Spoilers: Up to the Sixth Season finale. You have been warned!
Feedback; Oh pul-leeze!
Rating; PG-13 for now, later chapters may change.
Summary; And older, wiser and sadder Willow makes a wish�

 Life; Version 2.0
By Kirayoshi

"It was long ago, and it was far away,
But still it seems so very hard,
And if life is just a highway,
Then the soul is just a car,
And Objects in the Rear View Mirror
May appear closer than they are."

--Meat Loaf
"Objects in the Rear View Mirror"

Prologue;

All she could do was weep.

The Magic Box was leveled. Warren and Rack were dead. Dawn and Buffy were nearly killed.

And she was the one responsible.

All she could feel were Xander's arms around her, the sting of her tears, and the terrible black hole where her heart used to be. Tara was dead. And she had become a killer, avenging her lover's death. But the pain still wouldn't go away. All she wanted was to end the pain. And the only way she could end the pain was to end everything.

She reveled in the anger, the fury, the power that flooded through her being, firing her synapses, fueling her body. Now, she had crashed hard. She knew that any access to that kind of power, even a fraction of what she wielded tonight, would kill her.

And she doubted that anyone would mourn.

Xander, maybe. Wasn't he the one who talked her down in the end? He still believed that the sweet innocent Willow of his childhood was still within her, under that nest of black hair, behind the obsidian eyes of the monster that she had become. How could she tell him? Innocent Willow had died the moment the bullet entered Tara's body. There was nothing left now. All that remained was a hollow husk that bore the shape of his friend.

She lifted her head and looked at Buffy. The Slayer had her arm around Dawn protectively, eyeing Willow suspiciously, as though waiting for her to strike again. That confirmed it, thought Willow. She had officially lost her best friend. Sure, she'd forgive her, eventually, but she wouldn't trust her again. And how could Willow blame her? After all, she had tried to destroy the world, dammit! How can you just forget that?

The realization that she had lost her friend stabbed at her, hurting more than the loss of her lover. She could only curl up in Xander's arms and weep again. She was peripherally aware of Giles and Anya, surveying the remains of the Magic Box. She felt more lost than ever; here she was, surrounded by the people she loved most in all of the world, and knowing that she had lost their trust, possibly forever. She had no idea what was going to happen tomorrow, except that she would only know a world of pain and anguish. A world that she had earned.

"Oh, Goddess," she murmured into Xander's chest. "I wish I could just erase everything I've done. I wish I could just go back to where it started and change everything."

So quietly she spoke that she didn't believe that anyone could hear her. But one person did. One person turned toward Willow's crying figure, and regarded the fallen wiccan with hooded, unreadable eyes. One person considered Willow's plaintive wish, and came to a decision.

"Done," Anya whispered.

========

"Okay, Willow," the vaguely familiar voice urged her on. "Just breathe in, and out. In�and out."

The scent of jasmine and patchouli flooded her nostrils, both exotic and as close as home. She became aware that her surroundings had changed. She didn't feel Xander's arms around her, her eyes felt dry and her body felt somewhat stronger than it had seconds ago. She opened her eyes and glanced at the room around her.

She was sitting in a lotus position on the floor what looked like a living room. The table lamp was dimmed, and a circle of candles was arranged on the floor in front of her. She took her eyes away from the flickering candle flames, lifted her head, looked at the person who was speaking to her, and panicked.

She sat casually in front of Willow, her hands gently laying at her sides, nearly lost in meditation. Short black hair framed a pretty face, her features bearing a Romanian flavoring.

Willow squeezed her eyes shut for a second and reopened them. The woman before her suddenly opened her eyes, and furrowed her brow in concern. "Willow?" she asked. "You okay?"

Willow couldn't speak, she could barely think. She could only stare at the person sitting before her. With supreme effort, she simply said two words;

"Miss Calendar?"

The warm, caring face of her computer teacher smiled at her. "Yes, Willow?"

Willow gasped hard. "Omigod, omigodomigodomigod! This can't be happening. I'm dreaming, that's it. Or I'm dead. That's gotta be it, I'm dead. Except that, for all I've done, I'd be in Hell, wouldn't I? No way I'd be here. I mean Jenny made it to Heaven, right? No way I'd make the cut, not after--"

"Willow!" Jenny Calendar grabbed Willow's arms, in a desperate attempt to halt her panicked babbling. "Willow, get a hold of yourself! What are you talking about?"

"Miss Calendar�" Willow stammered, desperately stifling the tide of fear that threatened to overwhelm her. "Wha-what's happened? Are you real? Are you alive?"

"Yes, Willow," Jenny tried to assure the redhead. "It's alright. You were in a deep meditation trance for a moment. Dreams and visions are not uncommon under such circumstances."

"Miss Calendar," Willow gasped urgently. "What is today's date?"

Jenny glanced at Willow, her brows knitting furiously. "Uh, today? It's the twenty-second of February."

"What year?" Willow demanded.

"Year?" Jenny frowned. "1998."

"Oh�my�god�" Willow immediately rushed to Jenny's bathroom, turned on the light, and gazed into the mirror. A gawky face gazed back at her, long stringy red hair hung down her back, and a pronounced widow's peak outlined her forehead. "Ohmigod, I haven't worn my hair like this since�"

Willow shuddered. 1998. The twenty-second of February. Frantically she summoned her memories of that terrible time; Angelus was loose, and Jenny was trying to find a way to restore his soul.

"Uh, maybe we should wrap this session up early," Jenny offered, "and I can give you a lift home if you want. We'll have to pick this up two days from now, as I ... I have things to do tomorrow."

Angelus. Computer lab. Ambush.

"NO!" Willow shouted. "Miss Calendar, you can't go to the computer lab tomorrow night!"

Jenny opened her eyes in mild surprise. "How did you know I was going to be at the lab?"

"Angelus is gonna be there! He's gonna kill you!"

Jenny crooked her eyebrow in concern, reminding Willow of Mr. Spock. "How do you know that? Did you have a vision during your meditation?"

Willow stood before her mentor, not knowing how to explain what was happening. She was crying outside the Magic Box, then she was sitting opposite her first instructor in magic, reliving her first meditation, her first true lesson in magic�

Where it all started.

The tumblers clicked and with the discovery came a strange euphoria. "She must have heard my wish," she whispered, half to herself. "She granted my wish."

"Who granted your wish, Willow?" Jenny asked. "C'mon, girl, you're scaring me."

"Uh, wha�Oh, sorry," Willow stammered as she recalled the woman standing next to her. She saw the worry creasing her forehead, and decided to attempt the truth. "Miss Calendar, you're not going to believe this, but I know what you're planning, and I know that Angelus will kill you tomorrow. Because for me it happened four years ago. I lived four years since then, I've seen so much, done so much�and now I'm here, and�and I can change things."

Jenny sighed deeply, and regarded Willow with a motherly concern. "Okay, Willow. Maybe you'd better sit down. I'll get some of that Earl Grey stuff that Rupert gave me for my birthday, and you can start from the beginning." Willow accepted the offer silently, making her way to Jenny's couch on unsteady legs, and waiting for Jenny to return from the kitchen with two tea cups and a kettle of hot water. She poured the water into the tea cups, letting the tea from the bags stain the water reddish brown, and sat down in her favorite chair, opposite Willow. "Okay, Willow. Start at the beginning. How do you know that Angelus is going to kill me tomorrow?"

Willow breathed in, then out, and started to speak. "Cliff Notes version; from 2001 to 2002, I made some mistakes. Big ones. I abused my magic, got some friends hurt, Buffy got really hurt�and at the end of my rope, I wished that I could go back to where it started, and change things for the better. An..someone heard me, someone with real power, and granted my wish. So, here I am, at the time I started learning magic, and I guess I got a chance to make up for my mistakes."

Jenny nodded patiently. "I see. And you remember my dying tomorrow?"

"Yeah. It was the inscription over the school building; Latin, something like, 'Enter, all who seek knowledge' or something like that. He took it for an invitation, and killed you before you could find the spell to re-soul him." Willow stared at Jenny with pleading eyes, desperate to read any sign of understanding in her level features. "You gotta believe me, Miss Calendar! You died, and Giles went all vengeance-y and�Buffy blamed herself for everything and ran away over the summer, and Kendra�"

"Willow," Jenny rose her voice to calm her down, "I believe you. I mean, I hadn't told anyone about my plans for tomorrow, even Rupert. How else could you have known? Look, maybe you'd better spend the night here. You can call your folks and tell them you're at a friend's, sleeping over."

"My folks?" Willow mused. It's been a long time since she even thought of her parents as anything but an afterthought. She struggled to remember her folks' phone number. "Uh, yeah, sure. But are you okay with having me over tonight?"

"Hey, it's no problem," Jenny smiled reassuringly at Willow. "The sofa folds out into a hide-a-bed. Tell you what, I'll order some pizzas, we'll watch Thelma and Louise, it'll be fun. And tomorrow, we'll talk to Buffy and Rupert and the others, and get to the bottom of this."

Willow sighed with relief. Jenny Calendar was as warm and giving as she had remembered her. "Thanks, Miss Calendar. I appreciate it. Just promise me you won't go to the library tomorrow?"

Jenny chuckled at Willow's earnestness. "I promise. How about this; I'll go the day after tomorrow, and I'll only go in broad daylight. No way I'm letting Angelus get the drop on me, not with your advanced warning. Now then," she added as she reached for her phone, "how do you like your pizza?"

That evening, Willow lay down on the sofa sleeper, staring at the ceiling of Jenny's living room. She could scarcely credit her good fortune. From the most hopeless moment in her life, feeling abandoned by friends, loved ones and family, when even her own self revolted against her, she now found herself reliving a more innocent time. But she was innocent no longer. She knew too much. She knew what Jenny would unleash if she continued her magic lessons.

She knew exactly how Drusilla would kill Kendra, how Faith would betray her friends, how a brain tumor would claim Joyce, how Buffy would sacrifice her life to save her sister, how Tara would die in her very presence.

No.

A grim determination filled the vacant spot that was her heart. Where there was hopelessness, Willow now felt resolve. It wasn't gonna happen this way. Jenny would live. Kendra, Joyce, Tara, they all would live. She had a second chance, to make everything right again.

And she was going to use it.

Chapter one;

I'm a Hazard to Myself

"Doctor, doctor won't you please prescribe me something
A day in the life of someone else?

Cuz I'm a hazard to myself
Don't let me get me
I'm my own worst enemy
Its bad when you annoy yourself
So irritating
Don't wanna be my friend no more
I wanna be somebody else."

--Pink
"Don't Let Me Get Me"

The moment that Willow first set foot on the Sunnydale High campus, she was assailed by a thousand familiar sights, sounds, smells. The smells especially brought it back to her. She recalled something Buffy had said (Would say, she corrected herself absently) about sense memory; "I smell a roasting turkey, and suddenly I'm ten years old again." Willow reflected on that observation as she located her old locker, passing through the halls; the freshly scrubbed linoleum floor in the main hall, the faint fragrance of orange blossom from the trees outside, the chemical smells from the lab areas.

As she wandered the halls, halls that she remembered seeing destroyed in another life, her mind flashed back to a thousand memories, a thousand images, some happy, some terrifying. The gym lockers, where she once saw a dead body. Oz observing that the monkey animal crackers were the only ones that wore clothes. Her first contact with Malcolm Black. Sitting on the lawn with Buffy, discussing their future.

"It's a good fight," she told her (would tell her), "and I want in."

Yeah, right. A good fight. Little did I know that Buffy and I would wind up on opposite sides of the fight!

"Willow?" the teacher who walked in with her asked gently, nudging her back to reality. "You okay?"

"Huh?" Willow hastily collected herself, then faced Jenny Calendar. "Yeah, I guess. Uh, you ever feel deja-vu?"

Jenny smiled at the nervous redhead. "Of course, Willow. Everyone does, from time to time."

"Well, whatever you call the opposite of deja-vu, I've got it." She glanced around the halls, at the cafeteria door, at the ever-present soda machine ("I push your button for a root beer, you give me a Coke."). "I know I've been here, but it doesn't feel right. I mean, I was in my junior year of college just a couple of days ago, now I'm back in high school."

Jenny nodded knowingly, placing a gentle hand on Willow's shoulder. "Don't worry about it, friend. I'm here for you." For a timeless instant, Willow allowed herself to be comforted by Jenny's presence.

"Ahem," an unpleasantly familiar voice broke the moment. Willow and Jenny turned sharply, glaring as Principal Snyder approached them. Judging from the overly pleased-with-himself smile playing on his face, he had either suspended an honors student or recently drowned a sack of kittens. "I trust that I don't need to remind you of my stand on public displays of affection, Miss Calendar?"

"I was merely providing one of my top students some support, Mr. Snyder," Jenny answered.

"That's what the taxpayers pay our school councilor for," Snyder snapped haughtily, ignoring Jenny's smoldering anger and Willow's growing discomfort.

"All that incompetent fool will do," Jenny snarled quietly, "is prescribe her enough Ritalin to calm an active volcano. She doesn't need drugs; she needs emotional support and friendship. I know these things are alien to you, considering that you've never experienced them yourself--"

"One more word," Snyder intoned angrily, "and you can start looking for another job!"

Jenny crossed her arms defiantly, regarding the principal with undisguised contempt. She stepped forward, until her face was directly in front of Snyder's, and looked down at him in an intimidating stare. "I think you'll find," she spoke with deadly calm, "that the school board handles the dismissal of school staff here, not you. And I hereby give you notice that I'm drafting a formal grievance, which I intend to submit to the school board, citing you with gross negligence and incompetence in your duties as principal of this school. And once the board investigates, and hears how you've bullied the teachers and students at Sunnydale High to adhere to your perverse sense of order at the expense of the school scholastic record�well, my advice to you is to start job hunting now."

Turning away from Snyder, she walked back to Willow, who suddenly gazed upon her computer teacher with a new-found awe and respect. Smiling, Jenny glanced back at Snyder, adding, "I hear the Double-Meat Palace is hiring." Snyder stood in the hallway, sputtering in impotent rage as Jenny and Willow walked away.

Willow couldn't help but smile at Jenny as she commented, "Nice bluff, Miss Calendar."

"What bluff?" Jenny asked innocently. "As soon as I finish that letter, it's in the mail! That goose-stepping martinet's going down!"

Willow walked alongside Jenny in silence, digesting these words. She realized that Jenny must have had that letter in her computer hard drive, but was unable to mail it to the school board before Angelus killed her. If she succeeded in saving Jenny's life, did that mean that the school board would consider replacing Mr. Snyder? How would that affect her life, Buffy's life, the lives of their friends?

Willow shook her head fiercely, banishing her speculation. All that mattered was that she was going to save Jenny. She was going to save them all. She wasn't going to travel the road that she had before. That's all that mattered.

"Uh, Willow," Jenny approached the young woman hesitantly. "Do you remember your class schedule?"

Willow stood still for a moment, blanking on her next class. She then remembered the backpack she had taken with her. She rummaged through her book bag, locating a three-ring binder. Turning to a folder page, she sighed with relief. "I wrote them down, first day of the quarter. English for first period, chemistry for second�yeah, got it."

"Good," Jenny smiled. "Hopefully you won't have any trouble taking these classes all over again after four years. Okay, here's the plan. You and I will meet the others in the library during your free period, and we can figure this out then."

"No problem, Miss Calendar," Willow nodded. "I just hope I can get it right this time."

Jenny glanced at Willow, puzzled. "Get what right?"

Willow regarded Jenny with eyes that seemed impossibly old. Jenny found herself staring into Willow's eyes, wondering what the poor girl had seen or done for her eyes to look so haunted. More so than Buffy's eyes even.

Willow lowered her eyes, uncomfortable with Jenny's intense scrutiny, and as she turned toward her first class, she simply said, "Everything, Miss Calendar. Everything."

========

The moment Willow walked into the library, the first thing she noticed was the disapproving glare from Buffy. Not as toxic as the almost passive dismissal she saw in Buffy's eyes just before returning to the past, but still hurtful. "Willow," she barked in a serious tone. "Where were you? I told you to call me, so I'd know that Angelus hadn't tried anything on you."

"Uh," was all that Willow could say, before Buffy's expression shifted, and a sly smile crossed her face. "Don't worry, Willow, I'm just yanking your chain. Miss Calendar called me, she said that the whole magic lesson had taken a little longer, and you were going to crash at her place."

"So, you're, uh, okay with my not calling you?" Willow stammered, slightly relieved that she didn't have to make any explanations before Jenny and the others arrived.

"More than okay," Buffy nodded. "With Angelus out and about, I don't want you going anywhere alone at night, even to see me. He's trying to taunt me, and it'd be just like him to put you or Xander, or Mom even, in the line of fire. I'd rather be alone and know you're safe."

"Yeah, I guess," Willow answered. Hopefully that instinct of his would be curbed soon. She glanced around, waiting for the others, then smiled at her friend. "So, Buffy. How's Dawn?"

Buffy blinked for a second, her brow wrinkling in confusion. "Dawn? Dawn who?"

"Uh�" Willow gulped hard. Remembering Buffy's teen-aged sister and her own deep-seated memories of the girl, Willow had forgotten that her memories of Dawn were a fiction created by a band of monks who had created her to hide the Key to the world's destruction from an insane goddess. Reflecting on the spot, she realized that she now had two sets of memories; she remembered being kidnapped by the robot demon Moloch, and she also remembered an alternate scenario where she and Dawn were Moloch's captives. Several situations she could remember, both with and without Buffy's sister. A very confusing situation and one that she would have to deal with at a later time.

But for now, she had to confront Buffy, and cover her gaffe. "Oh, yeah, Dawn. How was the dawn? I mean, you catch the sunrise? Pretty cool stuff today. A few extra reds and golds in the sunrise today. Real breathtaking."

"Willow," Buffy frowned, not unkindly, "you're babbling."

"Of course, I'm babbling," Willow grinned nervously. "It's my trademark. Xander makes bad jokes, Cordy insults everyone, Oz just sits there and looks wise, I babble."

"It's okay, Willow," Buffy smiled reassuringly at her best friend. "I needed my daily allowance of Willow-babble. Let's get ready for the others. Hopefully Giles has found that un-invite spell to keep Angelus out of my house."

"Yeah," Willow murmured. "Uh, actually, there's something big that I gotta talk to you guys about. But I want to wait until the rest of the gang's here. Something's happened, and it's gonna change everything."

Buffy chuckled slightly. "Sounds like an infomercial. What's the up?"

"Can't tell you right now," Willow answered impatiently. "Trust me?"

Buffy placed a gentle hand on Willow's shoulder. "Always," she promised.

Willow said nothing, as she and Buffy took their places at their regular meeting table. Almost immediately, Giles emerged from the library, as Jenny, Xander, Cordy and Oz filed into the library. The sight of her former love caused Willow's breath to hitch in her throat. Willow absently wrung her hands in her lap as Oz approached her. Oz leaned in slightly to steal a kiss, but Willow turned her head slightly. "Hey, honey," Oz questioned her. "Something the matter?"

"Uh, nothing, Oz," Willow answered hesitantly, "I've just got a lot on my mind." Oz seemed to accept Willow's reticence, and quietly took his seat next to her. Silence seemed to reign over the table; Giles and Buffy still hadn't forgiven Jenny for not telling them about her Gypsy connections, and her knowledge of the curse on Angel's soul. Buffy still fumed at her a little; if she had told them sooner, Buffy still felt that they could have avoided the circumstances of Angel being supplanted by the demon Angelus.

Before Giles could begin the meeting, Jenny stood up. "Guys, Willow has an announcement to make. If she's right, we may be able to deal with Angelus once and for all." Jenny motioned to Willow, who stood up on unsteady legs, and swallowed hard to stop her eardrums from popping. "It's okay, Willow," Jenny urged her. "Just tell them what you told me."

"What's it all about?" Xander asked his childhood friend. The others turned toward the scared young woman, uncertain what was going through her mind. Buffy simply nodded to her, waiting patiently for her to begin.

"Uh, guys," Willow began, "something happened to me, something weird. I mean weird by Hellmouth standards." She stalled slightly, and Buffy could smell the sweat on Willow's brow. "Okay, here it is, the abridged version. I time-traveled from four years into the future, I'm now inside my younger body, and I'm here to change the future."

The final sentence flew from her lips in a single rushed breath, and the others almost missed what she was saying. Finally, Xander flashed a bemused grin at his friend, asking, "Okay, Sam. What's Dean Stockwell telling you to do?"

"Xander," Willow answered, her voiced edged with annoyance. "I'm not kidding here. I've seen the future, Hell, I lived it! And a lot of bad stuff's gonna happen, largely because of my screw-ups, and I've been given a second chance to change things!"

"Willow," Giles responded in his typically calm, analytical manner, "no one here is saying that they don't believe you�"

"I am," Cordy volunteered, only to be stared down by everyone else. Giles continued, "As I was saying, no one who matters," he added, flashing Cordy a sour stare, "is saying anything of a sort. But this claim you're making, it would be helpful if you had some kind of proof. Some knowledge that you would not possess otherwise, something along those lines, would be very helpful."

"You want knowledge, Giles?" Willow challenged the Watcher. "You have the means of restoring Angel's soul in your office. The Orb of Thesuleh, I think you've been using it as a paperweight." Giles attempted to talk after Willow's declaration, but somehow the power of speech seemed to elude him. "The night he tried to summon Acaltha from his eternal sleep, Buffy fought him off, Xander rescued you from him and I led the others in the Ritual of Restoration. We managed to resoul Angel, but he had already summoned Acaltha, and Buffy had to send Angel to Hell to save the world."

"Dear Lord!" Giles whispered. The others glanced at him, taking their cue from the shock in his watery green eyes. "Is it possible�no one else knows about the Orb. I never told any of you. I�I didn't even consider the possibility that his soul could be restored."

"None of us did," Buffy admitted, "except Miss Calendar." She turned her attention to the computer teacher, her gaze now softer than it had been. "Is this true?" she asked hopefully. "Were you gonna try and restore Angel's soul?"

Jenny nodded. "Yes, Buffy. After all my silence had cost you, how could I do any less?"

"And you weren't going to tell any of us?" Giles raised his voice at his semi-estranged girlfriend. "You put yourself in Angel's crosshairs, the least you could do is inform me!"

"I wasn't sure that you'd care, Rupert," Jenny answered calmly, fighting to hide any bitterness she still felt for the way her lover had been avoiding her lately.

"Dammit woman, I'm in love with you, which bloody well means that, yes, I would care!"

Jenny gasped at the normally reserved Englishman's sudden and very public declaration of his love. She glanced at the others, who suddenly seemed to find her and Giles the least interesting things in the library. Except for Cordy, who simply gave Jenny a wry smile, and said, "'Bout time you two got it out in the open."

Jenny stammered slightly as she regained control of her vocal chords. "I love you too, Rupert. That's why I couldn't let you get caught in the crosshairs with me. It was my fault for not informing you and Buffy about the nature of Angel's curse. It's my responsibility to correct my mistake." She lowered her head in anguish. "But now, with Willow's advanced warning, that may be academic."

"Sounds like you believe Willow's story," Cordy observed. Glancing back at Willow, he hastily added, "I mean, no offense Willow, but even by Sunnydale standards, this one's pretty off the meter."

"I think I believe her," Oz said suddenly. When the others turned to him, he added, "It's not just a story. Look at her. Her walk, her posture, her face, they've all aged since we saw her yesterday. She's either telling the truth, or she's the greatest actress alive."

Buffy gawked at Willow, who simply sat beside her, her hands resting in her lap, her brow furrowed with a sorrowful knowledge. She averted her eyes from looking directly at Buffy, and the Slayer found herself wondering if something was destined to happen in the future that would damage their friendship. She found herself studying Willow's face for a sign of recognition, of the friendship and affection they had always felt for each other. It was there, under whatever burden Willow was carrying. Buffy resolved to make sure that Willow knew that she was still loved, that Buffy would always be her friend.

"You're telling us the truth, aren't you, Willow?" Buffy asked in as gentle a voice as she could manage. Willow only nodded once.

"Could you explain how this happened, Willow?" Giles questioned her. Willow shook her head. The last thing she wanted to do was let the people who trusted her most know that their trust in her was misplaced.

Xander suddenly smiled, pulling a notepad out of his back pack. He handed the pad to Willow, saying excitedly, "Okay, give me three columns, Willow. First column, Super Bowl champions. Second column, World Series winners, and the third column, NBA champions. And if you can remember any Kentucky Derby or Belmont winners, write those along the bottom. We are so gonna clean up!"

"Xander!" Willow nearly shouted, her voice strained and tired. "Sit down, and shut up!" Oz flashed Xander a sour look, then returned his attention to Willow.

Xander timidly returned to his seat, glancing at his childhood friend. "Uh, at what point in the future did you lose your sense of humor?"

Willow's head shot up, regarding the others with a cold rage, an old pain. Her eyes smoldered like coals as she spoke in bitten-off words; "I don't know, Xander. Maybe it was when the woman I loved more than my life died of a bullet in the chest before my eyes. Or maybe it was when I killed her murderer in the most gruesome manner I could imagine! Or, quite possibly, when I dove so far into the black magic pool that all I wanted to do was to destroy the world! Maybe at some point during that period, I misplaced my sense of humor! You think that's what happened?"

By the time that Willow finally reigned in her mouth, the damage had been done. The silence that followed Willow's outburst stretched like a tangible gulf. She dared to look at Buffy, and regretted it instantly. She saw shock on her brow, fear and suspicion in her eyes.

The same fear and suspicion she saw in her eyes at the gravesite, a lifetime ago.

Willow gulped her breath, choking on her tears. "Oh, Goddess, I'm so sorry�I'm� so�" She kicked her chair away, shot up on unsteady legs, and bolted for the door.

As she rushed out of the library, she collided with a student heading toward the library, knocking him down. She stopped long enough to glance at the student, and her recognition of his face only stoked her anger. "Jonathan," she murmured sotto voce.

"Hey, Willow," Jonathan answered, as he scrambled to his feet. "Is something wrong?"

"The only thing wrong here," Willow snarled at Jonathan, "is you. You would do well to steer clear of me from now on!" Without another word, Willow turned away from the startled student.

Jonathan stood for a second, shaking his head and collecting his thoughts, before turning back toward the library. He succeeded in taking two steps before being slammed back onto the floor by the figure of a blond comet who catapulted past him. Buffy sprinted down the hallway, but lost sight of the fleeing redhead. She stopped in the hallway, quietly debating where her friend may have run to.

"Miss Summers," Mr. Snyder's annoying voice echoed across the hall. "Do my eyes deceive me or are you out of your class without a hall pass?"

"Mr. Snyder," Buffy moaned, barely even trying to hide her annoyance, "I don't have time for this. Willow ran away from the library, and I'm just trying to find her."

Mr. Snyder chuckled in a condescending tone. "I have no doubt that Miss Rosenberg can look after herself. You, on the other hand, would do well to return to the library, before I find some reason to give you some detention time."

Buffy stepped close to Snyder, putting her face directly in front of his. "Look, Snidely Whiplash, if you value the use of your legs, you'll end this interrogation now!"

"Oh, you just bought yourself a suspension for that crack, Miss Summers!" chortled Snyder.

"Buffy," Giles called as he approached Mr. Snyder and Buffy. "I forgot to give you a hall pass, and that list of things I need from the supply room." He gave Buffy a knowing look, and Buffy took the hint. "Right, Giles. I'll just get these things now. Later, Mr. Snyder. It's been grins." With a nod toward Snyder, Buffy ducked out of sight down the hallway.

"She's not coasting out of this one, Giles," Snyder growled quietly. "I'll see her expelled for this."

"For what?" Giles asked. "For responding to a threat from a school principal?"

Snyder whipped his head around to Giles, eyes wide with dismay. "I did no such thing! You heard what she said to me�"

"I couldn't hear a thing from my vantage point," Giles smiled blandly. "All I saw was you getting into her face." He made tut-tut noises with his tongue on his palette. "This isn't going to look good in the report Miss Calendar and I are filing with the school board."

"But�but�" Snyder stammered, before Giles raised his hand to silence him.

"Quit while you're behind, Mr. Snyder," Giles advised him. He turned around and walked back toward the library, leaving behind a small man who suddenly felt much smaller.

========

She sat on a bench in the campus plaza, sobbing without reason or relief. She thought that she had run out of tears when Tara had died, but her younger body seemed to have an unlimited supply. All she could do was mourn what she had lost. For the first time, she mourned for Tara. She mourned for Kendra, for Jenny, for Joyce. She even mourned for Warren and Rack.

Above all, she mourned for herself. For the person who once sneaked out to watch "A Charlie Brown Christmas" with Xander. For the person who comforted Buffy when Angel chose to leave for Los Angeles. For the person who told Buffy, "It's a good fight, and I want in." For a girl named Willow Rosenberg.

She was only vaguely aware of two slim, strong arms encircling her shoulders, and a warm and gentle voice, asking if she was well. She almost laughed out loud; it seemed pretty obvious to her that no, she wasn't well. But the arms still held her, the voice still calmed her, and eventually her body stopped lurching with her sobs. One minute, five minutes, ten minutes, Buffy sat next to Willow, rocking her in her arms, whispering assurances to her.

Finally, Willow calmed enough for her vocal chords to work in sync with her mouth; "Shortly after we started college," Willow said meekly, "Oz left me. He wanted to find a way to tame his inner wolf. It hurt like hell, until I met Tara. She was a shy witch, part of the local wiccan group. She and I became close, spell-casting buddies. Then we became more." She stalled for a moment, turning to face Buffy, to gage her reaction from her face.

Buffy regarded her friend with an arched eyebrow, saying, "So you're saying that you're gay?"

"Is that a problem?" Willow challenged Buffy.

"No," Buffy answered. "You're my best friend, no matter what."

"Yeah, right," Willow barked quietly. "Anyway, she and I were close for over a year, until�something terrible happened�you�you died, Buffy. You saved the world from something really powerful, and you both died in the final bout." Buffy blanched at what Willow had said. She knew that she would probably die sooner than most, but she preferred not to know the exact date in advance if she could avoid it. "I didn't take it well, Buffy. In my nightmares, I saw you, reaching out for me, begging me to save you from Hell. So I did. I got the others together, and we did this ritual with the Urn of Osiris. We brought you back to life."

Buffy smirked sardonically and said, "Thanks."

Willow lowered her head in shame. "I didn't know until later that I was wrong. I didn't save you from Hell, I dragged you out of Heaven. By then, I was getting more powerful. Too powerful. I started getting into darker stuff, black magic. Tara knew I was in trouble, and tried to help me. When I refused her help, she left me. When I nearly got�someone killed on a magic high, I tried to stop. And I did, for a couple of months. Tara and I got back together, you were doing better, and everything was good in Willow-ville for a moment."

"Then something happened to Tara." Buffy guessed.

"Yeah," Willow answered. "Some punks who just wanted to gain power, and decided to kill the Slayer. But they killed Tara instead. A bullet passed through her midsection as I watched. And I fell apart after that. I stalked Tara's killer. I followed him to prison. And I skinned him alive."

Buffy sat silently without speaking. She knew that Willow had to speak, to unleash her guilt, to reveal what was destroying her. "I had my revenge, but the pain was still there. I fell back into the black magic. I didn't care anymore. All I wanted was to feel no more. No more pain, no more love, no more anything. And I nearly destroyed the world to keep from feeling." She captured Buffy's eyes with her own, rivulets of tears streaming down her face. "If Xander hadn't stopped me, I would have destroyed everything. But I still hurt. There was someone else, a friendly demon. Well, kinda friendly. She granted me a wish. She sent me back here, to undo everything that I did, to change what I could. Now do you see, Buffy? Now do you understand why I had to come back? I couldn't let myself become your enemy, not again! Not after all you've been through! I couldn't! I love you too much to let it happen again!"

Willow could say no more. Her sobs again overtook her, and she fell into Buffy's arms, crying piteously. Buffy rocked her gently in her arms, murmuring into her ear, "It's okay, Willow. It's gonna be okay. I'm not gonna let anything to you. We'll change it, Willow. We'll change everything, I promise. Whatever you went through before, you're not gonna go through it again."

She kissed Willow's forehead, held her tightly in her arms, and simply said, "I love you, Willow." And as the words left her lips, Buffy knew them to be true.

This was her friend who now sobbed uncontrollably in her arms. This was her confidante, her conscience, her very heart and soul. And her heart was hurting, a deep and abiding hurt, a hurt that may never go away.

Buffy Summers refused to believe that the pain would never go away. She would settle for no less than Willow's peace of mind. She owed her that much at least for dragging her into her crazy world. Whatever else she faced, she knew that the friendship she shared with Willow was her one great truth.

The truest thing she knew.

Chapter Two

I Was So Much Older Then...

"Crimson flames tied through my ears
Rollin' high and mighty traps
Pounced with fire on flaming roads
Using ideas as my maps
"We'll meet on edges, soon," said I
Proud 'neath my heated brow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I'm younger than that now.

Yes, my guard stood hard when abstract threats
Too noble to neglect
Deceived me into thinking
I had something to protect
Good and bad, I define these terms
Quite clear, no doubt, somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I'm younger than that now."

--Bob Dylan
"My Back Pages"

Five friends sat in silence in the library, waiting for their missing members.

Cordelia stared hard at the library door, echoes of Willow's outburst still ringing in her ears. The girl she had delighted in tormenting for as long as they knew each other was simply not there. In her place was a stronger, sadder young woman, one who had borne a terrible burden. One who could easily destroy Cordy if she displeased her. She began to look upon Willow Rosenberg with a newfound respect, and no small fear.

Xander felt the dark fire in his gut ebb and recede, his ever-present anger at Angelus for hurting Buffy and Willow slowly being replaced by an abiding concern for his childhood friend. Oz kept his own thoughts private, quietly sharing in Xander's concern for his girlfriend. They both realized that she had seen so much in her lifetime, so much that she wanted to reverse. Xander bitterly cursed the future events that would rob his sweet Willow of her smile, of her innocence.

Rupert Giles and Jenny Calendar sat next to each other at the other side of the table, their hands touching gently under the table. Without words, they somehow managed to connect in a way that had eluded them since the terrible day when Angelus reemerged. They sat apart from the others, silently asking for and receiving forgiveness for the miscommunications that led to their previous estrangement.

Finally, twenty minutes after Willow ran from the library with Buffy in pursuit, the two young women returned to the library, the Slayer's strong arms supporting Willow's shuddering frame. Buffy guided Willow to her chair, taking the seat next to hers. Oz glanced at the sad young redhead, questions forming behind his eyes. "You okay, honey?" he asked.

Willow shook her head slowly, wiping the last of her tears away with the sleeve of her shirt. "Not yet, Oz," she answered, "but I'm getting there."

Oz considered offering his hand to Willow, but decided against the action. He remembered Willow's tirade before she fled, specifically something about having lost a woman she loved. Glancing at the redhead's sad eyes, he recognized the truth in them; whatever was in the future, he realized with a deep sorrow, their relationship was effectively over. "Be happy, Willow," he whispered gently, gratified to see a faint trace of a smile play at her mouth. "You've earned it."

"Thanks," Willow said simply, before turning her attention to the others at the table. "Hey, I'm sorry about what happened earlier. I guess I've been through the wringer big-time. Or will be through the wringer, or�Man, nothing screws up grammar faster than time-travel!"

Buffy gave a quick sigh of relief; at least her tendency to babble was still there. She vowed privately to do whatever it took to assure Willow that their friendship was still solid. Whatever Willow would go through in the future, she wouldn't go through it alone. "Don't sweat it, Willow," Buffy answered, her smile a benediction for her friend. Turning to the others, she said, "Okay, which direction do we go with the whole Angel's soul issue?"

Xander opened his mouth to speak, then stopped. After his earlier attempt at glibness drove Willow into a state of outrage, he didn't wish to hurt her any further. Finally he spoke, measuring his words carefully; "As much as my normal response to anything Deadboy is 'Faster Pussycat, kill, kill', if we can re-soul him quickly, we would probably save ourselves thirty-one flavors of angst down the line."

Willow nodded sagely. "I know you probably won't buy this," she observed, "but down the road Angel will be a force for good. After we graduated, he left for Los Angeles and started a detective firm. Last I heard, he was doing pretty well." She glanced briefly at Cordy, noticing the way that she kept glancing between her and Xander. She debated whether she should inform Cordy about her part in Angel's future, finally deciding not to reveal that facet of the future. Somehow, telling too much didn't seem right. Just enough to change the bad stuff, she reasoned.

Giles removed his glasses and wiped them with his pocket handkerchief. "It strikes me as a risky plan, but perhaps Willow is right. If we do restore his soul, we must do so quickly. The longer Angelus remains in control, the greater the havoc he could wreak."

"You're not wrong," Willow muttered. "But if we pull this off, we'll prevent him from raising Acaltha, and save ourselves a world of grief." Turning back toward Buffy, she said silently, "Don't worry, Buffy, we'll get your boyfriend back."

Buffy gave Willow a wistful smile. "First we'll get him back. Then we'll decide whether he's still my boyfriend. Okay gang," she returned to the matter at hand. "How do we deal with Angel? Willow said something about this Orb thing�"

"The Orb of Thesuleh, yeah," Willow answered.

"Right," Buffy agreed. "Miss Calendar, can you do the spell?"

"If Willow can tell me where she found it in the first place," Jenny answered solemnly. "But it occurs to me, we should at least know where Angelus is when I cast the spell. For our safety as well as his."

"Well, he'll be here at the school tonight," Willow answered. "In the computer lab, actually. He'll try to kill Jenny, to keep her from restoring his soul."

Giles felt a familiar dread creep up on him, a clammy chill running down his back. "How did she survive this encounter?"

Willow sat silently, her eyes riveted to the table in front of her. Noticing Willow's downcast expression, Jenny answered, "Evidently I didn't." Giles shuddered briefly, but Jenny hastily added, "But hey, forewarned is forearmed and all that. If he expects me in my classroom, I won't disappoint him!"

"No, absolutely not!" Giles barked suddenly. "I will not let you sacrifice yourself to stop Angelus!"

"Rupert," Jenny answered calmly, "I'm not about to go in there unarmed. I'll be ready for him."

"Correction, Miss Calendar," Buffy answered. "We'll be ready for him. You're not going in there without back-up."

"Besides," Willow added, "we need at least three of us to cast the spell."

"Okay, so Giles, Miss Calendar, Willow and Cordy'll do the orb thing," Buffy suggested, "while Xander, Oz and I flush out Angelus."

"A well-reasoned plan, Buffy," Giles admitted. "I'm not sanguine about using you as bait, however, Jenny."

"Just remember, Rupert," Jenny flashed her beloved a sly smile, "this worm bites back."

"Well, we got our fourth period classes next," Buffy announced as she stood up from the table and clutched her backpack. "So we meet at the library at five-thirty, and get prepped for tonight."

"Sounds good," Xander agreed, as Oz nodded in silent accord. As they glanced toward Cordy, the cheerleader made a wry face, and finally conceded. "Good thing there's no cheerleading practice tonight. I'll run by the Krispy Kreme after school. Uh, you still like those chocolate cream-filled jobs, Willow?"

Willow nodded once. Giles quipped dryly, "I'm sure we're all grateful for your sacrifice, Cordelia."

As the others filed out of the school library, Buffy gave Willow a reassuring hug. "Don't worry, Will," she promised. "It'll be all right."

"I hope," the redhead answered. Glancing back toward Giles, she added, "Oh, if it helps anyone, I have a ritual to uninvite vampires."

Giles raised an eyebrow in surprise at Willow's statement. "Are you certain it will work?"

"It worked last time," Willow answered cryptically. Giles stared at Willow for a second, before returning his attention to Jenny. The young computer teacher nodded knowingly, saying, "This will take some getting used to."

Buffy gave Willow one last gentle squeeze, before turning to Jenny. Her posture was rigid and straight, her face was an unreadable mask. "Oh, and Miss Calendar," she spoke in a strangely cold, level tone of voice, "if you're feeling bad about all this..." Willow stood by pensively, remembering what Buffy had said to Jenny the last time she witnessed this scene.

Buffy sagged her shoulders, a faintly repentant cast lighting on her features. "You're not the only one. I'm sorry for giving you grief. Thanks, for everything."

"Wait until tonight," Jenny nodded. "If this works, then you can thank me." As Buffy smiled gratefully at the young computer teacher, Jenny felt a strange relief, as though a great weight had been lifted from her shoulders. Not quite absolution, she didn't feel that she's earned it yet for hiding the truth from Buffy. But still, the beginnings of absolution, from both Buffy and Rupert.

Willow, for her part, felt an even greater relief. Already, her presence in the past was making things better. Jenny and Giles were working on reconciliation, and Buffy wasn't angry at Jenny anymore. For the first time since she found herself back in Jenny's house, reliving her past, she felt a rightness of her situation. She was meant to be here. She didn't know what her purpose in being here was, but she knew she had a purpose.

For now, that was enough.

========

Moonlight filtered through the windows of the school, casting long and mysterious shadows over the lockers and classroom doors. Not for the first time, Jenny Calendar wondered why virtually every public building in Sunnydale seemed constructed for the purpose of instilling fear in the populous. The computer lab wasn't as gothic in its lighting, but after hours the fluorescent tubes in the ceiling still made her uneasy.

The fact that she was about to come face to face with the monster who had terrorized her clan over a century ago, and according to Willow had killed her in a different time and place, didn't ease her apprehensions.

The glass orb sat on the desk beside her as she tapped her fingers against the keyboard. Her eyes scanned the lines on her monitor as she searched and cross-referenced various on-line entries regarding the 'Orb of Thesuleh'. "C'mon, c'mon," she urged the school computer, as the vital program she was downloading slowly compiled.

Finally, the download bar reached 100%, and the ancient words appeared on her monitor. She smiled, relief flooding her being, as she popped a blank disc into the drive to save the document. She then hit the 'print' tab, and sighed with relief as the printer began to spit out its precious hard copy. "That's it," she grinned, "This is gonna work. This...will work."

She spun around in her task-chair, stopping suddenly at the sight of the foul thing that had once been a trusted ally sitting in the back of the classroom. Right on cue, Angelus, she thought darkly. Let's hope this works. She lost her grin quickly, a faint fear tingeing her features. "Angel..." she greeted the vampire as she moved away from the computer and toward the door."How did you get in here?"

"I was invited," Angelus smiled. "The sign in front of the school... 'Formatia trans sicere educatorum'."

"'Enter all ye who seek knowledge'," Jenny translated. So far you're right on the money, Willow.

"What can I say?" the fiend giggled as he rose from his seat. "I'm a knowledge seeker."

"Angel," Jenny stammered. Her fear wasn't feigned, but she put up as brave a front as she could. Keep talking, Janna, keep him busy. "I-I-I've got good news."

"I heard. You went shopping at the local boogedy-boogedy store." He picked up the glass object on her desk and toyed with it between his fingers. "The Orb of Thesulah. If memory serves, this is supposed to summon a person's soul... from the ether... store it until it can be transferred." He paused, eyeing the sphere once more. "You know what I hate most about these things?"

Angelus hurled the orb hard into the chalkboard behind Jenny, hard enough to cause her to nearly jump out of her skin. The orb shattered like a fragmentation grenade, a cloud of dust in its wake. He regarded Jenny again, his smile replaced with a snarl. "They're so damn fragile. Must be that shoddy gypsy craftsmanship, huh?"

Angelus circled toward Jenny, backing away from the beast trying to make it to the door before he could strike. "I never cease to be amazed how much the world has changed in just two and a half centuries," he sneered to the frightened young teacher as she reached for the door. Make it look good, she admonished herself. "It's a miracle to me. You put the secrets to restoring my soul in here..." He pushed the computer off her of desk and onto the floor, cracking the hard-drive and shattering the monitor in a display of sparks. "It comes out here." He ripped the paper out of the printer, reading the front pages. "'The Ritual of Restoration.' Wow. This, this brings back memories." He tore the pages cleanly in half from top to bottom.

"Wait," Jenny shouted, "That's your..."

"Oh, my cure?" Angelus barked mirthlessly. "No, thanks. Been there, done that, and deja vu just isn't what it used to be."

The door beside Jenny burst open, splintering at its hinges, and the Slayer shoulder-rolled her way into the lab, water balloons in her hands. "In that case," Buffy announced, "you ever watch Monty Python? And now, for something completely different!" Buffy hurled her first balloon, scoring a direct hit on Angelus's chest. She witnessed his pain at the touch of holy water with a grim satisfaction.

Jenny gasped a sigh of relief. "What took you so long?"

"Had to make sure that Giles' computer completed the download," Buffy answered with feigned sweetness. Angelus moaned in agony as he rose to his feet. Then Buffy's words registered and Angelus began to feel something he wasn't accustomed to. Fear.

Jenny smirked as she recognized the fear that lit Angelus's dark eyes. "You're right, Angel, it is a miracle. Even more so, I can send the information to as many computers as I have email addresses. The library, Willow, the members of my online circle, all with a few keystrokes."

"Yeah, right," Angelus glared painfully at the gypsy woman, desperately summoning his bravado to cover his fear. "Too bad you don't have the Orb anymore."

"You mean the paperweight in Giles' office?" Jenny asked in mock-innocence. "Surely you don't mean the glass ball you just broke. I picked that up at the Everything's-a-Dollar store."

"You...miserable...BITCH!" the enraged vampire spat his words venomously, lurching toward the teacher. "I'll tear your head off of your neck!"

"Not before you go through me, Angelus," Buffy stepped between the vampire and his intended victim, a freshly carved stake in her hands. "Miss Calendar," she whispered to the computer teacher, "you're wanted in the library." Jenny took her cue and dodged away from the enraged vampire. Angelus grasped at Jenny as she retreated, only to have Buffy block his arm, pushing him aside. "Oh no you don't! What say we step outside?"

Angelus regarded Buffy with a feral sneer, his eyes flashing fire. "You think you can take me, little girl?"

"Any time," Buffy challenged, "any place." She lifted her hand in a beckoning motion. "Bring it on."

Angelus flashed Buffy a mockery of a lover's smile, before lunging hard at the Slayer. Buffy ducked backward, rolling as Angelus' body landed on hers, letting the vampire's body slide past her far enough for her to get her hands under his solar plexus. With a sudden thrust, she pushed him off of her, causing him to fly back-first into the lab window. As a rain of shards fell over Buffy, she rolled away from the falling glass with her hands in front of her face, avoiding the larger shards and suffering only superficial cuts over her hands.

Leaping quickly to her feet, Buffy examined the broken window, seeing Angelus chasing toward the library. "I don't think so," she muttered as she charged out the door and flew after the retreating vamp. With a well-timed leap, she tackled Angelus, grabbing onto his legs, causing him to fall hard onto the floor. "Did I say you could leave?" she glared at him, grabbing the lapels of his leather duster, throwing him against the nearest wall where she kept him pinned.

"You're not going to make your next birthday, Sweetness," Angel hissed. "You're aware of that, right?"

"Yeah, right," Buffy grinned, her hands straining against Angelus's shoulders as she kept him pinned to the wall in an iron grip. "Like you could beat me in a fair fight."

"Buffy, Buffy, Buffy," Angelus tut-tutted the Slayer. "Where in our past relationship did you ever get the idea that I would give you a fair fight?"

Anyone else would have missed the slight twitch in the vampire's left eye. Anyone else would have ignored the faint signal that he made with a simple wink. Anyone else would have fallen victim to Angelus's trap.

Buffy, fortunately, wasn't anyone else.

Dropping Angelus, Buffy ducked to the ground, just fast enough to feel a faint breeze as the dagger whizzed past her head. She heard the dull thud of the dagger's blade imbedding itself into the wall behind her. For the length of a second, she noticed the blond hairs that fell to the ground, sheared from her by the passing blade.

As she lifted her head, she noticed the prim figure standing at the other side of the hall, the blood-stained lace dress draping her thin figure like a shroud, the long braided black hair, the eyes that peered out of her eternally youthful face alight with madness. "Dash it all, you moved," Drusilla spoke in an eerie sing-song. "Still have two more tries for the kewpie doll."

Buffy's hand quickly clasped the dagger's handle, yanking it out of the wall just as Angelus rammed his shoulder into her midsection. Buffy felt her lungs deflate rapidly from the sudden pressure of Angelus's body-slam, as her lithe form flew backwards onto the ground. "That should soften her up, m'love," Angelus commented as he turned his attention to the Slayer as she struggled to regain her stance. "Now then," Angelus bowed gallantly toward his favored Childe, who was staring at Buffy with hungry eyes, eyes that gleamed like light reflecting off a knife's edge, "make your daddy proud!"

========

"Jenny!" Giles gasped as his beloved rushed through the library doors and met him at the main table. Willow and Cordy stood up slightly as Giles stepped toward Jenny, meeting her halfway to the table in a fretful embrace. "Thank God you're alright," he whispered into the small of her neck, not wanting to relinquish this gentle contact.

"God," Jenny agreed, "and Willow." Giles turned his attention to Willow, who sat pensively, trying not to pay any attention to Giles and Miss Calendar, her hand absently combing the ends of her long red hair. Noticing that Cordy and the two adults were suddenly giving her odd looks, she commented, "Oh, sorry. It's just that I'm not used to wearing my hair this long. My senior year, I had it cut shorter."

"Don't apologize," Cordy answered, smiling slightly. "Actually, you would look good with shorter hair. Maybe highlights, to set off the red a little, oh, and bangs. You gotta go in for bangs, trust me on this. Hey, how about tomorrow I take you to my regular salon and�"

"Uh, Cordelia," Giles interrupted, "perhaps before making any salon appointments, we can get to the matter at hand?" Jenny flashed Cordy a slight smirk, causing Cordy to shrink slightly in her seat.

"Right," the cheerleader grimaced, "first we save the world, then we get pretty." Willow patted Cordy's hand, grateful for the rare gesture of kindness from her former childhood nemesis.

"We got the spell, Miss Calendar," Willow added, patting the small sheath of printer paper next to her on the table. "I printed them up as soon as they finished downloading on my laptop. Here ya go." She passed the pages to Jenny, who took them with a pleased nod.

"Good," Jenny murmured as she read over the papers. "Willow, you remember the spell from the last time?"

"A little," Willow said. "I remember what herbs were needed to complete the ritual, and Cordy helped me collect those after school."

Cordy nodded as she held up a Ziploc sandwich bag. "Stinky herbs are a go," she announced.

Giles and Jenny took their places at the table as Giles handed Jenny the Orb of Thesuleh reverently. Jenny placed the crystal orb in front of her, and took the bag of herbs from Cordy.

"Okay, people," she announced, holding hands with Giles and Willow, "let's do the deed."

========

"You hurt my Sire, you nasty little slayer," Dru spoke in an eerie sing-song. "I'm going to slap your hand�" she smiled with sinister knowing, "to a pulp!"

Buffy scrambled to her feet, her legs bent beneath her in a defensive posture, her eyes darting, scanning her surroundings for any attack. "Hey, whaddya know, psycho-sister just made a clever!" Buffy's trademark jibe effectively covered her growing fear; for all her seeming sweetness, Dru was as dangerous as any vamp Buffy had encountered before.

"Quit playing with your food," Angelus chided his creation. "Let's finish this thing quickly."

"Good idea," A sudden prick at Angelus' back accompanied the calm voice behind him. "Hands where I can see them." Angelus turned his neck to look over his shoulder, and was greeted by a darkly smiling face. "I'm not the best shot with these," Oz commented as he glanced at the crossbow he held against the vampire's back. "On the other hand, at this range, do I really have to be?"

Angelus raised his hands upward and turned to Buffy, snarling in rage. Buffy smiled sweetly, saying, "Angel, Angel, Angel, where in our history did you think I'd be stupid enough to face you without backup?"

========

Cordy waved the herbs over the table as Jenny had instructed her, while Jenny threw the stones on the table and Giles recited the first incantation; "Quod perditum est, invenietur." What is lost, return.

"Not dead... nor not of the living," Jenny intoned in as clear a voice as she could muster. "Spirits of the interregnum, I call. Gods, bind him. Cast his heart from the... evil... realm..." Jenny's voice trailed, slurred slightly. All four assembled round the table could feel some strange vibrations from the table. Whatever was happening, Jenny was getting the worst of it.

"Miss Calendar?" Cordy asked. "You okay?"

"She's fine," Willow whispered tersely. "I remember this part. It's working..."

========

Buffy jumped in the clear as Drusilla lunged at her, hands curled into talons before her, her voice a guttural howl. "Way to telegraph your shot, sister!" Buffy taunted her opponent.

"Call her off," Oz shoved the end of his crossbow into the small of Angelus's back. "I won't say it again!"

"Easy, bro, easy," Angelus whispered in a calm voice. "I don't want to see unnecessary blood shed here." He smiled almost serenely, fixing Oz with a dark glare. "No, wait a minute," he added with a chuckle. "Yes I do!"

His right hand shot toward Oz like lightning, seizing the musician's neck roughly and throwing him headfirst into the sidewalk with a pile driver force. Buffy and Xander stood by in shocked silence as Angelus casually lifted the fallen teen by his head. "What do you know?" he sneered, "You won't say it again. Or anything else." With a quick clean motion, Angel twisted Oz's head halfway around, neatly snapping his neck.

========

The magic that Jenny was commanding was tiring her rapidly; she began panting like a marathon runner after crossing the finish line. "Return..." she shouted, "I call on you..." Her head slumped forward, causing Giles and Cordy to fret. "Jenny!" Giles called out to his lover, "Jenny, speak to me! What's happening?"

"It's happening," Willow answered solemnly. "Just like it happened to me."

Just as suddenly, Jenny's head whipped up, and her eyes began staring intently at the Orb before her. "Te implor, Doamne," she chanted in Rumanian, "nu ignora aceasta rugaminte." I implore you, Lord, do not ignore this request. "Nici mort, nici al fiintei..." Neither dead, nor of the living...

"Uh, is this a good thing?" Cordy asked nervously. Willow nodded without speaking. Just as it happened to her, it was now happening to Jenny. It was working...

========

"OZ!" Buffy screamed as Angelus dropped the lifeless body to the ground like a sack of wheat. "Angelus, you son of a BITCH!" She charged toward the gloating figure of Angelus, only to be blocked by Drusilla.

"Stay away from Daddy!" Dru shrieked, slamming her shoulder into Buffy's midsection. Buffy threw herself backward as she fell, rolling neatly and landing squarely on her feet.

"Get back, Buffy," Xander shouted, and Buffy dodged without asking. As she backed away from Dru, she barely glimpsed the site of a wooden crossbow bolt shooting through Dru's blouse. Within seconds, the insane vampire exploded into a shower of dust.

"NOOOOOO!" Angelus cried into the night, wailing at the loss of his beloved. "Xander, I'm going to do you messy!" He grabbed the crossbow from Oz's dead fingers and aimed it squarely at Xander.

========

"Lasa orbita sa fie vasul care-i va transporta, sufletul la el." Jenny continued to chant. Let this Orb be the vessel that will carry his soul to him.

"Somebody speak English," Cordy implored. Between the slowly rising library table and the strange glow emanating from Jenny's eyes, she was seriously in freak-out mode.

========

Buffy charged at Angelus, leaping forward with her right foot forward. Thrusting her foot forward, she kicked the crossbow out of the vampire's hand, causing Angelus to fall back, yelping in pain. "Never again!" Before Angelus could recover, Buffy knocked him down, straddling his waist with her knees. "You won't ever get a chance to kill anyone, ever again!" She pulled a stake out of her jacket, and raised it over Angelus' chest. "You're going down tonight!"

========

Jenny cried out, "Asa sa fie! Asa sa fie! Acum!" So it shall be! So it shall be! Now!

========

Buffy lifted the stake above her head, preparing for the final thrust, when Angelus's body lurched violently beneath her. Xander rushed to her side, still brandishing his crossbow. "What's happening Buffy?"

"It's working..." Buffy murmured as she lowered her stake. "It's working. His soul is being restored." She began to lift herself off of Angelus' body, watching as his eyes began to glow red, and his body spasmed in pain.

"Yeah, well," Xander snarled as he aimed his crossbow at Angelus' heart, "too little, too late."

"No," Buffy growled as she stood up, pushing Xander's arm away, "put it down. Angelus doesn't get the easy way out. Not this time."

========

"ACUM!" Jenny shouted one last time, as the Orb flared brighter than a summer sun, then fell cold and still. The table lowered gently, and Jenny exhaled deeply, shaking her head awake. Giles rushed to her side as she tried to stand up, gladly accepting Giles' arm as a support.

Giles turned to Willow. "Go out there, but keep your distance. We need to know if it worked."

"Gotcha," Willow nodded as she rushed out the door.

========

Angel finally stopped convulsing and lay still for a moment, before his eyes opened and he began to lift himself off of the ground. "Buffy�" he stammered, "wha-what happened?"

Buffy stood silently before Angel, her arms crossed protectively. Angel had considered moving toward her, but the stake she still held in her hand made him reconsider. "What's going on?" Angel asked as he turned around, surveying the damage around him. Buffy and Xander greeted his question with silence, but the unforgiving rage that smoldered in their eyes gave him all the answer he needed. "Oh my God," he whispered. "Did I�" His eyes rested on the lifeless form of Daniel Osbourne, and he shuddered. He stood alone, knowing without asking what he had done, before turning back to Buffy and Xander.

"Buffy," he pleaded, "I'm so sorry. I don't have any memory of what happened, but..."

"Shut up," Buffy barked at him. "I do not want to hear another word out of your mouth. Now, or ever." She walked toward Angel, cold fury freezing her face into a mask of pure hatred. As he looked at her, Angel realized that what he had done as Angelus would never be forgotten, or forgiven. "Angel," Buffy spoke through clenched teeth, "I'm not going to repeat myself, so pay very close attention." She grabbed the lapels of his duster jacket, pulling him toward her until his face was an inch away from hers. "Run, Angel. Run far, run fast, run away from here and never look back. If I ever see you again after tonight, soul or no soul, you die. Don't say anything, just nod if you understand." Buffy released her grip on Angel's lapels, causing the vamp to drop to his feet.

Angel nodded once, and walked away rapidly. Once he was fifty feet away from the school, he turned back toward Buffy. "I love you," he spoke plainly.

"Go to hell," Buffy answered just as plainly.

Angel shrugged his shoulders in defeat and turned away. He walked out of sight, and out of Buffy's life.

Buffy then joined Xander as he knelt before Oz's body, gently shutting his eyelids. All the rage and sorrow he felt when he first encountered the vampire that had been his friend Jesse surfaced and redoubled as he gazed at his lost friend. "Buffy," he said, struggling to keep his voice from cracking with his grief, "we'd better go tell Willow the bad news."

Buffy stared over Xander's shoulder for a second. "Too late," she stammered, pointing toward the library building. Xander craned his head around, and immediately wished that he hadn't.

Willow stood quietly at the doorway, her eyes wide with shock and grief. Her jaw hung slack as she witnessed Xander hovering over Oz's body, and tears began to stream freely from her eyes.

"No," she whispered, "no, no, no, it wasn't supposed to happen like this..." Buffy stood up and tentatively moved toward Willow, holding out her hand. Before Buffy could say anything, Willow jerked away, and ran away. In a heartbeat, she was gone.

Chapter Three

Turn and Face the Stranger

I still don't know what I was waiting for
And my time was running wild
A million dead-end streets and
Every time I thought I'd got it made
It seemed the taste was not so sweet
So I turned myself to face me
But I've never caught a glimpse
Of how the others must see the faker
I'm much too fast to take that test
Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes
(Turn and face the stranger)
Ch-ch-Changes
Don't want to be a richer man
Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes
(Turn and face the stranger)
Ch-ch-Changes
Just gonna have to be a different man
Time may change me
But I can't trace time

--David Bowie
"Changes"

Newbie vampires generally didn't take this long to dust. Xander had joined Buffy on enough patrols, witnessed her dusting enough newly sired vamps, to know this. Usually a newbie attacked without thinking or planning an attack, allowing Buffy to easily ram a stake in his or her heart. No muss, no fuss.

But tonight, it was different. The vamps weren't different; they were your garden-variety newbies, all hunger and appetite, mindless under the throes of the madness that came with needing to feed for the first time.

No, Xander mused as he dodged the severed limb that Buffy had ripped away from one vamp before staking her, it was Buffy that was different. She was frustrated, at odds with herself. He had seen her in this state before, shortly after her birthday, when she had blamed herself for the return of Angelus. She held herself responsible, even though she had no cause to blame herself. She had no idea about the curse that bound Angel's soul, and how it would be lost to him during a moment of pure happiness. As much as Xander resented the knowledge that Buffy had made love to Angel, he would always empathize with his friend and hero over her grief.

As he empathized with her grief now.

It had been a week since Miss Calendar had succeeded in casting the spell to restore Angel's soul. One week since they watched Angelus callously snuff out the life of their friend Oz. One week since Buffy drove her former lover away, vowing never to forgive him for Oz's death.

One week since they had last seen Willow.

The image of Willow staring at the cooling body of her once-beloved was etched into Xander's memory and would never leave him. If in his old age he would forget everything else that had happened to him in his lifetime, he would remember Willow's unblinking eyes, the tears flowing freely; her mouth hanging open, her jaw slack and unmoving, shock and terror settling into her face.

One more reason to hate Angelus, Xander mused to himself. He may not have known Oz very well in the few months that he was part of their gang, but Xander did acknowledge that the taciturn young guitarist was a good friend, a stand-up sort of guy, and above all else he was good to Willow. Soul or no soul, Xander would never forgive Angel for killing Oz.

He certainly wouldn't ever forgive him for making Willow cry.

And if she never returned to the gang as a result of his actions, Xander would hunt Angel down and stake the vampire himself!

Xander returned his attention to the Slayer, who had finally dispatched the last of her sparring partners with a stake thrust squarely into his heart. She stood stock still, her arms slowly lowering to her sides, her right hand grasping her stake in a death-grip. She glanced around her, looking for more undead victims. She snarled as she scanned the area with wolfish eyes, "Anyone else want a piece of me?"

"Uh, I think you scared off every vamp west of the Continental Divide," Xander offered hesitantly. Buffy glowered at Xander with an unpleasant fire in her eyes, almost challenging him to risk her anger by speaking further. "Look, what say we call it a night and head home?"

Buffy stared hard at Xander, her features hardening into a 'game-face' that would intimidate any demon that dared to cross her. "It won't be enough, will it?" she shouted to the night sky, lifting her stake into the air and shaking it desperately. "It'll never be enough. No matter how many I take down, there will always be more waiting. Always waiting for me to turn my back, waiting for me to drop my guard...waiting...to kill someone who's only crime was being my friend..." Her grip slackened, and the stake dropped soundlessly to the dirt beside her. She lowered her arms, the strength leaking out of her like air from a punctured tire. Her shoulders sagged, her head lowered and her eyes half-closed. Xander rushed to her side, noticing the fatigue and exhaustion that threatened to overtake her. "C'mon, Buffy," he rushed to her side and gently shouldered her weight next to him. "Let's get you home." Buffy, too tired and too depressed to put up even a token resistance, allowed him to lead her out of the cemetery.

As the tired warrior and her best male-friend ventured toward the cemetery gate, Buffy glanced beside a familiar gravestone. She lifted her hand, signaling for Xander to stop, as they read the epitaph that Devon had given his former bandmate;

"Daniel 'Oz' Osbourne
1982-1998
While My Guitar Gently Weeps..."

Looking downward, Buffy grimaced at the pile of loose rocks at the foot of the stone. "Geez, wouldja look at that," she murmured. "Some a-hole's piling rocks on top of his grave. Can someone say 'no respect'? What say we clean it up before we head home?" She lifted herself from Xander's side, slowly moving toward the grave.

"Don't, Buffy," Xander barked at her, stopping the Slayer suddenly. Buffy turned toward Xander, puzzlement furrowing her brow. "It's not vandalism. It's Willow."

"Willow?" Buffy twisted her head rapidly, nearly giving herself whiplash, hoping to see her friend again.

"She's the one who put the stones on his grave," Xander explained. "It's a Jewish thing. She told me once that Jewish people place stones on the graves of their loved ones instead of flowers, because flowers fade and die, while stones are eternal."

Buffy stared at the stones. "She must have been here every day since the funeral. God, she must hate me. I mean, if Oz hadn't been there�"

"Okay, Buffy," Xander gently placed his hands on the Slayer's shoulders, quieting her rant, "stop that line of thought now. You are not, repeat, NOT, permitted to blame yourself for anything you didn't do. You want to blame someone for Oz's death, blame Angelus. As for Willow hating you, I've known her for only forever, and I can tell you that she couldn't spell 'hate' if you spotted her the 'h', the 't' and the 'e'! She does not hate you. She does not hate, period."

Buffy's questing gaze reached Xander's eyes and saw the truth in them, the truth of his words. She turned back toward the grave, her eyes resting on the stones that her friend had placed on the headstone. She wanted to believe Xander's assertions. She wanted to believe that the person who placed the stones so reverently on the grave would never hate, that the girl she called 'best friend' would forgive her for failing Oz, or more likely declare that forgiveness wasn't required.

But she knew something else. She knew that the body of Willow Rosenberg now housed a soul far older than her years on earth.

A soul that, out of rage, had killed.

A soul that, out of despair, tried to destroy all creation.

A soul whose motives Buffy couldn't fathom.

A cold clammy dread grabbed Buffy's heart. More than Angelus, more than Spike, more than the Master, she feared that she had lost her best friend.

========

Buffy approached her house without speaking to Xander. The young man silently insisted that she not try to go home alone. The adrenalin charge she received from fighting the vamps had worn off and all that was holding her together was Red Bull and good intentions. To worn out and frazzled to argue, Buffy accepted Xander's company without speaking.

As she neared the front door of her home, a new fear hit her; her mother was probably waiting up for her, angry that she stayed out late with no good reason. She had considered her usual means of late-night entrance; climbing the tree up to the window of her bedroom, but was too weakened for even that maneuver. Her only hope was that her mother was working late at the art gallery.

That hope was dashed the moment she opened the door. Joyce Summers, arms crossed over her chest, eyes narrowed as she regarded her daughter. Buffy felt a black lump of acid form in the pit of her stomach, knowing beyond all doubt that the words 'you're grounded' would figure prominently in the conversation.

Xander, recognizing the glare on Mrs. Summers' face, immediately charged to the rescue. "Uh, hi, Mrs. Summers, sorry I didn't tell you I was borrowing your daughter. She was helping me on my, uh, history paper. World War I."

"Right," Buffy nodded vigorously, grasping for anything she could remember about the first World War. "Remember, Xander, it was the assassination of the Arch Duke Ferdinand that started the war."

"And all this time I thought Ferdinand was a bull," Xander quipped. "Uh, I'd better be going. Don't bother to see me out, Mrs�"

"Xander," Joyce barked suddenly, "you'd better come with us. Come on, Buffy, we'll discuss your lame excuse later. Right now we have to go to the hospital."

"Hospital, Mom?" Buffy asked blankly.

"Mr. Giles called me while you were out," Joyce answered, a weariness in her voice as she grabbed the purse hanging from the doorknob and headed out the door, with Buffy and Xander close behind. "Apparently Willow collapsed at his front door tonight. He's bringing her to the hospital and I promised that we'd meet her there."

Buffy blanched at the statement, and at the worry lines etched deeply into her mother's face. She could almost hear Xander's teeth grinding behind her, as her own heart began hammering in her chest. Without a word she followed her mother out of the house and toward the jeep with Xander in pursuit. "Did Giles say what was wrong, Mrs. Summers?" Xander asked as he followed the Summers women.

"He said that it looked like a severe flu," Joyce answered as she opened the driver's side door. Xander quietly jumped into the back seat while Buffy took shotgun. Without another word, Joyce started the engine and drove off toward the hospital.

========

Giles and Jenny greeted the others when they arrived at the hospital, saying that Willow was in the Intensive Care Unit, and that's all the doctors would say. All they could do now was wait, which aggravated Buffy no end; if there was one thing Buffy was terrible at doing, it was waiting. Especially at a hospital.

Cordelia quietly entered the waiting room, carrying a box of Krispy Kreme donuts. She and Xander had argued earlier when Xander insisted on tagging along with Buffy on her patrol. She had accused Xander of being too concerned about Buffy, especially considering that he was dating Cordy now. After hearing about Willow's medical emergency, Cordy found it harder to justify her anger toward Xander. "Here, guys," she whispered, "thought you could use a sugar rush while we wait." She placed the box on a nearby table, adding, "Xander calls dibs on the chocolate frosted one, though." She glanced at Xander, a comforting smile on her face, which Xander returned warmly. Giles and Joyce both reached for a donut, but Buffy sat quietly in her seat.

Buffy started to scan the waiting room before staring down the clean white hallway at the antiseptic white doors of the ICU, watching while white suited doctors and nurses hurried to and fro, carrying white trays and pushing white carts. "Why do hospitals have to be white?" she muttered to no one in particular. Xander craned his head in Buffy's direction, a question forming on his brow. "Seriously," she continued, noticing Xander's casual interest. "Why all this white? Can't you have sterile environments in earth tones? How about some wooden floors, or paisley seat covers or something, huh?" Shaking her head in frustration, she added, "Sorry, guys, I'm not coping. I just wish that they'd tell us what's wrong with Willow!" She slumped in her seat and lowered her head in quiet rage.

Xander, Giles and Jenny glanced at the agitated Slayer, then turned back toward Joyce. Mrs. Summers nodded sympathetically toward her daughter. "She's always hated hospitals," Joyce explained. "Her cousin Celia died in a hospital when she was eight." The others nodded quietly, as Buffy closed her eyes and slouched further in her seat, her misery compounding as the seconds ticked by in agonizing slowness.

Finally a doctor emerged from the ICU and approached the gathered friends. "Excuse me," the doctor asked Giles, "I'm Doctor Garber. Are you Miss Rosenberg's father?"

"N-no," Giles stammered in slight discomfort, the fiberglass waiting room seat aggravating the crick in his back. "I'm one of her teachers, Rupert Giles. Jenny and I," he hastily gestured toward his girlfriend, who nodded helpfully, "we're teachers at Sunnydale High School."

"Ah," Dr. Garber answered calmly. "Actually, she has 'Rupert Giles' listed as her contact on her school ID, in case of emergency. I thought you might be her legal guardian or some such."

"Sadly no," Giles answered. "Her parents, however, are frequently absent," ('And as far as I'm concerned, she's better off without them,' he thought but didn't say) "so I suppose I'm the next best thing."

"I see," Dr. Garber nodded non-committally. "Anyway, Willow is recovering from a rather serious flu. Her fever just broke, however�" The doctor's statement was interrupted by two audible sighs from Buffy and Xander. "�so she's going to pull through. I would like to keep her here for observation, however. We'll be wheeling her into a private room shortly, but we're not sure how she'll handle visitors. She's still a little delirious."

As Dr. Garber finished speaking, the ICU doors flew open, as orderlies wheeled out a steel gurney. Buffy caught sight of a flash of red hair, and jumped out of her seat, rushing toward the gurney, the others rapidly following her. "Willow," Buffy soothed, "you're gonna be okay. Just rest, honey. Just rest."

"N-no," Willow began to thrash back and forth on the gurney, moaning softly as the orderlies gently restrained her and mopped the sweat off of her brow. "No, got-ta stop-stop the v-vampires�the K-kin-nderstod�"

"Uh, don't worry," Giles spoke gently, trying to calm the babbling young woman. "We'll take care of those nasty vampires. You just relax and leave everything to us." Turning toward Dr. Garber, he added, "You were quite right, she is still slightly delirious."

"Perhaps we'd better wait until tomorrow for her to see any visitors," Dr. Garber suggested, as he and the orderlies carted Willow away. "She should be fine then."

"Yes, thank you," Giles answered. Buffy tried to follow the gurney, but Giles gently tugged at her arm, holding her back. Buffy turned around and looked at the others. "You heard the doctor, right? She's gonna be okay. That's good, right?"

Xander nodded vigorously. "Yeah, good. Better than good, even. Uh, goodest. Or best, or whatever, shutting up now." Jenny valiantly attempted to suppress a chuckle as Xander blushed furiously, only to be shot down by Giles' withering stare. Jenny composed herself, but could not disguise the mischief that glowed in her eyes. A mischief that Giles secretly found attractive.

Joyce stood apart from the two lovers, her arms crossed defensively over her chest, her face set in a hard scowl as she glared at her daughter. "Buffy," she spoke in quiet, bitten-off tones, "I would like to talk to you. Alone." She spun on her heel and walked briskly toward the main entrance. Buffy slowly followed her retreating mother.

"Hey," Xander called back, "you think she's gonna ground you?"

Buffy turned her head slightly, a world-weary cast to her eyes. "If I'm lucky."

========

Buffy sat in the passenger's side of her mother's jeep, her head slumped in defeat and gnawing fear. She had tried twice to speak to her mother, but Joyce only raised her hand in a curt motion, cutting off all communication. Buffy sat silently for the rest of the trip, staring at her mother, who refused to even turn her attention to her. She kept her head faced firmly forward, her eyes riveted to the road ahead of her. The drive back from the hospital became the longest period in Buffy's life.

Finally, the Jeep pulled up in the garage. Joyce stopped the jeep, shut off the ignition and exited the vehicle. As Buffy climbed out of the jeep, she gazed hard at the exterior of the house, as her mother unlocked the back door and entered the house without even glancing once at Buffy. Better get used to this place, Buffy thought, because odds are I won't see the outside of it until I graduate.

Buffy entered the house on leaden feet, feeling like she was walking the last mile toward the firing squad. As she closed the door behind her, she swallowed hard and lifted her head to face her mother. Joyce Summers looked back at her, her brow furrowed in concentration, the tendons in her neck stretching against the skin. Buffy knew that her mother was trying desperately to remain calm.

"Buffy," Joyce finally began, "you must understand that sending you to that mental hospital in Los Angeles after the, uh, incident in Hemery was the most difficult decision that I had to make in my life."

"Mom, I�" Buffy began, but Joyce cut her off with a sharp wave of her hand. "Please, Buffy, let me finish. I was worried for you. You had run away to Las Vegas, I had seen your diary, I didn't want to believe what you were writing down. I was scared. I admit that. I was losing my baby and I didn't know what to do about it. And no, before you say anything, I'm not blaming you for my divorce from Hank." With a derisive snort, she added, "I blame that tramp secretary of his. Anyway," she collected herself, "I believed that I was doing the right thing. I thought that it had worked. That you had gotten those fantasies about vampires out of your system." Buffy sat motionless, a black bile rising in her throat. She had prayed for so long that she would never have to reveal her darkest secret to her mother, but now she didn't see what other choice she had.

"But then there's tonight," Joyce continued, "and Willow's sudden outburst about fighting vampires. Not only do you still persist in this little delusion of yours, you're dragging your friends into it. All I want is to understand why."

A dam broke within Buffy's psyche, and the floodgates to her soul had opened. "I didn't drag anyone into anything," Buffy shouted, unable, and not particularly willing, to control her rage. "You want to know the truth, Mom? Here's the truth! There are vampires out there. And lucky me, I'm the one who's destined to stop them!"

"Buffy, keep your voice down!" Joyce hissed at her daughter. "You want the neighbors to think you're crazy?"

"Why the hell not?" Buffy shrieked. "You do, don't you?"

"I didn't say that�" Joyce started, but Buffy shouted her down; "Oh, then why did you have me locked up? For my sinuses?" Buffy prowled around her mother, her Slayer side rapidly taking over. Joyce searched her daughter's eyes for any sign of recognition, of any sense that this was her daughter. A spark of Buffy was still in there, inside her charcoal-gray orbs, but it was subdued by the predatory fire, the snarl on her lips, the body tensed like a coiled spring ready to strike.

"Look around you, Mom," Buffy snarled at Joyce. "How many people you know have disappeared without a trace since we moved here? How do you explain the fact that this town's got more cemeteries than Los Angeles, and only one fifth of the population? Remember last year, when the doctor told you that you fell on a barbecue fork? WE DON'T HAVE A BARBEQUE FORK!"

Joyce gasped hard, desperately trying to regain her breath. "Buffy," she stammered, "I don't understand half of what goes on here, but vampires? I cannot believe that!"

"Maybe you should hang out with me some night," Buffy suggested angrily. "But I warn you, don't eat beforehand, or you'll toss it up! Forget it, Mom, you'd never believe me anyway. Just trust me that vampires do exist." With a frustrated growl, Buffy turned toward the door. "In fact, I hope that a lot of them exist right now, because I need to work out some aggression! Don't wait up, I won't be back for a long while." Buffy pushed hard against the door, nearly blowing it off its hinges as she headed outside.

"BUFFY ANNE SUMMERS!" Joyce screamed as she followed her daughter outside of the house. "I am not through talking to you!"

"I beg to differ," a sultry British voice called from the shadows, a voice that Buffy recognized all too well. Before Buffy could react, a taloned hand grabbed Joyce's throat, dragging her off the porch. With lightning speed, the fiend held Joyce captive, twisting her right arm behind her back. "Trust me, Miss Summers," the bottle-blond vampire spat, his words poison in Joyce's ears, "you're through talking. In fact, you'll be through breathing in a few moments."

"Back away slowly, Spike," Buffy intoned levelly. "You have one shot at walking away alive, I suggest you take it."

"Ooh, scary scary," Spike hissed, his lips curled into a mad-dog snarl. "You think you know how it's gonna go down, don't you, Slayer? Here's how it goes down! You took Dru from me, you killed my dark angel. You killed the one thing that made my unlife bearable. You stole everything from me, now I'm gonna take everything away from you!" He turned his head toward Joyce, his face contorting into a sickening mockery of humanity; horned brow, yellow eyes, regarding Joyce as a hungry man would eye a Big Mac. The terrified woman stared at the thing that held her, her eyes big as baseballs, her mouth hanging unhinged, her heart jammed in her throat. There was no way to deny or explain away what was happening. This thing called 'Spike' was a vampire. And she was at his mercy.

"Say goodnight, Gracie," he crooned as he bared his fangs and lowered his mouth toward Joyce's throat.

"Goodnight, Gracie," Buffy called out as she launched herself toward Spike. Sailing past her mother with a flying kick, her right foot connected with Spike's jaw with a sickening thud. Spike fell back, releasing Joyce who stood unmoving, almost catatonic as her daughter delivered a vicious uppercut to the monster's jaw. "Mom!" Buffy shouted, "Duck and cover! Get down!" Joyce backed away slowly, still watching the display before her.

"Y'know," Spike spat out as he lunged toward Buffy, "I used to like this world. I mean look at it; it has Manchester United, the Love Boat and people." He grabbed Buffy by her shoulders and threw her into a nearby tree, before punching her in the gut. "Billions of them, walking around like Happy Meals with legs." He ducked as Buffy righted herself and threw a sloppy right hook at the vampire. "But all that means Jack without someone to share it with," he continued as he and Buffy circled each other, "someone like Dru. You killed my sire, didja know that?" Spike thrust his hand forward in a series of rapid jabs which Buffy evaded easily. "I just can't let that go without retribution, can I? I mean, how could I live with myself if I�UGH!"

Joyce watched in silence as Buffy shoved a crude wooden stake hard into Spike's chest, and the blond vampire exploded in a cloud of ashes. As the ashes settled, Buffy clapped the dust off of her hands, grimly regarding her surroundings. "Elvis has left the building," she announced.

Buffy moved toward her mother and offered her hand to her. Joyce flinched for a second, causing Buffy to back away. "Th-that..thing," Joyce stammered quietly, "th-that was a v-vampire, wasn't it?"

Buffy nodded slowly. "Yep."

"And this D-dru he was talking about," Joyce continued, "she was also a vampire?"

"Yep."

Joyce swallowed hard and continued her line of thought, half-aware of her daughter's presence. "And you, you just�" she paused, not wanting to even think the word.

"Slew them," Buffy supplied the word.

"Why?" Joyce's single-word question caught Buffy by surprise. She wasn't condemning; she was simply trying to understand.

Buffy cocked her head slightly. "Because he tried to kill you."

Joyce shook her head in frustration. "No, that's not what I meant. Why? Why do you do it? Why are you the Slayer?"

Buffy nodded in understanding. "This could take all night to explain, Mom."

Joyce shook her head. "I'm not going anywhere. I just need to know, why do you do�what you do?"

Buffy stood before her mother, silently praying for understanding. "Because nobody else can." She stepped forward, offering her outstretched hand. "Please, Mom, I want to explain this to you. I never meant to hurt you by lying but I couldn't tell you about my freaky life. Please, Mom. Let's go inside, I'll make some coffee, and we can hash this out. Please."

Joyce looked at the outstretched hand before her, and at the girl who held it before her. The girl who gave her a crude homemade Mother's Day card when she was five. The girl who cried fiercely when her cousin Celia had died when she was eight. The girl who had been expelled from Hemery for burning down the school gym.

The girl who, for all the grief that she had given her over the years was still her daughter.

Joyce slowly reached out to her daughter, taking her small but incredibly strong hand in her own. "Better make it decaf," Joyce quipped feebly. "I doubt I'll be sleeping tonight anyway." Buffy flashed a slight smile for her mother's benefit, as the two women slowly approached their back door, and Buffy steeled herself for the thousands of questions she knew her mother would ask.

It was going to be a long night.

Chapter four

Time Keeps On Slipping

"Time keeps on slipping and slipping and slipping,
Into the future...
I want to fly like an eagle
To the sea
Fly like an eagle
Let my spirit carry me
I want to fly like an eagle
Til I'm free
Fly on through the revolution..."

--Steve Miller Band
"Fly Like and Eagle"

The first sensation that pricked Willow's awareness was the dappled sunlight filtering through thin floral curtains. She lifted her arm to shield her eyes from the light, only to feel a sharp jab in her arm. Slowly looking down, she noticed the tube in her arm leading to a plastic pouch on a rack by her bed.

She tried to lift herself out of the bed, only to feel a gentle pressure against her shoulder. "Easy, Willow," Buffy said soothingly as she gently pushed Willow back onto the bed. "Don't try to make any sudden moves. You're just recovering from a nasty flu." Giles sat in a nearby chair, looking anxiously at Willow's frail form.

"B-Buffy?" Willow muttered weakly.

"As famed in song and story," Buffy smiled, holding out a small white paper bag. "And I brought some friends, Ben and Jerry." She handed Willow the paper bag, and Willow withdrew a pint of Cherry Garcia. "Still your favorite, right?"

"Thanks," Willow smiled faintly. She accepted the spoon Buffy handed her and slowly ate a small spoonful of cherry ice cream.

"I must say," Giles started, and Willow couldn't mistake the paternal emotion that pervaded his proper British demeanor, "that you gave us quite a scare yesterday."

"The doc told me you're recovering from that flu that's going 'round," Buffy commented. "That must be why you've been a no-show at school."

"Buffy, I�" Willow started, but Buffy rose her hand to interrupt quietly.

"No, Willow," Buffy assured her. "You don't have to explain anything. After all that happened..." she paused slightly, gauging Willow's features, determining whether she should continue. "Look, all I'm saying is that I understand. You needed to cope, you needed some downtime alone, to decompress, to mourn�Xander told me about the stones on the grave. I understand, Willow. Don't worry."

"No, you don't understand," Willow stammered hurriedly, "it's not like that. I mean, yeah, I did need to get my head on straight, but the flu is different. I went out and infected myself."

Giles startled so hard he nearly fell out of his seat. Buffy's head snapped back so fast that Willow wasn't convinced she didn't suffer whiplash. "Whatchu talkin' 'bout, Willow?"

Willow inhaled slowly and began. "It involves time-travel, Buffy." Buffy lowered her head slightly; she had half-expected Willow to revert to her younger, more innocent manner after Angelus killed Oz and Jenny Calendar succeeded in resouling him. She found herself again aching for her friend, wishing fruitlessly that she could alleviate the pain that Willow felt, the horrors she had witnessed.

"There's a demon in this hospital, Buffy," Willow began. "It's called die Kinderstod, its name means 'child death', and it's been killing children in this hospital."

"Okay," Buffy squared her shoulders, shifting effortlessly into 'Slayer-mode'. "Describe it, and I'll take it down."

"That's the thing," Willow groaned faintly. "I don't know what it looks like. Y'see, only little kids or people who are very sick can see it."

"So you got yourself sick," Buffy mused, half to herself, her voice rising slightly, "so you could take on die Kindergarten yourself?"

Giles for his part barely contained his anger. "What the Devil were you thinking?" he practically exploded. "I happen to be aware of the legends of die Kinderstod, and know how powerful he's reputed to be. Did you think you could contend with a demon that powerful in your current condition?"

"Giles," Buffy shot back at her Watcher in a quietly intense monotone, "calm down. Anger's not helping anything here." Giles gritted his teeth but returned to his silent observation. She noticed Willow sinking back in her bed, her eyes widening slightly in fear. She calmed herself and lowered her voice. "Look, I'm not mad at you or anything; I'm just trying to understand. Did this demon do something to me in the future? Like maim me or something?"

Willow gave her head an almost imperceptible shake. "No, nothing like that. But I just couldn't let you face die Kinderstod alone." She paused for a moment, and Buffy could see the tendons in her neck tightening. "Your mom told us about Celia. How she died in a hospital." Buffy said nothing, but nodded once in confirmation. "Buffy, die Kinderstod killed Celia. He climbed on top of her in her hospital bed and...and..." She felt hot tears fall on her cheek and made no motion to dab them away. "I'm sorry, Buffy. I just didn't want you to hurt anymore." Her head drooped miserably on her chest, causing Giles to relinquish the last spark of anger he felt for Willow's recklessness.

"Sh, sh, sh," Buffy immediately scooped her friend up in her arms and slowly smoothed her hand over Willow's back. "It's gonna be okay. We'll take down this Kinderstod thing. You and me."

"You're not gonna infect yourself, are you?" Willow asked, worry etching her brow. "I mean, I wouldn't mind the company in the hospital and all, but..."

"Relax," Buffy gently placed a finger on Willow's lips, effectively silencing her babble. "After visiting hours tonight, I'll swing by and we'll hunt him together. You be my eyes, Willow. You tell me where to hit and I'll hit. Okay?"

"Sounds like a plan," Giles admitted. "I apologize for snapping at you, Willow. I was merely concerned for you. You must understand, unlike Buffy who fights her destiny tooth and nail," he punctuated this comment with a not-unkind glare at the frowning Slayer, "you jumped into the fight with both feet. Believe me; I would never decry your courage. Just your occasional recklessness. I hope you understand."

"Yeah, I guess I do," Willow admitted. "It's just that so much has happened, or will happen I mean. And my trying to change things before blew up in my face...I mean, there must be some reason I'm here, in the past. To make up for all the pain I caused, all the destruction..." She fell silent, unable to fully explain to herself, let alone her best friend and mentor, her innermost heart.

A poignant silence stretched before them, broken finally by Giles' gentle voice. "I won't lie to you, Willow, and say that I understand fully what you've gone through. But consider this; you say that you've been given a chance to atone for your mistakes. Perhaps the best way to accomplish that feat would be to learn from your own example. To avoid the pitfalls that led to your dependency on black magic in the first place."

"In other words," Willow said sadly, "to hang up the wand and cauldron and leave the magic to the experts."

"Nothing like that," Giles shook his head. "Just to approach any studies in magic slowly. I confess that I may have let my own experiences cloud my judgment, and for that I apologize. I believe the power that you tapped into is still a part of your psyche, even if your younger body hasn't had the chance to acclimate itself to such power. Jenny�uh, Miss Calendar and I spoke at length last night about you, and she wishes to tutor you properly in the disciplines of magic. We both do, actually. Sometimes, it's not so much about knowing how to do a thing, but knowing how not to do a thing that matters."

Willow rose her head, daring to look into Giles' gray-blue eyes. She sensed the truth of his words, the lack of artifice in the tone of his voice, the genuine concern and�she could scarcely believe it but was that pride?�in his eyes. Nodding rapidly, she added, "I'd like that, Giles. But still, what about all the things I know about the immediate future? So much is gonna happen, so many threats, an apocalypse every six months or so practically..."

"Hey, sounds like another day at the office, right Giles?" Buffy quipped, only to win a sour stare from her Watcher. She shrugged her shoulders and fell silent.

Giles returned his attention to Willow. "Perhaps it would be more beneficial, Willow, if you were to write down what you know, while it is fresh in your mind. If you wish I will bring some notebooks tomorrow so you can write down the pertinent facts."

"Could you do that?" Willow asked. "Maybe if I just get it down on paper, I can concentrate on getting my own life back on track."

"I'll bring them with me if you're busy, Giles," Buffy offered. Giles nodded his agreement, and Buffy smiled happily to Willow. "There we are, problem solved. And tonight we'll take care of our hospital boogey-man."

"I'll be glad of that," Willow agreed. "I mean, the sooner we get rid of�" Willow's voice suddenly pitched a couple of notes higher. "Uh, that is the sooner you get my assignments for the next week or so from school tomorrow and get them back to me, the easier it'll be for me to catch up. Oh, hi, Mrs. Summers," she added, waving at the figure in the doorway.

"Hello, Willow," Joyce half-smiled at the nervous redhead. Buffy turned her head toward her mother and waved casually while Giles nodded calmly. "Feeling any better?"

"Yeah, a little," Willow admitted. "Still a little feverish, but Buffy's given me the cure for that." She lifted the ice cream carton and displayed it to Joyce.

Joyce regarded Willow with a hooded expression. "No more nasty vampires around, huh?"

"Uh, vampires," Willow gulped audibly. "Oh, you mean when I was delirious, right? Sorry 'bout that, just an old childhood nightmare. Saw a Hammer Studio film marathon with Xander once over five bags of microwave popcorn when I was a kid. Real cool, but later there was an ick factor..."

"Easy, Willow," Joyce answered knowingly. "Buffy told me about it last night, right after she staked that one vampire, what was his name, Buffy?"

"Spike, Mom," Buffy answered calmly. Turning to Willow, Buffy added, "She knows, Will." Giles swallowed hard, and started to tug at his collar with his finger.

Joyce glanced at the librarian with a mock-angry glare. "There are things I wish to discuss with you later, Mr. Giles," she intoned gently but solemnly. "That is, if you have the time."

"Uh, yes, Mrs. Summers," Giles stammered as he rose from his seat and slowly inched his way toward the door. "I'd be, uh, glad to explain, that is, to answer any questions you may have. Uh, if you'll excuse me," he finished as his hand wrapped around the door handle, "I believe I have an appointment, uh, elsewhere. Yes. Get well soon, Willow, uh, goodbye." He rapidly ducked behind the door and closed it behind him. Buffy started to chuckle at Giles' moment of pure fear despite herself.

"Wow!" Willow whispered. She recalled how this scene had played in her own timeline, and was relieved that Buffy wouldn't have to face being thrown out of her own house in this world. Then she realized what Joyce had said, that Spike was no more. After all that Spike would do to Buffy and the others for so long, the thought of a world without that smug British bastard left her nearly giddy with relief. "So you know about Buffy being the vampire slayer?" Joyce nodded. "And you're cool with that?"

"'Cool' is a relative term," Joyce answered slowly. "Let's just say for now that I'm coping. I'll still be afraid for Buffy and whatever she faces at night, and I'll make her the biggest chocolate cake in history when she retires, but until then I'll stand by her." Flashing a sidelong stare at Buffy, she added, "Just so long as you're no longer dating any vampires."

Buffy couldn't resist the urge to rag on her mother. "This from the woman who once dated a robot."

Joyce scowled at her daughter. "You are a demon-child."

Buffy put on her most innocent face. "I live to torment you," she answered sweetly. "Is that bad?"

Joyce's stern exterior cracked as she chuckled at Buffy's expression. "Daughter's duty, I suppose," she answered, leaning forward and taking her daughter in a welcoming hug.

Willow felt a rare and reassuring warmth suffuse her spirit as she watched Buffy hugging her mother. She was grateful for the chance to witness this hard-won moment of happiness, especially after all that they had gone through, and would go through...

A sudden flash of insight flashed inside Willow's mind, causing her heart to race and a thin sheen of perspiration to form on her brow. "Uh, Buffy," Willow squeaked slightly, "not that I'm not glad to see you and all, cause I am, but I need to talk to your mom for a moment. Alone."

"Uh, sure, Will," Buffy answered, reluctantly leaving her post at Willow's bedside. She considered why Willow would want her out of the room for a moment, but figured that she simply needed a mother figure. With her own parents constantly absent, Buffy realized that it made perfect sense for Willow to see Joyce as a foster-mother type. "You two talk, then I think Xander wanted to spend some Willow-time. You sure you okay, Willow?"

"I'm fine, Buffy," Willow answered. "Thanks for asking though."

"Love ya, Willow," Buffy waved goodbye as she left the room.

Joyce regarded the closed door with a faint air of melancholy. It never quite occurred to her before how little she knew her own daughter. Since seeing Buffy dust that unpleasant vampire Spike the night before, Joyce found herself looking at the last two years of her daughter's life in a new light. All those times she seemed to be starting fights, getting into trouble at school, showing absolutely no responsibility, she was secretly out there, protecting the sleeping world from monsters. She shook her head sadly, praying for patience. Turning back to the girl in the hospital bed, she asked, "What did you want to talk to me about, Willow?"

"Well," Willow hesitated, uncertain exactly how to proceed in this matter. "It's kind of complicated, and I'm pretty sure that you'll think I'm a nutcase halfway through it."

"Willow," Joyce answered, "considering what I've seen recently, I'm prepared to take quite a bit on faith. You're a friend of my daughter's, and I'm grateful for that. You can tell me anything, Willow. If there's anything I can do to help you, I will, with a glad heart."

Willow looked into Joyce's eyes, and saw only acceptance. She took another spoonful of Cherry Garcia for courage, and started; "Mrs. Summers," she started, "you ever watch 'Quantum Leap'?"

========

Joyce exited Willow's room quietly, standing next to the closed door for a second, staring blankly ahead of her as she considered what Willow had told her. She wasn't even aware of her daughter as she approached from the waiting room.

"Hey mom," Buffy asked, breaking Joyce's reverie. "You got a slow leak?"

"Huh?" Joyce asked, slightly dazed as she found herself looking into Buffy's questioning gaze. "Oh, fine. I'm fine, I guess. I just had a fascinating talk with Willow. I..." She shuddered like a wet dog shaking the water out of his fur before collecting herself. "I'm sure you're aware of this, Buffy, but your friend Willow is a remarkable woman."

"She is, mom," Buffy nodded emphatically. She leaned toward her mother and spoke in a faint whisper. "You wonder how I survived as long as I have as the Slayer? She's why. Xander, Giles, Cordy...especially Willow...I'd have lost a long time ago without them."

"I see that," Joyce replied knowingly. "She was asking for you and Xander."


"Gotcha." Buffy waved at Xander and Cordy, who were sitting closely and chatting in the waiting room. "Xander, Cordy, we're up." Xander and Cordy joined Buffy, Xander carrying a huge bouquet of Mylar balloons, and they three entered Willow's waiting room.

As her daughter spent time with her friends, Joyce quietly approached the front desk and made arrangements for a complete physical and MRI. From what Willow had told her, it seemed the only prudent course of action.

========

One week later;

Principal Snyder was in the middle of some paperwork when he heard a sharp rap on his door. "Go away," he barked at the door. "I'm a busy man, and I have no time for whatever tom-foolery..." He found himself silenced as four people entered his office. "What part of 'I'm busy' don't you get?"

"Excuse me, Mr. Snyder," a tall African-American gentleman answered, producing a wallet from his jacket pocket and flashing the badge inside for Mr. Snyder's approval. "I'm Detective Burke, Sunnydale PD, this is my partner Shelby," the shorter white man next to him showed his badge, causing Mr. Snyder to smile inwardly. Finally here to place that Summers girl behind bars, he mused silently. "And I believe you know Miss Meade, head of the school board, and your computer teacher Miss Calendar," Detective Burke continued. Snyder glanced toward Jenny, and backed up in his seat at the almost feral gleam in her eyes.

"Charmed, I'm sure," Snyder answered brusquely. "Look, I appreciate your interest, but as you can see, I have work to do..."

"Not anymore you don't, Mr. Snyder," Miss Meade answered. She dropped a folder on Mr. Snyder's desk. "We've collected this information regarding your refusal to investigate the distribution of performance enhancing steroids among the members of the Sunnydale swim team. I am prepared to forgo pressing charges against you, in exchange for your immediate dismissal from the faculty, without the customary severance package, of course."

Snyder gaped like a suffocating fish, blinking furiously. "Miss Calendar discovered the plot from an anonymous source, and we already have Coach Marin in custody," Meade continued. "And he was more than happy to implicate you."

"Please, ladies, gentlemen," Mr. Snyder grinned like a nervous attorney. "Are you going to take the word of a disgruntled gym coach and school nurse?"

Jenny glanced at Miss Meade with inquisitive eyes. "I don't recall anyone mentioning a school nurse. Do you?"

"Not at all," Detective Burke answered. "Not at all."

"Mr. Snyder," Miss Meade leveled a disdainful gaze at the hapless school official. "The way I see it, you have two choices; you can either make your statement to the police, choose to clear out your desk now and avoid prosecution, or you may clear out your desk after your arraignment. Either way, you are no longer employed by this school."

"But...but..." Mr. Snyder was unable to speak in more than fleeting single syllables as the Miss Meade and the two detectives filed out of the office. Jenny stood quietly for a moment, taking one last look at the broken little man as he slumped in his chair. "You..." he growled, pointing a shaky finger at Jenny Calendar. "You did this...you set me up...you ratted on me!"

Jenny shook her head with something akin to sorrow. She found herself almost feeling sorry for the small man sitting before her. Almost, but not quite.

"I informed the police to protect the students," Jenny answered plainly. "Unlike you, I actually give a damn about their future. Goodbye, Mr. Snyder. You won't be missed." She strode out the door and back toward the library without turning back.

Giles, Buffy, Willow, Xander and Cordy were gathered around the main table as Jenny walked in smiling. "Willow," she spoke in a voice filled with laughter as she entered the library, "your information was right on the money. Mr. Snyder is out of here like Vladimir."

"YES!" Xander jumped out of his chair and started to jump wildly up and down in the same place, his arms outstretched. Willow grinned hugely at the sight while Cordy covered her eyes with her hand in embarrassment, and Buffy observed the spectacle with a crooked eyebrow. "So," she pursed her lips as Xander's wild dancing wound down, "that's a Snoopy Dance."

"Is that what that was?" Giles asked sardonically. "I would have guessed St. Vitus' Dance." Xander, sufficiently mollified, resumed his chair in silence, fending off a hard glare from Cordy. "First thing tomorrow," Cordy whispered through clenched teeth, "I'm giving you some dance lessons." Xander raised his eyes slightly, although he did admit to himself that the prospect of extended close contact with his girlfriend would not be entirely without compensations.

"So, Miss Calendar, who's taking Snydley's job?" asked Buffy as she glanced toward Willow.

"As far as I know," Jenny answered, "an interim principal will be appointed tomorrow for the rest of the school year, then a permanent replacement will be chosen over the summer. Hopefully one more conscientious than his or her predecessor."

"That shouldn't be too difficult," Giles agreed heartily. "Well, with Snyder removed, and the threat of Angelus, Drusilla and Spike eliminated, we may have a quiet stretch for the next few months."

"Quiet patrols," Buffy happily added. "I can deal with that."

"There is the problem with the stone of Acaltha," Willow said hesitantly. All heads turned toward her, making her feel slightly uncomfortable. "Uh, that is, in my time, Angelus, Spike and Dru tried to use the stone to resurrect the demon Acaltha and plunge the world into a living Hell."

"Oh, that trick again," Xander mock-complained.

"Except that Angel's not in town anymore," Buffy observed, "and Spike and Dru are clogging a street-sweeper somewhere."

"But that leaves this whole hunka Acaltha," Cordy spoke up, "just waiting for some undead skanky evil to get their slimy hands on it."

"So, what do we do?" Jenny asked. Again all eyes turned to Willow. The red-head shifted in her seat, thinking for a second. Finally, she shrugged her shoulders and said, "I don't know. I really don't know!"

Buffy patted Willow's hand reassuringly in her own. "Feels refreshing, doesn't it?"

Willow smiled, glad to again be blessed with Buffy's unconditional love and friendship. "Yeah, it is."

"Yes," Giles harrumphed. "Well, we should develop a strategy to prevent the stone from falling into the wrong hands. Not that there are any actual right hands, but still if we could locate the stone, I may be able to arrange for the Council to procure it."

"Keep it out of harm's way, that's always of the good," Cordy agreed.

"Yeah, Cordy," Xander quipped, "you should always keep household chemicals and evil apocalyptic stones at least four feet off the ground and away from flammables."

Cordy stared sourly at Xander, Buffy chuckled and Giles shared a private humorous response with Jenny. Willow, for her part, felt truly at peace for the first time in a very long time.

She had begun to sponge the darkness from her soul, and atone for her moment of weakness. It would be a long road for her to travel, and she no longer knew for certain what lay ahead.

But one look at Buffy's eyes, and a gentle touch of her hand, reminded her that some things would always be constant. Friendship, loyalty, love, and the belief that her own goodness would overpower whatever darkness she faced, without or within.

Willow smiled as she prepared to aid Giles in his research. And for once, she looked forward to tomorrow.

End

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