The Power of Three Book Two

Parts 1-6

by DragonWriter17

Copyright (c) 2006

Rating: NC-17 (for language, violence, and sexual situations)
Content Advisory: This book eventually contains extreme violence, including torture and sexual assault. You can read Parts 1-6 safely. After that, the book turns dark. It does end happily, though, I promise.
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.
Distribution: The Mystic Muse: Cyber Lair: If you are interested in posting my story on your site, please contact me first for permission.
The Mystic Muse:
Spoilers: For Book One: The end of Season 4's "Wild At Heart" and beyond. For Book Two: None, really. It's mostly original material.
Feedback: Yes, but only if it's of the non-flamey variety.
Author's Note: (1) Early in Book One, I 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. Book Two is mostly original material. (2) If you haven't read my back history story for Tara, "Out of Shadow into Light," you need to because it is critical to Book 2. (3) There's a side story that comes along in Part 13; it's called "Pony Time." Watch for the link embedded in the story. (4) Late in the book I've borrowed two things from Watchers: a ritual and a character (Althenea Dimmons). There is an endnote explaining what I borrowed. (5) Thanks as always to Lilly for her invaluable feedback and editing.
Pairing: Buffy/Willow/Tara; Wishverse Faith/Wishverse Vamp Willow
Summary: With the resident evils at all-time low, Buffy and Willow and Tara have time to focus on themselves--both on their new relationship and on their new powers. As they start the process of moving in together off campus, they become the target of a plot by Wolfram & Hart.

PART 01    PART 02    PART 03    PART 04    PART 05    PART 06
There will be a link to Parts 07-16 at the bottom of the page.
But read the content advisory before proceeding to Part 07.




It was late afternoon, the day after Lindsey had finished giving his full report on the recent events in Sunnydale. Now Lindsey stood before Holland Manners' desk, awaiting news of his fate at Wolfram and Hart. When Holland glared coldly at him, Lindsey fought the panic in his stomach and forced himself to look his superior in the eyes.

"The Senior Partners are not pleased, Lindsey," Holland told the young lawyer. "The Three have Joined and come into their full power. Most of our Sunnydale clients have pulled up their tent stakes and moved on. Plus, N'Faius--a possible ally for the firm--was defeated and destroyed by the Three. All while you watched!"

"But sir--"

"Silence!" Holland interrupted angrily. "I'm not finished. The Senior Partners have asked me to deal with you since I'm the one who recruited you."

Lindsey swallowed noticeably.

"I've considered the matter very carefully," Holland said in serious tone. "Although this sort of failure usually results in an immediate termination, I've decided that your potential warrants a second chance."

Lindsey allowed a small smile of relief to crack his stoicism. Thank god, he thought to himself. They aren't going to kill me.

"Don't get smug yet," Holland warned. "You won't be continuing in your present position. Starting next week, you'll be demoted to research assistant. Your associate level clearance will be stripped, and your salary will be adjusted accordingly. Enjoy your last few days as an associate. Use your time to tie up any loose ends with outstanding cases. Perhaps, if you regain our trust and prove yourself worthy, we can revisit the matter at a later date. Otherwise, one slip-up...and I will process your termination."

"Thank you, sir," Lindsey said, trying to sound grateful.

When Holland turned his eyes to the papers on his desk, Lindsey assumed that their conversation was over. He started for the door. When he got there, he turned back to Holland.

"Sir?" he asked. "Whose assistant will I be?"

"You'll be working for Lilah," Holland replied with a satisfied grin.

Lindsey's face fell.

Buffy, Willow, and Tara sat cross-legged on the floor of Buffy and Willow's dorm room. They were perfectly still, facing each other and holding hands, their eyes focused on a trio of crystals before them.

"Good," Tara said when a glowing cloud formed right above the crystals. "Now...focus."

Soon the image of a beautiful rose, red and long-stemmed, appeared in the glowing cloud.

"Good, now let's change the color," Tara instructed.

The threesome concentrated once again, and the rose changed color from red to yellow to blue and then back to red again.

Suddenly, the image shifted, and Tara's face was added to the picture. She was smiling as an invisible hand guided the soft petals of the red rose along her cheeks and then her lips.

"Buffy..." Tara chided.

"Sorry," Buffy said sheepishly as the image reverted to the rose alone.

"Okay, let's slowly pull the petals off," Tara said.

In the glowing image, the rose's petals were magically pulled off one at a time and dropped away, disappearing as they reached the edge of the glowing cloud.

Once again, the image shifted, this time focusing on the falling petals, following them as they floated down. They fell on a naked Tara, landing softly on her bare breasts.

"Willow..." Tara admonished.

"She started it," Willow explained defensively, cutting her eyes at Buffy.

Tara glared at the two of them, and the image in the cloud returned to the original rose. When Tara turned her eyes back to the cloud, Buffy gave Willow's hand a squeeze. Then they both smirked.

The cloud's picture immediately changed back to Tara's bare chest. This time the rose was being twirled around and across Tara's nipples until the Tara in the image moaned in pleasure. Then the rose started moving down her stomach.

"You guys!" Tara complained.

Willow and Buffy just grinned mischievously.

"We're supposed to be practicing with our powers," Tara said as she pulled her hands away and ran them through the image, dispersing the cloud instantly. "I give up!" she said exasperatingly.

"Good!" Willow and Buffy cried simultaneously.

Then the naughty duo jumped on Tara, causing her to squeal in delight.

Giles leaned back on the sofa in the Summers' home. Joyce soon joined him, setting a tray with tea on the coffee table. Giles took the cup she offered him.

"Thank you, Joyce," he said. "Dinner was wonderful, as always."

Joyce smiled in response and took up her own tea. She brought the cup to her lips, but didn't drink. Instead, she stared off, deep in thought.

When Giles saw her brow furrow, he spoke. "Something on your mind?" he prompted.

Joyce met Giles' gaze. "Just the usual," she said ruefully before taking a sip of her tea.

"Buffy," Giles supplied.

"It's bad enough that she's the Slayer, but now she's one third of this 'Power of Three' thing. Won't she be even more of a target now?"

"Well, ummm, yes, I suppose so," Giles admitted. "But the good news is that she's not alone. She has Willow a-a-and Tara, and the three of them will be quite formidable."

"And that's another thing," Joyce continued, setting her cup on the table. "This threesome worries me.

"Joyce, you've seen them together," Giles said. "Do you really doubt the depth of their feelings for each other?"

"No, no, not at all," Joyce said. "It's clear they love each other very much. In fact, I've never seen Buffy so happy."

"Then what's troubling you?"

"Right now, their relationship is still new, but after time...well, these things never turn out good. They're just too hard to maintain, with jealousy and--"

Giles interrupted Joyce's worry-rant by taking her hand in his. He waited until she met his eyes. "What they have is very real, and it will last. Of that, I am absolutely certain."

Joyce smiled in gratitude, reassured by Giles' confidence. She touched his cheek. "I don't know what I would do if you weren't here to help me through this."

It was Giles' turn to smile. He leaned in and kissed Joyce gently on the lips. She kissed him back and then snuggled against his shoulder with a sigh. He wrapped his arm around her, holding her tightly.

Willow and Tara and Buffy were naked and piled up in the bed they had improvised by pushing Buffy's single bunk next to Willow's. Willow was against the wall, Tara in the middle, and Buffy on the outside. Willow and Tara were giggling as Buffy pointed to a scar on her side and finished explaining the wacky way she had received it while fighting a demon.

"Well, that certainly beats my story, but I'll tell it anyway," Willow said, shifting her position so that she faced both of her girlfriends. "See this scar on my nose?" she asked. When Buffy and Tara nodded, she continued. "A dog ripped it open when I was two." Buffy and Tara both made alarmed faces. "No, no, it wasn't like that," Willow amended. "See, he was kissing me, and then his tooth got caught in my nose, and he was trying to get it out, and he just ripped my nose apart. Weird, huh?"

"And here I thought you just had a nose-piercing that went horribly wrong," Buffy teased.

"As if!" Willow replied, giving Buffy's leg a playful push. "Like my parents would have allowed that!"

Almost simultaneously, Buffy and Willow looked at Tara as if expecting her to chime in with her own version of the name-that-scar game.

Tara smiled and shook her head. "Oh, I-I-I don't have any scars," Tara insisted.

"Sure you do," Willow said, taking Tara's left hand and turning it over. "You've got the one on your palm."

"Oh, I m-m-mean I don't have any with funny stories attached to them," Tara corrected.

Buffy looked at Tara's hand and ran her finger down the long scar that crossed her palm. "Where did you get that?" she asked.

Tara quickly pulled her hand back. "It was just a stupid accident in the kitchen," she mumbled, hanging her head for a moment. "Look, we should probably go to sleep if we want to make that estate sale before our morning classes."

"Yeah, sure," Buffy replied as Tara fluffed up her pillows and lay down in the bed. Buffy looked at Willow questioningly, but Willow simply shrugged in response. After good-night kisses all around, Buffy turned out the light, and the three settled down to sleep.

At Wolfram and Hart, Lindsey dashed down hallway after hallway, trying desperately to escape. He was breathing hard, running in a panic. When he rounded a corner, he came sliding to a halt as Holland Manners, flanked by a pair of guards, blocked his only exit. Desperate, he turned back the way he had come--only to find the demon lord N'Faius standing right in front of him.

Lindsey watched in horror as his chest was suddenly penetrated by the demon's clawed hand. Lindsey struggled in vain as he felt his life-force being sucked from his body. When N'Faius yanked his hand from the lawyer's chest, Lindsey was faced with the sight of his own bloody heart, held in the claws of N'Faius. His mouth opened in a silent scream.

In his own bed in his own apartment, Lindsey shot up and screamed for real. His hands flew to his sweat-covered chest as he struggled to regain his breath. When he finally realized where he was, he flopped back on the bed and grumbled, laying his arm across his eyes.

The next morning, Tara was the first to awaken. When she tried to sit up, her body complained, and she groaned in discomfort. Both Willow and Buffy heard her groan and opened their eyes.

"Hey, baby," Willow said, sitting up. "What's wrong?"

"Ugh, my back," Tara replied. "Next time, you're sleeping on the gap," she added, tapping Willow on the nose.

"We should look into getting a bigger bed," Willow said.

"If we get a bigger bed, then we'll need a bigger room," Buffy suggested with a smile.

"You know, I hear there are some off-campus places that are way cool for groups to go in on," Willow said.

Tara grinned, and the other two instantly joined her.

After eating a quick breakfast, Buffy and Tara and Willow headed for the estate sale they were hoping to visit before classes. As they entered the decrepit mansion, they saw Giles already there, examining the items on a small table near the stairs. While Buffy went to meet with Giles, Willow and Tara moved toward the tables set up in the living room off the foyer.

"You better be careful what you buy," Buffy said as she walked up behind Giles. "You know what happened with your last purchase." When Giles gave her a confused look, she gave him a reminder: "The Word of Valios?"

"Oh, yes," Giles said with a chuckle. "Well, so far I haven't seen anything like that."

"Have you been able to come up with any additional information on this 'Power of Three' stuff?" Buffy asked, glancing at the items on the table Giles had been looking at.

"No, but the Council is looking into it," he answered. "I've sent copies of the documents you brought back with you from the...ummm...other Sunnydale, and I've sent a report on what this Lindsey fellow shared with us."

"Rats! I was really hoping to learn more about this thing."

"Have you and Willow and Tara been working on your powers?"

"Yes, just last night as a matter of fact," Buffy replied as she passed the stairwell and into a small alcove behind it. "We were...Ooo! Look at that!"

Buffy moved immediately to an old dagger hanging on the wall. It was tarnished but otherwise in good shape. She hefted it in her right palm, switched it to her left, then switched it back. Suddenly, she flipped it so that the blade was in her hand, and then she threw it across the room, sinking into the wall...right in front of the woman conducting the sale for the estate.

The woman jumped in fright then turned her head in Buffy's direction. The woman straightened and placed her hands on her hips. She gave Buffy an icy stare.

"I-I-I'll take it?" Buffy offered apologetically.

Giles rolled his eyes.

Elsewhere, Willow and Tara perused the items on the long tables lining the living room. As Tara scanned the objects in front of her, her eyes settled on what appeared to be a very old paper weight. It was made of heavy glass, multi-colored, with an emblem etched into the surface. The years had rubbed most of the emblem away; only the ghost of an image remained. Tara reached out to pick up the object, but she stopped only inches from it. She moved her hand through the air above it as if sensing something about it. She finally placed her fingers on it.

When she did, she felt an immediate shock, like the pop of a static charge in winter. She jumped and let a small yelp, and Willow was instantly at her side.

"What is it?" Willow asked.

Tara was giggling, a little embarrassed at her outburst. "That paper weight, it shocked me," she explained. "I felt something about it and when I reached out to touch it, it shocked me."

"Which one? This one?" Willow asked, pointing to the glass object.

When Tara nodded, Willow reached out for the object. Like Tara, she too received a small jolt and yelped in surprise. Tara began giggling again as Willow reached for the glass paper weight a second time. This time, there was no shock, and Willow was able to safely pick up the object.

"Huh," Willow said examining the glass item closely.

Tara drew closer and touched the object Willow held. "Do you feel it?" Tara asked.

"Yeah," the redhead replied. "Kinda warm and tingly. It's definitely a charm of some kind. Do you think we should get it?"

"Well, it does have an emblem on it, or part of one, anyway," Tara suggested. "Maybe we can research it, see what it can do."

"Sounds good to me," Willow said.

"Hey, look what I got," Buffy said as she joined her two girlfriends. She held up her dagger for them to see. They nodded appreciatively. "What'd you guys get?"

Willow held out the paper weight in her palm. When Buffy touched it, it gave her an immediate shock, causing her to jump back. Willow and Tara began giggling. Buffy put her hand on her hip and raised an eyebrow in Willow and Tara's direction. The giggling stopped, but the grinning didn't.

Back at Buffy and Willow's dorm room, the three put up their purchases and gathered their books for class. When they were ready to go, the three left together, shutting the door behind them.

Once they had left, the glass paper weight, which Willow had set on her desk, began to glow, pulsing faintly then growing stronger. When the glow became bright, a soft sound started to seep from the glass; it was a high-pitched maniacal cackle that seemed to be increasing in its intensity.




As a result of his demotion, Lindsey was in the process of cleaning out his office. He had already gathered his personal belongings and placed them in a couple of boxes. Now he was sorting his files into stacks according to their status. He sighed as he placed the last folder onto this desk. It was his Power of Three file. He looked at the folder intently, then sat down and pulled it towards him.

He opened the folder and browsed the documents. Then his eyes settled on the surveillance photos he had taken in Sunnydale. He picked up the photo of Buffy and Willow and Tara and brought it closer. He touched the image of the three women and frowned.

Lindsey closed his eyes as he remembered his latest nightmare: Holland waiting for him with guards, N'Faius yanking out his heart, himself crumpling to the floor with a silent scream.

He opened his eyes and then leaned back in his chair, running his hand through his hair.

"What have I gotten myself into?" he asked himself. "And how am I going to get myself out?"

He thought for the longest time, weighing the pros and cons. None of this options were appealing. After each line of self-debate was done, his eyes always returned to the picture of the Three. Finally, he sat up straight and gathered all of the parts to the Power of Three folder. He took up deep breath, stood up, and headed for the copy room.

As he entered the copy room, Lindsey glanced anxiously over his shoulder. An aide was in the room just finishing up a collating job. Lindsey smiled and nodded but didn't speak, and shortly the aide was on her way.

Lindsey set his folder on the table beside the large state-of-the-art copy machine, took out a few sheets, and sent them through the feeder. While those papers were being duplicated, Lindsey sorted through the rest of the folder, deciding which documents were relevant and which were not. As he worked, he paused occasionally to cast a wary eye in the direction of the door. Nervous sweat began beading on his forehead. When he placed the last stack into the feeder, the machine started beeping.

He groaned in frustration. "What the hell...?"

He checked the indicator light. It was out of paper. He groaned again and then bent down to get a ream of paper from the storage area beneath the machine. He ripped open the package and yanked on the paper tray, grumbling angrily as he did so. He loaded the paper and then slapped the tray back into place. Then he pressed the start button.

When he turned back to the table, he discovered Lilah standing right there. Lindsey jumped, momentarily startled. Lilah grinned. Lindsey cleared his throat and tried to recover his poise. Lilah crossed her arms and leaned against the table.

"I understand you'll be working with me," she said with an amused glint in her eye. "For me, actually, I should say."

"That's right," Lindsey replied stonily as he clenched his jaw tightly.

Lilah grinned again and then glanced at Lindsey's folder on the table. She reached over and tucked her fingers under the corner of a page as if to flip through the documents, but Lindsey quickly shut the folder and pulled it away.

Lilah lifted a curious eyebrow but said nothing.

"Just closing out my files," he explained.

"I see," Lilah said, locking eyes with her new research assistant.

He met her stare and didn't flinch. After an intense moment, Lilah merely smirked and sauntered for the door. After a few steps, she turned and looked back.

"Oh, Lindsey?" she said, in a cold but seductive voice. "When you report for duty, come ready to work. I expect all the men under me to be hard...workers, that is."

With a final flash of a grin, Lilah was out the door. After a few seconds, Lindsey let out his breath. Then he turned back to the copy machine to gather his pages.

Outside, in the alcove across the hallway, Lilah waited. When she saw Lindsey leave the copy room and round the corner, she dashed across the hall and back into the copy room. She quickly scanned the buttons and panels on the machine. She growled when she didn't see what she was looking for.

She opened the storage area below the machine and got out the manual. She flipped through it rapidly. Her eyes lit up. She pressed a sequence of buttons until she saw the menu item she needed.

"Print last scan(s)...Enter the number of scans," the panel read.

Lilah entered 25 and pressed the big green start button. Within seconds, the copier was duplicating the last 25 unique scans it had made and saved. She started reading the pages as soon as they came out. A sweet smile of success spread across her face when she realized what Lindsey had been copying.

"Lindsey, Lindsey," she whispered. "Such a naughty boy."

She picked up her stack and left the copy room, chuckling happily to herself.

After the Three were finished with their classes for the day, Buffy and Willow returned to their dorm. Tara hadn't joined them, choosing instead to stay in her own room that night. Although the other two had begged her and even promised her that she wouldn't have to sleep on the gap, Tara had remained firm, reminding them of the term paper she had due the next day. After getting a kiss each from their favorite blonde witch, Buffy and Willow had relented and gone on their way.

When Buffy and Willow reached their room, they heard a commotion down the hallway. They set their book bags inside their door and then headed toward the loud voice. They found their neighbor Nikki throwing a fit.

"I can not believe this!" she complained angrily as she stood in the hallway looking into her room. "I can not fucking believe this!"

"Nikki, what's wrong?" Buffy asked.

"That's what's wrong!" Nikki replied, pointing into her room.

When Buffy and Willow looked inside, they saw that every single piece of Nikki's furniture had been stacked haphazardly on top of each other in the corner until there was a precariously-balanced pile from floor to ceiling. Buffy and Willow grinned at each other and suppressed the giggles that were threatening to emerge.

"Methinks that Hershel hath struck again," Willow pronounced to the unhappy Nikki.

Buffy nodded in agreement. "Yep, he did the same thing to Stacey last semester."

Nikki glared down the hallway toward what was presumably Hershel's room. "Hershel!" she screamed as she stomped in that direction. "You are so fucking dead!"

Buffy and Willow turned to go back to their own room, now allowing themselves to giggle freely.

In their own room, Willow and Buffy picked up their book bags that they had left inside the door and set them under their desks. Buffy headed straight for the kitchenette.

"Want some tea?" she inquired.

"Yeah, that's sounds--oh no!" Willow cried.

"What is it?" Buffy asked worriedly, joining the redhead at her desk.

"My new paper weight--the one I got at the estate sale--it broke," she explained, pointing at it. The heavy glass object had cracked and split into several pieces.

"That's what it gets for shocking me," Buffy teased, giving Willow a nudge before returning to her tea-making.

Willow poked out her bottom lip in a mock pout.

"So what'd ya find out at the housing office?" Buffy asked as she filled the electric kettle and plugged it in.

"Oh, they said they didn't have any bigger dorm rooms, but..." Willow dug in her bag and pulled out a pink sheet of paper. "I did pick up a list of off-campus housing, like apartments and duplexes, townhouses and condos."

"I think we can mark off the townhouses and condos," Buffy replied as she got out two cups and dropped a tea bag in each.

"Yeah, but between the three of us, we should be able to afford something decent, right?"

"I hope so, but with off-campus, there's deposits and utilities, not to mention furniture."

As the kettle began to whistle, Buffy unplugged it and poured the hot water into the cups she had prepared. She dunked the bags up and down as they steeped.

"I mean, I can just imagine the look on Mom's face when I ask for money for a king-sized bed," Buffy added.

Buffy walked Willow's cup of tea over to her and then returned to her own. She pulled the sugar bowl over and dumped several teaspoons of sugar into her tea. She stirred and then blew and then took a careful sip.

"Ugghh...eeoh...gyack!" Buffy cried after barely getting down her sip of tea.

"What is it?" Willow asked.

"'s salt!" Buffy answered.

She set down her cup and pulled the top off the sugar bowl. She moistened her index finger and touched it to the white crystals in the bowl. Then she put the tip of her finger in her mouth. She grimaced.

"Definitely salt."

"Who would put salt in the sugar bowl?" Willow asked.

Buffy narrowed her eyes and growled, "Hershel."

Willow snickered, then quickly stopped when Buffy directed her angry gaze at the redhead. Willow cleared her throat and put on a serious face, nodding agreeably. "Hershel bad."

At the end of the work day, long after dark, Lindsey tucked a FedEx envelope into his briefcase, shut the case, and locked it. At the doorway, he looked back at his office once, then headed down the hallway. He glanced nervously over his shoulder as he entered the elevator.

When the elevator opened in the lobby, he went straight for the main entrance. He tried to stay calm and walk at a normal pace. His gut was telling him to run like hell, but he fought down his panic and moved at a leisurely pace, even waving to the security guards as he exited.

Once outside, he proceeded immediately down the sidewalk. He walked briskly several blocks away to a shopping forum wedged between two tall towers. On the street out front was a FedEx drop-off box. Lindsey marched to the box, set down his briefcase, and opened it. He pulled out the FedEx envelope and then closed his briefcase. He glanced briefly around him before slipping the envelope inside the drop-box.

Lindsey heaved a sigh of relief, picked up his briefcase, and turned to go. His progress was stopped by a large body dressed in black. He yelped slightly and stepped back.

"Sorry, I didn't mean to--" Lindsey stopped when he saw Angel before him.

"I think you and I need to have a little chat," Angel said, grabbing Lindsey by the lapels and dragging him into the small alley between the shopping forum and the tower.

Lindsey grunted when Angel slammed him against the wall.

"I hear you were down in Sunnydale recently...on business," Angel said grimly.

"Yes, but I--"

"I'm only gonna say this once, so listen up. If you or your firm tries anything against Buffy, you will regret it. You'll have a war you wish you had never started."

Angel roughly released Lindsey and then stormed away.

After a few seconds to catch his breath, Lindsey straightened his coat and tie and then walked out of the alley.

The next morning, Buffy and Willow gathered up their bath baskets and towels and headed across the hall. When they got to the bathroom, they were nearly run down by Gayle as she rushed out.

"Hershel!" Gayle screamed as she stomped down the hallway, completely oblivious to the long strip of toilet paper that was stuck to the bottom of her left house shoe.

Willow and Buffy gingerly pushed the bathroom door open and eased inside. They found the bathroom completely covered in toilet paper. It was hung from the light fixtures, wrapped around the sinks and toilets, draped across the shower stalls, and layered on the floor. From the number of empty cardboard rolls cluttering the floor, an entire case of toilet paper must have been consumed in the process.

"Boy, he's really asking for it," Willow said.

"No doubt," Buffy agreed. "And if it keeps it up, he's gonna get it."

Deciding to hit the facilities on one of the other floors, Willow and Buffy exited the bathroom. As soon as they left, a small glowing cloud floated down from the ceiling, a soft snicker emerging from it.

After their morning classes, Buffy and Willow met Tara for lunch at the cafeteria. She was already seated and waved at her girlfriends when they entered. When they had filled their trays, Buffy and Willow joined Tara at her table.

"Hey," Willow said in greeting. "How'd that term paper go?"

"Pretty good," Tara replied with a smile. "It took almost all night, though."

"Well, it's a good thing you weren't over in Stevenson with us," Buffy commented. "Hershel, the prankster, is up to his old tricks. He totally TP'ed our bathroom. Willow and I had to go to another wing and shower. It took forever."

"We had to skip breakfast just to make it to class on time," Willow added.

"I was wondering where you two were this morning," Tara said. "I missed you last night."

"We missed you too," Willow said, giving Tara's hand a squeeze. "Didn't we, Buffy?"

Buffy didn't hear Willow. Her eyes were focused on a hooded figure slipping quickly through the cafeteria and settling at a remote table.

"Didn't we, Buffy?" Willow repeated, nudging Buffy with her elbow.

"Huh?" Buffy asked.

"Didn't we miss Tara last night?" Willow prompted.

"Oh, yeah, absolutely," Buffy answered with a sincere smile, meeting Tara's eyes. Almost immediately, though, she looked back at the figure. Tara just grinned at Buffy's distraction.

"What are you looking at?" Willow asked as she tried to look in the direction Buffy had been staring.

"Hershel," Buffy replied. "I'm gonna go have a little chat," she added in decidedly slayer-like tone before rising from her chair.

When Hershel saw Buffy approaching his table, he immediately tried to make a hasty departure. She grabbed him and put him right back in his seat.

"Hershel," she said in an I've-got-you-now tone. "We need to talk."

"Oh, sure, talk, I can do that," Hershel replied, with a nervous chuckle. Then he leaned back in his chair and draped his arm behind it in an attempt to act nonchalant.

"I want the pranks to stop. Now."

"Pranks? What pranks?"

"Oh, don't act all innocent with me. The furniture stacking, the salt in the sugar bowl, the toilet-papering the's all classic Hershel-annigans."

Hershel grew serious and leaned forward in his chair. "Look, I don't know who did all the pranks yesterday and today, but it wasn't me. I swear."

"And you expect me to what...just take your word for it?"

"I am telling you, I did not do this. I wasn't even here. I was out of town...with the basketball team. I was doing a story for the school newspaper. I left yesterday around noon and didn't get back till really late last night. I only just now got up."

"Didn't you hear the commotion this morning?"

Hershel shook his head. "I was over at my girlfriend's room. That's where I went when I got in last night. My roommate called me and gave me a heads-up, though. I've been avoiding the dorm since."

"I think that's a good idea, guilty or not," Buffy warned. "Tempers are gettin' pretty hot, so you'd better lay low."

"Believe me, I intend to," Hershel said.

Later that evening, Willow walked down the sidewalk to the gallery owned and operated by Joyce Summers. A large sign out front said "Closed for New Shipment Setup. Stay Tuned." Willow went up to the door and knocked. Within seconds, Joyce opened the door to let Willow in.

"Hey, Willow," Joyce said amiably.

"Hey, Mrs. Summers," Willow answered.

"Glad you could make it," Joyce said. "I appreciate the help."

"Oh sure, any time."

"Buffy and Tara are in the back room opening the crates for me."

Joyce pointed towards the back of the building, and Willow headed in that direction. When Willow entered the back room, she saw Buffy and Tara surrounded by wooden crates of all sizes. Various items of artwork lined the side wall.

"Hey guys," Willow called out to her two girlfriends. She quickly joined them and gave each one a kiss.

"So, what'd ya find out?" Buffy asked.

"His story checks out. Hershel was out of town with the basketball team, just like he said."

"Huh," Buffy replied, with a stumped expression on her face.

"Maybe someone's trying to frame Hershel," Tara offered.

"Yeah," Willow said, chiming in. "Someone who has a grudge against him."

"That could be half the dorm," Buffy said as she moved to a new crate.

"Oh yeah," Willow said with a deflated pout.

"I'm gonna open these next two," Buffy said to Tara.

Tara nodded. "Good. This one's about empty." Tara motioned to Willow. "Help me finish this one?"

Willow smiled and helped Tara reach into the crate for another item.

Joyce came to the door and leaned against the jamb. She watched as Buffy used her Slayer strength to rip open the top of the crate without so much as a crowbar. Joyce just shook her head. It still amazed her to see what her daughter was capable of. On the one hand, she found it reassuring--knowing that Buffy could take care of herself. But on the other hand, it was frightening--knowing how dangerous Buffy's calling was, what she faced on a daily basis.

Joyce turned to Willow and Tara. She watched as Buffy's two girlfriends carefully unloaded the crate they were working on. Joyce closed her eyes. Buffy's girlfriends, she thought. First of all, girlfriend. Big news there. Secondly, girlfriends, as in plural, as in more than one, at the same time. Once again, Joyce shook her head, lowering it as she continued to think deeply on the matter.

Joyce's head immediately shot up when she heard Buffy cry out in pain. She instantly moved towards her daughter, but stopped when she saw that Willow and Tara were already there. Joyce merely watched quietly.

Buffy gripped her wrist tightly then shook her hand, grimacing in pain. Willow made Buffy sit down on a nearby crate while both Willow and Tara knelt beside her and looked at her bleeding hand.

"What is it?" Willow asked.

"Ow, ow, a splinter," Buffy replied.

"I'll get the first aid kit," Tara said. "I saw one in the restroom."

Tara darted to the restroom and then back. She opened the kit and got out some tweezers and some antiseptic pads.

"Do you want me to try and get it out for you?" Willow asked.

Buffy just nodded.

Willow turned to Tara. "Will you--?"

"Yes," Tara said, knowing what Willow meant for her to do.

Tara stood and went behind Buffy. She began massaging Buffy's shoulders. Buffy immediately began to relax.

"Buffy, this is gonna hurt, it's a pretty big splinter and it's jammed in there pretty deep, but just listen to Tara and connect with her, okay?" Willow instructed.

Buffy didn't answer. She just murmured distractedly as Tara continued to massage her neck and shoulders.

Willow went right to work, using the tweezers to grasp the tip of the inch-long splinter and guide it from under Buffy's skin. Occasionally, Buffy's face creased in pain, but she stayed perfectly still. While Willow worked, Tara whispered a calming incantation and sent healing energy into Buffy.

Before Buffy knew it, the procedure was over. She sat up straight and gazed at her now-bandaged palm. Tara knelt beside Willow to examine her work. Buffy looked at the two women at her feet and smiled.

"Mmmm," Buffy said huskily, "remind me to come to this clinic every time I get hurt." Buffy pulled Tara to her and kissed her deeply before doing the same to Willow. "Thank you," she told them both sincerely.

Tara blushed as her lips curved into her characteristic half-smile. Willow grinned and gave Buffy's undamaged hand a squeeze.

Joyce felt a lump form in her throat as she watched this ordinary event take place. It was such a small thing--inconsequential, really, in the great scheme of things--and yet strangely powerful. In its wake, Joyce felt her concern about the girls' relationship fade away. It was replaced by an assurance, a confidence, a simple knowing...that what these Three had was special and that nothing would ever tear them apart.

Joyce cleared her throat, drawing the attention of the Three. "Everything okay?" she asked.

"Oh, yeah, sure, just a splinter," Buffy said, holding up her bandaged hand. "Willow and Tara took care of me."

Joyce smiled. "I see," she said.

"Don't worry, I'm still good to go," Buffy replied as she stood up.

"How about I order us some take-out and you can let some of that Slayer healing kick in before resuming your duties?"

Buffy's eyes lit up at the mention of food. "Chinese?" she asked hopefully.

"Okay," Joyce replied.

Buffy clapped her hands together with glee until a sharp pain reminded her of her injury. She revised her technique, bringing her hands together but not letting them touch.

"Oh, look, it's the sound of no hands clapping," Tara quipped.

Everyone rolled their eyes, including Joyce, who took that as her cue to leave for the Chinese restaurant.

Shortly after Joyce left, Buffy excused herself and went to the restroom, taking the first aid kit with her. Tara sat on the crate that Buffy had vacated and pulled Willow into a straddling position on her lap.

"You did excellent work, as always, Dr. Rosenberg," Tara teased, kissing Willow warmly on the lips.

"Why thank you, Nurse Maclay," Willow replied, playing along, kissing Tara back.

Tara wrapped her arms around Willow's waist and linked her fingers together, holding the redhead firmly in place. Willow rested one hand on Tara's shoulder and used the other to trail her fingertips along Tara's face, tracing the strong cheekbones. When she got to the blonde's lips, Tara suddenly captured Willow's index finger in her mouth. She suckled it for a moment, then caught it between her teeth and grinned wickedly before releasing it. Willow chuckled and planted a searing kiss on Tara's mouth, which Tara eagerly returned.

When Buffy came back from the restroom and found her girlfriends making out, she grinned. Leave 'em alone for a minute and look what happens, she thought.

"Hey...what's with the smooching without me?" Buffy chided.

Willow pulled out of her kiss with Tara and shifted so that she was sitting sideways in Tara's lap. Tara looked up at Buffy.

"Sorry, we couldn't help ourselves," Tara said, only a little sheepishly.

"Yes, it was the fertility statue," Willow explained with mock matter-of-fact-ness as she nodded her head at a nearby artifact. "It was a bad influence," Willow insisted.

"Don't even suggest that," Buffy interjected. "The last time one of Mom's gallery items started influencing things, Sunnydale became Zombie City."

After calling it a night at Joyce's gallery, Buffy and Willow and Tara returned to the campus and to Stevenson Dorm. They showered and fell into bed, exhausted. They were awakened early the next morning by a commotion in the hallway.

"You son of a bitch!" they heard a male voice shout.

"We're gonna fucking kill you, man!" another male voiced shouted.

Then they heard the sounds of punches and a wall-slam and then kicks. The Three jumped out of bed and threw on their robes. When they yanked open their dorm room door, they found three male students violently kicking Hershel.

"No, please, stop! It wasn't me, I swear!" Hershel cried between kicks.

Buffy immediately leapt into the fray. "Leave him alone!" she shouted as she knocked all three away from Hershel with one tackle.

The three boys got right back up, as did Buffy. Willow joined her, and the two women stood protectively in front of Hershel while Tara checked on the beaten young man. The angry look on the girls' faces slowly changed to confusion as they took in the sight of the three attackers. Every inch of the boys' skin that was showing was blue...completely blue. Even their hair had a bluish tint to it.

"What happened to you?" Willow asked.

"What the hell do you think happened?" the apparent leader of the trio replied. "That asshole put blue dye in the showerheads!"

He tried to move forward and go after Hershel again, but Buffy stopped him in his tracks and grabbed his wrist. He locked eyes with her, daring her to stay in his way. Soon his fury changed to pain as Buffy twisted his wrist nearly to the breaking point. The other two attackers took a step back.

"I am not going to let you hurt him anymore, so get lost, got it?" Buffy warned.

When she released the leader's wrist, he held it gingerly in his other hand and then backed off. The three male students stared angrily for a moment more, then stalked away.

Buffy and Willow bent down to check on Hershel. Tara had his head in her lap, trying to soothe his pain. He held his arm protectively over his abdomen; he was sweating and breathing hard.

"I'm calling an ambulance," Willow told Buffy before dashing inside their room.

"I-I-I didn' it," Hershel said to Buffy when she touched his arm.

"Yeah, we know," Buffy replied.

"Who's doing this?" Hershel asked plaintively.

"I don't know, but we're gonna find out," Buffy assured him.




Later that day, Buffy and Willow and Tara joined Xander and Anya at Giles' apartment. After the Three told the other Scoobies about the violent events of that morning, Willow and Buffy explained about the rash of pranks that had preceded them.

"Well, it does appear to be a-a vendetta of some kind against this Hershel fellow," Giles commented.

"Yeah, sounds like Hershel pulled one too many pranks in the past," Xander added.

Anya rolled her eyes. "It sounds like a lower-echelon chaos demon, to me."

"What?" Buffy asked incredulously.

"Oh yeah," Anya confirmed. "They love playing pranks on stupid humans. This kinda stuff is right up their alley."

"You think a demon is doing this?" Willow inquired.

"Well, they're not really demons, per se, since they don't have physical bodies," Anya explained. "They're just spirit forms."

"So, they're like poltergeists or something?" Willow asked.

"Yeah, pretty much. Although they don't have physical form themselves, they can affect the material world around them: move objects, break things, slam doors, hide things...that sort of stuff."

While Anya was talking, Giles went to his bookshelf. He scanned the shelves and pulled out a particular volume. Then he returned to his seat. He skimmed the book until he found the passage he was looking for.

"Oh, here it is," Giles announced. "A iocosus spiritus. A prankster spirit."

"So how do we get rid of this thing?" Buffy asked.

"Well, it says here that you must trap the spirit in a binding crystal, marked with this seal," Giles said, handing the book to Buffy.

Buffy took one look at the symbol, rolled her eyes, and handed the book to Willow and Tara. When they looked at it, their cheeks reddened, and they dropped their heads.

"What? What is it?" Xander asked worriedly.

"Oh.Ummm...oops?" Tara ventured.

"Willow and Tara's estate sale purchase...the crystal paper weight? Guess what symbol was on the top of it?" Buffy said.

"Dear lord!" Giles said.

"Uh-huh," Buffy confirmed.

"You mean you bought the prank-playing an estate sale?" Anya pressed for clarification.

"Ummm...kinda...sorta..." Willow answered.

"Well, you'll never get your money back on that one," Anya replied.

Willow looked sheepishly at the gang. "We just knew it had some kind of power. We felt it, all three of us."

"And then it broke," Buffy interjected. "We must've triggered it somehow, when we touched it."

"Okay, no more touching the unknown power thingees!" Xander ordered.

"W-W-We need to stop it," Tara said in a concerned voice, "before anyone else gets hurt."

"Okay, here's what we're gonna do," Buffy announced. "Willow, Tara, you two head to the magic shop and get what we need to do the spell. The rest of us will handle the evacuation of the dorm. I'll feel a lot better about doing this if I know that no one else is in the building. Once everybody's out, we'll do the spell and bind this thing for good."

With the dorm now empty, the Three headed for Buffy and Willow's room, armed with Giles' book and the ingredients for the spell. Once inside, Buffy and Tara started setting out the items for the spell, including the new crystal that they would use to bind the spirit. Willow gathered the broken pieces of the original paper weight and added them to the altar.

As they worked, a high-pitched cackle began echoing in the hall outside the dorm room. The Three froze and looked at each other, then picked up their pace. Soon they were seated on the floor, holding hands and encircling their altar.

The Three closed their eyes and centered themselves, uniting their minds for the task before them.

"Watch-towers of the east and west, hear our cry," Tara said.

"Guardians of the north and south, attend us now," Willow continued.

"Powers that be, listen up," Buffy added in her own paraphrase.

Willow and Tara opened their eyes simultaneously and sent a chastising glance in Buffy's direction. She just shrugged sheepishly. Willow and Tara shook their heads.

"Lend us your strength to bind the evil one," Tara said.

Suddenly, the high-pitched cackling became screeching, and the dorm room door slammed open with a huge gust of wind. The glowing cloud of the prankster spirit shot around the three women, continuing its rage-filled screeching. The wind it had created quickly became tornadic, sending papers and books flying around the room. The Three grimaced as various objects struck them, but they didn't break their circle.

"Protect we..." Willow yelled as she ducked a large book that was moving toward her head, " your power!"

The prankster spirit demolished the kitchenette next--throwing open the mini-fridge, exploding canned drinks, and pelting the Three with food items.

"A place is prepared!" Buffy shouted over the gale. "Let the evil spirit be bound!"

"Iocosus spiritus concludatur!" the Three said together.

The prankster spirit's screeching became a desperate wailing as the glowing cloud was pulled towards the new crystal, freshly etched with the binding symbol. The spirit spiraled about the room as if caught in a whirlpool until, with a final cry, it disappeared completely into the crystal.

As soon as the spirit was bound, the wind died down, and all suspended objects fell to the floor with a thud. The Three glanced nervously about the room and then sat up straight once the danger was over. They let out a collective sigh.

The sigh became a giggle when they saw each other. Their hair was nothing but a tangled mess. Their clothes were torn and stained. Tara had what looked like a peach slice plastered to her neck. Willow had pieces of broken tortilla chips sticking out of her hair. Buffy's face was spotted with what appeared to be low-fat strawberry yogurt. They looked like they'd had a food fight with a toddler and the toddler had won. Their giggles quickly gave way to full-bellied hysterical laughter.

Just then, Xander and Anya and Giles burst into room. They found Willow and Tara and Buffy on the floor, laughing uncontrollably.

"Oh, god, they're possessed!" Xander cried. "Call the exorcist!"

Giles knelt beside Buffy and touched her on the arm. "Are you all right?" he asked.

Buffy laughed some more and then sat up. "Oh, we're fine," she answered between giggles. "A little bruised maybe, but otherwise okay." Willow and Tara also sat up.

"Did it work? Did you capture the little weasel?" Anya inquired.

"Signed, sealed, and delivered," Willow said, wrapping up the crystal in one of the altar cloths and handing it to Anya.

Anya peered into the crystal. "That's what you get," she chided it, "you little trouble-maker!"

"Anya, please don't taunt the evil spirit," Giles said with rolled eyes.

Anya tried to hand the crystal back to Willow, but the redhead raised her hands defensively and refused to take it.

"I don't think we should be the ones to keep that thing," Willow said.

"Really," Buffy agreed. "We set it off once before, and we don't want a repeat of that."

"I'll take it," Giles offered, accepting the crystal from Anya. "I'll...ummm...make sure it's carefully locked away."

"Thanks," Tara said sincerely.

"It looks like your room needs a good spring cleaning if you wanna get that deposit back," Xander commented.

"Ugh," Buffy groaned at the thought. "Next time, we hold the ritual in someone else's room."

"How about we not have a next time?" Tara suggested.

"I like her idea," Willow added, pointing at Tara.

"Well, why don't we see about getting the residents back into the dorm while you three get yourselves cleaned up?" Giles suggested.

Buffy and Willow and Tara glanced at each other and nodded in exhaustion. Then Giles and Xander and Anya left.

Willow looked at her two girlfriends. "I don't know about you two, but I'm way too tired to tackle this room right now. Why don't we go to my parents' house instead? We can get cleaned up and just crash."

"Sounds like a plan," Buffy said. Tara nodded her head in agreement.

At her house on Revello Drive, Joyce got home from work at the usual time. When she arrived, she found a FedEx package on the doorstep. She picked it up, tucked it under her arm, and then unlocked her front door.

After she walked inside, she put her keys and purse on the table inside the door and then looked at the package curiously. It was addressed to Buffy Summers. Joyce shrugged and set the package behind her purse. Then she headed for the kitchen.

Once at the Rosenberg home, the Three trudged up the stairs to the second floor and into the master bedroom. Buffy set down their bag of clean clothes they had salvaged from their trashed dorm room. The Three quickly stripped and heaped their soiled clothes in a pile on the bathroom floor.

While Willow started a bath in the large garden tub, Buffy and Tara each took a turn in the shower, rinsing the majority of the food residue from their bodies and washing their hair. Willow added several bath oil beads to the hot water and then set out their towels. As Buffy and Tara finished their showers, they entered the tub. When Willow had showered, she did the same, joining them in the fragrant bath. All Three leaned back and sighed with contentment.

"Oh, god, this feels soooo good," Buffy said

"Mmmm," Tara agreed.

"You know, if I wasn't so darn tired, I'd probably be all over you two," Willow murmured.

"There's always tomorrow," Tara suggested in a sing-song voice.

Buffy chuckled, and Willow grinned.

After a long and thorough bath, the Three dried off, dragged into the bedroom, and literally collapsed into the bed--Tara nearest the door, Willow in the middle, and Buffy on the far side. With the briefest of kisses and the barest of snuggles, the Three fell fast asleep.

The next morning, Tara was the first to awaken. She extricated herself from Willow's arm and turned over. Then she leaned up in bed. She gazed lovingly at her two girlfriends. With her trademark half-smile, she watched as Willow reversed her position and faced Buffy, snuggling against Buffy's chest. The Slayer stirred slightly then unconsciously wrapped her arms around the redhead. Tara eased out of the bed. She found one of Mrs. Rosenberg's robes in the closet and put it on. Then she quietly left the bedroom and headed downstairs.

After about twenty minutes, she returned, bearing a tray containing a large carafe of coffee, three mugs and spoons, and cream and sugar. She set the tray on the dresser and then left the room again.

Almost simultaneously, Willow and Buffy began to twitch their noses. They sniffed the air and then opened their eyes.

"Do I smell coffee?" Willow asked.

Buffy nodded. Then the two of them sat up. They saw the tray across the room on the dresser.

"Tara," they both said, realizing who was responsible for the caffeine-laden bounty.

They retrieved the tray, and then they each prepared their own cup of coffee. They took a sip and sighed. "Ahhh," they said at the same time.

Just then, Tara re-entered the room, carrying yet another tray, this one covered with a large cloth. She smiled widely when she saw that Willow and Tara were awake.

"I see my aromatic alarm clock worked," Tara quipped.

"Oh, yeah," Willow responded.

"Whatcha got there?" Buffy inquired.

"Breakfast," Tara replied, setting the tray on the end of the bed. "And more," she added in a husky voice as she removed the robe she had borrowed.

She carried the tray to the head of the bed and put it down in front of Willow. Then she slid back into the bed. She lifted the cloth with a flourish and revealed a huge feast of pancakes with a choice of butter and maple syrup or strawberry glaze and whipped cream. Buffy's and Willow's eyes widened when they took in the sight.

"Hope you're hungry," Tara said.

"Tara...ohmigod..." Willow said in amazement.

"This looks great!" Buffy added excitedly.

"Well, dig in!" Tara suggested, and the Three did just that, ravenously consuming stack after stack until all of the pancakes were gone.

Willow plopped back against her pillows and groaned happily. "That was awesome, Tara, thank you."

"Yes, it was," Buffy readily agreed.

Tara smiled in response. Then her face took on expression of mischief. "Oh, look," she said in mock surprise, "we didn't eat all the strawberries and whipped cream." Tara caught Buffy's eye. "Whatever shall we do with what's left?"

Buffy grinned impishly. "Well, we can't let it go to waste. But we really need something to put it on. Oh, I know!"

Buffy and Tara both looked at Willow, who blushed and started giggling. While Buffy lifted the tray and set it aside on the floor, Tara folded the sheet and covers about halfway down the bed. Buffy picked up the bowl of strawberry glaze and handed it to Tara, keeping the can of whipped cream for herself.

Tara dipped her finger in the strawberry glaze and ran it along Willow's smiling lips. When she was done, Buffy captured Tara's finger in her mouth and sucked the remaining glaze away with a grin. Then Tara kissed Willow's strawberry mouth, running her tongue over her lips and ending with a nibbling pluck at her bottom lip.

When Tara pulled away, she turned back to the bowl of glaze. She dipped her finger once again and ran a line of strawberry goodness down the right side of Willow's neck. Tara held the bowl out to Buffy, who did the same on the left side of Willow's neck. While Tara turned over to set the bowl on the nightstand, Buffy immediately dug in, dragging the tip of her tongue along the line of glaze, starting at Willow's shoulder and moving up towards her ear. With the bowl safely out of the way, Tara started in on her side, just as Buffy began round two. Willow closed her eyes and made a strangled kind of sound deep in her throat. She shuddered when Tara started suckling her earlobe.

When Tara finished her side and sat up, she found Buffy shaking the can of whipped cream. When it was sufficiently shaken, Buffy took her free hand and pulled Tara over for a searing kiss. When Willow was able to open her eyes, she was greeted with the sight of her two girlfriends kissing deeply and passionately.

Oh, god, she thought. That's gotta be the hottest thing I have ever seen! Please don't let this be a dream!

Buffy was so into the kiss that she was sharing with Tara that she gripped the head of the can too tightly and accidentally shot a stream of whipped cream between herself and Tara. They instantly separated, laughing as they wiped at the fluffs of whipped cream that dotted their necks and faces. When they heard Willow giggling, they turned to her.

"Looks like somebody got left out of the whipped cream event," Tara commented.

"I should rectify that, then, shouldn't I?" Buffy replied.

When Willow nodded enthusiastically, Buffy turned the can upside down and squirted a lopsided circle around Willow's left nipple. She repeated the process for the right nipple. Then she handed the can over to Tara, who ran one then two wavy lines down Willow's chest and stomach before setting the can aside.

While Willow quivered in anticipation, Tara and Buffy looked at each other and grinned, then dove in, attacking Willow's breasts in earnest. They licked and sucked until the whipped cream was gone, then started nibbling on the redhead's nipples. Willow rocked in place, moaning in pleasure...until she heard her name and the attentions to her breasts stopped. She heard her name again, louder, but then realized that it wasn't Buffy's or Tara's voice. Willow's eyes shot open.

At the foot of the bed stood Willow's parents, Drs. Ira and Sheila Rosenberg. They were frozen in place, gaping at their daughter. Then they dropped their luggage to the floor with a thunk.

"Mom! Dad!" Willow squeaked in alarm.

Lindsey drew a deep breath and entered Lilah's office for his first day on the job as her assistant. Lilah> smiled predatorily when he came in. She stood and gestured towards the chair sitting in front of her desk. Lindsey sat down.

"On time, I see," Lilah said.

"Of course," Lindsey replied.

"Before we get started, I have something I want to show you," Lilah announced.

Lilah picked up a folder and then walked around her desk to stand in front of Lindsey. She handed him the folder and then leaned against her desk. She folded her arms and waited.

Lindsey opened the folder. When he saw what was inside, he froze. It was a stack of pages from his Power of Three file, the same pages he had photocopied earlier. Lindsey recovered quickly and closed the folder.

"So?" he said, handing the folder back.

"I think that Holland would find such a file very interesting," Lilah said as she set the folder back on her desk. "What do you suppose he'd do if he knew that you'd been copying the Power of Three files?"

"He'd assume that I was closing out my he asked me to do."

Lilah smiled. "Somehow, I doubt he'd see it that way." Lilah stood back up and walked behind Lindsey. She leaned over to whisper into his ear. "Of course, a visit from the one of the mind-readers would settle everything, now wouldn't it?"

Lindsey got a scared look on his face, but he tried not to show it.

As Lilah circled Lindsey, she played with the lapels of Lindsey's coat. "Lindsey, I want our working relationship to be...amiable," she said as she came to a stop directly in front of Lindsey. "And I think that's best achieved by knowing where we stand. Do you understand?"

As Lilah looked down at him, Lindsey clenched his jaw and then said, "Yes, I think you've made that perfectly clear."

"Good," she replied. "Now let's talk about what your specific duties will be."

Sheila and Ira Rosenberg stared open-mouthed at the sight before them...until propriety dictated that they avert their gaze. Buffy and Tara and Willow instantly grabbed the sheet and pulled it up to cover themselves.

"Mom, Dad...wh-wh-what are you doing here?" Willow said. "Y-Y-You're not supposed to be back until tomorrow."

"We...ummm..." Ira started.

"We got an earlier flight," Sheila finished.

No one else said anything for the longest moment. Eyes darted about the room, but no one spoke. Finally, Buffy decided to break the silence.

"I think...we'd better...get dressed a-a-and cleaned up," she offered nervously. "O-O-Or maybe that would work better the other way around," she added with a frown.

Tara nodded in agreement. "Yeah, we that...what Buffy said."

Ira guided Sheila to the door. "We'll be downstairs," he announced in a cold voice.

When Ira and Sheila had left, Buffy and Tara each laid a hand on Willow's shoulder.

"You okay?" Buffy asked gently.

"No," Willow replied in a choked voice. "I mean, could this be any worse?" she said as tears began rolling down her face.

Tara lifted Willow's chin and wiped the tears from her cheeks. "Baby, I know this looks bad, but it'll be okay. Maybe not today, but..."

Buffy took Willow's hand. "Why don't you go get in the shower, and Tara and I will take care of cleaning up the bed, okay?"

Willow nodded numbly and headed for the master bath. Once Willow had shut the door, Buffy and Tara looked at one another, the same expression of worry on their faces.

After the Three had showered and the master bedroom had been returned to its former state, Willow and Buffy and Tara went downstairs. They met beside the front door.

"Willow," Buffy said, "I don't think it's a good idea for us to leave you here by yourself."

"Really, we don't mind staying, we want to," Tara insisted.

Willow shook her head. "No, I think it's best if you go. I need to talk to my parents alone."

Buffy and Tara still didn't move.

"Really, I'll be okay," Willow said with a forced smile. "I'll catch up with you later, back at school."

Buffy and Tara exchanged worried expressions again and then glanced back at Willow. After a long look, they finally nodded, opened the front door, and left.

When she had shut the front door behind her girlfriends, Willow turned toward the living room. She took a deep breath and headed in that direction.

Tara and Buffy walked slowly along the sidewalk on their way back to campus. Buffy looked back once, then twice. After the third time, she just stopped in place.

"I don't like this. I don't like this one bit," Buffy said angrily. "We shouldn't've left her there alone."

"I don't like it either, but we've got to respect her wishes," Tara replied. "Willow wants to do this by herself."

Buffy's face creased in pain. "She's upset, I can feel it."

Tara nodded sympathetically. "I know. I feel it too."

They both looked back down the street toward the Rosenberg house and frowned. They stared for the longest time.

Tara broke off her stare and sighed. "Let's just get back to school. Willow will find us when she's done."

Tara extended her hand to Buffy. After a moment, Buffy took Tara's hand, and the two of them reluctantly went back to their walking.

When Willow entered the living room, she found her parents standing in front of the sofa, heavy into their discussion.

"This is clearly an intensification of her post-adolescent need for separation from her parental figures," Sheila speculated.

Willow slipped in completely unnoticed by her parents and sat down in the chair across from the sofa.

"Yes, she's chosen to state her desire for autonomy in the most dramatic way possible," Ira added.

"Mom, Dad," Willow said in an attempt to get her parents' attention. They didn't even hear her.

"I agree," Sheila said, continuing the debate with her husband. "First it was the 'witchcraft' thing, then dating that musician of hers, thank goodness that's over with..."

"Mom, Dad," Willow said a little louder, but with no effect on her parents.

"Not to mention her choice of university," Ira complained. "UC Sunnydale? Please!"

"MOM! DAD!" Willow finally shouted.

Ira and Sheila jumped, startled by Willow's loud voice.

"I'm right here," Willow said in a normal tone. "You can talk to me now."

Ira cleared his throat and attempted an authoritarian stance. "We'd like an explanation, young lady. We did not raise you to exhibit such...such..."

"...wanton behavior!" Sheila supplied.

"I...I wasn' wasn' that..." Willow said.

Ira turned back to his wife. "An obvious case of college experimentation, sexual mores in flux, influenced by high levels of peer pressure."

"But the fact that it was displayed before us suggests that she--"

"SHUT UP!" Willow bellowed. When her parents finally looked in her direction, she pleaded, "Listen to me. For once, will you please listen to me?" Willow took a deep breath and continued. "I am not going through some advanced adolescent rebellion, and I am not engaging in the obligatory college experimentation. And before you suggest it, I'm not on drugs either, and I haven't joined some crazy free-love sex cult."

Her parents started to speak, but she raised her hand to stop them.

"What you saw up there was three women making love--three women in love...with each other." Willow paused and put on her resolve face. "Buffy and Tara and I are in love, and we're in a relationship with each other. And we're going to stay that way. Nothing you can say or do will change that. So I suggest you get used to the idea."

Willow got up and left the room, with her parents calling in vain after her. She went upstairs, gathered her things, and came right back down. When she reached the front door, she heard her mother and father arguing in the living room. She could tell that this was no scholarly debate. She went to the doorway and listened.

"This is all your fault!" Ira accused.

"My fault?" Sheila replied incredulously.

"Yes, you're the one who took those pills during your pregnancy, though I urged you not to."

"I was studying for my comps, thank you very much, and my doctor assured me they were safe," Sheila stated angrily. "And by the way, you were the one who seduced me that night, knowing I had my last course final the next day."

"I didn't think you'd get pregnant. We used protection."

"Well, it failed, didn't it? And now we've got a lesbian daughter who thinks she's in love with two women at the same time!"

Tears rolled down Willow's face. She moved away from living room entrance and quietly left the house.

Willow forced herself to keep walking, though she could hardly see the sidewalk in front of her because of the tears pouring from her eyes. She also didn't notice Xander as he drove by and honked.

When he saw Willow so distraught, Xander immediately parked his car and ran back to where Willow was still shuffling.

"Willow!" Xander called out as he approached her.

Willow's head shot up. When she saw Xander before her, she threw herself into his arms. "Oh Xander!" she cried, burying her head in his shoulder as new sobs hit her.

Xander wrapped his arms around the weeping redhead. "Hey now, it's okay," he said in a soothing voice. "I've got you. What's wrong?"

"It's awful, Xander, just awful," Willow replied, pulling away to look Xander in the eyes.

"What is it? Is it Buffy and Tara? Has something happened to them?"

"No, no...thank god, it's nothing like that. If it were, I'd..." Willow's face became even more pained at that thought.

"Then what is it?"

"It's my parents," Willow explained. "They're home."

"Ohhhh...I get it. You did the ol' coming out to the parental units, huh?"

Willow nodded ruefully. "Yeah, you could say that."

"I'm guessin' they didn't immediately call up PFLAG and order a lifetime membership?"

"Ah, no," Willow confirmed. "They just gave me their usual psycho-social babble, debating the issue as if I were one of their test subjects." She paused, and when she began again, her voice was choked, and her tears began rolling down again. "When I left, they were arguing...blaming each other..."

Anger entered Xander's expression. "If anyone oughtta be blamed, it's them!" he said, pointing in an accusatory fashion. Then he corrected himself, "Not that you're being a lesbian is anything blamable, 'cause it's not. It's just that..." Xander shrugged and then continued. "Your parents have never really...well...been parents. They're gone more than they're here. You've had more nannies and babysitters than I've had drunken family holidays."

"They never really wanted children. I was just an inconvenience," Willow said sadly. "Except when it was time to play the compare-your-child's-achievements game with other parents."

"I'm sure they love you, though, Will."

"Yeah," Willow said, unconvinced.

Xander gave Willow a grin. "Well, as you are well aware, the Harris household isn't about to win any Family of the Year awards either." Willow gave an agreeing nod to that. "So you know what I think?" Xander announced. "I think we make our own families. And you're my family, Will. I love you, and I'm here for you."

Willow's eyes filled with tears once again, this time from happiness and a deep sense of being loved. She hugged Xander tightly. Xander kissed Willow on the top of her head and returned her hug with enthusiasm.

Angel yawned and ran his hand through his hair as he exited his bedroom. He trudged into the kitchen, opened the refrigerator, and pulled out a jar of pig's blood. He removed the top, placed the jar in the microwave, and heated it for a short time. When the device beeped, he retrieved the jar and headed for the den. After a few steps, he stopped in place as he became suddenly aware of another person in the room.

Angel's eyes narrowed, and he growled, "Spike..."

The bleach-blonde vampire grinned as he sat slumped in the chair with his feet propped up on the coffee table.

"What are you doing here?" Angel asked in a dangerous tone as he set his jar of blood on the table.

"Oh, just passin' through," Spike replied. "Thought I'd stop by for a chat."

"Still have soldier boys on your tail?"

"Uh, no," Spike said. "What do you know about that?"

"Just what Buffy told me."

Spike glared and then grinned again. "Talk to Buffy a lot, do you?"


"She tell you I helped bring her back from her little dimensional vacation?"

"It's the only reason I'm not kickin' your ass all over this room right now."

"Now, now," Spike said sarcastically, "as if you could."

"Oh, I could," Angel said, taking a step in Spike's direction.

Spike stood and met his grandsire's eyes. The two vampires stared harshly at one another until Spike finally looked away, smiling and chuckling to himself.

"So Buffy told you all about her latest adventure, did she?"

"She gave me the highlights."

"Including her new honey?" Spike prodded.

"What?" Angel asked, a confused look on his face. "I knew she was seeing one of those government soldier guys, but--"

"Oh, Mr. Initiative is ancient history," Spike said over his shoulder as he headed for the exit. "Now she's got a new love. Or loves, I should say."

"What are you talking about?" Angel demanded.

"It seems Buffy's found religion. Now she's worshipping at the temple of Wicca."

Angel's mouth dropped open, and he tried to speak but failed. He tried again. "Willow? Buffy's involved with Willow?"

Spike nodded. "And Tina too."

Angel looked confused. "Do you mean Tara?" Angel asked for clarification.

"Oh...yeah...Tara," Spike corrected. Then he returned to his needling of Angel. "Yep, the Slayer's just up to her eyeballs in witchy goodness. Seemed as happy as a lark. I'm surprised she didn't tell you."

Angel didn't answer. He just stared broodingly off into space.

Spike smirked. My work here is done, he thought to himself.




Xander accompanied a somber Willow to her room in Stevenson. When Willow opened her door, she was greeted by an excited Buffy and Tara.

"Willow, look!" Buffy said. "Anya and Xander cleaned our room for us!"

Willow smiled and looked around the room, clearly impressed. As Xander walked inside to admire his handiwork, Buffy and Tara moved closer to Willow. Tara touched Willow's arm, and Buffy leaned over to whisper into Willow's ear.

"You okay?" Buffy asked.

Willow gave a quick nod of assurance, her expression to both of them indicating that they could discuss the matter of her parents later.

"So what'd'ya think?" Xander asked, spreading out his arms with pride.

"It looks great," Willow said sincerely. "Thank you, both, so much."

Xander put on a sad expression. "I'm sorry to tell you, though, that the answering machine is--it's dead." He picked up the battered remains of the device. "Despite our best efforts at resuscitation, it just didn't make it."

Willow and Buffy and Tara gave Xander's melodramatic display a collective roll of their eyes.

Xander set down the broken answering machine. "Just so's ya know, we didn't throw anything away--well, except for the obvious. You know, empty food and drink containers, anything that was broken beyond repair," Xander continued. "We just cleaned and heaped as best we could. Hence the many stacks of stuff. Unfortunately, Anya drew the line at washing your clothes for you, although I did personally volunteer to do the whites."

The Three gave Xander a pointed look.

"What?" he replied with an innocent expression. "Anya's allergic to bleach."

"Yeah, right," Buffy chided, before giving Xander a hug. Soon the other two joined them.

"Thank you, Xander," the Three chimed, embracing Xander in a warm group hug.

Xander giggled happily and returned the hug. When the foursome separated, Xander headed for the door.

"Well, I'll leave you to it, then," he said. "I know you've got stuff to sort through and put away. I'm gonna go join Anya and crash for the rest of the day."

"Tell her thank you for us," Willow said.

"You betcha," Xander said with a wink before exiting.

After Xander had left, Willow turned from the door and hugged herself tightly. She drew in a deep breath and blew it out slowly, trying not to let it catch in her throat.

"So, I guess you guys want the scoop, huh?" Willow said, dropping her arms for a moment.

"Only if you feel like telling us," Tara replied. "A-A-And it's okay if you don't." Tara reached out and touched Willow's arm reassuringly.

Willow nodded and hugged herself again as tears began to spill from her eyes. Buffy put her hand on Willow's back.

"Why don't we sit down?" Buffy offered, guiding Willow to the edge of the bed.

The Three sat on the bed with Willow in the middle. Before she had even been seated for a second, Willow burst into sobs. Tara and Buffy quickly sandwiched her into a comforting hug and just the redhead cry.

Meanwhile, at Wolfram and Hart, Lilah was meeting with Holland Manners in his office. As Lilah sat in the chair before Holland's desk, Lindsey stood a respectable distance behind, relegated to taking notes.

"The Senior Partners want the Power of Three destroyed," Holland reported. "Although they haven't impacted any of our operations outside of Sunnydale, it's only a matter of time, especially given the Slayer's connection to Angel."

"Is that a wise course of action?" Lilah asked.

"Perhaps not, but it is a necessary one," Holland answered.

"It's foolish," Lindsey interjected.

Both Lilah and Holland gave Lindsey an icy stare. Lindsey ignored them.

"If you think Angel's been a thorn in your side before now," Lindsey went on, "try messing with his favorite Slayer."

Lilah turned back to Holland. "It's not Angel I'm worried about. It's the curse."

Holland smiled enigmatically and chuckled. "Oh, I've found a way around the curse."

Lindsey sighed loudly and shrugged. "It's your funeral."

"Lindsey, why don't you head back to my office and start the research for the Merckson case?" Lilah told her assistant.

Lindsey gave the two executives a curt nod then left the office. Holland watched Lindsey go, a look of deep concern on his face. Lilah watched Holland watching Lindsey and made a decision.

"There's something you should know," she began. When Holland met her eyes, she continued. "I found Lindsey making copies of the Power of Three file." Lilah waited until that information had sunk in, then she went on. "He said he was just closing up his cases as you had asked him to do, but..."

"But what?"

"I don't trust him," Lilah said. "I think he's up to something."

Holland thought deeply for a moment then spoke. "Have Lindsey watched and keep me informed. I sincerely hope your suspicions are unwarranted, but it's best to err on the side of caution."

Lilah smiled her acknowledgement of the order then left the office.

At lunchtime, Lindsey slipped out of the huge Wolfram and Hart tower and hurried down the sidewalk. He crossed a couple of streets, watching his back as he did so. Seeing no one, he stopped at a pay phone. He pulled out a pre-paid calling card and a slip of paper with a number on it. He punched in the requisite numbers and waited.

In Buffy and Willow's empty dorm room, the phone began to ring. With the demolished answering machine next to it, the phone rang multiple times. But no one was there to hear it.

"Damn it!" Lindsey swore before hanging up the receiver.

Lindsey picked up the receiver again, as if considering making another call. Then he put it right back down. He turned around to head back to the office.

Several yards away on a bus bench, a non-descript man in a brown coat lowered his newspaper and watched Lindsey as he walked away. The man spoke discreetly into a cell phone, then nonchalantly folded his paper and headed in the same direction that Lindsey had gone.

After they had gotten out of classes that afternoon, the Three returned to Willow and Buffy's dorm room, determined to get everything back in its place. As Tara hit the books, Willow and Buffy focused on paper sorting.

Willow held up a slightly crumpled stack of sheets from a notebook. The colored writing had been smeared from what looked like a spilled soda.

"No!" she groaned. "My psychology notes!"

"Guess your fancy-schmancy pens aren't designed to hold up against poltergeist attacks, huh?" Buffy commented.

"That's it!" Willow stated in a determined voice. "I'm going laminated!"

Tara grinned at her girlfriend, the notes-neatness-freak, and chuckled, before turning her attention back to the stack of books before her. Once she had separated Willow's magic books from the college textbooks, she began replacing them in the bookshelf. When she had finished, her eyes were drawn to a volume she hadn't seen before. She slid it out and sat down at Willow's desk to peruse it. It didn't take her long to realize that it wasn't like the others. She turned to the section that was marked and read it carefully.

"Willow!" Tara blurted in shock.

"What?" Willow answered.

Tara had a serious frown on her face as she joined Willow and Buffy on the bed where they were sorting papers.

"Th-Th-This book," Tara said worriedly, "where did you get it?"

Willow took the book from Tara's hand. When she saw what it was, her face fell.

"Oh. That." Willow hung her head and didn't answer.

"What?" Buffy asked, wondering what was going on.

Tara crossed her arms tightly and stared at Willow.

Willow looked up but didn't maintain eye contact. "Just some guy that Spike knew. I-I-I guess I forgot about returning it."

Tara continued to glare unhappily at Willow. Buffy looked back and forth between the two witches, still not following.

"What is it? What's going on?" Buffy asked.

"That's what I'd like to know," Tara said. "The two spells you have that what you used to try to bring us home?"

Willow hesitated then finally answered. "The first one, yes," she admitted. "But the second one, no."

"What's wrong with the spells?" Buffy inquired.

"It's dark magic...very dark," Tara replied. "And very dangerous."

"Willow?" Buffy prodded nervously.

Willow stood up and walked a few feet away. "Look, I didn't do the bad one, okay? It turned out I didn't need to."

"But you would have," Tara said questioningly.

Willow endured Tara's glare for a moment. Then she straightened and said, "Yes, I would have."

"Oh, god," Tara said, hanging her head.

"It was only to bring you back," Willow said, hurrying back to the bed to take Tara's hand in hers. She met Buffy's eyes. "I had tried everything I could think of, everything Giles could think of, a-a-and nothing worked. I was so afraid I'd never see you again."

Tara raised her head. Tears were on her cheeks. "Willow, you can't use black magic like this, no matter how desperate you may be. It's too dangerous!"


"Will, you could lose your soul o-o-or your life," Tara said desperately, as she squeezed Willow's hand. Then she grabbed Buffy's hand too. "And we don't want to lose you, so please promise me you'll get rid of that book and never try anything like that again."

Buffy looked between the two witches again and then looked into Willow's eyes. "Tara's right. No dark stuff, okay?"

Willow reluctantly nodded and said, "Okay. I'll take the book back tomorrow." Willow set the book on the corner of her desk as a reminder.

Buffy and Tara sighed in relief.

Late that afternoon, when he had finished his work, Lindsey said goodbye to Lilah then left the office. As he headed downstairs, Lilah made a quick call. As soon as Lindsey left the Wolfram and Hart tower, he was once again trailed by a man in a brown coat.

After taking a circuitous route, Lindsey finally stopped a few blocks from Angel's hotel. He looked in his mirrors and out the side windows before finally getting out and making his way toward the entrance.

The man in the brown coat sat inside a dark gray van. When he saw Lindsey approaching, clearly heading for the hotel, he spoke into his cell phone, listened for a moment, then motioned to two other men in the back. They waited until Lindsey was alongside the van, then burst out the side door, and yanked Lindsey inside. Then the van sped away.

That evening, back in Sunnydale, Buffy took a break from her patrolling and headed down Revello toward her home. When she neared, she saw Giles' car in the drive and grinned. She adjusted the light pack on her back and walked up to the front door.

Buffy used her key and slipped quietly in the front door. She listened intently for a moment then headed for the kitchen. She eased through the dining room, noting that the candlelit table was set for two. She stifled a giggle and peeked inside the kitchen.

Behind the bar, Joyce tended the stove. She was distracted by Giles, who wrapped one arm around her waist and nuzzled her neck. She laughed at something he whispered in her ear then turned around and swatted him lightly. Their playful embrace led to a passionate kiss, which Buffy interrupted with a well-placed throat-clearing.

Instantly, Giles and Joyce split apart, awkwardly assuming hopefully innocuous yet totally unconvincing poses. Giles immediately began cleaning his glasses, and Joyce turned her attention right back to the food cooking on the stove.

"Buffy!" Joyce said, while keeping her eyes on the food. "What are you doing here? I, um, I wasn't expecting you."

"Yeah, I kinda got that," Buffy replied with a grin, crossing her arms.

"I was just, um, in the neighborhood, and Joyce, she-she..."

"I...saw him...outside, and I, um, invited him to dinner, and--"

"Mom, Giles," Buffy said, interrupting, "it's okay. You don't have to pretend. I know about you two, and I'm cool with it."

"You do?" Joyce asked.

"You are?" Giles added.

"It was kinda obvious when I was in the hospital. All those times you thought I was asleep..."

Giles and Joyce blushed and dipped their heads a moment before smiling back at Buffy.

"And all this time, we were so worried about how we were going to tell you," Joyce chided her daughter before hugging her. "You are a wicked, wicked child."

Buffy chuckled and hugged her mom back. "Well, I have to admit it did wig me out a little at first. I kept having 'band candy' flashbacks when you two were all over each other."

Giles and Joyce blushed again, but recovered quickly.

", um, you don't mind, then?" Giles asked.

"Well...I do have one question," Buffy said with a serious expression.

Joyce and Giles steeled themselves and then nodded their readiness for her question.

"Are you happy?"

Joyce and Giles gave a small laugh then looked at each other, smiling. Then they turned back to Buffy.

"Yes, we are," Joyce said for the two of them.

"That's all I need to know," Buffy answered. "The rest we'll figure out as we go." She gave her mother a special grin and added, "A very wise woman told me something like that once."

Joyce hugged her daughter tightly. Buffy returned the hug then reached out to bring Giles into the hug.

After a moment, Buffy said, "Since we're talking about being happy, you know what would make me really happy?"

Giles and Joyce pulled out of the hug and eyed Buffy suspiciously.

"What?" Joyce asked.

"Being able to move off campus with Willow and Tara," Buffy replied. When Joyce rolled her eyes, Buffy continued. "I know what you're thinking. Too expensive, right? Well, actually, we've checked into it, and some places are very reasonable and not a whole lot more than what the dorm costs."

"Buffy, I don't know," Joyce said. "Things are really tight as it is."

"Can't you talk to Dad?" Buffy asked.

Joyce shook her head. When she saw Buffy's disappointed expression, she said, "I'll give it a try. No promises, though."

"Thanks, Mom," Buffy said. "Oh...I will need a new answering machine, though. It kinda got trashed in our last adventure."

When Joyce got a confused look on her face, Giles interjected, "I think I can take care of that. After all, it was damaged in the course of your Slayer duties, and I do need to be able to get messages to you."

"Cool. Well, I guess I'll leave you two lovebirds to your romantic dinner and get back to patrolling," Buffy said as she headed for the door. "Oh, one more thing," she said quickly. "Don't forget about the Honors Program thing. Willow and Tara really want both of you to be there."

"Of course," Giles assured her.

"And when are we going to see you on the honors list?" Joyce asked pointedly.

"Ahhh...ummm...I think that's my cue to leave," Buffy said. "Bye!"

As Buffy got to the front door, she heard her mother call from the other room.

"Buffy! There's a package for you on the table by the door!"

"Okay!" Buffy called back.

Buffy moved toward the table and found the FedEx package. She looked at it curiously for a moment, then pulled off her pack and stuffed inside the outer pocket. She put the pack back on and headed out the door, locking it behind her.

Willow and Tara sat cross-legged on the floor of Tara's dorm room. They were holding hands, and their eyes were closed. Sweat was beading on their foreheads, and they were breathing heavily, apparently concentrating very hard on something.

They combined their strengths and together reached out with their minds, sweeping through Sunnydale until they found the unique energy signature of their Slayer soulmate.

"Can you hear me now? " they heard Buffy quip in their minds.

Willow sent Buffy a telepathic groan. "Save the puns for the bad guys, Buffy."

"Just practicing. Can you tell where I'm at? " Buffy asked.

"Cemetery," Willow answered.

"Which one? " Buffy pressed.

"Oakdale," Tara answered with confidence. "You're sitting on top of an above-ground tomb, the one with the gargoyle and the angel beside it."

"Ex-cell-ent," Buffy said. "This whole getting into each other's brains is kinda fun, huh? "

In the bowels of Wolfram and Hart, in a room from which no sound escaped, Lindsey screamed in agony. He was bound in a medical chair, strong leather straps securing him in place. His face was bruised and battered, his clothes ripped and bloodied. Behind him stood a demon, who held his clawed hands firmly on Lindsey's head, sending jolts of electricity into the young lawyer's skull. Holland and Lilah watched impassively.

"Disappointed?" Lilah inquired.

"Yes," Holland growled. "But I'm finding this final procedure somewhat...gratifying."

"Why not just kill him?" Lilah asked. "You've learned what he was up to, thanks to the telepaths."

"No," Holland said slowly, "this is better."

Lilah gave Holland a skeptical look then shrugged and turned her attention back to the screaming Lindsey.

Later that night, Angel parked his long black car in the dead-end alley behind the hotel. He got out and headed for the back entrance. A tiny scuffle drew his attention, and he froze. He listened and then crept silently towards the red dumpster in the corner. He eased over to stand beside it, then suddenly shoved the metal bin away from the wall.

There, in the grimy shadows, was Lindsey. The young lawyer gasped in terror and tried to scramble away on his hands and knees. Angel grabbed him and pulled him back, setting him up straight and holding him firmly in place.

"Lindsey! Lindsey!" Angel called to the distraught man.

"No! No!" Lindsey cried, nearly hyperventilating in fear. He tossed his head from side to side, refusing to look in the face of his captor.

"Lindsey, it's me...Angel," the vampire said.

Lindsey calmed at Angel's name. He stopped struggling and ventured a peek at who was holding him. "Angel?" Lindsey asked with a bewildered expression.

"Yes," Angel answered.

Lindsey relaxed and let out a shaky breath. Then he leaned forward and whispered conspiratorially, "The clowns have eaten all the cotton candy." His face became pained. "And now all the children are crying because the circus is empty."

Angel stared open-mouthed at Lindsey for a moment, blinking in confusion. Then he shook his head and said, "Say what?"

In Angel's apartment, Lindsey sat on the couch with his knees pulled to his chest and a blanket wrapped around his shoulders. He rocked in place, talking to himself in a low voice while Angel and Cordelia stood nearby in the kitchen.

"What the hell happened to him?" Cordelia asked.

"I don't know," Angel replied. "I found him like that."

"Don't tell the trees!" Lindsey called out suddenly. "Can't trust the trees..."

Angel and Cordelia looked at Lindsey sadly then turned back to each other. "It looks like somebody beat the crap out of him," Cordelia said. "We should take him to the hospital. The way he's been talking nonsense, he's probably got a concussion."

"I don't think so," Angel said. "There's more to this than just..." He trailed off and thought some more. "Something's not right," he said finally.

Cordelia raised her eyebrows at Angel expectantly until he went on.

Angel leaned closer, lowering his voice. "When I asked him who did this to him, he wouldn't answer at first. Then he looked at me, like he knew me...I swear, for a second, he looked like he was trying to speak but couldn't. Then he just shook his head and started babbling again."

"Cat's in the cradle, but mom doesn't know," Lindsey said, rocking in place. "Steal your breath away, it will..."

"What are you thinking...that maybe somebody scrambled his brain or something?" Cordelia asked.

"Maybe." Angel thought a moment and then said, "I think we should take him to Sunnydale. See if Willow can figure it out."

Cordelia groaned. "Sunnydale? Do we have to?" Cordelia whined. When Angel glared at her, she rolled her eyes. "Fine, but don't blame me when you come back all moody broody from seeing you-know-who!"

"Sheila, Ira, how good to see you!" Joyce exclaimed in surprise when she saw Willow's parents enter her gallery.

"It's good to see you too," Sheila echoed with a smile.

"Joyce," Ira said with a cordial nod of his head.

"You just caught me on my way to lunch," Joyce said, "but I can wait if you'd like to see the new exhibit."

"Actually...we're here about something else," Sheila said.

Bet I can guess, Joyce thought to herself. "Why don't we go back to my office?" she suggested, gesturing toward the back of the gallery.

Once they had reached the office and the Rosenbergs had seated themselves, Joyce herself sat down behind her desk. "What can I do for you?"

"We're here about Willow," Ira stated matter-of-factly.

"I see," Joyce said.

"Has Buffy told you about her, um, her--" Sheila struggled to say.

"Yes, I know about Buffy's relationship with Willow and Tara, if that's what you mean," Joyce answered.

"Good, good," Sheila said with a sigh of relief. "I really didn't want to be the bearer of bad news, as it were."

"We certainly wouldn't want you to find out the way we did," Ira grumbled under his breath.

Joyce ignored Ira and looked at Sheila. "Why would I think it was bad news? My daughter's in love. That's a good thing, right?"

"Well, of course it is, of course," Sheila replied. "Under normal circumstances."

"Normal?" Joyce asked in an icy tone.

"Look, let's cut to the chase here," Ira interjected. "We don't like this so-called relationship that Willow has developed with Buffy and Tara. We want it to stop. Now."

As Sheila confirmed her agreement with a nod, Joyce stared in shock and then anger.

Then she directed a hard gaze at the Rosenbergs. "Buffy and Willow and Tara are mature adults who are capable of making informed, intelligent decisions for themselves," Joyce said. "As a concerned but understanding parent, I refuse to interfere in that."

Sheila and Ira huffed and looked away, so Joyce softened her approach. "They're in love, and they make each other happy," she said with confidence. "Have you even tried to get to know them, watch them together? If you did, you'd see that--"

"You would let your daughter run headlong and thoughtless into danger without making any attempt to save her from herself?" Ira demanded. "And you call yourself a concerned parent!"

"Well, I am certainly more of a concerned parent than you two are!" Joyce retorted, suddenly jumping to her feet. "Traveling six months or more a year, leaving Willow to care for barely even qualify as parents!"

Sheila gasped and put her hand on her chest. She opened her mouth, but no words came out. Ira grabbed Sheila's hand and pulled her to her feet.

"This conversation is over," Ira stated. "We'll deal with this in our own way."

Before Joyce could say another word, Ira ushered Sheila from the office and out of the gallery.

Late that afternoon, in Stevenson Hall, Buffy and Tara and Willow were busy studying. Willow sat at her desk, typing away on her laptop. Tara and Buffy were propped up on the bed, pillows behind them and books before them.

As Buffy copied a few lines from her textbook into her notebook, she felt soft fingers trail along her right forearm. She looked up and to her left, where Tara sat beside her. Tara smiled--a small but happy smile, her blue eyes beaming with love. She gave Buffy's arm a squeeze.

God, I will never get tired of seeing that face, Buffy thought to herself as she smiled back at Tara.

Buffy put down her pen and pulled Tara's face to hers, kissing her soundly. What had been meant as a brief embrace became more as Tara hungrily returned Buffy's kiss. The two disregarded papers and books alike as they moved into each other's arms.

At her desk, Willow looked up from her laptop and sighed resignedly. She turned slowly around and stared at her girlfriends making out on the bed. She sighed again.

"Sulu, shields up!" Willow said sarcastically as she turned back around and donned a set of headphones that had been lying next to her mouse pad. "Aye, Captain!" Then she resumed her typing.

Less than a minute later, the phone rang. Buffy reluctantly pulled away from Tara and flipped over to reach for the phone.

"Hello?" she said testily into the receiver.

"Buffy, it's Giles," came the voice over the phone.

"Oh, hey Giles," Buffy replied as Willow turned around in her chair and took off her headphones. "What's up?" she asked her watcher.

"I need you and Willow and Tara to come over right away. Something's come up, and well, you just need to see for yourself."

"Giles, what is it?" Buffy asked, a touch of fear in her voice.

"We, um, we don't know," Giles answered.

"We? Who's 'we'?"

"Oh, um, Angel and Cordelia...a-a-and that Lindsey fellow."

Buffy didn't answer; she just stared at the wall. Willow and Tara looked on worriedly.

"Buffy? Can I expect you soon?" Giles prompted.

"We'll be right there," she said. She hung up the phone and then slowly got up.

"Buffy, what is it?" Willow asked, standing up beside her desk chair.

"Oh, that was Giles," Buffy answered absently. "He wants us to come over right away."

"What is it? What's happened?" Tara asked as she scooted over to the edge of the bed on Buffy's side.

"Don't know yet," Buffy replied flatly. "Guess we'll find out."

Willow joined Tara, and the two of them looked at Buffy, waiting for her to continue. Buffy glanced at Willow and Tara, then looked away, moving toward the closet to get her shoes. She came back with them and finally met her girlfriends' eyes.

"It's Angel," she said. "He's here." Buffy paused and took a deep breath. "Him and Cordelia. And that guy from Wolfram and Hart, Lindsey. Something big must be goin' down."

"Oh," Tara said.

"Angel," Willow whispered softly. After a long and awkward silence, Willow went on. "Have you, um, you know, told Angel about--"

"No," Buffy said instantly. Then she softened and came back to the bed, setting her shoes on the floor. "I know I should have, but it's just...hard. I don't want to hurt his feelings. I mean, I can move on, you know? But he can't and--"

"Buffy, it's okay," Tara said reassuringly, taking Buffy's hand. "We understand. Right, Will?"

Willow nodded and tookBuffy's other hand. "Just tell us what you need us to do, and we'll do it, okay?"

Buffy nodded. "Well, during the meeting, until I've had time to talk to Angel, just keep your distance, and you know, keep your digits to yourselves." Buffy pulled her hands away, then she gestured at Willow and Tara. "Well, you two don't have to. With each other, I mean. What I mean is, just do it around me. I mean, don't do it around me. God, I am not making any sense at all."

"We get it, Buffy," Willow said. "Really."

"We'll give you your space," Tara added.

"I'll talk to him right after the meeting, I promise," Buffy told them.

In Giles' apartment, Angel and Cordelia sat on the couch. Giles sat in a chair nearby. When the front door opened, all turned to look. Willow and Tara came in first, followed by Buffy. Willow and Tara headed immediately for the sitting area, where Willow greeted everyone. Buffy stayed by the bar, setting her backpack on the floor next to the entrance to the hallway. Then she stood by the nearest stool and crossed her arms. Angel glanced at Buffy and then at Willow and Tara.

"Angel, Cordelia," Willow said, "this is girlfriend."

"It's nice to meet you," Angel said.

"Yeah, we've heard a lot of good things about you," Cordelia added.

Tara blushed and ducked her head as she smiled. "Thanks, it's good to meet you too."

Willow guided Tara to another chair and then perched on the armrest next to her. Finally, Angel turned his gaze to Buffy. There was an awkward pause as the two former lovers looked at one another.

"Buffy," Angel said simply.

"Angel," Buffy replied. After another long moment of silence, Buffy said, "Where's Lindsey? I thought he came with you?"

"He's, um, in the bedroom," Giles answered. "He's actually the reason I called."

"What? I-I-Is something wrong with him?" Willow asked.

"Ah, yeah, you could say that," Cordelia said. "He's had a sudden absence of sanity."

"We think somebody did something to him, maybe cast a spell on him?" Angel told Willow. "I was hoping you could check him out."

Willow looked at Tara, who nodded. "Sure, we can do that," Willow replied.

"I'll get him," Cordelia said before rising and leaving.

Within a few minutes, Cordelia led Lindsey into the room. He had been cleaned up, and his wounds had been treated. His face was still battered and his expression crazed as he murmured to himself. As they came through the hallway, Lindsey's eyes caught sight of Buffy's backpack on the floor, where the unopened FedEx package was sticking up out of the outside pocket.

Lindsey froze, staring in terror at the package. He began to whimper. Cordelia tried to nudge him forward, but he wouldn't move.

"Come on, Lindsey," she reassured him. "It's okay..."

Lindsey suddenly went berserk, screaming and shoving Cordelia violently away from himself. Then he plowed over Buffy and headed for the door. Buffy flipped over and grabbed him by the leg, tripping him up. Angel leapt over the couch and ran to the door, blocking it. Lindsey fought frantically for a few moments before finally giving up. Angel held him in a tight grip as Buffy got to her feet.

"What the hell was that all about?" Buffy asked.

"I don't know," Angel said. "He's been fairly calm until now."

"It's that backpack," Tara said, pointing. "Something about it frightened him."

"My backpack?" Buffy asked. "Why would he freak out over my backpack?"

Buffy retrieved her backpack, and as soon as Lindsey saw it, he became agitated once again. Buffy looked at Lindsey, then the package, and finally pulled the FedEx envelope out of her pack. She came toward Lindsey with it.

"No! No!" Lindsey cried, refusing to look at the package at all and trying unsuccessfully to pull from Angel's grip.

"It's not the backpack, it's this," Buffy said, holding up the package.

"What is it?" Willow asked.

"I don't know," Buffy answered. "I picked it up last night when I stopped by my mom's. I haven't taken the time to open it." Buffy turned to Lindsey and showed him the package. "Lindsey, did you send this? Do you know what's inside?"

Lindsey shook his head back and forth before finally venturing a glance at the package. The veins in his neck and forehead were standing out as he seemingly had to force himself to look at it. He let out a strangled gasp as he clenched his teeth and jaw. For a moment, his gaze seemed lucid as he struggled to speak, but then he shook his head crazily again and started rocking in place.

"Nosy rats get tails cut off, the farmer's wife with a butcher's knife..." Lindsey began repeating.

"Get him back to the bedroom," Buffy told Angel.

While Angel and Cordelia got Lindsey settled into the bedroom once again, Buffy went and knelt in front of the coffee table. She set the package on the table and opened it. She pulled a manila folder full of sheets from the package. Giles leaned over to see.

"What's in it?" Willow asked as she and Tara knelt beside Buffy.

"It looks like documents from Wolfram and Hart," Buffy said, passing a few sheets over to Giles and to Willow and Tara.

"Oh my god," Tara said. "This is stuff on the Power of Three...o-o-on us!"

An hour or so later, Buffy and Giles, now alone in the living room, continued to pour over the documents.

"This...this is remarkable," Giles commented. "They've got records here I don't think the Council has ever seen."

"Well, good," Buffy said. "We'll be ahead of them, for once."

Willow and Tara came out of the hallway and returned to the living room. Angel and Cordelia remained in the bedroom with Lindsey. Buffy and Giles turned to Willow and Tara expectantly.

"So, what'd'ya think?" Buffy asked the two witches.

"Something's definitely been done to him," Willow answered as she and Tara once again knelt beside Buffy on the floor.

"H-H-His aura's extremely stressed and...I don't know...garbled," Tara added.

"What happened? How was this done to him?" Giles asked.

"Don't know," Willow said, "but I bet I can guess why."

"He sent the file and then got caught?" Buffy supplied.

"Why would he do that? He works for Wolfram and Hart," Giles asked.

"I think that whole thing with N'Faius freaked him out," Buffy answered. "Maybe he decided he was working for the wrong side."

"But what was he trying to tell us?" Tara asked. "I get the clear impression that he desperately wants to tell us something but can't."

"Think you two could get through to him somehow?" Buffy asked.

"I don't know, Buffy. There may not be anything to get through to," Willow said. "His brain's pretty fried."

"We can try, though," Tara offered.

"Would it be dangerous?" Buffy asked, laying her hand on Willow's arm and looking into her girlfriends' eyes. "I don't want you two putting yourselves at--"

Buffy stopped when she saw Angel and Cordelia coming back in to the living room. She pulled away from Willow and Tara and stood up.

"So, how's he doing?" Buffy asked.

"He's sleeping now," Cordelia answered. "We thought it'd be best to sedate him for a little while."

"Good, that's good," Buffy said awkwardly, stuffing her hands into her pants pockets. "Um, Angel, can I, um, talk to you for a minute...alone?"

Angel glanced nervously at the group then said, "Sure."

The two of them walked to the door and stepped outside into the night air.

Buffy led Angel through the alcove outside Giles' apartment to a small bench in the side yard. Once they had sat down, Angel looked at Buffy and waited patiently for her to speak. After several long moments of uncomfortable silence, Buffy finally took a deep breath and began.

"Angel, I need to tell you something," Buffy said.

"I already know," Angel said.


"About you and Willow and Tara."

Buffy's mouth dropped open, and then she said, "How?"

"How do you think?"

Buffy groaned. "Spike?"

Angel nodded. Then he sighed and said, "I wish you had told me."

"I'm sorry," Buffy said sincerely. "I was going to," she said with conviction. "Eventually...someday..." she finished with a sheepish wince.

"You didn't have any problem telling me about soldier boy," Angel commented with a touch of annoyance in his voice.

"I know, but..." Buffy trailed off then tried again. "I just didn't know how you'd take it. I mean, can my relationship get any different from you and I had?"

Angel chuckled at that, and Buffy joined him in a quick laugh.

"Plus...I just didn't want to rub your nose in it," Buffy added. "Oh, look at all the people I'm dating! I can be happy, but you can't!" she said in a sarcastic tone.

"I appreciate the thought, but I'm okay. I want you to be happy, Buffy. I do. That's why I left, remember?"

"Yeah," Buffy said sadly, dropping her gaze to her hands.

"You are happy, right?"

Buffy looked back up and smiled. "Yes, I am. Very happy."

"Then I'm happy for you," Angel said, putting his arm around Buffy's shoulders and hugging her.

Buffy sighed and leaned in comfortably against him. "Thank you, Angel. That means a lot to me." After a moment, she added, "Now, if we can just get this whole Power of Three mess straightened out, things'll be--"

Angel released Buffy and turned sharply towards her. "Power of Three?"

"Yeah, that's the other half of what I needed to tell you," Buffy answered. "It seems that me and Willow and Tara are some kind of special guardian trio for the hellmouth."

"I've heard of it, I think," Angel said. "A long time ago. Don't remember much, though."

"There's not a whole lot of information about it," Buffy informed him. "At least not in the Council's library. It looks like Wolfram and Hart has access to sources we don't have. Lindsey was here investigating us for the firm when that whole N'Faius thing went down."

"You didn't tell me that," Angel complained.

"Sorry. We weren't really that sure of our information when we sent Lindsey on his way, and...well, like I said, I just didn't know how to tell you."

"What else is there? I need to know everything."

"That package we think Lindsey sent? It contains some documents from Wolfram and Hart, documents dealing with the Power of Three. We're thinking he got caught and they fried his brain."

"Sounds like them."

"I just wish I knew what they were up to," Buffy said worriedly.

"I'll see what I can find out," Angel promised.




A few days after Angel had gone back to L.A., Buffy came in from her afternoon class. She dropped her book bag on the floor and went to the phone. She dialed Angel's number and waited.

"Angel Investigations, we help the hopeless!" Cordelia answered perkily.

"Hey, Cordelia," Buffy said. "Is Angel up yet?"

"Yeah, sure, hang on."

After a moment, Angel came on the phone. "Hey," he said simply.

"Hey," Buffy replied. After a moment, she asked, "'s Lindsey?"

"The same."


Buffy and Angel were quiet for a moment. Then Buffy finally broke the silence.

"Have you found out anything about Wolfram and Hart?" she asked.

"Not yet. I've spent the last couple of days pummeling some of the demons known to have associated with the firm, but they don't know anything," Angel said. "I think I'm gonna have to go quite a bit higher in the food chain on this one."

"Do you really think Wolfram and Hart might be planning something against us?" Buffy asked, deep concern in her voice.

"It'd be the smart thing to do," he answered. "Take you guys out before you have a chance to master your powers and get stronger. Have you found anything else in those documents Lindsey sent you?"

"No, not really," Buffy admitted ruefully. "It's mostly historical stuff. Not so much as a how-to anywhere in it." Buffy sighed.

"Well, you do have that curse thing going for you," Angel reminded her.

"Yeah, right. 'Take one of three, curs-ed be.' Oh, that's really scary. Gonna have all those evil doers just a-shakin' in their shoes with that one," Buffy said bitterly. "And that's if any of them even know about the stupid curse."

"At least we know Wolfram and Hart knows about it," Angel said. "That should help, right?"

"Yeah, I guess," Buffy said. "It's just what else they might know that worries me."

Across town, Willow stood outside the front door of her parents' house. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes, thinking of Buffy and Tara.

"Call us if you need us," Tara had said. "Are you sure you don't want us to come along?"

"I'll be fine," Willow had answered.

"Just remember," Buffy had told her, "you are a bad-ass witch. If they go too far, you can always turn them into slugs."

At the memory of Buffy's line, Willow allowed herself a small laugh. Then she opened her eyes and went inside.

Willow found her parents in the living room sitting on the sofa. She sat in the chair across from them and met their eyes.

"Okay, I'm here," Willow said, folding her arms resolutely across her chest.

Ira and Sheila exchanged a look, then Ira turned to his daughter.

"We want to talk to you about this-this thing you have going with those other two women."

Willow's eyes narrowed, and she leaned forward, unfolding her arms. "First of all, 'those women' have names. They're Buffy and Tara. And secondly, this isn't a 'thing' we have going. It's a relationship. An unconventional one, I'll admit, but--"

"Unconventional?" Ira interjected. "Ludicrous is more like it!"

"It's not ludicrous!" Willow said angrily. "And how would you know anyway?"

"Now, now...tempers, tempers," Sheila said in a placating voice. "Let's not--"

"Oh let's," Willow said firmly. "I told you before. Buffy and Tara and I are in love, and we're going to stay that way. Nothing you can say or do is going to change that."

Willow got to her feet and headed for the door.

"You stop right there, young lady!" Ira called out to his daughter, causing her to stop in place. "If you walk out that door, you can kiss our financial support good-bye!"

Willow turned around slowly and looked at her parents in shock. "You'd cut me off? Just like that? Because of who I'm dating?"

"To get you to see reason...yes," Ira said, rising to his feet.

Willow looked at her father and then her mother, then brought her eyes back to her father. "Fine," she said with conviction. "I'd rather be in the poor house with them than in your good graces without them!"

Willow turned back around and stomped to the front door. She slammed it loudly as she left.

Later that day, Buffy and Joyce sat at the bar in the Summers' home, drinking coffee together.

"They just cut her off?" Joyce asked incredulously.

Buffy nodded solemnly.

"I guess that means they won't be coming to the honors program on Sunday then?"

Again, Buffy nodded.

"Well, they said they were going to handle things 'their own way'..."

"You talked to them?"

"They came by the gallery the other day," Joyce replied. "They were hoping for my assistance in breaking up what they considered to be an abnormal and dangerous relationship."

"Abnormal? Dangerous?" Buffy asked in a loud and incensed voice.

"Yes. I tried to convince them to give it time, to try to get to know you first, but they wouldn't listen."

"No surprise there. They've never listened to Willow, paid her any mind at all, until she did something they didn't like."

"Yes, I reminded them of their excessive lack of parenting," Joyce said.

"You did not," Buffy replied with a smile. "Get out!"

Joyce laughed. "I felt a little like the pot calling the kettle black afterwards, but yes, I did."

"That was totally different, Mom."

"Is it?"

"Yes!" Buffy assured her. "Finding out you're the mother of the Slayer is way more freak-worthy than finding out your daughter's gay and dating two women at the same time. What you was understandable."

"You're very generous," Joyce said.

Buffy looked down at her hands for a moment, then looked back up.

"It hurt, I admit that," she told her mother. "But I get it now. I shouldn't've kept you in the dark all those years. If you had known what was going on, that would've never happened." Buffy made an angry pout. "Stupid Council and its stupid rules."

"I won't argue with that assessment. So, how did Willow take it?"

"She was upset at first, but after we talked, she felt better. We tried to make her feel good about standing up for herself."

"That's good. What about the money situation? Willow won't have to drop out of school, will she?" Joyce asked.

"No, Willow's on a full scholarship, so school's covered. It's just...there's no extra, you know? Nothing to fall back on," Buffy answered. "Plus, it means no off campus housing for us. At least not any time soon."

"Well, I've got good news on that front," Joyce reported. "I've talked to your father, and he's agreed to help with the finances so that you can move off campus."

"Really? That's awesome!" Buffy said, hugging her mom enthusiastically.

"I didn't tell him about you and Willow and Tara being in a relationship, of course. That's your job," Joyce told her daughter. "But I did tell him the expenses wouldn't be too bad since you'd be splitting them three ways with your new roommates."

Buffy clapped her hands happily. "I can't wait to tell Will and Tara!"

"Just remember that this arrangement is contingent on your grades remaining up," Joyce said. "Is that clear?"

Buffy saluted. "Ma'am, yes ma'am!" Buffy sat back down. "Don't worry. With Willow and Tara as roommates, I won't be allowed to be a slacker."

Meanwhile, back in Sunnydale, Willow and Tara walked through the overgrown yard up to Doc's dilapidated house. They went up the steps and knocked on the door.

"Thanks for coming with me," Willow said. "Doc is kinda creepy."

Tara smiled. "I didn't want you to come here alone."

Willow smiled back, then knocked on the door again. Within seconds, Doc cracked the door. He peered at the two of them through his thick glasses. When he recognized Willow, he opened the door fully, smiling widely.

"Oh, you remembered," he said in a pleased voice. "Come in, come in."

Doc led Willow and Tara into the large den. It was still filled with books and papers and various magical items.

"And how did it go?" he asked expectantly.

"Um, fine," Willow answered. Then she held out the book. "I just came to return this to you."

Doc took the book, running his hand over Willow's as he did so. "You didn't do the second one, did you?"

Willow glanced at Tara then blushed. "No, I didn't," Willow told him, pulling her hand back.

Doc's attention was suddenly drawn to Tara. He looked at her intently, even moved to stand in front of her as he stared.

"My, aren't you the interesting one," Doc said to Tara. "Won't be long now, will it?" He gave the blonde a wink.

Tara nervously grabbed Willow's arm. "W-W-Will, I think we should go now."

"O-O-Okay," Willow said. "Thanks again," she told Doc as they headed for the front door.

"My pleasure," Doc replied as they went out the door and down the steps. "Any time," he added with a friendly wave.

Later that day, after her classes were over, Tara sat in the library alone. Her books lay open before her, but her eyes were not on them. She stared at the wall, a frown on her face. After a moment of tense reflection, she shook her head and looked down at her books. She sighed and shut them. Then she pulled out her journal instead. She opened it and began to write.

I'm supposed to be studying right now, but I just can't concentrate. I keep thinking about Doc.

He knew. He took one look at me and knew.

On the way back, Willow asked me what he had meant. I said I didn't know.

I lied. Like I've been doing all along. Lying to Willow and Buffy.

I should tell them the truth, but I just can't. I know it's selfish of me, but I want to enjoy this as long as I can. I'll leave in time before--

Tara stopped writing. She shut her eyes tightly.

"Don't think about it," she whispered to herself, opening her eyes. "There's nothing you can do, so happy for as long as you can."

The next day, Tara did her best to put on a happy face. It was honors day, and both she and Willow were receiving awards. She knew she would have to get on stage to accept her president's list certificate and scholarship renewal, but with all of her friends there to support her, she wasn't worried...not too much anyway.

Once she got past the nervous part of getting up in front of the crowd to accept her awards, Tara relaxed and enjoyed the rest of the ceremony. At the reception that followed, Tara stood near a column in the center of the large foyer of the convocation auditorium, waiting for the rest of the gang to return from the food table. She watched Buffy and Willow, Xander and Anya, and Mr. Giles and Mrs. Summers as they picked their way slowly down the table. It felt good to have people who supported her, who believed in her, who were proud of her achievements. Tara smiled warmly as she thought of them.

"Miss Maclay," Tara heard an official voice say behind her. Tara turned around and found Dean Henderson standing there. "Congratulations," the older woman continued, giving Tara's shoulder a friendly squeeze.

"Thank you, Dr. Henderson," Tara replied with a smile.

"I was just talking with your father about how excited we all are at having you here at UC Sunnydale," Dean Henderson said.

Tara glanced over at Giles beside the food table. "Oh, he's not my--" Tara stopped when Dean Henderson lifted her eyes to address someone coming up behind Tara.

"Mr. Maclay," she said to the man, "you must be so proud."

Tara's eyes filled with fear as she turned slowly around. When she looked up and saw her father's face, she froze.

Mr. Maclay locked eyes with his daughter. "Oh, yes," he said in an even but slightly icy tone. "Very proud."

Across the room, Buffy and Willow stood at the end of the table next to the desserts. They were frowning and sending a deadly stare in Xander's direction. He held his plate close to his body and shielded it with his hands.

"Xander, you took the last one!" Buffy accused while Willow pointed at the now empty tray of cream puffs.

"Number one rule of grazing: first come, first serve," Xander announced firmly.

"But I'm an honoree," Willow protested. "You should--"

Willow stopped mid-sentence, and both she and Buffy immediately turned to look at Tara. After a moment, they set down their plates right on the food line and hurried in their girlfriend's direction.

Anya came up behind Xander. "They're abandoning their food? Quick, grab their shrimp!"

"Something's up," Xander said, setting his plate down as well and following Buffy and Willow.

Anya watched him go, glanced about to see if anyone was looking, then nabbed the shrimp from all three discarded plates. She made one more look around, then followed Xander.

Nearby, Giles saw the sudden exodus of Scoobies. He whispered into Joyce's ear, and the two of them also headed toward Tara.

Tara broke eye contact with her father and took a step back. "Dad, I...ummm...I d-d-didn't know you were here."

"We slipped in at the end of the awards," Mr. Maclay said.

"W-W-We?" Tara asked.

"Your brother and I," he answered. "You didn't tell us about the ceremony. We had to find out by postcard," he added, holding up the official announcement card from UC Sunnydale.

Tara looked at the forwarding sticker on the card and hung her head. You idiot! she thought to herself. You didn't change the false address you gave the school. It must have been sent back and then forwarded to your original permanent address back home. Idiot!

Tara glanced quickly at her father and then hung her head again. "S-S-Sorry...I... ummm...I d-d-didn't want to b-b-bother you. It's s-s-such a long d-d-drive." Tara lifted her eyes.

"When it comes my daughter, I'd do just about anything," he said. "Isn't that right, Tara?

"Y-Y-Yes, sir," she said with a quick nod, her eyes not leaving his. Tara barely registered when Buffy and Willow arrived and took up positions on each side of her and touched her arms.

"It's good to know that Tara has such a supportive family," Dean Henderson said, patting Mr. Maclay's arm before leaving to mingle elsewhere.

Buffy and Willow looked at Tara inquisitively, but she still stared at her father.

"Family?" Willow asked.

At Willow's question, Tara finally blinked and looked away. She met her girlfriends' eyes briefly, then glanced at Xander, Anya, Giles, and Joyce as they arrived. Mr. Maclay straightened and took in the sight of the small crowd around Tara. His eyes narrowed, then he forced a small smile.

"Aren't you going to introduce me?" he prodded his daughter.

"Oh...umm...yes, sir," Tara said. "This is--"

"There you are!" a voice boomed teasingly from behind Mr. Maclay, interrupting Tara. "We been lookin' all over for you," the voice continued as a scruffy-haired blond young man came into view. "Haven't we?" he said, nudging Mr. Maclay.

Tara forced a smile and made a gesture of introduction. "Ummm...everybody, this is my dad...and my brother, Donny."

Both Buffy and Willow replied with a cautious "hi" while Xander and Anya gave a small wave from the back.

"It's very nice to meet you," Joyce said.

"Indeed," Giles echoed, giving the Maclays a nod.

"Th-Th-These are my friends," Tara said.

Donny gave a snort of laughter. "All of them?" he asked incredulously. "Boy, that's more friends than you had in all of high school." Donny gave Tara's arm a playful punch. "Ain't it?"

"Yeah," Tara said flatly to her brother. Then she turned back to her father. " l-l-long will you be staying?"

"Just for tonight," Mr. Maclay answered. "We're staying in the RV park. We'll be going back tomorrow. We have some..." He glanced around at the group surrounding Tara. " business to discuss with you, though. I was hoping we could meet for dinner."

Tara hesitated, then said, "Ummm...okay."

"How about your dorm?"

"Y-Y-Yes sir, th-th--that sounds fine."

Mr. Maclay looked at Tara's friends once again and smiled. "It was good to meet you all," he said formally.

"And you as well," Giles replied politely.

At that, both Mr. Maclay and his son left. Buffy and Willow watched until the two men were out of sight, then they turned quickly to Tara.

"Are you okay?" Willow asked in a concerned voice.

"We were over at the grazing line and then our stomachs went all lurchey," Buffy added. "What's going on?"

"I-I-I'm fine," Tara said in what she hoped was a believable voice. "I was just s-s-surprised, that's all. I w-w-wasn't expecting to see them here."

"I didn't even know that you..." Willow said. "I mean, you've mentioned your mother, but..."

"My parents s-s-separated when I was thirteen," Tara explained. "I went with mom, and Donny went with Dad. We haven't exactly been close." She paused and looked down at the floor once again. When she looked up, she said, "Look, I-I-I'm not feeling very well. I think I should go back to my room."

"Are you sure you don't wanna come back with us?" Willow asked.

"No!" Tara said more sharply than she intended. She softened her tone. "I...ummm...I think I need to be alone, you know, g-g-get some sleep?"

"O-O-Okay," Buffy said in a not-quite-convinced tone. "We'll walk you there," she added, meeting Willow's eyes.

Tara nodded her agreement, then turned to Xander, Anya, Giles, and Joyce. "Thanks for coming today. It m-m-meant a lot to me."

Xander gave her a thumbs-up and a wide grin. "You betcha. Gotta support the brainiacs of the group."

"We're very proud of you, Tara. And you too, Willow," Joyce told the girls.

After a round of thank-you's and good-bye's, the Three made their way through the crowd and out of the building.

Tara, Willow, and Buffy walked in silence all the way back to Tara's dorm. Tara walked up the front steps toward the entrance. When Buffy and Willow went to follow her inside, she stopped and turned around to face them.

"Th-Th-Thanks for walking me home," she told them. Tara began backing away towards the door.

Buffy reached out to the frightened blonde. "Tara, are you sure you're okay?"

"I'm f-f-fine," Tara replied. "I just need to l-l-lie down for a while. I'll see you guys later."

Before her girlfriends could say another word, Tara turned around and dashed into her dorm.

Once in her hallway, Tara began walking briskly to her room. As tears threatened to come, her walking became running, and she barely made it to her room before her tears broke. She slammed the door shut and immediately closed her eyes and tilted her head down in a prayerful pose.

"Sacred be this chosen place, shield it now from every face," Tara forced out in a choked voice.

When she felt the magic barrier surround the room, she let out a shaking sigh of relief and fell back against the door.

"Oh god..." she whispered before starting to cry hard.

Suddenly, she stopped, and a frightened look came over her face. She snapped around and quickly locked the door, then stepped away from it. With a look of terror on her face, she kept backing up, her eyes fixed on the door, until her retreat was stopped by her bed. She dropped onto the bed. She wrapped her arms tightly around herself and began to rock in place. Then she started to sob.

Willow and Buffy watched in shock as Tara practically ran away from them and into her dorm.

"Something is wrong," Buffy announced. "Very wrong."

"I know," Willow agreed.

"We should go after her. She shouldn't be alone like this--"

Willow stopped Buffy with a hand on her arm. "Buffy, she wants to be alone."

"But she's hurting," Buffy said. "God, Will, can't you feel that?" Buffy put her hand on Willow's chest over her heart.

Willow covered Buffy's hand with her own. "Yes, I feel it, just like you do. But Tara's not ready to tell us yet, and I don't think we should try and force her to talk if she isn't ready." Willow felt Tara's strong emotions fade away. "See? She's feeling better already."

Buffy felt it too, but gave Willow a disbelieving look. Buffy looked at Tara's window then glanced back toward the auditorium. "It's her family, I know it!" she said abruptly. "Did you see the way she acted around them? How stuttery she got?"

"Buffy, Tara stutters all the time."

"Not like that, she doesn't," Buffy pointed out. "She was extra super duper stuttery."

Willow tried to shrug it off. "She was probably just nervous. She hadn't expected to see them there, and they surprised her."

"Why are you defending them?" Buffy asked irately.

"I'm not defending them," Willow replied. "I'm just..." Willow paused and then started again. "I just don't think we should jump to any conclusions until Tara herself tells us what's up."

Buffy thought about that for a moment. Finally, she said, "Okay. You win."

Willow grinned. "Good. I like to win."

"But you've only won the battle, not the war," Buffy warned her. "I am going to remain firmly entrenched in my suspicions until Tara convinces me otherwise."

Willow linked her arm in Buffy's and began walking the two of them away from Tara's dorm. "We'll give Tara some space. She'll rest. She'll think. Then when we catch up with her later, she'll tell all. You'll see."

Tara sobbed until her sides were sore. Then she sat up and wiped her eyes. She took a deep breath and stood up.

Maybe they really are here just to visit, Tara thought to herself. I shouldn't assume the worst.

They are the worst! her mind threw back at her. Have you forgotten?

Tara shook her head. No, she certainly had not forgotten. She could never forget.

"You were so stupid!" she angrily told herself. "How could you forget to change the address? Stupid, stupid, stupid!"

Tara looked at the ceiling. "What am I going to do?" she prayed to anyone who would listen.

She closed her eyes and shook her head once again. When she opened her eyes, they held a determined look. "I can't go back with them. I can't...I won't! I won't live like that again."

Tara's expression of determination suddenly gave way to one of terror. Oh god, what if he tells them about me...what I am, she thought. They'll hate me for sure.

"Oh god..." Tara said as she slipped back onto her bed.

As her tears returned, her fear and despair overwhelmed her. She curled into a tight ball and let the sobs come.

Hours later, Tara lay in a fitful sleep on her bed. She tossed her head from side to side and jerked her arms as the occasional "no" and "Daddy, please" slipped from her mouth. In her mind, pieces of her past bombarded her.

Her father looming over her, his belt in his hand. A backhanded blow across her cheek. Her brother laughing. A crushing grip on her arms, sending her to her knees. The smell of hay and the smack of leather on bare skin. Herself crying, pleading. A bug's-eye-view of the kitchen floor as she lay bruised and broken beside the refrigerator. The taste of her own blood in her mouth. A pounding on the door.

When the pounding became louder, Tara shot up from bed. She glanced fearfully at her door and then at her alarm clock.

"Oh god, it's six o'clock! He's here!" she hissed.

She looked around frantically as if deciding what to do. She finally forced herself to calm down. When she had done so, she answered the door.

"Dad, come in," she said. "I'm sorry I d-d-didn't get to the door sooner."

Mr. Maclay didn't answer. He merely walked inside and started looking around the room as Tara shut the door. He went to a table, picked up a large crystal, scoffed, and set it back down.

"You don't even try to hide it anymore, do you? Not even with your birthday coming up?" he asked as he moved towards her. "You're just...just...embracing it, aren't you?"

"Dad, it's not like that, I--"

The backhanded blow came out of nowhere and sent Tara stumbling to the floor of her dorm room. Her father stood over her and pointed down at her angrily.

"Don't you dare talk back to me, little girl!" he barked.

He grabbed her arms and yanked her to her feet. He squeezed her arms until she cried out in pain.

"No kin of mine is going to willingly walk down the road to hell while I have breath to stop it. Do you understand me?"

Tara nodded then winced in pain as her father squeezed her arms even tighter. "Yes sir," she said.

Mr. Maclay released his daughter. Tara managed to stay on her feet, but kept her eyes on the floor. She was trying not to cry but failing. She trembled when her father lifted her chin with his hand and stared into her eyes.

"I'll be back here at six o'clock tomorrow morning," he told her. "You have your stuff packed and ready to go. Clothes and personal items only. No books, no crystals, no candles...I'll have none of the devil's things in my house."

Mr. Maclay suddenly reached up toward Tara's face. She flinched, expecting another blow. She was surprised when she got a gentle cupping of her cheek.

"It's the only way, Tara," he said. "You know that. You can't control what's going to happen. You have evil inside of you, and it will come out. Without me, you're lost."

Tara didn't answer. She simply watched as her father pulled his hand away and headed for the door.

"Six o'clock," he reminded her before slipping out.

In Stevenson Hall, Willow sat on the bed with a book on her lap as Buffy puttered about, gathering their dirty clothes for a trip to the laundry room. They had both changed out of their dress clothes from the honors ceremony and into their sweats and t-shirts. Willow looked up from her book and glanced at the phone. She checked the time on her alarm clock: 7:29 p.m.

"Think Tara's back yet?" Willow asked.

Buffy checked her watch. "Probably. Why don't you call and see?"

"Okay," Willow said before picking up the phone and punching in Tara's number.

It rang once, then twice, before Tara answered.

"Hello?" Tara said.

"Hey," Willow said. "How're you feeling? Better?"

"Oh, hey," Tara replied. "Not really."

"Oh. Sorry," Willow said. Then she perked up her voice. "How was supper, though? Have fun catching up with your family?"


" wanna come over and hang out? I promise we won't keep you up. You can get all the rest you need. Right, Buffy?"

"Absolutely!" Buffy called out from the closet.

"No...I should, ummm, just stay here. Really. I'll be fine."

"Are you sure?"

"I'm sure," Tara said reassuringly. "I can, ummm, see you guys in the morning. At the dining hall."

"Oh. Okay," Willow said, trying to hide her disappointment and concern. "I mean, sure. We can see you tomorrow. It's not like we're joined at the hip, right? Or hips, I guess I should say."


"Well...okay then. We'll, ummm, see you tomorrow."


"Okay," Willow said. She paused and then added, "Bye...I guess."

"Good night."

Willow listened a few seconds more then went to hang up the phone. When she heard Tara call to her, she quickly pulled the phone back.


"I love you," Tara said. "Both of you."

"We love you too," Willow said sincerely as a puzzled look came over her face.

Willow waited, listening for Tara to speak again. After a moment, she finally heard Tara hang up the phone.

Tara hung up the phone and let out a long shaky breath. A sob tried to escape her throat, but she wiped her eyes and forced the sob back down.

She too had changed into casual clothes: jeans, tennis shoes, t-shirt, and sweater. Now she walked back to her bed where she was packing a large duffel bag. In it she had placed her Book of Shadows and a few charms and ingredients needed for protection spells. She had just finished packing several sets of clothes and was now adding her personal items: toothbrush, toothpaste, brush, and so on. The last item she picked up was a small picture book. She opened it and then leafed through the plastic pages, stopping on a photo of herself with Willow and Buffy. She gently touched the photo with her fingertips.

I'm sorry, she thought. But this is the only way.

I can't go back with Dad and Donny. And I can't stay here. I want to so bad, but I just couldn't bear putting you in danger. There's no telling what Dad might do.

I'm sorry, she repeated.

Then she put the picture book inside the duffel bag and zipped it up tightly. She swung the heavy bag over her shoulder. She pulled an envelope from her pocket and left it on the bed where it could be clearly seen. Then she turned out the lights and left the room.

Tara slipped out the front door of her dorm and headed down the steps. When she reached the bottom, she looked around nervously. Seeing no sign of her father or brother, she started off down the sidewalk toward the student center, where she planned to get some cash off her student account card. She walked as quickly as she could while carrying the heavy bag, frequently stopping to reposition it on her shoulder. During one of these moments of distraction, Donny suddenly jumped in front of her out of the bushes.

"Where do you think you're goin'?" he asked with a smile.

Tara gasped in surprise and dropped her bag. As she drew a breath and reached out her hand to cast, Donny grabbed her and held a cloth over her face. She struggled to free herself, but it was too late. She went limp in his arms.

Donny laughed, then pulled the cloth away and stuffed it in his back pocket. He picked Tara up into his arms and started carrying her to his truck.

In Stevenson Hall, Willow and Buffy felt Tara's fear at the same time. It hit them like a knife in the chest. They instantly dropped what they were doing and ran from the room.

Moments later, Willow and Buffy burst into Tara's dorm room. They found it empty, then they noticed the envelope on the bed. It was addressed to them. They opened the envelope and read the note inside:

Willow and Buffy,

I don't have time to explain why,
but I'm leaving Sunnydale, and I
won't be back. I don't know where
I'm going. I just know that
I have to go.

I'm not leaving because of you or
because of anything you think you
may have done. This is my problem,
and mine alone.

Please don't hate me, and please
don't try to find me.

I love you both very much. I will
always love matter what.

--- Tara

Buffy and Willow looked at the note and then each other, their mouths wide open in utter shock. Then they spoke at the same time.

"We have to find her!" they cried.

Buffy and Willow ran out of Tara's dorm and stopped at the bottom of the steps. Buffy faced Willow and grabbed her arm.

"Okay, let's do this," Buffy said as she joined hands with Willow.

They both took a deep breath and tried to concentrate. As seconds passed, they began to panic more and more.

"I'm not getting anything!" Willow said.

"Keep trying!" Buffy urged. "We can do this!"

Willow focused harder. "She's nearby but...Argghhh!" Willow pulled her hands away in frustration. "It's just not working!"

"Okay, well let's narrow it down," Buffy said. "She's running away, where would she go?"

"The airport, the bus station?" Willow answered uncertainly.

"Money's tight, she'd probably skip the airport," Buffy said. "Does she have a credit card?"

Willow thought for a second. "I don't think so. I've never seen her use one, not even a Visa debit card."

"Then she'd need cash," Buffy said.

"She'd use her student card then...the one with her stipend on it," Willow replied.

"The student center!" they chimed together before heading that way.

They didn't get far before they came across Tara's duffel bag in the bushes beside the sidewalk. They pulled it out and looked inside.

"Why'd she leave her bag?" Willow asked worriedly.

"Something was after her," Buffy said, then corrected herself. "Or someone."

"Her family. It must be."

"I knew she was afraid of them!" Buffy said angrily to herself, then she turned to Willow. "Check the student center, just to be sure," she ordered, "and call Giles while you're at it. I'm going on to the RV park. Meet me there unless you hear from me otherwise."

Willow nodded firmly then gave Buffy a kiss. "Be careful."

"You too," Buffy said before dashing off at slayer speed across the campus.

In the cab of Donny's truck, Tara awakened slowly. Her eyes fluttered open and shut multiple times as she lay face down on the bench seat. After a few moments, she pushed herself up. She looked around groggily before shaking her head to clear the dizziness left behind by the drug Donny had used. She took several deep breaths.

Suddenly, she heard a banging noise outside. It came from the back of the truck, where Donny and his father were connecting the small travel trailer to the battered pickup. She ducked down in the seat and peeked over the top of the seat, grateful for the gun rack that blocked much of the view into the cab.

Donny was standing at the tailgate looking down at his father, who was on the ground underneath the hitch. When Donny crouched down to help with the light kit, Tara took her chance. She abruptly opened the door and jumped out. Unfortunately, the sudden move triggered a dizzy spell, and she stumbled drunkenly to her knees, crying out as she did so. Donny immediately shot up from his crouch.

Mr. Maclay could not rise as quickly because of his position on the ground. "Get her!" he shouted at Donny. "And make sure you use enough of that stuff this time!"

Donny ran for his sister. When she saw him coming toward her, she screamed and struggled to her feet. She only got a few yards away before Donny caught up to her. He grabbed her by one arm, but she turned around and struck out wildly at her brother, hitting him in the face. Donny yelled in pain, but did not let go. He angrily grabbed her free arm and shoved her to the ground on her back, straddling her legs.

"You're gonna pay for that, bitch!" he raged as he brought his fist crashing into Tara's face.

Donny landed another blow and then lifted his arm to hit her again. He never got the chance as Buffy suddenly body tackled him off Tara, sending the two of them tumbling off in a tangle. When they stopped, Buffy was on top of Donny. Before he could even react, she started pummeling his face.

"Don't you ever...touch Tara...again!" she screamed, punctuating each phrase with a violent punch.

Donny was rendered unconscious after the very first blow, but Buffy didn't stop. Tara regained her bearings and sat up. She gasped when she saw her father heading toward Buffy with a shotgun.

"Buffy!" Tara screamed. "Behind you!"

When Mr. Maclay reached Buffy, he stepped beside her and pumped the slide on his twelve-gauge, sending a shell into the chamber. Then he pointed the barrel right at Buffy's temple.

Buffy froze mid-punch.

"Get the hell off my son, or I swear to God I will blow your brains out!" Mr. Maclay said.

Buffy held her hands in the air and slowly got off Donny. As she backed a few feet away, Mr. Maclay lowered the gun but kept it trained on her. Willow suddenly ran onto the scene, joining Buffy in a skidding stop before realizing that they had a gun pointed at them. Willow froze but then looked around Mr. Maclay to see Tara on the other side.

"What have you done to Tara?!" Willow demanded, taking a step toward Mr. Maclay.

Mr. Maclay raised the shotgun once again, and Buffy grabbed Willow by the arm to pull her back.

"No!" Tara cried in anguish, scrambling to her feet. She staggered over to her father and fell to her knees beside him. With tears streaming down her face, she reached out to him. "Dad, no, please don't hurt them," she pleaded. "I-I-I'll go with you, just please don't hurt them."

"Go?" Willow asked in disbelief. "Tara, what are you talking about?"

"You heard Tara," Mr. Maclay said. "She's coming with us...back home where she belongs...with her family. So move along or else."

"Or else what?" Buffy challenged. "You'll shoot us?"

"Buffy, please," Tara said. "He'll do it, he will. So just go."

"That's right, I will, and...Arggghh!" Mr. Maclay screamed in agony as a crossbow bolt sank into his arm, causing him to drop the shotgun.

Fifty feet away, Giles lowered his crossbow.

"Great shot, G-man!" Xander said, slapping Giles on the shoulder as they quickly headed for the Three.

As Giles and Xander dashed over with Anya right on their heels, Buffy instantly claimed the dropped shotgun and pointed it in Mr. Maclay's direction. She and Willow moved around Mr. Maclay and pulled Tara away from him.

Buffy handed the shotgun to Xander and then stood protectively in front of Willow and Tara. As Mr. Maclay yanked the crossbow bolt from his arm, Donny groggily got to his feet and joined his father.

Mr. Maclay roared in pain and fury and then faced the group before him. "How dare you interfere with me and my daughter!" he shouted.

"Oh we dare," Buffy shot back.

Xander thrust the gun forward as an added emphasis on Buffy's statement.

"You tell him, Buffy!" Anya added from behind Xander.

Mr. Maclay's face was red with rage, and he stared angrily at them for a moment before calming himself a bit and changing tactics.

"I'm doing this for her own good, and yours for that matter," Mr. Maclay said.

Buffy and Willow both snorted derisively, but Tara merely hung her head.

"That's right," Mr. Maclay said. "You don't know what she is, but we do."

Buffy and Willow looked at each other, confused, then glanced at Tara. She wouldn't look up. Buffy looked at Giles.

"What...what do you mean?" Giles asked with concern.

Mr. Maclay straightened and stood to his full height. "Demon," he announced dramatically. "She has demon in her."

A look of shock spread over the Scoobies' faces.

"She and her mother both," Mr. Maclay continued as Donny wrapped a bandage around his father's bleeding arm. "That's where the magic comes from. When Tara turns twenty, the demon will come out."

Tara kept her eyes on the ground and pulled her arms tightly around herself in an attempt to make herself smaller, small enough to disappear if she could.

Buffy and Willow turned to Tara. Then Buffy asked, "Is it true?"

Tara lifted her head. Her face was wet with tears as she met her girlfriends' eyes. Then she nodded solemnly.

A look of betrayal came over Buffy and Willow. They stared at Tara in total disbelief. Finally unable to endure their gaze any longer, Tara dropped her eyes to her hands.

"I'm very s-s-sorry," Tara said. "I'll go."

Tara moved away from her girlfriends and headed for her father. After she had made only a few steps, Willow stopped her.

"Go? Go where?" Willow asked her. "With them?"

"We know how to deal with her problem," Mr. Maclay interjected haughtily.

"What? By beating her?" Buffy asked in scoffing tone. Then she stepped in front of Tara and crossed her arms tightly. "She's not going anywhere with you."

Mr. Maclay became enraged again. "You have no right to interfere in Tara's affairs!" he barked. "We are her blood kin. Who the hell are you?"

Buffy looked at Tara and then Willow. Then both Willow and Buffy put their arms around Tara.

"We're family," Buffy said with conviction. Willow added a firm nod of agreement.

Xander and Anya and Giles closed in, adding their weight to the stand.

"That's right!" Anya interjected. "We don't care if she's demon or not."

"Tara's one of us, and she's staying here," Xander said.

"That said," Giles added. "I believe your business here is finished, Mr. Maclay."

Mr. Maclay looked at the determined group facing him, then turned his attention to Tara herself.

"Tara, if you stay with them, you'll be putting them at risk, you know that," he told his daughter. "Without me to help you control it, the demon God knows what!"

Tara looked nervously at Buffy and Willow, seriously considering her father's words. Then Willow gave her arm a squeeze.

"We can handle it," Willow whispered to her reassuringly. "I had a werewolf for a boyfriend, remember?"

"And hey, me with a vampire," Buffy reminded her. "We'll deal."

"Tara..." her father prompted sternly.

Tara smiled gratefully at her girlfriends, took a deep breath, and turned to her father.

"Dad," she said sadly. "Just go."

Mr. Maclay clenched his jaw and stared at Tara, his eyes burning with hatred. He looked like he was about to explode, but then fury gave way to reluctant resignation.

"So be it," he said. Then he turned around to go back to the truck.

Donny huffed and stopped his father. "Dad," he whined through his swollen mouth and face, "are you just gonna let her--"

Mr. Maclay gave his son a dangerous stare, and Donny instantly shut up. As Mr. Maclay finished walking to the truck, Donny turned his eyes to Tara. He glared at her for a moment, then joined his father. Within minutes, the Maclays were pulling out of the bay and leaving the RV park.

Once the truck and RV were gone, Xander immediately unloaded the shotgun and tossed the dangerous weapon on the ground. Meanwhile, Buffy and Willow pulled Tara into their arms and hugged her tightly. She began to cry and apologize all at the same time. When the Three separated, Buffy put her hands on Tara's cheeks to stop the blonde's frantic babbling.

"It's all right," she told her. "We'll talk later. Okay?"

Tara nodded wordlessly and gave Buffy a grateful smile. Buffy left Tara and turned to Giles and Xander and Anya.

"Thank you guys so much," Buffy told them. "For everything."

"You're very welcome," Giles said.

Everyone smiled, and soon there was a huge group hug going on. When everyone had been thoroughly and warmly hugged, Willow gave Tara's shirt sleeve a playful tug.

"And now, let's get you home where you belong," Willow added.

"Yeah...with us," Buffy added.

"Okay," Tara said, her face lighting up a little.

As Buffy and Willow led Tara away, Giles watched the Three carefully. At first, he smiled warmly, happy that everything had turned out all right. But his smile quickly fell as he considered the difficult road before them. He let out a heavy sigh and then motioned Xander and Anya to head out. Giles picked up the empty shotgun and discarded shells and led the group to follow the Three at a distance.

The next morning in L.A., Lilah perused her reflection in the full-length mirror in her spacious bedroom. She flicked a tiny piece of lint from her dark blue suit and straightened her jacket. She gave the mirror a final wink and smile and left the room. As she passed through the living room, she picked up her briefcase, turned out the lights, and left her apartment.

She strode confidently down the short hall to the elevator, pressed the down button, and waited. Within seconds, the doors opened, and she got in. She pressed the Lobby button, and the doors closed.

Lilah only half-watched as the other floors were passed without stopping, but when the elevator missed the Lobby and headed for the Basement, she huffed in annoyance.

"What the hell?" Lilah said angrily as she punched the Lobby button again. "Stupid elevator."

She crossed her arms and grumbled to herself for the few seconds remaining in the elevator's descent. When the car came to a stop, she waited for the doors to open. When they didn't, she punched the Lobby button multiple times.

"Come on," she complained. When the doors parted, she took a confrontational stance right at the front of the car. "All right, who the hell is tying up the damn elevator?"

"Ummm, that would be me," Angel said. Then he grabbed hold of Lilah's jacket and yanked her from the elevator before she could even make a sound.

A short time later, Cordelia and Wesley drove the non-descript van with blacked-over windows into a vacant warehouse. Once they had parked, Angel opened the back door and got out, pulling the bound and gagged Lilah from the van. He dragged her to the middle of the warehouse, where a long table with several chairs were laid out. The long table was covered with a large table cloth, concealing the items underneath. The chairs were simple folding chairs, except for one, which was a sturdy, solid-wood chair with wide slats and heavy legs.

Angel stood Lilah up in front of the chair and then removed her gag. As soon as it was off, she lit into Angel.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?" she demanded.

Angel just smiled and shoved her roughly into the heavy wooden chair. Lilah grimaced in pain as she landed in the hard chair. Cordelia and Wesley took their seats in two of the folding chairs and remained silent. Angel leaned over and stared at Lilah menacingly.

"I don't know what you think you're up to, but you have bitten off more than you can chew," she told him. "I'm gonna have Wolfram and Hart all over you!"

"That's assumin' you're still alive," Angel replied, a dangerous Irish lilt slipping into his accent.

Then he lifted a small black object close to Lilah's face. Her eyes darted nervously at it as a drop of sweat rolled down her temple. With a flick of Angel's thumb, a razor sharp blade ejected from the black handle with a snickt! Lilah couldn't stop herself from flinching.

"We want some information," he said as he smiled again and put the blade away.

"I'm not telling you anything!" Lilah spat back.

"Is that so?" Angel said as he sauntered over to the long table.

Lilah swallowed hard as she watched him pull off the table cloth with a flourish. On the table were various tools of torture, laid out neatly and precisely. There were blades and saws, torches and branding irons, clamps and pins, extractors and drills, stun guns and cattle prods. Angel walked up and down the table aimlessly as if deciding what item to use first.

"You know, it's really a tough decision," he said. "So many choices these days."

"I'm not afraid of you," Lilah said bravely. "There's nothing you can do to me that would be worse than what Wolfram and Hart would do to me if I talked."

"Let's test that theory, shall we?" Angel replied.

As Angel lifted a gruesome-looking knife from the table, Lilah grimaced and rethought her tactics. "Angel," she said, "you can't do this. You have a soul and--"

"That's the funny thing about souls," Angel said as he put down the knife, picked up another item, and turned from the table, "they're not pre-programmed to be good." Angel hefted a long and heavy cattle prod in his hands as he crossed back to Lilah. "We always have a choice, don't we? Between dark and light. Between good and evil." Angel ran his finger across the metal prongs protruding from the end of the rod. "Some choices are difficult to make, but one thing never changes...there are always consequences."

At that, Angel activated the cattle prod and thrust it against Lilah's body, sending her screams echoing through the warehouse.

A few hours later, Angel left Lilah and returned to the long table containing his tools of torture. While Angel was occupied, Cordelia went over to the prisoner.

Lilah was now bound to the chair, her arms and legs lashed to it with strong rope. Her hair was mussed, her jacket had been removed, and her blouse was torn and bloodied. Her head was leaning forward on her chest.

Cordelia lifted the lawyer's bruised face and brought a water bottle to her lips. Lilah took an eager drink. Cordelia leaned over to whisper into Lilah's ear.

"Look, if you know something," Cordelia warned her, "you'd better start talking. He's getting a little twitchy, and frankly, I'm scared for ya."

Lilah stopped drinking to laugh at Cordelia. "Is this your rendition of bad cop, good cop?" she said. "If so, it's pathetic. It's completely transparent. No wonder you flopped as an actress."

Cordelia's expression hardened, and she leaned over until she was nose to nose with Lilah. "You listen to me, you stupid bitch. There is only one thing in this world that makes Angel go crazy--as in lose-his-conscience crazy--and that thing is Buffy Summers. He knows you're targeting her, and he will stop at nothing to protect her. And if he fails and Buffy gets hurt, God help whoever did the hurtin'."

Cordelia straightened and left. A look of fear entered Lilah's eyes as she watched Cordelia walk away. Then her gaze was drawn to Angel, who was making his way slowly back to Lilah. She swallowed hard and tried to steel herself.

As Angel walked toward Lilah, he carried a plastic mop bucket. He looked inside the bucket and gave it a little shake. As he neared, Lilah could hear the faint scurrying of live contents inside. Angel grinned and looked up, catching Lilah's eye.

"You ever watch that show Fear Factor?" Angel asked. "You know, the one where the contestants have to walk a tightrope between two skyscrapers or jump from a speeding boat onto another speeding boat?"

Angel gave the bucket another shake, then continued. Lilah began to breathe heavily and barely stifled a whimper.

"Well, every now and then," Angel continued, "they have to do something really creepy. The stunts usually involve live animals of some kind, animals that most folks find terrifying."

Angel reached into the bucket, grabbed something, and lifted it out.

"Like...scorpions, for instance," he said.

A strangled cry came from deep within Lilah's throat, and she looked away. Angel held up the struggling creature by its sting-laden tail and brought it closer to Lilah. She wouldn't look at it, though, so Angel looked at the scorpion instead.

"Well, I don't know if they've actually used scorpions on the show or not," he said, "but if they haven't, they really should. I mean, look at these critters!"

Angel brought the scorpion within inches of Lilah's eyes.

"That looks pretty scary to me," he said, "especially if you've got hundreds of them..."

Angel dropped the scorpion back into the bucket and tipped the pail slightly so that Lilah could see the scuttling mass of scorpions inside.

"...just dumped on top of you, just crawling all over your body, just--"

"Stop!" Lilah cried. "Just stop. Please."

"Why?" Angel asked.

"I don't know anything," she pleaded.

Angel gave the bucket a shake. Lilah flinched and screamed. She stopped when she realized he hadn't dumped anything on her yet. He was still waiting for her to share.

"Look, all I know is that Holland has something planned. He hasn't given me any details, but he seems confident that he's found some way to deal with the Three, without triggering the curse."

"And what way is that?" Angel asked.

"I don't know."

"And when is this plan supposed to take place?"

"He didn't say," Lilah said.

Angel threw down the bucket, sending scorpions everywhere. Cordelia screeched and jumped on her chair as a line of scorpions slid her way. Angel grabbed Lilah by the throat.

"Don't...lie to me!" he boomed.

"I'm not," Lilah squeaked. "I...urk...swear."

Wesley skirted the line of scorpions and came up on the other side of Angel. He grabbed Angel's arm and pulled on it.

"Angel, please," Wesley said as Angel increased pressure on Lilah's throat. "Angel! I think she's telling the truth!"

Angel thought for a second, without releasing his grip. Then he finally released her. Lilah coughed and gasped for air.

"She better be," Angel said to Wesley before turning back to Lilah. "Because if anything happens to Buffy, I'm coming back, and I'm finishing the job." Angel stared into Lilah's frightened eyes. "I'm gonna bring Wolfram and Hart down, starting with you!"

Angel turned back to Wesley. "Dump her off at the firm and get this place cleaned up," Angel ordered. "I'm outta here."

Cordelia watched Angel walk off and then gave an angry huff. "What?!" she called after him. "You could at least scoop up your own scorpions, you, you...oh never mind." She gave him a dismissive wave, knowing that her tirade would be wasted.

Meanwhile, at Wolfram and Hart, Holland Manners was conducting a late meeting with a new employee: a tall black-clad man with dark hair and cold eyes.

"We want the Three out of commission," Holland said to the man. "You understand the stipulations?"

"I understand that there are three dirty little girls in Sunnydale that need my special attentions," the man said with a heavy southern accent and a devious smile. "Don't you worry none. You can consider the matter a done deal."

Holland returned the man's smile. "That's just what I wanted to hear," he said before extending a hand to his visitor. "Welcome aboard, Caleb."

Caleb smiled again, took Holland's hand, and shook it. "Why, it's a pleasure to be of service."




The Three hadn't spoken much on the way home from the RV park. They had merely held one another in the backseat of Xander's car until they had been dropped off at Stevenson Hall.

When they got to their dorm room, Willow held the door open as Buffy helped Tara inside. Once she had shut the door, Willow returned to her position on the other side of Tara. Together, the two of them led Tara to the bed. Her clothes were dirty and torn from the ordeal with her brother and father. The right knee of her jeans was ripped, and she was clearly limping.

Once they had gotten Tara seated, Willow sat beside her, and Buffy went to get the first aid kit. Tara kept her head down, her eyes fixed on her hands and her hair hiding her face. Willow reached out and took Tara's hand in her own. Tara didn't look up. Willow brushed Tara's hair back behind her ear and gently touched the blonde's bruised face.

"You're okay now," Willow assured her.

When Tara finally looked up, tears were on her face. "I'm so sorry," she said with a catch in her voice.

Willow put her fingers over Tara's lips, stopping her apology. "Shhh...don't worry about any of that right now. It's not important."

"But--" Tara tried to object.

"No buts," Buffy said as she returned to the bed, carrying the first aid kit, a bath towel, and an ice pack. "We'll talk later. Right now, just let us take care of you, okay?"

Tara took a deep breath and then nodded.

Buffy set down the items she had been carrying. Then she knelt at Tara's feet and began to remove the witch's shoes and socks. Willow pulled Tara's sweater off. When Buffy stood, the two of them helped Tara take off her jeans, underwear, t-shirt, and bra.

Willow locked eyes with Buffy for a moment as if sharing a private mental conversation. Then Willow climbed up on the bed and sat behind Tara. Willow took a pillow and put it in her lap. She gave it a few pats, indicating that Tara should scoot back and lie with her head in Willow's lap.

"Just relax," Willow told her. "Close your eyes."

Once Tara was in place with her eyes closed, Willow began to lightly stroke Tara's hair and to whisper calming words. Buffy handed the ice pack to Willow, who carefully put it on Tara's bruised face. Buffy rolled up the bath towel and put it under Tara's right leg. Then she opened the first aid kit, took out some antiseptic pads, and began cleaning the wound on Tara's knee. Tara's face creased in pain only once before Willow's calming words merged seamlessly into a magical incantation. Tara's body instantly relaxed. Within a few minutes, Buffy finished cleaning, applied an antibiotic ointment, and put a large bandage on the wound.

"All done," Buffy said before giving the bandage a light kiss and looking up. She found Tara sound asleep. Buffy grinned and looked at Willow. "Good work," she told her.

"You too," Willow replied, setting the ice pack aside. "Come on, let's get her under the covers."

Once they had gotten Tara into bed, they stood beside her and watched her sleep. After a moment, Buffy turned to Willow.

"Okay. We've got first aid and rest covered," Buffy said. "What else can we do?"

Willow thought for a few seconds and then said, "Well, there is a healing spell we could do. It won't do miracles, but it should help."

"Let's do it," Buffy said.

With the healing spell complete, Buffy and Willow once again stood watch over the sleeping Tara.

"How long will she sleep?" Buffy asked as she turned and faced the redhead.

"I don't know," Willow answered. "A while, I imagine. Between the sleep incantation and the healing spell, she should be out of it for at least ten hours, maybe more."

"But she'll be better when she wakes up?"

"Yes, much better. Not 100%, but better."

The two gave each other a long hug then turned back to Tara.

"Poor Tara," Willow whispered with a frown. "I thought I had it bad with my family."

"Bastards," Buffy growled. "I can't believe what they put her through. They're just damn lucky I don't kill humans."

"I hear ya," Willow concurred.

"It's no wonder Tara's the way she is after living with that for so long," Buffy commented. "Beating her for having demon in her. Like that's her fault. Bastards."

"Do you think she does?" Willow asked. "Have demon in her, I mean?"

"I-I-I don't know," Buffy said with an uncertain shrug. "Her father said she did. A-A-And she seemed to believe it. Wouldn't she know?"

"Children can be taught to believe anything," Willow pointed out. After a pause, she asked, "What about you? Does she set off your Slayer senses at all?"

Buffy shook her head. "But that doesn't mean anything," she added quickly. "It doesn't kick in for all demons. It works for vamps mostly, but even then, it doesn't always. Giles is always on me to work on my 'honing' as he calls it." Buffy directed the focus back to Willow. "What about you? Wouldn't you have sensed something when you two did magic together? If she were part demon, wouldn't that be like black magic or something?"

It was Willow's turn to shake her head. "I've never felt anything but white magic from Tara." Willow touched Buffy's arm. "You know her, Buffy. There's nothing but good inside her. I just can't believe that she's got some kind of evil demon inside of her."

Buffy got a worried look. "But...she has kept secrets from us. Maybe there's a part of her we haven't seen yet."

"It doesn't matter," Willow pronounced with a mild version of her resolve face. "Demon or not, we love her, and she loves us, and we will make this work."

"Yes, we will," Buffy firmly agreed. "Any ideas?"

"Maybe. I need to talk to Giles, though. There has to be a way to tell if she's got demon in her and what kind. We need to know what we're up against--if we're up against anything at all."

"Sounds good. We get with the research, and we find a solution. But first we talk to Tara and get her to tell us everything."

"It won't be easy. She's been hiding all this for so long," Willow said as a few tears rolled down her cheeks. "She was so alone, Buffy, so scared."

Buffy gripped Willow's arms and looked her in the eyes. "I know. But she's not alone anymore. She's got us, and we're going to take care of her and stay with her no matter what."

The next day around noon, Tara woke up. She had slept peacefully the whole night through, but now she sat up and groggily looked around the room. Willow was at her desk studying. Buffy wasn't in the room. Just then, Buffy came in the door with a sack of food in her arms. She smiled when she saw Tara sitting up.

"Hey you," Buffy said.

Willow looked first at Buffy and then turned around toward the bed. "Tara," she said, her face brightening.

Buffy set down the sack of food, then both she and Willow came to Tara.

"Hey, baby," Willow said. "How're you feeling?"

"Groggy," Tara groaned. "How long did I sleep?"

Buffy glanced at the clock. "About fourteen hours."

"Really?" Tara said in disbelief. "I never sleep that long without waking up."

Buffy shrugged. "Well, given the circumstances..."

Willow added her own sheepish shrug. "Plus, I kinda helped a little in that department. I did a small sleep spell on you. I figured you needed the rest."

Tara smiled gratefully. "Thanks."

"We did a healing spell, too," Buffy said. "Did it work?"

"Yes," Willow said excitedly. "Are you okay? Are you hurting anywhere?"

Tara grimaced and said, "I do have a sharp pain."

As one, Willow and Buffy chimed in anxiously, "Where?!"

Tara gave her girlfriends a half-smirk before saying, "In my bladder. I need to go to the bathroom."

Willow and Buffy laughed and visibly relaxed.

When Tara started to get up, Willow reached out to her. "Here, let me help you."

While Willow peeled the covers back, Buffy went to get Tara's robe.

"I think I can manage on my own," Tara said with a grin.

Willow pulled back, put her hands on her hips, and looked pointedly at both Tara and Buffy. "What is it with you two?" she chided teasingly.

Tara swung her legs off the bed. "What?" she asked, confused.

"In the hospital," Willow explained. "Hard-headed Buffy wouldn't let me help her to the bathroom either. She nearly ended up sprawled on the floor."

"I made it to the bathroom just fine, thank you very much," Buffy objected. "It was the getting back that I had a problem with," she admitted as she handed Tara her robe.

Tara thanked her, stood up, and put on her robe.

"How's your knee?" Willow asked.

Tara made a couple of test steps. "Not bad," she said as she made a few more steps. "You did good," she told them both.

Tara gave earnest kisses to both Buffy and Willow and then headed for the door. Buffy and Willow shadowed the witch's every step. Tara left the room, went down the hall a few yards, then stopped. Buffy and Willow were right behind her. She turned to face them.

"Are you two going to follow me all the way to the stall?"

"No," Buffy stated for the record.

"Of course not," Willow firmly denied.

Tara lifted her eyebrow and stared. Buffy and Willow squirmed.

"Just to the bathroom door," Buffy replied.

Tara rolled her eyes and turned back to moving down the hallway. When she got to the bathroom door, she gave them a shooing wave and went inside. Buffy and Willow loitered outside a moment, then reluctantly returned to their room. In the bathroom, Tara smiled to herself as she thought about Buffy and Willow hovering protectively over her. Then she remembered the events of the night before. Her face saddened, and she sighed deeply.

When Tara returned to the room, Buffy and Willow had a spread of food laid out on the floor picnic style. Buffy helped Tara get seated. Then the three of them started to eat. They made idle chit-chat through a few bites before Tara finally decided to break the ice.

"I, um, I guess I have some explaining to do, huh?" Tara said.

Buffy and Willow nodded.

"But only if you feel like it," Willow interjected. "We don't wanna push."

After a pause, Buffy added, "But we would like to know."

Tara hung her head. She didn't speak for a long time. Then she sighed shakily. She looked up, tears in her eyes.

"I'm so sorry I didn't tell you," Tara said. "I just couldn't."

Buffy and Willow reached out and touched Tara comfortingly.

"Tara, it's okay," Buffy reassured her. "We understand."

"I was just so scared," Tara said.

"Of what?" Willow asked gently.

"A lot of things," Tara answered. She looked off for a moment and then said, "That my family would find me."

Buffy threw her shoulders back proudly and announced, "Well, I think we can scratch that one off the ole fear list."

"Yep," Willow agreed. "What else?" she inquired.

Tara looked down. Once again, there was a long pause. "That you'd hate me and never want to see me again."

"Not gonna happen," Willow stated sternly. "Not ever."

"Right," Buffy said. "So scratch that one off too."

Tara smiled lightly then looked down again.

"What else?" Willow prompted once more, but Tara couldn't speak.

"Whatever it is, you can tell us," Buffy said.

Tara looked up and met their eyes. "I was afraid I'd hurt you...that the demon inside me would make me do something evil and you'd be hurt."

Willow shook her head. "You would never do that, Tara. You don't have an evil bone in your--"

"You don't understand!" Tara nearly shouted. "I've already done it!"

Buffy and Willow looked confused.

"What are you talking about?" Buffy asked. "Neither of us has been hurt."

"Yes you have," Tara said sadly. "Buffy, you almost died, and it was all my fault."

Buffy and Willow continued to look confused.

"You mean the thing with the Banesdrake demon?" Buffy tried to clarify. "Tara, you had nothing to do with that. You helped save my life, remember?"

Tara shook her head. "It never would've happened at all if I hadn't..." Tara stopped, unable to go on.

"Hadn't what?" Willow asked.

Tara let her head drop before barely whispering, "Sabotaged the demon locator spell." Tara ventured a quick peek then put her head back down. "I-I-I was trying to hide. I didn't w-w-want you to see what I was." Tara started to cry. "I'm so sorry..."

No one spoke for a while. Buffy looked on in shock. Willow did too. Then Willow glanced at Buffy, as if waiting for a cue from her. Buffy finally looked back at Tara and grabbed her arm.

"Tara, look at me," Buffy said. "I have to tell you something important." Tara looked up at Buffy. "What you did--I understand why you did it. But you need to know that it's not why I got hurt. Even if you hadn't sabotaged the spell, I still might have gotten hurt."

Both Tara and Willow looked on with confusion and concern while Buffy continued.

"I went out that night determined to take on the demon again. It wouldn't've mattered whether I already knew where it was or not. I still would've gone, and I would've gone alone."

An expression of betrayal washed over Willow's face. "What?!" she exclaimed. " promised me that promised you wouldn't take it on alone, you said you were just looking to find it, not fight it."

"I know. I lied." Buffy hung her head, then lifted it again with a forced smile on her face. "See, Tara, you're not the only fibber in the group," she said lightly.

Willow refused to allow the humorous shift. She stared at Buffy with hurt in her eyes. "Buffy...why?"

Buffy gave up the fake smile and looked down at her hands. "I don't know. I was in a very dark place then. I'd finally figured out how I felt about you, a-a-and then I realized I was too late. I mean, it wasn't me you got glowage for, it was Tara."

Willow looked outraged. "I do so glow for you!"

"She does," Tara instantly chimed in. "She glows for you all the time."

"Maybe now," Buffy corrected them. "Not then."

"But she did. Then, I mean," Tara said. "When we first met, at the Bronze, I could see it, in your auras. I didn't realize what it was until later, but it was definitely there."

"Darn tootin'!" Willow added.

Buffy smiled and caved. "Okay, okay, I get it. The point is...I didn't know that then, and I was really down in the dumps about it."

Willow held up her hand. "Wait...are you saying that you wanted to get hurt, that you were trying to--"

"No!" Buffy quickly denied. "No," she repeated with less conviction. "At least I don't think I was...not consciously." Buffy sighed. "I just wanted to get the situation off my mind and focus on slaying. A-A-And I guess I really didn't care how it turned out. I just didn't care."

"Well, I cared!" Willow protested. "God, Buffy, we all cared!"

"I know," Buffy said. "I realized how stupid I'd been when you found me in that ravine, when I saw how upset you were."

Realization came over Willow's face. "That's what you meant."

Tara wasn't following. "What?"

Willow turned to Tara. "When I found Buffy in the ravine, she told me she was sorry." Willow turned back to Buffy, "That's what you were talking about, wasn't it?"

"Yes," Buffy admitted.

Willow pointed at Buffy in a chiding way and tried to put on her best bossy voice, " doing that again, missy, got it?"

Tara added her resolve to the matter, "Right."

"Okay," Buffy agreed, properly chastised. Then she turned back to Tara. "Now let's get off the Buffy Line and jump onto Train Tara. The whole point of this sidetrack was...that you have nothing to feel bad about. Getting hurt was my fault. You and your supposed demon had nothing to do with it."

Tara seemed to take this in, but then panic entered her eyes. "But it could, someday. Like when I turn twenty. What if it comes out, and I l-l-lose control and hurt s-s-somebody. What if I hurt you? I just couldn't bear it if--"

"That's not going to happen," Willow told her.

"You don't know that!" Tara responded, very upset.

"Tara's right," Buffy said.

Willow whipped around to face Buffy. "What?!" she demanded.

"We don't know what's going to happen," Buffy explained. "Look at Oz. He was the sweetest guy in the world...until the moon got full. Face it, Will. He loved you, but when he wolfed out, he wasn't himself. He tried to kill you...more than once." Buffy turned to Tara. "I'm not saying that's what's going to happen to you, Tara. For your sake, I hope it doesn't, but we have to be prepared for anything."

"I should just go," Tara said, starting to get up. "Far away. Where I can't put you in danger."

Willow put her hand on Tara's arm, stopping her, "Go? No! No going. No running away."

Tara looked determined but torn. "But--"

"Will's right," Buffy told Tara. "No running away. We stick together, and we see this through. Willow and I watched over Oz; we can watch over you if necessary. But the first order of business is to talk to Giles."

"You can do that, can't you, baby?" Willow said as she softly stroked Willow's arm. "Talk to Giles, tell him everything?"

Tara swallowed and nodded.

That afternoon, Willow and Buffy and Tara sat in Giles' living room, discussing the matter with the former Watcher.

"So...your father never mentioned exactly what kind of demon was supposed to be inside you?" Giles asked. "I-I-Inside both you and your mother?"

"No," Tara replied. "He just said that he could see it. And that's when he would..." Tara trailed off, unable to finish the sentence.

Giles finished it for her. "That's when he would beat you?"

Tara nodded. Buffy and Willow touched Tara reassuringly.

"I tried so hard to be good," she said, "to not let it come out, but it didn't matter, I always--"

"Tara, I can't imagine you ever doing anything that deserved a beating," Buffy interrupted. "I think your father was a sadistic bastard who got off on abusing his wife and daughter."

"Yeah," Willow agreed. "I'll bet you don't even have demon in you at all. He just used that as an excuse."

Tara seemed unconvinced by her girlfriends' arguments. She hung her head and whispered, "He said...he said that was where the magic came from."

Willow gave Tara's hand a squeeze. "Tara, you really believe that? Deep in your heart, do you really think your magic is evil? I don't."

"He...he did a show me what I was...deep down."

"What kind of spell?" Giles inquired.

"He mixed some ingredients--I don't know what--and made some kind of incantation about revealing my true nature. Then he..." Tara stopped and took a deep breath before continuing. "...he took a knife and cut my hand and let the blood drip into the mixture."

Willow turned Tara's hand over and touched the scar on her palm. "The scar...on your palm..."

Tara nodded her confirmation before continuing. "The mixture flamed up and began to smoke. The smoke was white at first, but then it turned black. He said...he said if I was demon-free it would burn white." Tara didn't say anything for a moment, then she looked up and said, "My blood did that. I saw it."

Giles thought for a moment then finally spoke. "Well, some of that does sound familiar. I'll see what I can find in my texts."

Buffy turned to Willow. "Couldn't you do the demon locator spell again? Wouldn't it show if Tara is a demon or not?"

"Yes!" Willow said excitedly. "We could do that. It would probably work this time."

"Without me to sabotage it," Tara mumbled.

"Don't you need another witch to do it?" Buffy asked.

"Yeah, I do," Willow said with a disappointed frown.

"Couldn't Anya do it?" Buffy pressed. "She's done some of the witch-fu, right?"

"Yeah, she has," Willow said, brightening again. "She could probably do it."

"And it would probably work better if Tara herself were not one of the casters," Giles pointed out. Tara blushed and hung her head. "Not because we think you'll do anything, Tara," he assured her. "It's just that the energies would be more focused, less sensitive to any, um, emotional disturbances."

Tara nodded. "I understand."

"We'll have to modify the spell somewhat so that it doesn't apply just to teleporting demons, though. We should probably narrow its locus of application as well."

"Its what?" Buffy asked.

"The area that's affected by the spell," Willow explained. "We don't need to search all of Sunnydale, just the location where Tara will be." Willow narrowed her eyes and looked off into space, the wheels clearly turning in her head. Then she turned back to the group. "You know, I saw this other spell that dealt with demon breeds. Maybe we could include it too. That way, if she does have demon inside her-- which I totally doubt--but if she did, we'd know what kind."

"Excellent idea, Willow," Giles said. "Could you meet with me this evening? Around six?"

Willow smiled. "I'll be here."

"Will you need us?" Buffy asked.

"Oh, um, I don't believe so," Giles replied. "Willow and I should be able to manage things on our own."

"Good," Buffy said in a pleased voice. "Tara and I will just take it easy then." Buffy turned to Tara and said, "Hey, how 'bout we go apartment hunting?" Buffy then addressed both Tara and Willow. "Mom told me Dad was going to help us get our own place. Did I tell you?"

"No, you did not tell us!" Willow complained playfully before adding, "That's great!" Then in a sing- song rhythm, she chanted, "We get to move off campus, we get to move off campus!" Then she frowned and whined, "Oh, I wanna go apartment hunting too."

"Don't worry," Buffy said. "You'll get to go. Tara and I will just start the process. You know, pick up flyers and newspapers, make a list, that sort of thing. All over a nice cup of hot cocoa. How's that sound?"

Tara flashed a happy smile. "Sounds wonderful."

Later that night while Giles and Willow worked on the spell, Buffy and Tara sat alone in the dorm room. They were piled on the bed, surrounded by posters and classifieds.

"How about this one?" Buffy said as she read from an ad. "Two bedroom duplex, near the university, large den, modern kitchen, quiet neighborhood...oh, no pets." Buffy looked over at Amy's cage. "Do rats qualify as pets?"

"I would think so," Tara said with a slight grin.

"Poopy-doo," Buffy said, wrinkling her nose disappointedly.

Tara looked at Buffy affectionately, then her face grew serious. "Buffy?"

"Hmmm?" Buffy asked, not looking up from her reading.

"Thank you," Tara said sincerely.

Buffy heard the change in Tara's tone and looked up. "For what?" she asked gently.

Tara took a deep breath. Then she said, "For standing up to my family. For not letting them take me home."

Buffy set the newspaper down and shifted her legs so that she could face Tara. "There was no way I was gonna let them touch you. They are not your family, and that place is not your home. Not anymore."

Tears of gratitude and love rolled down Tara's cheeks. She pulled Buffy to her and hugged her tightly.

Meanwhile, at Giles' apartment, Willow was sitting at the desk, pouring over books and typing various references into her laptop. Giles was in the kitchen, doing experiments. He placed several ingredients into a bowl, then dripped some blood from a vial into the mixture. The concoction flamed up, emitted white smoke, then abruptly changed to black smoke.

"Aha!" Giles cried out. "Exactly what I suspected."

"You found the ritual Tara's father used?" Willow asked.

"Indeed I did," Giles answered. He put out the burning mixture and washed his hands. "How's your spell coming along?"

"I think I've got it done. Wanna take a look?"

Giles dried his hands and joined Willow at his desk. He looked over her shoulder and scanned the screen.

"I made one more change here. See?" Willow pointed out a particular passage.

"A vampire?!" Giles exclaimed. "You want to bring a vampire here?"

"Well, not here," Willow said. "We can do the spell anywhere. And it doesn't have to be a vampire. Any known demon will do. It's just...I wanna be sure that the spell is working. This way, we'll know."

Giles looked at Willow and said, "Very well. Have you spoken to Buffy about it yet?"

"Not yet, but I will. I'll pick up the other ingredients we need and call Anya. If Buffy can bag a vamp tomorrow night, we'll be good to go."

The next night, the Scoobies gathered in a local crypt to conduct the spell that Willow had devised. On one side of the crypt, Anya and Willow were busy setting up the spell, creating a large circle with a ball of twine. Giles was a few yards away, standing with Tara. On the other side of the crypt, Buffy guarded the vampire she had caught and bound. Xander stood nearby, the tranquilizer gun in his hand. Giles left Tara and came over to Buffy and Xander.

Buffy made a head nod at the tranquilizer gun and said, "Is that really necessary?"

"It's...just a precaution," Giles said. "If Tara does have demon in her, it's very possible that this spell could trigger it into action. I honestly don't believe that's the case, but it's, um, it's best to be prepared. I've told Tara it's for the vampire, not for her."

Xander looked at Buffy sympathetically. "I won't hurt her, Buffy, I promise. Not unless I have to."

Buffy gave Xander a grateful smile, then they heard Willow call to them.

"Okay, I think we're ready to go," Willow announced.

Willow directed Tara to take her place, and she sat in the circle that Willow and Anya had prepared. Buffy escorted the vampire to the circle and set him down next to Tara. He sent a hiss in her direction until Buffy smacked him on the head, silencing him. Then Willow and Anya took their places in the circle next to each other.

"Now if this works correctly," Willow explained, "there will be a glowing cloud. The cloud will envelope any demons in the circle, but will completely ignore any humans. Okay? And if there are any demons, the cloud will glow in a certain color to identify its species. It's not really that accurate; it'll just give us a broad category."

At a nod from Willow, Anya lit the brazier before her. Then she lifted a small iron cauldron, which was already filled with some of the ingredients, and held it in the air.

"Thespia, Goddess, Ruler of all darkness, we implore you: hear our words," Anya incanted before handing the cauldron to Willow.

Willow crumbled a dried herb into the mixture in the cauldron and added a dash of wine from the cup beside her. Then she raised the cauldron as Anya had done.

"Thespia, Protector of the Night, open a window to the world of the under-beings," Willow continued.

Willow set the cauldron on the brazier. Then she scooped up a handful of red sand from the bowl next to her. When she made eye contact with Anya, she too scooped up a handful of green sand from the bowl next to her. Together they held their hands over the cauldron.

"Thespia, we beg you...if a demon be among us, reveal it to us now!" Willow and Anya said together as they let their respective sands drop into the cauldron.

"With your knowledge, may we go in safety," Willow whispered as the cauldron began to sizzle and smoke, "with your grace, may we speak of your benevolence."

Within seconds, a golden smoke began to seep from the cauldron. It was misty and thin and glowed with energy. Unlike smoke, it did not dissipate, but rather it coalesced around itself, forming a snake-like shape as it rose several feet into the air and then returned to the circle.

When it re-entered the circle, the glowing cloud first swirled around Willow, circling her once before quickly leaving her. Then the cloud whisked around Anya, staying a little longer. The head of the cloud hovered at her face and seemed to look her in the eye.

"Move along," Anya commanded the cloud. "Not a demon anymore."

The golden cloud almost seemed to hear that and quickly left her as well. Then the cloud swirled around Tara. It went around her more slowly as if considering her more carefully. It circled her once and then twice before pausing in front of her.

Oh god, Tara thought. That's it, I really am a demon. She felt a sob slip out.

Suddenly, the shining cloud shot away from Tara and swarmed around the vampire, changing in color from its original soft gold to an angry red.

"Oh my god! Look!" Willow cried. "I-I-It worked! It identified the vampire, but no one else!" Willow turned to Tara and looked her in the eyes. "It worked. You're not a demon."

"Finis!" Anya barked and clapped her hands. She grinned proudly when the golden cloud instantly dispersed.

Willow immediately jumped to the other side of the circle to embrace Tara, who was still in shock. Xander put down the gun and came to Anya, pulling her to her feet and hugging her tightly. Giles took charge of the vampire, pulling him from the circle, allowing Buffy to join the hugging witches.

"I-I-I'm not a demon," Tara stated uncertainly, as if testing out the unbelievable truth of the words she was saying.

"You're not a demon," Buffy confirmed.

Tara began to cry, but they were tears of happiness, of ecstatic joy. The burden she had borne all her life had finally been lifted from her shoulders. At last, she was free...truly free.

When all the congratulations were done, Xander and Anya took charge of the vampire, and Giles pulled Tara aside to an area where he had some additional materials set out.

"Tara, I want to show you something," he said.

"Okay," she answered, wondering what he was up to. Willow and Buffy followed close behind.

As everyone watched, Giles put several ingredients into a bowl. Then he pulled out a knife and cut his fingertip, allowing his blood to drip into the mixture. Instantly, a bright flame flared up and went out, then it began to emit a ghostly white smoke. Within seconds, the white smoke turned black.

Tara stood with her mouth wide open. She looked at the smoke and then at her palm. Then she looked at Giles with amazement and confusion on her face.

"It was all a trick, Tara," he told her. "It was just a ruse to keep you believing that you were a demon."

Tara laughed in relief as Willow and Buffy hugged her from behind, putting their chins on Tara's shoulders.

"See?" Willow said. "No demon."

"Yep, not even a hint," Buffy added.

"Hey, what about me?" the captured vampire interrupted. "You said once I helped, you'd let me go."

Buffy made a disgruntled face and moved from Tara over to the vampire. "Oh yeah. I did say that, didn't I?" Buffy told the vampire. Then she pulled out a stake and dusted him on the spot. "I lied." When Buffy turned around, the others were looking at her funny. "He was a vampire," Buffy said defensively. "Lying to vamps doesn't count."

Everyone laughed, and all was well.

Later that night, the Scoobies met at the Bronze to celebrate the good news. Even Giles had come along, but not before stopping at the Summers home to pick up Joyce.

Buffy and Tara and Willow sat at a table alone, enjoying their snacks and drinks. A slow song was playing. Nearby, Anya and Xander danced happily. Across the floor, Giles and Joyce also danced together, contented smiles plastered on their faces.

Tara glanced at the older couple and turned back to the table. "That is so sweet," she said.

Buffy refused to look in her mother's direction. "Please...don't remind me. I'm trying not to notice."

"Oh come on, Buffy, you know you like it," Willow teased.

Buffy reluctantly grinned. "Okay, okay, I like it," she admitted. "But it's my sacred obligation to pretend that I don't and to give them a hard time about it at any opportune moment that presents itself."

Willow giggled. "You said, 'opportune'. You're starting to sound like Step-Daddy Giles already."

Buffy swatted Willow's arm jokingly. "Shut up!"

Soon the Three were laughing hysterically, mostly at Buffy's expense, but she didn't seem to mind.

None of them noticed the dark-clad figure in the shadows of the staircase as he watched them with cold, black eyes. His face twisted in hate as he stared at the happy trio.

"Dirty girls," he whispered disgustedly to himself. Then he straightened and said, "Thy time of punishment has come."

Content Advisory: The rest of this book contains extreme violence, including torture and sexual assault. If this type of content disturbs you, don't read it. It's very gut- wrenching from here on out, especially Parts 7-9. It does end happily, though, I promise.

To Be Continued...

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