
"I know. It feels like that now," Buffy said.
As if realizing it for the first time, Willow said in a strangled sob: "Oz is gone."
Willow's tears began to flow in earnest. Buffy leapt from her bed and pulled Willow into her arms. She held her sobbing friend, wishing that there was something she could do to ease her pain.
Giles paced about his apartment. Willow was more than an hour late for their appointment, and he knew that Willow was notoriously punctual. After considering his conversation with Buffy the night before, Giles became deeply concerned. He picked up the phone and dialed their dorm room.
When the call was answered, Giles heard Buffy's recorded voice: "This is Buffy and Willow. We're not in right now, so please leave a message."
When he heard the beep, Giles spoke into the phone: "Oh, uhhh, Willow. It's Giles. I�ummm�I thought you were coming by this morning, you know, to help me with the spell we discussed. I-I-I'll try and catch you later, then."
Giles hung up the phone, with a worried look on his face.
Buffy and Riley sat comfortably on a blanket at Rhode's field. Buffy was currently looking at Riley with disbelief.
"Driving?" Buffy asked incredulously.
"Yeah," Riley said certainly.
"You seriously drive for fun?" Buffy repeated.
"Well, not four-wheeling or anything, but yeah. Don't you?"
"Actually, no-wheeling is more my specialty. I'm an avid pedestrian."
"You're kidding, right? I mean, you know how to drive?"
"Well, I took the class. Cars and Buffy are, like, un-mixy things."
"It's just because you haven't had a good experience yet," Riley explained. "You can have the best time in a car. It's not about getting somewhere. You have to take your time." Riley's words slowed as he felt the energy between them shift. "Forget about everything. Just relax. Let it wash over you. The air�the motion. Just�let it roll."
Buffy was momentarily caught up in Riley's words and in the energy shift that came with them. But then she caught herself. "We are talking about driving, right?" she teased.
"I thought I was," Riley said, but realizing he had been anything but.
Buffy smiled, unable to prevent the pleasant lift she was getting from Riley's attentions. She didn't know if she and Riley would go anywhere relationship-wise, but it could be a nice diversion.
"I'm taking you," Riley said matter-of-factly. "Some night when it's warm. Up past the vineyards � it's going to change everything for you."
"I'm in," Buffy agreed.
Willow plodded slowly across Rhode's field. Her shoulders were slumped, and she clasped her hands loosely before her as she made her way toward her dorm. Her eyes were downcast. When she looked up, she saw Riley and Buffy in the distance. She started walking towards them.
When Willow got close, she stopped. She saw Buffy and Riley move closer and look into each other's eyes. She saw them smile and duck their heads shyly, only to quickly make eye contact again.
Willow's face creased into a deep frown. A tear rolled down her cheek. She changed direction and walked away.
What's the matter with me? Willow asked herself as she hurried towards her dorm. I should be happy for her! Just because I'm sad doesn't mean she has to be.
Buffy sat at a table with Anya and Xander at the Bronze. Buffy had just filled them in on the latest development in the Willow and Oz Saga.
"Geez, you mean Oz just sent for his stuff and didn't even call her? That's pretty harsh," Xander said.
"I only wish I had my powers back," Anya said firmly and quite sincerely. "I'd liquefy his entrails for her."
"That's sweet," Xander said to Anya before turning back to Buffy. "God, poor Will. No wonder she's � "
Xander's mouth dropped open as he caught a glimpse of Willow on the dance floor, seemingly having the time of her life.
" � having a wonderful time," Xander stated with confusion.
Buffy turned to see what Xander was looking at. There was Willow, dancing with energy and enthusiasm.
"Wow. Way to re-bound," Buffy said, unconvinced but wanting to believe.
"I believe that's the dance of a brave little toaster," Xander said proudly.
Willow noticed her friends at the table. She left the dance floor to join them.
"Hey, guys!" Willow said with breathless cheer. "C'mon! This music's great!"
"It's nice to see you brought your boogie shoes tonight, Will," Xander said.
"Yeah," Willow replied. "I-I-I know I've been sort of a party-poop lately, so I said to myself, 'Self!' I said, 'It's time to shake and shimmy it off.' "
Wanting to encourage Willow's effort to pull out of her depression, Buffy said, "Sounds
like a good policy."
"Yeah! And it works, too," Willow explained. "You know, I figure, in the grand scheme of things, we're all just � "
As Willow grabbed her jacket, a bottle of beer slipped out and tipped over. As the beer spilled out onto the floor, Willow looked up at her friends, knowing they had seen it.
"Drunk?" Buffy said, completing Willow's former statement.
Willow laughed and picked up the beer bottle, trying to act nonchalant about the whole thing.
"Pfff. Drunk. Heh, heh. I mean, that's such a-a-a strong word. Kind of a guttural Anglo-Saxon word. Drunk."
"Will," Xander said, "not loving the drowning of the sorrows."
"Not drowning," Willow corrected. "Wading. A-A-And see?" Willow pointed to the beer bottle. "Light beer. No big."
"No big?" Buffy disagreed. "Anyone remember when Buffy had the fun beer-fest and went one-million years B.C.?"
Xander looked at Buffy with a smirk on his face. "Sadly without the fuzzy bikini."
Anya refused to look at Xander but promptly reminded him: "Off topic, Xander."
Xander immediately turned to his girlfriend. "Right. Helping now," he assured her. Xander got up and moved around the table towards Willow. "Will, how about you give me that beer?"
Willow pulled the beer back firmly against her chest, refusing to relinquish it. "No! Why should I? I've got pain, here! Big-time legitimate pain."
"We all have pain, Will," Xander replied gently.
"Oh, like what?" Willow taunted. " 'Oh, poor me, I live in a basement.' Yeah, that's dire."
Xander couldn't believe what Willow had just said. He looked at her once, shook his head, and then walked away. Anya glared at Willow, then went after Xander.
Buffy stood up, grabbed Willow's coat, and then took Willow's arm. "Okay, you know what? That's it. I'm taking you home."
Willow pulled away from Buffy's grasp. "No! I don't want to."
"Will, you'll thank me when you still have a friend in the morning," Buffy insisted.
Willow's face fell, the anger giving way to tired frustration. "I just can't stand feeling this way. I want it to be over."
"It will. I promise," Buffy said, "But it's gonna take time."
"Well, that's not good enough," Willow complained.
"I know," Buffy said sympathetically. "It's just how it is. You have to go through the pain."
"Well, isn't there some way I can just make it go away? Just 'cause I say so? Can't I just make it go 'poof ' ?" Willow asked desperately.
Buffy looked at Willow sadly. She wished there was a way, but she knew better, having gone through it herself with Angel. She pulled Willow into a hug. Willow was stiff at first, but then she softened and reached around Buffy to hug her back.
When they pulled apart, Buffy looked into Willow's eyes.
"Come on. Let's go home," she said, handing Willow her coat.
She took the beer bottle from Willow's grasp and set it on the table. Then she linked her arm with Willow's and led her from the Bronze.
Willow glanced over at Buffy's side of the room. Buffy appeared to be sleeping soundly. Quietly, Willow slipped out of bed and opened her trunk. She pulled out a bag of magical items and a spell book. Then she tiptoed out of the room.
She went into the restroom and locked the door. Then she quickly drew out her materials. She put out four white candles at the compass points and lit them. She sat down within the circle. She laid out a square white cloth. Then she set several items on it: an empty cauldron in the center, a dish of sand containing several rose quartz crystals at the top, an empty goblet to her left, a bowl of basil to her right, and a brazier at the bottom. She set the spell book on the floor in front of her. She filled the goblet with water from a bottle in her bag, lit the brazier, and opened the book to the passage she had marked.
Willow paused and drew a deep breath to center herself. Then she took a pinch of the basil and threw it onto the brazier. Then she picked up the empty cauldron and held it high over the altar.
"Great Mother, I implore you, hear my prayer."
She lowered the cauldron until it was at face level.
"End the darkness, bring your light,
Give me strength to win this fight,
Let the healing pow'r begin,
And rid my heart of mem'ries grim."
She closed her eyes and exhaled a long breath into the empty cauldron.
"These I give to you. Great Mother, hear my prayer."
Willow opened her eyes and turned the cauldron over and returned it to its place on the altar upside down.
Then she paused, waiting expectantly for the intended result. She glanced around the altar. Nothing was happening.
"So mote it be!" Willow added firmly as if that would make the spell kick in. Again, nothing happened.
"Amen?" she said uncertainly.
Willow groaned and picked up the spell book. She read through the passage again.
"If the spell is done correctly," Willow read, "a clear signification should appear."
Willow looked up and glanced around the altar again. Then she slammed the book shut.
As the sun shined on her cage, Amy the rat went round and round in her spin wheel. Willow lay on her bed, staring off into space. Willow knew she had homework to do, but she couldn't seem to get motivated. She kept thinking about the spell she had tried the night before. Why didn't it work? she thought. I did everything right. A knock on the door interrupted Willow's thoughts.
"Come in," Willow called to the door. Then she looked surprised as a worried Giles stepped in. "Giles, what are you doing here?"
"I'm�a bit concerned about you, actually," Giles said.
"Did Buffy tell you about the beer, 'cause � "
"Uhhh, Buffy didn't tell me anything."
"Oh, well, forget the beer part, then," Willow said, relieved.
"Happily," Giles replied before getting to his point. "I came because we had an appointment the other day."
"Oh. Right, right. The spell."
"Yes, ummm�Willow, I know that you're going through a very difficult time, but shirking your responsibilities � "
"But, I didn't shirk," Willow insisted. She picked up the bag from the Magic Shop and held it out for Giles. "I did the research, and I picked up the ingredients. I just forgot the actual doing the spell part."
"That isn't like you at all," Giles said, taking the bag from Willow and setting it at his feet.
"I know. I-I-I've been off," Willow said, disgustedly. "I even tried to do a spell last night. But it just went nowhere."
"A spell?" Giles said. "I don't think it's wise for you to be doing that alone right now. Your energy's too unfocused."
"Well, that's not true. I said I was off, not incompetent."
"I only meant that you're grieving, and it might be wise if you took a break from doing spells without supervision."
Willow stood up angrily. "So I get punished because I'm in pain?"
"It's not punishment," Giles tried to explain. "I'm only saying this because I � "
"Oh, you care. Yeah. Everybody cares," Willow said sarcastically. "But nobody wants to be inconvenienced. You all want me to take the time and go through the pain, as long as you don't have to hear about it anymore."
"N-N-Now that's not fair," Giles answered.
"Isn't it?" Willow accused. " 'Cause I'm doing the best I can, and it doesn't seem to be enough for you guys."
"And I see how you could feel that way, I do � "
"No, you don't. You say that you do, but you don't see anything!"
Willow crossed her arms and stood by the window, her back to Giles.
Giles pulled off his glasses and rubbed his forehead before looking back at Willow.
"Look," he said as gently as he could. "I can see that you're upset. Why don't we talk about this later?"
Willow refused to turn around. "Fine," she said hotly.
Giles looked at Willow with a mixture of pain and concern in his face. Then he put his glasses back on, picked up the bag, and left the room.
Buffy worked on packing her weapons bag for the night's patrol as Willow stomped around the room, ranting.
"I mean, I'm going through something," Willow complained. "I just don't see why he was getting down on me."
"Giles just worries 'cause he knows spells can be dangerous. It doesn't mean he thinks you're a bad witch."
"I am a bad witch," Willow said, pouting as she plopped onto her bed.
"No, you're a good witch," Buffy said firmly.
"I'm not kidding anyone. If I had any real power, I could've made Oz stay with me."
"Will, you wouldn't have wanted him to stay because of a � "
"And I didn't have the guts to do the spell on Veruca! The only real witch here is fuzzy little Amy," Willow added, pointing at Amy in her rat cage.
"I think you're being too hard on yourself," Buffy said.
"Amy's got access to powers I can't even invoke!"
The phone ringing interrupted Willow's ranting. Buffy went to the phone and picked it up.
"Hello? Oh, hey, Giles." Buffy listened intently for a moment and then frowned. "Yeah. I'm going right now. Okay."
"Y-Y-You're going? Now? It's not even dark yet."
"Sorry," Buffy said. "Sacred duty and all."
"Well, I mean, what's the rush?" Willow needled. "Spike won't be out and about until after sunset. Besides, I figured since I'm kinda grievey, we could, you know, have a girl's night. We could eat sundaes and watch 'Steel Magnolias' and you can tell me how, at least I don't have diabetes."
"Will, I have to go, you know that. But hey, why don't you go to Wicca Group?" Buffy suggested, pointing at the flyer on Willow's night stand. "Isn't it tonight? You haven't been in a while."
"See, you think I'm a bad witch too, so bad that I have to go to Wicca Group to get straightened out," Willow whined. "Well, I don't need straightening out. They're nothing but a buncha wanna-blessed-be's anyway."
"Okay. I think this is my cue to leave," Buffy said as she swung her bag over her shoulder. "I'll be back as soon as I can. I promise."
Buffy walked out of the room, leaving Willow alone. Willow frowned and sighed. Then she opened Amy's cage and took her out. She laid Amy in her lap and stroked her fur.
"I'm sorry I haven't been able to change you back, Amy," Willow said sadly. "I've tried everything I can think of."
Willow petted on Amy for a while and then held her up to her face, nose to nose. She looked at the Wicca flyer.
"What do you think, Amy? Should I go?" Willow tilted her head as if listening. "I should? Because I can teach them a thing or two?"
Willow laughed at her little joke, but then quickly sobered. She put Amy back in her cage and walked to her night stand. She picked up the flyer and looked at it, thinking hard. Then she picked up a marker and wrote on it in large letters: 'I went. Okay?' Then she pointedly placed the flyer on Buffy's bed.
Buffy made her way across campus and back through the wooded trail. She scouted the area, cursing herself for not doing this earlier when it was lighter outside. Then she remembered the park bench. She ran over to it.
There it was: the pack of cigarettes that she had taken from Spike and thrown to the ground. She picked up the crumpled pack and smiled.
"Gotcha," she said. Then she tucked the pack into her pants pocket and headed for Giles' apartment.
Tara hurried into the Student Lounge, hoping that the new girl, Willow, would be there tonight. The cute redhead hadn't been at the last few meetings, and Tara had been berating herself for not speaking to her the first time she'd seen her. What if I never see her again? Tara thought.
When Tara arrived, her heart leapt. Oh goddess, there she is! she thought, as she spied Willow sitting in the circle of chairs. Suddenly, all of Tara's courage went flying out the door. She slipped in the circle, several chairs away from Willow.
Willow was staring at her hands when Tara sat down in the circle. She looked up at Tara, smiled at her briefly, and then turned her attention back to her hands.
Tara sighed and hung her head, letting her hair fall over her face. After a moment, she looked up and watched Willow. Anytime Willow shifted her body, Tara quickly looked down, hiding once more.
You big chicken! Tara thought to herself. You've been waiting for her to show back up, and when she finally does, you can't even go over and speak!
Tara looked up at Willow again. She looks sad, Tara thought. Maybe I should go talk to her.
Taking a deep breath and summoning the last vestiges of her courage, Tara rose from her seat and walked in Willow's direction.
With her heart beating madly, Tara sat down next to Willow and waited for her to look up. When she did, Tara spoke.
"Hey," Tara said nervously.
"Oh, hey," Willow replied, smiling faintly.
"Y-Y-You came back," Tara blurted.
"Huh?" Willow asked, confused.
God, what a dork, you are, Tara! she thought to herself before explaining. "To the m-m-meetings. I h-h-haven't seen you in a while." She inwardly cursed her tongue for its stupid stuttering.
"Yeah, I kinda�had some other stuff going on," Willow said, as a pained look came over her face.
Great, now you've reminded her of whatever is making her so sad. Leave now before you make things worse! "Well, I'm g-g-glad you came back," Tara said as she got up from her chair, intending to return to her former position.
"Wait," Willow called, touching Tara's arm and pulling her back into the chair beside her. "You're Tara, right?"
She remembered my name! Tara thought with joy as she nodded in affirmation. "And you're � "
"Willow," Tara repeated with a half-smile. "Yeah. I remember. Neat name."
Willow smiled again, this time for longer. "Thanks," she said.
The two women paused and looked down at their hands, neither aware that they were making the exact same gesture at the exact same time. Willow was the first to break the nervous silence.
"So, have you been coming to Wicca Group for a while then?"
"Not really," Tara replied. "A little longer than you, I think."
Willow turned in her seat to face Tara. "Lemme ask you something then. The meetings I've been at, were they�typical?"
"Ummm�I guess. Why?"
Willow leaned a little closer and lowered her voice. "Well, to be honest, I was hoping that after a while we might actually get into something deeper. You know, do some real magic."
Tara could barely contain her excitement. She had been right about Willow; she was different from the others. "Me too!" Tara whispered excitedly. "I-I-I was hoping that too."
"Sisters!" the group leader called out, interrupting Willow and Tara's conversation. Willow and Tara immediately sat up straight in their seats as the remaining women sat down and the group leader continued. "Let us take our places in the sacred circle and begin to focus our energies." Willow and Tara and the women around them closed their eyes and started meditating.
Willow sneaked a peek in Tara's direction. Then she leaned over the arm of the chair to whisper to her.
"Hey!" she said, slightly startling Tara, who looked up and met her eyes. "After the meeting, you wanna get some coffee or something and maybe talk magic?"
Tara grinned widely and then nodded enthusiastically. Willow smiled broadly as well. Then they reluctantly closed their eyes again as the group leader began the ritual invocation.
Willow and Tara walked to a small table at the Grotto and sat down, putting their coffees on the table.
"Look, I hope I don't offend you or anything," Willow said to Tara, "but I'm not really getting a lot out of these Wicca meetings."
"Yeah," Tara agreed. "They're nice and everything, but they don't seem to know � "
"What they're talking about?" Willow finished.
"I think if they saw a r-r-real witch, they would run the other way," Tara added, giggling.
"So, how long have you been practicing?"
"Always. I mean, since I was little. My mom used to," Tara said, ducking her head behind her hair for a moment. "She�ummm�she had a lot of power. Like you." Tara lifted her eyes to Willow's as she spoke those last two words.
Willow was awed and embarrassed by Tara's words. She immediately went into denial mode.
"Oh�I'm not�I don't have much in the way of power," she said, "I mean, really, most of my potions come out�soup. I've only been practicing for a couple of years. I'm definitely nothing special."
Tara firmly disagreed, "No, you are."
Willow and Tara smiled genuinely at each other, clearly attracted, before succumbing once again to the blush-and-duck.
"How can you tell?" Willow asked. "You haven't even seen me do any magic."
"I can just tell," Tara explained. "I-I-I can see things�in p-p-people's auras. I could tell there was something special about you the first time I saw you. Something very special."
The two women smiled again, bonding big time.
Buffy lounged on her bed, reading a textbook, the Wicca flyer now on her night stand. When she heard the door, Buffy looked up to see Willow come in. She noticed that Willow was wearing a smile, a for-real smile.
"Hey. You're coming in kinda late," Buffy said. "The Wicca thing must've been pretty good."
"Oh, no, it was a bust," Willow said, waving in dismissal. "Same ole, same ole, bunch a pseudo sisters to the dark ones."
Willow paused and then smiled, thinking of Tara. Buffy looked at Willow warily.
"Okay, what happened?" Buffy inquired. "There is definite glowage going on here, and I wanna know what caused it."
"What?" Willow asked in surprise. "There's no�glowage. But something did happen. One of the girls in the group is an actual practicing witch. We talked after, and we're gonna do some spells together."
"Will, that's great! I know you've been wanting to go further in that area."
"I just want to be able to float something bigger than a pencil one day. And I think Tara can help me do that."
"Yeah. She's really cool," Willow said, smiling again. "She's kinda shy, though. Hey, maybe we could get together and have lunch one day soon. I'd really like you to meet her."
"Count me in," Buffy said cheerfully.
Then she looked at Willow intently. I don't care what she says, Buffy thought. She is glowing. Dammit. Buffy hung her head at the thought.
Buffy laid out the map of UC Sunnydale on the floor of Giles' living room. She smoothed out the edges and then stood up and out of the way.
"Okay, we've narrowed it down to the campus," Buffy said. "Let's see if we can pin it down a little more."
Buffy nodded at Willow and Giles, who began again the ritual that they had just performed. Willow picked up the pack of cigarettes and a handful of colored sand. Giles took up a candle and another handful of sand. They set their eyes on the spell book, which lay on a small metal music stand before them. Then they started the incantation.
Buffy didn't have a clue what Willow and Giles were saying, since they were speaking in Romanian. For all she knew, they were saying 'Abracadabra, shazzam!'
When they finished the incantation, Willow and Giles simultaneously cast their magic sands toward the map. The three of them watched in wonder as the sands floated in the air and then lit up before swirling around the map. The tiny floating lights twirled into a tight tornado-like funnel and hovered over a particular spot on the map. Then suddenly they all shot toward the spot with great speed, as if they were being sucked into that very point. And then they disappeared.
The three observers let out their breath as they watched the spell end. Buffy immediately knelt beside the map to look at the spot now marked on its surface. Her brow creased in confusion.
"What is it? Where does it say?" Willow asked nervously.
"That's impossible!" Buffy said.
"What?" Giles asked.
"According to this, he's standing in the middle of the quad, in broad daylight!" Buffy exclaimed.
Buffy and Willow and Giles stood on the quad at UC Sunnydale. The sun was shining brightly. They looked around the grassy area currently populated by various clumps of students. Then they looked again at the map which Willow held.
"Well, this is the spot, supposedly," Willow said uncertainly.
"This can't be right," Buffy said. "Spike would be dust if he were here."
"Perhaps�perhaps we did the spell incorrectly," Giles suggested.
"I don't think so, Giles," Willow insisted. "We triple-checked everything before we did it."
"I know, but clearly � " Giles said before being interrupted.
"Wait! I know!" Willow interjected excitedly. "The sewers! Maybe Spike is in the sewer tunnels underneath here. I mean, they do go all over town."
Buffy's eyes lit up. "Yeah! That makes sense. I'll go there right now."
Buffy froze in place when she heard Riley's voice behind her. She turned slowly to face him.
"Ummm�to the�Grotto," Buffy answered quickly. "For coffee. I'm feeling caffeine deprived."
"Hey, me too. Mind if I tag along?" Riley asked.
"No, sure, feel free," Buffy said. Then she realized that introductions were in order. "Oh. Ummm�Giles, this is Riley. Riley, this is Giles. He's...ummm�"
"A long time friend of the family," Giles said, offering his hand to Riley. Riley took Giles' hand and shook it firmly.
"Riley is Dr. Walsh's teaching assistant," Willow explained.
"Oh, yes, I see," Giles said. "Buffy and Willow have mentioned their psychology class on numerous occasions. They seem to be enjoying it very much."
"Thanks," Riley said.
"Well, you two better move along, if you want to get that coffee before class starts," Willow nudged.
"Yeah, we better," Buffy said. "I'll see you guys later?" Buffy said to Willow and Giles.
"Yes, of course," Giles said.
"See you after class, Buffy," Willow called.
Riley and Buffy left the quad and headed toward the Grotto.
"So, I was thinking," Riley said as he walked next to Buffy.
"You seem to do a lot of that," Buffy noted.
"What?" Riley asked.
"Thinking," Buffy teased.
"Oh. Yeah. Right. Must be the psychology major in me," Riley admitted. "Anyway, I was thinking that we could take that drive I promised you, maybe this afternoon?"
"Sure," Buffy agreed. "I have some�errands to take care of first, but after that, I'm free."
Riley smiled broadly.
Back at the quad, Giles watched Buffy as she walked away with Riley. Then he turned to Willow.
"I don't mean to�to pry into Buffy's affairs," Giles said nervously, "but are she and Riley�ummm�seeing one another?"
"Yes," Willow replied. Then she turned and looked at Buffy and Riley in the distance. "Yes, they are," she said sadly.
Spike lay dreaming on the floor of a sterile white chamber. He tossed and turned as his consciousness slowly came back.
"Slayer�I'll kill you," he mumbled, "Not so tough. I�kill�Slayer�"
Spike opened his eyes. Then he got up and looked around the empty cell. He went to the glass wall in the front of the room and touched it. He immediately received a substantial electric shock, causing him to jump back in pain and surprise.
After a moment, he inched back toward the glass wall, this time being careful not to touch it. He craned his neck, trying to see what lay beyond the confines of his cell. What Spike could not see was the line of cells just like his, each containing an inhabitant of the demon-persuasion.
As Riley drove along the curvy road through the hills, Buffy looked at the beautiful countryside. She smiled as the wind blew through her hair.
I should have done this a long time ago, Buffy thought.
Yeah, right, Buffy's logical self said. Like when? Somewhere between Ass-Kicking and Apocalypse-Stopping?
Buffy looked over at Riley. He smiled at her. Buffy smiled weakly and turned away. She knew that Riley liked her, but she wasn't sure quite what to think about that.
On the one hand, Riley was handsome and smart and nice, definitely nice, and unlike her previous paramours, he was so normal.
But, on the other hand, Riley was so�normal.
Ack! What's the matter with me? Buffy thought. Why are you so stuck on this with-love-must-come-pain thing?
Maybe because that's all love has ever brought me, she answered herself. First Angel, then Faith. It was bad enough when Angel went bad, but when Faith did too�
Buffy sighed and closed her eyes. Everyone I have ever loved has been bad.
Buffy opened her eyes. No, wait, that's not true. Not everyone. Willow isn't bad.
Auugghhh! Buffy screamed in her mind. Will you stop thinking about her? There is no future there! Willow doesn't even �
Buffy stopped and thought of Willow's expression the night before when she had spoken of meeting Tara at the Wicca group. Buffy shook her head.
I'm wasting entirely too much energy on this, Buffy thought as she looked Riley's way. I've got a perfectly normal, studly yet sensitive guy sitting next to me who actually likes me. It's time to shift focus.
Buffy felt Riley slow the car, and she looked to see where he was going.
Riley pulled the convertible up into the parking lot beside the scenic overlook. After switching off the ignition, he turned to Buffy.
"So, change your mind about driving?" Riley asked.
"I think you've made a convert," Buffy said certainly. "As long as I'm not the one doing the driving."
"Let's go check out the view," Riley suggested.
He and Buffy climbed out of the car and walked to the railing. The view from the overlook was indeed impressive: craggy canyons, beautiful trees, a gorgeous sun-filled sky.
"It's beautiful," Buffy said, sighing contentedly.
"Not as beautiful as you," Riley said.
Buffy turned to Riley, surprised at his words. She blushed and ducked her head. Then she looked up and met his eyes.
"Thank you," she said.
"You're welcome," he said huskily as he leaned down slowly to kiss Buffy.
Oh, god! Buffy thought in terror. He's going to kiss me!
What do I do? she frantically asked herself.
Kiss him back, you idiot, she answered herself, just as Riley's lips touched hers.
It was a nice kiss, as kisses go, and Buffy reached out for Riley's arm as she returned the favor, kissing Riley back.
Riley put his arm around Buffy and pulled her closer. The kiss intensified.
Suddenly, an unbidden image popped into Buffy's mind. She imagined herself kissing, not Riley, but Willow.
Buffy pulled out of the kiss and gently pushed Riley from her. Then she looked away.
Both of them were breathing hard. Buffy took a moment to catch her breath.
"I�ummm�I think we should be heading back now," she finally said.
Riley looked confused and a little hurt, but he nodded in agreement.
"Sure, no problem," he said nervously as they left the overlook and headed for the car.
The old Sunnydale High School lay in ruins, having been destroyed when Buffy vanquished the newly-ascended Mayor Wilkins on graduation day. Many of the structures were still standing, but none of them were safe. The site had been condemned until the city council determined what they wanted to do with the property. There was talk of building an entirely new state-of-the art facility on the same location, but nothing had been decided and probably wouldn't be for several years to come. In the meantime, the halls remained empty and unused.
As sunlight shined in the occasional holes in the walls and ceiling, three dark and hooded figures moved about what had once been the high school library. The center of the room had been exploded down to the very foundation. At the bottom of the ruins, the figures were standing around a large fissure. They were chanting in a guttural language. Suddenly, they threw off their hooded robes.
They were demons � green demons with red eyes and quill-like horns coming out of the back of their heads.
The three demons moved closer to the fissure. One of the demons pulled out a dagger and cut the palm of his clawed hand. Then he slapped his bloody palm onto the chest of the demon next to him and smeared the blood. The second demon took the dagger, cut his palm in the same manner, turned to the third demon, and smeared the blood on his chest. The third demon took the dagger and repeated the process, anointing the first demon. All three gripped the dagger and held it over the fissure. They spoke an incantation loudly and then dropped the dagger into the hole.
Willow sat on the floor in Tara's room. She held a single, long-stemmed red rose in her hands. She looked around the room, taking in its unusual d�cor. Its walls were painted black and covered with mystical posters. The room was dimly lit by a string of white Christmas lights draped across the walls. Magical artifacts such as candles, crystals, and spell books lay about. She turned her eyes to Tara, who was kneeling on the floor across from her. Tara was preparing the altar for a spell. She poured white sand onto a dark cloth, forming a circular design.
"I'm glad you wanted to get together," Willow said, smiling. "I know it's short notice."
"Thanks," Tara replied, returning Willow's smile. "I was happy you called." Ecstatic is more like it, Tara thought to herself.
When Tara finished the design, Willow placed the rose on top of the circle of sand.
"We'll start out slow," Willow said, reaching out her hands to Tara.
"Okay," Tara said, joining hands with Willow.
Tara felt an immediate buzz of energy as she and Willow linked hands. She wondered if Willow felt it. She saw Willow close her eyes, so she did the same. They sat in silence for a moment.
"Willow?" Tara ventured.
"Yeah?" Willow answered.
"Start out slow doing what?" Tara asked.
They both opened their eyes and reluctantly released their hands.
"Oh," Willow said, embarrassed that she hadn't explained the spell to Tara yet. "We're gonna float the rose, then use the magicks to pluck the petals off one at a time."
Tara tilted her head, her curiosity definitely piqued.
"It's a test of synchronicity," Willow explained. "Our minds have to be perfectly attuned to work as a single delicate implement."
Tara's lips curved into a quirky little half-smile. "Cool," she said.
"And it should be very pretty," Willow added. "Ready?"
Tara nodded, and she and Willow joined hands again. They concentrated deeply. The circle of sand glowed with a bright light. A soft breeze swept through the room. The rose shuddered. Slowly, the rose began to rise into the air between the two witches. When it reached chin level, Willow and Tara opened their eyes and looked at the rose. They unlinked their hands.
"It worked," Tara said softly in awe.
"Now for the hard part," Willow whispered. "The petals."
Before Willow and Tara could start again, the rose suddenly shot straight up to the ceiling. Willow and Tara jumped to their feet in surprise. They watched as the rose flew into one wall, ricocheted off, and slammed into another. Then it passed directly over them, forcing them to duck. Finally, it shot straight down and landed in the center of the sandy circle. Willow and Tara stared wide-eyed at the smoking and now-petal-less rose.
"What the heck was that?" Willow exclaimed.
"I don't know," Tara said, chuckling. "But�uhhh�the petals are off."
"They certainly are," Willow said, laughing too.
Willow and Tara's laughing was cut off as the room began to shake. Items fell off shelves and tables, and pictures came off the walls. Willow and Tara struggled to stay on their feet.
"Oh my god," Tara said. "It's an earthquake!"
The room made a big lurch, forcing Willow and Tara back against the wicker hutch that contained Tara's stereo. The shelf started to fall forward onto Tara, but Willow pulled her away in time. As the shelf crashed to the floor, so did Willow and Tara, Willow landing on her back with Tara on top of her. Tara covered Willow's body with her own as the quake made its final rumbles.
When the earthquake was over, Willow and Tara were both breathing heavily, terror having taken the breath from them. Tara leaned up on her elbow.
"Are y-y-you okay?" Tara said worriedly.
"I think so," Willow said. "You?"
Tara nodded. Then she looked at Willow's face. She got lost in the gorgeous green that was Willow's eyes. She knew she should get up, but she couldn't seem to break away from Willow's gaze.
Goddess, I want to kiss her! Tara thought.
No, you can't! Tara chided herself, averting her eyes. She's not �
Tara's internal rantings were stopped when she felt Willow reach up and tuck a strand of her blonde hair behind her ear. By the time Willow had rested her hand on the back of Tara's neck, Tara's resolve was gone. She returned her eyes to Willow's face. Then she leaned down slowly�
Boom, boom, boom!
Willow and Tara jumped, startled by the knock on the door. They looked at each other briefly then moved apart.
"Everybody okay in there?" the Resident Assistant yelled through the door.
"We're fine!" Tara called out to the RA as she sat up. "No one's hurt!"
Tara turned to Willow, who was now sitting up.
"We should�we should�ummm�go see if anyone needs help," Tara said nervously.
"Right," Willow replied.
They stood up, looked at each other awkwardly, then left the room.
Riley and Buffy were both leaning against the car in the UC Sunnydale parking lot, riding out the last wave of the earthquake. When the quake ended, they stood up.
Buffy walked away from the car, a look of fear in her eyes.
Riley just grinned. "Wow! That was some ride!" he exclaimed.
Buffy looked at Riley like he was crazy for praising an earthquake.
"Sorry," Riley said, shrugging his shoulders. "I didn't mean to get so excited. It's my first earthquake."
"It's not mine," Buffy said ominously.
Giles sat at a table in the courtyard of his apartment. He was pouring over a map that was spread over the top of the table. Buffy paced nearby.
"Something horrible is going to happen, Giles," Buffy said.
"It was an earthquake, Buffy. A not uncommon occurrence in southern California," Giles tried to reassure Buffy. "There's no reason to think it was anything more."
"Oh, I so have a reason," Buffy insisted. "A damn good reason. The last time we had an earthquake, I died."
"Yes, I know that�and, therefore, I completely understand your anxiety," Giles said.
"Oh, good. Because I'd hate for my little untimely horrible death worry to be ambiguous," Buffy said sarcastically, annoyed at Giles' lack of concern.
"But unless evidence suggests otherwise," Giles said, ignoring Buffy's sarcasm, "I think that we can assume that it's shifting landmasses and not a portent of some imminent doom."
Giles lifted up the map he had been working on. It had several red pins stuck in it at various locations.
"Now, in the meantime, I've got a few theories about our mysterious commando friends."
"Oh," Buffy responded flatly, not the least bit interested in commandoes at the moment.
"Now based on the locations of our various sightings � " Giles started to say.
"What if the quake was a sign?" Buffy interrupted suddenly. "What if it's a-a-a bad omen, and we just ignore it? There's going to be a lot of red faces when the world comes to an end."
Giles sighed and stood to join his Slayer. "Buffy, if the quake heralds some such catastrophe, I'm sure there will be other signs to follow, which will afford us plenty of time to avert it. Now, I believe that the commando installation is very close to your school. If that is the case, I'm convinced that one or more of them may be in your very midst."
"Plague!" Buffy blurted frantically.
"What?" Giles asked, confused.
"What if the end of the world is coming in the form of a plague?" Buffy said. "Then too many people may be infected by the time we actually � "
"Buffy!" Giles yelled. "Will you stop worrying about what may be and concentrate on what is!"
Buffy started to speak again, but Giles stopped her with a hushing gesture.
"Vigilance is all very well and good," Giles lectured, "but as I feel we are getting close, there is a much more pressing question."
Buffy rolled her eyes and resigned herself to her Watcher's lecture.
Buffy paced about the dorm room, anxiously awaiting Willow's return.
Where is she? Buffy thought nervously. What if she's trapped somewhere? What if she's seen Spike? What if she's trapped somewhere with Spike? Oh, god!
Buffy looked up when she heard the door open.
Willow walked in, carrying a book bag. She smiled when she saw Buffy.
Buffy ran to Willow and touched her arm. "Where have you been?" Buffy asked, a little more harshly than she intended.
Willow looked at Buffy funny, wondering why she was so upset.
"I was at Tara's. We were working on a spell," Willow answered.
Buffy's face fell. "Oh," she said.
"Why? Is something wrong?" Willow asked, concerned.
"No. No. Nothing wrong," Buffy said. "I was just worried. You know, with the quake and all."
"Well, I did almost get buried under Tara's stereo, but other than that, I'm fine. What about you?"
"I'm okay. There's a few broken knick-knacks around here, but no biggies."
"I guess we're lucky. Porter Dorm is completely blacked out," Willow reported. "So naturally, they are dealing with the crisis the only way they know how: 'Aftershock' Party."
Buffy grinned as she thought about Porter. "Ah, this from the dorm that brought us the 'Somebody Sneezed' Party and the 'Day That Ends in Y' Party."
"Yeah, they do seem to be pretty generous with the milestones. Hey, do you wanna go over there? Much carousing by candle light, I'm sure."
"No, I�ummm�I don't think I'm in a party mood right now. The earthquake kinda has me all�frazzled." Buffy paused and looked down at her hands. "The last time we had an earthquake�"
"Oh. Yeah," Willow said, remembering. "The Master."
"Have you talked to Giles yet?"
"I went over there right after the quake," Buffy said, "but Giles didn't think it was anything to worry about. He said if it was a portent of doom, there would be other signs, and I guess there aren't any, so�"
"Well, there you go!" Willow said cheerfully, trying to ease Buffy's mind. "It was just an ordinary run-of-the-mill, garden-variety earthquake. No doom intended."
Buffy smiled weakly, trying to accept Willow's statement, hoping it was true. She decided to change the subject.
"So, what were you and Tara up to?" Buffy inquired.
"Oh, we were working on a spell, that's all. I still need to introduce you two, by the way," Willow answered.
"What kind of spell?" Buffy asked.
"It was a levitation spell," Willow explained. "You know, the wanting-to-float-more-than-a-pencil thing."
Willow thought about what had happened when the rose spell went haywire. She wondered whether or not to tell Buffy about it. She decided against it, not wanting to give Buffy any more ammunition in her 'portents of doom' theory. Willow then thought of the events that had followed the earthquake, the closeness between her and Tara that had nearly resulted in a kiss. She turned the conversation away from Tara.
"What about you and Riley?" Willow asked. "How was your drive?"
"Good. It was good," Buffy said, trying to sound positive. "We went up by the vineyards and then ended up at the overlook near Kingman's Bluff."
"Mmmm�sounds romantic," Willow teased.
"Yeah," Buffy answered flatly, before dropping her gaze to her hands.
Willow looked at Buffy worriedly. Buffy seems really down. I need to cheer her up somehow, Willow thought. She nudged Buffy playfully.
"Heyyy, are you sure you don't wanna go to the 'Aftershock' Party? It could be fun."
"No. Thanks," Buffy said. "I really need to patrol tonight."
Buffy stood up and walked to her closet to get her weapons bag. She put her hand on the door, then stopped, and turned back to Willow.
"But maybe we could do something tomorrow night?" Buffy suggested.
"Well, I kinda planned to do something with Tara�" Willow said.
Buffy couldn't hide the disappointment that crept into her face, a fact not unnoticed by Willow.
"But, it's not like our plans are set in stone or anything," Willow said hopefully. "I'm sure we can work something out. Count me in!"
Buffy smiled, comforted by the idea that she and Willow were going to spend some time together.
After several hours of patrolling, Buffy paused in front of her house. She didn't know how she got there. She just did somehow.
The light was on in the living room, and Buffy could see that the TV was on.
Mom's probably watching some sappy old romance, Buffy thought. Like I need that right now.
Buffy turned to walk away. But then she paused and gazed at her front door once again. For a moment, Buffy looked like a little girl lost in a store. Then she swallowed and changed direction, heading for the door. She got out her key and opened the door.
"Buffy, is that you?" Joyce Summers called out.
"Yeah, Mom, it's me," Buffy replied, walking in to the living room.
"Buffy, what are you doing here this late?" Joyce asked. "Is something wrong?"
Yes, everything, Buffy thought. "No, nothing's wrong," Buffy said nonchalantly. "I was just patrolling. I saw the light on, figured you were up, so here I am."
"Well, I'm glad you stopped by," Joyce said. "I've missed you. I never get to see you anymore."
"Yeah, I know. I've missed you, too," Buffy said.
"So, how's school?" Joyce prodded.
"Good. It's great," Buffy answered, moving so that she could see the TV screen. "Whatcha watchin' ?" she asked her mother.
Bingo, Buffy thought.
"I just love that movie," Joyce said. "Don't you?"
"Yeah, love it," Buffy replied, hoping that she sounded convincing.
"Well, sit and watch it with me. It'll be like old times." Joyce held up a big bowl and shook it. "I've got popcorn," she said enticingly.
"Sure," Buffy smiled and sat down next to her mother.
Joyce pulled Buffy into a hug. Buffy nuzzled against her, basking in the warmth of her mother's love.
The 'Aftershock' Party was in full swing at Porter Dorm. The music was blaring; students danced and milled about, drinking beer and waving their glow-in-the-dark party favors. A congo line wound through the crowd.
In a room down the hall, a guy without a shirt worked on a set of mixed drinks. He looked back at the open door as a group went by.
"Hey, you guys serious about naked limbo?" he called to them. "I'm in!"
When he finished his drinks, he gathered them into his arms and turned to leave the room.
His eyes grew wide when he saw the monster in front of him. Before he could even react, the demon, one of those who had been anointed in blood at the old high school, swiped a clawed hand across the boy's throat, cutting it instantly. The boy dropped the drinks on the floor. Soon the cups were covered with his blood.
Forrest lounged in a chair while Riley sat on the corner of his bed. Riley shot a small foam ball toward the hoop fastened on the back of the dorm room door. He missed.
"Okay, that makes zero for a billion," Forrest kidded Riley. "You don't got game, son. What's going on in that head of yours?"
"I'm just trying to make up my mind about something," Riley responded.
Forrest went to shoot the foam ball he was holding. Just as he got ready to shoot, Riley suddenly interrupted.
"Buffy � she's pretty cool, isn't she?" Riley stated.
Forrest sighed. "Yes, already," he said with irritation. "She's cool, she's hot, she's tepid, she's all-temperature Buffy! Now can we concentrate on the game here?"
Forrest returned to his shooting stance and released the ball. Just as the ball was about to arrive, the door opened, and Graham came in. The ball bounced off his head.
Forrest laughed. "Good block. You should use your face more often."
Graham didn't laugh. "We have an alpha code blue situation," he said seriously.
Riley and Forrest immediately got to their feet.
"One of ours?" Riley asked.
"Negative," Graham answered. "Civilian at the Porter Hall party."
"HST attack?" Forrest inquired.
"Cannot confirm that," Graham explained. "I couldn't get close without drawing attention to myself."
Forrest turned to Riley. "Should we mobilize?"
"No, I'll go," Riley said. "Do a little recon. See if it falls in our domain. You alert command. Tell them we have a casualty of an indeterminate nature. Let's not make a move until we get the whole story."
The next morning, Willow entered the dorm room a little breathless. She dropped her toiletries bag on her desk and went immediately to Buffy, who was just getting out of bed.
"Didya hear, Buffy? Didya hear what happened?" Willow asked frantically.
"Will, I just got up. How could I possibly have heard anything yet?" Buffy said wearily.
"Oh, right," Willow admitted. "Well, anyway, there was a murder! On campus. At the 'Aftershock' Party."
"A murder?" Buffy asked, concerned.
"Yeah. And a grisly one at that, from what I've heard," Willow said.
"We should check in with Giles," Buffy said.
Willow sat at Giles' desk, typing on her laptop. Giles stood nearby, looking nervously through the morning paper. Xander and Anya sat on the couch while Buffy paced about the room.
"Well, there's nothing here in the newspaper," Giles said, putting the paper away. "It probably happened after the paper had already gone to press."
Willow made a few more clicks on her computer, then looked up.
"There's nothing in the police department's database either, or the coroner's," Willow said. "It's probably too early in the investigation. It usually takes them about twenty-four hours to get anything posted. I can check tomorrow."
"In the meantime, I think we should see what we can find out," Giles said. "I'll go to the newspaper office downtown, determine if the reporters have heard anything specific."
"Anya and I can do the donut-bonding thing with the campus cops," Xander offered.
"I can check with the administrative offices, see if they're issuing any information," Willow said.
"And I'll hit the demons in the demon bars, and see what comes up," Buffy said. Then she made a face when she realized how gross that sounded. "Sorry."
Willow was at the pay phone in the student lounge. She punched the last number and listened while the phone rang and was then picked up.
"Hello?" Giles answered.
"Hey, Giles, it's me," Willow said. "Did you find out anything?"
"No, I'm afraid not," Giles said. "Whatever information the paper has, they're not parting with."
"Yeah, the administration isn't talking either. I guess the last thing 'Hellmouth University' wants to advertise is another unusual murder on its campus," Willow stated. "I think I'll go see if the Porter residents are talking. If I learn anything, I'll let you know."
"Thanks, Willow," Giles said.
Willow turned from the pay phone and walked through the lounge, thinking hard.
"Willow!" a voice called, pulling the redhead from her brooding.
Willow looked up and saw Tara across the room. Willow smiled broadly and joined Tara in the sitting area.
"Hey," Tara said as Willow sat down.
"Hey," Willow said, still smiling. "Whatcha doin' ?"
"Just k-k-killing some time between classes," Tara said. "H-H-How about you?"
"The same," Willow said. "Speaking of killing, did you hear about the murder?"
"Yeah," Tara said, looking spooked. "Creepy, huh?"
"You haven't�by any chance�heard anything�specific about the murder, have you?"
"Ummm�no. Not really," Tara answered, wondering why Willow was so curious.
"Sorry, I should know better. Curiosity killed the cat!" Willow said, lightly. Then she sobered again. "I just�it makes me uneasy�not knowing, ya know?"
Tara nodded sympathetically. "I get it. It's like if we just knew that it was some stupid drunken fight, we wouldn't have to worry. We wouldn't have to wonder if some monster, some homicidal lunatic, was out there."
Willow looked at Tara intently, surprised at her ability to know what Willow was thinking. It was like they were always on the same wave length. Willow smiled at Tara, and Tara smiled back. They both blushed and ducked their heads. Then Tara spoke up again.
"I'm g-g-glad I ran into you," Tara said. "I have something to show you."
Tara reached into the outer pocket of her book bag and pulled out a fist-sized purple crystal. She held it gently in the palm of her hands.
"Oh my god," Willow exclaimed. "It's a doll's-eye crystal!"
Tara nodded in affirmation. When Willow held out her hand, Tara carefully placed the crystal in it.
"Wow, this is so cool," Willow gushed. "I've been trying to find a doll's-eye crystal my entire life. Well, since June, anyway. Where did you get it?"
"I-I-It was grandma's, I think. I found it a long time ago in my attic," Tara explained. She paused and looked down at her hands. "I-I-I want you to have it," she said.
Willow was awed. She couldn't believe that Tara would make such a sacrifice�for her.
"Oh, no�Tara�" Willow said, shaking her head and handing back the crystal. "Th-Th-That's really sweet. But I can't. It's like a family heirloom. I-I-I just wouldn't feel comfortable.
Tara looked hurt as she put the crystal away. Willow couldn't stand to see the sadness in Tara's eyes.
"But, i-i-if you wanted to try out some spells with it some time, I wouldn't say no," Willow offered cheerfully.
Tara seemed pleased with that idea. "Maybe we could try one out tonight�w-w-when you come over," she suggested.
Willow's hopeful face quickly fell. "Yeah�about tonight�" Willow said apologetically, "I kinda remembered that I was doing something with Buffy tonight, so I'm not sure if I can come over."
Tara was crushed. She looked down at her hands. "Oh. Ummm�that's okay. Another time, maybe."
"Absolutely!" Willow said certainly.
Tara didn't cheer up this time. She sat quietly for a moment, before standing and gathering her book bag.
"I better get to class," Tara said, not meeting Willow's eyes.
"Ummm�okay. I'll see you later," Willow said as Tara quickly retreated.
Willow's face was pained. She had hurt Tara's feelings, and it hurt so badly to know that she had done that. I'll make it up to her, Willow thought.
Spike paced back and forth in his cell, fueled by hunger, anger, and frustration. A sound stopped his pacing, and he looked at the ceiling. A small motorized flap in the ceiling opened, and a blood packet fell out of it and to the floor.
Spike ran to the packet and scooped it up. He greedily began to bite into it when a voice stopped him.
"Don't drink it," the vampire next door called out. "It's drugged."
Spike looked at the pack and then threw it down. Then he moved to the front and stood beside the wall between his cell and the next one.
"And who are you, mate?" Spike asked.
"I'm a rat. I'm a lab rat, just like the others. Just like you. They're gonna kill us, you know," the vampire answered.
"And how are they gonna do that?" Spike inquired.
"They starve you," the vampire explained. "And then, when you're ready to bite your own arm, they shoot out one of those packets. You drink it, and the next thing, you're gone. That's when they do the experiments."
"And�uhhh�they are�who?" Spike asked. "The government? Nazis? A major cosmetics company?"
"Who cares?" the vampire said. "All I know is, one minute I'm running from the Slayer, and the next thing, I'm here."
"The Slayer!" Spike exclaimed disgustedly. "I knew it!"
"Yeah, she took apart my crew and led me straight to these guys," the vampire said.
"She set me up, too," Spike lamented. "I always worried what would happen when that bitch got some funding."
Spike slammed his hands into the electrified wall.
"She's wised up a bit. Fine!" Spike yelled. "I'll take her apart! I don't care how brilliant she is!"
Willow walked into her dorm room, still down about what had happened between her and Tara. Willow plopped onto her bed.
Buffy came in seconds later.
"Hey, Buffy," Willow said as her roommate shut the door.
"Hey, Will," Buffy answered.
"Did you find out anything at the demon bars?" Willow asked.
"No. Couldn't get a thing out of them," Buffy said before grimacing as she thought of her earlier faux pas. "How about you? Any luck?"
"Nope, nobody saw nothing, nobody heard nothing, and nobody's saying nothing," Willow reported.
Buffy looked disappointed.
"But I'm sure I'll be able to find out something tomorrow," Willow said encouragingly. "Once all the reports get posted in the police department's mainframe, I'll do a little computer magic and zappo! I'll have all the information you need."
"Thanks, Will," Buffy said flatly.
Buffy walked slowly around the room, thinking, as Willow watched her. Buffy seemed to come to some decision and headed for the door.
"Where're you going?" Willow asked.
"To the tunnels to look for Spike," Buffy answered. "I haven't had time to do that yet."
Buffy opened the door then turned back to Willow.
"We're still on for tonight, right?" Buffy asked.
"You bet! How's eight-ish at the Bronze sound?" Willow asked.
"Sounds good. I'll see you there," Buffy said.
Buffy turned back to the door and went out, closing the door behind her.
Willow looked at the door, with a frown on her face. Something's up with her, Willow thought. I wonder if it's Riley.
Buffy made her way across campus, intending to enter the sewer tunnels near the quad where Willow's spell had indicated Spike was supposed to have been.
About halfway there, Buffy crossed paths with Riley and stopped to talk.
"Hey, Buffy," Riley called.
"Riley, hey. What's up?" Buffy asked.
"Just on my way to Dr. Walsh's office. We've got some student papers to go over," Riley explained. "What about you?"
"Oh, I'm�just�walking around. You know me, avid pedestrian," Buffy replied.
"I'm glad I ran into you. I was wondering if maybe you wanted to go out tonight," Riley said hopefully.
"Sorry, I can't. I already have other plans," Buffy answered.
"Oh. Okay," Riley said, trying to hide his disappointment. "Well, maybe some other time."
"Maybe," Buffy said.
"Well, I better get going," Riley mumbled nervously.
"Yeah, you better," Buffy said.
"See ya," Riley said as he resumed his walk to Dr. Walsh's office.
"See ya," Buffy echoed.
Buffy turned and watched Riley as he walked away, wondering what the hell she was going to do about the handsome young teaching assistant.
Buffy edged slowly along the tunnel wall, a stake in her upraised arm.
"Aha!" Buffy said, jumping into the open.
Then she squealed like a little girl as a rat landed right on her arm.
Buffy flailed about, twirled around, and continued to squeal before finally flinging the rat several feet away. She shook her arm in disgust.
"Okay, that was so not funny!" Buffy said angrily.
Buffy looked down the tunnel and then groaned in frustration. "This is a waste of time. Spike isn't down here."
Later that day, Tara sat in her room. She sighed and looked at her clock. I guess she's out with Buffy, Tara thought. Tara hung her head. Then she picked up the doll's-eye crystal that was sitting on her night stand.
That was so stupid earlier! Tara chided herself. You hardly know each other, and you're giving her a priceless family heirloom? God, no wonder she bailed on you!
Tara put the crystal back down.
Tara looked up when she heard a light tapping on the door. She got up and walked to the door and opened it. She was surprised to find Willow standing there.
"Willow?" she said.
"Hey. Can I come in?" Willow asked.
"Sure," Tara said. She stepped aside to let Willow enter her room. Once inside, Tara shut the door and turned to Willow.
"I�ummm�I thought you were doing s-s-something with Buffy," Tara said.
"I am," Willow replied. "But I was kinda hoping you would come with me. I've been wanting to introduce you, and I thought now's as good a time as any."
"Y-Y-You want me to come with you?" Tara asked in disbelief. "W-W-Where are you going?"
"The Bronze," Willow answered.
"The Bronze?" Tara asked, confused.
"It's great, you'll love it. I used to hang out there all the time when I was in high school," Willow explained. "So�you wanna come?"
Tara smiled broadly and simply nodded.
Buffy sat alone at a table in the Bronze. She looked at her watch.
Why am I so nervous? Buffy thought. It's just Willow, for goodness' sake. It's not like we're on a date!
Buffy looked at her watch again and then glanced at the entrance. She saw a familiar flash of red hair and smiled. Her smile quickly fell when she saw that Willow wasn't alone.
Willow was leading a blonde girl through the crowd.
Who is that, and why is Willow holding her hand? Buffy wondered anxiously.
Willow scanned the room until she found Buffy. She smiled, released Tara's hand, and waved at Buffy. Buffy waved back.
"Hey Buffy," Willow said as she and the blonde arrived at Buffy's table. "I-I-I hope you don't mind, but I invited Tara along. I've been wanting to introduce you, and this seemed like a good time since you weren't busy and all."
"No, that's fine, no problem," Buffy said.
All three sat in silence for a moment until Buffy lifted her eyebrow at Willow, hinting that the actual introductions should take place now.
"Oh! Sorry," Willow said apologetically. "Tara, this is my roommate, Buffy. Buffy, this is Tara."
"It's n-n-nice to meet you," Tara stammered.
"Yeah, you too," Buffy replied.
There was another period of awkward silence.
"So, are you a freshman too?" Buffy asked Tara.
"Yeah," Tara replied, smiling briefly.
"But she'll have enough hours after this semester to be a sophomore," Willow bragged. "She started early, in summer school."
"That's great�for you," Buffy replied lamely.
Once again, the conversation lagged.
"So, I hear there's been a lot of magic goin' on at your place," Buffy commented, not realizing how her comment sounded.
Tara and Willow looked at each other and blushed.
"Oh�ummm�yeah, w-w-we've been working on a lot of spells," Tara said.
Tara looked down nervously then quickly looked back up.
"Hey, I'm gonna go get something to drink," Tara said. "Anybody want anything?"
"I'm good, so nothing for me," Buffy said.
"I'll have a Coke, please," Willow said.
"One Coke coming up," Tara said with a smile before heading for the bar.
Willow watched Tara until she was a safe distance away. Then she turned to Buffy.
"So, what do you think?" Willow asked Buffy. "A-A-About Tara?"
"She seems nice," Buffy said.
"Oh, she is. Super nice. A-A-And very powerful. She would never say that about herself, but she really is�"
Buffy watched Willow as she continued to rattle on about Tara. Yep, Buffy sighed. There is definite Willow glowage here. I don't think Willow even knows she's doing it.
Tara does seem nice, Buffy admitted. And she's pretty. And smart, too, apparently. Buffy sighed. Great. Two beautiful and brainy witches. Match made in heaven.
In her return from the bar, Tara paused to watch Willow and Buffy as they talked. She concentrated and focused her inner eye until she could clearly see their auras.
She was surprised to see their auras so discombobulated. Their energies were darting about, moving towards each other and back, touching and then not. It was very unsettling to watch.
Buffy's probably mad that Willow brought me along, Tara thought. She looked kinda disappointed when she saw me with Willow. I should probably go and leave them alone.
Tara returned to the table and set down the two drinks.
"Oh, Tara," Willow said excitedly, "I was just telling Buffy about the spell we were doing yesterday and how it went all ka-blewy, you know, right before the earthquake?"
"Yes, it was very strange," Tara said thoughtfully. "It was almost like�"
"What?" Buffy asked worriedly.
"Almost like it was disrupted somehow, like something else set it off," Tara finished.
"Another spell maybe?" Willow asked.
"Could be," Tara said. "Or it could've just been the energies released by the earthquake itself. We might've been feeling the quake magically before we were even able to feel it physically."
"Hmmm, that makes sense," Willow said. "So much of the magic's power is harnessed from the earth, so�"
Buffy tuned out as Willow and Tara fell into a deep discussion of the matter.
God, look at them, Buffy thought. Two peas in a pod. Could this night get any worse?
"Hello, all!" Anya said cheerfully as she and Xander pulled up chairs and sat down, Anya next to Buffy and Xander next to Willow.
Buffy groaned inwardly. I had to ask, didn't I?
"Hey," Buffy said with little enthusiasm.
"Oh, hey!" Willow said excitedly. "Tara, this is Xander and Anya. Guys, this is Tara. I met her at Wicca group. She's a really powerful witch."
Tara hung her head. "No, not really," she quickly denied, blushing.
"Yes, you are," Willow insisted sweetly, which made Tara blush even more.
"Well, any friend of Willow's is a friend of mine," Xander said jovially.
"And any friend of Xander's is a friend of mine," Anya chimed in. "Because we are a couple and we share things," Anya added matter-of-factly before smiling at Xander.
"Will, I thought you said your Wicca group was turning out to be witch-less," Xander said.
"Fortunately, I was mistaken," Willow said, smiling at Tara.
Buffy was beginning to feel nauseated, and her head was starting to pound. She was just about to excuse herself when she heard Riley's voice.
"Hey, Buffy!" Riley said cheerfully. "I didn't know you were coming here tonight."
"Yeah," Buffy said. "Just hanging out with the gang, you know."
"Hey, Riley, I want you to meet someone," Willow said. "This is Tara. She's in my � "
"Oh, I love this song, let's dance!" Buffy interrupted rudely, before grabbing Riley by the hand and dragging him to the dance floor.
Luckily for Riley, it was a slow song, and he didn't have to worry about his lack of dancing skills. As he wrapped his arms around Buffy, he couldn't help thinking that the day had turned out good after all.
As Buffy led Riley away, Willow looked on in hurt shock. Then she turned away and picked up her drink. Tara looked at Willow briefly, wondering what exactly had just happened.
Xander laughed in an effort to smooth the moment. "I think somebody's got a little crush," Xander said pointedly.
"Either that or she's horny," Anya stated.
Willow choked on her drink. As Tara began patting Willow on the back, Xander hung his head. Then he looked up and forced a smile at his girlfriend.
"An, let's dance," he said, taking Anya's arm.
"Okay!" Anya said happily as Xander led her to the dance floor.
When Willow seemed done with her choking, Tara stopped patting.
"Are you okay?" Tara asked, sincerely worried.
"Yes," Willow wheezed. "I'm fine, just a little cola in the lungs, that's all."
Willow took a big gulp of her soda.
"You'll have to excuse Anya, she�" Willow paused, not knowing how to safely describe the ex-demon to a non-Scooby. "She�ummm�she's weird."
"Oh, it's okay," Tara said. "I-I-I don't mind."
Willow looked over at Buffy on the dance floor. What is up with her? Willow thought. She is acting so strange.
Buffy blocked Willow and the others from her mind. She focused on the strong, warm arms wrapped around her.
Time to move on, she thought.
She looked up at Riley's face. He looked down at her and smiled.
He's got a nice smile, Buffy thought.
I can do this, I can make this work, she thought. If I can just get Willow out of my system.
An idea came to Buffy's mind, and she grinned.
"Let's get outta here and go back to your place," Buffy said suggestively.
"M-M-My place? Now?" Riley stammered, flabbergasted by Buffy's complete turn-around from this afternoon.
"Yeah, why not?" Buffy asked.
"Sure. Okay," Riley agreed.
Buffy smiled and took Riley's hand and led him toward the exit.
"What about your friends?" Riley asked, as the music picked up its tempo into a fast and loud number.
"They know the way home," Buffy said, not even looking back.
Tara saw Willow's eyes shift. She turned to see what drew Willow's glance. It was Buffy and Riley leaving the Bronze together.
"Well, it looks like Buffy has made other plans," Willow said, with more than a little hurt in her voice.
"Looks like," Tara agreed.
Willow shook her head and put on a happy smile and looked at Tara.
"So, what do you wanna do now?" Willow asked.
Tara simply shrugged, content to let Willow decide.
"Well, we could stay here, or� we could go back to your place and hang out?" Willow suggested.
Tara had tried to stay non-committal on the first option, but she couldn't contain her enthusiasm for the second; she grinned widely.
Willow matched Tara's grin. "The latter it is then," Willow said, rising from her chair. "Let me go say bye to Xander and Anya first, and then we can go."
As Willow and Tara made their way from the Bronze back to campus, they walked quietly side by side.
"I�ummm�I like your friends," Tara said. "I think they're�ummm�n-n-neat."
"Thanks," Willow said. "I think so too. Buffy's usually not so�abrupt. I don't know what's the matter with her lately. She just hasn't been herself."
"Maybe she's got something on her mind," Tara suggested. "M-M-Maybe she was hoping to talk to you about it tonight, and then I showed up."
"Oh, no, I-I-I don't think so," Willow said, wanting to reassure Tara. "If she really wanted to talk, she probably wouldn't have planned to do it at the Bronze. It's just too loud and crazy in there."
Willow looked away for a moment, considering Tara's comment. Maybe Buffy does need to talk, Willow thought. She and Riley seem to be getting close. Maybe she's got doubts. Maybe she's got fears � big, scary, gut-wrenching fears � and I haven't been there for her. I'm being a bad friend! I �
Willow's internal tirade was stopped by Tara's voice.
"What?" Willow asked.
"We're here," Tara answered.
Willow looked around and realized that they were standing outside Tara's dorm.
"How did we get here so fast?" Willow wondered out loud.
"We didn't. You just didn't notice because you were thinking so hard," Tara said, poking Willow playfully. "I swear, I could hear the wheels and cogs turning."
"Sorry," Willow said sheepishly.
"It's okay. I didn't mind," Tara said. Tara moved up to the first step to her dorm entrance. "Are you still coming up?" she asked.
At that, Willow smiled, her thoughts happily diverted. "You bet!" she exclaimed, joining Tara on the steps.
"Well, this is it," Riley said nervously as he and Buffy entered his room in Lowell House.
Buffy made a token glance about the room. "It's nice," she said.
"Thanks," Riley said.
Buffy moved closer to Riley. "But not as nice as the man that lives here," she said, tip-toeing the fingertips of her right hand up Riley's chest.
Buffy tilted her head back and looked into Riley's eyes. That was the only invitation Riley needed. He moved in for a smoldering kiss. As Riley wrapped his arms around Buffy, she threw herself into the moment.
This is good, Buffy thought. One dose of Riley, and Willow will be off my mind for good. Besides, he's nice and handsome and �
Buffy's thoughts were interrupted as Riley began kissing down her neck. Oh god�he knows what he's doing. Thank goodness.
Okay, I can do this, Buffy assured herself as she felt Riley guide her to his bed.
As Willow followed Tara through the dorm to her room, Willow's initial cheer gave way to a bad case of nerves.
We're going to be alone, together, in her room, just like yesterday! Willow thought frantically. What if we � ? Oh, god, I have got to get a grip here!
Maybe I was just imagining things, she thought. I probably was. It was just post-earthquake disaster-bonding, that's all.
But what if I wasn't imagining things? What if � ? Willow didn't complete that thought for fear of where it would take her.
I should talk to her about it, Willow finally told herself. Just get it out in the open, one way or the other. Otherwise, I'll just worry myself sill �
"Are you coming in?" Tara asked, breaking up Willow's mental debate with herself.
"Oh. Yeah. Sure," Willow answered.
As Willow stepped into Tara's room, she took a deep breath.
Okay, I can do this, Willow assured herself.
Once inside Tara's room, Willow took off her coat and placed it on the chair. Then she sat down on the side of Tara's bed.
Tara went over to the table and picked up the doll's-eye crystal.
"So, you wanna try a spell with the crystal?" Tara offered.
Here we go, Willow thought. It's now or never.
"Actually, I was hoping we could talk," Willow said seriously. Then she scooted toward the head of the bed to make room for Tara to sit.
"Oh," Tara said, expecting the worst. "Sure. We can do that," she said as she sat on the bed next to Willow.
Willow folded one leg onto the bed so that she could face Tara. Tara duplicated her position.
"I wanted to talk about what happened yesterday," Willow said.
"You mean the spell? Why it went all wacky?" Tara inquired.
"No, I don't mean the spell," Willow replied. "I mean what happened after the spell, after the earthquake."
"W-W-What do you mean?" Tara asked, not wanting to be the one to bring up the subject.
Willow fidgeted a moment, then began: "When we were on the floor and you were�I got the distinct impression that�" Willow searched Tara's face then stopped. "Never mind," Willow said abruptly before standing and walking toward her coat. "I'm sorry. I was obviously wrong, so I'm just gonna leave before � "
Tara stopped Willow from putting on her coat. "Don't," Tara said. "Don't go. Please."
Willow allowed Tara to take her coat from her and put it back on the chair, but she still wouldn't meet Tara's eyes.
Tara took Willow's hands into hers. Then she leaned her forehead against Willow's. "You were right," Tara whispered.
"About what?" Willow asked softly, lifting her eyes to Tara's.
"This," Tara said, as she leaned down and captured Willow's lips with her own.
The kiss started sweetly, chastely, but it quickly grew into much more as both women unlinked their hands so that they could wrap their arms around each other. They pulled each other close, squeezing tightly, hands roaming, unable to get enough of each other. Finally, breathless, they pulled apart, still touching, still holding each other.
"Whew," Willow said, catching her breath. "It's good to be right," she said, grinning from ear to ear.
Tara smiled widely, and Willow could have sworn that the room got brighter when she did. Tara had such a light about her. Willow looked intently at Tara's face, taking in every feature, as if seeing it for the first time.
"What?" Tara asked, a little unnerved by Willow's stare. "What are you looking at?"
"You," Willow said, lifting her hand to stroke Tara's face with her fingertips.
Tara's eyes filled with tears, and she leaned her face into Willow's hand. Then, overcome by emotion, Tara pulled Willow into a hug and began to cry on Willow's shoulder.
Willow was shocked and confused, but she held Tara tightly and tried to comfort her.
Oh, god, what did I do? I didn't mean to make her cry! Willow thought.
Soon Tara's crying ceased, and she pulled completely out of the hug, sniffling. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to cry all over you," Tara said.
"It's okay. I didn't mind," Willow assured her. "Come on, let's sit down,"
Willow took Tara's hand and led her to the bed. They resumed their former positions, though in reverse, with Tara at the head and Willow at the foot.
Tara held her head down, letting her hair fall over her face. Willow put her hand on Tara's knee. Tara looked up.
"So�ummm�what's up with the crying?" Willow asked.
"I-I-I couldn't help it, I was so�" Tara said before becoming choked up again. She took a deep breath and continued. "I was so happy."
"So, it was a happy cry?" Willow asked.
Tara nodded firmly.
"Thank goodness!" Willow exclaimed. "I was so afraid that I had done something wrong, said the wrong thing, I � "
"No," Tara insisted. "You haven't done anything wrong. You've done everything�perfectly."
"Everything?" Willow asked shyly.
"Everything," Tara said certainly.
"I was a little worried," Willow admitted. "I'm new at this. I've never�I've never kissed another woman before."
"I figured that," Tara said.
Willow looked crushed.
"No! I didn't mean it like that!" Tara corrected. "I just meant that since you had been dating a guy before we met�I just assumed that you'd never�God! I am such a dork, so stupid, always saying the wrong � "
"Tara!" Willow said sharply, cutting off Tara's tirade against herself. "It's okay. I get it now. I know what you meant."
"Really?" Tara asked.
Willow nodded. She paused, looked at her hands, and then looked back up at Tara.
"But you�you've�you've done this before?" Willow asked.
"Yes," Tara answered.
"So, you're gay then, a�ummm�a lesbian?"
"Yes," Tara said.
"I don't know what I am," Willow said. "I thought I did. When I was in high school. When I was with Oz. But now�"
"It's okay to be confused," Tara said gently.
"Good, 'cause that's what I am," Willow said. "But not about us," she amended. "Not about what happened between us. If there's one thing I'm sure of, it's that�" Willow paused.
"What?" Tara whispered.
Willow ducked her head. Then she lifted her head again and met Tara's eyes. "It's that�that was the best kiss I have ever had in my whole life!"
Willow and Tara laughed at Willow's admission, smiling broadly, both enjoying a quick remembrance of the kiss. Then the smile faded from Willow's face, causing Tara's to do the same.
"Don't get me wrong," Willow said. "I enjoyed kissing Oz. But�it was�nothing like what just happened. I don't know how to explain it�it was like..." Willow paused, thinking hard. Then she continued. "Oz and I were�a wave, like on the beach. A good wave, but an ordinary wave nonetheless. But you and I�we were a tsunami."
Willow laughed and hung her head, embarrassed at her pathetically exaggerated metaphor. When she looked up, she found Tara gazing at her.
"What?" Willow asked, a little unnerved by Tara's stare. "What are you looking at?"
"You," Tara said, lifting her hand to stroke Willow's face with the back of her hand.
Willow knew instantly why Tara had cried earlier; she felt similar tears filling her own eyes. She was overcome with joy, that this beautiful woman could look at her the way she was looking at her right now. It was simply unbelievable.
Willow couldn't stand the separation any longer. She moved quickly into Tara's arms and kissed her, guiding her onto her back on the bed. Willow felt the rush once again as their lips met over and over. She was dizzy from the tide of emotions rolling through her body, but she didn't want to stop. Ultimately, the need for oxygen forced her to pull away. She leaned up on her arms.
Tara was the first to regain her breath. She giggled softly to herself then looked at Willow.
"Tsunami, huh?" Tara asked teasingly.
"Absolutely," Willow said, smiling but with utter conviction.
Willow plopped onto her back next to Tara. Then she concentrated on getting her breathing back under control. After a few moments, she turned onto her side and faced Tara. Tara did the same.
"I still can't believe this is happening. It's like a dream or something," Willow said.
"I know what you mean," Tara agreed.
"I mean, it hasn't been that long since Oz left, and�" Willow stopped for a moment. "I was in a really bad space for a while. I just wanted to die. In a way, I was dead, already. Nothing mattered. If it hadn't been for Buffy, I don't know what I would've done."
Tara dropped her gaze at the mention of Buffy's name, but lifted it again when Willow continued.
"But now�being here with you�" Willow said softly, "�this is the first time since then that I've felt�hope. That it was actually possible that I might be happy again some day."
Tears spilled over Willow's eyelids and streamed down her cheeks. Annoyed at her tears, Willow wiped her face roughly.
Tara's heart broke as she saw the anguish behind Willow's eyes. She reached out to Willow and drew her into her arms.
Willow didn't try to stop the tears then; she let them come full force, sobbing uncontrollably.
Tara held Willow and did her best to comfort her as she cried.
When her tears had stopped, Willow pulled away and rolled onto her back. She draped her arm over her eyes.
"I'm so tired of crying," Willow said in a choked and exhausted voice. "I'm just so tired."
"I know," Tara whispered, stroking Willow's arm.
Willow turned and looked at the clock beside Tara' s bed. "I guess I'd better go. I have an early class tomorrow."
"Yeah, I do too," Tara said.
Willow sat up, wiped her eyes one more time, and then stood up. Tara also rose. She watched as Willow trudged over to the chair to retrieve her coat. Tara met her in the middle of the room in front of the door.
"I had a really great time tonight," Willow said.
"Me too," Tara said.
"I guess I'll see you tomorrow then?" Willow said.
"Yes, I'd like that," Tara said.
Willow kissed Tara passionately but quickly, then she turned for the door. Willow took the door knob in her hand and then froze. She released the knob and turned back around to face Tara.
Tara couldn't believe the pain and vulnerability she saw in Willow at that moment. Willow looked like she was seconds away from crumbling in place. Tara took a step towards her.
"Willow, what is it?" Tara asked gently.
"I don't want to go," Willow said.
"Then don't," Tara said simply.
Willow ran to Tara and threw her arms around her. God, it feels so good to be here, in her arms, Willow thought. It's like I belong here.
Tara wrapped her arms around Willow and hugged her tightly. Goddess, it feels so good to hold her like this, in my arms, Tara thought. It's like she belongs here.
After a moment, Willow pulled away. "Are you sure you don't mind?" she asked Tara.
"I'm sure," Tara assured her.
"I don't want to be a bother or anything," Willow said.
"You're not a bother," Tara said, moving to her chest of drawers. "Let me see if I've got something you can sleep in, something that won't swallow you whole."
Tara searched the drawers until she found an old t-shirt that she thought would do. She pulled it out and walked back to Willow, who was wringing her hands with worry.
"Here," Tara said, handing Willow the t-shirt.
Willow took the t-shirt. "Thanks," she said. She looked down at her hands holding the t-shirt. After a moment, she looked back up. "Tara," she said. "I want to stay, but I don't want to�" Willow shrugged, hoping Tara would understand.
"I understand," Tara said sincerely. "We won't ever do anything that you don't want to do."
"Okay," Willow said, relieved. Then she added quickly: "I-I-It's not that I don't want to, because I do, it's just that, well, I've never done that before, at least not with a woman, and I don't think I'm ready for that, not yet anyway, I mean, we've only just kissed tonight, and it seems a little sudden to � "
"Willow!" Tara called out, stopping Willow's rampant babble. "It's okay. I understand. I feel the same way."
"You do?" Willow asked.
"Yes," Tara said.
"Cool," Willow said, grinning, holding Tara's t-shirt to her chest sheepishly.
"Get changed," Tara said. "It's going to be a short night."
While Tara went back to her chest of drawers, Willow quickly changed into the t-shirt Tara had lent her. When she turned around, Tara was just getting her gown over her head. Willow averted her eyes at first, but then quickly looked again. Willow saw a flash of Tara's bare back and then a swish of blue silk covered it. Tara settled her gown into place and turned around. Willow's mouth dropped open as she took in the sight.
Goddess� Willow thought to herself.
Tara blushed deeply when she saw Willow's reaction. She shook her head and walked past Willow to the door, where she turned off the overhead light. The room was then lit only by the Christmas lights.
"Come on, let's get some sleep," Tara said.
Tara went to the bed and pulled down the covers. Then she got in and patted the mattress beside her.
Willow walked over to the bed and shyly got in.
Buffy lay on her back, staring at the ceiling. Riley was sprawled face down with his arm draped across Buffy's stomach. He began to snore softly. Buffy glanced at Riley, then sighed and looked away.
She had thought that sleeping with Riley would cure her little Willow-crush, but it hadn't. When Buffy compared her feelings for Riley with her feelings for Willow, well�there just was no comparison. Buffy knew that she didn't just have a crush on Willow; she was in love with Willow. And no liaison, no matter how enjoyable, would change that fact.
Buffy covered her eyes with her arm. Oh, god, she thought, this was a mistake.
Buffy uncovered her eyes and looked at Riley once more. Her face creased into a guilty frown when she thought of how she had used Riley.
Slowly and carefully, she extricated herself from Riley's embrace without awakening him. Once free of the bed, Buffy quickly located her scattered clothing and got dressed. Then she slipped silently out of Riley's room and out of Lowell House.
Buffy headed straight for her dorm. About halfway there, she stopped in her tracks, realizing that Willow would probably be waiting for her.
Damn! Buffy thought. Willow's gonna wanna know why I turned into a super-bitch at the Bronze. I so cannot deal with this right now.
"I guess I'll patrol," Buffy mumbled to herself as she changed direction and trudged toward the nearest cemetery.
Spike lay on the floor of his cell, the drugged bag of blood now empty at his side. Two white-coated orderlies lifted Spike from the floor and placed him onto a gurney. As the first orderly started to strap down the unconscious vampire, Spike suddenly opened his eyes. He grabbed the orderly by the throat, cutting off his breathing.
"Sorry, can't stay," Spike said gleefully as he morphed into vampire face. "Gotta go see a girl."
Spike jumped off the gurney, still holding the first orderly. He did a quick wrench of the orderly's head, breaking his neck instantly. The second orderly rushed Spike. Spike grabbed him by the arm and flipped him over the gurney, sending him rolling onto the floor. Spike followed him, ready to attack, but the orderly grabbed him and slammed him into the glass wall of the cell next door.
"Let me out!" Spike's fellow lab-rat vampire demanded.
"Bit busy right now," Spike growled as he grappled with the orderly.
Spike pulled the orderly's hands away and whipped him around in a full 180. Then he drove his fangs into the orderly's neck.
The sound of the alarm wailing pulled Spike from his bloody feast. He looked around the room until he located the exit, and then he ran for the door.
"Hey! What about me?" the vampire yelled to Spike's retreating back.
Spike left the cell block and ran down the hallway. At the end of the corridor, he saw the large security door start to come down. He increased his speed and then dove under the heavy door just before it closed.
Riley was jolted awake by the beeper on his night stand. He switched on the light and looked at the beeper. Then he turned over to tell Buffy he had to leave. But Buffy wasn't there. With pain in his eyes, Riley looked at the empty side of the bed. He clenched his jaw, then hurried to pull on his clothes.
Riley joined Forrest and Graham by the large mirror in the hallway of their frat house.
"What'd ya tell your girl?" Forrest asked. "I saw you bring her up last night."
"Ummm�nothing," Riley mumbled. "She's�she's already gone."
"Oooo," Forrest said, wincing. "Not the ole slip-away-before-you-wake-up routine? Not a good sign."
"Shut up, Forrest," Riley said sharply.
As the three men stood in front of the mirror, a glowing green light scanned them.
"I'm protecting you, buddy," Forrest said. "I don't want to see you mooning over some freshman for the next three months."
A computer voice came from the wall: "Retinal scan accepted."
The wall holding the mirror opened, revealing the car of an elevator. The three men entered the car. The elevator doors closed, and the car started moving down.
"I'm sure it's nothing, man," Graham said, patting Riley on the back.
"Thanks, Graham," Riley said before leaning forward to speak into a microphone panel. "Riley Finn," he said officially.
The computer voice answered: "Initiative vocal code match complete. Special Agent Finn, Riley. Identity number 75329."
When the elevator doors opened, Riley, Forrest, and Graham entered a vast underground facility. The three men halted as a group of soldiers in green commando garb hurried by in front of them. When the squad had passed by, Riley and his comrades walked briskly to a technical briefing area. A blonde woman in a white lab coat stood facing an array of computers. Riley went immediately to the woman.
"Situation?" he asked.
"Gentlemen, suit up," the blonde woman said ominously as she turned to face Riley. It was Professor Walsh. "We have a Code Red. Hostile 17 has escaped."
Riley and his comrades moved quickly to an area nearby that held weapons and equipment. They began donning their gear. Professor Walsh followed, carrying her clipboard.
"What do we know?" Riley inquired.
"Hostile 17 broke restraints at exactly 2:47 A.M.," Walsh replied.
"Good," Forrest said. "He doesn't have much of a head start."
"It was bagged and tagged locally," Walsh continued, "so assume it knows the area."
"Neutralized?" Graham asked.
"Negative," Walsh responded. "It was on its way to surgery when it escaped. It has a tracking device, but nothing else. It will be very dangerous, so watch your backs. Remember, the creature has every advantage right now. Fail to recapture it, and everything we've worked for � The Initiative itself � could end tonight."
"Nobody's failin' on my watch," Riley said grimly, as other soldiers joined him and took their places in their individual squads.
"Glad to hear it," Walsh said. "Gentlemen, Agent Finn is now in charge of this operation."
Riley finished the last touches on his gear, then turned to the soldiers that awaited him.
Riley addressed the whole group: "We start with the basic mobilization pattern: three teams. Sweep and search, just like practice. Thorough but fast."
Riley moved to stand in front of one particular soldier: "C-team, take the campus perimeter. Make sure he can't leave. Stake him if you gotta, but only as a last resort."
Riley moved to another soldier: "B-team, you're going down. Tunnels, sewers, cemeteries."
Riley stood before his buddies: "Forrest and Graham, you're with me. We'll take the heart of campus and work our way out."
Riley turned to face the whole group again: "All units, maintain radio contact early and often. Who's got questions?" When no questions were raised, Riley belted: "Move!" And the soldiers burst into action.
Spike raced through the wooded areas of UC Sunnydale, the commandoes in hot pursuit. He quickly lost them in the woods. When he thought it was safe, he changed directions and headed for town.
Spike walked along an alleyway, looking over his shoulder often. Then he heard a sound behind him. He zipped over to a dumpster and hid behind it.
Riley, Forrest, and Graham crept into the alley. Riley was at point, flanked by the other two. Graham pointed the tracking device and swept it along the alley.
"He's close," Graham said. "I've got a strong reading."
Bloody hell! Spike cursed in his mind. They've got a freakin' tracer on me!
Spike leapt from his hiding place in front of Riley. He took out Riley with a spinning kick. When Forrest pointed his weapon in Spike's direction, Spike grabbed it and shifted it, causing it to zap Graham. Then Spike slammed the butt of the weapon into Forrest's chin, sending him to the ground. Spike turned to face Riley, but he was still on the ground. Spike kept the weapon and ran onto the main street.
Frantically, Spike looked around. Then he saw a motorcycle coming slowly up the street. He stepped behind a parked van and waited until the motorcycle got closer. When the motorcycle neared, Spike threw down the weapon, jumped in front of the motorcycle, and clothes-lined the driver. The driver's head snapped back as his body stayed put and his cycle kept going. The driver crumpled to the ground. The motorcycle fell over and skidded to a halt about twenty feet away, the engine still running.
Spike ran to the motorcycle, pulled it upright, and jumped aboard. He revved up the engine until the tires squealed and sped away.
When Spike reached the outskirts of town, he pulled over beside a sign and stopped, leaving the engine still running. He turned and looked back at Sunnydale.
"Don't get comfortable, Slayer," he said in a barely contained rage. "I'll be back. I'll get this damn tracer out, and I'll be back."
Spike turned back to his cycle, put it into gear, and screeched away, sending gravel and dust flying into the 'Welcome to Sunnydale' sign.
It was early morning at Stevenson Hall. Buffy eased into her dorm room and closed the door behind her. She tiptoed toward her closet, then stopped in place when she realized that Willow wasn't there. She looked at Willow's bed and her own; both were undisturbed. The sound of the door opening caused Buffy to turn around.
Willow opened the door softly and tiptoed in. She moved directly toward her bed, not noticing Buffy on the other side of the room.
"Hey," Buffy said.
Willow nearly jumped out of her skin at Buffy's voice. She twirled around towards Buffy, almost dropping the doll's-eye crystal that she held in her hands.
"Hey!" Willow cried nervously, before calming her voice down. "Buffy, hey, there, to you too," she said, crossing and re-crossing her arms several times before getting them in the right position.
Buffy pointed out Willow's bed. "Out all night, huh?" she asked.
"Ummm�yes. Yes, I was," Willow said, taking what she hoped looked like a firm stance. She looked over at Buffy's bed. "You, too, I see."
"Yeah," Buffy said sadly, looking down at her hands.
They were both silent for a moment. Willow unfolded her arms and began to fidget with the crystal. Then she moved to her dresser and set the crystal down.
"I'm sorry about bailing on you at the Bronze," Buffy said.
"That's okay," Willow said. "I understand. You wanted to be with Riley."
"Yeah, right," Buffy lied.
Later that day, Xander slammed the door as he and Anya entered Giles' apartment.
"Okay, we're here," Xander announced as he entered the living room. He motioned dramatically and said, "Let the meeting commence."
Willow, Buffy, and Giles collectively turned and glared at the duo.
Xander dropped his arms and shrank down when he realized his joke was not appreciated. "Okay, sitting now," he squeaked as he and Anya took the empty seats on the couch next to Buffy.
Buffy and Giles turned their attention back to Willow.
"As I was saying," Willow said with irritation, "I hacked into the mainframe at the police department and downloaded a copy of all the reports and pictures."
Willow handed out a couple of copies of the autopsy report.
"As you can see," Willow continued, "the victim was found in his dorm room, exsanguinated."
"Ex-sang-wi-what?" Xander asked.
"Exsanguinated," Anya answered matter-of-factly. "It means all his blood was gone."
"Vampire?" Buffy asked.
"No," Willow replied. "His throat was cut. But here's the weird thing. There was very little blood at the scene, which means that whoever, or whatever, did this took the blood with him."
"Oh, and something else," Willow added. "The victim had a symbol carved into his chest."
Willow handed one photo to Buffy and another to Giles. Buffy looked at it intently.
The photo showed a triangle with an eye inside it, carved directly into the skin of the unfortunate co-ed.
Xander peeked over Buffy's shoulder. "It's kind of like the CBS logo," Xander said. "Hey, could this be the handiwork of one Morley Safer?"
"I'm telling you I've seen this somewhere before," Buffy said. "I just can't remember where! I mean, it's like � "
"It's the end of the world," Giles said ominously.
Buffy, Xander, and Willow all turned to Giles and cried simultaneously: "Again?"
"It's�ahhh�the earthquake, and that symbol, yes," Giles stated.
"I told you!" Buffy accused. "I-I-I said 'end of the world' and you were like 'poo-poo, southern California, poo-poo!' "
"I'm so very sorry," Giles replied. "My contrition completely dwarfs the impending apocalypse."
"No, i-i-it can't be," Willow insisted in denial. "We've done this already."
"It's the end of the world, everyone dies," Giles said. "It's rather important really."
"So what do we do?" Willow asked.
"We stop it," Buffy said firmly. "And the first order of business, I figure out where I've seen this symbol."
"I wonder where I've seen this before?" Buffy said sarcastically as she stood in front of a huge crypt in the cemetery. "Where else? The place I spend most of my waking hours memorizing stuff off the sides of mausoleums. Those big freaky cereal boxes of death."
A scraping noise from inside the crypt drew Buffy's attention. She pulled her crossbow off her shoulder and crept to the entrance. The door was open, so she slipped quietly across the threshold.
Inside, Buffy found a green-skinned, quill-headed demon standing beside the now-open coffin of a small child. The demon was picking up the bones of the child's skeleton and putting them into a burlap sack.
"The door was open," Buffy said to the demon. "Thought I'd drop in."
The demon turned and roared at Buffy. She shot the demon in the shoulder, barely fazing him. She threw the crossbow at the demon, but he just batted the weapon aside and came right at her.
Buffy pummeled the demon with multiple kicks, with little effect. The demon grabbed her and flung onto a stone bench. The demon brought his arms down hard, intending to crush her, but she slipped out of the way just in time. Buffy slammed her arms onto the demon's back and then threw him against the wall. Before he could recover, she shoved him onto the steps that led down into the crypt. When he stood up, Buffy high-kicked him right out of the mausoleum.
She jumped over the demon's back and engaged him on the outside of the crypt. The demon smacked Buffy hard, sending her flying off. The demon continued to come after her. She fought back from her knees, punching the demon repeatedly, and when the demon grabbed her arms, she popped him in the face with a head butt. Then the demon wrapped his arms around Buffy's legs and lifted her off the ground. As she rained blows on his head, he slammed her back-first onto the top of a tombstone. Buffy tumbled off the stone marker and lay groaning on the ground. When Buffy didn't get up right away, the demon took off, taking the burlap bag of bones along with him.
Riley, Graham, and Forrest, still in their commando attire, crept through the cemetery. Graham looked intently at the tracking device.
"I'm gettin' nothing," Graham said.
"This is a total waste of time," Forrest said. "We've been looking all day, and the signal on the tracer's gone, which means Hostile 17's gone, too."
"Forrest is right," Graham said. "My guess is he'll head for L.A., try to get lost in the crowd. We should see if Professor Walsh can use the satellite, maybe track him that way."
"The tracer's for local area use only," Riley said. "You know that."
"Well," Forrest said, "we at least need to let our other cells know so that � "
Forrest's words were cut off when the green-skinned demon that had just bested Buffy burst into the group. Once again, the commandoes were caught completely off guard. Within a matter of seconds, the demon had pummeled the soldiers and gotten away.
"Aw, man," Graham groaned, sitting up. "We are gonna get ragged so bad by the other guys."
"No doubt," Forrest said, also rising. "Zero for Two. Not good."
"It's not the guys I'm worried about," Riley said. "It's Professor Walsh."
Graham and Forrest grimaced at the thought. Riley clenched his jaw in anger.
"That does it! We're gonna get this thing," Riley said firmly as he stood. "Forget Hostile 17. I want this one, and I want it dead."
Giles, Willow, and Xander sat on the couch in Giles' apartment, their laps covered with books. Buffy paced behind them.
"A Vahrall demon," Giles announced, passing the book to Willow.
"Eewww!" Willow said as she looked at what was on the page.
Xander looked over Willow's shoulder. "I second that revulsion."
Willow passed the book back to Giles, who read from the text: " 'Slick like gold and gird in moonlight, father of portents and brother to blight.' "
Buffy joined them and read over Giles' shoulder: " 'Limbs with talons, eyes like knives, bane to the blameless, thief of lives.' This thing isn't digging up the bones of a child for fun."
"Well, a demon's got some pretty hilarious ideas about fun," Xander said.
" 'Bones of a child,' though," Willow said, thinking. "I saw that somewhere!"
Willow pulled another book from the stack and flipped through its pages until she found the right one.
"An ancient ritual," Willow explained. "It uses the blood of a man, the bones of a child, and�something called 'The Word of Valios?' I-I-It's all part of a sacrifice, 'The Sacrifice of Three."
"Let me guess," Buffy said, "it ends the world."
"Well, yeah," Willow answered. "I-I-It's not big with the details, though. It doesn't say how the world ends or what the ritual entails exactly."
"The sacrifice of three..." Xander repeated, thinking. Then his eyes grew wide. "Three people are going to die?"
"No, they won't," Buffy said, crossing her arms tightly. "Because 'claw boy' is not getting all of his ingredients. We have to find that third one, 'The Word of Valios,' and keep him from getting it."
"If he doesn't already have it," Willow countered.
"I'll check the magic shop," Buffy said. "I'll see if they've heard of a book called 'The Word of Valios.' Willow, Xander, you two check out the book archives at the museum. And, Giles, you � "
"I'll keep researching here," Giles said. "I've seen that term, 'The Word of Valios,' before. I'll see if I can find it."
Riley walked around the table in the briefing area. His team leaders, along with Graham and Forrest, listened attentively, taking notes.
"Three meters tall, approximately 100 �120 kilograms, based on my visual analysis," Riley stated.
"Special hazards?" one of the team leaders asked.
"Unknown," Riley answered. "Probably nothing we haven't handled before."
"There is no pattern that we can discern yet," Graham added, "so we have to assume that it's on a basic kill-crush-and-destroy."
"Here's one for the good guys," Forrest interjected. "This thing has a pheromone signature a mile wide. I've been working with the detection system the lab's developing. I can't tell where it's going, but I've got a beat on where it's been. Residual traces showing up in populated areas. The thing's not shy."
"Remember, it's strict recon only till we find the thing," Riley reminded. "Once we have its location, we'll mass the troops and storm the place. This isn't a capture, it's a kill."
"Get your quadrant assignments from me," Forrest called as the meeting broke up. "We'll blanket the town."
Now alone in his apartment, Giles sat at his desk and poured over a huge book from his collection. He flipped through one section, then another, before settling on one that seemed to stimulate his memory. He rifled through it quickly, then stopped as he saw the page he was looking for.
The page featured a drawing of a U-shaped decorative charm of some kind. Marking the drawing was the title 'The Word of Valios: 15th Century Talisman.'
"Oh," Giles said, recognizing the talisman immediately. "As usual, dear."
He rose quickly from his desk and opened the large chest behind him. He pulled out a wooden box and brought it to his desk. When he opened the box, it was filled with various types of charms. He reached inside and pulled out The Word of Valios. He looked at it for a moment, then went for his jacket.
Before he could get his jacket on, Giles found himself surrounded by the three Vahrall demons. Giles punched one but was quickly overwhelmed by the other two. They picked Giles up and threw him down onto his coffee table. After the demons had beat him savagely, Giles felt one of them take the talisman from his hand. Then he passed out.
Buffy entered Giles' apartment and was shocked to find Willow and Xander caring for a bruised and bleeding Giles.
"What happened?" Buffy said, rushing over.
"It's my fault," Giles said haltingly. "I should have known."
"Giles, what is it?" Buffy asked.
"The Word of Valios," Giles said, "it's the name of a talisman, not a book. I blame myself entirely. I had it here."
"You had it here?" Xander accused. "Okay, first I thought you were being too hard on yourself, but..."
Willow brought some ice wrapped in towel and handed it to Giles.
"Oh, thank you," Giles said, pressing the ice pack against his head. Then he continued his explanation. "I bought it at a sorcerer's estate sale. I really only glanced at it once. I thought it was a knock-off."
"Well, they have it," Buffy said. "And they probably have their sacrifices by now, too."
"They're on their way to perform the sacrifice now," Giles said.
"On their way where?" Buffy asked. "You found out what the ritual is for?"
"The Hellmouth," Giles stated. "They're going to open the Hellmouth. The one in the old library."
Willow and Xander looked at Buffy with dread in their eyes. Buffy stood up.
"Looks like we're going back to high school," Buffy said.
Buffy, Willow, and Xander entered the ruins of Sunnydale High School.
"Be careful you guys," Xander said, "the place doesn't look too stable."
"When we get to the library," Buffy said, "keep a look-out for the victims they're keeping alive for the sacrifice. Getting them out is the first priority."
"Will do," Willow said.
They left the foyer and walked down a burnt-up and tattered hallway.
"Sunnydale High," Xander said dramatically. "Oh, these walls � if they were still walls � what stories they could tell."
Xander shifted the weapons bag on his shoulder, and then stepped on something squishy.
"Eewww!" Xander said, pulling back in disgust. "Mayor meat, extra crispy," Xander explained, when the other two looked at him.
The trio continued on through the condemned school until they reached what used to be the library.
"Whoa, check out the new floor plan," Willow whispered.
They saw the three Vahrall demons hovered about the fissure. The demons were chanting in their guttural language.
"Three of them," Buffy said.
"I don't see any sacrifice people," Willow said.
"They must be around here somewhere," Xander said. "The ritual is not finished."
"And it's not gonna be," Buffy said as she jumped into the hole that used to be the library.
As Buffy attacked the three demons, Willow and Xander made their way down to the foundation level.
When one of the demons lost the bottle of blood, Xander dropped the weapons bag, hurried over to the bottle, and picked it up.
"The blood! I've got the blood!" Xander said. "Get the talisman. They can't do the ritual without it."
As Buffy continued to pummel the demons, Willow darted in and snatched the bag of bones from a demon's hand.
"I've got the bones!" Willow yelled. Then she tossed them to Xander. "Here!"
Xander tossed them right back to her when one of the Vahrall demons attacked him.
Willow caught the bag of bones and slipped away just before the demon who had held them reached for her.
"You've got the wrong man, dude," Xander joked as his demon continued to beat him. "I've had a lot of practice with my lunch money."
The demon put in one last hit on Xander, took the bottle of blood, ran to the fissure, and jumped into the Hellmouth.
"Okay, I guess I won," Xander said when he realized the demon was no longer attacking him.
The earth began to shake. A look of sudden comprehension came over Xander's face.
"The demons!" he yelled. "They are the sacrifice!"
Willow was still on the run. As her demon closed in, Willow tripped over a chunk of debris and fell sprawling to the ground. The bag of bones flew out of her hand. The demon chasing her scooped up the bag and ran for the Hellmouth. Then he jumped in.
The tremors intensified into a full quake.
"Get out of here!" Buffy yelled to her friends. "The building is going to come down!"
Xander ran to Willow and helped her to her feet.
Buffy continued to fight the last Vahrall demon. When he tackled her to the ground, she picked up a stake and rammed it into the demon's chest. The demon roared in pain, but didn't die. Instead, he swung his arm down, intending to crush Buffy.
His arm was suddenly stopped in mid-motion by Riley, who pulled the demon away from Buffy.
Buffy looked at Riley in total disbelief as he slugged the demon once, then twice, then once more before the demon picked Riley up and threw him across the room. Riley got right up, but then went down again as the demon punched him hard in the gut.
Buffy was up now, and she kicked the demon in the side, sending him straight back to Riley.
"Don't let him jump in the hole!" Buffy yelled to Riley.
While Riley grappled with the demon, Buffy struck blows on the demon's back. The demon roared to his feet, throwing both Buffy and Riley off.
The demon ran to the center of the room, looking for the talisman lost in the fight.
"Buffy!" Willow yelled. "He's getting the talisman!"
Riley jumped to his feet and ran to the demon, tackling the demon as he reached for the talisman. Buffy quickly followed and claimed the talisman. The demon kicked Riley off and stood up.
"Looking for this?" Buffy called, holding up the talisman.
The demon roared in rage and ran at Buffy.
"Xander! Mace!" Buffy yelled.
Xander reached into the weapons bag and pulled out the heavy mace. He threw it at Buffy, and she caught it mid-air.
Just as the last demon reached her, Buffy slammed the talisman on a slab of concrete and brought the mace down on it hard. The energy released from the talisman blew both Buffy and the demon about ten feet back.
As Buffy regained her feet, she watched as the remaining demon started writhing in agony. He thrashed on the ground, screaming, until he disintegrated in a fiery burst. The earthquake stopped.
Riley sat up and stared at the ashy spot that used to be the Vahrall demon. Then he looked over at Buffy. He hung his head and exhaled. Walsh is going to kill me, Riley thought to himself. She is going to chop me into little bits and feed me to the hostiles.
Riley took a deep breath, got to his feet, and brushed himself off. Then he walked over to Buffy and the others.
"Well, hey! Jeez, what are the chances, huh?" Riley said lamely.
Buffy folded her arms and looked at Riley with suspicion.
"Yeah, I was just passing by when I thought I heard people inside," Riley added.
"Passing by in your G.I. Joe outfit?" Willow asked.
Riley looked down at his apparel. "Paintball!" he said suddenly. "Yeah, I was playing paintball. And then the earthquake came and � "
"You're one of those secret commando guys, aren't you?" Xander asked.
"Oh, no. No, no, no," Riley denied. "Commando? No, I mean�I really need to get back. I don't want the guys wondering what happened to me."
Riley dashed from the ruins, leaving Buffy and Willow and Xander alone again. They slowly made their way out of the damaged library and walked once again down the burnt-out hallway.
Buffy walked alone in the lead, carrying the weapons bag while contemplating the ramifications of discovering Riley's secret identity.
Xander and Willow walked side by side, studying the ruins.
"It's kinda weird being back, isn't it?" Xander asked.
"Yeah," Willow agreed. "Everything seems so small. And more charred and ruiny."
Xander leaned over to whisper into Willow's ear. "Is it just me, or is our favorite Slayer a little less than ecstatic about our latest victory?"
"I think she's in a rough Riley-reality-check right now," Willow said.
"You gonna talk to her?" Xander asked.
"Yeah, once we get back to the room," Willow said. "Will you go update Giles?"
"Riley is one of the commandos?" Giles exclaimed. "Oh, dear lord!"
"And 'amen' to that," Xander said.
"I suppose it's too much to ask that Buffy find a 'normal' boyfriend?" Giles lamented.
"Based on her track record," Xander said, "I'm thinking, 'Yes.' "
When Buffy and Willow got back to their dorm room, Buffy walked straight to her closet and set down the weapons bag. Then, for the longest time, she just stood there staring at the bag at her feet.
Willow waited for Buffy to come back into the room. When she didn't, Willow went to where Buffy was standing.
"Are you okay?" Willow asked softly, putting her hand on Buffy's back.
"No, I'm not," Buffy said in a choked voice.
As Willow rubbed Buffy's back in small, comforting circles, Buffy began to cry. Her shoulders shook, and she brought her hands to her face.
"It'll be okay," Willow said, circling her arm around Buffy's waist and giving her a little squeeze. Then she turned Buffy around and pulled her into her arms, hugging her tightly.
At first, Buffy refused to move her hands from her face, but after a moment, Buffy dropped her hands and wrapped her arms around Willow. She buried her face in the crook of Willow's shoulder and continued to cry.
Willow rubbed Buffy's back and rocked her gently. She couldn't bear to see Buffy so distraught. She was determined to comfort her any way she could. She would do for Buffy what Buffy had done for her when Oz had left.
Willow imagined herself in Buffy's bed, lying with Buffy's head on her chest. She imagined holding her and stroking her hair. She imagined whispering comforting words into her ear. She imagined caressing Buffy's tear-stained cheek. She imagined silencing Buffy's whimper with a full kiss on her lips. She �
A loud record-needle scratch went off in Willow's mind, cutting off her errant thoughts.
What is the matter with you? Willow scolded herself.
When Buffy had stopped crying, the two roommates undressed and put on their pajamas. Willow tucked Buffy into her bed, then sat on the edge and held Buffy's hand.
"Do you want me to stay with you?" Willow asked.
"Yes," Buffy answered in a quiet voice.
Willow pulled back the covers and slipped into the bed beside Buffy. Buffy scooted over to make room, then when Willow had settled in, Buffy put her head on Willow's shoulder. Willow wrapped her arms around Buffy and squeezed.
"Better?" Willow asked.
"I always feel better when I'm with you," Buffy replied.
Lindsey McDonald straightened his tie before walking into the executive suite of Wolfram & Hart in Los Angeles. He entered the Senior Partner's office and stood quietly, waiting to be addressed. The Senior Partner turned his chair around and looked at Lindsey.
"We have a problem," the man said, "in Sunnydale."
"What kind of problem?" Lindsey asked.
"A prophecy problem: 'Three shall die, and from their ashes, three shall rise. Should they be joined in love and light, no evil shall stand before their eyes.' "
"The 'Power of Three' ?" Lindsey asked incredulously.
"So say the Seers," the Senior Partner stated.
Lindsey dropped his gaze to the floor and frowned as he considered this new complication. He looked up when the Senior Partner addressed him.
"I want you in Sunnydale," the man said. "Find these three and eliminate them. Understood?"
"Yes, sir," Lindsey said firmly. "Consider it done."
As the afternoon sun shone in their dorm room window, Willow and Buffy sat quietly doing school work, Willow at her desk and Buffy on her bed. After preventing the latest near-apocalypse the night before, the two roommates were actually grateful for the innocently mundane task of simply doing their homework.
Their attention to their books was interrupted by a soft knock. Willow rose to answer the door. When she opened it, Riley was there.
"Riley," Willow said, surprised.
"Hey, Willow," Riley said. "Is Buffy here?" he asked.
"Ummm�yeah," Willow said, opening the door to let Riley in.
"Hey," Riley said to Buffy.
"Hey," Buffy replied, setting her books aside and moving to the edge of her bed.
Willow stood behind Riley, unsure of what to do. She felt a strong urge to stay, to protect Buffy from the discomforting and possibly painful conversation that was certain to follow. The ensuing silence between Riley and Buffy convinced Willow that she should leave the two alone. She moved to her desk and started packing her books and papers.
"You know what?" Willow said, "I'm just gonna take this study session to the library. I've got some research to do anyway."
Riley and Buffy looked in Willow's direction, then back at each other, then down at their feet.
When Willow got to the door, she turned around, and Buffy looked up. "I'll see you later?" she asked out loud; then she mouthed silently, "Will you be okay?"
Buffy nodded, and Willow slipped out of the room.
Willow closed the door to her dorm room, but didn't leave right away. She touched the surface of the door and listened. Then she shook her head and moved away from the door, deciding that she shouldn't eavesdrop. She sighed and walked away.
Again, Riley and Buffy looked at each other and then away. Another long silence fell between them. Riley finally sat on the edge of Willow's bed.
"I guess we have to talk," Riley said.
"I guess we do," Buffy replied.
Instead of talking, they looked at the floor and the wall and the window, only occasionally glancing at each other.
"Somebody should speak before one of us graduates," Buffy said.
Riley sighed and got up. After a moment of pacing, he turned back to Buffy.
"What are you?" he asked.
"Capricorn on the cusp of Aquarius," Buffy said, annoyed. "You?"
"Sorry," Riley said. "That came out a little blunter than I intended. It's just�you are amazing! Your speed, your strength � "
"Also passionate, artistic, and inquisitive," Buffy added. Then she asked bluntly, "Who are you?"
"You know who I am," Riley insisted as he sat back down. "The rest�what I do�I can't tell you."
"Well, then let me," Buffy said, standing. "You're part of some military monster squad that captures demons and vampires. You probably have some official-sounding euphemisms for them, like 'unfriendlies' or 'non-sapiens'."
"Hostile Sub Terrestrials," Riley supplied nervously.
"So you deliver these�HST's to a bunch of lab coats, who study them, do experiments on them, learn how to better deal with the demonic threat. How am I doing so far?" Buffy asked.
"A little too well," Riley said.
"Meanwhile, by day, you pretend to be Riley Finn, corn-fed Iowa boy," Buffy said, staring Riley down. "Ever been to Iowa, Riley? God, if that's even your name!"
"It is," Riley said firmly. "And hey, bulletin: I'm not the only one who's been a little less than honest here."
"I thought a professional demon chaser like yourself would have figured it out by now. I'm the Slayer," Buffy stated matter-of-factly.
Riley looked at Buffy blankly.
"Slay-er?" Buffy prompted. "Chosen One?"
Riley seemed lost.
"She who hangs out a lot in cemeteries?" Buffy tried.
Riley still didn't get it.
"You're kidding?" Buffy asked Riley.
When he didn't respond, Buffy walked a few feet away.
"Ask around," she suggested, "Look it up: 'Slayer' comma 'the'."
"And you fight demons?" Riley inquired. "I mean, you wailed on those guys last night."
"You did pretty well yourself," Buffy admitted.
"But I'm a walking bruise today," Riley said. "I don't see a scratch on you."
"You're not looking hard enough," Buffy replied.
"I'm looking pretty hard," Riley insisted.
Buffy took a deep breath. Both of them looked away again.
"So, then�what do we do?" Riley asked.
"I don't know," Buffy said. "I just�I really thought that you were a nice, normal guy."
"I am a nice, normal guy," Riley said.
"Maybe by this town's standards, but I'm not grading on a curve," Buffy said. "I think we both need a little time to�process everything. Maybe then � "
"Yeah," Riley agreed a little too quickly. "Yeah, I think that's a good idea."
Buffy and Riley made one final long look at each other. Then Riley headed for the door. Halfway there, he turned back to Buffy.
"Oh, I don't think I need to tell you � " he said.
"I won't say a word," Buffy assured him.
Riley smiled weakly and nodded. Then he left the room.
Willow hardly noticed her surroundings as she trudged towards the UC Sunnydale library. She was too busy worrying about Buffy.
Buffy hadn't wanted to talk when they had returned from the old high school, but she had cried � cried like Willow hadn't seen her do in quite some time. Willow imagined that it was the sense of betrayal that was upsetting Buffy so. Buffy had seemed so relieved to have found a guy who was normal, one who wouldn't hurt her or betray her. Now she had learned that Riley was one of the secret commandoes. And who knows what they were really up to?
Secrets, Willow thought as she stopped on the library steps. Secrets are bad. They always come back to haunt you. Willow retreated from the library steps and headed for Tara's dorm.
Tara's heart leapt when she saw Willow at her door. She had just been thinking of the beautiful redhead, remembering the night that Willow had stayed over. For the last two days, she and Willow hadn't been able to get together except for a few minutes here and there. Tara had been finding the separation difficult to handle. But now Willow was here, and that was all that mattered.
"Hey, come on in," Tara said with a wide smile.
"Thanks," Willow said, smiling in return.
Once Tara had shut the door, the two women eagerly but somewhat shyly moved into a deep hug, which was followed by a short but sweet kiss. They separated and headed for the bed to sit down, linking hands as they crossed the room.
"So, did you and Buffy get your psychology project finished?" Tara asked.
Willow was confused for a moment until she remembered the white lie she had given Tara to explain her tied-up schedule the last two days.
"Oh. Right. Yeah," Willow said. "See, I-I-I'm so over it that I've already repressed the memory of it."
Willow winced inside. I'm lying to her again, she thought. I just can't do that. I've got to tell her the truth. Willow looked down at their joined hands.
"Tara," Willow said solemnly, "I need to tell you something."
Tara's heart lurched, and her smile fell away. Oh, god, here it comes, she thought. The it-was-all-a-mistake speech. Tara felt her eyes welling up with tears.
"I-I-I haven't been completely honest with you," Willow said, "and some recent events have made me realize that not telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth can have serious repercussions."
Tara couldn't look at Willow any more. She dropped her gaze to her lap and pulled her hand away.
Willow wished that Tara would look at her, but she wasn't going to push the issue. She decided to keep going.
"What I have to tell you � it's about me and Buffy," Willow continued, "about what we've been doing the last two days."
Tara inwardly chastised herself. I knew there was something between them, I knew it, and I still�
"We weren't working on a psychology project," Willow confessed.
Of course, you weren't, Tara thought, you were �
"We were saving the world."
Huh? Tara thought, looking up suddenly at Willow's words, not completely sure she had heard correctly.
"What?" Tara said.
"I know this is going to sound completely insane, but�Buffy and I�we're part of a team of-of-of�people who...fight demons."
Willow said those last two words quickly, then cringed slightly, waiting for the backlash of incredulous laughter. When she didn't get it, Willow looked up and saw a surprised but not unbelieving Tara. Tara didn't speak, though, so Willow continued.
"See, Buffy is the Slayer," Willow said. "It's her sacred duty to defend humanity from vampires and other demons. And me and Xander and Giles, we help Buffy do that. We're like the Scooby Gang, only we fight real monsters instead of fake ones and we don't have a cool Mystery Van."
"We've been doing it since high school. I-I-It's one of the reasons that I started practicing witchcraft," Willow explained. "In fact, our old high school was built on top of a Hellmouth. The last two days, we've been trying to prevent the Hellmouth from being opened by bunch of Vahrall demons."
"You know that earthquake the other day? The one when our rose spell went crazy?" Willow prompted. "It was caused by the ritual that the demons were doing. And last night? We barely stopped them in time, but as you can see, we're all here, so no apocalypse."
Since Tara had seemed unable to form words, Willow had just babbled along. But now that her babble had reached its end, Willow stopped and waited for Tara to say something.
"You're a�d-d-demon fighter?" Tara asked finally.
Willow nodded and then shrugged. "I know it sounds crazy, but � "
"No, it's okay," Tara said, interrupting. "I-I-I know about d-d-demons. I'm just surprised that you�" Tara didn't finish that sentence.
"What's the matter? Can't see me as a super-hero?" Willow teased.
"No, it's not that," Tara said, a little embarrassed.
Willow nudged Tara playfully. "Don't worry," Willow said. "I'm just the sidekick."
Willow paused for a moment, then continued. "Anyway, to make a long story even longer, I just wanted you to know the truth about me, about who I am and what I do." Willow took Tara's hand again. "Because I don't want any untold secrets to get in the way of�whatever this is between us. Because�I want this."
Tara couldn't believe her ears. She smiled and squeezed Willow's hand.
"I do too," Tara said softly.
Willow smiled in return, then leaned in for a kiss.
Riley and Forrest were dressed in their commando fatigues. They walked down a white-walled corridor in the maze that was the Initiative underground base.
"What's a Slayer?" Riley asked Forrest.
"Slayer?" Forrest replied. "Thrash Band. Anvil handed guitar band with delusions of Black Sabbath."
"No," Riley corrected. "A girl with powers."
"Oh, 'The Slayer'," Forrest said. "Oh, yeah, I've heard of the Slayer."
"Fill me in," Riley said.
"Well, the way I got it figured," Forrest explained, "the Slayer is like some kind of boogey man for the Sub Terrestrials, something they tell their little spawn to make them eat their vegetables and clean up their slime pits."
"You're telling me she doesn't exist?" Riley said.
"Oh, wait a sec. Am I bursting somebody's bubble here? Maybe this is a bad time to tell you about the Easter Bunny!" Forrest laughed. "Sorry, sorry! It's a myth, Ri. All part of that medieval folklore garbage that kooks dream up to explain the things that we deal with every day. Why're you so interested in the Slayer anyway?" Forrest asked.
"Oh, no reason," Riley said. "It just came up, that's all."
After Willow left, Tara closed the door, but still stood in front of it. She briefly touched her lips and then smiled and giggled to herself. She was giddy, just plain giddy. There was no other way to describe how she felt. She replayed each touch and each kiss in her mind. She savored Willow's words: I want this. 'This' meaning her. Willow actually wanted to pursue a relationship with her. The thought still astounded Tara. She sighed wistfully.
Then Tara remembered why Willow had come over in the first place. Tara's giddiness instantly evaporated. Willow had come to clear the air so that there would be no secrets between them. Tara felt her gut wrench.
You should come clean, too, Tara's logical self told her. It would be better to tell Willow now than to have it come out later.
No, I can't! Tara answered.
It'll come out eventually, her logical self insisted. You know that.
I know, but�not yet. There's time, Tara countered.
That night, sword in hand, Buffy patrolled one of the smaller, older cemeteries in Sunnydale. As she did so, she tried not to think about her personal problems. She failed miserably, of course. For every step she took, there was a thought about Riley or Willow. Buffy swatted a nearby hedge with her sword.
Suddenly, Buffy heard a suspicious sound coming from a large mausoleum. She thanked the powers-that-be for the welcome distraction from her own thoughts.
As Buffy got closer to the crypt, she heard what sounded like growling. The growling was so deep and so loud that she knew it must be coming from a creature that was big. Buffy peeked in the broken window of the mausoleum.
It was big. Huge, in fact. It was tall and bulky with a large midsection. A long sleeveless black robe covered most of its body. It was gray-skinned, with patches of black, and its head was somewhat skeletal in appearance. Thousands of tiny tendrils came from its head and spilled down its back in a demon's version of long hair. It had no nose, only a small slit with fibrous membranes on each side that moved in and out as the creature breathed. Its eyes were black with a yellow glow in the middle. Most of its face was taken up by a large mouth, filled with razor-sharp teeth. The demon seemed to be breathing hard, as if it were in pain.
Maybe it's hurt already, Buffy thought. That'd be a plus. I'm gonna need an advantage with this one.
Buffy slipped quietly to the front door of the crypt. She took a deep breath and then kicked in the heavy metal door.
The door flew into the mausoleum, hitting the demon in the back and sending it to the floor. Before Buffy could even get halfway down the stairs, the door was flung right back at her. Buffy dove to the crypt floor, rolled, and jumped to her feet.
Buffy jabbed and swiped at the demon with her sword, but never made contact. She was surprised by how fast and nimble the demon was, given its size. After avoiding yet another thrust by Buffy, the demon suddenly went on the offensive, smacking Buffy in the face once then twice, then knocking the sword from her hand. The blade went clattering across the concrete floor. The demon grabbed Buffy by the neck and lifted her off the ground. Fear rose up in Buffy's eyes.
Willow was asleep at her desk, her head resting on an open book, a highlighter loosely held in her grip.
Suddenly, Willow jolted awake and sat up.
"Buffy!" Willow cried in terror.
She turned and looked at Buffy's bed. It was empty. She looked at the clock, nearly midnight.
Then just as quickly as it came, the feeling of terror was gone.
"I must've been dreaming," Willow said to herself.
She shook her head and turned her attention back to the book in front of her.
Buffy pulled at the demon's hand uselessly as it squeezed her throat. Then the demon threw Buffy to the other side of the room. She hit the stone wall hard and fell to the floor, face down, dazed and gasping for air. The demon came towards her.
Buffy struggled to her knees and tried desperately to find her sword. She retrieved her blade and stumbled to her feet with her back against the wall. As Buffy tried to regain her breath, the demon closed in.
Abruptly, the demon stopped. It hunched over and roared at Buffy in rage. Then it stood up straight and disappeared in a flash of light.
Buffy stared open-mouthed at the now-vacant spot where the demon had been.
"I know it's late," Buffy said, gingerly touching her bruised jaw. "But this one seemed more important than my usual graveyard fare."
Giles handed Buffy an ice pack. She smiled and took it. "Thanks," Buffy said, placing the ice pack on her jaw.
"I told her you wouldn't mind," Willow said to Giles.
"Quite right," Giles agreed. "Tell me everything that happened."
Giles listened intently as Buffy described in detail her encounter with the huge gray-skinned demon.
"So, it just stopped, mid-fight, and-and disappeared?" Giles asked.
"Yeah, that was what was so weird, Giles," Buffy said. "It had knocked the crap out of me, it probably could've finished me off right then and there, but it didn't. It just roared at me and poof! it was gone."
"You said earlier that you thought the creature might have been hurt?" Giles inquired.
"I'm not sure," Buffy said. "Before I started fighting it, it did seem to be in pain, but who knows?"
"If it was hurt, that might explain why it didn't stick around," Willow said.
"We have to find this thing," Buffy said worriedly. "I've got a very bad feeling about it."
"Well, clearly, physical tracking is out of the question," Giles said.
"Yeah, kinda hard to track a teleporter," Buffy agreed.
"Maybe if we knew what kind of demon it was, we could figure out what it was up to and where it might be," Willow suggested.
"I guess a research party is in order," Buffy said without enthusiasm.
"I'll get started on it," Giles said, "and then the rest of you can join me after class tomorrow, all right?"
"Sounds like a plan," Buffy said.
As Buffy and Willow made their way from Giles' apartment back to campus, they walked slowly, due to Buffy's post-fight condition. Willow heard Buffy wince in pain.
"Are you sure you don't need to go the emergency room?" Willow asked.
"No, I'll be fine," Buffy said. "I'm just sore. Slayer healing will take care of it."
"You shouldn't have been alone out there tonight," Willow said worriedly. "You could've been hurt really bad, a-a-and then no one � "
"Will, I can take care of myself, I patrol alone all the time," Buffy said, reassuring Willow.
"Well, maybe you shouldn't, it's too dangerous," Willow countered. "You said yourself that this demon could've finished you off. It was just pure dumb luck that it didn't."
"Danger comes with the job description," Buffy said stoically.
"But, you were afraid, weren't you?" Willow asked softly. "When the demon came for you?"
Buffy stopped in her tracks.
How did she � ? Buffy thought, before clamping down on the memory of the terror she had felt when facing the demon.
Willow stood in front of Buffy and took her hand.
"Buffy, please," Willow begged, "promise me you won't try to take on this demon alone. Let's make this a full Scooby effort, okay?"
Buffy searched Willow's eyes, seeing the love and deep concern that were there. Buffy wished that the love she saw was the same as her own, but she knew it wasn't. Buffy dropped her gaze.
"Okay," Buffy whispered, pulling her hand from Willow's grasp.
The two women walked the rest of the way home in silence.
A long black limousine pulled up in front of the condemned Sunnydale High School. The driver got out, opened the back door, and held the door open. Lindsey got out. He straightened his tie and jacket. The driver handed him a heavy-duty black flashlight. Lindsey turned to watch as another person exited the other side of the vehicle.
An old crone tottered around the tail of the car and stood facing the old high school. She rocked in place and shook her wrinkled hands before her.
"What is it, Zephenia?" Lindsey asked.
"Yes, yes," she cackled, "here it was, yes, yes, down we must go, down we must go, yes, yes, the three, the three�"
Zephenia continued to rattle on as she moved towards the entrance to the school. Lindsey clicked on his flashlight and followed.
When they reached the ruined library and moved to the foundation level, Zephenia crept about the space, humming and hissing to herself. She darted to the Hellmouth and ran her hands through the air as if she were feeling its very essence. Then she turned and moved to a spot several feet away, where a burned area could be clearly seen. She knelt and touched the blackened ashes.
"Yes, yes, the three did die, died they did, right here, right here," she ranted. "Died, died�died at the hands of the Slayer."
"The Slayer?" Lindsey asked.
"She, she, one of the three," Zephenia continued as she rose to her feet, "but there is no three, no, no, two who love the one, yes, yes, the one torn between the two, yes, yes, the one who once loved the two, yes, yes, but no three, no three, not here, not here."
Zephenia waved her hand in dismissal and started back up the rubble.
"No three here, not yet, not yet," Zephenia repeated to herself as Lindsey rolled his eyes and followed her out of the ruins.
The next day, the gang was in full research mode at Giles' apartment. Giles was at his desk, hunched over a book. Xander and Anya were doing the same as they sat side by side on Giles' couch. Buffy was alone in a nearby chair, while Willow lay on the floor next to the coffee table, three books open before her.
"I found it!" Buffy cried out.
Everyone looked up from their research when they heard Buffy's voice. Buffy stood up and brought the book to the coffee table. Xander and Anya cleared a space while Giles and Willow both got up and joined them.
"It's a Shaggy-Tooth Drain-Beak," Buffy supplied happily.
"A what?" Xander asked.
"A Shagritoth Banesdrake," Willow corrected.
"And I say again, 'A what'?" Xander said.
"It's your basic crush-and-kill kind of demon, although it's rare in this dimension," Willow answered, reading from the book.
"When it has appeared in our dimension, it's been notoriously difficult to kill," Giles picked up, "due to its strength and speed and its ability to teleport over short distances."
"I can vouch for that," Buffy said, raising her hand.
"So, how do we kill this thing?" Anya asked. "You know, before it decides to crush and kill us?"
"It�ummm�it doesn't say," Giles said, checking the passage. "But it does reference a particular spell�"
Giles got up and went to his bookshelf. He scanned the volumes until he found the text he was looking for. He pulled the book and flipped through it. He stopped on a particular page and read silently for a moment.
"Giles, what is it?" Buffy asked. "What did you find?"
When Giles finished reading, his shoulders slumped, and he pulled off his glasses. He handed the book to Willow.
"It's a specialized locator spell, designed just for teleporting demons," Giles said.
"That's great!" Buffy exclaimed. "It's just what we need!"
"Yes, well, unfortunately, it requires two witches to perform it," Giles replied, returning his glasses to their place.
"And we've only got one," Xander finished. "I knew we should've ordered the double-pack!"
"Why don't I get Tara to do the spell with me?" Willow offered.
"Tara?" Giles asked, confused. "Who's Tara?"
"We can't, Willow," Buffy said. "That would mean letting her in on what we do. I mean, we don't even know her, if we can even trust her."
"Of course we can trust her," Willow insisted. "Tara's a good person, I know it, I can feel it."
"Ummm�who's Tara?" Giles asked again, but was ignored.
"Will, I just don't think it's a good idea to bring in an outsider � " Buffy said before being interrupted by Giles loudly clearly his throat.
"Will someone please tell me who Tara is?" Giles said.
"Oh, she's Willow's new friend from Wicca group," Anya supplied. "We met her the other night at the Bronze."
"She's a really powerful witch," Willow said. "And I know she could do the spell with me."
Willow paused and looked down at her hands. Then she continued in a quiet voice. "Besides, I kinda already told her about us."
"What?" Buffy and Giles and Xander demanded simultaneously.
"I had to, okay?" Willow whined. "I just couldn't lie to her about it." Willow paused again. "Anyway, it was only a matter of time before it came up. Anyone who hangs out with us is going to find out eventually."
Giles put his hands on his hips and looked down at Willow. "You really shouldn't have done that without discussing it with us first," he chided.
Buffy and Xander echoed Giles' sentiments with twin glares in Willow's direction.
"I'm sorry," Willow said, "but I really think Tara could be an asset to the group. Like now, for instance."
After a moment of silence, Giles rubbed his forehead and shrugged. "Well, we don't have another option at this point," he admitted. "The spell itself isn't dangerous. If Tara could simply help us locate the demon, she wouldn't have to be present when we confronted it. Do you think she would be willing to help?"
"Yes, I do," Willow said.
"All right, then," Giles said.
"I'll go see her right now," Willow said excitedly. "If she agrees and I can get the ingredients, we can do the spell tonight."
Willow turned to Buffy and looked at her hopefully.
Buffy was still a little put out, but she nodded at Willow, giving her approval. Willow smiled broadly and got up. She put the spell book in her bag and went to the front door.
"I'll call you when I know something," Willow said as she headed out the door.
After leaving her fellow Scoobies, Willow went directly to the magic shop. She was pleased to discover that the store had all of the necessary supplies and ingredients that were required for the spell. She completed her purchase and exited the store with a skip in her step. She went directly to Tara's dorm.
She knocked on Tara's door with a perky five-knock staccato and waited anxiously for Tara to answer the door. Within a few seconds, Tara appeared.
"Howdy!" Willow said cheerfully.
"Hey," Tara said, her face lighting up at the sight of her favorite redhead.
Tara stepped aside, allowing Willow to come in. As Willow passed by, Tara noticed the bag from the magic shop.
"You must want to do a spell," Tara said.
"How did you know?" Willow asked.
"The bag from the magic shop is a dead giveaway," Tara said, pointing.
"I hope you don't think that I just come over for the spells," Willow said nervously. "I mean, I really like just talking and hanging out with you and�ummm�doing other stuff."
"I know that," Tara said reassuringly. Then she added, "But�you wanna do a spell."
"Yeah," Willow admitted sheepishly. "But only because it's really important!"
"No, you don't have to explain," Tara insisted. "I don't mind, really."
"It's not dangerous or anything," Willow said, "but it does take two witches to do it, and naturally, I thought of you."
"What's it supposed to do?" Tara asked, leading Willow towards the bed so that they could sit down.
"It's a demon locator spell," Willow answered as she sat at the foot of Tara's bed.
Tara froze in place as she was clearing some books off the head of the bed. She recovered quickly, hoping that Willow hadn't noticed her hesitation. She finished setting the books aside and sat down.
"A�ummm�demon locator spell, huh?" Tara asked, trying to steady her voice.
"Yeah, see, Buffy encountered this really bad demon last night," Willow said, "but she couldn't slay it. Now we have to find it before it does some serious damage to Sunnydale. So, you wanna help us out, maybe be an honorary Scooby for the day?"
"I�ummm�I guess," Tara mumbled uncertainly. "I don't know h-h-how much good I'll be."
"You'll be great!" Willow insisted. "You should have more faith in yourself."
The sun had just gone down by the time Willow and Tara had finished going over the spell together. The spell itself wasn't that difficult, but the timing of it was critical. Willow stood and looked out the window. Then she turned back to Tara.
"Ready?" Willow asked.
Tara nodded silently, and Willow joined her on the floor in the center of the room. There they had laid out an altar cloth, on top of which they had placed a strand of twine in the shape of a circle. At the four points of the cloth were clusters of crystals, but the circle itself contained nothing. Both Tara and Willow had a small bowl before them. Tara's contained a shimmering green sand; Willow's contained a silvery white sand.
"Okay," Willow said, "if we do this correctly, a mist should form above the altar, and in it, we should see a vision of the demon's location."
"But timing is crucial," she continued. "Once we complete the incantation, we have to blow the sands upon the altar at the exact same time."
"Got it," Tara said.
"Let's do it," Willow said.
Willow and Tara both scooped up a handful of their individual potions and then closed their eyes. They breathed deeply for a moment to center themselves, and then Tara began.
"Thespia," Tara intoned, "we walk in shadow, we walk in blindness. You are the protector of the night."
"Thespia," Willow continued, "Goddess, Ruler of all darkness, we implore you. Open a window to the world of the under-beings. Reveal to us that which we seek."
With her eyes still closed, Willow lifted her hand and opened it so that the white sand lay flat on her palm.
At the same moment, Tara opened her eyes, looked at Willow, and frowned painfully. Then she dumped her green sand into her pocket.
"With your knowledge, may we go in safety. With your grace, may we speak of your benevolence," Willow said, completing the incantation.
As Willow began to blow her sand onto the altar, Tara pretended to do the same. When she had finished, Willow opened her eyes and watched the altar in anticipation. Nothing happened.
"Or not," Willow said, confused.
Tara looked down at her hands, then back up at Willow. I'm sorry, Tara said to Willow in her mind.
Willow paused outside Giles' door and took a deep breath. Time to face the music, Willow thought to herself. She pushed the door open and went inside.
Buffy was surprised when she heard the door and saw Willow walk in. Giles and Xander and Anya were surprised as well.
"Will, I thought you were gonna call," Buffy said.
"I was," Willow said, shrugging, "but I decided I had to deliver the bad news in person."
"What bad news?" Buffy asked.
"The spell�i-i-it didn't work," Willow confessed, hanging her head. After a moment, she raised it again. "I'm sorry, Buffy. We tried, we really did, but it just didn't work."
"What did it do?" Giles asked.
"Nothing," Willow replied. "Nothing at all."
"Maybe Tara's not the witch you thought she was," Buffy commented.
"She is," Willow insisted. "I don't know what went wrong with the spell, but it wasn't Tara's fault. It was probably written down wrong or something."
"You're blaming this on a typo?" Buffy accused.
"No, Willow's quite right," Giles said, "it's entirely possible that the original spell was recorded incorrectly. It's happened before."
"So, we're back at square one," Anya said.
"Not square one," Giles countered. "We do know what kind of demon we're dealing with, what its characteristics and abilities are."
"Okay, we're at square two, when square ten is where we need to be," Anya amended.
"You know, we are overlooking one possibility here," Xander interjected. When everyone looked at him expectantly, he continued. "The commando squad. They're bound to have some kind of database on demon-kind, right?"
"Ummm�yes, I imagine they would," Giles admitted, "although I'm not sure we can trust them."
"Hell, they might even have a weapon that would work against this thing," Xander added. "And since one of us happens to be tight with a certain one of them � "
"No," Buffy said firmly, cutting Xander off. "We leave Riley and his commando friends out of this. I don't trust them."
"Well, what do we do now, then?" Willow asked.
"You keep looking," Buffy said to the group as she went to claim her weapons bag. "Find a way to kill the thing." Buffy pulled a walkie-talkie from the bag, turned it on, and clipped it on her belt. Then she threw the bag's strap over her shoulder and went to the door. "I'll patrol, see if I can find it again."
Buffy left before anyone could object.
Buffy didn't get far before she heard someone following her.
"Buffy!" Willow called out. "Buffy, wait!"
Buffy stopped, and Willow joined her.
"What?" Buffy said in annoyance as she set the weapons bag down.
"Buffy, you said you wouldn't try to take on this demon alone, you promised me," Willow said, her face creased with worry.
"I'm not," Buffy said. "I'm just going to find it, not fight it."
Willow moved closer and touched Buffy's arm. Buffy tried not to feel anything, but she couldn't help it. Her heart began to race.
"Please be careful," Willow pleaded.
"I will," Buffy said.
Willow pulled Buffy into a hug. Buffy didn't immediately return the hug, but after a moment, she couldn't resist putting her arms around Willow and feeling the warmth of her body once more. She nuzzled her face into Willow's hair.
I wish I could stay here forever, Buffy thought. But I can't.
Buffy gently pulled out of the hug, but not completely. She and Willow were still touching, still holding, neither wanting to let go. They stared into each other's eyes, lost, motionless. They both felt it � the heat rising between them and in them. They both knew that if they stood there long enough, they would kiss � the sheer magnetism of their attraction pulling them together in some primal way.
Buffy stepped away, and without another word, she picked up her weapons bag and strode off toward the cemeteries, leaving a saddened Willow behind.
Lindsey walked into his hotel suite with an exhausted look on his face. He pulled off his jacket and set it on the recliner. He loosened his tie and then removed it. Then he unbuttoned his shirt. He drew his hand through his hair and exhaled.
He sat on the sofa for a moment. Then he leaned forward and picked up the phone and punched in the numbers. He drew a deep breath as he listened to the phone ring.
"Yes?" the Senior Partner answered.
"I have a report, sir," Lindsey said.
"Ah, Lindsey," the Senior Partner said. "How are things in Sunnydale?"
"They're fine, sir," Lindsey said.
"What have you discovered?" the Senior Partner asked.
" 'Three shall die' � I've discovered what the prophecy refers to," Lindsey explained. "Three Vahrall demons attempted to open the Hellmouth via the 'Sacrifice of Three'. They failed."
"And the three that shall rise?"
"I�haven't confirmed that as yet, sir," Lindsey said nervously, "but it appears that the Slayer is one of the three."
"Oh, my," the Senior Partner said, chuckling, "I suppose she'll have to die then, won't she?"
"Yes, sir," Lindsey said, swallowing hard.
A few hours later, Willow and the rest of the gang were still pouring over the books. Willow was finding it very difficult to concentrate. She knew she had started reading the same sentence on the page before her at least twenty times and had never made it to the end. She would always stop and look at the front door or glance at the clock and think of Buffy.
Willow shook her head in frustration. She decided to meditate for a moment to clear her mind. She closed her eyes and freed her hands so that they were lying openly on her lap. She breathed deeply, inhaling and exhaling in a regular pattern. She imagined a calming scene: the park, the one with the trees and the lake and the little stream with a wooden bridge that �
Willow's pleasant scene was shattered as a crushing pain struck her chest. Her whole body jerked in reaction.
"Buffy!" Willow screamed in anguish, frightening everyone in Giles' living room.
"Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, Will!" Xander exclaimed, holding his hand to his heart. "Are you trying to � "
"Oh my god," Willow said, scrambling to her feet. "It's Buffy, something's wrong!"
"How do you�how do you know this?" Giles asked.
"I-I-I felt it, just now. We have to find her!" Willow said frantically, beginning to cry.
"Did you get any sense of where she was?" Giles asked.
"No, just her and-and pain," Willow said.
"Okay, weapons, radios, flashlights," Xander said, going to Giles' wooden chest.
"I'll call Tara and take the campus area," Willow said, moving to the phone.
"Anya and I will take the other side," Xander said.
"I'll start here and circle my way out," Giles said.
Willow and Tara worked their way through the wooded areas between the university and the town itself. When they reached the top of a knoll, they scanned their surroundings. Once again, there was no sign of Buffy.
"Oh god, we're never going to find her like this!" Willow said, choking up.
Willow plopped onto the ground and held her head in her hands. She began to cry.
Tara knelt beside Willow and stroked her back. Tara stifled a sob as she felt Willow's pain and frustration. This is all your fault! Tara screamed at herself. If you hadn't sabotaged that spell � Tara shook her head to clear the damning thoughts from her mind. She didn't have time for self-condemnation.
"Willow?" Tara said softly, "M-M-Maybe you should try to meditate again. I mean, that's how you connected with her before."
Willow looked up at Tara's suggestion. "Yeah, I should," Willow said with hope in her eyes.
Willow rearranged herself so that she was sitting in a cross-legged position, her forearms relaxed on her thighs, her hands palm up and open. She closed her eyes and began.
Then she stopped and opened her eyes. She turned to Tara and took her hand.
"Help me?" Willow asked.
"Are you sure?" Tara countered.
"Yes," Willow said.
Tara took her place across from Willow and duplicated her position. They joined hands as they had done in the rose spell. They closed their eyes. With Tara adding her energy, Willow repeated her calming preparations. Soon she was at the pleasant park scene once again.
As before, intense pain quickly hit Willow. Willow jerked once and began shaking. Tara kept her grip on Willow's hands.
"Stay with it, Willow," Tara said. "Concentrate. Is she close? Is she nearby?"
Willow's brow furrowed. "Yes, yes! She's close!"
"Which way?" Tara prompted. "In front of you, behind you�?"
Again Willow's face creased. "In front of me, the way we were going."
"Okay, now open your eyes, but keep the connection," Tara instructed. "We're gonna go down the hill. I'm gonna do the looking, and you focus on what you're feeling, okay?"
Willow nodded. Tara helped Willow to her feet. Then, holding hands, the two witches started down the hillside.
About halfway down, Willow said, "It's getting stronger." She paused and tried to concentrate. "More to the right," she said. "Oh, god, she's hurting so bad!"
"I know," Tara said sadly, feeling it too.
When they got to the end of the hill, they crossed a wide meadow and found a large craggy gully on its right edge. Tara shined her light into the gully, sweeping slowly from side to side. Then a flash caught her eye. She moved the beam back to that spot.
"Oh, god," Tara said.
"What?" Willow said frantically. "Do you see her?"
Willow looked where Tara was pointing. Then she saw Buffy. She was lying face down at the bottom of the gully next to pile of boulders, and she wasn't moving.
"You go on down," Tara said, "I'll call the others, and tell them where we are."
Willow nodded and started to pick her way slowly down the side of the gully.
"Buffy?" Willow called. "Buffy, can you hear me?"
Willow got no response.
"Buffy, I'm almost there! Help is on the way, so just hang on," Willow encouraged as she climbed over a series of rocky formations.
Again, Willow heard no reply.
Finally, Willow was able to reach Buffy, and she fell on her knees at Buffy's side. When that wasn't good enough, she lay completely down on the ground right next to Buffy. She pushed Buffy's hair out of her face. Tears sprang to Willow's eyes when she saw how bruised and battered it was.
"Buffy?" Willow whispered in a choked voice.
Buffy's eyes fluttered open and met Willow's.
"Oh, thank god!" Willow cried. "You're alive!"
Buffy's eyes filled with tears. "I'm sorry, Will," Buffy said, "I'm so sorry."
"Don't be," Willow said, "don't be. Everything's gonna be fine now. You'll see."
Willow heard a helicopter in the distance, and she turned over and looked up the hill at Tara. She saw Tara move into a stance of supplication, and she felt Tara pulling energy from the earth. She saw Tara look up and point at the sky. Willow was amazed when a sphere of light exited Tara's hand and shot up into the sky, just like a flare. It came straight down and landed on a nearby boulder, still shining brightly. Willow heard the helicopter get closer. Then she saw its lights clear the trees. It was landing in the meadow.
Willow turned back to Buffy, smiling. But her smile fell away. Buffy's eyes were closed now.
"Buffy?" Willow cried, touching Buffy's shoulder but getting no response. "Buffy!"
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