Luck of the Draw Part 1 by Janine

Disclaimer: All the characters, Buffy, Willow, Giles, Xander, Faith etc. belong to Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy Inc., and Warner Bros. I'm just borrowing their brilliant creations. I intend no copyright infringement from my use of their characters, and will receive no monetary or any other compensation for their use, in any form, of the story that succeeds.
Synopsis: Willow, Buffy and the gang deal with the new dimension to the girls relationship, while at the same time battling a new, deadly vampire foe.
Rating: PG-13
Genera: Buffy/Willow
Note: This story is told from Willow's POV--E-mail: jbstories@hotmail.com
Parts: 1-3

 PART III 

Since we were close to the school we checked there first, but no Giles was to be found so we headed over to his house. Luckily Giles lived close to school, so the whole trip only took us about forty-five minutes. We had speculated together about what might be happening, but nothing either of us came up with made any sense and we were right back were we started.

"Buffy, Willow�" Giles started as he opened the door.

"We've got problems of the fanged kind," Buffy said, leading the way into Giles house. I smiled and shrugged at the watcher then followed her in.

"What exactly is the problem?" Giles asked, leading us into the living room.

"That woman who was in the library two days ago�" Buffy started.

"I've researched as much as I could with the information proved which was close to null. I think that she is perhaps just eccentric," Giles said, interrupting Buffy. "I thought you said this had to do with vampires?"

"I was getting to that Mr. Interrupto," Buffy said giving Giles a look. "The woman's not eccentric, she's nuts. Worse still, she's a nuts vampire."

"That's impossible," Giles responded. "I spoke to her in the middle of the afternoon. You said you saw in the courtyard. Vampires do not walk around in the light."

"She was a vampire Giles. We're positive," I said. "We saw her change."

"Not to mention that if she were human she would have suffered numerous broken bones. I was going at her with everything Giles, even Faith flinched when I hit her, with this one, nothing but a smile," Buffy added. "Which in itself is a little scary."

"You're certain?" Giles asked. We simply nodded. "Did you notice anything about her that could help our search in the text? Any defining characteristics, or things out or the ordinary?"

"Besides the whole walking in the day thing?" Buffy asked.

"Yes, of course besides the whole walking in the day thing," Giles confirmed.

"She was burned," I said, remembering something I noticed that day in the library.

"Burned? How?" Giles asked. His curiosity was piqued. I could tell. If he was a dog, his tail would have been wagging.

"It was like a marking, on her forearm. Almost like a tattoo, only it was burned onto her arm," I responded.

"What was the marking of?" Giles asked putting on his glasses.

"It was�it was some sort of game piece, like from those really old chess boards or something," I related, trying to remember exactly what it looked like.

"That sounds familiar," he said with that far away look in his eyes he got when he was mentally searching through thousands of texts.

"See, I told you," Buffy said, "this is why we have a Giles. The man is a walking encyclopedia of demonic facts and figures," Buffy continued.

"I'll start looking into it now," Giles said as he glanced at his watch. "You two might as well head home, there's nothing more you can do tonight. If the texts don't turn up anything tonight we'll search tomorrow after school."

"Alright," Buffy said getting up, "we'll see you tomorrow." With that I got up and joined her.

* * * * * *

"I'll walk you home, I don't want a repeat of yesterday," Buffy said as we headed down Giles' driveway. I nodded, I didn't want a repeat of yesterday either, especially in light of recent revelations. It was bad enough when I thought she was just crazy, now she was a crazy vampire. "I won't let anything happen to you," Buffy said, taking my hand in hers and squeezing.

"I know," I said. "I know."

* * * * * *

When we showed up at the library the next day, Giles confirmed what we had already guessed, his research last night was a bust and it was time for us to break out our research- wear because it was going to be a long night. We had run into Xander on our way to the library and gotten him caught up on the situation. We would need all the hands and eyes we could get. He had a thing to do with his dad right after school, but when he was done he would come back and help. We figured he was still in for about four or more hours of page flipping fun.

"What brings you to my nightmare?" Buffy asked as I joined her on the upper level.

"The Gurzanar text, it's full of fun facts," I told her. As she reached over to place the book she had been holding onto the shelf I too started to reach over to check one of the texts and we ended up getting all tangled up. I ended up tilting on an angle, and as Buffy tried to straighten me up we ended up tripping over each others feet and tumbling to the ground.

"Are you hitting on me?" Buffy asked, looking down at me. "Because, if you wanted to get closer all you had to do was ask," Buffy continued smirking.

"Sometimes actions speak louder than words," I responded, trying out that 'come hither' smile again. You know what they say, if something's worth doing once it's worth doing twice.

"Hmmm," Buffy commented as she continued to stare down at me. Then coming to a decision she leaned down and kissed me gently. Smiling, I leaned forward returning the kiss until we had to break apart to take in oxygen.

"We should probably get up," Buffy said once her breathing had returned to normal, even though she still made no effort to get off of me. I nodded in agreement and moved my hands to her sides trying to get her to actually move. She smiled again then started to get up, but as she was rolling off of me her movements stopped and she stiffened. "What is up with this?" She muttered continuing her rolling motion until she was off of me. Wondering what she was talking about, I turned my head to the side and saw Giles standing on the steps.

"Research doesn't look like that when I do it," Giles commented, looking between Buffy and I. Not knowing how long he had been standing there Buffy and I remained silent. Silence was always a good choice, it couldn't get you in trouble, nor could it get you out of it. "Well, come on then, I suppose the research can wait for a while," Giles continued when we failed to comment. Buffy and I got up and followed him down the stairs. As we walked I came to the conclusion that we were definitely going to have to work on discretion. The way people were finding out definitely had to reflect on us in some way, it just had to. We were 'livin' la vida loca' and everyone was livin' it with us.

"Giles," Buffy started once we were all seated at the table, "we were just�"

"Making out in my book stacks. Yes, I caught that," the watcher replied.

"That wasn't exactly what I was going for, but�" Buffy trailed off. Obviously he had been standing there for a while. We sat there quietly for a while before Buffy broke the silence. "Well?" she asked him expectantly.

"Well what?" Giles asked.

"Aren't you going to yell, or go all wiggy, or wipe your glasses, or call our mothers, or�something?" I asked. I had always figured Giles would take the news rather calmly--like he took everything else--but I had expected some sort of reaction. And for some odd reason in my mind tea was involved somewhere.

"Would you like me to do any of those things?" Giles asked looking between us.

"Uh� no," Buffy answered. "But don't you have anything to say�about�you know�like, stuff that you want to say about things?" she asked, sounding like me for a moment.

"I must say that I'm not completely surprised by what I saw. I'll admit I never expected to 'walk in on you' but I'm not shocked. I am quite an observant chap, and if I hadn't noticed that there was something going on between the two of you-- especially lately--that would have been shocking. They don't hand watchers certificates out to just anyone you know," Giles answered as he shifted his gaze between us.

"Right, you find them in your box of Frosted Flakes along with a decoder ring," Buffy interjected during the momentary silence.

"Are you happy?" Giles asked after a moment, wisely choosing to ignore Buffy's last statement.

"Yes," we answered simultaneously.

"Then I don't believe we have anything left to discuss," Giles said standing up. "I was coming up to give you this," he said, placing the Guzanar text down in front of me before heading into his office.

"Well�" Buffy said once he was gone. "That was�interesting. Which is to say that it was�interesting."

"Interesting is a good word or it. Or maybe scary. Interesting, and scary," I responded.

"Do you think that was his way of giving us his blessing?" Buffy asked. I could tell from the way that she said it that she wanted it to be. Buffy and Giles had a very special bond, I would go so far as to say that he was even a father figure to her, and I knew that his approval meant a lot to her. If Giles had had a problem with us I knew that it would have been very difficult for her. For me too since I was pretty fond of the man myself.

"It sounded like a blessing to me, or as close as we're going to get from a Brit," I told her with a smile.

"The happies are back and in full swing," Buffy said, smiling.

* * * * * *

Xander showed up about an hour after our talk with Giles. He said he had swung by Faith's place, but she wasn't there. She was probably on one of her excursions so we would have to count her out on this one. Like I predicted, we still had another four or so hours of research ahead of us--pizza break included--since none of us had found anything relevant.

As we researched the night away, I noticed Xander observing Buffy and I every once and a while, but didn't say anything. He looked more introspective than anything and I figured that it was a good thing. Perhaps he was moving onto stage three, acceptance of the inevitable. That's what I hoped the situation was anyway. Xander and I had been friends forever, almost every memory of childhood, and teenhood, involved him, and I wanted all my memories of adulthood to as well. I didn't want Buffy and I being together to become a real problem for him because, if I had to chose, I knew he wouldn't win and I didn't want it to come to that. I loved both of them, but Buffy was my other half and I needed her.

A few hours and a few pizza's later the doors to the library opened. It was Angel. After taking a quick look around he made a bee-line for the table. He glanced at Buffy quickly before turning to face the rest of us.

"She's, ah�she's here," he said in that soft whispery voice he usually had when he had just run really far, or was nervous about something.

"Who's here?" Buffy asked shifting in her chair slightly.

"Rio," Angel replied, rubbing his hands nervously.

"You know her?" I asked, surprised. Though I shouldn't really have been surprised Angelus was quite popular in his day, he knew everyone there was to know in the demon world it seemed.

"Everybody--every vampire everybody that is--knows Rio. She's a legend�she's the day walker," Angel replied.

"See I told you she didn't have a twin," Buffy said, slapping Giles on the arm. He had been constantly asking us if we were sure it was her.

"She's contacted you?" Angel asked before Giles could respond.

"She's been 'single white femaling' them for a couple days," Xander answered.

"This is not good," Angel said, looking past us. "If she's made contact that means she's getting ready to play," he continued.

"What exactly does that mean? Play? 'Cause I'm hoping it means like monopoly, or scategories, but she doesn't really strike me as the scategories type of gal. More like the type that sneaks up on elderly people and yells boo�which is why I'm really not lovin' the whole play terminology 'cause I'm thinking it might be terminal, and I'm kind of partial to life," I said, babbling a little. We were all used to it and he was able to determine what I meant just fine.

"Everything's a game to her. That's what she does, she plays. Only her pieces are people and her board the world," Angel responded.

"Let me guess, we're the pawns this time?" Buffy asked, already knowing the answer.

"That's what it looks like," Angel said, nodding.

"You said that she's known among vampires as the day walker," Giles said, speaking for the first time since Angel entered the library. "Do you know how that's possible? I'd imagine more than one vampire has tried to learn how she's capable of walking in the light throughout the centuries."

"I'm not sure exactly. I don't even think that she knows for a fact. There are a lot of speculations, one of which I think is more likely than the others. It's based on the one thing that separates her from all the other vampires I've ever heard of," Angel said in response.

"Which is?" Buffy prompted. She didn't like cryptic speech.

"She's a Slayer," Angel said pausing slightly for dramatic effect. "Or at least she used to be, hundreds of years ago. She was turned in the 16th century, the exact date I don't know," he continued. "The thing that makes her unique is that vampires never turn Slayers. Hunting them has always been a sport. If a Slayer is caught they're killed and displayed as a trophy, never turned," he looked down at the floor as he said this no doubt feeling guilty over the fact that he had participated in such hunts in his other life. "Rio is the first Slayer that I've heard of who was ever turned, and she's also the first day walker in recorded history. I think it's safe to assume the two are related."

"So she was a Slayer," Buffy said when he finished speaking. "Was she any good?"

"I wasn't around when she was a Slayer, but if you want to believe the talk she was supposedly pretty impressive. She was twenty-four when she was turned and had been called in her mid-teens, so she must have had a pretty good run," Angel responded.

"'Rio' must be the Slayer, Dario," Giles responded. "She disappeared around the time Angel say this 'Rio' appeared, and it explains the marking you saw on her arm. If she is indeed Dario, then the texts give the impression of a very capable Slayer, and young woman."

"This still doesn't explain her being able to go for afternoon picnics," Buffy said in response to both their answers.

"The physiology of a Slayer is different from that of other humans. Taking that into consideration, the assumption that a Slayer would react differently to process of being turned isn't unreasonable," Giles responded.

"Maybe it's some strange form of compensation," I added.

"Explain?" Buffy asked turning to face me.

"You know, a way to say 'sorry you got turned into the undead on the job, but a least you'll be able to watch the sunrise' type of deal, or something like that. A way to take the suckage out of a lifetime of servitude to the cause," I explained.

"In other words, The Big Kahuna works in mysterious ways and this may be one of them," Xander summed up for the benefit of anyone who had dozed off.

"Giles?" Buffy asked.

"I doubt the good Lord had anything to do with it, but the physiological differences a Slayer has may indeed form some sort of resistance to the particular agent that makes it deadly for vampires to walk in the light," Giles responded. "Of course all of this is speculation."

"Of course," Buffy responded. "What do you think she's going to do?" Buffy asked, turning to Angel this time.

"I have no idea, that's what makes her so dangerous, what has earned her a reputation among the undead. She's brilliant, she's unpredictable, and she can be ruthless. She never plays the same game twice, some are similar, but they're never the same," Angel responded.

"Does she want to kill us?" Buffy asked.

"She wants to play with you," Angel responded. "She's done this before with no one dying, but she's also played games with very high mortality rates. It depends on the luck of the draw."

We were all silent for a moment before Giles broke it up.

"Now that we know who and what we're looking for it should be simple to find reference to her, especially if she is as legendary as Angel says she is. Our best option is now to find out as much about her history as we can, and try to find a pattern to her behavior so that we can formulate a course of action," the watcher said.

"Sounds like a beginning," Buffy said, reaching for the book she had placed on the table when Angel arrived. "Grab a book big boy, this isn't a spectator sport," she said to Angel, who was watching us shift into research mode. He nodded and took a seat next to Xander.

Angel didn't know about Buffy and I yet, and I found myself getting nervous in his presence. I didn't doubt Buffy's feelings for me, but I still had this not-so-nice feeling in my stomach about the whole thing. There was one thing I was certain of however, it would be an interesting evening. If it was one thing it would be that.

* * * * * *

Over the next half hour or so we did manage to find a few references about Rio in the texts but it was nothing that could really help or that we didn't know already. I had just finished with the book I was reading and placed it back on the table before turning my head to the side to observe the scene playing out there.

Buffy and Angel were standing off to the side near one of the stacks speaking quietly. Buffy was speaking, moving her hands about and Angel merely stood there watching her as far as I could tell. At one point when I was watching them, I saw him turn his head to look at me and our gazes met. At that moment I knew that he knew. I probably couldn't have said anything at that moment if I had had to. When he looked at me it was with mournful eyes, and I felt badly for him. I liked Angel, I really did, and I wouldn't have wished him any harm, but things were the way they were and there was nothing that I could do about that, nothing that I would really want to do about that, but it was sad nonetheless.

They spoke for a few more seconds before separating. Buffy headed back over the table where I was seated, and Angel headed for Giles' office. I switched my gaze back and forth between the two of them watching their progress until Buffy settled in beside me.

"That was an unfun wasn't it?" I asked, even though I already knew the answer.

"Definitely an unfun," she agreed, looking towards the office for a moment before returning her gaze to me. "He knows�about us I mean," she continued.

"I figured," I responded.

"Yeah," she said more for the sake of saying something than for any real exchange of information.

"How'd it go?" I asked.

"You want details this time?" she asked, smiling slightly.

"I want all the 'tails," I responded.

"It went well I suppose. I think I kinda caught him by surprise when I called him over, I think he figured I just wanted him to get one of high books down," she started. "I don't think that this is going to go on his list of Kodak moments but he seemed to take it alright, keep a sense of humor about it."

"Really?" I asked. First of all I was surprised he had a sense of humor, and second of all I was surprised it chose a moment like that to pop up.

"Yeah, he said it could have been worse�it could have been Xander," Buffy related with a somewhat perverse grin. "Seriously though, I think knowing it was you made it somewhat easier to deal with. You're one of his favorite peeps," Buffy continued seriously.

"Was one of his favorites," I said pretty sure that I was off the list now.

"He'll be okay," Buffy responded, "and he doesn't hate you. You're probably not going to get a birthday card or anything, but you didn't before this either so it shouldn't be to hard to deal with." She continued smiling. I couldn't stop the grin from forming on my face and looked down at my lap as it made it's way across my face.

"Hey," Buffy said, putting her hand under my chin and tilting it up so that I was looking at her. "I love you."

"I love you too," I responded, then she leaned forward and kissed me lightly before pulling back.

"It works out well that way," she responded when we broke apart. I smiled and nodded, it did work out well. She reached out giving my hand one last squeeze before getting up. "I really should have gotten him to get the high book first," she muttered softly to herself as she wondered off. I watched her walk off, she was looking at the bookshelf like it was a creature from the pits and hell. As I watched her I felt a big goofy grin spread across my face and I didn't care a bit. We always said love made you do the wacky.

* * * * * *

"You have got some real crazies livin' here," Faith said as she breezed into the library, her index finger moving in circles around her ear. "Cuckoo, Cuckoo," she continued as she made her way to the table. "What's goin' on and why wasn't I invited?"

"Maybe if you were home every once in while you wouldn't miss all the fun," Buffy responded from her seat. We weren't expecting her to show, but the fact that she had didn't surprise us. Faith basically did her own thing which meant that we usually had no idea what she was doing.

"I was on a mission, B, besides reading ain't exactly my idea of high times," Faith responded.

"What type of mission? Were you suddenly overtaken with the need to find a new pair of vinyl pants?" Buffy asked looking at the other Slayers legs.

"Meowww, someone's in a mood," Faith responded making a clawing motion with her hand. "Willow, you going to take of this?" she asked with a smirk, turning to face me. We all knew how she assumed I would take the edge off. As for my response, I just kind of looked at her blankly, for I knew not how to respond to that. "Cuckoo, cuckoo," she repeated, tapping the top of the table.

"Faith?" Giles said, coming out of office surprised to see the other Slayer.

"That's what most people call me," Faith said, swinging around slightly. "But you can call me later if you want," she continued with a smile.

"Yes, well�" Giles responded, rubbing his glasses vigorously. "Have you been appraised of the situation?"

"There's a sitch, nobody told me there was a sitch," Faith said, turning around to eye us.

"While you were on your 'mission'," Buffy said, saying the word 'mission' in a tone that left no doubt she still thought Faith had just gone to buy pants, "we've been trying to find the secret weakness of a day walking vampire who's been stalking us."

"Fuck, I leave town for two days and everything goes to hell," Faith responded. "This 'day walking' thing though, that was just to see if I was paying attention, right?"

"'Fraid not," Xander replied.

We spent the next few minutes getting Faith caught up on the situation. When she was pretty much up to date, I remembered something she had said before and asked her about it.

"What did you mean about the crazies in town�I mean I know this is a hellmouth and all and crazies pretty much have a hall pass, but were these special crazies, like the kind that play word games, and tell you their name is a city, and talk about basket's made out of rat tails, or your usual run of the mill crazy?" I asked.

"I'm sorry I left my decoder ring at home. Little help here?" Faith asked once I had stopped.

"Did whatever you were talking about have to do with, Rio?" Buffy explained, while giving her a look.

"I dunno," Faith said, tossing an envelope on the table. "You tell me."

Buffy picked the envelope up off the table and opened it up. Shaking the envelope we all watched as a playing card floated out. Once the card was resting safely on the table Buffy looked up at Faith and raised her eyebrow.

"Look at the bottom," was all Faith said in response. Buffy picked up the card, it was a queen of hearts.

"It says 'complete the picture'," Buffy said, putting the card back down.

"What does it mean?" I asked.

"Got me," Buffy responded shrugging. Angel had left about half an hour before so we couldn't ask him if he had any theories about what the card meant.

"So," Xander said, "is it our crazy, or another crazy?"

"Only one way to find out," Buffy said, standing up.

"Does it involve ski masks, jumper cables, and martini's, cause if so I've got us covered�expect for the martini part," Xander said, getting excited. Espionage always excited him.

"No," Buffy responded. "Even better," she then paused until we were all leaning forward in our seats in anticipation. "We�check our mail."

"Hook line and sinker," Faith snickered. Buffy smirked and stood up.

"Coming?" she asked. Xander, Faith and I got up and joined her. "Giles?"

"You go ahead, I'm going to continue doing some research," the watcher responded. "Alert me if you come across anything," he added. Buffy told him it was an affirmative and we headed out.

* * * * * *

My house was closest to the school, so we headed there first. When we arrived my mom was doing some of her yoga/meditative/guru stuff, and my dad was up in the study, so we were free to roam without question. I quickly located the pile of unopened mail and started searching through it for an envelope without a return address. The one Faith had gotten had no return address, and it seemed in character for Rio to hand deliver them.

I found it near the bottom of the pack and opened it up. There was a card inside just like there had been in Faith's. It was a queen of spades and had the same words written on the bottom of it: complete the picture.

"Well I guess that answers the question," Buffy said as I placed the card in my pocket and we headed for the door. "It's definitely our crazy."

We headed to Buffy's house last. The trip to Xander's house had produced the queen of diamonds with the same three words written on the bottom as with the other two cards. When we got to Buffy's we found another card, this time it was the eight of spades. We laid all the cards out on Buffy's coffee table then she headed into the kitchen to see if her mom had left a note. Xander and Faith remained seated in the family room while I headed into the kitchen to find Buffy a few minutes later.

"What's wrong?" I asked, placing my hand on her shoulder. She was staring at the stairs with a frown on her face.

"She's not home," was all she said.

"Your mom?" I asked.

"Yeah, she should be here," Buffy said, turning to face me. "It doesn't even look like she's been home today."

"She's probably just working late at the gallery," I said.

"Probably," Buffy allowed, shaking her head a bit. "What are you doing out here anyway, I said I'd be right back," she continued.

"But you weren't�right back, so I came to look for you," I responded.

"You're always looking out for me, aren't you?" she asked, turning around so that she could look into my eyes.

"Just like you're always looking out for me," I responded. "It works out well that way," I said, mirroring her earlier statement.

"Hmmm," she said thoughtfully before cracking a tiny smile. We were so close our faces were practically touching anyway, so I leaned forward and kissed her.

"I really hate to interrupt the snuggles, but Giles is on the phone." We separated and turned around to see Xander standing in the doorway. Buffy simply nodded and headed into the family room to take the call while I remained behind with Xander.

"I was right you know," he said once she was gone.

"About what?" I asked curiously.

"In the car on the weekend, when we were heading into the wild green yonder," he responded. "You two are cute� a twosome of cuteness even," he continued before heading out of the room as well. I stood there for a moment after he left another one of those stupid grins plastered across my face, most of it caused by relief. Things would still take a little getting used to, but he had accepted Buffy and I for what we were, and who we were to each other, and I couldn't find anything not to smile about in that.

When I got into the family room, Buffy was just hanging up the phone.

"What's the up?" I asked, taking a seat next to Buffy on the couch.

"Giles got a card too. He found it in his mailbox at the school," Buffy responded. "He said he checked that mailbox after lunch. That means that she came in there right under our noses and put it there."

"She could have been caught," I thought out loud.

"I think that was the point," Buffy responded.

"So what now? We wait for her to play us for suckers again?" Faith asked, fingering a stake.

"No, we try and figure out what the hell these cards are suppose to mean," Buffy answered.

"What was the card Giles got of?" I asked, having missed that.

"The eight of hearts," Buffy said. "We've got ourselves a Full House."

"You think it has a twin that likes to sing songs about peanut butter?" Xander asked. He was making reference to those wretched Olsen twins, and we all wished he hadn't. We all really, really wished he hadn't.

"You should have locked that one up and thrown away the key," Buffy said shaking her head ruefully.

"Hey, being a comical genius is not easy. Ask the Jim Carrey's, and Mike Meyer's of the world and they'll tell this: they can't all be winners. Frankly I thought that it was a rather valiant attempt considering the material I had to work with," Xander responded pretending to be vexed.

"So�about the cards�" Buffy said, causing Xander to pout a little, which caused Faith and I to trade looks. The looks bordered on camaraderie and made me dizzy for a second.

We discussed what the meaning of the cards could be for a while. Most of Xander's suggestions involving the word 'strip' somewhere before I finally remembered something and picked up one of the cards.

"Complete the picture," I said, reading off of the card. "Complete the picture," I repeated.

"Will?" Buffy asked. She could tell that I was on to something. I had a habit of repeating things when I was onto something.

"Do you think it could mean 'Picture Perfect'?" I asked, turning to Buffy.

"What's that?"

"That's right it closed down before you moved here. Picture Perfect was a Casino located just outside of downtown. It went out of business about a year before you came to Sunnydale," I responded.

"Why'd it close down?" Buffy asked.

"The inhabitants of Sunnydale spend enough time gambling with their lives, apparently they didn't want to gamble with their money. To sum up: it be bad business for them there gambling folks to set up in this one Starbucks town, 'cause when the tables weren't a rockin', the creditors came a knockin'," Xander answered saying the last part in a Texan cadence.

"Check out the back side of the cards," Faith said a moment later. We all turned the cards around to look at the colorful backs. After a second I realized what Faith was getting at.

"'The perfect place to win'," I said reading the words etched into the back of the card.

"Ding, ding, ding�I think we've found a winner," Buffy said.

* * * * * *

Giles arrived about ten minutes after we had figured out the meaning of the clues. When he got there we told him what we thought and he agreed that it made the most sense. Once we had figured out where she was the only thing left to ponder was, why? Why did she send us the cards?

"I'll be back in a sec," Buffy said when there was a pause in the discussion, then she headed into the kitchen. Mrs. Summers still hadn't come home and I figured that Buffy was going to check up on her. She had been glancing at the clock all night and I knew that she was worried. Idly I wondered if this was how my parents felt when I was out half the night. I doubted it though, to be worried you had to notice someone wasn't there.

"What is it?" I asked when Buffy entered the room a few minutes later. She had looked worried going into the kitchen and she looked even more so now.

"I called the gallery, they said that she left over three hours ago," Buffy said, and we all knew what she was thinking.

"Rio?" I asked.

"Joanna, said that just before mom left there was a woman in talking to her about some artifact or something. Jo, described her as 'beautiful, mysterious, and a trifle odd'," Buffy responded.

"Rio," I agreed.

"I say we pack up our stakes, bottles of holy water and whatnot, and go blazing into the casino much in the style of John Wayne," Xander said from his spot on the couch.

"For once, I vote two thumbs up for John," Buffy said.

"I think that perhaps we should put a little more thought into our course of action," Giles piped up.

"No, no more thought," Buffy said. "This is my mother we're talking about. Whether we spend five hours or five minutes trying to figure out which entrance to use, it's not going to change a thing. If she wants to play, then we'll play. Let's not wait, let's not discuss it in a committee, let's do," Buffy continued standing up. "In or out?"

"In."

"In."

"In."

"Very well."

"Then let's get moving," Buffy said.


PART IV 

The outside of the casino was rundown, with paint chipping off the outside, and beams blocking part of the entrance. The garden area surrounding it was overgrown, and off to one side was some sort of a breeding ground for rodents of some kind. The sign was still in perfect condition though. All in all it was a pretty shabby place, a pretty shabby big place which made it the perfect dwelling for a vampire.

After picking our way through the parking lot we entered the foyer of the casino. It was dark inside and we couldn't see a thing. Buffy dug into her pack and took out a flash light shinning it around the room. The foyer was pretty much in the same shape as the outside. The burgundy carpet was stained and ripped in places, and the paint on the walls was peeling or missing altogether. Parts of the ceiling were gone, and there was dust and parts of the ceiling scattered on the couches and chairs that remained in the room.

Before we even had a chance to discuss a course of action there was a crackling sound then the speakers hanging around the room turned on.

"Welcome to 'Picture Perfect', the perfect place to win," said the disembodied voice. Even through the static filled speakers I could tell that it was Rio. "Today, we play," the voice continued. "It has always been a postulate of mine that the best games are the ones where the most is at stake. They're the ones that get your blood pumping, that make you want to win. And when it comes right down to it, a big part of what decides whether someone wins or loses is their dedication to the game, to the cause. You see, I play with the best, because I want the best, and in order to ensure that all the participants give it their finest effort, I always provide them with a suitable galvanizing impetus. However, seeing as how you arrived so promptly I think you already know who's waiting at the end of the rainbow, don't you?" she asked sounding thrilled. "Anyway if you don't know who it is you will soon enough. So, in closing I'd like to wish you look luck, and happy hunting," she continued before pausing. "Oh, don't forget that once you enter the course you only have an hour before the axe falls�literally. Bye, now."

"Does that bitch always talk in exclamation marks?" Faith asked once the speakers had clicked off.

"Yeah, and scary part is that isn't her worst attribute," Buffy responded, beginning to flash the light around again. "The question now is where to?" None of us had an answer to that right away so we just continued to look around the room trying to figure out what to do next. After a moment the lights to the main game room and the first slot machine by the door started to spin.

"You think she's trying to tell us something," Xander commented. Our response was simply to head in the direction of the room. We would see what she had planned soon enough.

* * * * * *

We all gathered around the machine and watched as the sectors spun around, and around, waiting to see what would dock. The first icon to appear was an apple, a moment later another apple appeared, and then a third.

"Guess this is clue number one," I said as we stared at the screen.

"Great, what does it mean?" Faith asked. "That it was Colonel Mustard in the kitchen with an apple?" 

"That could be it," I said ignoring the Colonel Mustard part and concentrating of kitchen part of her statement.

"Will?" Xander said reaching out his hand and placing it on my forehead. "Colonel Mustard is fictional. Fic-tion-al," he repeated phonetically as if that would help.

"Not that part," I said slapping his hand away. "The kitchen. She could want us to go to the kitchen."

"Kitchen," Buffy repeated turning it over in her mind. "Let's go," she said a moment later.

"Buffy are you sure?" Giles asked.

"I sure as hell don't have a better idea," Buffy responded. "We've only got an hour and I say checking out the kitchen is better than standing here staring at the machine waiting for the casino gods to give us clue." No one could really argue with that so we headed further into the room and started in search of the kitchen.

"Found it," Buffy called a few moments later. We had split into two groups, Buffy and I comprising group one, and Giles, Faith and Xander making up group two.

"Are you sure?" Giles asked as the others made their way over.

"Well unless the sign that says 'kitchen' is an elaborate ploy, then yes," Buffy responded.

"I still suggest we exercise caution," Giles said as Buffy stepped towards the door. "She seems to like surprises which doesn't bode well for us."

"Aye, aye," Buffy responded. "Stay behind me," she directed the rest of us. She slowly approached the swinging doors then pushed them open stepping in cautiously. Stopping just inside the doorway she started feeling around for a light switch. The lights flickered on a off for a moment before finally settling.

"Far out," Xander commented once the lights were on. In the center of the room on one of the islands was a plate spinning around on a pole. "I've gotta see this," he continued and started to step into the room.

"Wait," Buffy said, shooting her arm out and stopping him from stepping further into the room.

"What is it?" I asked.

"Something's not right here," she said, looking around the room.

"You mean besides the whole 'being lured here by a psychotic vampire to play her psycho games' thing?" Faith asked.

"Can't you see it," Buffy asked. The question was directed at Faith which lead me to believe that Buffy was on to something that required Slayer power.

"You mean like the light reflecting?" Faith asked. She was now concentrating too.

"Yeah, it's like it's bouncing off of something," Buffy responded, squinting.

"But there's nothing there," Faith said, moving her head around looking for something, anything.

"Maybe�" Buffy started, then she reached her hand out in front of her moving it back and forth, and side to side. "Ouch," she said a second later, pulling her hand back and cradling it with her other one. I reached out my hand and removed her other one so that I could see what was wrong. The tips of two of her fingers had a deep cuts across them and were bleeding.

"That happened, how?" I asked looking to where Buffy's hand had been when she pulled it back. There was nothing there.

"Watch," Buffy said reaching for the light switch again. Turning the lights off she took out her flash light and shone it into the room. As she moved the beam around every once in a while the light would jump. Suddenly I realized what Buffy was onto.

"Cables," I said.

"The thin, translucent, not to mention razor sharp kind," Buffy responded. From what I could tell they were crisscrossed throughout the room.

"If we had gone rushing in there�"

"The saying 'it's all fun and games until someone loses an eye' would have taken on a whole new meaning," Buffy said, flicking the kitchen lights back on.

"Now what?" Xander asked.

"We try to figure out what that spinning plate means," Buffy said. "That's got to be the clue."

"Then why bother with the rest of it?" Faith asked indicating the wires.

"To see if we would figure it out. Not every obstacle we face tonight will be directly related to finding Mrs. Summers, some of them will simply be for the love of the game," Giles responded thoughtfully.

"Roulette," Buffy said suddenly. "It's got to be the roulette wheel."

* * * * * *

After a short discussion we all agreed that it seemed to be the most likely meaning of the clue and headed out in search of the roulette wheel. Finally, we found one near the left side of the room and headed over to it.

"Now what are we suppose to do?" Faith asked, staring at the stationary wheel like she wanted to smash it. I didn't think that she was enjoying the game so far, I really didn't.

"Here's an idea," Buffy said, "let's play it." The ball was already sitting in one of the spaces and Buffy just reached out and turned it. We watched as the ball spun around at a dizzying speed before starting to slow down. Then just as it looked like it was about to come to a stop it jumped coming to rest in the red five.

"Oookkkaayyy," I said, drawing the word out. I wasn't really a roulette expert but I was ninety-nine percent sure it wasn't suppose to do that.

"That was weird," Xander said from his position around the wheel.

"Ya think?" Buffy asked sarcastically as eyed the ball.

"Let me try," said reaching out for the wheel. I gave it a spin and once again we all watched as the ball spun around the wheel before jumping again as it neared a stop. It landed on red five.

"Once more for good luck then," Giles said, reaching out and spinning the wheel. It came to rest on red five just like the other two times.

"Ideas?" Buffy asked a moment later. "Anyone?" No one answered so we all stood around the table looking at it and the rest of the room trying to figure out what it meant, if it meant anything at all.

"Over there," Faith said a moment later, pointing at one of the back walls. Turning around I saw what she was looking at. It was a red door with the number five written on it.

"Shall we?" Giles asked making a gesture towards the door.

"We shall," Buffy responded leading the way.

* * * * * *

Once we arrived at the door, Buffy opened it cautiously then peered inside before moving to let the rest of us in. It was a medium-sized room, about the size of a bedroom with a table set up for some sort of card game in the middle, and a television set in the right corner. The room was lit when we walked in, and the television in the corner turned on.

"Pull up a chair," Buffy said, moving into the room and dragging a chair over to where the TV was set up.

We all picked up a chair from around the table and settled in around the television.

"What now?" Xander asked.

"We watch," I responded. Whatever was playing on the screen was sure to be our next clue.

We watched for a few minutes as clips from various TV shows flickered across the screen. Friends, ER, The Simpsons, and many more appeared and disappeared on the screen. When all of them finished it looped around and played them again, and again.

"What the hell is this? An ad for 'must see TV'?" Faith said after about the third cycle.

"Well, since only three of the ten shows that were showcased were on NBC, I don't think it has anything to do with the peacock," I responded.

"Well, what do they have in common?" Buffy asked, still looking at the screen.

"They're all shows, shows that are on TV. Shows that are on TV that people watch," Xander said with a shrug.

"Shows," I repeated. "Didn't this place used to have a showroom?" I asked emphasizing the 'show' part of the question.

"You think?" Buffy asked hopefully, turning to look at me.

"I think," I responded.

"Let's go," Buffy said, standing up. "We don't have much more time." We all got up and filed out of the room. Buffy was at the back of the pack, and I dropped back so that we were walking side by side.

"We'll find her," I said softly, taking her hand in mine.

"You think?" she asked, turning to face me. Buffy was always the strong one; she was the Slayer, the chosen one, she had the fate of the world on her shoulders, all of which required her to be strong 24/7. But, she was also just a girl, a girl whose mother had been kidnapped, and who was a little bit scared at the moment, and I was the one who could offer her some comfort, no matter how small, and I would. I owed her that, I needed to give her that.

"I know," I answered simply. Buffy squeezed my hand and smiled.

"Sometimes I love you so much it hurts," Buffy whispered.

"Ditto," I responded softly squeezing her hand.

* * * * * *

When we arrived at the showroom, it was dark. We searched for a light-switch around the area of the door, but found none. Finally Buffy just pulled out her flash light and entered the room with us in tow. Once we were all inside the door swung shut behind us and we heard a clicking sound.

"Shit," Faith said heading back to the door. "Shit, shit, shit," she added after trying to open it and finding it locked.

"Now wh�" Xander started, but stopped when a pale blue strobe light was turned on illuminating the room partially.

"Fan-freaking-tastic," Faith said, looking around the room. We were surrounded by mirrors. Variously distorted images of ourselves were all that we could see.

"Well, I suggest we choose a direction and take it," Giles said.

"Left," Buffy said, looking down the corridor.

"Why left?" Faith asked, looking around. If Buffy said left, without fail Faith said right.

"Why not?" Buffy responded before heading down the corridor.

We headed down the left corridor moving slowly. Everywhere we turned there were meet by more images of ourselves and it was very disorienting. More than a few times I wasn't sure whether I was standing upright, or upside down. As we tried to navigate our way through the maze of mirrors we got separated more than once. Most of the time we didn't even notice someone was missing from the procession until we ran into them again because all around us were images of them. We couldn't have been in the maze for more than ten minutes but it felt like we were in there forever, until finally we found a door.

"Well, let's see what's behind door number one," Buffy commented, reaching out for the door handle. "Bastard of a bitch!" she exclaimed a moment later. Peering over her shoulder I saw why she was upset.

"What? What is it?" Xander asked jumping up and down behind us.

"It's the room we just left," I answered, stepping away from the door. "We must have circled around."

"I hate to say this yet another time tonight but�now what?" Faith asked.

"We go back in," Buffy said with a sigh. "We've got to find the other exit."

"If there is another exit," Giles said from his spot beside me.

"There has to be, why else would she lead us in here?" Buffy asked. "Wait, don't answer that," she said cutting of what ever reply he was going to make.

"Why don't we split up this time?" I suggested. We had pretty much walked the entire place already and there didn't seem to be any traps. If one group found the other door the other group should be able to find them by the sound of their voices and it would cut our time in half.

"Fine, one Slayer per team," Buffy said. "Faith you hang with the boys," she continued, taking my hand and heading right.

"Remember to play safely kiddies," Faith said with a smirk before heading left.

"Should I respond to that?" Buffy asked, turning to face me.

"No," I responded quickly.

"Why?"

"Because if you kill Faith, your work load doubles taking away from 'me' time," I answered.

"Oh, well, we can't have that can we?" Buffy asked, smirking.

"Absolutely not," I confirmed.

"Come on," Buffy said, tugging my hand. "The faster we find my mom and get out of here, the faster I can show you that thing with the whipped cream."

"Mentioning your mom and that thing with the whipped cream in the same sentence was not a good idea," I said, scrunching my face up.

"You went to a scary visual place didn't you?" Buffy asked knowingly.

"Oh, yeah," I responded.

"Well, if it's any consolation, after you said that I went there to," Buffy said, scrunching her face up as well.

"Oddly, that is consoling," I responded, smiling. Buffy just shook her head and we continued down the corridor.

* * * * * *

Moments after we entered the corridor that funny feeling came back again and I really wished we had found the door the first time. We continued to wonder around picking corridors that we thought we hadn't chosen before until we spotted a door at the end of one.

"Cross you're fingers," Buffy muttered as we headed for it. I did.

As we exited the corridor we saw Faith and the guys coming out of the one to our right.

"Well, who feels lucky?" Buffy said, eyeing the door.

"Me! Over here," Xander said, waving his hand. If only he could learn to do that in class, I thought to myself. Buffy simply waved her hand in the direction of the door and Xander headed towards it.

Sidling up behind him, we all looked out the door once it was open. Buffy muttered something under her breath, then stepped out into the main room with us in tow. Before we had a chance to comment the speakers clicked on once more.

"Remember what they say: All roads lead to Rome." Rio's voice was conversational. She could just as easily have been telling us the day's specials.

"Let me speak to my mother!" Buffy yelled into the air, looking around. It was a shot in the dark-so to speak-we knew that we could hear Rio, but it was a toss up on whether or not Rio could hear us.

"Now why would I do that?" Rio asked.

"To prove that you have her," Buffy answered. "How do I know that she's even here, or that you haven't killed her already?" she demanded. "You said before that you wanted the best from us, so help us give our best. That is if you're really concerned about the game. Let her speak to me."

"Very well," Rio responded, sighing. This was perhaps the first time I had heard her sounding anything but delirious. "But know that I'm only doing it so that you'll shut up and continue the game."

There was a rustling for a moment, but nothing that could give us a clue where they were.

"Buffy?" Mrs. Summer's voice came over the speakers.

"Mom," Buffy said. I could see she was relieved, but it didn't show in her voice, it couldn't. "Are you alright?"

"Yes," Mrs. Summers responded before pausing. "Though I'm being driven to drink," she added quickly. After that there was more rustling, then Rio voice came back on.

"Well, that's that. Let's carry on shall we. You don't have much time," then she was gone.

"What now?" Buffy asked turning to face as. "We have no clue, we have no nothing."

"That's not true, when Rio came over the speakers she said to remember that all roads led to Rome. I think perhaps that could be the clue that we're missing," Giles said in response to Buffy's comments.

"But what does it mean?" I asked. I think that was the question that was on all of our minds.

"That remains to be seen," Giles responded as he moved to lean against one of the craps tables.

"So all we have to work with is, 'all roads lead to Rome'? That, and your mother is becoming an alcoholic," Faith commented. "That's great."

"Wait a second," I said an idea starting to take shape in my mind. It wasn't anything concrete, anything I could grasp fully at the moment but I knew it was important. "Those two are interconnected, Rome and drinking," I continued.

"What do you mean?" Buffy asked.

"I think your mom was giving us a clue," I responded, my conscious mind still trying to wrap itself around what my unconscious mind was already aware of.

"But what does it mean?" I wasn't sure who asked the question though, I was too busy looking around the room. I wasn't even sure what I was looking for, just that when I found it, I would know.

That's when I saw it. On the left side of the room there was a gold sign with black lettering located next to a passage way. The sign read: Play like a God, now feel like one� Come to the Bacchus Lounge, it's just a step below Olympus!

"Bacchus, the Roman god of wine," I said. My voice was barely more than a whisper. "The lounge," I continued pointing towards the sign. "That's got to be where they are."

"Sounds good to me," Buffy said, following my gaze. "Shall we?"

* * * * * *

The passageway that was leading us into a separate building was dimly lit, but from what I could see the walls were covered in beautiful paintings. Even through the years of abandonment the colors used in the artwork managed to maintain their vibrant, clear appearance. As we walked down the hall it felt like not only were we being transported to another place but another time as well. It almost seemed wrong that a thing of such beauty was in a broken, tarnished place like this.

The hallway came to end a few moments later. At the end of the hallway was a beaded entrance to the lounge. Buffy motioned for us to stay behind her, then carefully separated the beads and walked into the lounge with us following close behind. The room was large, spacious, giving the impression that you were in an area larger than you really were. The floor was tiled and in the corners of the room were Corinthian columns that seemed to be supports the ceiling. Off to our left was a bar, and over on the right side was a fire place. Except for the manacles on the walls to our left and right, and the various pieces of armor mounted on the walls, the place was very nice, almost majestic in its design. If there was a place to hide away in this casino, this lounge was definitely it. Glancing over at Buffy, I followed her gaze straight to her mother. Mrs. Summers was seated in a large wooden chair with leather bands tying her legs and arms down, and had a gag in her mouth. The chair itself was probably part a of the original design of the room which seemed to be an interesting cross between elegant, and barbaric. It could have been used for wild parties, or refined whippings.

As for Rio, she was nowhere to be seen when we walked into the room, but as we came together and moved further inside, she stepped out of the shadows behind Mrs. Summers. She regarded us for a moment with her head cocked to the side, much like a dog when they hear a noise, then she smiled and shot her arms out in front of her. Before I even had a chance to blink the manacles which had been hanging impotently of the walls to our sides shot outwards and attached themselves to various parts of our bodies. They got me on the legs. The only one left unhindered was Buffy.

Once the rest of us were locked up, Rio made her way around the chair so that there was nothing between herself and Buffy but about thirty feet.

"You've done well," Rio said approvingly.

"Thank you," Buffy responded. "Now let my mother go."

"Not just yet," Rio said, her eyes never leaving Buffy's. She looked contemplative as she spoke, almost sad. "You know, when a you live in the shadow of insanity, the appearance of another mind that thinks and talks as yours does is something close to a blessed event," she continued. "R. Pirsig said that. He knew what he was talking about. Of all the people I've played, of all the Slayers I've encountered over the centuries, you're the one that reminds me most of me. Even your contempt for me, what I do, what I've become, is familiar. In another time, another place we could have been quite a team, you know. We would have made the demons quake with fear, and the rest of the world raise their voices in praise. We would have been gold, like I once was, and you now are. But I suppose nothing gold can last. No one gold can last," she concluded almost wistfully. While she was speaking I could believe that at one time she had been a Slayer, and good one. I could even have seen her as a good person before she was turned. But I knew that she was no longer that person, no longer human, and she knew it too.

"That's all very enlightening. I'll meditate about it later," Buffy responded. "Give me my mother." Rio just smiled in response.

"Truthfully, before this exercise, I just planned on killing you all, but I must say that I've found this entire thing to be very entertaining. If I still had a heart, I think I would have found it to be touching even. It's rare to see the kind of camaraderie that you all exhibit in this time. In any time really. It compels me to make you this offer," Rio answered. "We fight, and if you win you and friends walk out of here alive, relatively no worse for the wear. In addition, you maybe even get to stake me. But, if I win, well�the mortality count will be a lot higher."

"In the words of some guy I don't know," Buffy responded. "Let's dance!" There was a moments hesitation before either of them moved, but then they were on each other like Roseanne on a Twinkie. They were a mass of kicking legs, and punching arms, tangled together in a flurry of movement. At one point Rio managed to kick Buffy up against the bar where she proceeded to punch her in the ribs repeatedly before Buffy managed to work one of her legs between them and fling Rio off of her. Once free from the bar Buffy made a running start towards the still off balance Rio and jumped up kicking her in the chest with both feet. Rio was flung up in the air which she sailed through until landing against one of the columns in the corner of the room cracking it slightly with her impact.

Shaking her head, Rio quickly caught up, barely managing to avoid a kick Buffy had aimed at her head. To my left I could hear Faith tugging at her manacles trying to free herself, but my attention was focused on the fight taking place in the middle of the room. Rio had just dropped and rolled over to one of the far walls a grabbed one of the broad swords that was hanging there.

"Cheater," Buffy muttered, backing up so that she could grab the staff that was hung near the bar she had just been pressed against.

"We vampires aren't exactly known for our integrity," Rio said in response to the comment as she charged Buffy.

They continued to trade blows as they slowly moved their way across towards the back of the room. Rio made an arcing swing with the sword and Buffy raised her staff to block it causing the staff to snap in two. Throwing the pieces to the side Buffy barely had enough time to block the punch Rio threw at her face. Using her left arm to block the blow, Buffy shot her knee out catching Rio in the stomach. When Rio hunched over slightly Buffy used her arm to hit her in the spine, however instead of going down like she should have, Rio pushed forward into Buffy picking her up and slamming her against one of the columns repeatedly until Buffy managed to make a chop to her shoulder which caused Rio to loose her grip.

Picking up on of the nearby chairs, Buffy smashed it over Rio's head, then picked up the sword and headed towards her supply bag which had been dropped near us. Quickly grabbing a bottle of holy water out of the bag, she ran over to where Faith was still tugging away at her manacles and cut her free.

"Take care of them," Buffy told Faith once she had freed her and tossed her the sword. As Buffy headed back out to meet Rio who was walking towards Mrs. Summers, Faith started to cut us loose while muttering about how Buffy got to have all the fun.

Moving faster than I thought was possible, even for a vampire, Rio descended upon Buffy who barely had enough time raise the bottle of bottle of holy water and break in on her face.

"Bitch!" Rio howled in pain as she twirled away from Buffy and held her smoking face in her hands. As she stumbled around Buffy headed over to her mom and ripped the leather bands that were binding her off.

* * * * * *

By the time Buffy had her mother free, Rio was ramming herself into the column she had been kicked into earlier. Looking over I saw what she was doing. The column had cracked earlier because of the force with which she had hit it, and now she was trying to crack it more. Buffy saw what she was up to as well and headed over.

Rio saw her coming and backed away from the column waiting for her. Moments before Buffy reached her, Faith tried to attack her from the side and Rio extended her leg kicking her so that she ended up stumbling back into the column. With that last impact I noticed dust starting to float down and realized that the ceiling was starting to collapse.

Shaking herself off, Faith got back up and joined in the fray. Within seconds the two of them were pummeling Rio pretty well. This continued until she was actually beaten to the ground, then she growled loudly and just started kicking madly, indiscriminately until she was able to get herself upright again. As this was all going on the column continued to weaken, and the floor was starting to be covered with parts of the ceiling. As Rio stood up I saw her look at the ceiling just as I had, and I saw a smile work its way across her face. Jumping onto one of the tables, she jumped over Buffy's head onto the one in front of it. Hopping down off of that one, she picked it and then heaved it at the column, then started to retreat towards the back of the room as the rest of us watched as the table sailed through the air knowing that the impact was all the column would need to go down.

It hit, then the creaking and particle showers started.

"Out, us, now!" Buffy yelled stepping back to herd her mother towards the door.

As we ran out into the passageway it all started to come down around us. Pieces of shrapnel started to fly around us. As we continued to run I felt something connect with my head followed by a moment of pain before everything went black.


PART V 

The first thing I became aware of was pain. There was a lot of pain, and I was very aware of it. The second thing was darkness. I tried to open my eyes, but I couldn't. I tried to move, but I couldn't. I was about to start to start panicking, which is a pretty good course of action in a position like mine, until I heard a familiar voice.

"No," the voice said. It was Buffy.

"Buffy, it's time to go," this time the voice belonged to Mrs. Summers. "You can come back tomorrow when she's awake. There's nothing you can do for her now."

"Yes there is," Buffy responded, picking up my hand. "I can be here for her."

"Buffy, she's unconscious," Joyce said softly. "She doesn't know you're here."

"She knows," was all Buffy said in response. "I know she does."

"The doctor said you need your rest," Joyce said. She was switching tactics, and it was a valiant effort, it really was. It just wouldn't work. Buffy wouldn't leave.

"Screw the doctors," Buffy responded. "I'm not leaving until she wakes up and kicks me out."

"Buffy�"

"What if she wakes up?" Buffy asked, cutting off whatever her mother was going to say. "Someone has to be here. Someone has to be here for her."

"Her parents are on their way," Joyce responded reasonably.

"But they're not here," Buffy said. "Not yet."

"Buffy," Joyce said her name firmly this time. She was using the mom voice that was usually reserved for medicine time, and grounding. It was the voice that meant business. "I know you care about her, but�"

"You know what?" Buffy asked, her voice wavering a little. "What do you know?" she continued, her voice cracking. "You don't know�about�how much she�you�"she started to say more quietly then trailed off.

There was silence around the room for a few moments and I would have given anything to have known what was going on. I could sense something building in the room, and I wanted to be there, awake, when it all came down.

"I don't know, do I?" Joyce asked finally. Her voice was lower, a whisper almost, but that wasn't what struck me. It was something else, something indefinable in her voice when she asked the question that made it clear that perhaps she didn't understand before, but she did now. "Look at me," she continued. There was silence after that for a moment until Joyce spoke once again. "You're�you're in love with her," she stated, and it was that. A statement, there was no question in her voice. I was actually surprised by this, not that it showed. I didn't usually give the residents of Sunnydale much credit for perceptiveness, and Mrs. Summers had shown that she was proficient in the language of denial before.

"Don't be ridic�" Buffy started to say, but she was interrupted.

"Don't lie to me young lady," Joyce said quietly but firmly. "I'm your mother. You may be a big bad vampire Slayer, but remember I gave birth to you. Despite what you may think I don't have my head buried completely in the sand, and I know this," she continued. "I can see it in your eyes, in your words�in your actions," she continued. I didn't need to be awake to know that she was looking at our linked hands. "You love her."

"Yes," Buffy admitted softly.

"Does she know?" Joyce asked.

"Yes," Buffy responded. They were quiet for a while after that. I'm sure that there was some visual mother/daughter/silent communication thing going on, but I wasn't not sure. I was out of the loop.

"You can stay until her parents arrive�then I'm taking you home," Joyce said finally. "And yes," she added a moment later in response to what I suppose was a silent question posed by Buffy, "this does mean no more sleepovers," then I heard footsteps heading away and the door closing.

"That was a big scary," Buffy said once her mother had left the room. "It's going to be an interesting morning," she continued, stroking my hand a little. "Listen, if you promise to wake up, then I promise you won't have to talk to tomorrow. All you'll have to do is sit there and look pretty, cause I ain't up to doing this solo. Okay? Do we have a deal?" she asked raising my hand to her lips. I knew she wasn't expecting an answer but somehow I managed to squeeze her hand and I felt her smile. I'd be awake, I'd be awake if it killed me.

* * * * * *

"Mom," I said, trying to interrupt the endless flow of words that were streaming out of her mouth. "Mom, they are not, I repeat, not, hoodlums."

"What do you think you were doing running around that place, anyway? It's filthy and covered in things that have tetanus," my mom continued, totally unaware of my protests. "What were you looking for anyway? Old chips to cash in?"

"That, wouldn't make much sense, because to cash in chips there has to be a chip to money cashing place, and while there might have been one back in the day, it was closed down with the casino, which means that there is no cash to money place, which means that even if we did find chips we couldn't have cashed them, and if you can't cash them then there's really no reason to be looking for chips, and since we knew all of this, it wouldn't make much sense for us to be looking for chips," I said completely out of breath by the end of it.

"It's that Bunny," my mother said after a moment obviously choosing to ignore my previous statement. "She's a bad influence on you�"

"Buffy," I corrected. She was always calling Buffy, Bunny or something like that.

"Whatever, it's a ridiculous name either way," mother responded. "I don't approve of you hanging around Fluffy anymore�"

"It's Buffy," I said again. "And�well, you don't have to approve, because she's my friend, not yours. Buffy's a good, strong, brave person, not at all hooligan like," I continued adding the word 'mostly' to the sentence in my head. "As an eighteen year old adult type person, who is old enough to vote and in some states buy nudie magazines, I say Buffy stays," I concluded staring my mother in the eye. She simply stared back at me for a moment before responded.

"It's about time," was all she said when she finally said something.

"About time for what? I just had my medicine and�"

"That you stood up for something you believe in. I would rather it have been on an issue of political importance, but I suppose Muffy will do. I need to go check in with the office now, I'll be back in a bit," she continued before standing up and exiting the room.

I sat there for a while pondering the almost sensitive chat we just had. That and wondering if Buffy was really that hard a name to remember, until there was a knock at the door.

Standing at the door was a bunch of balloons and a bouquet of flowers with a pair of legs attached to them. I didn't need to see the body from the waist up however to know who it was.

"Buffy," I said, smiling.

"Hey," Buffy said, coming into the room. "I was hoping you were awake. I brought you some stuff to complete your stay. You can't be hospitalized without having a room full of flowers and balloons, it breaks some bylaw or something."

"They're beautiful," I said, smelling the flowers.

"Not as beautiful as you," she said, pulling up a chair. "I know, I know, that was sappy and in some countries I would be arrested and shot. But it's true," she insisted in response to the look I gave her. "You still don't believe me, do you?" she asked, taking my hand. "You are beautiful in every way imaginable, and the fact that no one has told you this before should be a capital offense," she said, leaning forward and kissing me on the forehead.

After that she spent a few minutes setting up the balloons, and the flowers before coming back over to sit near me.

"Uh, Will," she started. "Funny story�"

"Does it involve a baker?" I asked.

"Ah, no. No baker," she responded. "You know what's funny though? Parents. 'Cause they're old and stuff, but they kind of give birth to you which leads to a vibing thing, where they know stuff. Even though you didn't tell them. Like when I was six�"

"Buffy?" I asked, interrupting.

"Yeah?"

"Is this about your mom knowing that we're together?"

"No, it's about my mom knowing that we're�wait a second�" Buffy said, clearly confused. "How did you know?"

"It was so strange but last night when you and your mom were talking, I could hear you. I could feel you squeezing my head and everything, but I couldn't say anything or open my eyes. I wanted to but I couldn't," I answered.

"So then you must have heard the bad news," she said smiling a little.

"Yup," I responded. "No more sleepovers."

"You know what this means, don't you? We're going to have to do this the old fashioned way," Buffy said. "But there's good news�Faith says she can get us a discount at her motel," she continued, smiling fully now. I took one of the extra pillows from the bed and hit her over the head with it. "Hey," she protested. "It was either that or the jeep, and those seats are hard to fold away." I simply let my pillow do the talking for me from that point on.

* * * * * *

The day after I was released from the hospital, Buffy and I ended up having 'that talk' with her mother. What I realized was that as much as I had wanted to be awake that night in the hospital, I wanted to back asleep more then. It had been one of the most awkward, terrifying, and just plain disturbing conversations I had ever been a part of in life. I thought that when my parents sat me down to talk about the birds and the bees that would be it, that would be the one talk I would have nightmares about for the rest of my life, but this far surpassed it. Far, far, surpassed it. I mean, this conversation was bad in a worse way because it was no longer the theoretical discussion of sex to be had a latter date, but the actual discussion of sex that had already been had with someone in the room. And it did come down to that because, even though Mrs. Summers had no actual proof we had 'done it', she knew. And we knew she knew. I could recount it all so vividly and I did, even though I really didn't want to, and it went something like this:

I had just arrived at Buffy's house when Giles called and Buffy had go into the kitchen to take the call. Seeing as I was already in the house, I had no other option but to sit down with Mrs. Summers in the family room and chat.

"So," the conversation had started off. "How are you feeling Willow? Well, I hope."

"I'm feeling much better. Thank you for asking," I had responded. Things were going pretty well up to that point. We were in the comfort zone.

"Hot day out isn't it?" Mrs. Summers had asked. We were still playing things safe.

"It's a scorcher," I responded, making a fanning motion with my hand.

"Yeah, it's not so much the heat as the humidity," she had continued.

"That is so true," I had commented, although I really had no idea what the difference was between heat and humidity. As far as I was concerned hot was hot.

I was about to make some other comment about the weather when Buffy returned. She must have sensed the unease in the room because she kind of looked around when she walked in then took a seat next to me on the couch.

"We're going to have 'the talk' aren't we?" she asked no one in particular.

"There's no need to say it like it's coming of the Apocalyptic horsemen," Joyce said calmly. "We're simply opening up a dialogue."

"Dialogue. Right," Buffy had said skeptically. After that there was a few moments of silence that involved all of us looking around the room at everything but each other before Mrs. Summers broke it.

"How long have two been 'seeing' each other?" Joyce asked. All that was missing from the sentence was her raising her hands to the side of her head and making little quotation marks when she said the word seeing. Buffy told me that she and her mother had already talked about things briefly after they had come home from the hospital that night, and that her mother was 'dealing' with the news quite well, but the moment the question was asked I kind of went a little wiggy.

"Well, I suppose it's all subjective to the definition of 'seeing' that you want to use. Because if we're going to use the classic Webster's definition, which might I add is good for all occasions, then we have bee�" I started to say, but mercifully Buffy cut me off.

"Two weeks," Buffy said. "We've been 'seeing' each other for approximately two weeks," she said, actually making the quotation gesture with her hands.

"That's interesting," Joyce had commented. "Lot's of sleepovers in these past two weeks I've noticed," she continued. And things got disturbing from that point on.

In retrospect, I would have to say that Mrs. Summers did in fact take the news that her daughter was dating another girl quite well. I was actually very glad that she knew about Buffy's slaying-not just for the obvious reasons of it being much easier on Buffy not having to lie about her activities-but also because compared to knowledge that her daughter was destined to fight legions of evil demons, the fact that we were dating was a relative non-issue.

* * * * * *

Buffy and I were currently lying under a blanket on the beach just looking up at the stars quietly. It had been a tough few days and we had been going non-stop for all of them. It was starting to catch up with us. Buffy was lying curled up against me with her head resting on my shoulder and one of her legs draped over mine. I looked down at her, intending to ask her some question about Rio, but when I looked down, I saw that she was sleeping and whatever the question I was going to ask her was forgotten. I was absolutely certain that there was no one as beautiful as Buffy, especially when she was asleep. In sleep she looked completely at peace, it was the one place where the demands of her life couldn't hurt her. I was overcome with the urge to kiss her, so I did, gently on the forehead, then I leaned back and continued my contemplation of the stars.

It has been said that the day a child becomes aware of their own mortality is the day that childhood stops. I believe that the day our childhood stops is the day that we stop believing in our dreams, the day we can dream no more, the day we question the validity of love. We all grow up hearing stories of princesses and princes, frogs and swans, and we all transport ourselves into the make believe worlds of these stories, waiting for our prince charming. After years of struggling, denying, running, and living, I began to question whether there was such a thing as the thing called love. For a child who grew up with romanticized ideas of love and all that came along with it, the idea that perhaps it wasn't out there, and even if it was that few people found it, was a crushing epiphany.

As I lay on the blanket, watching her sleep I realized something. I was a very lucky girl. I was one very lucky girl who was loved completely and gave back no less. Our lives weren't perfect, I doubted if there were such a thing, but we were happy, really happy. I some way I suppose it all-life, love-came down to the luck of the draw. You won some hands, lost others, and at the end of the game you hoped you came out on top. Laying there under the stars, I knew that as long as we were together, I was going to walk away from the table a winner.

THE END

Thanks for taking the ride with me again. If there's any questions, comments, concerns etc, drop me a line. If not drop me one anyway:)

Sincerely, Janine jbstories@hotmail.com

 

 

 

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