Title graphic by Kirayoshi

Disclaimers: Hey, you think Buffy would have gone near Spike without at least a canister of garlic spray if I owned the show? If it's Buffy, it's Joss, Marti, Mutant Enemy and 20th Century Fox.
Spoilers:
Up to 'Wrecked', a.k.a. the BtVS After-school Special
Archives:
Please do. Just get my name right.
Feedback:
Give me a happy at JDMeans@aol.com
Rating:
PG-13 to R for angst.
Summary:
Two friends begin their recovery from the darkness that threatened to claim them. But Spike and Rack are still out there. And for Buffy and Willow, their only salvation may be in each other�

A Journey of a Thousand Miles
By Kirayoshi

"A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."

--Chinese proverb

Chapter one;
Stuck In A Moment

"I'm not afraid of anything in this world
There's nothing you can throw at me that I haven't already heard
I'm just trying to find a decent melody,
A song that I can sing in my own company

I never thought you were a fool,
But darling look at you
You gotta stand up straight, carry your own weight
These tears are going nowhere, baby.

You've got to get yourself together,
You've got stuck in a moment and now you can't get out of it.
Don't say that later will be better
Now you're stuck in a moment and you can't get out of it."
--U2
"Stuck In A Moment You Can't Get Out Of"

God, she thought to herself, when did it go so wrong?

Buffy asked herself that question time and again, especially for the last three nights. She was standing in the doorway of Willow's room, watching as her friend had finally stopped thrashing in her bed, and finally settled into a restless sleep. She had curled up into a fetal ball on her bed, her body covered in sweat, her once-lustrous red hair matted and plastered against a face grown sallow and sunken. Buffy could see her friend still shaking and twitching even in her sleep, and flinched with each spasm, knowing that she was in part responsible. What kinds of nightmares were plaguing the redhead's slumber? What demons visited her in her rest?

Her room looked strangely incomplete now. Buffy glanced at the shelves and the desk, seeing blank spaces that weren't there before. Magical artifacts and books that occupied those spaces were now packed away in cardboard boxes in the garage. She had helped Willow pack them away two days ago, the day after the incident.

After Willow dragged Dawn along to a floating magic dealer. After she got her fix from a warlock named Rack. After she drove a stolen car to escape a demon that she had summoned in her intoxicated state, with Dawn in the passenger seat. After she wrapped the car around a telephone pole, breaking Dawn's arm in the process. After she collapsed on the ground, wailing piteously, confessing that she couldn't stop, begging for help.

No matter how mad she was at Willow for hurting Dawn, and she was extremely mad, Buffy could not and would not abandon her friend. Especially since, in the end, it was her fault.

It was because of my calling,

she cursed herself silently as she watched her friend suffer in her sleep, that she became a witch in the first place. And how many times had her magic come in handy in the past? Restoring Angel's soul, discovering arcane spells to defeat demons, healing Tara's mind from Glory's power. All that power, all that promise for doing good. And now, her power had turned against her. She sacrificed her chance to attend Harvard, or Oxford even, to remain in the Hell that was Sunnydale. All for Buffy. And now her decision to stay and help fight 'the good fight' was killing her.

Buffy vowed that she would do whatever she could to help her friend. She owed her that much. She helped Willow box her spell books, her candles, her blest herbs, her vials and bottles, her yak's cheese ("Don't ask," was the only thing Willow would say about that), and all of her other magic equipment. She stood by her bedside for the last two nights, watching as Willow thrashed and squirmed, sweat fountaining off her face. She held her hand, mopped her brow with a cold damp cloth, and did any small thing she could do to comfort her as she faced her withdrawal.

Buffy wasn't exactly in a position to be condescending to Willow in her ordeal. After all, while Willow was falling under the influence of her dark magicks, Buffy was dealing with an obsession of her own. An obsession just as dark as any magic. An obsession in a black leather duster jacket and short bleached hair.

An obsession once known as William Exeter. Now known as Spike.

Spike stirred something in Buffy, something primal, something animal. But it was something dark and sinister, something that ignited her nerves when she was with him that one night, but left her with nothing but shame and self-loathing the morning after. She hated him, she wanted nothing to do with him. But she couldn't deny the pull he had on her.

This time last year, she had told him that he was beneath her. Now, she wasn't so sure.

It wasn't that he improved in her eyes, but that she had fallen so far.

Was that it,

she asked herself. Did I couple with him because I don't think I deserve better? Am I punishing myself for having fallen from Heaven, for being alive when I'm supposed to be dead?

Am I nothing more than a walking corpse?

The fact that Spike could actually do her damage, that he could actually hurt her, that's what clinched it. Whatever Willow had done to bring her back, it backfired somehow. She wasn't back, not fully, not in any real sense. She didn't feel love like she was once able to. She couldn't show compassion or friendship to the degree she enjoyed. She could only feel the negative emotions; fear, anger, hatred, disgust.

She didn't know what she was anymore. Was she human? Demon? Some half-formed combination of the two? Something that simply never existed anymore? Or some glorified zombie? She didn't know herself anymore.

She didn't know if she was any better than the things that she hunted.

She didn't know.

And not knowing was killing her.

<<>>

"Okay," Tara murmured as she nailed a crucifix to the front door of the Summers house. "The cross is in place, holy water and garlic cloves buried at the threshold and under all windows, all proper incantations incanted, I'd say this house is as vamp-proof as it'll ever be."

"Thanks, Tara," Buffy smiled at the taller girl. "I just don't trust Spike anymore, and I don't want him near Dawn while I'm out on patrol."

"I thought Spike really liked Dawn," Tara mused. "And besides, as long as he still has that chip, he can't hurt anyone, can he?"

That's not true anymore, not really,

Buffy thought, but kept her dark musings to herself. "Hey, it's government tech, you expect it to last that long?" Tara smirked at Buffy's humor. "Besides, he doesn't have to actually hit anyone to cause damage. I remember how he tried to turn us against each other before we went up against Adam."

"You think he would do that again?"

Buffy just smirked. "Yeah. He'll do what he wants to. He doesn't have a soul, he just has a chip."

"I guess," Tara nodded. She never fully understood Spike; he always acted like he was still the Mack Daddy of all the Sunnydale Vamps, but there were times, like when he risked all to rescue Dawn from those biker demons a couple of months ago. That night when they did the spell, when Buffy returned. The night when all was supposed to be right with the world. But it wasn't right. Not really.

Buffy, however, knew exactly what he was capable of, and she wasn't going to share that information with anyone, not as long as she could help it. She could easily predict what Xander would do if he heard about Buffy's coupling with Spike; first he'd go through the roof, then he'd accuse her of betraying the gang. And she was no longer certain that he'd be wrong.

"Hey, can we talk for a sec?" Tara asked suddenly, and Buffy was grateful for the distraction.

"Sure," she answered as she and Tara took seats at opposite ends of the couch. "What's on your mind?"

"I was wondering how Willow was doing," Tara admitted. "It's been a while since I've seen her."

"Ah, Willow," Buffy answered slowly. "She's okay. Well, not so much okay as, well, kinda sucky. She's been going through a rough time of it, with her quitting magic."

"Withdrawal, huh?" Tara asked. Buffy nodded silently. "I've seen this happen once before," Tara said quietly as she sat, nervously rearranging her hands on her lap. "A friend of mine, when I first started practicing Wicca. Started getting into darker magic, real heavy stuff. It changed her, made her harder, more withdrawn from her friends. She ended up testing a spell that was supposed to give her the power of flight." She looked intently at her lap at the sad memory. "She never regained the use of her legs. And she actually asked me to help her die during her withdrawal. She thought she could handle the dark stuff, but it ended up handling her."

"Yeah," Buffy agreed sadly. "I'm just glad that it only took the car crash to make Willow realize how deep she was in it. Dawn's arm will knit, she'll be fine. I'm just glad it wasn't more serious."

"Same here." Tara looked straight ahead, not particularly observing anything. "I'd like to talk to her, Buffy. I know someone who may be able to help her. She's handled addictions as a counselor before."

"I dunno if Willow's gonna want to talk to a shrink," Buffy admitted. "She was bound and determined to go through this alone."

"Well, she's not the only one here who has a resolve face," Tara smiled.

<<>>

"I am�" she announced as she located the spaghetti, "THE IRON CHEF!" Dawn balanced the package of angel hair on her cast while grabbing a jar of pasta sauce from the cabinet. Tonight, she had agreed to make dinner while Buffy spoke with Tara, and Willow holed herself in her room. She had said something about doing some online investigation of the recent diamond theft, and seeing whether she could find any evidence of demonic activity involved with the case.

She located a Teflon pan, and started to brown a package of ground beef, when she noticed Willow, still in her pajamas and robe, padding her way into the kitchen. "Hey," Dawn greeted her. "Signs of life from the redhead. You okay?"

Willow gave a non-committal shrug of her shoulders. "Can't complain too loudly," she muttered. Her voice was still small and weak, her eyes bloodshot and framed by dark circles. Willow glanced briefly at the cast on Dawn's right arm, and turned away sharply.


"Yo, Willow," Dawn asked, "Buffy has me on strict orders to make sure you eat something. And I'm got spaghetti being prepped. You interested?"

"You're cooking?" Willow arched an eyebrow at the younger girl. "I dunno.."

"Hey!" Dawn grimaced, "what's wrong with my cooking?"

"Five words, Dawn," Willow smiled weakly at her, "'peanut butter and banana quesadillas'."

"Sure, bring that up," Dawn raised her eyebrows. "Hey, all greatness is the result of experimentation, right? Don't worry, I'm sticking to tradition here, I don't mess around with spaghetti."

Willow smirked slightly, and Dawn chuckled at her reaction. "Well, thanks anyway. Maybe I'll just have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich."

"One PB and J, coming up," Dawn dropped the pasta and sauce on the counter, and grabbed a loaf of bread from the cabinet. "Okay," she commented as she poked her head into the refrigerator. "We got crunchy, and we�we got crunchy. You good with crunchy?"

"Fine," Willow waived her hand.


"Okay, for jelly, we got grape, and we got strawberry�"

"GRAPE!" Willow said a bit quickly, and rather loudly. "Grape is fine." In the back of her mind, a blackly seductive man whispered to her; You taste like strawberries. She shuddered at the memory of Rack, and what she became because of him.

"You okay, Willow?" Dawn poked her head up over the fridge door to examine the redhead. Willow dropped her head, unable to face her friend's sister.

"Okay? I haven't done 'okay' since�oh, I don't know anymore. Tara's gone, Buffy doesn't really trust me, and I hurt you, all because of my magic."

Dawn stared intently at Willow. She needed to let her foster sister know that she wasn't alone. She placed her good hand on Willow's cheek�the one she slapped after the accident�and guided Willow's face to look at her own. "It's okay, Willow. Tara's still around, and Buffy hasn't given up on you. You made mistakes, but you're dealing with them. You're trying to make amends. And I can't imagine how tough you have it. The least we can do is be there for you."

"You sure?" Willow found herself fighting back the urge to cry as she was confronted with Dawn's forgiveness. "I mean, I don't blame you for being mad at me�."

"Yeah," Dawn admitted. "I was mad. I vented. But I'm not mad anymore. You need me, I'm there. Just call me Support-o-Girl."

Willow choked back a sob, and asked Dawn, "You mean we're cool?"

Dawn raised her cast, and smiled. "I now pronounce us cool."

Willow choked back her tears as she accepted Dawn's offered embrace. "Thanks, Dawnie," Willow wept quietly on the younger girl's shoulder. "I won't let you down this time."

"I know you won't," Dawn assured her. The two friends disengaged the hug, and Dawn went back to her cooking.

"Uh, Dawn," Willow asked, while Dawn was chopping mushrooms. "You've been hanging with Tara lately, right?"

Dawn stopped and placed the knife down on the cutting board. "A little. Why?"

"I dunno," Willow turned her head away, to hide her growing sorrow. "I was wondering how she was doing? I mean, probably better off without me, but still--"

"Why don't you ask her yourself?" Dawn offered. "She's in the living room right now, setting up an un-invite spell around the house. Apparently Spike's been getting uppity lately."

Willow's eyes snapped open and her head jerked up at Dawn's words. "Here? Oh Goddess," she moaned. Her eyes darted toward the back entrance, hoping for a possible escape route. "I can't let her see me like this! I gotta�"

"Too late," the familiar voice of the woman Willow had betrayed stopped her in her tracks. She turned around slowly, afraid to face her, but knowing she had no choice now. "Hey, Willow," Tara greeted her as warmly and as sweetly as Willow remembered her. The sight of her former girlfriend made her physically ache for the chance to hold her in her arms once more.

"Hey, Tara," Willow squeaked as the power of speech seemed to desert her. She saw Buffy standing by the doorway, either to offer support to her friends or to block Willow's last chance of escape. Willow tried to smile for Tara's benefit, but she knew she wasn't fooling anyone. "You're looking good."

"Thanks," Tara answered. "You look�well, you look�"

"Emaciated?" Willow volunteered.

Tara chuckled sympathetically. "I was going to say 'tired'. I guess the last few days have taken a lot out of you."

"Yeah," Willow admitted. "And I earned every restless night, haven't I? Threefold retribution and all that."

Tara wanted to run to Willow and embrace her, but feared spooking her. She just shook her head vehemently, saying, "No, Willow, it's not true. You don't deserve this pain, no one does. And you don't have to go through this alone, honey."

"Thanks for lying, Tara," Willow lowered her head in mounting shame. "Oh, I left all my magic stuff in the garage. You want anything, go ahead and pillage. Anything you don't take with you will be landfill by the end of the month."

Tara turned to Buffy, who nodded her head quietly. She looked back at Willow, who simply lowered her eyes again. "You're really giving up the magic, are you?"

"I have to, Tara," Willow said plainly. "I misused it. I used it on you against your will, I nearly got Dawn killed because of it�and�and I have to get rid of it. I can't do it anymore." She sat down at the breakfast table and lowered her head onto her hands. Hesitantly, Dawn placed the sandwich she had made for Willow on a plate and placed the plate in front of Willow. The sandwich went ignored, as Willow began to sob softly.

Tara stepped forward, standing behind her once-lover. She placed her hand on Willow's shoulder, and when she didn't try to shake the touch off, she ventured forward. "Tell you what, hon. I'll take your magic stuff with me, and we'll have Anya stash it at the Magic Box. When you're ready, it'll be there for you."

"No, Tara," Willow spoke firmly. "I'm through with magic."

"Don't say that, Willow," Tara pleaded with her. "It's not that bad, you just need to distance yourself for a while. To cleanse yourself."

Willow turned her head to face Tara, her haggard features screwed into the familiar sight of her resolve face. The terrible sight of what her beloved had become through the dark magic she had used silenced Tara with a shudder. "Don't you get it?" Willow wailed. "I'm an addict! I can't let myself go down that road again. It'd be like bringing an alcoholic into a bar. I can't do it anymore." She swallowed hard and brushed Tara's hand away from her. "Don't fight me on this, Tara. We're not together anymore, and we're not going to be together again. I love you, babe, and I always will, but I can't be with you anymore. I can't get that close to magic again. I'm sorry, but it has to be this way." She pushed the plate away from her, and got up from the table. "Sorry, Dawnie, I just lost what little appetite I had." She rushed out the door, not noticing Buffy as she barreled past her.

She rushed into her bedroom, threw herself on the bed, and allowed her grief to consume her. All she had wanted was to help. That's why she turned to magic. To help her friends, to help Buffy. To restore Angel's soul. To save Buffy from the demons and monsters of the Hellmouth. To restore Tara's sanity. To bring Buffy back to life.

But these feats required power. A power that Willow thought she could control. And now that power which she tapped into so freely was destroying her. Her usefulness to the cause was no more. She was a danger to her friends, to Tara, to Buffy. She decided in that moment, with a terrible certainty, what she had to do. She slowly rose from her bed, grim purpose filling her being, and located a suitcase in her closet.

"Willow," Buffy's voice slowly filtered through the miasma of her self-loathing. "How long are you gonna hole up in there?" When Willow didn't answer, Buffy tried again. "Okay, Wills, I'm gonna just camp out here until you let me in. You okay with that?"

Ten seconds later, Buffy heard the door unlatch, and saw Willow's worn face peering out at her. Upon entering the bedroom, Buffy first noticed the suitcase. "So," she said casually. "Planning a little trip?"

Willow said nothing, she just plopped herself down on the bed, folding her hands on her lap.

"Willow," she spoke in the most comforting tones she could summon. "I know what you're going through. I was there, remember? I blamed myself for what happened to Angel, what he did to Jenny, to Kendra�to you. I thought the best thing I could do for everyone was to run away. I was wrong then. Just as you're wrong to try and face this�thing yourself."

"What other options are there?" Willow whispered. "There's not exactly a Witches Anonymous group out there. No twelve-step program for magic addicts."

Buffy sat next to Willow on the bed, and placed her hand on Willow's knee. "Maybe there is." She withdrew a slip of paper from her pocket, and handed it to Willow. "Tara's out in the garage grabbing your magic stuff. She gave me this card." Willow looked at the name and number on the card: Victoria Ramirez, Councilor. "Tara said she's a nice lady, and that she handles addiction cases at the college."

Willow snorted derisively. "No way she's seen a case like mine."

"Hey, who knows?" Buffy offered brightly. "She lives in Sunnydale, she may have seen everything." That got a chuckle out of Willow. "Look, Willow, whatever you do, don't do it alone. Not when you don't have to." She got up from the bed, and faced Willow once more. "Look, I'm going to get Tara safely back, then I'm going out on patrol. Don't make any decisions for a while, right?" Willow sniffed, and nodded her head.

As Buffy was on her way out the door, Willow spoke; "Buffy?" The slayer turned her head toward her friend. "Don't die on me."

"I'm not planning on it," Buffy smiled for Willow's benefit, and left.

Willow allowed her grief to wash over her, through her and past her. She finally managed to control her wracking sobs, to dry her eyes, and to regain some semblance of coherent thought. She glanced at the card in her hand, looking at the phone number beneath the name.

Don't do it alone. Not when you don't have to.

Buffy's words rang through her head, resonating with a clarity, a wisdom that Willow needed to hear.

She reached across the bed, taking the phone in her hand, and dialing the number. After three rings, a gentle voice greeted her; "Hello."

"Victoria Ramirez?" Willow asked.

"This is she," the woman answered.

"Uh, hi. You don't know me, but my friend gave me your number�"

Chapter two;
Baby Steps

"So you thought you found the answer on that magic carpet ride last night,
But when you wake up in the morning the world still gets you uptight.
Oh, there's nothing girl that you ain't tried,
To fill the emptiness inside,
But when you come back down, you still ain't feeling right�

Don't it seem like kicks just keep getting harder to find
And all your kicks ain't bringing you peace of mind.
Before you find out it's too late, Girl you better get straight�
No, you don't need kicks."
--Paul Revere and the Raiders
"Kicks"

Willow read the sign on the door for the hundredth time; "Room 211, Victoria Ramirez, Councilor". She swallowed hard, and tried to summon the courage to knock on the door. She wasn't looking forward to this. She didn't want to bare her soul to Buffy or Tara, let alone a total stranger.

The door opened slowly, and a mellow voice, with a flavoring of Hispanic inflection, greeted her; "You want to come inside, Willow? Or would you rather wear a groove in the floor in front of my office?"

Willow let her shoulders sag, as her face turned red, embarrassed at being found out. Resigned to facing the ordeal, she pushed the door open slowly and entered the office. "So, you're Willow. Tara told me a lot about you."

"Well," Willow sighed. "So much for my making a good first impression."

Willow was surprised that Victoria's gentle laughter rang with merriment, not condescension. "Don't worry. Tara spoke in nothing but glowing terms about you. She cares about you, very deeply."

Victoria offered her a seat on a nearby couch, and Willow plopped herself down dejectedly. "Not that I gave her any reason, Miss Ramirez."

"Please," the older woman answered. "Call me Victoria." She pulled up a rolling office chair next to Willow, and sat down, leaning forward. "Tara and I know each other from campus. We talk about things."

Willow eyed Victoria guardedly. "What sort of things?"

Victoria sat back a little, and nodded. "The basics. For the record, yes, I know that the two of you were lovers. Yes, I know you and Tara broke up. And yes, I know that she still loves you. Now," she folded her arms, "I'm working on the assumption that you still love her. Am I correct in that assumption?"

Willow studied Victoria's posture and facial expressions. There was no hardness, no aloofness about her attitude. She wasn't condemning her or her lifestyle. One of her many fears regarding Victoria was that she wouldn't accept that Willow was a lesbian. She decided to give her the benefit of a doubt for now. "Yeah. I do. But it can't work between us. I can't allow her to get close to me again. I'm no good for her." She turned her face away from Victoria, unable to share her misery with her.

Victoria, however, wouldn't allow her new friend the luxury of trying to face her demons alone. "When you called me last night, you said you had some problem that you couldn't talk about over the phone. Would you care to talk to me about it here?"

Willow found herself fighting off an urge to squirm, and managed to keep a tight tether on her emotions. How could she explain her problem to this woman? Oh nothing really, I brought my dead best friend back to life, tampered with my girlfriend's mind, gave everyone I love temporary amnesia, and got stoned off a black magician's magic to the point where I put my best friend's sister's life in danger. Nothing you haven't dealt with before, right?

When Willow hesitated, Victoria caught her eye with her own gaze. "Look, if it's too soon for you to talk about it�"

"No," Willow said hurriedly. "It's just that I�I really don't know if you can really help me with this."

Victoria looked long and hard at Willow, examining her face and form with a professional calm. Her posture was sloped, curled, defeated. Her shoulders sagged, like they were supporting a terrible weight. Her eyes, though, they told her all she needed to know. Haunted, darkened with black circles. Victoria mentally wagered that Willow probably couldn't remember the last time she slept peacefully. If she had any doubts before now, they were erased by this figure before her. One who had literally gone through her own personal hell, and felt that Hell was what she deserved. And she had a good idea why.

She decided to take an alternate tack; "Tell you what. How about we play a little game. Sort of like Twenty Questions. I'll ask, and all you have to say is 'yes' or 'no'. Think you can handle that?"

"You mean like Bruce Willis did with Haley Joel Osment in 'The Sixth Sense'?" Willow asked.

"Something like that."

Willow shrugged her shoulders. "Sure, why not?"

"Okay," Victoria clapped her hands briefly, then sat in thought for a second. "Just to get it out of the way, have you been seeing dead people?"

Willow whipped her head around to face her, only to be greeted by a pleasant smile. Realizing that this was her method of breaking the ice, Willow relaxed visibly. "No, haven't spoken to any dead people." Technically, although the jury's still out on whether Spike qualifies, she admitted to herself.

"Good. Now," Victoria began in earnest. "Does your problem have to do with your relationship with Tara?"

Willow sat quietly for a second. "Yeah, sorta."

"Does it have to do with the reason you separated?"

"Yeah."

"Was the reason about money or financial issues?"

Willow shook her head. "No, not that."

"Infidelity?"

"No."

"Was it an addiction problem then?"

Willow dropped her head again. "Yes."

"Hers?"

"No."

"Yours then?"

"Yeah."

"Okay, now we're getting somewhere. Now then, is this serious, do you think?"

"Oh yeah."

"And this is something you're trying to kick?"

"Yeah. I'm doing the cold turkey thing."

"Smoking?"

"No."

"Alcohol?"

"No."

"Drugs?"

"Uh, no."

Victoria held her breath briefly. This would determine it. "Dark magic?"

Willow shot up as though hit by a bolt of electricity. "Wha-wha-what are you talking about?"

Victoria shook her head, a dark, familiar chill threading its way down her spine. "Lady, how do you think I knew you were outside my office? I could feel your aura through the door. And trust me, I know what dark magic feels like."

Willow opened her mouth twice, but found herself unable to produce a sound. Finally she found her voice. "Uh, are you a witch?"

"Priestess, actually," Victoria confessed easily. "I'm with one of the local wicca groups. That's how I first met Tara."

Willow suddenly stood up and started for the door. "Well, this session's over, and I don't think I'll be coming back. Sorry to waste your time like this, but you can't help me, not really."

"You had a run-in with Rack, right?"

Victoria's sudden outburst stopped Willow dead in her tracks. She turned slowly to face Victoria, a sense of betrayal fueling the spark in her eyes. "How did you know? Did Tara tell you? Buffy?"

"No one had to tell me," Victoria said somberly. "I could recognize the stench of his corruption a mile away."

Willow stood silently for a few seconds, before racking sobs started to shake her frame. Victoria stood up and stepped beside Willow, allowing her grief to wash over her. She didn't initiate any contact, but when Willow sought out her arms, she didn't refuse her. For a few seconds she held Willow, allowing the storm to pass over her.

Eventually Willow stepped back and composed herself. Her breathing was still a little ragged, but she was able to speak again. "So I guess�I guess you know about Rack."

"Oh, all too well, child," Victoria led Willow back to the couch, and took her seat next to the devastated redhead. "Let me guess; a friend of yours set you up with him. A floating location, only witches and demons can locate his headquarters. And I'll bet he still has that plywood paneling in his waiting room, right?" Willow stifled a bitter smirk at the memory of her first encounter with the black mage. "He made you promises of power, of pleasure. He said he wanted to take a walk inside your soul, then he said you tasted like something sweet."

"He-he said that I t-tasted like strawberries," Willow stammered, fighting off a fresh wave of sobs.

"He told me I tasted like marmalade." Willow glanced suddenly at Victoria, who just nodded. "Yes, I was one of his girls. He hooked me on his black magic, just like he hooks everyone who thinks she can control the power he offers."

"So now you understand why I can't work it out with Tara?" Willow wailed. Victoria shrugged her shoulders, giving a questioning look. "Don't you get it? I'm a junkie! I can't do magic anymore, I can't allow myself access to that kind of power. And Tara'll just remind me of what I did to her, to the others, to Dawn! I can't allow that to happen again!" She couldn't speak any more, she could only weep bitterly.

Victoria sat quietly, allowing Willow to get the weeping out of her system. "Willow," she finally spoke in a soothing voice. "It's far more complex than a simple addiction, I'm afraid. The power is within you, it always has been. If you deny what is within you, that power will destroy you."

"But I can't do it anymore," Willow protested. "I hurt her too much! I can't trust myself. It's too powerful, I can't control it!"

"Yes you can, Willow," Victoria answered sharply. "You must, or it will control you."

Willow shook her head, unable to fully comprehend what she was hearing. A tiny portion of her mind screamed with joy at the prospect; magic, Willow, you can use magic again! Willow stifled that thought angrily. Never again, she vowed. She would never allow herself that hope, that opportunity to corrupt herself, ever again!

"Willow," Victoria continued to explain to her, her voice like the surface of a reflecting pond, calm and clear. "You are a natural mage, more than just a typical witch. You're power is within you, as natural as breathing. And since it's such an integral part of you, it's vital that you use it, or it will use you. Tell me Willow. Do you consider yourself a Wiccan?"

Willow opened her mouth briefly, to say 'Yes'. But then she stopped herself; she wouldn't lie to this woman, and she sure as hell wouldn't lie to herself again. After all she had done, she could no longer call herself a true wiccan.

She used her powers for her own pleasure.

She used her powers to alter Tara's memory, without Tara's permission.

She sacrificed�No, she butchered� a deer, to complete the spell to resurrect Buffy.

She resurrected Buffy, not for Buffy's sake, but her own.

She robbed her best friend of the glories of Heaven.

These were her crimes, against nature and against the Goddess. She was no true Wiccan, no true daughter of the Goddess.

"No," she whispered, ashamed of herself.

"But you did once, didn't you?" the older woman asked. Willow said nothing, she simply nodded her head. Victoria regarded the sad figure next to her; so much like herself at that age. Lost, afraid of her potential, shamed by her actions. Just like she was when she first ran afoul of Rack. Willow glanced briefly at Victoria, and could feel the waves of compassion and caring that emanated from her. She reminded her of Jenny Calendar, her first mentor in magic.

"Willow," Victoria said, "Wicca is not a source of magic in and of itself, but a means of understanding nature, through the Goddess. Your problem is that you see magic as being all black or all white. Magic depends on the intent of the user. When the intent is fair and noble, the magic is benevolent. When the intent is evil, then so is the magic."

"Sounds like the Force," Willow smiled wryly.

Victoria chuckled at Willow's observation. "Yes, kind of. Like any natural force in the world, magic can be used for either creation or destruction. And like any force in the world, it can corrupt if you use it wrong. But the corruption can be reversed, if you're willing to work at it."

Willow heard these words, and for the first time in Goddess-knew-how-long felt something akin to hope. After months in a terrible pit of her own making, she saw a rope ladder being lowered down to her. She thought of Buffy, of how much she owed her for the heartache she had caused her these last few months. After that, the answer was easy; "What do I have to do?"

Victoria nodded approvingly. "First, I would like to meet your friends. Their aid and support will be vital for your cleansing�"

<<>>

Two newbie vamps near the college campus were Buffy's only challenge that night, and she was taking last lap around the cemetery before heading home. She had promised Dawn that she'd help with her homework before turning in. She wasn't expecting any major obstacles to her plan.

"Every time you say goodbye," an all-too-familiar voice sang out from behind her, "I die a little. Every time you say goodbye, I wonder why a little." Buffy slapped her forehead and groaned. She didn't want to turn around, knowing what she'd see. Suck it in, sister, she admonished herself. You can deal with this, you can deal with him.

She turned around, and sure enough, Spike was there, leaning casually against a tombstone, his arms crossed lightly over his chest. An almost happy smile lit his face as he sang to her. "Do the gods above me, who should be in the know, Think so little of me, they'd make me let you go?"

Buffy turned away from the serenading vampire, and picked up her pace. The sooner she got back home, the safer she would feel. "Why Slayer," Spike called out after her. "If I didn't know any better, I'd think you were trying to get away from me."

"Go away, Pepe LePew," Buffy answered without turning her head. Don't look at him, don't make eye contact.

Spike grabbed her wrist and yanked hard, forcing her to face him. "I don't recall giving you permission to leave, Slayer," he snarled at her.

Buffy wrenched her arm away from his grip, and started off. "What part of 'Get the Hell out of my life' don't you get, Spike? I just want to be left alone! I want to go on with my life!"

Spike managed to jump in front of her, and Buffy almost landed on him in her haste to get away. "Your life?" Spike mocked her. "I'm trying to rescue you from that 'life' of yours. What kind of life is that? Out patrolling cemeteries every night, flipping burgers every day. Pretending you give a rat's ass about your friends, when they could turn up dead tomorrow and it wouldn't matter to you either way."

Buffy wanted to move, to run away from the seductive vampire as he continued to whisper to her. He spoke to something dark within her, and despite her own revulsion toward him, that inner darkness responded. He made her feel, more than anyone else since her resurrection. No matter that what she felt was animal lust, rage and self-hatred.

Spike lifted his hand to her face, and started to caress her cheek. Despite her own revulsion toward him, she found herself leaning into his palm, breathing softly. "You're not part of that world anymore, not really. You've been gone for one hundred and forty seven days, Slayer. Their lives have gone on without you. Let them go. Let it all go, darlin'. You're not even human, y'know. No my dear, not in any meaningful way. If you were, then I couldn't do�" He suddenly slashed her cheek with his fingernail, drawing blood. He licked the blood off his finger, smacking his lips at the taste. "Ahh," he sighed. "Just as sweet as I imagined. C'mon, Slayer. I'm your world now. I'm what you need. What you crave. Only I can ever satisfy you."

He leaned closer to her as he spoke, his voice a promise of dark pleasure. Buffy stood, transfixed by his measured cadences. He moved in closer, and ever closer, until his lips were a hair's distance from hers.

"Damn you, Spike," she whispered before he kissed her. She fell limply into his arms, putting up no resistance to his kiss. He grabbed her waist in one arm, and roughly started to caress her breasts with the other. Buffy found her hands moving without her volition, one hand playing with his chest, the other running fingers through his short spiky hair.

After nearly ten seconds of this, Spike pulled away from her, breaking the spell that held her in his thrall. "Now don't tell me you don't get off on that," he purred triumphantly at her.

Buffy said nothing. She simply pushed him hard into the nearest tombstone. When he tried to stand up, she kicked him hard in the midsection, forcing him to double over in pain. "Never. Touch. Me. Again!" Buffy shouted angrily at Spike. Before the hapless vampire could protest, she ran away from the cemetery, toward her house.

Spike nodded knowingly at the retreating Slayer. "Nice try," he chuckled aloud. "But I know you, Slayer. Better than you know yourself. You will be mine. Soon, you'll beg me for that release that only I can give you."

He stood up and smiled, as he contemplated what he would do to Buffy once she gave herself utterly to him. Yes, he decided, she would make a most obedient and loving Childe.

<<>>

Xander knew that he was in hot water with Anya, and he couldn't blame her for being angry. He had promised to head straight for home after work, but some of his friends at the construction site had heard about his engagement, and insisted on buying him a beer to celebrate his impending marriage. He managed to limit himself to just the one beer, and remained mostly sober, but the time got away from him.

It was now three hours later than he had planned to be home, and he had forgotten to call Anya, to let her know where he was. He took his preferred shortcut home, straight through the graveyard, knowing that it might be dangerous, but not caring. It was a faster way home, and right now he feared disappointing Anya more than he feared any vampire. He concentrated on the path ahead of him, keeping watch for undead nasties as he ran.

A sudden scuffle caught his attention, and he stopped and ducked behind a nearby crypt, hoping that it wasn't serious. On the other hand, if he could truthfully tell Anya that he had rescued someone from a vampire, he might be able to score some sympathy points. He stood silently, his ears perked and ready for any sound.

"You're not even human, y'know." Spike's voice crooned over his victim. Xander dared to take a peek around the crypt to see what the neutered vamp was up to. He was taunting Buffy, and getting a little too close to her for Xander's comfort. "No my dear, not in any meaningful way. If you were, then I couldn't do�" He swiped his fingernail over Buffy's cheek, causing her to flinch in pain. Xander could distinctly see the drops of blood that coated his nail.

He made Buffy bleed. Xander blinked at the sight. Was Spike's chip no longer working? And if Buffy had known about this little development, why did she keep it a secret?

"Just as sweet as I imagined," Spike purred as he tasted Buffy's blood. "C'mon, Slayer. I'm your world now. I'm what you need. What you crave. Only I can ever satisfy you."

Xander blanched at the sight before him. Spike slowly craning his neck toward Buffy, who seemed rooted to the spot, unable to move. Or unwilling. She said something to Spike, Xander couldn't hear what, then Spike leaned forward.


He was kissing Buffy. Hard. Passionately.

And Buffy was accepting the kiss. Indeed, she was kissing back, just as passionately.

Xander turned away, unable to stand to see anymore. He ran blindly away from the graveyard, not looking back. He fought hard against the urge to vomit as he replayed the scene in his mind. Emotions warred within him, anger, jealousy, disgust.

Above all, he felt a deep-seeded sense of betrayal. He couldn't deny what he saw, how Buffy let Spike have his way with her. He knew that things were different for her since they brought her back that night a few months ago. But this�thing between her and Spike�

He felt like he had been kicked hard in the gut. He saw his friend, his hero, giving herself to the enemy.

When he made it to the apartment he shared with Anya, his fianc�e was about to lay into him for being late. But one look at his stooped shoulders and his haggard face stopped her in her tracks. She approached him carefully, and asked, "What happened, honey? You got some bad news?"

Xander looked squarely at Anya, his voice a bitter tone of defeat. "The worst, Ahn. The worst."

Chapter Three
She Said She Said

She said, "I know what it's like to be dead,
I know what it is to be sad."
And she's making me feel like I've never been born.
I said, "Who put all those things in your head,
Things that make me feel that I'm mad?
And you're making me feel like I've never been born."
She said, "You don't understand what I said."
I said, "No, no, no, you're wrong."
When I was a boy everything was right
Everything was right
I said, "Even though you know what you know,
I know that I'm ready to leave,
'Cause you're making me feel like I've never been born."

--The Beatles
"She Said She Said"

He sat at his workbench, hunched over, hands grubby with machine oil. He expertly manipulated a jeweler's screwdriver over a circuit board, testing the circuits to insure that nothing had blown. He hadn't had the opportunity to test his new invention for nearly a week, and the possibility that the delicate circuitry could be affected by dust. He couldn't risk that, not with the Black Box being an integral part of his plans for Buffy Summers.

"Hey, Warren," Andrew shouted from the rec room. "You finished in there? The Red Dwarf marathon's gonna start in ten seconds!"

"Just a minute," Warren shouted back from his bench, a jeweler's loupe still fastened to his eye. "Besides, they won't start the show until after ten minutes of pledge drives anyway." He returned his attention to the Black Box, making some slight adjustments to its calibrations.

Six months ago, when he first formed the Troika with his friends Jonathan and Andrew, Warren knew that they would require powerful allies if their plans to take over Sunnydale were to succeed. And when he first learned from hacking into some outdated government files about the Initiative's experiments with mind control over vampires, he started to wonder. If there was a way to locate their 'chipped' vamps, and control them himself, the Troika would have a formidable army at their disposal. He invented the Black Box to gain control of these vampires by controlling their chips.

But he hadn't had any luck in locating any of the Initiative's experimental vamps. A great number of them, he surmised, must have been dusted; Buffy and her posse were good at that. If there were any survivors of the Initiative's experiments, they weren't making themselves known. Eventually, he shelved the Black Box, and concentrated on other projects.

Last week, when Spike first arrived at their doorstep, that changed.

When he first learned of the chip in Spike's head, Warren realized that somehow he must have accidentally affected the chip. The Black Box must have altered the signal the chip was sending to his brain; otherwise why would Spike ask him to examine him?

Warren spent the last few days since then examining the Black Box. If it was working, he needed to regain control of his experiment. And if he could fine-tune the Box's signal booster, he might even be able to 'low-jack' into Spike's head, using the Box to hear what Spike heard.

If he was right, Spike would soon be the servant of the Troika.

He carefully put the Black Box away, hiding it from his allies for the time being, rushed to the bathroom to wash the machine oil off of his hands, and rejoined Andrew in the rec room for six solid hours of Red Dwarf, a well-deserved reward for his hard work.

"Fun, fun, fun," he sang tunelessly to himself, "in the Sun, sun, sun�"

<<>>

"I'm telling you guys," Xander insisted, "there's some demon behind that jewel heist. Someone with some kind of stealth thing going for him."

"I dunno, honey," Anya insisted. "Willow, Tara and I were pouring over all of Giles' old books, and we didn't find any demons that could turn invisible."


"Maybe it was Marcie," Willow suggested. "Or someone like her. She was invisible, and we never did find out where those government types took her." Tara nodded at Willow's suggestion. "You think someone from the Initiative's responsible, Willow?"


"Or some kinda Cigarette Smoking Man's pulling the strings?" Dawn asked.

"Maybe, guys," Xander frowned, "but after the Initiative folded their tents, I doubt the government's gonna try anything screwy in Sunnydale."

"Maybe it was little pixies," a Cockney-accented voice echoed calmly from the darkened store-room. The speaker strolled out almost casually, his face leering in a mockery of a friendly smile. "Yeah, that's right, li'l pixies, just like me ex-girlfriend kept seeing in her fantasies. Pixies, stealing away pretty jewels to hide them from greedy humans."

The others just looked blankly at Spike for a few seconds, before Xander turned to Tara, saying, "You still got that uninvite ritual, and does it work for commercial buildings?"

"Oh, don't worry about that, mate," Spike grabbed the vacant chair next to Xander's, sat down and propped his feet on the table in front of him. "I mean, you got other things to worry about, what with the fact that you lot aren't leaving this room alive and all."

Xander clenched his teeth, abandoning any pretense of civility. "That's it, 'mate'!" he shouted. "Willow, where'd you put the spare stakes? I'm taking down Captain Peroxide once and for all!"

"Oh," Spike mocked, throwing his hands up in the air. "I'm so not scared."

"Forget it, Vamp-boy!" Xander smacked the vamp hard across the face, causing him to lose his balance and fall out of the chair. "You still can't do squat, can you?"

Spike dragged himself off the floor, his face slowly taking on the hideous aspect of his vampiric nature. He glared hard at Xander with yellow hate-filled eyes. Then his face melted into a more human visage, as the hapless vampire laughed at the young man who threatened him. "You're right, Xander," Spike admitted. "As long as I have this soddin' chip in my brain, I can't kill you lot."

Spike stepped back, raising his right hand and snapping his fingers. A thin female figure in a black leather corset stepped forward, her hand lazily combing through her stringy blonde hair, and an evil gleam shining in her charcoal-gray eyes. Her eyes suddenly turned a rancid yellow, as her face morphed into a vampire's. Five faces turned white with shock and terror. Spike simply smiled, as he stepped behind the woman who had once been the enemy of his kind, and wrapped his arm around her waist while nibbling her earlobe lovingly.

"Buffy, my Childe," he purred into her ear, "be a treasure and kill these people."

"Anything you want, babe," Buffy grinned wickedly. Without another word, she launched herself at Xander, knocking him to the floor, pinning him down with clawed hands. Savagely she ripped out his jugular with her teeth and drank his blood greedily.

"Mind you save some for me, pet," Spike chided the newly-turned vampire. "I'm feeling a bit peckish."

"Here's one for you," Buffy growled, leaping from the corpse of her friend and grabbing a hysterical Anya by her hair. She slashed her throat deep enough to kill instantly, before tossing her to Spike, who lapped at the blood that flowed from the wound.

Tara tried to cast a protection spell around herself, Willow and Dawn, but the former Slayer was too fast for her; a crossbow bolt ripped into the witch's heart, stilling it immediately. A second bolt struck Willow in the back as she tried to run from her former friend. Spike and Buffy feasted on the blood of the dead wiccans, sharing a crimson kiss as they drank, before turning their attention toward Dawn.

Buffy stalked toward the trembling teen, who cowered in a corner of the ravaged shop. "Y-y-you w-wouldn't k-k-k-kill me, w-w-would you, B-b-buffy?"

Buffy smiled at her sister, a smile Dawn knew to be a lie. "Oh no, Dawnie," Buffy cooed in a sickly imitation of her familiar loving voice. "Spike and I'll take good care of you, as we always said we would." She roughly grabbed her sister's arm, pulling Dawn toward her, then sunk her teeth into the tender skin of the girl's neck. With her free hand, she clawed a neat incision into her own neck, letting her blood well out of the cut. She pressed her sister's lips to the cut, and gasped in ecstasy as she felt a weakening Dawn drink from her�

<<>>

Buffy bolted upright in her bed, a thin sheen of sweat covering her entire body, causing her pajamas to cling uncomfortably to her skin. Her heart thudded hard in her chest, a hammer on an anvil. Her breath came in terrified gasps.

Ever since she first became the Slayer, she learned to despise dreams. There was a time when she was young that her mother would console her after a nightmare, assuring her that it was only a dream. The terrors of the night were all in her head, the monster under the bed would never get to her and all would be right in the morning. Now, Buffy knew better. All too often since she became the Slayer, her dreams were portents, signs of future events.

The nightmare that she had just suffered was such a dream. She could not doubt it; it was too vivid, and too much remained fresh in her mind. She could still recall every detail; the coppery taste of Xander's blood, the acid thrill of taking the lives of her friends, the pleading in Willow's eyes.

It was not a dream, but a prophecy. A portent of things to come.

She lowered her head in agony, wishing with all her soul that she were still dead, rather than to bring her family to such a state as she saw in her dream. She cursed herself for letting this thing with Spike go so far; now she had placed everyone she still gave a damn about in deadly peril.

She knew now that Spike had plans for her, and they didn't involve love or companionship, despite his protestations to the contrary. She was to be his Childe, to hunt for him, kill for him, provide him with newly-killed victims so he could sate his bloodlust without fear of his chip.

And it was all her fault. She allowed him into her life, into her body. And he would take full advantage of her despair, turning her into the thing she despised most.

He would soon take her. And at his command she would kill her friends.

She would kill Willow.

She would turn her sister.

That thought alone, that she would do violence against her dearest friend and her sister, sent her into a fresh round of pathetic sobs. So lost was Buffy in an abyss of despair that she didn't hear her door open. She wasn't aware of small feet running to her side, or slender arms gently wrapping around her body, or the sweet voice murmuring assurances to her.

Eventually, as Buffy cried herself out, she became aware of the familiar arms that encircled her, the voice that calmly muttered "There, there, Buffy," in her ear, the strands of red hair that drifted across her eyes. "It's gonna be okay, honey. Everything's gonna be okay."

"It's not okay!" the slayer exploded in Willow's arms, nearly causing the red-haired girl to fall back away from her. "You don't know, Willow. You have no idea�" Buffy couldn't speak any more, as fresh sobs wracked her frame. Willow looked at her friend, her hero, and was shocked at how small she seemed, how frail and weak. Dear Goddess forgive me, she thought mournfully, I did this to her. Me and my magic. She chased these thoughts out of her head the moment they formed; she was not about to indulge in her own self-pity, not when her best friend needed her.

"Buffy," Willow guided Buffy's chin with a gentle but firm finger, forcing the blonde to make eye contact with her. "Look at me. If anyone knows about going through hell, it's me. I let my magic get out of control, and I'm paying the price for it. And you and Dawn still accepted me, even when I put Dawn in danger. How can I do any less for you? Whatever it is, whatever trouble you're in, I want to help. I owe you that much, at the very least."

Buffy looked long and hard into her best friend's deep green eyes. For a moment, she felt as though she were staring into Superman's eyes, eyes that could see right through her. She lowered her head, feeling Willow's palm gently resting on her cheek. She leaned into Willow's arms, gratefully accepting a warm and generous hug. For five minutes, she simply allowed herself to take freely of the love and support that Willow offered so selflessly.

Finally, Buffy pulled away from Willow's arms. She simply sat there, still feeling Willow's touch on her arms, collecting her strength, preparing to tell Willow the terrible truth. She had put this off for too long, and she could not lie to Willow, not now when they needed each other so much.

"Willow," she whispered hoarsely. "The night before your accident... I...I made the worst mistake of my life. I did something...something terrible..."

The floodgates had opened. Buffy had dammed the truth of her liaison with Spike until it threatened to poison her soul. Here, with her friend holding her, she had two choices; tell the truth or let it fester within her until it destroyed her.

So she told Willow the truth, how Spike had smacked her around, told her that she came back 'wrong', telling her that she was lower than human, no longer belonging to the living, fit only for the dead. Fit only for Spike. She spoke clinically of their coupling, sparing Willow the grisly details, only telling how she and Spike had managed to demolish a building between them. She recalled how defiled she felt when she emerged from the wreckage. And she spoke in dried-eyed tones of how she feared facing Spike again, how she feared that he was right. That she was only fit for him to use and discard.

Willow let Buffy continue talking, listening intently to every anguished word. When Buffy finally fell silent, Willow sat beside her friend, her arm slowly inching towards Buffy's shoulder, to take her in a friendly hug. When Buffy flinched at her touch, Willow backed away. She simply sat with her friend, offering what solace Buffy would accept.

Now more than ever, Willow realized, she needed to get her head back on straight. Her friend needed her to be strong. She needed to be strong for her, she wanted to be strong. She wanted to give back to Buffy for all the Slayer had done for her. Buffy needed her. And Willow needed to help Buffy. More than she wanted anything, more than Tara's love, more than the power she had enjoyed as a witch, she wanted to be there for Buffy.

She wanted Buffy to be happy. She loved her too much to accept anything less for her friend.

She loved her. There was no other way to say it.

<<>>

"I'm telling you, I saw what I saw!"

Anya huffed at her fianc�e, then turned back to inventory the tarot card sets. "It was dark, Xander, and you were what, ten, twenty yards away? Besides, Buffy would just as soon kill him as kiss him."

"I saw her kissing him last night, Ahn," Xander protested. "She's fooling around with that�that thing! And he cut her too. Scratched her on the face."

Anya raised her eyebrows at Xander's statement. "You sure about that? Isn't that chip still stuck in his head?"

"Oh yeah," Xander protested, "government tech, I'm surprised it's lasted this long. All I know right now is that Buffy's lying to us. After all that's been going down lately, I don't know who to trust anymore."

Anya watched silently as the man she loved turned away, his shoulders sagging under the weight of what he had seen. Whatever had happened between Buffy and Spike, it had hurt Xander deeply; like seeing a beloved baseball player confessing to fixing the World Series. Not knowing how else to comfort Xander, she stood up from her crouched position, wrapped her arms around Xander's waist and whispered in his ear, "You can trust me, honey."

Before Xander could succumb to Anya's formidable charms, the front door chime jangled as the door opened. Xander glanced at the door, his features freezing in a hard, condemning stare at the sight of Buffy Summers walking through the door. "Hey, Xander," Buffy quipped before seeing his iron gaze, then shrunk slightly, toning down her forced bravado. She only knew Xander to be this angry at her once before; when Angelus had slaughtered Jenny Calendar, and Xander joined the chorus of blame, real and imagined, being heaped up on Buffy for allowing Angel to lose his soul in the first place.

"What do you want?" Xander asked blandly, but Buffy clearly heard the edge of disgust in his voice. He knows, she found herself thinking, he knows about me and Spike.

"Uh, I just wanted to ask you guys over to my house tonight," Buffy answered quickly. "Willow's councilor, Miss Ramirez, is gonna be there. Willow told me that Miss Ramirez wanted to meet us. Something about helping Willow out with her addiction."

Xander turned away from Buffy, leaving a palpable silence in his wake. Anya glanced between the two, before saying sweetly, "What time do you want us there?" Xander glared at his girlfriend, but said nothing.

"Sevenish?" Buffy answered.

"We'll be there," Anya volunteered brightly.

Xander returned his angry expression toward Buffy. "Is Spike going to be there?" he asked curtly.

Buffy grimaced, knowing from his damning tone that Xander meant the words to hurt her. "No, Xander," she answered plainly. "Spike's been uninvited from my house."

"I'll bet," Xander groused, and started to walk away. Buffy grabbed him by the shoulder, forcing him to turn around and look at her. "Is there something you want to share with the class, Harris?" she snarled at him.

Harris regarded Buffy coldly, his features fixed in a dark mask. He wanted to scream, to shout, to berate Buffy for betraying all that she ever stood for. He wanted to�

"He's just anxious to help Willow," Anya chimed in. "The same as the rest of us. We'll be there. Won't we, Xander?" She directed her last question toward her fianc�e with a knowing look, one that clearly said, 'Say yes, or you sleep on the couch until further notice.'

Xander lowered his head, accepting defeat for the time being. "I'll be there."

Buffy nodded silently, and waved goodbye to Anya. As the Slayer left, Anya scowled angrily at Xander. "What the Hell was that all about?"

"It's about being betrayed, Ahn!" Xander shot back defensively. "It's about her doing the deed with that bastard Spike! It's about not knowing if she's still on the side of the angels anymore!"

Anya threw her hands up in exasperation. "Man, it's situations like this that remind me why I hated men when I was a vengeance demon! So she maybe�that's maybe�got her rocks off with Spike. So far, all she's accused of is bad judgment. And anyway, she's not the issue, Willow is. You remember Willow, right? Your best friend for as long as you remember? She needs her friends right now. And no matter what Buffy may or may not have done, we need to get together to help her."

Xander locked eyes with Anya, whose steady gaze told him that she wasn't going to budge on this issue. After ten seconds, Xander shook his head and regarded Anya with a rueful half-smile. "Did Willow teach you her Resolve Face?"

"I'm a former vengeance demon," Anya stated with a faint tinge of pride. "I invented Resolve Face."

Xander chuckled mirthlessly, as Anya smiled triumphantly. "Okay. We'll be there tonight. For Willow."

Chapter Four
Make Everything Alright

"She never mentions the word addiction
In certain company
Yes, she'll tell you she's an orphan
After you meet her family


She paints her eyes as black as night now
She pulls those shades down tight
She gives a smile when the pain comes
The pain gonna' make everything alright

Says she talks to angels
They call her out by her name
Oh yeah, she talks to angels
Says they call her out by her name"
--The Black Crowes
"She Talks To Angels"

<<>>

"Hello Xander, Anya," Willow greeted her long-time friend, as Xander and his fianc�e quietly filed into Buffy's living room. She managed a small smile, which didn't convince Xander a bit. "Go ahead and sit down." As Xander and Anya looked over the sofa and surrounding chairs, they nodded silent greetings to Tara and Dawn, and then noticed a strange woman with black hair, sitting at the head of the coffee table. "Oh, Mrs. Ramirez," Willow gestured toward the woman in question, "this is Xander, and his fianc�e Anya."

"A pleasure," Mrs. Ramirez nodded, smiling, as Anya shook the councilor's hand.

"Same likewise," Xander replied. Turning to his old friend, he asked, "How are you doing, Willow?"

She considered lying, but one look at Xander's face convinced her otherwise. Tonight wasn't about deceiving, she knew that going in. Tonight was about truth.

But she wasn't just ready to tell the entire truth, not quite yet. "I'm doing, Xander. Let's leave it at that for now."

As Xander and Anya took their seats on the sofa, Buffy emerged from the kitchen with a jar of salsa. "Hey, Xand," she greeted her friend stiffly; "glad you could make it."

"Right," Xander harrumphed, as Anya sighed slightly. For once, Anya was going to remain silent. Normally discussing her sex life or the sex lives of the rest of the Scooby Gang wasn't something that bothered her, but she decided not to bring it up tonight.

Xander had no such qualms. "Okay, Buffy, I need to know. Did you sleep with Spike?" Anya and Dawn's eyes widened at Xander's question, while Buffy simply buried her head in her hands.

"Xander!" Willow growled at her friend. "This isn't the time for that!"

"No, Willow," Mrs. Ramirez answered. "I fear that tonight is exactly the time for that. Too much has been left unsaid between you."

Xander gritted his teeth and stared angrily at the others. Anya said nothing, but quietly slid away from him to the end of the sofa. Xander glanced briefly at his beloved, and for a terrifying moment he thought he saw in Anya's eyes a reflection of his mother's face, the moment before his father would hit her. Soberly, Xander relented his anger and sagged his shoulders, unable and unwilling to sustain the rage that had flared so violently for a moment. Whatever stupidity he might have perpetuated in his lifetime up to that moment, he would be damned before he allowed himself to become like his father.

A deathly silence blanketed the living room as Xander and Anya sat back into the sofa. Ten seconds, twenty, thirty, and still no one wanted to speak after Xander's outburst. Finally Buffy lowered her head, unable to look at her friends. "Yes," she whispered, but her voice still carried in the quiet of the room. "Yes, I slept with Spike."

Willow had heard this confession before, so she kept a weather eye on the others, watching their reactions. Apart from Xander's cold stare, reactions were surprisingly subdued; Anya and Xander had evidently suspected already, and Tara, always the empathic one, only displayed concern for Buffy. It was not hard to feel concerned for Buffy; her frame sagged under the terrible burden of her confession, and she wouldn't raise her head to meet anyone's eyes. In the years that she had known the Slayer, Willow had never seen her appear so small.

Finally, it was Dawn who broke the silence with a simple question. "I don't get it, gang. What's the big deal? Spike's okay, isn't he?"

Xander turned his condemning stare toward Dawn. "Sure, if you like murderous psychopaths! The only thing keeping Spike from ripping your throat out is that damn chip! What the hell were you thinking, Buffy? He's the enemy, dammit!"

"You think I don't know that?" Buffy hissed angrily at Xander. "You think I don't remember that punk laughing when he learned that Dru killed Kendra? The way he bragged, 'Alright, Dru bagged a Slayer!'? I hate him!" Looking away from Xander, Buffy stifled a sob as she stared intently at her lap. Her voice came out as a strained whisper, but everyone in the room heard her; "But more than that, I hate myself for letting him handle me the way he did. I hate myself for dragging Willow into my crazy life. One of the two most important people in my life is hurting, and it's my fault." She lowered her hands in her lap, and stared hard at them. Willow, sitting in the chair next to her, could only look sadly at her best friend, cursing herself silently for her part in Buffy's sadness.

After another oppressive silence, Victoria steadied her gaze at Buffy, examining her features gently, without prying. She sat desolately on the edge of her chair, a sinner desperate for redemption but not knowing how to find it. "Buffy," she asked calmly, "perhaps I could understand your predicament better if you explained some things to me. Like, who's this Spike person? And why do you blame Willow for her magic issues?"

Buffy glanced up at Victoria and swallowed hard, mentally debating whether she could trust her. She turned briefly toward Willow, who seemed to recognize Buffy's dilemma. Willow nodded, quietly assuring Buffy that she could trust the councilor. "Mrs. Ramirez," she started, "just what do you know about what goes on at night in Sunnydale?"

Victoria gave Buffy a knowing smirk. "I know enough to carry an atomizer of holy water and a spare crucifix in my purse. And please, call me Victoria."

Buffy chuckled ruefully at Victoria's observation. "Well, you just keep carrying them. The vampires are out there. There's all sorts of demons and monsters out there at night. And, lucky me, I'm the one who's destined to fight them. I'm what's called a Slayer."

"Slayer," Victoria spoke the word as though she were testing it. "I've heard rumors about a girl who was charged by some higher power with the task of fighting the forces of darkness. I wasn't sure whether I should dismiss them as rumors, but clearly they're true."

"They're true, Victoria. Six years ago, I met a strange old man who showed me the truth; that I was meant to fight the vampires. It's not an easy life, or a particularly long one; I've already lived longer than any Slayer before me. In fact I died last May. The only reason I'm alive is because of Willow."

Victoria sat solemnly and absorbed what Buffy told her. She paid rapt attention as Buffy recalled how Willow and the others joined her in her ongoing fight against the darkness that dwelled in Sunnydale. She hung on every word as Buffy spoke of Willow's interest in magic and wicca, and how her abilities in that field had aided her cause. She then listened to Buffy's account of her final battle with the mad goddess Glorificus, and her act of sacrifice to save Dawn from Glory's scheme.

As Buffy fell silent, Willow took over the narrative, speaking haltingly about her dreams of Buffy, crying out from a pit of flame and lava, begging for salvation. "All I knew is that I had to save her. So I scoured all the books and tomes I could find, until I found information about the Urn of Osiris."


Victoria's face tensed visibly as Willow mentioned the Urn. "I've never believed in the Urn, but if half of its legends are true, I'm amazed that you're soul is still intact, Willow. You used the Urn to restore Buffy to life?"

"Yes," Willow answered. "The others helped me, but I alone put my soul in danger. I was tested...it was part of the ritual, to allow myself to be tortured for the sake of the one we were trying to resurrect. It felt like a thousand Hells broke out around me, and when those demon bikers crushed the Urn under their bikes, I thought I'd failed. But when we saw Buffy, spoke to her, hugged her, I believed that it was worth it. I mean, I'd saved Buffy from Hell, right?" She shook her head in desperation. "Wrong! She wasn't in Hell, she told us herself! I dragged her from Heaven!" Willow fell silent, verging on tears, and Tara bit off the urge to embrace her once-lover. She knew that Willow had to unload this burden herself.

Victoria spoke gently to Willow, saying, "I don't know whether that's true or not, dear. I strongly doubt that Buffy would have any memory of her after-life experience. But in using the Urn, you surely tapped into some powerful magicks."

"And the rush I felt after the fact, when I realized what I had achieved," Willow reflected. "Oh Goddess, no wonder I was able to fall so far. All that power, it felt so good. Too good. But then when I crashed, and ended up going to Rack for more power�" Fresh tears welled in Willow's eyes, as she recalled how her need for more power nearly ended up costing Dawn her life. She glanced back at Dawn, and winced at the sight of her arm still in a cast.

"Actually, Willow," Victoria said, "Rack didn't channel any power into you. Rather, he took it out." The others turned their heads sharply toward Victoria. "Think about it, people. Rack's a pusher, right? But he didn't ask Willow for any money, or take anything from her, did he? He doesn't give people power, he gives people sensations of power. I know that from my own experiences with him. He's not human, he's what is known as an incubus. He feeds off power, off souls, the way a vampire feeds off blood. His victims must come to him freely, of their own will, for want of power. He sensed your power levels, Willow�that 'walk through your soul' he took, when he said you tasted like strawberries." Willow shuddered at the memory. "He probably sensed your power spiking off the charts when you pulled the resurrection spell. Channeling that kind of power, actually raising Buffy back to life, that kind of power registers on any chart."

"Even if it didn't work," Willow muttered.

Victoria arched an eyebrow in surprise. "Pardon? I thought you succeeded in bring Buffy back."

Willow turned her eyes away from Victoria, shame coloring her cheeks. Victoria glanced at Buffy in hopes of an explanation. Buffy sighed loudly, and took the story over; "I came back wrong. I'm not really human anymore. I've been disconnected from everything and everyone that ever mattered to me before. I needed to feel something, anything. But all I felt was numb. That's why I did the deed with Spike. Spike�he's a vampire, and a really nasty piece of work. Anyway, a couple of years ago, a government group investigating the supernatural kidnapped Spike and stuck a microchip in his head. The chip stops him from attacking anything human. He tries to hurt you, the chip causes him pain."

"I think I saw that in 'A Clockwork Orange'," Victoria commented.

"Whatever," Buffy said blandly. "Well, after I came back, I started to hang with Spike more. I didn't want to be around my friends or Dawn even, and Spike was an outlet. But it turns out that he can hurt me now. Man, can he hurt me," she recalled, rubbing her chin in remembered pain. "It was the first time I really felt anything since I came back. And that night, the only time we ever made love, I simply turned off my mind and allowed myself to feel." She shook her head in faint anger, and concluded, "But the next morning, when I realized what I had done, all I felt was shame and self-loathing. I let my enemy take complete control of me, and I don't know if I can keep him from doing it again."

Buffy closed her eyes, and the others could see a faint trail of a tear leaking out of her left eyelid. After an eternal silence, Xander made a throat-clearing motion. "Hey, Buffy," he asked timidly. "I'm sorry for giving you grief over the whole Spike thing. I guess I didn't know how bad you were hurting."

"None of us did," Tara added. "And I was too wrapped up in blaming Willow for using her magic on me. Willow, Buffy, I hope you both accept my apology letting my anger turn me away from you. You're my friend, Buffy, and I shouldn't have ignored you. And you, Willow, I love you with all my heart, and I end up showing it by bailing when things get tough." Leaning forward in her seat, Tara touched Willow's hand for a moment, and the electric sensations of Tara's touch lightened Willow's heart for a moment.

Victoria smiled, then turned toward the Slayer. "Buffy, I'd like you to consider something. This Spike, you say that he can hurt you, despite that chip. And you, Willow," she turned her attention to the red-haired witch, "your use of the Urn of Osiris involved a testing of your soul. Am I right?" Willow and Buffy nodded, uncertainty coloring their expressions. "And then, before you could complete the final tests, the demon bikers interrupted, smashing the Urn." Willow nodded again, wondering where Victoria's questions were leading.

"Girls," Victoria announced, "I suggest that the ritual of Osiris is still being played out even now." Buffy blinked, wanting to argue Victoria's point, but unable to make her lips move. Willow's eyes enlarged, distorted in shock and wonder. "Willow, I believe that you are facing the last and toughest of Osiris's tests. I minored in comparative mythology at college, and I recall a few points about the myths of Osiris. Osiris was the Egyptian God of the Dead, the final judge. He questioned each soul as it passed from life to death, testing their worthiness to pass into his fields. Your soul is still being tested, tempted with power that it's not ready to handle."

"But�but�" Willow stammered, unwilling to fathom what this must mean for her, or for Buffy. "This can't be right, Victoria. I mean, the tests are over, right? Buffy's here, she's whole again! She's alive, isn't she?"

"Alive, yes," Victoria answered sadly, "but not whole. You said it yourself, Buffy. You said you came back wrong. You didn't come back wrong, Buffy; you just didn't come back all the way. Not yet, anyway. That's why Spike can hurt you, because you're not completely alive yet."

"What do you mean, 'completely alive'?" Dawn asked, puzzled.

Xander added, "What do you mean 'yet'?"

Victoria looked directly at Buffy and Willow, but glanced around briefly to assure herself that she had the undivided attention of everyone in the room. "Buffy, Willow, for both your sakes, you must complete the ritual of Osiris." Before Willow could open her mouth to interrupt, Victoria added, "Yes, I know that the Urn is destroyed, but its purpose was mainly as a conduit of dark magic. Once you took that magic onto yourself, the Urn had served its purpose. That energy is still coursing through you, corrupting your natural powers. This, I believe, is the final test of Osiris; the temptation of power. To complete the ritual, you must cleanse yourself, in body, mind and soul."

Willow inhaled and exhaled audibly, steadying her nerves before she spoke to Victoria. She was surprised at how steady her voice sounded when she asked her question; "What must I do?"

Victoria had no choice but to smile; Willow had made the all-important first step of asking how she could change. "Today is the seventh of December. In two weeks is the twenty-first, the Winter Solstice. At that time, I wish to perform a Cleansing ritual, to cast out the dark magic that's tainting your soul, Willow. The Winter Solstice, the end of the yearly cycle, is traditionally a time of renewal and rebirth, so a cleansing during the Solstice would be more effective. And you, Buffy, I believe that you would benefit from attending the ritual as well."

"Me?" Buffy chuckled in surprise. "But I'm not even a witch."

"You are Willow's best friend," Victoria answered warmly. "It is customary for any wiccan who undergoes a Cleansing to have a friend stand by her during the ritual. Your support at this critical time may spell the difference between success and failure. And in saving her, you may find the means to save yourself. Indeed, all of you," she turned to address the rest of the gang, "have a vital place in Willow's recovery. Your friendship, love and devotion are all that can sustain her during this trying time."

"Hey," Xander spoke loudly and with feeling, "count me in!" Anya gave a silent 'me-too' nod in response.

"Same here," Dawn announced.

"You can count on my support, Willow," Tara assured her beloved.

Buffy turned toward Willow, her eyes sparkling with new-found emotion. "Anything I can do to help you, Will," she had to choke back a sob as she spoke, "just name it."

Willow looked at this circle of friends with watery eyes, nearly in tears at their show of support. She had made more than her share of mistakes over the last few months, yet they still called her 'friend', they still believed in her. "Thank you guys," Willow breathed, desperately steadying herself, as Buffy stood up and collected her in a warm and generous embrace. Soon Tara, Dawn, Xander and even Anya joined the pair in a group hug, while Victoria nodded approvingly. As long as she had the support of her friends, she reasoned, Willow could weather any storm.

After the gang had disengaged the hug, Victoria told Willow, "I'd like to see you tomorrow, between classes. I have some meditation pamphlets that you may find useful."

"I'll be there," Willow promised.

"Good," Victoria answered as she stood up and collected her coat. "I'll see you then. Thanks, everyone, for coming here. I hope to see each of you soon."

Buffy turned suddenly toward Victoria as she prepared to leave. "Hey, you want me to walk you to your car? Just to make sure there are no vamps outside?"

"Actually, Buffy," Victoria answered, "I'd like you to join me for a little matter of mutual interest�"

<<>>

"That's my girl," the slovenly dressed warlock grinned broadly as Amy Madison blurred from his field of vision. The magic high had hit its peak, and she crested on a wave of pure sensation. She didn't allow herself the luxury of rational thought, she simply felt. Pleasure, pain, apathy, excitement, she felt all these things at once, not caring at all about the outside world.

That is, until the outside world crashed in around her.

The door to his place of business splintered and flew off its hinges under the pressure of a rapid boot. Buffy smirked sardonically as she saw Amy tripping on bad magic. Turning to her companion, she commented, "This must be the place."

"And there's the man," Victoria added, pointing an accusing finger at Rack.

Rack raised his eyebrows at the sight of the two women standing at his doorway. "May I ask what you're doing here, ladies?"

"I'm insulted," Victoria quipped wryly, crossing her arms in front of her in a challenging stance. "You don't even remember me, Rack?"

Rack allowed his eyes to stroll over Victoria's body, staring at her in such a way that Buffy wanted to ram her fist down his nasal cavity. The incubus smiled hugely as he recognized the furious woman standing before him. "Lady Marmalade!" he whooped gleefully as he approached her. He started singing, his voice harsh and off-key; "Voulez vous couche avec moi, c'est soi-UNGH!"

Buffy chuckled grimly at the sight of Victoria's foot impacting rapidly with Rack's ugly pot-belly. "I hate that song!" Victoria hissed. "It only reminds me of when I was weak! You have no more power over me, Rack! You understand me, you bastard?"

"Hey, Victoria," Buffy calmly silenced the enraged priestess. "Save a little of Scuzzo the Clown for me!" Buffy hoisted the corpulent magic dealer up off the ground with one hand on his neck, while her other hand was formed into a fist. "Okay, Rack, consider this advance warning. We're shutting your operation down. You won't be able to sell your junk to anyone, ever again!"

Rack just scowled at Buffy as she dropped him gracelessly to the ground. "Ladies," he spoke in annoyingly condescending tones, "If you're not here to buy anything, I must ask you to leave!"

Buffy picked up Rack by the back of his collar, and threw the dealer hard against the wall, five feet away from where Amy was lolling on a dirty mattress in blissful oblivion. "We'll leave, Rack. But consider yourself on notice. You and I are at war. You tried to corrupt my friend, and nearly got my sister killed." As Rack scrambled to his feet, Buffy cuffed him with a hard right kick to the chin, sending him sprawling again. "My advice, Rack, get the hell out of Dodge. Because the next time I see you�" Buffy said nothing, just ground her right fist into her left palm.

As Buffy and Victoria stalked out of Rack's shop, Buffy turned back for one last glance at the monster who tried to ruin Willow's life. A black bile rose within her gut at the sight of the monster. Never before had Buffy hated any of her opponents as much as she hated Rack. When she remembered what he had done to Willow, Buffy silently hoped that she would meet him again. She relished the prospect of hurting him. A lot.

As Rack slowly dragged himself back to his feet, he glared hard at the door, considering Buffy's threat. Rack had never raised a fist or a weapon to anyone before; he never needed to. All he had to do was channel a portion of his power into any opponent's pleasure center, and his enemy would be in no condition to fight. This Buffy person got lucky, attacking him as his powers were at low ebb. The only person that he could feed off of at the time was Amy, and she had started to weaken in recent days. Being a rat for three years didn't do anything to increase her power levels.

He needed to bolster his strength to face Buffy. He needed a powerful reservoir of magic. Fortunately, he mused as he watched Amy crest from her high and drift into a dreamless sleep, he knew such a power source. And he had Amy to thank for that.

"Go to sleep, little lamb," he purred to Amy as she slept, "I'm developing a taste for strawberries."

<<>>

Warren checked his watch again. Two-fifteen a.m. Exactly ten minutes after the last time he checked his watch. He checked the 'Black Box' again, his earphone picking up every vibration. He smiled; his servant would be here soon. Warren prepared to meet his slave, to explain that he was now the Master.

"Hello, mate," the shadow shifted in front of Warren, catching him by surprise. Even with the advanced warning he received from his Black Box, Warren wasn't expecting the sudden and smooth entrance that he received from his guest.

"Hello, Spike," Warren greeted the vampire tonelessly. "I suppose you're wondering why I wanted to meet you here."

Spike sneered at the immature genius. "I figured it had something to do with your suicidal streak. You know who I am, right? In case you didn't�" Spike's face distended into his 'game face', ridged brows and yellow eyes turned toward the computer geek.

Warren stood his ground, unimpressed. "Yeah, I know you; Spike, vampire, the Slayer of Slayers, Scourge of Europe, on a sesame seed bun. I also know that you can't do Jack Squat with that chip in your head."

Spike tilted his head as he looked at Warren, reminding the geek of a vulture he had seen on a Discovery Channel documentary. He relaxed his vampiric aspect, resuming a more human appearance. "Okay, so you know more than most around here. You a friend of Buffy's?"

"Hardly," Warren snorted derisively. "I've got plans for her, and I need you to help me with them."

"Oh, bite me," Spike snarled at Warren, his patience with the unpleasant young lad wearing thin. "What do you think I can do about the Slayer?"

"Oh, I dunno, Spike," Warren smirked, "but considering that you can still attack her, I figure you can at least keep her out of my hair while I continue my plan to dominate Sunnydale."

Spike rolled his eyes in disbelief; this loon was talking like a cut-rate Lex Luthor. But he was smart, Spike had to give him that. "Okay, Geek-boy," Spike regarded him coolly, "so you know that I can still attack the Slayer, huh?"

"Of course, my minion," Warren chuckled. "I know all about the chip in your head, from the information I got from hacking into the Initiative files. I found out that they were collecting vamps, and inserting microchips in their craniums, in order to create an invincible undead army. Cool idea, wish I thought of it myself. When I learned that the Initiative had folded their tents here, I figured that there must have been a few chipped vamps out there. That's when I came up with this." He reached behind his back and produced what was an X-Box video-game console in a previous life. "The Black Box, my nocturnal friend. I had been attempting to discover the correct frequency that controls the chips, but without a vampire to experiment on, it was mostly hit or miss. Well, miss actually."

"Then I showed up on your doorstep," Spike guessed, "and you found out about that chip in my head."

"Correct," Warren grinned. "Actually, I found the frequency before you even showed up, but I didn't realize it until later. You complained that there was something wrong with the chip, and that's when I realized the truth. I had jammed the chip with my Black Box. Then I found out something even more interesting; With the Box, I can low-jack into your aural canal through the chip, and I can hear what you hear. In fact," he raised an editorial eyebrow toward the vampire, "I could hear everything you did with Buffy that night." He started to snicker like a frat-boy. "Next time you and Buffy go at it, I'm taking notes. Know what I mean? Nudge, nugde, say no more!"

"Bloody hell," Spike whispered to himself. "So what you're saying, Doctor Evil is that your little gizmo can cancel out the chip in my head?" Spike started to reach for the box, which Warren snatched away from Spike's reach.

"Only when I wish it," Warren warned Spike. "I control the frequency of your chip, and can shut if off or on as I wish. See," he showed him the dial on the top of the box. "With this dial I can modulate your chip. Check this out." He twisted the dial to the right, and suddenly all the pain in the world concentrated around Spike's skull and squeezed. Pain like a thousand white-hot lances seared his flesh. His face was contorted into absolute fury; his only desire was to knock Warren's head off of his shoulders. The pain redoubled, leaving Spike in agony.

"Get it, slave?" Warren shouted at the agonized vampire at his feet. "I just jacked the frequency up to ten times its strength. Now, just the thought of attacking a human is enough to cause pain. And judging from the way you're writhing on the ground, you really want to kill me." Turning the dial to the left, Warren smiled as Spike slowly regained his composure. "I reset the Box to 'five', which is your chip's default setting. By setting it lower, I can allow you to attack others, even feed off them. By setting it higher, well, you can guess, can't you? What you just experienced was the 'ten' setting. But I made the Black Box to Spinal Tap specs." Dropping into a lame British accent, he added, "It goes all the way to eleven!"

"Ha ha ha," Spike spat contemptuously at Warren, as he raggedly scrambled to his feet, "very clever. So, what do you want from me?"

"Ah, now we're getting somewhere," Warren grinned. "Simply put, I allow you to kill again. Of course you'll only be allowed to kill whom I tell you to kill. You do as I say, be my enforcer, and you'll be rewarded. Cross me�" he gestured his hand toward the dial on the Black Box, "well, you get the idea."

"Hmm," Spike pondered. "So it looks like you're in the driver's seat doesn't it. Maybe we can work together after all, Warren. What say we talk about it over a pint, and�" He paused, his eyes wandering toward the alleyway behind Warren. "Say," he pointed casually over Warren's shoulder, "is that a poster for the new Spider-man movie?"

"Really?" Warren gasped with childlike excitement, turning around. "Where?"

Spike jumped at the distracted geek and grabbed the Box from his hand. Warren tried to grab the Box from Spike, but the vampire leaped away from his opponent, to a nearby fire escape. Fiddling with the knob, he asked, "Now, I turn this thing to 'zero', and�"

"NO!" Warren shrieked. "What do you think you're doing?"

Spike leapt from the fire-escape and was now standing nose-to-nose with Warren. "I think I'm liberating myself, you overgrown bed-wetter! Now then," he placed his hands gently on the sides of Warren's head, as the hapless genius gazed in unblinking horror at the monster who had him at his mercy, "let's see if your head goes all the way to eleven."

With a savage grunt, Spike twisted Warren's head cleanly, severing his spine with one swift movement. Warren was dead before Spike could drop him to the ground. Spike glanced briefly at the corpse he left behind, deciding not to bother draining his blood. "Probably anemic, the putz," Spike growled to himself. He cast a feral eye past the alleyway, hearing the sounds of traffic, of people walking to and fro across the sidewalk. "Happy meals with legs," he chuckled. "And it's dinner time in Sunnydale!" Stopping to grab the Box from the fire-escape, he headed off toward the streets of Sunnydale, anticipating his first true feeding in three years, and contemplating what he would do to Buffy.

"Look out, Slayer," he chortled to the night, "I'm ba-ack!"

Chapter Five
The Treachery of Images

Well, I dreamed I saw the knights in armor coming,
Saying something about a queen.
There were peasants singing and drummers drumming,
And the archer split the tree.
There was a fanfare blowing to the sun,
That was floating on the breeze.
Look at Mother Nature on the run
In the nineteen seventies.
Look at Mother Nature on the run
In the nineteen seventies.

--Neil Young

"After The Gold Rush"

Only four newbies and an apprentice messenger demon, Buffy thought as she headed home after a brief patrol of the local cemeteries. Not even a decent workout.

The week since her first meeting with Victoria Ramirez was quiet, and Buffy wasn't certain whether she was relieved or anxious. Too many times in the past, Buffy reflected, slow patrols and quiet weeks were only the calm before a very nasty storm. And right now, what Buffy needed was for the Hellmouth to remain quiet for one more week. Not only for herself, but for Willow. They only had one week to go before the winter solstice. Before the Cleansing. The last thing that Buffy wanted was for some Big Bad to make his or her presence known just as Willow was at such a vulnerable moment in her life.

Buffy smirked as she considered how frequently her thoughts turned toward her best friend these last few days. God, was it five years ago when she first met a shy young computer hacker and asked her for help with her homework? Buffy recalled how Willow had tried to dissuade her from continuing their conversation, as though she knew that Buffy risked her new-found popularity and status by even addressing her in non-abusive terms.

Buffy, of course, had decided that Cordy wasn't the type she wanted to hang with. Shallow didn't even begin to cover it. Cordy was clearly in it for Cordy, and the rest of the world simply existed for her amusement. Buffy didn't want any part of that mindset. She had seen it too often at Hemery High School. Hell, she had been it too often. The last thing she needed was a reminder of the superficial twit she had been before she learned of her Calling.

From the moment she first connected with Willow, Buffy knew that it was the right decision. As the months passed, no matter the danger, Willow stood staunchly at Buffy's side. Buffy's heart still warmed with pride as she recalled her list of Willow's Greatest Hits for the ten-thousandth time, recognizing how Willow had matured:

Willow, slamming a fire-extinguisher into Moloch's metal body, again and again, venting her rage at his using her, while buying Buffy some time to plan the demon's downfall.

Willow, desperately holding the team together as their personalities began to reflect the cursed Halloween costumes they were wearing.

Willow, resolving to restore Angel's soul even after Angelus dropped a bookcase on top of her.

Willow, assuring Buffy that she wouldn't do anything that could be mistaken for brave as she impersonated her vampiric doppelganger to free the hostages the vamps had taken at the Bronze.

Willow, standing up to Faith, even as the rogue Slayer held a knife to her throat.

Willow, displaying a canary-eating grin as she produced the pages she had swiped from Mayor Wilkins' tomes of magic.

Willow, wanting in the good fight, even though it meant losing her chance to attend an Ivy-League school.

Willow, standing at Tara's side, defending the woman she loved in front of her family.

Willow, using her magic to enter the abyss of Buffy's mind, leading her out of her self-imposed prison of darkness to save Dawn from Glory.

Willow smiling.

Willow laughing.

Willow shouting.

Willow crying.

Willow simply being Willow.

Willow had been Buffy's strength, her anchor, her backbone and her breastplate, from the moment she first entered her chaotic life. To see that inner strength falter, crumble under the influence of Rack's magic, brought home to Buffy the terrible truth, that all she cherished and loved was delicate, needing her attention. Attention that she had been too bitter, too angry, too tired to give.

No more, Buffy vowed silently, deciding that her patrol was over for the night. She needed to get back home. From this day forward Willow, along with the rest of Buffy's extended family, was priority one.

Willow had been her source of strength for five years. It was time for Buffy to return the favor.

<<>>

She sat on the floor of her bedroom, her legs tucked under her knees in lotus position, her eyes staring into the flame of the two candles in front of her, her mind concentrating on not concentrating. If what she was planning was going to work, she needed to achieve a semi-conscious state. She inhaled burning sandalwood and patchouli, allowing their fragrance to imbue her nostrils. She began to feel her awareness of her surroundings fade away. She was no longer sitting on the floor in a Californian house. She was drifting, almost bodiless, floating amid infinite space�

"Hey, Willow," a cheerful voice chimed in, shattering her illusion. She opened her eyes, seeing the familiar surroundings of her bedroom, and sighed heavily.

"Buffy," she greeted her best friend with a slightly annoyed tone in her voice, "did you just come in from patrol?"

"About five minutes ago," Buffy smiled knowingly. "As I was making my way up the stairs, I smelled smoke, so I thought I'd better make sure you were okay. I guess it was just the incense, right?"

"Uh, yeah," Willow stammered, suddenly realizing how she must have looked at the moment. "Uh, it's not what it looks like, really."

"It looks like you're sitting in the middle of your room, lighting candles and burning incense," Buffy responded matter-of-factly as she flicked on the light switch.

Willow sagged her shoulders at Buffy's observation. "Okay, so it is what it looks like. But it's not what you think, Buffy. I'm not doing any magic or anything like that�"

Buffy flashed Willow a reassuring smile. "Relax, Willow. Victoria told me that she had recommended some meditation sessions before your Cleansing next week. I'm cool with that." Willow's face seemed to visibly lighten, and Buffy realized how truly afraid Willow was that she had unknowingly upset Buffy. The blonde Slayer decided to assure her friend further. "In fact," she continued, "she suggested that I should try it. Maybe it might let me calm down and center myself after my patrol. Can I join you?"

"Join me?" Willow nearly squeaked the question before collecting her poise, such as it was. "Sure. Joining is good. Come on in. Pull up�well, pull up some floor, I guess, you need some mineral water or something�"

Buffy stopped the slowly growing tide of Willow-babble by giving her friend an impromptu hug, and Willow found herself effectively and happily silenced, surrounded by Buffy's warmth. "It's okay, Willow," Buffy whispered, her lips barely an inch from Willow's ear, "you're my best friend, you don't have to try for me, you've got the job. Relax."

Ten seconds, twenty, thirty, Willow allowed herself to revel in the fact that such a strong woman was giving her strength to her. Finally, almost reluctantly, Buffy let go of Willow, who flashed a thousand-watt smile at her. The first real smile that Buffy could remember seeing on Willow's face since Tara had left. More and more, Buffy felt that both she and Willow had a real chance of succeeding in laying their mistakes in the past, and concentrating on their futures.

Buffy glanced around Willow's bedroom, taking in the familiar surroundings. Her eyes stalled over a small framed poster that she didn't recognize. It was a simple picture of a wooden pipe, with some words written beneath it that she couldn't make out. The handwriting was impeccable, but the words were French. "New picture, Willow?" Buffy asked her friend.

"Oh, that?" Willow said as she looked at the picture. "Victoria gave that to me. That's a litho of a painting by Rene Magritte, a French surrealist of the nineteenth century. The painting is called 'The Treachery of Images'."

"Oh," Buffy nodded, as she leaned in closer for another attempt at reading the handwriting at the bottom of the picture. "What does this say, 'Ceci n'est pas une pipe'? Is that, 'pass me the pipe' or something?"

"Oh, no, not that," Willow chuckled. "It means, 'This is not a pipe'."

"This is not a pipe," Buffy repeated blankly.

"Right," Willow answered. "And it isn't."

Buffy took a look at the picture again, before saying, "It looks like a pipe to me."

"But it isn't," Willow said.

Buffy stood quietly for a second, then said, "Okay, it's a bubble blower."

"No," Willow shook her head.

Buffy squinted as she looked at the picture again. "It's a bent club."

"No."

"It's Mini-Me's alpine horn."

"No."

"It's a Chia-pet?"

"No." Willow rocked gently on her heels, her huge smile betraying her amusement.

"Willow, I'm flailing here!"

Willow chuckled again, deciding to take pity on her friend's blond moment. "It's not a pipe," she explained. "It's a picture of a pipe."

Buffy stared at the picture again for five seconds, before slapping her forehead with the palm of her hand. "Sure, if you're gonna use logic," she mock-chastised Willow.

"Well, that's what Magritte meant by the treachery of images," Willow explained. "The painting was his way of saying, 'Don't mistake the image of a thing for the thing itself.' This is not a pipe. You can't take it down from the wall, stuff it with tobacco and smoke it. It's a picture. Paint on canvas. Or in this case, ink on paper." Buffy nodded, the wisdom of Willow's words slowly becoming clear in her mind.

"Okay," Buffy said quietly, "I think I'm on board with that. But what does that have to do with your magic?"

Willow pursed her eyebrows in thought. "I dunno, really. But Victoria warned me that, once I reach a full level of meditative trance, I might start having visions. Subconscious images, that sort of thing. Maybe this is her way of warning me not to mistake the visions for reality."

"Sounds like solid advice," Buffy admitted. After a moment, she added, "Okay, how do we do this?"

"Well," Willow turned around, looking at the two candles and the mini-crockpot full of incense she had placed on the floor of her bedroom. "First, could you turn off the lights? We just need the candles for this."

"Gotcha," Buffy turned off the lights, and made her way to the floor where Willow had already assumed a lotus position. Her eyes adjusted more easily to darkness than others, and slightly into the ultraviolet spectrum, due to her slayer heritage, so she had no difficulty sitting down in front of her, the candles and incense between them. "Okay, now what?"


"Tonight is about healing," Willow said quietly, her hands resting limply at her sides. "Tonight is about honesty. Tonight is about the truth. Tonight, we must seek the truth within ourselves. When you begin your meditation, Buffy, you must ask, 'what is the truest thing in your life?' Are you ready to face the truth within your self?"

Buffy nodded. "I'm ready."

Willow lowered her eyelids to a half-closed position. "Now, concentrate on the flame of the candles. See only the flames. Hear only the sound of your heart. Shut out the world around you, it has no place here. Only the world within yourself matters now. Within yourself. Within yourself�"

"Within myself�within myself�" Buffy quietly found herself chanting with Willow. Slowly she repeated the mantra, not even loudly enough to call it a whisper. She breathed the words in tempo with her heartbeat, seeing nothing before her but the candle flames. For a second, she glanced upward, seeing Willow's face as she repeated the chant. Buffy found herself entranced by the gentle slope of Willow's nose, the warm glow of her cheeks as they caught the flickering light of the candles, the shape of her lips�

<<>>

She rode hard through the night, coaxing more speed from her tiring horse. She knew the monsters were close behind her, but she didn't risk looking over her shoulder. She forced her head forward, concentrating on reaching the fortress, on reaching safety.

She heard the cruel hooves of her pursuers' steeds, as they gained on her. She could feel their hot breath on the back of her neck as they galloped at lightning speed. She tried to ignore the knowledge of her pursuers, the stench of death that they carried with them always, the dark cloaks that shrouded their souls. She fixed her face toward the cliffs, away from her enemies. Toward the cliffs, toward freedom.

An arrow flew past her, its fletching brushing with her ear. A warning shot, she figured. She ignored the danger; she could not allow fear of her attackers deter her from her escape. She concentrated on the narrow strip of smooth turf ahead, praying that she could evade her would-be assassins long enough to reach the cliff-side citadel where her allies were waiting for her.

A second arrow slammed into her steed's left hind leg, causing him to buck violently, throwing his rider off of the saddle and onto the hard ground. She struggled to rise herself, only to see the riders that pursued her standing across the river, spindly hands emerging from shifting black robes, nocking their arrows and aiming them at her.

"NO!" The shout echoed across the landscape, seeming to come from everywhere. The sound of galloping hooves filled the air with like a judgment from God. The fallen rider lifted her head and brushed aside a lock of sweat-soaked blond hair. She beheld the silhouette of her rescuer; a white-robed rider on a majestic golden steed, nearly flying toward her, a shining bow and arrow at the ready. A rain of arrows slammed into the dark pursuers, and each rider hit by an arrow disintegrated into ash. Within seconds, the pursuers were no more.

As the golden horse reached the blond woman, the rider pulled gently on the reins, nickering gently to the steed to stop. The rider dismounted and rushed toward the fallen woman. Placing an arm around her, the rider slowly helped her lift herself to her feet. She smiled as her rescuer's hood fell away, revealing the face of her savior.

"You came for me," she breathed in gratitude and love. "You saved me."

"How could I not, my beloved?" answered the beautiful red-haired woman as she took her into her arms. "After all the times you have saved me, all the love you have given me, how could I not?"

The blond woman gazed into the jade eyes of her rescuer, and joyfully succumbed to the urge to bring her mouth closer to hers�

<<>>

"Mmmffy?"

Buffy's eyes snapped open, and awareness of her surroundings flooded her senses. The first thing she was aware of was the warm pressure on her lips. She glanced down, fearing what she would find.

Her mouth was pressed against Willow's, and Willow was murmuring Buffy's name against her lips. Buffy immediately backed away, nearly knocking over the candles in the process. "Omigod!" Buffy stammered hurriedly. "Oh, I'm so sorry, Willow, I didn't mean to do anything to make you upset�"

"Buffy," Willow touched Buffy's wrist, gently assuaging her anxieties. "I'm a lesbian. I kiss girls. You've been aware of that for a couple of years now. You didn't do anything to upset me." Willow touched her lips with the fingertips of her free hand. "Actually, it was kinda nice."

Buffy sighed with relief, but still felt awkward as she looked at her best friend. "Thanks, Will," she breathed. "I'm just not sure how that happened. I had this vision, kinda Tolkien, like 'Lord of the Rings', and�" Buffy's voice faded.

Willow knotted her eyebrows as she regarded Buffy. "Then what happened?"

Buffy turned her head away from Willow and started to look at the door. Get away now, the survival-voice in her head told her. Forget what happened. Don't tell Willow, never tell her�

She gritted her teeth, dispelling her instinct. She wanted to ignore what had happened, to brush it aside, to keep it secret. Just like she wanted to keep her liaison with Spike a secret. Like she tried to keep Angel's return a secret three years ago. Like she tried to keep the fact that she was the slayer a secret from her mother. Like she always tried to deal with the more unsavory aspects of her life, to keep them secret, to hide them from her friends and family.

"The funny thing about secrets," Buffy said quietly, her eyes returning to Willow's face, "is that they never stay kept, and they always end up biting me on the ass. I had a vision about you, and I wanted to keep it a secret. Yeah, like that ever works out in my favor."

"You okay, Buffy?" Willow studied her friend's face and body language, praying that she wasn't misreading her.

Buffy smiled slightly as Willow's eyes met hers. "I hate secrets. They just turn us against each other. Willow, my vision was about you, about us. And it was pretty heavy, so if you want me to stop now, just say so."

Willow smirked at Buffy's words. "It must have been heavy, to get you to kiss me. Do you want to tell me about it?"

"Yes, Willow," Buffy answered without hesitation. "No more secrets."

Willow swallowed down a lump in her throat, and nodded enthusiastically. Buffy steeled herself, preparing to pour out her heart to her best friend.

"BUFFY!" Dawn shouted from the foot of the stairs. "Someone's at the door. He says it's urgent."

The wailing voice of her sister shattered the moment that Buffy and Willow had achieved. Buffy started to chuckle, and was soon joined in her laughter by Willow. "She must be psychic," Willow mused aloud.

Buffy shook her head slightly. "Just unlucky. I'd better see who's here. But I do want to talk about the vision I had."

"We'll talk," Willow promised. "First go see who's at the door."

"Love ya, Willow," Buffy smiled at her best friend, as she got off the floor and darted for the door. Willow sat alone, the paling candle-flames illuminating her features as she looked longingly at her departing friend.

"I love you too," she whispered.

<<>>

"Jonathan!"

"Hey, Buffy," the draggled figure greeted the Slayer, and Buffy gawked in absolute surprise as she recognized her former classmate. He stood on unsteady legs, as though he had run a marathon in heavy armor. His shirt and jeans sported tears, and the skin underneath showed livid claw markings, the larger and more severe looking of which still leaked blood.

Buffy instinctively rushed to his side, allowing the tired young man to lean on her, as she guided him to the sofa. "Dawn," she order her sister, "get some wet washcloths. Hurry!" Dawn ran into the kitchen to follow Buffy's instructions, as Buffy tended to the injured man on her couch.

"I'll go grab the first-aid kit," Willow offered.

"Good thinking, Willow," Buffy assured her best friend as she ducked into the bathroom. "Okay, Jonathan," Buffy urged her classmate, "you want to tell me who or what did this to you?"

"S-spike�" Jonathan slurred out as the pain of a sharp gash to his side protested him. Buffy shuddered as Dawn returned from the kitchen, wet towels in hand. Buffy's motions as she instructed Jonathan to remove his shirt so she could apply the wet cloths to his cuts were almost robotic in their precision. She didn't want Jonathan to explain what he meant by 'Spike', she had plenty of ideas already. But she couldn't simply ignore the possibilities. She had to know the truth.

"Spike, you said," she asked quietly. "As in yellow slicked-back hair, ugly black duster, bad-ass 'tude? That Spike?"

"Y-yes," Jonathan winced slightly as Buffy leaned back and allowed Willow to apply antiseptic astringent to Jonathan's cuts. "It was Warren's fault, he wanted to control him�"

"Whoa, Jonathan," Buffy stopped him, "you'd better start at the beginning. What did Warren do?"

Jonathan gritted his teeth, unwilling to admit the levels of stupidity that brought him to such a terrible state. But if there was one person whom he could trust to deal with whatever evil he and his friends had unwittingly unleashed, it was the Class Protector. He swallowed hard and began; "Well, Warren, Andrew and I got together and started a sort of club. We called ourselves the Troika, and we were planning to take over Sunnydale."

Willow stopped dabbing at Jonathan's wounds with the astringent and looked at him quizzically. "Take over Sunnydale? You serious?"

"Yeah, pretty stupid in retrospect," Jonathan admitted. "Y'know, come up with some high tech weapons, terrorize the downtown area, maybe recruit some vampires into an army, that sort of thing. Really, Andrew and I were mainly in it for the thrills. But Warren, we didn't realize how twisted he was until it was too late. Y'see, he did some hacking, and found out that this outfit called the Initiative had put some kind of V-chips into vampire's heads, to control them. Warren got the idea of creating some gizmo that would allow him to control the chips, thereby controlling the vamps."

"You're right," Buffy glowered, "pretty stupid."

"You have no idea, Buffy," Jonathan moaned slightly. "He created what he called the 'Black Box' out of some transistor parts and a Microsoft X-Box. Then Spike came to visit us, asking Warren to look into this chip in his head. Warren figured out that he had triggered something in Spike's chip with the Box. He must have tried to use his Black Box to control Spike, but Spike got his hands on the Box, and set it so the chip in his head doesn't do anything."

Willow gritted her teeth as she realized the seriousness of the situation. "So Spike's de-chipped? Y'know for a genius, Warren's pretty stupid."

"Yeah," Jonathan murmured ruefully. "Make that 'was pretty stupid', Willow. He's dead now. Spike showed up at our hideout just now, carrying Warren's head like it was a football. He threw it at me, then lunged at Andrew, killing him instantly and sucking down on his neck. He started attacking me, but I managed to find some holy water and throw it at him. That bought me enough time to get away."

Willow didn't have to look at Buffy's face to see her expression; she knew exactly what she looked like. One glance toward her friend confirmed her fears. The hooded brows, the narrowed eyes, dark and unreadable, the lips drawn into a hard and angry line. "It's my fault," Buffy's words were an agonized whisper. "I could have stopped Spike when his chip was still working. But I didn't because he was 'harmless'."

"Don't go blaming yourself, Buffy," Jonathan shook his head. Willow had finished dressing his wounds, and he sat up, with minimal effort. "It was Warren who was screwing with that damn chip. He got himself and Andrew killed. You can't hold yourself responsible for every vamp-related death in this town."

A faint growl emerged from the back of Buffy's throat, the kind of noise that is more felt rather than heard. Buffy shot up from her seat with a grunt and marched to the front hall closet. Pulling a crossbow and some spare stakes from the closet, she announced, "Tonight, I'll be responsible for one vamp-related death. Spike's."

"Buffy," Willow replied hurriedly, "don't go out there tonight! It's not safe there."

Buffy cast Willow a sidelong glare. "And your point is?"

"You're really gonna kill Spike, Buffy?" Dawn asked her sister, almost timidly.

"I have to," Buffy answered. "He's caused enough damage already. I know that you and he have had this strange kind of friendship thing going, but I can't risk him hurting you, or Willow, or anyone else ever again. Spike needs to be dead. Tonight."

Dawn lowered her head, a faint tear trickling down her cheek. "Go, Buffy. Do what you gotta do." Buffy watched silently as Dawn slowly made her way up the stairs to her bedroom. She wished that she could make Dawn understand that Spike was the enemy. Whatever relationship he maintained with Dawn, it only served to advance some agenda of his own.

As Buffy turned toward the door, Willow said in a shaky voice, "Be careful, Buffy."

Buffy didn't turn back as she walked out the door. Closing the door, she whispered to herself, "I will."

<<>>

She stood before the crypt that had been Spike's home in Sunnydale. She doubted that he would be home, but it seemed as good a place as any to begin the hunt. She tried to open the crypt door, but the heavy iron handle was fastened shut. Buffy stared at the door in surprise; was Spike moving out of his old digs?

Buffy pulled hard at the handle, hearing the antique metal groaning in protest as it bent under her strength.
The mildewed and splintered wood fractured easily, giving way as Buffy tugged at the handle. Buffy threw aside the remains of the crypt door, and stood at the threshold. She stood and concentrated for a few moments. Her Slayer senses didn't trigger. Spike wasn't home. Buffy was almost disappointed. 'So Billy Idol's evil twin's gonna make me do this the hard way'.

She gingerly stepped inside the crypt, hoping to find evidence of Spike's whereabouts. She took two steps inside before she felt the slight tug at her left foot. Too late, she looked down at the tripwire that her foot had snagged. As she glanced downward, she felt a sudden sting on her right leg. She noticed the dart that had embedded itself into her leg, as dizziness and vertigo assailed her.

As she slumped to the floor, the last thing she saw as consciousness slipped away from her was the leering image of an arrogant blond figure in a long leather jacket. The vampire smiled, showing the hint of a fang, as he said, "So predictable, Slayer. So bloody predictable."

Chapter Six
Ambush

The wild boys are calling on there way back from the fire
In August moon's surrender to a dust cloud on the rise
Wild boys fallen far from glory
Reckless and so hungered on the razors edge you trail
Because there's murder by the roadside in a sore afraid new world
They tried to break us looks like they'll try again

Wild boys (wild boys!)
Never lose it
Wild boys (wild boys!)
Never chose this way
Wild boys (wild boys!)
Never close your eyes
Wild boys always shine!
--Duran Duran
"Wild Boys"

Consciousness crept up on her slowly, bringing aches to her bones. She tried to stretch her arms to her sides, only to find their movement restricted by the ropes that held her wrists together, and were secured to a large eye-ring bolt in the rocky ceiling above her. Suddenly aware of her surroundings, she lifted her head, and promptly wished she hadn't. It felt like everything inside her skull shifted as her head moved, causing her balance to shift with each movement. Looking at the floor below her, she saw that her feet were likewise bound and tied. Her temples throbbed and her wrists and ankles chafed from rubbing against the rough ropes.

She slowly looked around her, desperately trying to get her bearings. The room was lit by a single naked light bulb, casting baleful shadows on the walls behind her. The floor was thick with dust, with an odor of things that died long ago. She recognized the room where she was held prisoner; Spike's crypt.

The moment she realized where she was, she yanked her head downward, scanning her jeans. There were some tears at the left cuff�from tripping over a stone, she figured� but there were no rips around the upper legs or pelvis, or any indication that her belt or zipper were tampered with. She breathed a sigh of relief; he hadn't tried to molest her while she was unconscious. Yet.

The door to the crypt opened slowly, and with the groaning shriek of ancient stone against stone. "Hi, honey," a British accented voice called out, "I'm home!" Spike sauntered into the crypt, kicking up the dust, which drifted into her throat, causing her to cough. "Oh, sorry 'bout that, Slayer, I really must speak to the maid one of these days."

Buffy glared angrily at her captor but said nothing. Spike chuckled as he approached his prisoner, a bemused half-smile alighting on his face. "Oh, I guess by now you tested the ropes I got you tied with. I'll bet you're saying to yourself, 'Self, how did ol' Spike get ropes strong enough to bind the all-mighty Slayer?' Answer; I didn't." He gestured toward the dart gun he had rigged at the entrance to his crypt. "Y'see, I found out where Giles kept his journals last year, and started reading a few passages. One in particular, involving your eighteenth birthday. I can't believe that ol' Ripper used a muscle relaxant on you, to weaken you for some bloody rite of passage thing! Anyway, I got the idea to stock up on some muscle relaxant of my own, just in case you planned something like, well, what you just did. I figure you got dosed with enough to keep you weak as a kitten for, oh, twenty-four hours. But don't worry, I'll give you another shot long before then."

The vampire stepped close to Buffy's face, his cold fingers lightly resting on her cheek. "I knew you'd come back, Slayer," he purred throatily. "No matter how hard you fight it, you've got the ol' Spike bug in your system, and it was only a matter of time until you came back for me." He moved up even closer to the Slayer, his eyes electric with lust. "So, you gonna let me give you what I know you want from me?" He started to lean in, to claim Buffy's lips with his own.

Buffy leaned her head back slightly, and spat squarely in the vampire's face.

Spike stood unmoving for a moment, and then wiped the spit off of his face with the sleeve of his shirt. "Cute," he smirked. His smirk morphed into a scowl. "YOU BITCH!" He leaned back and let his hand fly, striking her face with sufficient force to leave a livid welt on her cheek. "You still think I'm beneath you!" His hand swung back, striking Buffy again. "Get this straight, Pet!" Again. "You're the one who's beneath me!" Again. "You're mine now!" Again. "My pet!" Again. "My toy!" Again. "And soon you'll be my Childe!" And again, drawing a spray of blood with final blow.

He lowered his hand, some of the rage draining from his face. He moved closer to the Slayer's damaged face. "Now see what you made me do," Spike whispered, in a voice that seemed strangely concerned, although no one could mistake the ire and threat underneath. He snatched a grimy shirt off of his bed, and started to dab at Buffy's lip. "You made me lose my temper. Now you've got a split lip." After he cleaned the blood off of Buffy's cut lip, he licked the fabric of the shirt, tasting the Slayer's blood. "I can't go and Turn you now, until that cut heals. Can't have you go through eternity with a split lip now, can I?" He turned away from Buffy, tossing the shirt away. "I'll just leave you hanging for now." He chuckled at his own cleverness. "Oh, that's good, hanging. Gotta keep the sense of humor, right?" He glared dolefully at the Slayer, then blew her a kiss. "See you soon, my Childe."

Buffy lifted her head, pain lancing from the bruises on her face where Spike had struck her. "Bite me," she growled.

Spike stood at the threshold of the crypt, staring at Buffy through a jaundiced eye. "That's the general idea, Slayer. Soon, I promise. Buh bye!"

As soon as Spike disappeared, Buffy tugged again at the ropes that held her but with her strength still halved by the serum Spike pumped her with the ropes held. She thrashed in the grip of her binds as her muscles protested, but the bonds still wouldn't budge. Finally she gave up her struggles, allowing her body to hang limply from the bonds. Her Slayer-instincts told her to rest, to conserve her strength, let the serum work its way out of her system, before trying to free herself again.

But she knew better. She knew that Spike wouldn't allow her that luxury. He would be back soon, to either inject her with more serum, or drink enough of her blood that she would only have two choices. Die, or drink from him, and become a vampire. Become the enemy. Her dream of a few nights was coming true. Spike would turn her, and she would turn against her friends.

She began to pray to a God whose existence she never believed that she would have the strength to simply die. Better a true death than to be the instrument of her family's demise.

"Willow," she murmured, pain lancing through her split lip. "I'm so sorry�"

<<>>

"Okay," Willow growled, pacing the floor like a panther in a cage, "she's been gone for over twenty-four hours, I'm officially freaked."

"Easy, Willow," Tara tried to reason with her beloved. She, Xander, Anya and Victoria arrived at Buffy's house when they heard that she was missing, and they joined Willow and Dawn sat and waited in the living room, waiting for any news on their missing friend. Tara had just left the guest room where Jonathan was recuperating. She had applied a bandage to the scratches on his face, and tried to encourage him to drink some cocoa, most of which spilled onto his shirt.

"I say we hit Spike's crypt and stake the bastard," Xander snarled, sitting on the edge of the sofa, his posture betraying his patience; he looked like he was ready to spring from his seat, ready to hit someone. "I mean, we all know he's got her. Who else could it be?"

"We know no such thing, Xander," Victoria spoke in a calm but firm voice. "Although he is the prime suspect, we have no evidence."

"But we have to get out there," Willow clenched her teeth, fighting back the urge to slam her fist into a wall. "She's in trouble, I know it! She could be hurting, and we're just standing here with our thumbs up our asses!" Xander and Tara shot shocked looks at the redhead, amazed to hear her swear like she did.

"Here, Willow, let's go get some water," Tara soothed as she tried to place her hands on Willow's shoulder. Willow flinched at the first touch, but ultimately allowed the blonde witch to lead her to the kitchen. The others sat quietly, waiting for some kind of news, any leads, anything that would help them rescue Buffy.

Tara bade Willow sit down at the breakfast table and applied a cold compress to her forehead, hoping to cool her former lover down. Handing her a glass of ice water, she spoke gently to her; "Willow, we are going to help Buffy, you have to believe that. But we won't be doing her any favors if we run into Spike's crypt, and it turns out to be an ambush."

"I know," Willow answered wearily. "I just feel so�so�ARGH! I can't just sit here and do nothing! Tara, for the first time since we brought her back, she's been closer to her old self. It's like we've been connecting again, like I finally got Buffy, my Buffy, back! I can't lose her, not now. Not when I�" Her voice gave out, as she gasped and sobbed. Willow slowly managed to control her shaking hands long enough to hold the glass to her lips and take a sip of water.

Tara looked on at the trembling young woman before her. Finally she approached Willow, lifting the crying girl's chin with her knuckle. Peering into her jade-green eyes, Tara smiled sadly. "Two weeks ago, you told me that we weren't going to get back together. I guess you were right." Willow started to speak, but Tara placed a finger to her lips, silencing her. "I don't blame you, Willow. And I don't blame her. I'm just grateful for the time we had together, however brief it was." Sniffling slightly, Tara placed her hand on Willow's, treasuring the contact, even as she realized that they couldn't share such intimacies again. "On my life I swear to you, Willow, that we will find Buffy. Now, I want you to swear something to me."

"Anything, Tara," Willow answered, choking back a slight sob.

"When we do find her," Tara spoke solemnly, "I want you to tell her what you truly feel about her. You love her, I know that now. And if she doesn't love you as much as I do, I'll never trust my people-reading skills again."

Willow stood and stared at Tara, knowing with a sad certainty that she was right. She swallowed hard as she began to speak to her former lover. "I am so sorry Tara. About the magic, about�about everything. I never meant to hurt you."

"You never did," Tara assured Willow, taking the redhead's hands in hers. "The love we had is lost, I have to accept that. But the friendship we share, we're never gonna lose that."

"I love you, Tara," Willow whispered.


"I know," Tara answered, surprised at how dry her eyes remained. She knew that there would be tears later, but for now she was happy with the knowledge that Willow was going to do what was right for her. "Go love Buffy now. She needs that love as much as anyone. She deserves it."

The two wiccans hugged, and Willow sobbed briefly over Tara's shoulder. As breakups go, it was painless, and knowing that they had their friendship to fall back on warmed Willow's heart to the core.

A rattling sound from outside the house broke the tender moment, causing Willow and Tara to turn toward the kitchen window. Willow rushed to the window and pulled open the blind. A lone figure was standing in the backyard, throwing gravel at the window.

"Who the hell is that?" Willow asked as she rushed toward the door. She opened the door, only to be knocked back against the wall, as the figure from the backyard rushed headlong into the kitchen. "Is Buffy here?" he asked frantically. "I gotta warn her�"


"Hey," Willow pushed herself from the wall, and tried to steady the intruder by grabbing his shoulders. "Chill, buddy. Buffy's not here. What did you want to warn her about?"

"You're Willow, right?" the anxious youth asked. When Willow nodded, he exhaled a relieved sigh. "Look, I'm Andrew, and I gotta warn you about�"

"Andrew!" a voice screamed from the entrance to the living room. Willow and Tara spun around as Jonathan rushed toward them, Xander and Victoria following. "Sorry guys," Xander said, "we tried to stop him."

"Willow!" Jonathan shouted. "What are you waiting for? Stake him!"

"NO!" Andrew cried, ducking behind Tara. "I'm not the vamp, he is!"

"Don't listen to him, stake him!" Jonathan demanded. "What were you thinking of, inviting him in?"

"Hey, wait a minute," Willow shouted Jonathan down. "I didn't invite him in! I just opened the door, and he�rushed�in�" The others glanced at Willow as her voice grew quiet. Willow found her eyes drifting toward Jonathan, who was leaning against the oven. Or rather, at the glass window of the oven he was leaning against. She noticed the reflection of the kitchen counter on the window, and of Xander's legs.

She didn't see any of Jonathan reflected on the window.

And she wasn't the only one who noticed it.

Jonathan stood up straight, losing all pretence of his earlier fear. "Do you know," he hissed, "how hard it was for me to get into your house?" His eyes started to glow yellow. "Those garlic cloves you buried near the door, and the holy water bottles, nice touch." His face contorted, shifted as bone ridges formed under the skin of his brow. "And I gotta love the crucifix you had nailed to the other side of your front door. My knuckles are still hurting from knocking." All resemblance to the man he had been was lost, as the demon took control. "In fact, I'm feeling a lot of pain right now, and I just want to lash out at the lot of you!"

"SCATTER!" Willow yelled, as Jonathan lunged at the group. The vampire clawed clumsily at Willow, who dodged the attack easily. "Xander, go make sure Dawn's okay!"

"On it!" Xander answered as he ran out of the kitchen.

"Y'know," Jonathan snarled as he grabbed at Willow, "I'm kinda glad that Spike turned me. Because I got a little revenge to dish out!" Willow ducked behind the counter as Jonathan reached around the other side. "You and that damn Slayer ruined everything for me. I had it all, Willow! Money, power, success, girls!" Tara grabbed a frying pan from the stove and whacked Jonathan upside the head. Jonathan smirked at Tara, and pushed her away as though she were an afterthought. "But then Buffy had to horn in and reverse the magic that gave me that life!" Jonathan crawled around the counter, cornering Willow against the wall. "Now, I've got the power to take it back! All I gotta do is keep you here, until Spike turns Buffy. Then her friends will become her first meal!"

"Excuse me, Jonathan, behind you."

Jonathan spun around, glaring at Victoria, who smiled sweetly at him. "Made you look." She then thrust an aerosol can in his face, and fired a fine spray into his face. Jonathan staggered back, clawing at his face, screaming in pain. "Garlic spray," Victoria said, "gotta love it."

Jonathan snarled and hissed like a beast at bay, swiping his clawed hand randomly. Willow pushed herself forward from the wall, grabbed a wooden spoon from a nearby utensil canister and struck it hard against the counter, breaking the end off. With a hard and fast thrust, she rammed the makeshift stake through Jonathan's chest, into his unbeating heart. Within seconds, he was a pile of ash on the kitchen floor.

Willow slowly stepped away from the ashes, letting the broken spoon fall from her nerveless fingers. Tara made her way to Willow's side, supporting her weight before she fainted. Instinctively the redhead took Tara's hand in hers, accepting her warmth and support as she was guided to a stool by the breakfast table. "Thanks, Tara," she breathed hoarsely. "I never had to stake someone I actually knew before."

"You didn't know him, Willow," Xander spoke from the doorway, Dawn clinging to him for protection. "None of us did. Jonathan died the moment Spike turned him. That was just a demon who wore the body of our old classmate." Willow lowered her head in quiet acceptance of Xander's words. Intellectually she knew he was right, it would just take a while for his words to register in her gut.

"You're right, Xander," she finally admitted. "But right now we got bigger problems. Spike has Buffy; thanks to Jonathan, we know that. And he plans to turn her, and send her to kill us." Just like in her dream, Willow thought but refused to say aloud. She shuddered at the thought.

Victoria added, "And we can safely assume that wherever he has her, he's got the place prepped for an ambush. He'll be waiting for anyone to rescue her."

"So, what do we do, just whistle a rousing chorus of 'Monster Mash' when she comes back all vamped up?" Dawn shouted. "We can't just sit here, we gotta stop Spike before he sinks his fangs into her!"

"You're preaching to the converted here, Dawn," Willow shook her head in exasperation. "But how do we sneak in without Spike knowing?"

"Uh, guys?" Six heads turned toward the sound of Andrew's voice. They had completely forgotten that the surviving nerd was still there. "Uh, I think I may have a way�"

<<>>

The door to the abandoned hide-out creaked open, and Andrew turned on the switch, bathing the room in fluorescent light. "Here we are, guys," he piped up, "HQ sweet HQ."

Willow and Xander looked over the remains of the self-styled Troika's headquarters. Most of the furniture was overturned and slashed, the picture tube in the television set was smashed in, and blood splatters soaked the sofa cushions and hardwood floors. "Let me guess," Xander quipped, "Spike was here?"

"Yeah," Andrew said sadly. "He showed up with Warren's head in his hands, then he attacked Jonathan. I guess he wanted a minion or something. I managed to get away while he was busy with Jonathan. I guess he did a thorough job of trashing the joint. But�" Andrew paused as he scanned around the room. He stopped, stared hard at a corner of the room, and smiled. "Good," he muttered, "he missed it."

He sprinted to the corner and located a battered foot locker. Hauling the locker out of the corner, he smiled as he unlatched and lifted the lid. "Yes," he breathed, as he lifted an object out of the locker, "he didn't find this baby!"

Willow and Xander gathered around Andrew as he closed the locker and placed the object reverently on top of it. It resembled a rifle in shape, but looked somewhat like a jury-rigged laser weapon. "Cute," Xander quipped. "What is it?"

"Just a little something Warren was working on for the last few weeks, as part of our Master Plan," Andrew answered. "This," he added, with just a hint of pride, "is an invisibility ray."

Chapter Seven
Invisible Best Friend

"You'll rescue me, right,
In the exact same way they never did
I'll be happy, right,
When your healing powers kick in
You'll complete me, right,
And my life will finally begin again
I'll be worthy, right,
Only when you realize the gem I am.

But it won't work out now, as the way it once did,
And I won't keep it up, even though I would love to,
When I know who I'm not, then I'll know who I am,
But I know I won't keep on playing the victim.

These precious illusions in my head
Did not let me down when I was defenseless,
And parting with them is like parting with invisible best friends."
--Alanis Morisette
"Precious Illusions"

From all outward appearances he was simply a homeless vagabond searching for a place to lie down for the night, and wasn't too picky about where. But appearances can be deceiving, especially in Sunnydale. He had purpose here in the cemetery. He knew she was here.

He could sense her.

From the moment she first entered his shop, seeking his assistance, he formed a link with her. It wasn't a strong link, just strong enough to let him know whenever she was near him. And she was near, he could sense her presence. She had some business here in the cemetery, some errand brought her here.

He still couldn't see her, but that didn't matter. He would wait. He knew that she couldn't stay away from him for long. She would come back to him, begging for the sensations that only he could provide. They always did.

He sat back on a plot of earth, reclined against a tombstone and started to sing idly to himself; "Let me take you down, 'cause I'm going to---Strawberry Fields---nothing is real---And nothing to get up about, Strawberry Fields Forever."

<<>>

Sensations went in and out of her, through her like sunlight through glass. Her hands grew numb from being bound to the ceiling hook, her arms grew strained and cramped from being held immobile, her body grew damp from sweating in the heated crypt. Above all she felt tired. Tired of being held prisoner, tired of feeling weak, tired of fighting.

Slowly, almost gradually, she became increasingly aware of another sensation. A warm sensation brushed against her face, soft and gentle, yet at the same time almost insistent. A pressure against her mouth, a faintly salty taste, like sweat�

She recoiled in pain from the unwanted kiss. "Spike," she murmured, "stay away�" Her left eye, the one that wasn't swollen shut, fluttered open only to look upon the same dank surroundings where she had been imprisoned. Spike hadn't returned. There was nobody in the crypt with her. Yet still there was the feeling of lips, brushing against hers like falling petals.

"Relax, Buffy, it's gonna be okay. We're gonna get you out of here." That oh-so-welcome voice spoke to her, but instead of soothing her nerves, it made them stand further at attention.

"No-n-no," Buffy murmured almost dazedly. "Willow's not here. I'm h-h-hearing things. I'm going mad, that's it. Yeah, that's what Spike wants, he wants me like Drusilla. Buffy's finally losing it." She started to swing back and forth on her chain, her murmurings degrading into senseless sing-song babbling.

An unseen hand suddenly held her by the waist, steadying her from her swaying. "Buffy," Willow's voice grew more urgent, more authoritative, but still had that familiar undertone of caring that Buffy knew to be trademark Willow. "You're not hearing things. I'm really here, and I'm going to get you out of here. You've got to pull yourself together though, before Spike gets back. Can you do that, Buffy?"

"W-W-Willow?" Buffy gulped and stammered, "is that you? How? Did you do magic before you were ready?"

"No," the voice answered, as Buffy felt soft fingertips caressing her face. "I mean, I didn't use a spell or anything, but magic is involved. I'm here, I'm just invisible."

"Invisible?" Buffy breathed hard, fighting through the pains in her throat to speak clearly. "How'd you manage that?"

"I'll explain later," Willow said hurriedly. "Let me see about those bruises first." Buffy felt a gentle pressure against the sore areas on her cheek; Willow apparently was dabbing anti-biotic on them. "Oh, man, Spike did a number on you. What happened to that Slayer healing?"

"Spike shot me full of that muscle relaxant," Buffy explained quietly. "The stuff Giles gave me on my eighteenth birthday."

"So Spike doped you up to keep you weak?" Buffy could hear the anger mount in Willow's voice. "Then he hit you?"

"He said that I made him angry, that I was beneath him." Buffy's voice was a hoarse whisper, and Willow could sense a vague fear in her voice. This only stoked her anger more.

"That passive-aggressive son-of-a�" she growled. "That's it. Tonight we stake the bastard!"

"Willow!" Buffy raised her voice, surprised to hear her friend swear.

"I'll hold him down," Willow continued, not hearing Buffy's surprised utterance, "and you can stake him. Oh, we'll splash him with holy water first. Make him squirm, make it hurt for him�"

"WILLOW!" Buffy shouted, stopping Willow's angry ramble in its tracks. "Maybe you should stop planning bloody vengeance and help me get out of here before Spike shows up."

"Uh, right, good idea," Willow spoke in a rushed voice. "Hang on; Spike probably has something sharp around here." Buffy looked around the crypt for any evidence of Willow's presence. She could see no trace of her friend, only the occasional lifting of a rock or a cloth drifting from the slab to the floor.

<<>>

"Nighthawk to Goldengirl, come in."

Tara triggered her walkie-talkie in response. "Nighthawk?" she smiled sardonically. "Xander, we're not the X-Men, we don't need codenames."

"Right," Xander replied, somewhat mollified. "Xander to Tara, come in."

"Tara here. Any sign of Mr. Mousse Abuse?"

Xander replied in a subtle whisper from behind the bushes near Spike's crypt. "Not yet. Willow's still in the clear. She hasn't stepped out of the crypt yet, not that I could tell with her being invisible and all, so I'm guessing that she found Buffy."

"Lady bless," Victoria whispered under her breath from behind Tara. The two witches remained ten yards away from the crypt with Andrew while Xander kept watch, waiting for Spike to return. Anya reluctantly stayed at Buffy's house with Dawn. Willow had ordered Xander not to try and confront Spike; with the chip neutralized, he was as dangerous as he ever was, if not more. He was to monitor the crypt, and report to Tara and Victoria when he showed up. They would then team up and block his exit, should he try to escape. Willow didn't give any specifics on what she had planned for Spike, and Xander chose not to ask.

"Explain to me again why we brought Andrew along," Xander muttered impatiently.

"Well," Tara offered, "someone has to undo Willow's invisibility."

"It was our fault that she's in this mess," Andrew added. "Warren, Jonathan and me. I owe you whatever help I can give you."

"Fair enough," Xander whispered. "Just keep your head low. Don't worry, Tara, Willow'll be okay."

"I know," Tara said in a soft, sad voice. "I just hope Buffy's okay." For Willow's sake, she added to herself.

And they waited�

<<>>

Each moment of silence stretched into the next, making Buffy antsy. "Willow, are you still there?" she asked anxiously.

"Still here, Buffy," Willow assured her friend. "I'm just looking for something to cut the straps."

"Sorry, Will," Buffy answered hoarsely, "it's just that I can't see you."

"Yeah," Willow's voice took on a slight tone of amusement. "That goes with the whole invisibility thing."


"Could you keep talking, Willow?" Buffy requested. "Just let me know I�m not alone?" Her voice seemed almost timid, which caused Willow's heart to ache for her beloved Slayer.

"Sure, I could do that," Willow said plainly. "Anything in particular you want to talk about?"

"Well, now that I think of it," Buffy grimaced, "how did you get invisible?"

"You can thank Andrew for that," Willow answered. "Oh, he was still alive after all, but Spike had already turned Jonathan. I guess Spike sent Jonathan to bring you here, so he could ambush you."

"Oh my God," Buffy lowered her head in shame; she should have sensed that Jonathan was different, but he managed to fly in under her vamp radar. "Is everyone okay?"

"We're all fine," Willow said, "but there's a pile of dust in the kitchen when you get back. Wait a sec." Willow fell silent for a second, then Buffy saw a glass bottle rise from the crypt floor. "Guinness beer," Willow announced. The bottle then slammed against the slab, shattering instantly and spilling beer over the stone. The bottle-neck remained suspended in the air, and swiftly floated toward Buffy's bound wrists. "Gotta love those easy-open bottles. Just hold still for a sec, Buffy, and I'll have you out of here."

"Great," Buffy smirked. "Not loving the accommodations here. Now, about this whole I-can't-see-you thing�"

"Oh, right." Buffy glanced upward as the broken edge of the bottle sawed against the leather strap that held her wrists to the ceiling. "Well, it turns out that Warren, Jonathan and Andrew were planning to take over Sunnydale. Or rob a bank. Or something, I think they were making it up as they went along. Anyway, they were the ones who stole that diamond a few weeks ago. Seems it possesses some mystic energy that Warren used to power a ray gun that could turn its target invisible. Once Andrew clued us in that Jonathan was Spike's goon now, I dusted him with a broken wooden spoon�oh, sorry 'bout that."

"Under the circumstances," Buffy frowned, "I'll forgive you."

The bottleneck continued to saw carefully at the leather straps. "Thanks." Buffy could imagine Willow's face turning slightly red with dimples forming on her cheek as she smiled. "Well, after that, we realized that Spike was the one who kidnapped you, Andrew showed us the invisibility ray, and I volunteered. I figured I'd be able to sneak into the crypt without Spike seeing me. The others are outside, keeping hidden and waiting for my signal."

"Are they invisible?" Buffy asked. She could slowly feel her strength returning; whether it was the muscle relaxant burning out of her system or the presence of her best friend with the promise of freedom, she wasn't certain. She suspected it was a combination of factors.


"No, just me," Willow answered. "It's kinda cool, actually. Like I can be anywhere without anyone knowing, I could stake any vamp before they could even smell me. We should keep that ray, Buffy. Add some stealth to the whole Slayer package."

"Nice idea," Buffy smiled weakly. "But that diamond is stolen property. Once this is over, we have to return it."

"Do we?" Willow's voice started to take on a pout. "Maybe we could find a substitute, something with similar magical properties to power the ray. I could do so much as an invisible witch! I'd be able to�Oh Goddess�" Willow's voice faded, almost like a volume dial was turned to mute. The bottleneck stopped in mid-saw, hanging eerily in the air above Buffy's head.

After two seconds silence, Buffy asked, "Willow? You okay?"

"This is what Victoria was talking about." Willow whispered, almost blandly but with a sense of revelation that Buffy could hear clearly. She started sawing at the straps again, a little faster than before. "The other day during one of our sessions, she suggested that I had a jones for something other than magic. Being invisible, it feels good. Too good. Like I'm powerful, like I'm invincible."

"Power's a major rush, Willow," Buffy answered wearily. "Even when I gripe about how much I hate being the Slayer, I gotta admit I get off on being stronger and faster than most people. You think that's your problem, Willow? Power?"

Willow paused for a second, then choked out, "Yeah, I guess."

"Listen, Willow," Buffy said calmly. "It's good for you to want to be better than you were before. To shave a few seconds off your mile run, or lift a few more pounds than your former max. Power's not a bad thing, not when you use it right. It's when you want power just for the sake of having power that you get into trouble."

"Oh, Buffy," Willow moaned. Buffy felt the touch of her fingertips on her cheek, and leaned into the unseen hand instinctively. "I want to believe that, I really do. But after all that happened, can I really be trusted with that responsibility again?"

"Willow," Buffy sighed, "you're still that wonderful woman who told me that it was a good fight and that you wanted in. Just hang onto that person, that sweet wonderful Willow. I don't know how I'd continue the fight if it wasn't for you."

The fingers on Buffy's face moved slowly to the back of her neck, and Buffy could feel Willow's breath warming her face. "I'm starting to realize," Willow's whisper took on overtones of passion that Buffy didn't expect, but certainly welcomed, "that I didn't just stay in Sunnydale for the good fight." Again, Buffy could feel the warm and gentle pressure of Willow's lips pressed against hers. She hesitated for a moment ("What about Tara?" she wanted to ask), but Willow was persistent in her kisses. Buffy closed her eyes and leaned into the kiss as far as her restraints would let her.

She suddenly tensed, pulling away from Willow. "Oh, Goddess, I'm sorry, I was too pushy, I�"

"No, Willow, it's not that," Buffy hurriedly tried to assure Willow. "It's Spike. He's near, I can sense him."

"You can?" Willow perked up. "Is your Slayer-ness coming back?"

"Slowly," Buffy nodded. "Be quiet and stay hidden."

"Buffy, I'm invisible," Willow reminded her teasingly. "I can't get much more hidden than that."

"Good point," Buffy conceded. The bottleneck dropped to the floor, and Buffy and her invisible friend stood silently. The seconds ticked away with an agonizing slowness, until the dark form of Spike stepped into the crypt.

"Sorry to leave ya hanging, darlin'," Spike chortled, hugely enjoying his own sense of humor. "And how is my future childe this evening?" He sauntered drunkenly toward the captive Slayer, and caressed her cheek with a rough hand. Buffy had to fight every instinct she ever possessed to keep from recoiling at his touch. "Makes your heart race, don't it? Knowing that soon you'll be joining me in the hunt, drinking deeply of the blood of your victims, Oh, baby, that's the way to live!"

"Yeah," Buffy snarled, "but what about the job prospects?"

Spike smirked, tilting his head and leaning forward for an unwanted kiss. "Charming to the last," he murmured as his lips touched Buffy's.

Spike felt unseen hands grabbing his neck, causing his body to snap back hard, jerking away from Buffy. "What the hell�" Spike muttered. "Must be poltergeists. Oh well, where were we?"

"I think we were at the part," Buffy said sweetly, ignoring the pain in her mouth as she tried to smile, "where I tell you that if you ever touch me again, you'll regret it."

"Oh, scary, scary," Spike growled, his face hardening into its vampiric aspect as he drew his fist back to pummel the Slayer again. "I'll teach you to talk back to me, Buffy!"

"She knows how already, Cheekbones!" The voice echoed around the crypt, laced with righteous rage. Suddenly, a segment of lead pipe raced downward, slamming into Spike's skull like a sledgehammer's blow. The vampire staggered across the room, desperately trying to reclaim his bearings.

"Now that," the voice chimed merrily, "was a pipe!" Buffy grinned hugely at Willow's observation, and started to yank hard at the straps at her wrists. She could hear them tear slightly with each tug.

"Okay," Spike shouted in drunken anger as he scrambled to his feet. "What the soddin' Hell is going on here?" He started to sniff at the air, stopping to hone in on a familiar scent. "Oh, now I get it. Willow's in here somewhere, isn't she? I can smell her from here! Very clever, bit, using an invisible spell on yourself. Come out now, Willow!" He kicked the stone slab behind him, knocking it over with one blow. "Here, kitty, kitty�C'mon out, or I'll rip out Buffy's heart!"

The pipe arced high toward Spike's head again, but the vampire's reflexes were too fast. He dodged the flying metal rod, grabbing it in mid-air and wrenching it out of Willow's grasp. "Not this time, sister," Spike snarled, grasping at the air around him. Fortunately for Willow, she was fast enough to evade his capture, and ducked to the ground, grabbing some rocks and chunks of concrete as she rolled past him. Running to a corner of the crypt, she threw one rock at Spike, connecting with his shoulder blade. Spike spun around, lunging at the space where the rock came from, only to be pummeled by thrown debris from several angles. Spike howled in frustration for a moment, but then stood silently, his ears tensed, listening for the slightest sound.

Her increasingly labored breathing betrayed her. Spike grasped at the air to his left, and smiled as his hand curled harshly around her wrist. "Gotcha," he chuckled throatily. He dragged her across the floor, nodding in delight as he watched dust trails swirl from where her body was being dragged. "So much for your timely rescue, Slayer," he grinned. "We'll just keep her here until I'm done with you. And she'll be the first person you kill for me. Ain't that nice, Buf-UNGH!!!"

Buffy hit Spike hard and fast, her fists connecting with his head and chest while her knee impacted with his groin. Silently, she gave a quick prayer of thanks that Willow's attacks on Spike could buy her enough time to finish ripping through the leather straps. Once her wrists were freed, it was easy for her to break the restraints that bound her ankles. Having freed herself, she could now take the offensive against Spike.

"You pathetic�" A hard right to the chest. "�miserable�" A left hook to the jaw. "�BASTARD!" A boot to the kidneys, which sent Spike sprawling to the floor. "This is what the all-mighty Spike, Slayer of Slayers, has been reduced to? I should just stake you and put you out of your misery, but I'm not feeling charitable right now!" She kicked him hard in the side as he struggled to right himself. "Look at you, you sorry excuse for a monster. You claimed that only you could love me, that only you understood me. You don't understand me at all! Now Willow, she understands me. All you know is my darkness, because darkness is all you see in anyone. Willow saw the light in me, even when no one else ever did. And you dare to hurt her in front of me? You are nothing, Spike. And if I ever see you again, and I mean EVER, you won't survive it! You hear me?"

Spike's growl of purest rage shook the walls of the crypt, as he leapt on top of Buffy, straddling her waist, his strong arms pinning her wrists to the floor. "You know something, Buffy," he spat at her, "I think that the magic we once had is gone. Maybe we should see other people. No, I should see other people, you should die slowly!" Slowly he wrapped his hand around her throat, pressing hard against her windpipe. "At least now I can brag about killing three Slayers after tonight." And he began to squeeze�

Willow, unseen at Buffy's side, tried to wrestle Spike's hand away from Buffy's throat, but the vampire didn't even notice her, so intent was he on avenging his fallen manhood. She gritted her teeth in panic. She had finally realized what Buffy truly meant to her, and now faced losing her to Spike. With the chip in his head suppressed, he could kill now. And he was killing Buffy.

A stray thought hit Willow; the chip was suppressed. Not removed, suppressed. She glanced around the crypt, her eyes falling on the video game console discarded on the floor behind the fallen slab. Why, she asked herself, would Spike have an X-Box if he didn't even have a working television�

She dove quickly across the crypt and grabbed the Box. "Yo, Spike!" she shouted, waving the Box in front of the vampire's face. This caused Spike to loosen his grasp on Buffy's throat enough for her to resume breathing in ragged gasps. "Say," Willow piped up in a mock-innocent voice, "what does this do?"

"Put that thing down, you bitch!" Spike charged at the Box, which floated out of his grasp. Willow ran away from Spike, with the Box in her hand. Before Spike could jump her again, Willow located the dial on the side and turned it sharply to 'ten'.

Willow and Buffy smiled with grim satisfaction as Spike lurched violently, pain lancing through his skull. He screamed in agony, clutching his head in his hands and rolling on the floor. Willow took Buffy's hand in hers and helped her back to her feet. "You okay, Buffy?"

"I've�I've been better," Buffy admitted. "I'll be okay as soon as we get the hell out of here." She paused to give Spike a contemptuous glare.

"Kill�you�I'll kill�kill�AAAAGH!" Spike groaned, his body thrashing in spasms of pain. He curled up on the floor in a fetal ball, gritting his teeth so fiercely that Buffy thought she could see sparks flying out of his mouth. He couldn't lift himself from the floor, he could only writhe in total agony.

"You wanna stake him?" Willow asked.

Buffy shook her head absently in the direction of Willow's voice, answering; "No. It'd be an easy way out for him." Leaning against Willow, the weakened Slayer allowed herself to be escorted out of the crypt.

As soon as he could see Buffy stepping out of the crypt, Xander rushed to her side, gladly taking her weight on his shoulder. "You okay, Buffy?"

"I'll be better," Buffy nodded, "as soon as I get home and sleep for a month."

"I hear that," Xander nodded his head. Switching on his walkie-talkie with his free hand, he spoke out; "Tara, Buffy's out."

"Great," Tara breathed from her end. "Where's Willow?"

"Right here," the empty air next to Buffy called out. Although no one could see her, Buffy was gladdened by Willow's touch on her arm. Although she was still leaning on Xander, she allowed her fingertips to stray over the surface of Willow's skin, just at the juncture of her elbow. At least that's what she thought she was touching.

Tara, Victoria and Andrew emerged through a copse of trees, joining the others. Buffy smiled slightly when she saw what looked like a laser rifle from a cheap sci-fi movie slung over Andrew's shoulder. The invisibility ray, she figured. "What happened to Spike?" Tara asked. "Did you stake him?"

"No," Buffy answered slowly. "He's in there, but he's in no shape to attack anyone now." She glanced away from Xander and noticed the video-game console floating beside her. "Willow found the Black Box, and must have set it to the max."

"Warren must have been a fan of 'Spinal Tap'," Willow commented. "The setting for this thing goes all the way to eleven."

"Sounds like Warren," Andrew spat out in mild disgust. "I just wish I hadn't gotten mixed up with him."

"From what I'm guessing," Buffy commented, "Spike can't even think of hurting anyone now without the chip kicking in. And right now, all he can think of is killing us."

"Whoa, poetic justice much?" Xander quipped. "You know, I think I'll swing by here on my lunch break tomorrow, with a palette of bricks and some mortar, and seal the crypt door."

"Sounds like a plan," Willow snarled, her contempt for Spike clear in her voice.

"Yo, Willow," Andrew asked as the others were about to head out of the graveyard, "you ready to be visible again?"

"Yeah, let's do it," Willow answered. Holding up the X-Box in her hand, she announced, "Over here, Andrew."

Andrew took the invisibility gun in his hands, aimed it just above the floating electronic box, and squeezed the trigger. A bolt of energy arced from the rifle, directly at its unseen target. Slowly, a shape began to emerge, transparent at first but steadily gaining solidity. Within seconds, the others could see Willow, slightly disheveled but none the worse for her experience.

"Hi, guys," she smiled, "miss me?"

Buffy couldn't help but mirror Willow's smile, the sight of her beloved friend warming her heart to the core. "More than you can know, Willow," she answered, her voice quiet but thick with emotion. A slight stab of guilt over their earlier kiss the night before hit her heart, and she turned slightly toward Tara.

The blonde witch's blue eyes met Buffy's charcoal gray eyes, and she smiled gently toward the Slayer. "Go to her, Buffy," she urged her. "Tell her you love her." Victoria nodded approvingly, adding, "You both need this, Slayer. Go for it."

Buffy could feel the first tears forming in her eyes. She nudged at Xander to let go, and hobbled on unsteady legs, slowly bridging the gap between herself and the one she loved. Before she could reach her, however, a sudden whiff of acrid smoke obscured Buffy's vision, as a rough hand materialized out of nowhere, grabbing Buffy by the shoulder.

"Oh, please," the sandpapery voice rasped in Buffy's ear, "none of this lovey-dovey stuff, I swear I'll projectile all over the pair of you!" Rack's hands grabbed her arms like vises, and while still under the influence of Spike's muscle relaxants, Buffy could only thrash in vain in the beast's grasp.

"RACK!" Victoria shouted, raising her hands to her sides, an attack spell forming in her mind.

"One word of magic, Lady Marmalade," Rack threatened, releasing Buffy's right arm only to grab her neck, "and the Slayer dies!" Victoria slowly lowered her hands, as Rack regarded the others with a cold fury. "That goes for the lot of you. One word, one step toward me, one involuntary muscle twitch that I don't like, and I snap her neck."

"Don't listen to him," Buffy pleaded with her friends. "Take him down fastUNGH!" Rack twisted her arm behind her back, feeling a shoulder-blade pop under his hands.

"Y'know," Rack's words dripped like acid from his mouth, stinging and venomous, "you're not as powerful as I thought you'd be. I can feel power, Slayer. And I don't feel much from you. Did that fool vampire do something to you, Slayer? Must have. I felt power in you when we first slam-danced, but now�" He leaned his face toward Buffy, and licked the back of her neck, sending waves of revulsion to clench her jaw. "I just don't know what to do with you, Slayer."

Willow watched Rack defile her Buffy with his dark touch. She shuddered as Rack's tongue slicked its way along her neck. She stood back, afraid of this monster whom she had once allowed to degrade her with his vile magicks, fearing what he might do to Buffy. Slowly, fear gave way to a grim determination. She shifted her features into her best Resolve Face, and stepped forward.

"Let her go," Willow fought the tremors in her voice to speak clearly. "She's not who you want anyway, Rack."

The incubus cocked his head toward Willow, barking an unpleasant laugh. "And what do you intend to do, Strawberry?"

Willow swallowed hard, and spoke up; "Let her go, Rack. Let her walk freely away from you and toward me so I can say my goodbyes. In exchange, I will give myself to you, freely and without reservation."

Buffy's eyes shot open in horror when she heard Willow's offer. "No, no, don't do this, Willow," she murmured, as Rack tightened his grip on her neck. "Don't give yourself to him!"

"You will not try to run away from me, ever?" Rack quizzed Willow.

"Never," Willow nodded. "Let her go, and I will belong to you."

Rack smiled darkly, and declared, "Done."

As Buffy felt Rack's hands release her, she could feel her heart begin to shatter into a thousand shards.

Chapter Eight
My Sacrifice

"Hello, my friend, we meet again,
It's been so long, where should we begin?
Feels like forever.

Within my heart a memory
A perfect love that you gave to me,
Oh, I remember.

When you are with me, I'm free
I'm careless, I believe
Above all the others, we'll fly
This brings tears to my eyes,
My sacrifice."
--Creed
"My Sacrifice"

"Go to her," Rack ordered Buffy after he released her. "Say your goodbyes. She's mine now."

Buffy struggled to control her breathing. Each gasp of breath was an effort. Her heart pounded against her breast-bone, breaking a little more with each beat. She saw Willow advancing toward her, her body straight and erect. Her eyes were wide, her face an artist's study in concern. Her posture and expression all said the same thing; 'a brave front'.

Willow took Buffy's hands in her own, a small contact that nonetheless connected Buffy to a thousand memories, a thousand sights, sounds and thoughts all orbiting around Willow. Consoling hugs, shared jokes, sleepovers, ice cream sundaes, quiet moments and so many other little things. And after tonight, they would be lost to her forever. Willow would be lost to her forever.

The enormity of that realization proved to be Buffy's undoing. Her knees gave out from under her, and her breathing was reduced to gasping sobs. Arms surrounded her, embracing her tightly. "Don't cry on me, Buffy," Willow whispered raggedly. "You have to be strong now, for both of us."

"I can't, Willow," Buffy wailed as she crumbled to the ground, her despair consuming her. "I can't just watch you march off to that bastard!"

"I have to do this," Willow argued, her chin trembling but still set in firm determination. "I'm not going to let Rack do anything to you. You're too important, the world needs you."

"But I need you," Buffy cried, her voice heavy with loss. She leaned toward Willow, desperate to prolong the contact. Willow complied, her face so close that Buffy could feel Willow's warmth on her skin. All she wanted was to be lost in that heat�

"Okay, Strawberry," Rack's voice rasped against Buffy's ears. "Time's up. Come to me." Willow backed away slowly from Buffy, swallowing hard. Her lips moved without speaking aloud; "I love you, Buffy." She turned away from Buffy and toward the bloated succubus, who grinned in victory over the anguished Slayer.

"Willow!" Buffy cried, reaching out to Willow, to stop her from leaving her, but Victoria rushed to her side, restraining her with a gentle hand on her shoulder. "No, Buffy," she spoke in a voice of forced calm, "this is her fight. Her final test. She has to do this alone." Buffy simply nodded, a knot of fear jamming her esophagus, her eyes fixed on Willow.

The redheaded Wiccan now stood in front of Rack, praying that she looked braver than she felt; if this was indeed the last time Buffy would ever see her in this world, she didn't want to look scared. She wanted Buffy to remember her as a person of strength and compassion, not the magic junkie she had become thanks to Rack. She took one last forlorn glance at Buffy. The Slayer's eyes fluttered, tears flowing freely. For one eternal second Buffy's charcoal gray eyes locked with her own, and Willow could feel the devastation in her beloved's heart. She could see Tara, Xander and Andrew gathering around Buffy, their eyes dark and hooded. Willow swallowed hard, praying that her next action was the correct one. She wrenched her eyes away from Buffy's and faced Rack.

The leering face of Rack filled her vision, and his breath, bearing a stench of dead things assailed her nostrils. She absently thought of Jabba the Hutt in "Return of the Jedi", laughing his dark, hideous laugh at the captive Princess Leia, chuckling, "In time, you will grow to appreciate me." She gritted her teeth and raised her head. "I'm here, Rack. I have your word that you will not harm my friends."

Rack snarled sardonically, flashing a yellowing incisor at Willow. "I gave no such word, Strawberry. But I have no need of them. They are safe from me. Now," he reached a hand around Willow's neck, slowly running the tips of his fingers across her spinal column, sending involuntary shivers through her nervous system. "Give me your power, my strawberry," he purred, "and I will give you pleasure."

Willow said nothing. She closed her eyes and leaned her head back. Rack placed his free hand on Willow's forehead. Her skin began to warm where his fingers touched her, a sensation familiar from when she first encountered the magic dealer. The warmth became a heat, a fire that seared her soul if not her flesh�

Xander clenched and unclenched his fist, wanting desperately to cave Rack's face in. Andrew stood silently, dumbstruck at Willow's act of sacrifice. Tara and Victoria whispered silent prayers to the Goddess to protect and guard Willow in this terrible hour. No one dared move or speak, fearing what Rack would do to Willow if he was interrupted.

"No�" A primal growl broke the terrible silence.

"No�" The growl picked up volume, intensity, purpose.

"NO!" The cry ripped out of the Slayer's throat, galvanizing everyone within her radius. Before Rack could throw up a defensive spell to block her attack, she broke free of Victoria's hand on her shoulder and launched herself toward the succubus, her hands extended in front of her, her nails sharp as eagle's talons. She grabbed the hand caressing Willow's head by the wrist�

<<>>

The sensation of weightlessness came first. No sense of up or down, simply floating adrift without awareness of direction. Around her, the darkness was occasionally broken by iridescent flashes, fluorescent greens, blues and oranges. Like being suspended within the Aurora Borealis, except she didn't see these colors, not in any physical definition. Such terms as sight and sound held no meaning in this world. Rather, she felt them, sensed them slowly becoming part of her awareness.

As she became more aware of her surroundings, she felt a familiar presence beside her; radiating warmth and compassion. She felt herself being drawn toward this presence, and surrendered to the pull; she knew with every fiber of her soul what that presence was, needed that presence in her life. Like water, food or oxygen, this presence was a necessary component of her survival. As she approached the sensation, it slowly coalesced into a form, little more than a pattern of energy, but one that Buffy was incapable of mistaking. A flash of knowing green eyes amid warm red hair.

---Willow---

she spoke/thought the word, and the form beside her turned to face her.

---Buffy---

the form replied. Buffy could feel the caring, the tenderness and love emanating from Willow's form in waves, falling over Buffy, flooding her, filling her. ---You came for me.---

---How could I not?---

With eyes that weren't fooled by human sight, Buffy and Willow gazed at each other. The fact that neither one was clothed didn't escape their notice, nor the fact that they weren't nude either. For the first time in their lives, Buffy and Willow stood truly naked before each other. Buffy saw Willow's form shift constantly in its colors; a bright whiteness tinged with reds and greens, marred by dark patches that Buffy instinctively knew to be recent, but now began to fade. The darkness that she had plunged into, Buffy reasoned, Rack's taint.

---Rack!---

Buffy shouted in her mind and Willow followed the thought. ---Where is he?---

---Not here,---

Willow answered, her voice echoing in Buffy's soul like the tingling of a silver bell. ---I don't think that he's anywhere anymore. I felt him�leave when you touched us.---

Buffy drank in Willow's thoughts, losing herself in the warmth of her smile. Part of her wondered what Willow saw when she looked at her, and wanted to hide from her. But one look into the endless jade pools of her eyes assured her that Willow was as enraptured by Buffy's soul as Buffy was in Willow's.

---Gods---

Buffy thought, ---you are so beautiful---

---No, Buffy---

Willow reached out her hand to Buffy, who grasped it eagerly. The two hands merged, fused into one, connecting Buffy and Willow. ---We are---

Buffy glanced down at the juncture where she and Willow were joined, and noticed that their arms were disappearing into each other. Her elbow now connected to Willow's, and their forms were fusing even further. For a moment, she started to panic, but Willow's mind whispered to hers; ---Don't fight this. This is how it was meant to be, Buffy.---

The single form that stood where the two discrete forms once existed followed the thought, accepting it as truth without question. Buffy relaxed, felt the merging of souls, felt herself blending with Willow, and gradually came to know that it was right. Buffy felt Willow's darkness, so similar to her own, while Willow bathed into the muted light that was Buffy. The darkness and light merged, canceling each other out, but at the same time defining each other.

---I'm not losing part of myself,---

Buffy/Willow thought, ---I've gained that part of myself that I was missing.--- The merged souls couldn't even think in the plural; they were one entity. And that thought gave 'her' such joy as neither half had ever known separately.

As Buffy/Willow drifted in this formless place, the lights shifted, the darkness faded to a faintly golden light. Colors and shapes coalesced, became more defined. A doorway of stone stood before her, and she passed through without thinking. Halls of stone shot up beside her, illuminated by some unknown light. On one wall a bas relief of a sun-disk hovered over images of scarabs, cobras and birds.

---Very Egyptian,---

that part of her that was Willow commented mentally.

---Yeah,---

the Buffy-half answered. ---Where are Rick and Evie O'Connell when we need them?---

Buffy/Willow smirked at the thought, as she drifted forward through the ancient halls. She scanned the engravings on the walls, amazed as their meaning became clear in her mind; an noble-headed figure was tricked by his scheming brother into entering a cabinet. The schemer hacked his brother into pieces, placed them into the cabinet, sealed the cabinet with wax, and dropped the cabinet into the Nile. The wife of the slain brother rowed her barge down the river, retrieving the pieces of her husband and restoring them to life. The reanimated god then took his rightful place as the ruler of the underworld.

---Osiris,---

Buffy/Willow thought, knowing without understanding how they knew that they were reading the myth of the God of the Dead. Before she could pursue the thought, white light flooded the hall, briefly blinding her. Blinking, she risked opening her eyes.

She stood in a vast amphitheater, the ceiling high and dome-like. Vividly colored hieroglyphic murals covered the walls, as sphinx-like statuary flanked her pathway on either side. At the center of the amphitheater stood a mahogany statue of a mighty man, wearing a pharaoh's headdress. She felt herself flying faster as she was drawn toward the giant man, and in an instant stood before him. The giant stood immobile, not even regarding her presence, for a minute or a lifetime, the concept of time didn't hold any meaning to her in this realm.

Then the giant's head craned rapidly and peered at Buffy/Willow, onyx eyes set into a face of great wisdom. Osiris�the enjoined soul knew that he could be no other�measured her with an eerie precision, his eyes gazing through her and into her. He lifted his hand, holding a golden scale. He gestured toward Buffy/Willow, pulling her toward the scale, resting them on one pan. Suddenly, the combined soul possessed weight, causing the scale to tip. Buffy/Willow looked over the edge of the pan, and stared into a black abyss. At the bottom of that blackness, greedy eyes glittered at them, sharp teeth shined whitely at them. ---Ammat,--- she identified the demon. She silently prayed that Osiris did not find them wanting.

Osiris raised his free hand above his head and grasped at the air. He brought his hand down, displaying an enormous white feather to Buffy/Willow. He placed the feather in the other pan of the scale and waited�

The pan containing the feather lowered, the scale tilted and Buffy/Willow's pan rose high into the air.

Osiris regarded Buffy/Willow with his sharp eyes, and smiled�

<<>>

Buffy felt a warm body within her arms, felt a gentle breath tickle her ear. Lifting her weight from the ground, she stared hard at the body beneath her, her heart skipping a beat in fear of what she would see.

Willow lifted her head, locked her eyes with Buffy, and smiled. Buffy released a breath she only now knew she was holding, and hugged Willow tightly to her, laughing and crying and laughing again. The two women rolled around the ground, rejoicing in being alive, and being together.

Their joyful display was interrupted by a familiar voice shouting at the top of his lungs; "WHAT THE HELL'S GOING ON HERE?"

Buffy and Willow craned their heads toward Xander and the others. Xander's jaw unhinged and hung slack, Tara's eyes widened in shock, Victoria gave a relieved sigh, and Andrew simply gawked. There was no sign of Rack.

Buffy and Willow stared at their friends for a count of three and started laughing.

"Come on, guys," Victoria whispered sotto voce to the others, as Buffy stood up and pulled Willow to her feet, "let's head back to Buffy's place and figure out what happened."

<<>>

Willow curled up on Buffy's lap, while the others gathered around in the living room, each one holding a cup of coffee or cocoa. Dawn and Anya listened to Buffy and Willow trading off in their descriptions of the night's events. Dawn was relieved that her sister was alive and well, but shocked that Spike, someone she had grown to trust, could hurt her as deeply as he had. She noticed the way that Buffy's hand constantly sought out Willow's, and then glanced at Tara. If the blond wiccan was sad at Willow's choosing Buffy over her, she hid her sorrow well. Dawn sat back and prayed that Tara would find her happiness, as Buffy and Willow clearly have in each other.

"And after Osiris smiled at us," Willow finished her narration, "we found ourselves back here. But I'm still not clear what happened. I mean, after Buffy tried to push me out of the way, what happened to Rack?"

"I think you did, Willow," Victoria answered, sipping her coffee serenely. "When Buffy began to push you away, we saw a flash of bright light. When the light faded, Rack was gone, and you and Buffy fell to the ground. I suspect that he overloaded on your shared energy, and it consumed him."

"I don't get it," Buffy said. "I thought Rack drew his strength from magic energy. I don't have any magic, do I?"

"Oh, I dunno," Willow looked up at Buffy, her face dimpling in an elfin smile. "That kiss in Spike's crypt was pretty magical to me." Andrew leered at Willow's comment, only to be shot down by Tara's withering stare.

Victoria chuckled, answering, "It wasn't the magic that overloaded him, Buffy, but the love behind it. It was that power that consumed him." Willow nodded in agreement, snuggling closer to Buffy.

"I'm still kinda fuzzy about that whole giant bird-headed dude and all that," Xander admitted. He sat on his favorite chair in Buffy's living room, while Anya sat on the floor in front of him, her head cradled between Xander's knees, as Xander idly ran his hands through her hair. "Okay, I get the whole soul-merging thing, meaning that you're soulmates or something like that, right?"

"We felt that too, Xander," Buffy said solemnly. "Uh, sorry 'bout that, Tara."

"Don't be, Buffy," Tara flashed her a watery smile. "Just treat her well." Buffy nodded her thanks to Tara.

"I think what we saw was the end of our final testing," Willow said. "The last test of the Urn of Osiris. We were in the presence of Osiris, the final judge."

"If I remember the mythology correctly," Victoria explained, "Osiris, the Lord of the Underworld, placed each soul that approached him on one pan of a scale, and a feather on the other pan. If the soul was heavy with evil and darkness, and proved to be heavier than the feather, the soul would fall into the pit of the demon Ammat, the devourer of souls. If the soul proved lighter than the feather, it would be welcomed to Osiris's fields."

"So what happened to us," Buffy reasoned, "was sort of a closure. Like we finally got the darkness out of our systems."

"Exactly," Victoria answered. "In the end, what was needed to complete the cleansing was each other. You, Willow, cast a light on Buffy's darkness. And you, Buffy, through your familiarity with the dark, helped Willow bear the burden of her dark magic."

Buffy and Willow digested Victoria's words, weighed them in their minds, and knew them to be the truth. Buffy turned to Willow, and saw into the depths of her bright green eyes, far brighter than they had shone in months.

"So, Willow," Buffy quipped, "you ready for the cleansing ceremony on the Solstice?"

Willow gasped briefly. "That's in five days, isn't it? Victoria, will you be there?"

Victoria felt a tear of joy at Willow's question. "I wouldn't miss it for the world, Willow."

"Neither would I," Tara answered. Xander, Anya and Dawn also spoke in agreement, and even Andrew smiled approvingly toward the redhaired witch. Willow basked in the comfort and support of her closest friends. For the first time in longer than she could fathom, she was looking forward to tomorrow.

Buffy took Willow into her arms once more, giving her beloved a comforting hug. "Welcome back, Willow," Buffy began to cry with joy. "I missed you."

<<>>

Epilogue; Six Months Later

"Making my way downtown,
Walking fast, faces pass
And I'm homebound.
Staring blindly ahead,
Making my way, making my way
Through the crowd.

And I need you,
And I miss you,
And now I wonder

If I should fall into the sky,
Do you think time would pass us by
'Cause you know I would walk a thousand miles,
If I could just see you�
Tonight."


--Vanessa Carlton

"A Thousand Miles"

Sunlight streamed through the window of the main bedroom in the Summer's house. Formerly occupied by Buffy's mother before her death, the room was now shared by Buffy and Willow, much to Dawn's relief; she had occasionally quipped that she was glad that Buffy and Willow were sleeping far enough from Dawn's bedroom that she couldn't hear them. According to Dawn, Buffy and Willow could get rather vocal during the throes of passion.

Buffy stirred slowly, unwilling to leave their bed. She luxuriated in the scent of Willow's hair on the pillow next to her, and her fingers strayed toward her lover's side of the bed. When all she felt was the indentation left by Willow's body, Buffy's eyes suddenly snapped open and her body bolted up. "Willow?" she called out.

"Right here," Willow's voice chimed from the hallway, easing the fears that were beginning to sprout in Buffy's soul. Willow slowly entered the room, carrying a bed-tray loaded with two plates, a skillet of scrambled eggs, a bottle of Tabasco sauce, a pitcher of juice and two glasses. She placed the tray on the bed next to Buffy and leaned in for a kiss, which Buffy happily surrendered. "Happy six-month anniversary," she breathed in a sultry whisper.

"Hmm," Buffy hummed as she took another taste of Willow's lips. "Y'know, this is the first time I ever celebrated a six-month anniversary."

Willow crooked an eyebrow as she dished out some eggs to Buffy's plate, saying, "You mean Riley never treated you to breakfast in bed at the six-month point? Well, now, that should have been your first clue that something was wrong with that boy."

"Excuse me," Buffy reminded Willow, "I thought we had a standing agreement never to mention ex-lovers in this bed."

Willow blushed for a second, then regrouped; "Uh, technically, I'm not in the bed right now."

"True, true," Buffy's face suddenly took on a wicked expression, one that thrilled Willow with its erotic promise. "We should correct that oversight." Buffy suddenly lunged forward, taking Willow by the waist and pulling her into the bed with her. Only her Slayer reflexes prevented her sudden attack on Willow from knocking the tray onto the floor. "Much better," Buffy purred, enjoying the weight of her lover firmly on top of her. Their lips drew toward each other in a long, slow kiss. Not the kiss of two people intent on making love, but the kiss of two who were secure in the love they shared.

"Good morning, Willow," Buffy cooed, her head happily nuzzling Willow's neck.

"The best," Willow agreed wholeheartedly.

The two lovers finally disengaged the hug long enough to get to the breakfast Willow had prepared. Even as they ate, their hands strayed, touching and caressing each other. While their first kiss was not one of passion, they both knew that passion was coming soon.

Buffy shook the Tabasco bottle over her plate, sprinkling drops of red pepper sauce over her eggs, while Willow looked on in amazement. "I'm amazed that your tongue still works, considering how much you love Tabasco on your eggs."

Buffy slid her eyes slyly toward Willow, her voice husky with latent desire; "I didn't get any complaints about how my tongue worked last night."

HerHer Hey

Willow's cheeks suddenly turned redder than her hair. "That's not what I meant and you know it," she whispered hoarsely.

Buffy laughed at Willow's slight embarrassment, then scooted her butt up the bed until her body was touching her lover's. "Maybe I'll give you another demonstration after breakfast. That is, if you want."

"I want, I want," Willow grinned hugely.

"Hey, don't go all Cave-Willow on me," Buffy teased, as she ate another forkful of eggs.

As the two women finished their breakfast, Buffy turned to Willow and asked, "Hey, we're supposed to meet Tara today, right?"

"What happened to 'no talking about our exes in this bed'?" Willow quizzed Buffy.

"Tara doesn't count," Buffy insisted, "she's still family."

"Fair enough," Willow answered. "Besides, now that she and Amy got together after Rack's disappearance, they're both happier than they've been in a long time. And with Amy preparing for her cleansing ceremony at the Summer Solstice next week, Tara's really excited."

"That's good," Buffy agreed. "I'm glad that Tara and Victoria were able to find Amy after Rack died. After all Rack put her through, she was in bad shape."

"Yeah, but she's been improving. Since she and I joined Victoria's coven, we've both learned to embrace the spiritual side of Wicca. I think that's made a lot of difference."

"I'm glad," Buffy leaned her head on Willow's shoulder, again smelling the sweet jasmine scent of Willow's shampoo. "Of course, there's no cure for my addiction, is there?"

"Your addiction?" Willow gave Buffy a puzzled look.

"I'm a Willow-holic," Buffy declared.

"Well," Willow giggled, "I guess that makes me a Buffy-holic. And that's one habit I don't plan to kick." After they laughed again, Willow's voice grew more serious, more passionate; "But it's far more than that, Buffy. This," she took Buffy's hand in hers and lifted it between them, "is what we gained from our experience. Our souls merged in Orisis's realm. The way they were meant to. We're one soul, Buffy, in two bodies. And I can't imagine a better fate." Willow pulled Buffy's hand to her lips and kissed her knuckle.

Buffy raised her eyes to meet her lover's again. "Willow Rosenberg, will you marry me?"

"Yes, Buffy, I will," Willow answered immediately, joy shining in her green eyes. "But we wouldn't need the ceremony anyway. In the truest sense of the word, we already are married."

Buffy had no more words for Willow, and indeed words were not needed. She took Willow's body in her arms again, not caring whether the breakfast tray fell off the bed, and leaned on top of her in a passionate kiss. Willow responded with as much ardor as she could, and soon they began to shed their clothes, resuming the most ancient celebration.

They never did finish their breakfast, but neither one complained.

<<>>

"And I would walk five hundred miles,
And I would walk five hundred more,
Just to be the man who walks a thousand miles
To fall down at your door."
--The Proclaimers
"Five Hundred Miles(I'm Gonna Be)"

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