"I'm broke but I'm happy,
He walked slowly and silently through the graveyard with an unsteady gait. He was tall, unkempt, unshaven, and wore torn and ratty clothing; ripped jeans and a dirty tee-shirt that looked like he was buried in it. Which he was.
A sudden snap of a twig arrested his attention. He spun around to find a lanky young man with black hair and a lop-sided grin on his face. "Say, fella," he greeted the undead figure, "I was wondering, you wouldn't happen to know the direction to the Universal Studio Tours, would you?"
The vampire glared at the young man, snarling foul epithets. "Okay, I'm taking that as a no." The young man then pulled a super-soaker out of his jacket and fired a stream of holy water at the vampire, searing the monster's flesh. The vampire shrieked in pain, flailing his arms wildly. A random fist landed in the young man's face, knocking him on his butt. The vampire fled rapidly, disappearing into the darkness of the cemetery.
"That was not fun," Xander grumped as he scrambled to his feet. "Hey, Willow," he whispered into the air, "any word on our target?"
<<He took a hard turn past the crypts, >>Willow's voice rang clearly in his mind.
Xander shivered as Willow projected her thoughts into his mind. He was never going to get used to having a telepathic friend. "Hey, Wills, ya wanna work on toning the volume down a bit?"
<<Working on it, >>Willow thought back, from her vantage point on top of one of the taller crypts.
<<Hey Willow, >>another familiar voice called to her, <<can you corral our vamp my way? >>
<<I'm on it, >>Willow concentrated, and a shower of fireballs pummeled the ground in front of the running vampire. The undead fiend ducked around the fireballs, which continued to rain down on him. That, of course, was Willow's plan. To lead the vampire where she wanted him to go.
The vampire ran toward an open field, his limbs leaden with his exertion. He stopped to collect himself. The man with the super-soaker and the witch with the fireballs weren't following him. He was safe.
"Hello," a chipper voice announced from behind him. He spun around on his heel, and found himself facing a blond woman in a tank top and black leather pants. She tossed the stake she was carrying casually from hand to hand. It was she. The one who was supposed to be dead. "My name is Buffy," she introduced herself, "and I'll be your Slayer this evening."
"Slayer!" the vampire hissed venomously. "I heard that you were dead."
"Hey," Buffy answered, "I heard that there was supposed to be a passionate love scene between Lucy Lawless and Renee O'Connor on the final episode of Xena. I guess we were both disappointed." She twisted on her left foot, and sent her right foot directly into the vampire's jaw. The vamp reeled backward, losing his footing and landing with a thud on the ground behind him. Wasting no time, the Slayer grabbed her stake and thrust it hard into the vamp's chest. The vampire disintegrated in a cloud of dust.
Xander and Willow met up with Buffy, who calmly placed the stake back in the pocket of her leather pants. "Yep," she announced happily. "I said it before, I'll say it again. I'm still pretty." She was about to leave the site, when a red gleam from the ground beneath her feet caught her eye. She bent down and picked up a small object. A gold locket-like frame, embossed to look like a Roman coin, containing a large red stone, smooth and rounded, bearing an etched capital 'C'. "Hmm, a vamp with taste for tacky jewelry."
"Maybe you better take that to Giles tomorrow," Willow suggested, "see if it's some kind of mystical doohickey."
"Good idea, Wills," Buffy agreed, pocketing the object. "Well, I'd say we've got this area clear for tonight."
"Final score," Xander announced, "Sunnydale, five million, Forces of Darkness, nada!" He offered a high-five to Willow, who returned it gladly.
"Another night, another vamp," Willow smiled. "But I gotta get back home, Buffy. I wanna get my beauty sleep before Tara's visit tomorrow."
"Not a problem," Buffy answered as she retrieved her stake from the pile of dust that was the only remaining evidence of their target. "I suspect that Kurt Cobain's our only action tonight anyway. Ready to call it a night, guys?"
"It's a night," Willow and Xander chorused. As they joined Buffy and walked away from the battle-site, Xander quipped, "I gotta say, Buffy, this is what I missed while you were, uh, er�"
"The word you're struggling for is 'dead'," Buffy supplied, not unkindly. "You can say it."
"Thank you, Buffy, 'dead'," Xander continued. "Anyway, this is what I missed. Not the stopping vamps so much, while that does have therapeutic value, but the saunter away from the scene like this. Like we're walking in slow-mo, casual badass 'tude. Very 'Reservoir Dogs'."
The two women rolled their eyes at Xander's observation. "Let's go, Mr. Brown," Willow grimaced.
"Hey!" Xander protested playfully. "That's Mr. Pink, and don't you forget it!" His two best friends groaned and laughed. Hooyeah, Xander thought. Buffy's back, my girls are smiling, Anya's having my baby and life is good!
She poked her head into Dawn's bedroom, relieved to know that her sister was sleeping soundly. God or Goddess knew she didn't have the chance to sleep well in recent months. Since their mother's death last February, through the nightmare that was Glory, Dawn's life had been a roller coaster in recent months. Just the chance to slow things down, for Dawn to just be a normal teenage girl for any length of time, was a blessing Buffy was not going to deny her.
She noticed that her old stuffed pig had made a home on one of Dawn's shelves, standing sentinel over her room. Giles had told Buffy that during her temporary death, Dawn had taken to sleeping with Mr. Gordo in her arms. "Good job, Mr. Gordo," Buffy quietly saluted her childhood companion. "Thanks for looking after her. Keep up the good work." She silently closed the door, and went to check up on Willow before turning in herself.
Buffy had to smile as she watched Willow, asleep in what used to be her bedroom. Willow didn't even complain about the slanty floor, she was more than happy to move into the room. She already set up her computer in one corner, and a trunk containing her magic supplies at the foot of her bed. She looked so peaceful as she slept.
And as long as Buffy was there to protect them, Dawn and Willow would continue to sleep well.
"They'll be fine, honey," her mother's voice sounded in her ears. "She does look cute when she's asleep, doesn't she?"
"Mom," Buffy rolled her eyes as she faced the ghostly figure that stood before her. She looked just the way that Buffy remembered her; her sandy hair spilling over her shoulders, her face slightly worn but still attractive, her expression still loving. "What are you doing here anyway?"
"I used to live here," she observed. "That is, when I was still living. Besides, why should my being dead keep me from watching out for my girls?"
"Sorry, just surprised is all," Buffy observed as she headed back to her mom's old bedroom, where she had moved in when Willow moved into her old room. She turned on a light and sat on the bed, preparing for a good night's sleep.
"Why so?" Joyce asked innocently. "You deal with vampires, demons, mad goddesses, why not ghosts?" She sat on the bed next to Buffy, and looked into her eyes. "I wasn't there for your high school graduation, dear, and I'm not going to let a little thing like being dead stop me from attending your college graduation." She gave Buffy a quizzical look, adding, "Of course, that will require you to go back to college�"
"And I will, Mom," Buffy assured the visitor. "Just not yet. I gotta think about Dawn first. Which means getting a job."
"I understand that, Buffy, I just don't want to see you sacrificing your dreams in the process."
Buffy regarded her mother's image skeptically. This wasn't the first time that her mother had visited her since Buffy came back, and she still wasn't ready to share her existence with the others. She wasn't even sure whether she was a real ghost or merely a figment of her imagination. Still, it made her feel a little better to have the apparition around. "I'm not giving up any dreams, Mom," she assured her. "Just putting them on hold for a while. Once I get a job, I can start socking some money away for tuition. Maybe I can apply for a scholarship or something. I did pretty well in my SATs after all."
"Just think about it," Joyce said. "Besides, with Willow around, it's not like Dawn's going to be without someone to look after her."
"Yeah," Buffy nodded. "Willow's great that way."
Joyce shook her head, a gleeful smirk on her face. "And she's cute too, huh?"
"MOM!" Buffy jumped up and protested. Joyce just shrugged her shoulders. "Oh, come on, I see the way you look at her when you think she's not aware of it. You love her, don't you? And she loves you."
"Maybe, mom," Buffy lowered her head; even when her mother wasn't aware of her being the Slayer, she was good at reading her heart. "But she's in love with Tara. I'm not gonna steal her away from someone else."
"So don't," Joyce answered. "Just let things run their course. Whatever happens, it'll be for the best. Now," she started to fade as Buffy started to undress, "you have to get to bed."
"Right, mom," Buffy mock-complained. "G'night, mom."
There was no answer. Buffy didn't expect one. Just her imagination, she decided. She summoned her mother's image as a sounding board, to air out her thoughts and emotions.
When did it happen? Buffy asked herself that question again and again. When did she fall in love with her best friend? Earlier that year she had declared that she was through with romance. After Riley left her, she decided she would never risk her heart again. And now she was doing it again, with the one person who was most important to her. The one person she could never betray. The one person she could never have.
She decided to simply keep the secret, to never tell anyone the truth about her feelings for Willow. Willow had Tara, and Buffy was happy for her. That was enough for now.
She quickly drifted off to sleep, dreaming of a beautiful and caring woman with red hair.
"Harris," Mr. Brubaker greeted Xander in his office. "Glad you could see me. Sit down, we have some business to discuss."
"Sure," Xander sat down and faced his boss. Steve Brubaker was a good foreman, and one of the first adults in Xander's life who didn't talk down or condescend to him, or make him feel inferior or unwanted. "What's up, sir?"
"Well, Harris," Brubaker started, "like the old joke goes, I have good news and bad news. I'll give you the bad news first. The Seattle job fell through. The company who commissioned us to build their headquarters got swallowed up in a merger, so all construction projects they've been considering are on hold indefinitely." He paused and looked at Xander briefly. "I know you were counting on this job, especially with you and Anya starting a family."
"Hey, it's no big," Xander admitted. "I mean, the money would have been nice, but Sunnydale's my home. I'm kinda glad that I don't have to relocate any time soon."
"I'm glad to hear you say that," Brubaker said. "That brings us to the good news. We have a new contractor, and this is bigger than the Seattle job. And get this; they want to build their new West coast HQ here in Sunnydale. They're looking to expand their corporation, and they chose here instead of L. A. and San Francisco. And I'm offering you the position of deputy foreman. It'll mean more responsibilities on your part, but I have confidence in you. Plus, it'll mean a substantial boost in your take-home pay."
"Hey, if you think I'm up for it," Xander announced, "say no more, I'll try not to disappoint you." He stood up to shake Brubaker's offered hand. The deal was sealed. "So, when do I get to meet our client?"
"Right now," Brubaker pressed a button on his phone. "Steph, you can show him in now." The door opened, and a young man, around mid-thirties entered the office. He was athletically built, with long brown hair tied into a ponytail, and a beard trimmed into an impeccable van-dyke. "Xander, this is our new benefactor, Mr. David Xanatos."
"A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Harris," Xanatos shook Xander's hand. He regarded the young man with a discerning eye. If half of the reports he had read about him were true, than there was no doubt that he knew something about the supernatural atmosphere in Sunnydale. Which meant he probably knew the Slayer.
Yes, he thought, this was going to be an eventful trip.
Buffy was going through her regular workout in the backroom of the Magic Box, under the attentive eyes of her Watcher. Giles nodded approvingly as she executed a devastating series of kicks and jabs into the air, and then went back to a standing position, without even looking winded. He was glad that his instructing her in Eastern breathing techniques was paying off so well.
Hell, he was just glad that she was here, alive and well, after all that she had been through this past year. Finn's sudden departure, the terror caused by Glory, and certainly most heart wrenching of all, the death of her beloved mother. Not for the first time, he wondered if her 'final sacrifice' on the tower was just an excuse for her to end a life she didn't want any longer. And again not for the first time, he offered a silent prayer to whatever Gods were listening, to ask that her second life should be happier than her first life had been.
Buffy stopped pummeling the body bag, causing Giles to furrow his brow. "Is anything the matter, Buffy?"
"No, not really," she answered, going to where she had left her purse. "I just remembered something. Last night, when I dusted that grunge wannabe, I found something in the dust pile. Here, you recognize this?" She pulled the red jewel out of her purse and tossed it to Giles.
Giles took the item and appraised it carefully. "My word," he breathed his eyebrow arching.
"Great, you say, 'My word', I get worried," Buffy huffed.
"Wha�" Giles looked up, seeing the worry lines forming on Buffy's brow. "Oh, no, not like that. In fact it's good that you took it from him. If I'm right, this is a Centurion Stone. Very rare talismans, only a handful known to exist."
"Okay, what's a Centurion Stone?"
"The Centurion Stones were supposedly created by a fifth century mage who wished to control large numbers of vampires. In the time of the Roman Empire, a Centurion was a soldier who led a large battalion. Literally, 'leader of a hundred men'. The 'C' etched on the stone�"
"C for Centurion, got it," Buffy interrupted. "I saw Sesame Street when I was a kid."
"Uh, not quite, C was the Roman numeral for one hundred." Buffy made oh-of-course noises, and let Giles continue. "A Centurion Stone allows its wielder to command the minds of one hundred vampires at a time."
"Ah," Buffy nodded. "And since vampires normally don't work and play well with others, this stone would be needed to whip them into a crack fighting unit."
"Exactly," Giles answered. "Anyone with a Centurion Stone would be have command of one hundred powerful soldiers, who would willingly lay down their undead lives for their master." He took the gem to a nearby safe, and dialed the combination. "We'd better keep it in my private vault for safekeeping. Don't want anyone else getting their hands on this device."
"Gotcha," Buffy answered, opening a bottle of Gatorade and slamming it down. As she drained the bottle, she glanced at the door, seeing that someone was watching her. "Tara," she greeted her best friend's girlfriend. "Don't be shy, c'mon in."
"Buffy? Can I talk to you?"
Buffy grabbed a towel to wipe the sweat off her brow. "Sure, anytime," she called out. The shy young witch entered the back room, and waved at Giles. "Hey, how you doing, Tara?"
"Not too bad," Tara answered reservedly. "But I kinda need to talk to you, alone." Giles glanced at the two and took the hint. "Go ahead, ladies, I need to check a new stock of books anyway." He departed the workout room, leaving Buffy and Tara to talk.
"So, Tara," Buffy asked, "how's Berkeley these days?"
"Pretty good, actually," Tara answered. "I'm doing well in my classes, and I've even started attending a local Wiccan group."
"Let me guess," Buffy grinned, "more wanna-blessed-be's?"
"No, they know their stuff," Tara defended her new friends. "In fact, next time Willow visits me on campus, I want to take her to meet them. Maybe she can show them something." She started to twirl a lock of her hair nervously. "And the group's leader, Miss Lafayette, she really knows a ton. I could listen to her lecture all day."
"As long as that's all you're doing with her all day, little missy," Buffy warned Tara teasingly. "I don't want to deal with a heartbroken Willow anytime soon."
"No worries about that," Tara answered, chuckling. It did Buffy good to see Tara happy.
Suddenly, Tara's expression grew more serious, more thoughtful. "What's up, Tara?" Buffy asked. "Something on your mind?"
"Yeah," Tara said slowly. "I want to ask you a favor, Buffy." Buffy pulled up a chair and sat in front of Tara, letting her have the floor. "Berkeley's great and all, but�the other night, I�I thought I was being tailed by some big guys, like football players."
Buffy looked at Tara worriedly. "Did they hurt you?"
"N-no, not really," Tara said hurriedly. "They just rattled me a little. Maybe I've just been jumpy about being alone at night, y'know. Since my run-in with Glory and all."
"Hey, I don't blame you," Buffy admitted. "Glory was one tough customer."
"Yeah," Tara muttered ruefully. "It's just� I just don't want to be afraid anymore. I want to be able to look after myself." She swallowed briefly, summoned her courage, and said what she came to say. "Buffy, could you teach me how to fight?"
Buffy didn't know what to expect when Tara wanted to talk to her, but this wasn't it. "Fight? Like, slayer stuff? I dunno�"
"No, not like that," Tara answered. "I mean, no way I could do that kind of stuff. I mean, just some basic stuff, some self-defense moves. I just want to be able to handle myself if I get into trouble."
"Ah," Buffy nodded. "Just long enough to get away from some mauler, something like that."
"Yeah, just like that. Most people I've checked out in the campus area would charge too much, and besides, I'd rather learn from someone I can trust."
Buffy pursed her lips in thought. "How much would they charge? Ballpark figure."
"Well," Tara thought briefly, "usually a hundred or so, for a six-hour class. Oh, sorry, I know you need the money yourself, and I'd be willing to pay you, but�"
"Fifty bucks, for the whole course," Buffy offered. "How's that sound?"
Tara blinked at Buffy's offer. "Uh, sounds good. Sold." She and Buffy shook hands, and Tara asked, "Uh, how soon can we start?"
"Is now too soon?" Buffy stood up. "I can show you some good defensive moves, just to get out of the way. Nothing fancy, just basics. You game?"
"Sure," Tara stood up, and Buffy began to show her a quick way to escape from a captor who grabs her by her arm.
One hour later, Tara left the backroom, thanking Buffy for the lesson. Buffy stayed behind, wiping herself down from the workout. She felt a great deal better than she had, and as she prepared to head home for a shower and change of clothes, she started getting an idea.
As she headed out of the Magic Box to where she parked the Jeep, she felt a sudden faint tremor brush against her psyche, like something vaguely sinister had entered her space. Then, just as suddenly, it disappeared. She dismissed the sensation, figuring that it was just the ambience of the Hellmouth.
As she pulled away and drove home, a tall, thin man puffed on a cigarette and watched her leave. He glanced at the Magic Box, observing the blond and the redhead who had just exited the shop, hand in hand. He eyed them with a hungry eye; he could practically taste the power that emanated from them.
Power that would soon be his, if his plans were successful.
"Will you walk into my parlour?" said the Spider to the Fly.
As the weekly wiccan group dispersed and its members returned to their homes and dorms for the night, Tara stayed behind to speak with the group's leader. "Miss Lafayette," Tara handed her new mentor a paperback copy of Marian Zimmer Bradley's "The Mists of Avalon". "Thanks for letting me borrow your book."
"My pleasure, little one," the tall brunette smiled warmly. "How did you enjoy it?"
"I loved it, ma'am," she answered. "I never looked at the Arthurian myths that way before."
"Thank you," she answered. "But that's not a surprise; most variations of the legend of Arthur were told through a male, Christian perspective."
"Yeah, I guess," Tara demurred. "But the thing that surprised me was that Morgan wasn't treated like the villain in this version."
"Of course not," Lafayette nodded. "After all, it was her story more than Arthur's. By her lights, she was doing what she felt was necessary for survival of her people and her faith." She glanced at her watch, adding, "But perhaps we should table this discussion until the next time. I look forward to seeing you here next week, child."
"I'd like that," Tara beamed at Miss Lafayette's warmth and open friendliness. "I'll see you then." She waved goodbye, and headed out to the Student Union Building, hoping that the latte stand was still open.
She almost didn't see the tall man trying to cross the plaza in front of her until it was nearly too late. She had to stop suddenly to avoid a collision, and would have lost her balance if the tall man hadn't reached out suddenly to take her hand. "Easy, girl," he spoke softly. "We almost had a little spill, didn't we?"
"Whoa," she breathed. "Sorry 'bout that, sir. Thanks for the save though."
"Think nothing of it," he answered. Extending a bony and immaculately manicured hand, he said, "My name is Webb. Aaron Webb."
"Tara McClay," the blond answered as she accepted his strangely cold handshake. Almost instinctively, she looked at him through her own senses; as she did with most strangers, she tried to view his aura. She felt the darkness to him, but no more than she saw in Spike, or Giles when he let his guard down. She regarded him with caution.
"So, you were exiting the meeting hall. Were you attending Miss Lafayette's Wicca group?"
"Uh, yes," Tara answered, not volunteering any more information. She noticed that his voice was strangely silky, smooth, nearly musical. He spoke in a strangely cadenced tone, a subconscious rhythm. A rhythm that Tara found so easy to listen to. Like African tribal drums, so basic, so simple, so hypnotic�
"Ah, yes," Webb commented, "I know that charlatan very well. Poor thing, she actually believes that pabulum about nature and harmony and love and the Goddess."
It occurred to Tara that she shouldn't listen to this man, especially as he berated the first real friend she had made since transferring to UC Berkeley. But all she could do was nod and listen. Listen to the voice. Listen to the drums.
Listen as her heartbeat slowed to match the tempo of the drums.
"Why do you continue to attend her meetings, Tara?" Webb asked.
Tara answered quietly, almost unaware that she was speaking; "Because I want to learn from her."
"What do you want to learn?"
"To be more powerful," she answered. "To be a stronger witch, more capable. Like Willow." A faint voice in the back of her head warned her not to tell him about Willow, but she ignored it. "She's really powerful. Like a super-witch."
"Power, is it?" Webb chuckled, and even his laugh seemed to match the drums. "Tara, what if I told you that I can give you the power you desire?" Tara raised her head, hope and terror mingling in her eyes. "You have known fear, haven't you, Tara? I can take that fear from you, child, and replace it with strength. You'd like that, wouldn't you?"
"Y-yes," Tara sighed.
"And all you would have to do is trust me," Webb continued, droning on slowly, in a measured monotone, matching the drums that Tara now felt more than heard. "You can trust me, can't you."
"Uh�yess�" A sudden sound of a car alarm in the background shook her out of the trance-like state she had drifted into. "Uh, sorry. Look, I have to get back to the Student Union Building, I promised to meet some friends." She started to turn away, but a gentle yet firm hand stopped her.
"Please," Webb pursued the matter further. He fished a card out of his jacket. "Here's my home number. If you wish to discuss my offer further, please call me at anytime." He handed the card to Tara with a ceremonial flourish. Tara hesitated at first, but ultimately accepted the card, slipping it in her pocket.
She left silently, intending to forget the card, and the strange man who gave it to her. Behind her, Aaron Webb regarded her with a strange smile. The spell was cast. The fly was snared. Soon, the spider would feast.
She grabbed a chicken sandwich at the local caf�, but her meal was accompanied by the steady cadence of African drums. She made it back to her dorm and stripped out of her street clothes, preparing for bed, only to hear those drums. She tried to shut them out, but they continued their unceasing tempo in her mind. The beating, the constant beating, slowly insinuating itself into her mind, her soul, her psyche. The drums invaded her dreams, the sonorous voice of Mr. Webb chanting, entreating and seducing her to follow him.
She awoke with a jump, awash in sweat, her heart hammering in her chest. Hammering like a drum. There was only one way to silence the drum. She got out of her bed, located her jacket and retrieved the business card from her pocket. She slowly dialed the number on the card.
"Hello, Tara," he greeted her without even waiting for her to speak.
"What do you want me to do, Mr. Webb?"
Webb smiled hugely; the prey was snared. "This Willow you mentioned. She is powerful, is she?"
"Very," she answered. His voice compelled, and she followed without hesitation.
"I want to meet her," Webb told her. "You will meet me at the Plaza in the morning, and we will make the arrangements."
"Yes�" she whispered, allowing the last of her free will to desert her, "Master."
Three days later;
"So," she asked as the lady across the desk looked at her resume. "What do you think?" Buffy sat on her hands as her potential employer read the papers in front of her. Miss Mitchell peered over her glasses at the applicant, who fought the urge to squirm in front of her. Her brown hair, tied in a bun at the back of her head, her conservative fashion sense, her unsmiling and angular face, all spoke of a businesslike manner. But she didn't regard Buffy as severely as some of her former teachers did. At least she wasn't dealing with a clone of Mr. Snyder.
"I'd be a little more comfortable if you had a teaching certificate," Miss Mitchell stated, "but your credentials look sound. And anyway, we've had a difficult time filling this position; most of our previous instructors tended to disappear quickly." Buffy winced at that statement; she had an idea why they disappeared before, with the local demon and vampire population. Fortunately, she knew how to handle that sort of complication. "But I'd like to see you in action first. Do you have time from a demonstration?"
"Sure," Buffy answered. "What did you have in mind?"
"Follow me," Miss Mitchell rose from her desk, and led Buffy to a nearby gymnasium. The center of the gym floor featured a number of weightlifting benches. Buffy gawked slightly at the sight of a muscle-bound fellow on the bench, lifting a huge barbell over his head.
"Hey, Jerry!" The boxer placed the barbell on the rack behind him, sat up and greeted the two women. "I'd like you to meet someone." She gestured toward the young blonde. "Buffy Summers, this is Jerry Morales, our resident boxing coach. Jerry, Miss Summers is applying for the position of self-defense and martial arts instructor." Jerry gave Buffy a firm handshake, which Buffy tried to emulate without making it a competition. She appraised his figure through his white t-shirt and blue shorts; muscular, without being overly muscle-bound, lean and firm. Short black curly hair framed a chiseled face, and blue eyes sparkled with intelligence. For someone who wasn't a demon or hellgod, he looked formidable.
"Is that so?" Jerry regarded the slight-looking young slip of a girl in front of him. "You think she can handle the job?"
"That's why we're here, Jerr," Miss Mitchell answered. "We need you to play mugger for a demo."
"Ah, sure, the old stereotype," he mock-grumbled. "Get the big guy to play the heavy." He got up from the bench, and ambled over to the mat. "What did you have in mind, Miss Summers?"
"Uh," Buffy joined Jerry on the mat. "Okay, how about I turn around first, and you try to take me from behind. And try and be quiet about it, 'kay?"
"Sure," Jerry stood briefly, while Buffy turned her back to him. Jerry slowly stalked behind the young woman, closing in slowly. Buffy stood there nonchalantly, examining her left forefinger for a hangnail. He started to maneuver his arms around Buffy, intending to overpower her with his sheer size.
Before he could get a good grip on her, Buffy moved her arms over her chest. She then thrust her arms apart, knocking Jerry's arms back. Not giving Jerry the chance to react, she spun around suddenly and stuck her leg between Jerry's. She hooked his left leg with her own, and yanked on it quickly, causing her assailant to fall gracelessly to the floor. Jerry staggered to his feet, glaring at the young pixie-like girl who was now walking away from him. "You wanna try that again, sister?" growled Jerry.
"Bring it on," she said quietly. Jerry roared softly and charged at the girl. Buffy stood calmly, waiting for her opportunity. As he charged her, she ducked under him, moving forward. His momentum carried him into the mat behind her in a hard thud. Jerry rolled and stood up again, preparing for another charge. He plowed forward, intent on avenging his wounded pride.
This time, when Buffy ducked under him, she lifted from her crouched position at the proper moment, connecting hard with his solar plexus, and throwing him several feet to the left, where he landed firmly on his back. She stood up and walked over to where Jerry lay sprawled. "Hey, you need a hand up?"
Jerry now regarded the slight young girl with a new respect. As he took her hand and allowed her to help lift him to a standing position, he turned his head toward Miss Mitchell and said, "Hire this gal."
Miss Mitchell smiled. "I just did. Miss Summers, if you'll join me, I have some employment forms for you to fill out."
Ten minutes later, Buffy handed in the forms and set up a class schedule. They agreed to two hour long classes a day to start, at twenty-five dollars a class. Buffy smiled inwardly; the first chance she had, she had to thank Tara for giving her this idea in the first place. "Oh, one more thing," Buffy asked before leaving Miss Mitchell's office. "You think I can use Jerry for demos in my classes?" Miss Mitchell just smirked at the suggestion, and said they would work something out. Jerry put his hand on his forehead, feigning a headache at the prospect.
As Buffy left the office, she nearly collided with someone passing from the left, and knocked a sheath of papers out of his hand. "Oh, sorry," she fumbled an apology as she steadied herself, and offered to help pick up the gentleman's papers.
The gentleman stopped her with a curt movement of his hand, collecting the papers himself. "I had my lesson plans prepared in a specific order," he announced in a thin, reedy voice laced with contempt. He finished picking up his papers and righted himself. He stood at least two heads higher than Buffy, his impossibly slim body dressed in a black silk suit. Dark eyes regarded her disdainfully from behind a long thin face, his cheekbones and nose sharp enough to cut paper. He muttered something to the effect of "Foolish child," and strode away in a measured methodical gait.
Buffy kept her eyes on him until he turned down the hall and disappeared. "Sociopathic much?" she asked herself. Miss Mitchell emerged from her office, a sardonic expression on his face. "So," Buffy asked, "Who was the party animal?"
"His name is Aaron Webb," Miss Mitchell answered, spitting out the name like it was a poison on her tongue. "He recently started a series of lectures here, sort of an alternate faith seminar." Buffy noted the way she said the words, measuring the discomfort in her voice.
"I don't have any problem with alternate faiths," Buffy commented. "My best friend's a full-fledged pagan."
Mrs. Mitchell snorted; "The only thing he worships is the almighty dollar. He's a charlatan, Buffy, a snake-oil salesman. Unfortunately, he signed an iron-clad contract with the community center, and paid us for use of the auditorium for the rest of the month, so we're stuck with him."
Buffy regarded Mrs. Mitchell's words, and her first impression of Mr. Webb, with a deep concern. She didn't tell Mrs. Mitchell anything, but as she watched Mr. Webb depart, she sensed something about him. Her 'spider-sense', as she referred to her slayer's intuition, could feel the darkness surrounding him, the genuine power that he possessed. This man was more than a con-artist, that much Buffy could sense easily.
She was doubly glad that she had taken the job at the community center. She would have to keep an eye out for Aaron Webb.
"So," Willow asked Xander as he held the door of the Magic Box open for her, "what's this about you working for David Xanatos?"
"You heard of him, Wills?" Xander raised an eyebrow in surprise.
"Only the same way you've heard of Bill Gates," Willow answered. "Six years or so ago, he set himself up as the new wunderkind on the block. Electronics, software, biotechnology�odds are that half the circuits in my computer carry his copyright. He's been on the top half of the Fortune 500 for the last four years."
"I heard about this fellow," Giles commented. "Supposedly a self-made multimillionaire by age thirty. Diverse corporate holdings, some rumors of clandestine activities. I suppose all rich people have those rumors dogging them." He continued pricing incense burners while Anya was polishing the display counter.
"Hey," Anya smiled, "if he's too rich, maybe he wouldn't mind giving Xander some of that money." The others looked at her oddly, causing Anya to smile a little too broadly. "She joked." She had learned from Xander to add that sentence whenever the others started to glare at her when she said something awkward.
"Actually," Xander smiled as he leaned toward his fianc�e, "considering the money he's putting into the construction of his new West coast HQ, you'd think that's just what he's doing. This job's gonna pay for our wedding." He pulled Anya into a slow and enjoyable kiss.
"Tonight, on a very special 'Who's Line Is It Anyway?'" Buffy's voice called out cheerfully, as the Slayer entered the shop. Willow chuckled as Xander and Anya reluctantly broke off their kiss. Giles gave Buffy a warm smile, as the Slayer joined Willow at the table.
"So, Buffy," Willow asked her. "How'd it go at the community center?"
"I got the job," Buffy answered happily. These words caught the attention of the others, who suddenly gathered around the Slayer in surprise. "What job is this, Buffy?" Xander asked.
The cat, it seemed, was out of the bag. Buffy grinned hugely as she made her announcement; "You're looking at the new Self Defense and Martial Arts instructor at the Sunnydale Community Center. Two classes a day, five days a week, twenty-five dollars a class to start." This news met with cheers from the others.
"Wow, this is huge!" Willow smiled as she gave her friend a congratulatory hug. "Proud of you, Slayer."
"Thanks, Willow," Buffy answered. "I've got a good feeling about this job. It pays well, it's something I can feel good about doing, it'll help me afford to go back to college�"
"And best of all," Xander piped in, "you'll never have to use the phrase, 'Would you care to super-size that?'" Anya slapped him playfully on the arm, and he gave Buffy a fake-mollified look. Buffy just smiled at her friend. A rare sense of peace and happiness suffused her soul, and she simply chose to enjoy the buzz while it lasted.
"Buffy," Giles announced, "I know I don't always�well, vocalize my emotions, but I do want you to know that I have always been proud of you. And I sincerely hope that your second life is less heartbreaking than your first, and that the� sorrows you experienced this last year will give way to happier times."
"Thanks, Giles," she said quietly, blinking away a tear. Willow noticed her expression, and touched Buffy's arm, conveying her love and support in a wordless gesture. "Thanks, all of you. I guess I was pretty impossible to live with this year. Well, that Buffy died saving the world last May, doing her impression of the final scene from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I'm the new improved model, and I'm not going anywhere for a while."
The others applauded her speech, and she stood up slightly and gave a quick bow. She then thought of something; "Say, Wills, is Tara coming in this weekend? She's the one who gave me the idea to apply for the community center job, I wanted to thank her."
"I dunno," Willow answered. "I was expecting an email from her today. I mean she's practically religious about writing to me. But I haven't heard from her yet."
"You getting worried, Willow?" Xander asked.
"Probably me just being the nervous girlfriend, but I worry, y'know? Ever since�" She couldn't get herself to continue the statement. It wasn't necessary. The others knew. They were there when Willow took care of her beloved Tara, then a frail shell, unable to communicate, to function. All because she ran afoul of a Hellgod named Glory.
Willow caught the concerned expressions on the others' faces, and smiled sheepishly. "Well, leave it to me to suck the air out of the room. Hey, I'm just being paranoid here. She's fine, she'll write me another of her X-rated emails and everything'll be fine."
"And when you get that email, send me a copy, huh?" Xander grinned, only to get a smack in the shoulder from Anya.
"Why wait for the email, honey?" Tara's voice rang out from the front door. "I'll be glad to give you a personal message later tonight." Tara walked through the door and directly toward Willow. She draped her arms around Willow's neck, leaning toward her face for an openly affectionate kiss, which the surprised Willow returned happily.
"Now that's the way to say hello," Anya smiled approvingly.
"Hey, Tara," Willow finally broke off the kiss long enough to say. "What are you doing here? I mean, beside the obvious. Didn't you have a class tomorrow?"
"It got cancelled," Tara announced, "so I thought I'd surprise you with an early visit. Uh, that is if it's all right with you, Buffy."
"Total lack of problem here, Tara," Buffy nodded. "A happy Willow's a healthy Willow. Besides, I wanted to thank you."
"Me? What for?"
"Last week, when you asked me for self-defense lessons?" Buffy asked. Tara just nodded. "It gave me an idea to teach at the Community Center. I got a job with them now."
"Hey, that's great, Buffy," Tara said, giving her friend a hug. "But I'm gonna have to pass on our personal session this weekend. Sorry, but there's a magic seminar I want to attend that day. In fact, there's an early preview of the seminar tonight, Willow. You game?"
Willow beamed. A chance to do some magic with her girlfriend. "I'm game, Tara. When does it start?"
"In just a couple of hours," Tara announced. "How about dinner at Luigi's, then we'll go meet the man."
"Sounds like a plan," Willow smiled as she stood up and joined her girlfriend. "Uh, we'll be back around, uh, later."
"I won't wait up, Willow," Buffy waved the two lovebirds off. "Don't do anything I wouldn't do." Willow stuck her tongue out at Buffy as she and Tara left.
"Uh, Buffy," Xander looked puzzled at the Slayer. "I thought you were straight."
Buffy regarded Xander with a knowing wink. "I may be straight, but not narrow." Anya chuckled while Xander looked completely lost.
"Man, do they even feed you at Berkeley?" Willow asked Tara as they strolled along the park after dinner. "You went through two whole servings of lasagna."
"After that huge plate of linguini with red clam sauce you put away?" Tara teased her beloved. "Besides, doing magic makes me hungry, so I thought I'd eat first before the seminar."
"Great," Willow nodded. "So when do we meet the man?"
"As soon as we get to the community center," Tara answered. Willow reined in her curiosity, simply content to be with Tara, even if only for a little while.
But something was different about Tara. She was never the most chatty person in the world, but she could open up to Willow easily. But somehow she seemed to be closed off to her. Like she was keeping her guard up, hiding a secret. And given the Scooby Gang's track record with secrets in the past, Tara's reticence made Willow worry.
"Here we are," Tara announced as they reached the community center. She opened the door for Willow, and walked just behind her. "Room 104," she directed her as they cleared the lobby, "just to the left." Willow found the room, and the two witches entered.
"We must be early," Willow observed, looking at the empty chairs. "You sure this is the right room?"
"Patience, Willow," Tara said sweetly. "It'll be okay."
A tall thin figure stepped into the room and walked toward the two wiccans with an almost liquid gait. He brushed his hands lightly at the lapels of his silk suit, and smiled at the blond. "Tara, greetings," he glanced down at her from behind a long straight nose. "I see you brought a friend with you."
"Uh, hi," Willow waved meekly at the tall figure. "I'm Willow Rosenberg. I'm with Tara."
"Enchant�," he stooped with balletic grace to bow before Willow, took her hand in his and kissed her knuckle. "I am Aaron Webb. Welcome to my seminar." Willow felt her stomach roll as he touched her. There was an unhealthy aura around him, some darkness that stood out in Willow's mind's eye like a beacon. She glanced at Tara, who was completely blind to Webb's darkness.
"Um, Tara," she smiled artificially in front of the stranger who seemed to be eyeing her like a T-bone steak. "Can we talk privately?"
"Is there something the matter, Willow?" Tara's blatant lack of concern regarding Mr. Webb was starting to scare Willow. "Don't you want to take the seminar?"
"The new initiates can be uncertain, Tara," Mr. Webb purred in his dark chocolate voice, still eyeing Willow hungrily. "But once she's come to know the truth, she will take the power of Anansi to heart."
"Tara, we're getting out of here," she tried to take Tara's arm, but Tara yelped suddenly, yanking her arm away from Willow's grasp. Willow took in Tara's hard glare, shocked at her behavior. A quick glance at Tara's arm displayed a mark that Willow hadn't seen there before, a tattoo that resembled a spider-web pattern. Now she was scared. "I'm serious, Tara," she begged her girlfriend, but Tara remained unmoving.
"Oh dear," Mr. Webb tut-tutted, "it seems that you are not worthy of Anansi." He snapped his fingers, and suddenly the air around him seemed to shimmer. As if from thin air, two enormous figures, resembling spiders but standing six feet tall, emerged from the shadows behind Mr. Webb. "Servants," he said calmly. "Kill the redhead."
The two arachnids leapt past their master and toward Willow with near lightning speed. "TARA!" she shrieked as she dodged the spider creatures, desperate to reach her beloved, but she stood still, a silent and unmoving witness to the attack. With no recourse remaining to her, Willow ducked out of the door, the two arachnids in hot pursuit.
She scrambled down the hallway, toward the lobby. The arachnids were capable leapers, but the hallway was narrow and low-ceilinged, making it difficult for them to maneuver. When she reached the lobby, she was still several paces ahead of the arachnids. She spun around and held her hands out toward the lobby, while muttering a string of arcane Sanskrit. The arachnids loomed closer and still closer, faster and still faster, �
Only to hit a wall of invisible force, slamming into the field hard enough to stun them. "Yes!" Willow gave a sigh of relief, as she rushed out the door. "Sometimes you're the windshield, sometimes you're the bug!"
Clear of the community center, she looked over her shoulder quickly, just long enough to assure herself that her two pursuers were still inside.
"Hang on, Tara," she whispered as she rushed back home. It was time to call the troops.
"Forgive me, I failed you, Master," the entranced blond spoke tonelessly, as Mr. Webb looked on. "I was unable to give you Willow."
The bloated thing in the center of the room sat unmoving, several of its many eyes trained on Tara. "Yes, my drone," it spoke in a voice that resembled ground glass, as one of its legs pointed menacingly to her. "You have failed me. But you may still serve me." A strand of webbing shot out of the thing's body, hitting the insensate witch's chest, and slowly covering her body. "As sustenance. And you, Mr. Webb," the monster's voice rasped, "you will not fail me. The red witch and her friends will come to us, to save her love. Then, we will have her."
"It will be as you say, Lord Anansi," Webb promised.
"Hey, Dawnie," Buffy's voice called for her just as Dawn was about to open the window. Dawn shucked her denim jacket, glanced at her mirror, straightened out her hair, pulled up her chair and cracked open her homework. "C'mon in," she answered.
Buffy opened the door and glanced into her sister's bedroom. "So, Dawn, how's the quest for knowledge going?"
"Slow and painful, Buffy," Dawn answered. "I've decided what landmark I'm going to do my report on, though." She showed her an encyclopedia she was reading. "The cathedral at Notre Dame," she pointed to the photo of the majestic Parisian cathedral. "For the next two weeks I'll be immersed in the wonderful world of stained glass and flying buttresses."
"Sounds like fun, squirt," Buffy grimaced at the thought.
"Yeah, I wanted something spooky, maybe haunted or something," Dawn commented. "Mr. Swanson's giving extra credit if I can find something weird and supernatural about it."
"You have a strange teacher," Buffy observed.
"I think it's his way of making sure we actually do some research on the subject," Dawn said, "instead of just rewording the dictionary definition."
"I guess," Buffy conceded. "Okay, munchkin, I'll let you get back to the spooky stuff. I'm about to go on patrol. G'night."
"Night, Buffy." Dawn lifted her head up, giving Buffy a quick kiss on the cheek. Buffy smiled and left her sister to her studies.
As she came down the stairs, she heard the front door being opened rather abruptly. Buffy quickened her pace, and saw Willow at the front door, flushed and out of breath. The worry in her face was clear enough for Buffy to rush toward her, collecting her in her arms. "Willow?" she asked, concern edging her voice. "What's the matter?"
Willow panted with exhaustion for a few seconds before she could speak. Finally, she was able to blurt out a few quick words; "Buffy�Tara's�in trouble�community center�"
"Okay, Willow," Buffy soothed her friend as she guided her to the living room sofa. She let Willow slip down in the sofa, then headed for the phone. "Just rest up, honey, I'll call the gang." She started dialing Giles' number, hoping her Watcher was still awake.
This was going to be a long night.
"You think that we connect, that the chemistry's correct
Three silent women observed the fa�ade of the community center. They stood tall and pale, their long hair flowing wild and free in the night wind. Their combined beauty would cause sane men to weep from a single glance. But they stood unseen in the street, thanks to the glamour they had cast around themselves. To passersby, they were simply three nondescript young women, unnoticed in passing and forgotten once they were passed.
They passed unnoticed through the building's front door, seeing without being seen, knowing without being known. They witnessed a trail of silk strands that led from the lobby to one of the furthest rooms. They knew that their quarry was here.
"Oberon will not be pleased to know," Selene, the raven haired one, said to her sisters, "that the spider has authored this tale of woe."
The silver-tressed Phoebe declared, "We must bring Anansi back to his home, to Avalon far from this earthly loam."
"But we are forbidden to interfere," golden-haired Luna reminded her sisters. "Events must play out as foretold, I fear."
"Be watchful and patient, sisters mine," Phoebe reminded the others. "Ours is a vast and complex design." Luna and Phoebe nodded in silent accord with their sister. For hundreds of years they lay their traps, they plotted and planned. They still served their master, Lord Oberon, but they had other concerns.
With the casting of a simple spell, they departed from the community center, slipping away as quietly as a dream.
"Oh, hello," Giles greeted his visitors as they filed into his house. "Please, make yourself comfortable." Xander took his usual chair, while Willow sat at the edge of the sofa, with Buffy close by her side. Anya had reluctantly agreed to stay at Buffy's house, to 'babysit' Dawn. The mood was somber as Giles offered tea and crackers to the others.
"Okay, Willow," Buffy nudged her friend's side gently once the formalities were concluded. "Tell them what you told me." Giles and Xander leaned forward in their seats, listening attentively to their friend.
"Well," Willow started slowly, worry and fear coloring her voice, "Tara took me to the community center to meet the guy who was holding this seminar she was talking about. But Mr. Webb, the guy who Tara was with, he gave me an economy-sized case of the creeps. I tried to get Tara away from him, but she yanked her arm away from me. Then these two giant spider-things appeared out of nowhere, and Mr. Webb sent them after me. I managed to stop them long enough to make a getaway, then headed straight to Buffy's."
"I ran into Webb when I was applying for the community center job," Buffy added. "At first he tripped my spider-sense�uh, no pun intended, Willow," she added hastily, only to meet Willow's understanding smile.
"I can't help but wish that you had informed me about Mr. Webb sooner," Giles commented dryly.
"It was just a passing feeling, Giles," Buffy glared at her Watcher. "If I were to take down everyone who set off my alarms the first time I saw them, Mr. Snyder wouldn't have survived his first week at Sunnydale High."
"And that would have been a bad thing how?" Xander quipped, only to be met by three sets of angry eyes. "It's a joke, guys. I do that."
Buffy gave a resigned sigh, and thanked the gods for Xander's sense of humor, misplaced as it sometimes was. "Willow," she asked patiently, "is there anything else that you saw, anything else that you might have forgotten? Any little thing could help us save Tara."
Willow closed her eyes, trying to recall any detail she missed. She fought back the fear that festered inside her, the fear she had for Tara's safety. She found herself thinking of Tara, her sweet smile, her soft warm expression, her sexy body, the way she loved simply lounging in Tara's arms�
"I tried to pull her away from Webb," Willow suddenly said, "but she yanked her arm away from me, like she was in pain. And she had a tattoo on her arm."
"A tattoo?" Buffy asked. Willow nodded. "Is this a tattoo you never saw before, or never noticed?"
"The only tattoo she has is a little Chinese character meaning 'luck' on her left ankle," Willow answered. "This was a new one. Giles, you got a pen and paper?"
"Here," Giles got off of his chair and located a pad of paper and a pencil near his phone. He handed the paper and pencil to Willow. A few seconds later, she returned the paper to Giles, saying, "This was the design."
Giles looked at Willow's handiwork. Three concentric octagons connected by crossed lines. A stylized spider's web.
"Hmm," Giles muttered to himself. "This looks familiar. Excuse me for a second." He withdrew a large book from a nearby shelf, and placed the book on the coffee table. Thumbing through the ornately bound tome, he stopped suddenly at one page, which bore the same icon that Willow just drew. "Oh dear," he murmured, which caused Buffy to blanch further. "The web tattoo, the spider monsters, Tara's seeming submission to Mr. Webb�heh, even that name, Mr. Webb, that should have tipped me off in the first place. It seems that the Cult of Anansi has moved into Sunnydale."
"Anansi?" Buffy asked suddenly. "The spider spirit of western Africa?"
Giles turned his head in surprise toward Buffy. "How do you know of Anansi, Buffy?"
Buffy shrugged her shoulders. "You've seen my place, guys. All those African masks Mom collected. She was an expert on African culture, and she bought a lot of tribal artwork for her gallery. When Dawn and I were kids, she used to tell us stories about Anansi, the trickster. He was a spider who could trick or outwit his opponents, even the great cats of the jungle. Sometimes he was the villain, sometimes the hero, but his stories were my favorite bedtime stories when I was growing up." She paused briefly, her eyes misting slightly as she remembered her mother's soft voice, telling her how Anansi outsmarted Osebo the leopard, or made a bargain with Nyame the sky god to own all the stories that existed. "Sometimes I still read some of the Anansi picture books she bought me as a kid. Kinda keeps her close to me, y'know?"
Giles reached out to pat Buffy's knee sympathetically. "We understand. However, the Cult of Anansi are not some fairy tale, I fear. They are a powerful cartel of mystics, who worship Anansi. According to this entry," he squinted slightly to make out the faded text of his book, "Anansi the Spider is a powerful demon, one who spins his web to trap the unwary. He doesn't fight on his own, but acts through agents, like our Mr. Webb, to ensnare people of great power, so their master can feed on their power. I believe that he's using Tara as a power source, draining her of her magic. And he must have used her to trap Willow, somehow knowing of Willow's own power levels."
"Does it say anything about how to squash this spider?" Willow asked. Buffy glanced briefly at Willow, who shivered at each mention of Anansi. She placed a comforting hand on Willow's arm, recalling her friend's professed fear of spiders.
"According to the text," Giles scanned the ancient pages briefly; "he may be weakened by cutting off his food reserves. Presumably he would keep those he has ensnared in some kind of larder, slowly feeding off their mental energies before disposing of the husks of their bodies." Willow shuddered further as Giles explained what was likely happening to her lover. "Forgive me, Willow, if this upsets you."
"No, Giles," Willow shook her head. "No big. Besides, that means if we can get Tara, and anyone else he's got socked away, out of there, it'll weaken him, right?"
"Like removing the batteries from a flashlight," Giles nodded, as he stood up from his seat and headed to the closet. "Odds are that he's been using the community center as a hideout."
"So let's stomp some spiders," Buffy announced, as Willow, Giles and Xander followed her lead. The four friends left quickly, heading out to the center, for their latest battle against demonic evil.
Buffy had to suppress a smile as they all piled into her Jeep. Less than a month after her unexpected return from the dead, and already they were about to leap into the breach once more. It felt strange, almost alien to her. And at the same time, it felt like old times.
All she could feel was the silk.
Silk in her eyes, on her cheek, in her hair.
Silk strands holding her arms to her sides and binding her ankles together.
Tara could barely move her little finger, so encased was she in a cocoon of pure silk. She was vaguely aware of what had happened, how she had been ensnared by that bastard Webb, and now was the plaything of the monster Anansi.
And what was worse,she recalled as a tear threatened to escape her eye, due to Webb's influence, I nearly betrayed Willow. My Willow. May the Goddess forgive me! More to the point, may Willow forgive me!
The cocoon held her fast, unable to move, but was vented sufficiently to allow her to breathe. Cold comfort, Tara scoffed. It only meant that Anansi must like his food alive. She fought back a tide of panic at the prospect. She was still alive, still aware, even if whatever poisons Anansi's silk strands contained were keeping her weak.
She couldn't move, but she could still think.
She willed herself to calm, despite the trying circumstances of her imprisonment. She repeated secret mantras that she and Willow created together to aid in concentration. She allowed herself to forget the silk prison that held her, the monster that threatened her, the predator who betrayed her. She focused her mind, her being, her energies, into one coherent thought, a single name;
Four grim-faced figures emerged from the Jeep and rushed into the community center building. What they did not know was that their passage was observed. A lone individual performed a silent vigil over them, watching from his perch at the top of the community center as they entered the building. He awaited the inevitable moment when he would make himself known to the Slayer, his eyes glowing yellow in the darkness, his talons flexing and unflexing in anticipation. He could smell the Spider inside the building. He knew that Webb and the thing he worshiped were waiting for them. He had faced the thing, the monster that called itself Anansi before, and knew him to be a formidable opponent. He marked his time, waiting for the opportunity to strike.
In the lobby, Willow pointed toward one hallway. "That's where the spider-things came from. They chased me here, but I set up a force field to stop them. They must have returned to Mr. Webb while I was heading back to Buffy's."
Buffy looked down the hallway, unable to discern anything but the featureless darkness beyond the lobby. She turned behind her and saw the same darkness down the opposite hallway. She found herself somewhat disturbed by the darkness; only a few hours ago, when she had received her new job teaching self defense classes, the community center was brightly lit and vibrant. If not bustling, then it was certainly active. Now, the darkness was oppressive, like a living thing.
"Okay," Xander suggested, "Buffy, howsabout you and I head that way, while Willow and Giles go down the opposite hallway? Cover more ground that way."
Buffy nodded her approval of Xander's suggestion, then turned to Giles. "You have any idea what we're looking for?" Buffy asked.
Giles considered what they would find, when they noticed a faint bluish glow emanating from the left-hand hallway. A tiny spark of light flitted from one of the doors in the distance, illuminating the darkness around it. It seemed to dance down the hallway, toward Buffy and her friends. The spark grazed Xander's ear, causing him to swat at it. "Jeez," he muttered, "what is this thing, a firefly? They don't bite, to they? No, they burn, that's what they do! Get away from me!"
The spark buzzed around him angrily, and then flitted toward Willow's face. Willow looked at the strangely beautiful light, as it seemed to be speaking to her, on a wavelength only she could hear�
"It's okay," she assured her friends. "It's Tara."
The light seemed to respond to Willow's identification, jumping around more, and flying away from them, toward the hallway again. "You heard her, gang," Buffy announced. "Follow that firefly!" As they ran down the hallway, Xander couldn't suppress the urge to ask; "So Willow, how long have you known your girlfriend was Tinkerbell?"
Willow regarded Xander's comment with a knowing smile as she led the others, following Tara's soul spark. She had said before, when she saved Tara's mind from Glory that she could always find her, no matter how distant their souls were from each other. She was relieved that Tara had remembered her promise. Now, with her soul beacon leading the way, the others were able to quickly find her.
They followed the bluish spark to a dark hallway. The spark darted here and there, but still with a strange feeling of purpose and direction, and Buffy and the others didn't dare lose sight of it. They followed after it in determined silence.
The spark suddenly passed through the farthest door in the hallway. Willow looked briefly at the door, her eyes level and almost unreadable. "Tara's in there," she announced. Buffy looked at her best friend, at the determined slant of her chin and the calm furrow of her eyebrows, and knew that her friend was correct.
"Back up, gang," the Slayer whispered as she reached for the doorknob. "No telling what's going down in there." As the others looked on, Buffy slowly turned the knob, and allowed the door to swing open. Muttering a brief prayer of thanks that the door hinge didn't squeak, Buffy slowly entered the room, motioning with her left hand for the others to hang back while she checked things out. Willow looked on apprehensively, as Buffy entered the room.
Buffy thought she had seen all the terrible things that a demon or vampire could do to a human. That was before she had witnessed 'The Pantry', as she called it later. It looked like a normal meeting room, about the size of a large classroom, but the similarity ended there. A yellow-white gauzelike substance covered the chairs, tables and floor, nearly an inch thick, obscuring the objects over which it fell. It reminded Buffy of when she and her mom went Christmas tree shopping one year, and they noticed someone aiming a flocking gun at some of the display trees. Brass candlesticks supporting squat white pillar candles dotted the room, their flickering flames casting a dim sheen over the silken covering. A dozen bundles of that same yellowish silky substance, each measuring about the proper length and width to contain a human being, were propped up against one wall. Toward the center of the wall, something stirred. Something the size of a Volkswagen beetle, bloated and black with long thin stick-like legs curled up around its midsection.
Buffy slowly ventured toward the bundles, careful not to awaken the giant spider. She had to step through patches of the webbing, which clung to her shoes like chewing gum in a movie theater. She reached the nearest bundle, and placed her hand on its side. It felt warm, close to body heat, and it seemed to be moving. Expanding and contracting. Breathing.
She had to remind herself to breathe. She found herself transfixed, repulsed and disgusted by what she saw and felt, by what this room represented. At least vampires tended to be quick about their feedings. This Anansi, or whatever it was, kept his victims alive, for God knows how long. And Buffy realized with a terrible finality that one of these bundles contained Tara.
"Buffy?" Willow's voice was strained and distant as she whispered to Buffy from the door.
"Willow," Buffy answered back quietly, "you got a knife on you?"
"I've got an atheme in my purse," she offered. "It's pretty sharp."
"And I got a jackknife with me," Xander added. Giles withdrew a small Swiss Army knife he had the presence of mind to carry with him.
"All of you get in here, and be quiet." Xander and Willow gingerly made their way into the Pantry. Willow had to stifle a gasp at the sight before her. "Goddess," she breathed. "Tara�"
"Just start cutting these cocoons open," Buffy commanded the others. "Anansi's feeding on these people. We cut them loose, we cut off his feeding supply."
Before she could carry out Buffy's orders, Willow found herself knocked back hard against the wall. She tried to pull her left arm back, only to find it stuck fast behind her. She turned her head quickly toward her hand, and saw a wad of sticky web-like substance adhering her wrist to the wall.
A smooth menacing voice shouted out, "Back away, Slayer!"
Buffy spun on her heel, turning toward the doorway. Aaron Webb stood in the dim light from the hall, his lean countenance glaring contemptuously at the interlopers who dared to oppose him. "Forget it, Spider Man," Buffy hissed angrily at Webb. "You're going down!"
"I disagree," Webb replied in a tone of quiet malice. He then inhaled briefly, and spat out another glob of webbing at Buffy, hitting her in the chest, hard enough to knock her back a couple of steps. She stepped back quickly to regain her balance, to avoid falling into the webbing that blanketed the floor. "That's it, Web-boy," Buffy growled as she lunged at her attacker. "First you endanger my friends, now you vomit over my favorite leather jacket! You've got a royally pissed off Slayer on your hands!"
She threw her body directly at Webb's midsection, throwing him out of the door frame. She launched a right hook to his jaw, hard enough to dislodge a tooth. She concentrated her attack on his mouth and jaw, hoping to prevent him from spitting any more of his webbing. While she kept hitting Webb, she shouted out, "Xander! Cut Willow loose, then both of you free the others!"
"I'm all over it, Buffy," she heard Xander answer, just as Webb's right hand shot out. In a fluid motion, his hand captured Buffy's fist in mid-flight, and yanked it away, pulling her off of him and onto the floor. He stood up slowly, gingerly testing his bruised jaw with his left hand, as he stared at his opponent. Buffy sprung to her feet, prepared for whatever he had planned next.
"Impressive display�Slayer," he spoke slowly, his speech slurred by the injuries Buffy had inflicted on his jaw. "But in the end, futile. I heal faster than you seem to suspect, child. And I am more than capable of holding out against you in a fight�" He swung his right leg around in a sudden low arc, slamming Buffy's thigh with a hard smack. The Slayer lost her balance, but managed to turn forward as she fell, breaking the fall with her arms. "As you can see. Now, child, I hope you're prepared to die."
"Been there," she spat out as she pushed herself off the floor, "done that!" She now stood ten feet distant from Webb, her legs apart, her arms at her sides, her stance and posture now ready for whatever Webb could throw at her. "Bring it, Web-Slinger," she challenged her enemy.
Xander sliced carefully at the web bundle that held Willow's wrist to the wall. For a soft material, the silk was deceptively strong, having a grip like a handcuff. Fortunately, it cut well enough, but Xander was not willing to simply swipe at the webbing with his knife, and risk cutting Willow's wrist. After a minute of short knifestrokes, Willow was able to loosen her hand, tearing the rest of the webbing away with her arm. "Got it," she announced, and Xander lowered his knife. "C'mon," she nodded, "let's get to the others."
Xander rushed to the first body-bag on the left, while Willow took the right. Giles had already started slicing away at a body near the center of the row of cocoons. They started picking at the threads on the top of their bundles with the tip of the knife, again working slowly to prevent cutting anyone within. After a few minutes, Xander was able to peel away enough of the webbing to peel away the thick layer of silk from the victim's upper half. The silk strands clung tenaciously to his arms and to the body beneath, but Xander kept ripping silk away from the victim. As he peeled away more layers of silk, he could see the figure that was imprisoned in the cocoon. A middle-aged male, thinning brown hair and slightly overweight. Didn't seem to Xander like the type to practice magic. "Hey, buddy," Xander slapped his face lightly, just enough to awaken him from his mildly drugged stupor. "You okay in there?"
The man stirred slowly, shaking his head to dispel the last of his drowsiness. "Uh�where�where am I�?"
"Sunnydale community center," Xander answered. "Here, let me help you get the rest of this stuff off you."
The man nodded, as Xander peeled the rest of the silk away from his body. "Some tall guy," the man started to explain, "said that he could teach me some new kind of meditation. Supposed to work better than Viagra."
"Yeah," Xander huffed. "Looks like he stiffed you, you should excuse the pun. Hey, Willow," he called to his friend on the other end. "How far along are you?"
"Xander," she gasped as she peeled away the webbing from her first captive's face. "I found her!"
"Giles, could you help this guy?" Xander left the gentleman with the retired librarian and rushed to Willow's side. He looked at the face that poked out of the webbing. Tara. He started slicing at the webbing, working his way downward, ripping away layer after layer of sticky silk. Willow took Tara's face in her hand, whispering, "Honey, you're gonna be okay. Buffy's taking down Webb, and we're getting you out of here."
Tara slowly returned to a fully aware state, and looked into Willow's eyes with an expression of understanding. "Thanks, Willow. I'm so sorry about what happened with Mr. Webb. I wasn't in control, I was�compelled to bring you to him�"
"Shush," Willow smiled at her lover. "No one's blaming you. It'll be okay."
"Just remember," Xander said as he pried away the last of the webbing, "silk's out this year. Stick with a nice cotton print."
"Thanks, Xander," Tara breathed as he ripped away enough of the confining silk to allow her to breathe more easily. "Wh-where's Buffy?"
"She's outside," Xander assured her. "Taking out the garbage."
"I should be out there with her," Willow muttered.
"No, Willow," Giles said, as he and Xander cut into the last few bundles of webbing. "Your place is with Tara. She's been weakened by Anansi's venom. She needs you here. Buffy can handle Webb just fine without us. We have to get these others out of here." Xander and Giles started to ferry the rest of Anansi's victims out of the room, while Willow steadied Tara's arm around her shoulder to get her out safely.
A faint rustling caught his attention, making him turn his head toward the center of the room. A slow but distinct movement of the monster spider's limbs caused the others to jump. A low moaning became a rumbling, became a roar. "Get the others out quickly, guys," Willow hissed to the others, "I'll get Tara to safety. Move!"
As the last of the spider's prisoners was being led out of his chamber, the spider stirred in earnest. Its many eyes trained themselves on Willow, chilling the frightened wiccan to the core. "Who are you who dares to disturb my slumber?"
Anansi was awake.
A swift kick connected with Buffy's jaw, hard enough to knock her against a far wall. Okay, she thought, now I'm pissed. She scrambled to her feet, without a moment to spare. Webb pressed his attack, clearing ten yards with each leap in his pursuit of the Slayer.
Buffy realized her initial mistake quickly enough. With a few exceptions, the opponents she had encountered before relied on brute strength to fight her. Few of her enemies had demonstrated any proficiency in the martial arts before. Webb was different. He moved with a swiftness and deadly grace. His moves were a blur of speed, and his attacks were direct and accurate. His every move was made with speed and deliberation. He fought like a spider, and kept Buffy on the defensive. She dodged his blows, pacing herself, waiting for an opening.
Suddenly, he fell back, grabbing his head and doubling over, as though in terrible pain. Buffy knew an opening when she saw one. She leapt forward, landing her shoulder hard against Webb's ribcage. The impact sent him skidding across the floor, until his head impacted with a doorframe. Webb struggled to regain his footing and threw himself toward Buffy, his hands stretched as talons, intent on the kill. As she fought off Webb's attack, she glanced around briefly and saw Giles and Xander leading several others out of the Pantry room. Good, she thought, get them to safety. I'll keep Webster here out of the way. "C'mon, Spiderboy," she growled. "You still want a piece of me?"
Webb lashed his head toward the door, seeing the others escaping from Anansi's grasp. "Foolish child," he spat out as he glanced at the retreating prisoners, but Buffy could sense the fear radiating off of him. "Do you know what you have done?"
"Uh," Buffy asked innocently as she advanced on Webb, "saved the day?"
Webb flashed a panicked look at Buffy, then threw her against the wall, flying past her. He rushed out of the lobby and into the night air, uncaring of the Slayer's fate. Buffy scratched her head over Webb's actions and considered chasing after him.
"BUFFY!" Willow's voice called from the pantry. Buffy turned sharply toward the sound of her best friend's voice. She'd deal with Webb later. The center of her universe needed her now.
Webb burst out of the community center blindly, neither knowing nor caring which direction he was going. All he knew was that he had to escape. When Anansi awakened, and found out what he had done�
He tore away from the crowd that had escaped from the Pantry, fearing their collective anger if any of them recognized them. Instead he made his way into the darkness of Whetherly Park, hoping to avoid crowds. He would lay low, make his plans, spin his webs again. His 'alliance' with Anansi may be at an end, but he would prevail. Aaron Webb would rise again�
A sharp jab at his shoulder forced him to turn around. He found himself facing implacable rage and swift justice, in the form of a towering monster. The monster's eyes glowed yellow in the darkness around him. The monster's wings spread wide about him, obscuring the moon behind him. The monster hissed at Webb, his voice like God's righteous wrath; "Where do you think you are going, servant of Anansi?"
Webb yelped in terror, his plans for conquest forgotten as he trembled before the sight of this vengeful giant before him. His mind now operating at only a rudimentary level, his only thought was to get away. Away from the Slayer, away from Anansi, away from the avenging angel who now confronted him, he ran.
Talons grabbed his shoulders and lifted him off the ground. He found himself borne aloft in the monster's grip, as the monster flew above the treetops of the park. "There is nowhere in this world where you can run from me, Aaron Webb," the monster intoned. He lowered his flight path slightly toward a clearing, and deposited Webb to the ground without ceremony, causing him to tumble several yards. His entire body became a livid bruise from the impact, but he was able to walk, more or less, once he struggled back to his feet.
The monster alighted to the ground, folding his wings around his shoulder like a cloak, and regarded Webb with a condemning stare. "I will only say this once, fiend," the monster said in an almost conversational tone. "You will turn yourself in to the police, confessing to kidnapping charges. You will not argue with the local district attorney over sentencing, and you will remain in prison for the maximum time your human laws allow. If we meet again, under any circumstances�" He didn't say another word. Instead he bared his claws a centimeter away from Webb's face, making his intentions clear most eloquently. Webb nodded silently, unable to do anything else. At least in prison he would be safe from Anansi.
Satisfied that Webb would do as he said, the monster slipped behind the trees in the darkened park, disappearing as swiftly as a dream. For Aaron Webb, however, he would remain in his nightmares for many months to follow.
"BUFFY!" Willow shrieked, holding the weakened form of Tara in her arms. The Slayer rushed into the Pantry, stake and crossbow at the ready. Although she wasn't certain how useful they would be in a direct confrontation with a demon spider.
Buffy stepped beside Willow and Tara, prepared to defend her friends against the monster spider. Its many red eyes seemed to be alit with an inner fire, an ancient wisdom. It extended its left foreleg slowly toward the three women. Buffy tensed, fearing the possibility of an attack. "Stand back, Willow," she whispered. "He's huge, but he could be faster than he looks."
"I doubt that," Tara observed silently. Willow regarded their potential opponent, and found herself agreeing with her lover's assessment. "With that much body weight, I doubt he can move with those skinny legs."
"Slayer," a strange voice rasped against the walls of the classroom, interrupting the whispered conversation. The voice ground against the ears of the three women, like the vocal equivalent of tinfoil on a dental filling. "You are the one who defeated my minion, Aaron Webb."
"Yeah," she answered testily. "I'm tougher than I look, so don't try anything."
The spider moved slowly, sliding against the floor, his legs barely able to crawl under the immense bulk they carried. With effort, Anansi dragged himself away from the center of the web where he had sat. As he cleared the web, his body started to shift, to contort, to contract. Before the shocked eyes of the three women, Anansi literally shrank, his grotesque body diminishing with each step, until he was no bigger than a common house spider.
Buffy marked the spider as it skittered up a wall, onto the ceiling, and stopped when it was nearly directly over her head. The spider then lowered itself from a silken thread, dropping from the ceiling until it was eye-level to Buffy and her friends. The strange voice spoke again, fainter and higher but still audible to the others; "I thank you for my liberation."
Buffy blinked in surprise, and a quick glance to the others proved that they too shared her misunderstanding. "Liberation?" she asked. "We thought you were the threat."
"I was, child, in my way," Anansi's laughter echoed in their minds. "I sought power, as is my way. I fear, child, that I tend to be greedy. It is my weakness, and one that Aaron Webb sought to exploit. Years ago, he was nothing more than a foolish dabbler in the black arts. He summoned me in one of his rituals, intent on using my cunning to his own ends. I was impressed by his skills, so I struck a deal with him, hoping to use him as he sought to use me. He agreed to hunt for me, to bring me beings like you, Tara, and you, Willow. People of great power, power that would sustain me."
"And you seemed to be doing quite well in that regard," Buffy commented, shrugging her shoulders. "What with the Jabba the Spider routine."
"Oh he kept me sustained," Anansi answered. "Just. He kept most of the power for himself, feeding me enough to keep me fat and docile. I was his prisoner, Tara McClay, just as you were. He needed me to control his power, as he needed you to provide his energy. Which is why I convinced him to seek you out, Tara."
"All those confused?" Willow said, raising her hand.
Buffy raised her eyebrows in thought. "He's the trickster. In all the tales Mom told me, Anansi was the weakest of creatures, but he got by on his brains, his cunning. His tricks."
"Indeed," the spider answered. Even despite its inhuman face, the three friends thought they could see its mandibles upturned in a very distinct smile. "I knew of you, Slayer. Your name has become quite well known in certain circles. You and your friends. When Webb chanced upon the campus of Berkeley as a hunting ground, I had the good fortune to learn that you, Tara, were a student. So I sent him to bring you to me, so that I may command you to bring Willow Rosenberg. I knew that she would bring the Slayer, and that she would dispatch Webb. I apologize, great lady," the spider seemed to bow before Tara, suspended on his web, "for putting you through this ordeal. But it was necessary to free myself, and the poor unfortunates whom Aaron Webb had ensnared."
"Apology accepted," Tara smiled, squeezing Willow's hand as she smiled. Under other circumstances, she would find it odd that she was accepting a spider's apology, but as she learned over the last two years, anything could happen in Sunnydale.
"And you need not fear me again, Buffy," Anansi turned on his webline to address the Slayer. "I will be more watchful in the future. No conjurers like Webb will ever get the better of me again." The spider turned on the webline's axis again, surveying the web debris around him. "And do not concern yourself with my refuse. Without my magic sustaining it, my web will decompose into a faint dust in a matter of hours."
"That's handy," Willow commented.
"Be well, the three of you," the spider slowly climbed its webline. "I sense a great power in each of you, a great potential for goodness. I know of things, as I've said. I know a little of your immediate future, I've seen it in my webs. You shall be tested, of that I am certain, but if you persevere, you will triumph against all adversity." As he climbed to the ceiling, his body shimmered and faded. With one last dreamlike echo, he said simply, "Trust Anansi."
Willow held Tara in her arms, and looked at Buffy as she gazed at the portion of the ceiling where Anansi stood before his disappearance. Buffy hated prophecies, they never meant anything good for her or her friends. But at least the promise of triumph was new.
She turned to her friends and said, "Let's blow this silk stand!"
Outside of the community center, the three friends met with Giles and Xander. "No sign of Webb," Giles admitted. "But his victims seem to be okay, nothing more serious than some disorientation. Some of these poor people were trapped in Anansi's webs for months. So, where's Anansi?"
"Dunno," Buffy answered. "But it turns out Webb was the real big bad. He had Anansi working for him. I'll explain later at the Magic Box."
"And before I forget," Tara left Willow's side and walked toward Xander, "I'd like to thank you, Xander, for helping get me out of that websack." She took Xander's hands in her own, then hugged him generously.
Xander gave his famed 'Han Solo' lopsided smile. "Hey," he quipped, "who's the man who won't cop out when there's danger all about?"
"Xander!" Buffy, Willow and Tara shouted in unison.
"Well, actually, that was Shaft, but since he couldn't make it, I guess I'll have to do." The others just chuckled at Xander's comments.
"Well, gang," Willow announced, "I'd call this one a win for the home team."
Giles nodded. "Indeed. I just wish that we knew what had happened to Aaron Webb."
"Yeah," Buffy admitted, her tone more subdued. "I just hope that he doesn't come back and bite us on the ass again."
As the friends left for the Magic Box, they weren't aware of the figure perched on the roof of the community center, watching them with an approving glance. He was proud of their victory against Anansi's servant turned master. And he was grateful for the chance to insure that Webb wouldn't be able to spread his evil any further. He trailed Webb as he located the first available policeman and turned himself in. Once the officer passed by the center, and interviewed some of Webb's former captives, he was convinced of Webb's crimes. Tomorrow morning, the local news would announce Webb's arrest for a series of serial kidnappings.
The figure spread his wings wide about him, taking flight in the night winds. Goliath smiled as he flew back to his resting-place. His first efforts in observing and aiding the Slayer were successful. But this was just the first salvo; he knew that much. Soon, he would have to shed his secrecy.
Soon, he would meet the Slayer. And hopefully she would not regard him as the enemy.
He looked forward to the meeting.