Vagabonds And Sinners Unrepentant
by Paradoqz

The day was remarkably clear. Bright. She still found it disconcerting even after almost two months in England. She kept waiting for rain. She told this to Giles in the very beginning while they were still staying in the London apartment. He laughed - just a little too loudly, just a little longer than the feeble joke deserved and cautioned her against preconceptions and biases. Letting her suitcase drop to the wooden floor, she looked around the room, her room.

It was pretty basic. A bed, the covers impeccably folded. A desk, a chair and a dresser. An old computer sat gleaming atop the desk, the white, apparently untouched 486 seeming even more incongruous than the sunny weather in these surroundings. She smiled, genuinely happy as she noticed the phone jack. "Net connection!"

"Mr. Gil.. Umm... Rupert ordered it for you." Lucy confirmed shyly, her eyebrows crinkling in sudden consternation. "I hope we ... umm... hooked it up right. We don't like.. I mean.. we're not comfortable with technology here..."

Willow smiled reassuringly at her, doing her best to put the girl at ease. "I am sure it's fine." Lucy smiled back at her uncertainly and quickly busied herself with unpacking Willow's things before the red- headed witch could stop her.

Former witch, she corrected herself. Just Willow now. She stifled a wildly inappropriate chuckle as she thought about the mess that was her hair currently. Probably not even a redhead anymore. Still. No reason to break into hysterics and terrify Lucy. Terrify Lucy more.

She was actually glad to feel the sharp tendril of slight exasperation snake across her brain. Angst was all very well when Bu... others were doing it and you were laughing on the sidelines about broody weirdos. Not so fun the other way around. And besides Lucy was nice. Very, very nice. Very, very, very nice. Willow nodded firmly. Nice was of the good and to be encouraged.

It's not that the rest of the coven was openly hostile or anything, she admitted hanging her blouse in the spacious closet. The fluffy, acidly green construction, that Xander claimed made his eyes water, looked very lonely just hanging there, alone in the middle of the beige expanse. "Poor lonely Fuzzy."

Lucy looked at her strangely and Willow smiled at her brightly. Her cheeks were beginning to ache from the effort to keep Lucy comfortable.

'Very nice,' Willow repeated firmly, clinging to the mantra. Must make nice back at. She opened her mouth but empty pleasantries refused to come. Shrugging she hung another shirt, thinking. It was hard to maintain friendly meaningless chatter with Lucy. The awkward silences were equally uncomfortable but Willow got used to those. And they were less work.

Of course the vague guilt was still there, she thought, throwing a quick sidelong glance at Lucy just as the younger witch absently tacked a lock of light brown hair behind her ear. Willow knew from the very first moment they met that Lucy reminded her of someone. It just took her a while to admit it. Even now she felt more comfortable thinking that it was her own younger self that she saw in the girl rather than some other painfully timid, introverted witch she once knew.

She wrenched her thoughts off that line of thinking with brittle control. Not going there again. Just... no. Once again an uninvited, uneasy mirth bubbled just under the surface. Her mind was like a minefield these days, at every turn an area cordoned off. Huge signs making with neon danger warnings. Attack dogs. Barb wire. She tried to pull the mask of happy-shiny Willow over it but she was pretty sure it wasn't what you call watertight

So. Not really surprising that most of the coven were being... bitchy. British bitchy of course, which largely consisted of treating her with icy politeness. She grimaced, hating to admit it. Most of that was probably due to Giles in any case rather than her own state of mind. Plus she had a sneaking suspicion that a lot of the women were moderately weirded out by the whole gay thing. Not exactly what she was expecting from a coven like this but it seemed that under all the Wicca there was a solidly bourgeois mentality here about most things. Willow sighed as she recognized her wandering thoughts for the cheap defense mechanism it was.

She didn't want to think about Giles and how he still looked, even now almost 9 weeks since... since. She gritted her teeth and forcibly enunciated the rest of the sentence in her head ÷ since she tried to end the world. Since she almost killed Giles. She bit her lip, fighting back the traitorous tears that still welled up every time she saw him, hobbling awkwardly through the halls of the manor. He should have recovered by now!

But he hadn't. He was still the same shade of gray-pale and he was still tiring too fast, even while doing research. She sniffled quietly, she so didn't need Miranda glaring daggers at her every time Giles would launch into that awful tearing cough. She KNEW it was her fault, all right?!

Bitch.

She blinked suddenly as the wet warmth spread down her cheeks. Damn. Wrong turn. Minefield go boom.

"Willow? W-Willow are you... Oh, my goodness...."

She didn't remember dropping to her knees, she didn't see Lucy move to catch her, she didn't see at all. For a long while all she could was feel ÷ the harsh racking sobs forcing themselves through her aching throat, the fabric of Lucy's skirt getting wet under her tears, the soft protective embrace cradling her as she trembled in the girl's lap, the nonsensical string of the placating words washing over her.

It was the first time she cried since June. She thought she had forgotten how.

 

He always thought best when it was down to the wire. Something about being backed into the corner, his own blood tasting thickly at the back of his throat, the knuckles aching in that pain that was almost like an aphrodisiac... Right then, somewhere along the line, somewhen right before he'd break someone's head and the fun really would start ... yeah. Things would crystallize then, his mind distancing itself, retreating into a machine-like cold precision, latching on the most inappropriate things.

Hey, some people meditated. Spike got off on the violence. It concentrated his mind quite nicely.

Now if he could only rationalize the binge drinking.

Well so fucking what. Alcohol was his friend.

Well right up until the point he found himself telling his life story to Shuma demon bartender in Moscow. God, that was a horrible way to get jerked back to consciousness. At some point he would really have to retrace his steps and kill that Shuma.

Ah, hell. Too late by now. The sorry tale was probably all over Russia already. Just another hole in his already tarnished reputation.

Still at least some good came out of it. Despite the blinding hangover, he dimly realized that he was engaged into that most pathetic of all possible options available to him.

He was fucking angsting! Brooding! He was bloody brooding! He was turning into Peaches Lite!

Well, bollocks to that.

It was time to tentatively attempt the drying out process. Right. He remembered nodding firmly right then and there and decking the Shuma when it offered him another shot. No more of that shit. Time to get back on the horse.

Next time he snapped back to self awareness he was in Marseilles.

 

She doesn't want to hear the truth. It hits her and Willow bites her lip to keep from saying it out loud into Maria's face. She doesn't want to hear that either. The psychiatrist sighs. The kindly plump face conveying the disappointment perfectly, just like she meant it too.

Willow doesn't react, keeping her eyes on the tree outside, carefully staring at that one spot on the dead, black branch. The single yellowed leaf is trembling in a slight breeze a strange image of the fall in the middle of the summer.. 'Pretty,' Willow thinks absently, as Maria murmurs something about the lack of progress, repression and transference. Out of the corner of her eye she sees Maria move, gathering up the papers and carefully packing up the pad covered with small accurate handwriting.

Tomorrow she will come again and ask her the same questions. And tomorrow she will probably tell her what she wants to hear. But not today. It's sunny today.

Maria leaves, closing the door softly behind her but Willow still doesn't seem to be able to break her stare. The branch long since lost focus, blurred around the ages and she's looking beyond it now, all the way across the rolling meadows toward the smoldering thread of the horizon.

They don't want to hear the truth. They just want her to say she's sorry. That she regrets it. That she wishes she didn't kill Warren.

That she wishes she didn't skin Warren alive.

Tomorrow Maria will come again and put on her sensible horn-rimmed glasses and unpack her pad..

Tomorrow Willow will tell her she's sorry.

But not today. It's sunny. It's too good a day to lie.

The warm wind is like a loving, motherly caress on her skin. Smelling of apples and wilting flowers.

That night it was sawdust from the mill, pine needles and dry heat. Sweat and smoky bitter fumes off highway, old leather, fear and blood.

Blood most of all, even before she caught up to him.

She could almost taste it boiling underneath her own skin. The heavy, clinging smell of Tara's blood still all around her despite the showers.

His blood, pumping madly, as he careened through the forest.

The skin came off so easily, like a glove that no longer fit. And he was still alive, his eyes unbelieving for a longest minute of his life in that short pause before the pain caught up with him.

Eyes looked so out of place on a face without skin.

Was she sorry. Did she regret it. Was she seeking repentance.

Penance. They wanted her to accept her penance.

Willow Rosenberg smiled slightly, the expression cold and cutting and full of merciless wisdom of people whose faith predated Catholicism by millennia. She may have left her God behind but some things remained in the blood forever. And in the end even the Goddess did not always turn the face of mercy to the world.

Eye for an eye. What was taken from me I claimed and no more. He made my sun and stars go away forever. He had to pay in blood.

Her smile faded slowly.

Blood. Blood and sun. Her most vivid memories were drenched in blood and sun. Who would have guessed that of her just a year ago.

 

In situations of unexpected sobriety the important thing is not to lose your head. 'Literally in some cases,' Spike thought remembering the way it felt to wake up in some Venezuela dive and register as the very first thing a bearded, gap-toothed and violently reeking peasant standing over you with a rusty axe.

That was fun. In that whole 'not at all' way.

The blond vampire squinted tightly, hoping that it would somehow neutralize the throbbing headache that for some reason concentrated singularly behind his left eye. Like most plans he came up with, it worked with its own strange flavor ÷ the pain migrated behind the right eye and increased.

In more than a hundred years of determinedly acquired experience Spike had learned one very simple thing ÷ there is no better cure against the hangover than time. Since he was also never that big on patience he always rather preferred to simply beat the said hangover into submission with large quantities of alcohol.

Gestured for the bartender, he looked around the gloomy interior of the pub, trying to move his head as little as possible. As his surroundings registered he suddenly blinked and tried to shake his head. Hissing in pain, he decided to reconsider that idea.

There were pluses of course. The sensation of someone driving hot nails into his brain almost distracted him from the chaotic madness of a nameless interior designer that was responsible for... Spike glanced down at a napkin and rolled his eyes. 'Hibernian Musketeer.'

Christ. But that sealed it. The name captured rather spectacularly the atmosphere of the place that was obviously established by some Irish demon that got horribly lost in the South of France. Spike's eyes fell on a Romanesque candelabra adorned with little clover leaves and he shuddered. Culture clash would not begin to describe it. The smallish stage at the back and an ifrit moaning into the microphone depressingly meant that the bar did not even have the redeeming grace of good music. Faced with the prospect of karaoke on the top of his hangover...

'Alcohol,' decided Spike firmly. 'A lot,' he thought catching the acidly green-indigo color of the wallpaper.

"Yer shittin' me." Behind him the conversation between two figures shrouded in shadows appeared to be heating up as one of the talkers slammed down his glass and raised his voice, the jersey voice doing unspeakable things to the language of Voltaire.

"Swear to the Pestilent Gods, may they rupture my pistules if I lie! A hole. A damn hole in the ground." The Accent's friend protested in a nasal voice that felt like a rusty saw on Spike's brain

"No way. There is no fucking way... I mean... Nah."

The old grandfather clock standing in the corner amidst the air of carefully overstated superiority came to life with a sudden and echoing bell, distracting Spike from the overheard conversation. Every ringing sound hit him like a carefully aimed uppercut. He glared at the bartender, but the latter either didn't notice or ignored him. Spike considered doing something suitably violent but decided against it as the clock finally stopped after the 4th chime. Instead he downed the alleged cognac and quietly contemplated dying.

He was in France. Why was he in France? How did he get to France? He sighed and gestured for the Vega demon (who in the bloody hell thought it'd be a good idea to hire a Vega demon for a bartender, anyway?!) to bring him more. And leave the bottle.

Closing his eyes with utmost care he thought back. He could dimly recall getting off the freighter yesterday. Most of the night thereafter was large with the gaps in the memory. He preened subconsciously with pride at the thought of the sheer amounts of booze it must have taken to put a dent like that in the vampire physiology.

He poured another glass and winced as the ifrit hit a particularly high note that reverberated through the mostly empty pub. Spike nodded chuckling humorlessly, it figured. At four in the morning the only people... or demons present would be the ones taking their drinking real serious. He snorted, the sound tinged with self- mockery and started raising his drink. Suddenly he stiffened, the long unnaturally pale fingers tightening their grip around the glass.

"...layer! That's just pathetic. If she can't even fight her damn way out of a hole in the ground... Damn, man. And I've been putting of my vacation there until she finally bites it. You should never believe the rumors, I tell you what."

"I dunno, Bob. I met this guy in Miami, see. Twitchy little fellow. Well, little for a Fyarl, anyway. Man. He changed coasts just to get away from that bitch. The way he tells it, I ain't in no hurry to visit sunny SoCal."

"A Fyarl? I am surprised you found one that can find California on a map. Or knows what a map is."

"Exactly, tho'! Not the species known for their vivid imagination, eh? But dude, you should have heard him go on and on and on... She's like seven feet tall, see? And she goes around with this two headed Lochaber axe. And she got a coven backing her up. Not that she needs them or nothing, apparently. "

Spike slowly relaxed his hand, unseeing blue eyes intent on the fingers wet with bourbon and blood and shards of glass. The fragile inner peace painstakingly wrought upon the escapism of drinking and violence just as shattered. The intricate faŹade of anger and frustration transferred at the hangover in order to evade uncomfortable truths crumbling like a house of cards.

The alcohol stung where it seeped into the cuts, pain's distraction as fleeting, illusory and ultimately futile as his attempt to pretend that all was business as usual. Just another hangover morning. Right.

Fuck! That was what he got for sobering up, is what. Should have known it wasn't a good idea.

A half forgotten nightmare of a Shuma face listening intently to his life story swam before his eyes and Spike cursed quietly, suddenly remembering the reason he was no longer drunk.

Fuck.

How far would he have to go before he could escape her...

The thought surfaced with sudden and icy cold clarity, shocking him with the violently desperate plea at its core. His hand crawled slowly across his face, leaving bloody trails across the skin. Not again. Oh, fucking, bloody hell, God, not again. He couldn't fucking do it again. He just couldn't.

Behind him the conversation continued on, uninterrupted by his little episode and despite himself he found his attention firmly fixed to the now hushed sound of two voices behind him.

"Witches." The Nasal Bob snorted disgustedly.

"Tell me about it." Agreed the Accent. "Bitches alla them." He giggled suddenly, a high pitched sound that conjured up incongruous images of a gossiping schoolgirls in Catholic uniform in the listening vampire.

"What are you so happy about? Hey! Maurice! What?"

"They got theirs, see! The witches! Half of them got shot in some drive by thing or somethin'. And the head freak went all Darth Vader."

"Who?"

"Darth Vader, man! Jeez. Dark Side? Umm... Sold her soul,see. Lucifer-like!"

"Oooooh. Was it... Ah. Never mind. None of these formerly Light and Innocence types have any imagination anyway."

"Ha! If you say so. This little chit was bad, dude.. Badass bad. The Fyarl was still pissing himself. She took this one guy and skinned him alive and then kept him alive for like a week. And she wasn't playing footsie with 'im either all that time. Took his... well, let's just say he went from basso to a soprano. Took his eyes too. Before she sent him to hell. Still alive. Didn't reskin him though. And then..."

"What?"

"The she-witch bitchslapped Osiris! Swear by my livers!"

"I'd like to meet that girl."

"No." Maurice's joviality suddenly dried up, his tone growing cold and flat. "You wouldn't."

"You're teasing me now. Oh... you mean not as in I wouldn't like to meet her because she'd cut me open with my own dorsal fin but because... Ah. Damnation."

"Well. Actually both. But yeah. You know these unstable types No staying power."

"She changed back, didn't she?" Nasal Bob's disgust with witches appeared to have been rekindled with a vengeance.

"Ayep. Ghwarghrokh, the Fyarl, said he heard she gave up magic too. Altogether like."

"Shame. Sounds like the lady had potential."

"Yeah." Maurice sighed deeply and gulped down whatever he was drinking. "Sucks."

Spike felt his teeth grate and released his jaw muscles with careful control. The chatter behind him switched topics and he had to force himself to stay in place rather than turn on them and beat the information out of their bleeding broken faces...

He sighed deeply, drawing in unnecessary air and letting it out in deliberate, measured breaths. Calm. Calm... Think.

The gossip was garbled as usual in the demon world. Chances were by the time the news reached Italy there would be dragons involved.

Cold amusement rippled through the red haze enveloping his brain at the image of seven-foot Buffy wielding an axe in the Bronze. Someone along the rumor line was way too much into the Norse myths apparently. He worried his lower lip between his teeth, his left hand groping for his cigarettes as he squinted, thinking.

Coven had to be Glinda and Red. Was Tara really dead.... he froze as a sudden thought hit him ÷ could they have mistaken Nibblet for a part of a coven? She was always hanging out with the witches. All but one dead... Bloody Hell, Dawn... He swallowed, the fingers suddenly too unsteady to light the match. Fuck! Calm. Calm. If Little Bit was... was...

Buffy would be right there with her. If Buffy's alive so's Dawn.

Right. Gotta be. He clamped his lips on the cigarette and willed the doubts away.

Anya? No. She was Anyanka now, he had smelled it on her. The power old and new and unmistakably hers coming off her in waves. Take more than a bullet now for her.

'Tara's gone though.' Spike nodded slowly, 'sure as hell. That'd push Red over the edge and no mistake. Pity, that.' He'd been fond of Glinda in an absentminded kind of way. Seems he missed a hell of a show... Must be a bloody havoc happening in the Slayer's household. He grinned coldly. That's just fine. Not his business anymore. Right.

Nodding curtly he suddenly blinked in an surprised realization. On the bright side it seemed that the news killed the hangover. Well damn. The dry slightly detached humor of the thought comforted him more than he would care to admit and the level of cognac in the bottle dipped farther still as he thought back to the first days after he came to in that cave.

Soul. He had a soul. The thought still seemed surreal. Back then the fact by itself was buried deep under the suddenly unrestrained emotions. The self-control he prided himself on, the control that sometimes was his only way of survival was gone, shattered. Destroyed as he raged and wept, clawed the walls and tore at himself with bloody fingers.

Madness lurked, he knew, it stalked him then, it was just around the corner. The most miniscule of things, the memories of the most mundane events would sent him into almost epileptic fits as his mind strove to regain the semblance of order, the demon inside of him howling with rage, the man screaming.

Thoughts of suicide were frequent in those early days. And if not for the perks of the undead flesh and its propensity for quick healing he probably would not have survived the ordeal that came on the heels of the marks left by the Trials. But he did. Spike's lips twisted in a bitter smile. He always survived. If simply because he was far more afraid of death than any pain.

When he could finally think, when he finally dared to feel again, he looked for the demon. His throat a bloody, voiceless ruin he searched the cave, hunting after the every sound through the dank tunnels. The underground complex of caverns and underground passages burrowed by something clearly not human was empty.

The realization sent him back into the inarticulate frenzy for another night, with the temptation to vent the killing rage upon the village outside. Somehow, in the depths of encroaching madness, a quiet certainty had set in that the fear and the pain and the broiling chaos he has been through had burned away the restraints of the silicon in his brain. He knew it. Deep in his bones, he knew it.

He remembered with stinging clarity the night he finally stepped out into the chilly clean night and smiled at the wary onlookers. The death-head grin stretching the pallid skin he smiled at them and let them see William the Bloody. Or what the Slayer, the Initiative and the trials left of him. He had a soul now, he thought and that leaked into the smile too.

Villagers gave him a wide berth as he stalked through the meager camp.

He didn't remember the rest of the night very well, only the flashes. Tall grass, the strange smells and sounds of the other predators, moon hanging as a consistent, uncaring silver presence above. He thought sometimes about the locals who must have caught glimpses of him. It amused him. His imagination as always romanticizing the possibilities, supplying the images that a random bushman might have seen. The dark figure racing across the savanna, the steady ground-eating lope, the unnaturally wan face, the mane of bleached hair and the flash of the bared teeth.

It would rather amuse him to spawn a new myth or become a member of the local pantheon. New terror to stalk the night and frighten the littles. Yeah.

Damn shame he didn't have the duster.

He hissed softly, perversely enjoying the memories. He made his way north, the tenuous hold over his emotions growing steadily, the explosive releases of the bar fights coming on his terms like old times, not the murderous berserk rages that he later had trouble remembering.

But her name, her face, the memory of her warmth against him, the thunderous pulse of her blood as she slept beside him... Even now he could feel his demon snarling as it felt its bonds loosening. Then... it was enough to send him off. He chuckled darkly. Even Dru, at her worst, never drove him to such extremes. It took the fucking Slayer. He closed his eyes again, squeezing them tightly shut until it almost hurt. Not again. Please, not again.

It took everything he had to beat it, every ounce of his will, every last iota of his determination and every trick he learned in his long life of dealing with memories he didn't want. He thought back to the smoky, opium den in Alexandria with the unwashed rags covering the windows, old moth-eaten rugs, the wooden taste of the pipe and the wailing call of the muezzins ringing through the early morning.

The old gray haired Chumak with sleepy eyes and a broken horn lost in a dream or a nightmare sat across from him, the paws twitching slightly as he dreamt of younger days perhaps when he could still hunt. There - his head heavy and light at the same time, there ÷ walking between the worlds, there ÷ the premonitions and waking prophetic dreams tugging at the edge of his consciousness, there ÷ the Ginsberg's words flowing like thick and bitter honey across his mind.

It was then and there he could finally think of his beautiful Slayer and be.

After that he just needed a spot of violence and booze to come to terms with the rest of the world. He dragged the acrid cigarette smoke through his lungs forcing the demon down. He was done with that now. Done with mad dreams that lasted into the wakeful nights and sent him into the streets looking for blood, any blood, even his own, glistening in the depressing glow of the street lamps. Done with the regret and the memories of her teary face and the shards of broken trust as she huddled in the corner looking at him with hatred and loathing and ...

Done.

Now he just had to decide what to do instead.

He snarled suddenly, angry at himself. The fuck is wrong with you, Will? Whole world is our bloody oyster! Don't have to set foot in Sunnyhell till her bones are dust. Enough fun to keep busy. Maybe New Orleans again. Or Rio. Bombay. Petersburg. The whole fucking world! Where things go right, where his plans actually bloody work, where he doesn't get ideas to battle a fucking demon for his fucking soul to impress the fucking Slayer!

He had almost forgotten how he loved Europe. Vienna reminded him. The sense of oldness lurking behind the brash new facades of modernity. Ever present ghosts of despots and empires. The history that allowed the easy, almost condescending disregard for the puritanical follies still alive and well on the other side of the Atlantic. America was fun in many ways but this was ... home. If anything was.

The sly voice in the back of his mind smirked, the images of the deceptively sleepy California town rising like the newly made undead. He clenched his teeth and buried them again, deep beneath the carefully constructed monument of nonchalance and scorn. Like he gave a fuck about that little piece of hell.

Perhaps he'd visit London. Been a while.

The thought's appeal faded quickly as he felt the same vague unease that... Spike twitched his head irritably. That. He didn't even remember when he felt it first. In the blissfully rare moments of sobriety it would come upon him, raising hackles on his neck. Nebulous, ill-defined wariness that prompted him to actually leave Vienna much earlier than he might have preferred.

He frowned concentrating and for a moment he was on the brink of grasping it, near to pulling the clues, the subtle whispers of his instincts together and then in a flash it was gone leaving him clutching at tatters of the dissipating thoughts.

Growling he wheeled around to glare at the ifrit whose wailing disturbed his focus but the fire demon was gone, shuffling drunkenly off the stage, leaving in his place a young man. Spike noted that the newcomer seemed far more preoccupied with tuning his guitar than with the sudden attention from quite a few of the pub's less human patrons. You had to admire the sheer gall, the vampire mused assessing the man. Not because he was human, but because the ensemble of worn levis and a flannel shirt unmistakably screamed 'ugly American' and dared anyone to do anything about it.

Spike glanced at the drunk French demons around him and smiled thinly. "The kid's got balls."

He shrugged and turned away asking the bartender for a moist cloth. It appeared that no one was in a fighting mood today. The cloth felt damp and chilly on his forehead as cleaned off the blood. The familiar notes of the opening refrain caught him by surprise and he almost turned around again for a second look at the singer. After a second he shrugged again. He didn't expect Velvet Underground here and now. The boy didn't seem the type. But then. Sometimes the people surprised you.

"Mr. The Bloody, I presume."

 

'It's probably just a couple of hours till the sunrise.' Willow thinks. Really no point in even trying now. She closes her eyes again, shutting out the world for a second, but the persistent sound of raindrops drumming on the roof and sluicing through the tree leaves outside intrudes. The same sounds woke her up near midnight and refused to allow her the easy escape back into the refuge of the dreamless sleep.

She snorts softly, at the very least England was finally living up to her biases. Opening her eyes reluctantly she stays still, getting used to the darkness. Her hands locked behind her head feel hot and sweaty but she doesn't move, simply staring at the ceiling still indistinguishable from the rest of the blackness.

Tara smiling. The crooked innocently wicked grin in the corner of her mouth. Warm, sweaty, sticky hands. Hushed laughter. Sweetly acrid scent of the candles. Hot lips on her neck. Heartbeat echoing with shocking loudness and speeding up.

Tara smiling. Cold clammy hands sticky with blood. Surprised eyes looking at her and falling. Deafening silence of the world fading away.

Warren screaming.

She swallows, wetting the suddenly dry lips with her tongue. It scares her how much satisfaction she still takes in that particular memory. Suddenly restless she shifts under the blanket but peace of mind proves elusive and so finally, throwing off the sheet, she sits up. The abrupt movement unsettles her, making her head swim for a brief second as she unexpectedly feels faintly nauseous. Air conditioning died rather definitively a week ago and the surprising summer heat turned the old manse's air stagnant, almost suffocating.

'I really should have gone down for supper.' Willow thinks blearily, gingerly standing up. She knew she should have eaten something but it just didn't seem worth it to chance the first floor where most of the coven congregated in the evening. The cold hostile looks, conversation dying abruptly as she approached.... Willow grimaces. 'Besides,' she shrugs, 'Wasn't that hungry.'

On the other hand the lack of appetite, the insomnia and the humidity of the house seem to have finally caught up with her, she admits to herself as she swallows again, trying to push back the incipient queasiness. The wooden floor feels strangely welcoming under her feet as she pads to the computer chair, pulling the sheet tighter about her shoulders.

She briefly considers turning the lights on but dismisses the idea. With her luck it would bring in Lucy. Willow grins, the even white teeth flashing in the dark. It's fairly obvious that the young witch had been 'warned' about her charge. "Probably is expecting me to go all Lizzy Borden any day now."

She turns on the computer and waits for it to load. Professional though she might be, Maria didn't take into account that she was dealing with someone that pulled Alexander Harris through both high school trig and chemistry.

Willow snickers softly. 'I knew the ability to read AND write upside down would come in handy one day."

And Maria had such a nice, legible handwriting.

Her smile fades. "Subject's mental condition is still fragile. Her moods are volatile and unstable."

She sniffs and sips the tepid water from the glass left by the computer. "She makes it sound like I'm Spike or something. You try to bring about an apocalypse just once and suddenly you're crazy and I'm suddenly realizing that I'm talking to myself which is in no way a good thing in the current context."

She taps her foot impatiently as the modem wheezes and groans, the speed torturously slow after the T3 she is used to. It's been a week since Giles's laptop met its untimely demise at the hands of a cooling spell gone horribly wrong.

Willow winces. Her email account has probably exploded by now. Besides, there should be at least a couple from Sunnydale. She thumps the monitor's side, "C'mon, you damn piece of junk!"

The 486 wails reproachfully but finally coughs up the connection.

"Oh my God... This is just disgusting is what this is! How in the holy hell do you get 356 messages in eight days?! It's inhuman I tell you." Willow gnaws on her fingernail for a second then sighs deeply and resolutely attacks the spam.

BAD MONTH FOR CELEB HUSBANDS. WATCH ANGELINA..._ "Right. Goodbye. "

REMARKABLE CURE FOR BALDNESS INSIDE! " Faaaaascinating. Bye."

MICROSOFT WANTS YOU! "Ew! Evil! Die, evil, die!"

WE WILL ENLARGE YOUR PENIS NATURALLY! "That'd be a neat trick."

SIZE DOES MATTER! WITH JUST ONE PILL RON JEREMY... "Oh, for crying out loud. Can you say wrong target audience? Jeez. I bet this why Giles doesn't like email. I could just see him seeing this thing in his inbox." Willow frowns suddenly. "Well, actually, no, I couldn't. Plus the whole ick factor. Great now I'm having Giles-Ron Jeremy thoughts. Oh, ew. Ew!"

ARE YOU HOT FOR SWEATY GIRL ON GIRL ACTION?!?!?!!!!! " Well, now..." Willow snorts and is suddenly tired, the superficial, almost forced momentary cheer fading. She scans the long list quickly, picking out the obviously important messages, and deletes the rest en masse.

Three messages with the telltale markers of unread. Secrets waiting for her. Something to remind her that after all when was still Willow too. The same one that had a crush on Xander and had nightmares of showing up naked in school and thought that vampires were a myth and gay was something that happened to other people.

The rain outside, whipped by the gust of wind, slams wetly against the window and she gets up to look. The trees are all alike, black menacing shapes in the night ringing the house like ancient implacable sentinels. Absently, she tries to make out her tree, wondering whether the solitary leaf still held on. Too dark.

Gripping the corners of the sheet she opens the window, inhaling deeply and gasping a little at the shockingly cool air as the dying summer storm eagerly invades the room, showering her with the chilly drizzle.

Tara taught her to look at the rain. It was so long ago it almost seems like yesterday. They stood pressed together under the old blanket breathing at the glass. Fogged glass that cleared really fast, she remembers. And outside the warm California downpour, painting liquid pentagrams on the black asphalt.

And yesterday she dreamt of Oz kissing her and when she woke up she wanted to cry. In her inbox there are letters from three people that want her to get well. In her inbox there are voices of two people that still love her. In her inbox there is one message that's been there two months. Unopened. Unread.

'Life,' Willow thinks, 'Is a weird thing.'

 

Behind the rich timbre of the cultured voice educated in a prestigious East Coast school and the politely smiling mask of the young Korean, the dark premonition was suddenly as clear to Spike as the smell of the gun oil coming from outside the pub's door. As his mind came awake suddenly, latching on to the elusive query the vampire unhurriedly poured himself another shot, the blue eyes assessing the immaculately dressed man in front of him. "Who's asking?"

The man smiled again , "Oh, I apologize. Where are my manners." He extended his right hand and inclined his head slightly, "Gavin Park of Wolfram & Hart, Attorneys at Law at your service." A piece of white materialized as if by magic between his fingertips, masterfully disarming Spike's studied insult of ignoring the proffered handshake.

"My card." The paper rectangle slid across the bar coming to a gentle rest against the bottle.

"A lawyer." Spike's tone unmistakably insinuated that he found the profession's value somewhere between a dead rat and an evening in the company of a premenstrual lamia. "What the fuck do you want?"

The professional smile once again made an appearance and Spike idly wondered how fast the pillock would run if he only knew how that incessant grinning of his was beginning to grate on the vampire.

"Oh, I am here to offer a strictly mutually beneficent arrangement between yourself and our firm. I assure you, you will be more than amply compensated for any inconvenience."

Spike shook his glass slightly, intently observing the swirling amber liquid.

"Sir?"

"Are you still here?" Spike's annoyed, half mocking tone made the blurring speed of his movement all the more terrifying and Gavin Park swallowed very slowly as he suddenly found himself face to face with a snarling, yellow eyed... thing.

An iron bar of some sort was pressing against his throat, making it difficult to concentrate and he somehow couldn't break the eye contact. The horrible visage of a demon , the sole defining fact of whose existence was dealing in death and torment, pulled back its lips and moved close enough for Gavin to smell the alcohol and tobacco on its breath. "Not. Interested. Piss. Off. "

In the space between one second and the next, the awful caricature of the human face slid away revealing the attractive features of the man behind the demon. "Wanker."

The pressure on his windpipe suddenly eased and Gavin gasped, dragging in precious air. He blinked realizing that somehow he was no longer at the bar but lying against the wall feeling rather as if permanent damage was done to his larynx. At the thought his eyes dropped reflexively toward the hands of the vampire who was already back staring moodily at the contents of his glass.

He paled suddenly the shock catching up to him and making the rather obvious realization that there never was any iron bar, of an unbelievable importance. He schooled his features as he straightened, ignoring the snickers and whispers of the demons around him. With the ease of long practice he erased the shock and the embarrassment and fear. In a matter of minutes he once again showed nothing more than the polite, cultured expression he thought of as his business face.

It didn't pay to wear your heart on your sleeve in the less than hallowed halls of Wolfram and Hart. He flicked a nonexistent speck of his expensive suit, watching the vampire. He never dealt with his kind all that much, until he was assigned to monitor Angel Investigations. Personally, he decided looking at the deceptively slender arms and the unnaturally pale , chiseled and seemingly so human face, he'd just as soon forgo the experience. In two long strides he approached the blond. "I'm afraid, that it's not that simple Mr. .. erm.. . Spike. "

The vampire winced visibly, "God, you're a right poncy bugger, ain't you? Worse than Peaches. It's just Spike, all righ.." He frowned suddenly just as Gavin himself grimaced when the guitarist suddenly plucked the wrong chord. The lawyer's eyes flickered toward the musician in automatic response to the jarring sound and he blinked.

And then he gaped. And then he smiled slowly and inclined his head in greeting. Reluctantly taking his eyes off the now standing man on the stage, Gavin half turned back to Spike careful to keep the other target in the corner of his vision. "As I intended to inform you, this is unfortunately not an entirely voluntary invitation..." Spike bristled and Gavin smiled again this time, letting the warmth leech out of his eyes, "Doctor."

'Fuck,' thought Spike almost calmly. And got up, the pieces of the puzzle falling into place, fitting perfectly and pitifully late as the doors to the pub burst open. 'Dramatic,' thought Spike and suddenly felt extremely tired. He should have seen it sooner of course.

But it has been such a long time since he has been hunted.

He felt faint movement behind him but ignored it for now, concentrating his attention on the black-clad figures holding snub- nosed machine guns of depressingly familiar design. "Why can't you fucking soldier-boys just leave me the fuck alone."

He brightened suddenly." Is Cap'n Cardboard here? 'Cos I owe him a spot of blood-letting."

"I'm sorry... " The Asian lawyer seemed to have been thrown by the question for a moment until suddenly his eyes widened in understanding. "Oh! Of course! That is, you are mistaken. We're not with the Initiative. These.. umm... " He coughed, "...gentlemen are private contractors."

"Mercs." Spike clarified flatly.

"Well, yes. Basically."

"Gear looks familiar." Spike studied his nails, absently noting that they needed a new coat of paint. Out of the corner of his eye he very carefully registered the lack of progress by the lawyer's goons. In fact they barely moved since storming the cantina and very professionally positioning themselves to cover the entire floor.

Most demons recognized the competence and restrained their dissatisfaction with the events to glaring and growling. Quite remarkable self control actually now that he thought about it. For the best of time, much less for a bunch of drunks at the wee hours. Mostly though Spike couldn't get rid of the nagging wrongness of the procedure. 'Why the fuck is he blathering? Not that I'm objecting but shouldn't have they tried to take me down already?'

Park seemed oblivious to the vampire's momentary lapse in attention. "W&H has a personal security detail of course but French brunch always seems to be in need of outside supplements for some reason." He shrugged. "No matter. These men come highly recommended, I assure you."

"Yeah, whatever. How is this my business again?" The feel of the pack surprised him somewhat. He didn't remember reaching for it. His fingers gripped and tapped in a practiced pattern shaking a cigarette loose, the routine automatic to the point of being almost autonomous of his conscious attention.

"As I was saying, " The lawyer's tone cooled,"It's not a simple matter. My firm suffered a considerable loss, both material and in prestige when you failed to uphold your part of the contract, Mr... uh... Spike. Our clients were rather counting on receiving the Suvolte eggs. Not surprising, I must say, in view of the amount they advanced you."

The pause stretched slightly as Spike lit his cigarette. Exhaling the cloud of smoke in the general direction of the closest mercenary he shrugged. "Oops?"

Park refused to rise to the bait. Spike snorted under his breath. With two squads of GI Joes backing him up, he could afford a little self-control, sure. Instead the young lawyer smiled again and this time the expression seemed genuine and Spike felt his muscles tense. He was fairly sure he didn't want to hear whatever was coming .

"We understand that you have already spent the money. Fortunately it has come to our attention that you have in your possession other means to compensate our firm."

He sighed tiredly, registering Spike's bank stare. "The chip, Mr. Spike. All we want is the chip. "

For a minute Spike thought that he misheard. He heard someone chuckling but only as the sounds grew into a full throated roar of laughter did he realize they were coming from him.

"Jeez." Pepe Gutierezz muttered softly glancing from the convulsing vampire to his sergeant and back again. "Whatta fu..."

"Shut yer piehole."

"Yesserge."

Gavin was starting to get thoroughly annoyed. He really should have followed his first instincts and declined the assignment when he read the dossier. 'Order of Aurelius.' He thought disgustedly. Why does it always have to be them? "Ahem."

One of the demons snickered. Most seemed rather unimpressed by the entire spectacle. Presumably they all've seen odder things in their time.

Gavin sighed and cleared his throat again. "I fail to see the humor in the situation. I assure you, this offer is being made in good faith. The unique piece of electronics you currently possess will more than cover your debt."

It was just too bloody much, Spike thought, gasping. He knew that he should stop, that his laughter was taking on a definite edge of hysteria but he just couldn't. It was just so perfectly .... Typical. High pitched wheeze escaped him and he saw the lawyer's lips thin.

"Well, it seems that I shall have risk damaging the chip after all." He turned slightly, looking behind Spike. "And you. I must admit this is a rather welcome surprise. I trust you at least will be reasonable about this and come quietly?"

"Tell me something, Gavin..." The calm measured voice with just a slight twang marring the Harvard accent seemed somewhat amused, Spike thought as he turned around. Somehow it didn't surprise him in the least to see the guitarist standing behind him, a slight condescending smile twisting his lips as he looked at Park. "Does that _ever_ work? Does anyone _ever_ come quietly?"

"I continue to live in hope." The lawyer retorted sourly. "Well then..."

Pepe sighed gratefully as the Sergeant made a miniscule gesture . It was about time. This whole scene was starting to creep him out in a major way.

Spike wasn't entirely sure what made him waste precious seconds. Sure it was a question of style for him to unhurriedly drop the half finished cigarette to the floor and stomp it out. But as he did, for some reason, he turned from the already converging soldiers and glanced at the musician.

The pale gray eyes, faintly amused, met his and for a brief instant that seemed timeless William the Bloody and Lindsey MacDonald looked at each other sharing a moment of perfect, unspoken understanding that went deeper than words.

Pepe paused, suddenly unsure. "Uh. Boss? Why're they smilin'?"

 

... so I'm standing there trying to figure out how to explain the whole kaboom incident and you know Jack is an all right guy and a good boss but somehow I'm thinking 'the gremlins ate my foreman because he was a fire-breathing hellfiend' explanation is not going to go over well. But the good old rationalization field is still in place. Thank God.

I'm kinda curious to see the police report actually. We got a pool on it. Rumor is they're going with the escaped rabid chimpanzees version. Buffy says that there is no way they'll abandon the golden oldie and is betting on PCP gang-related cannibals.

Dawn declared that we both had no imagination and staked the claim on a gang of rabid cannibalistic chimpanzees tripping on PCP. And how sad is it that the more I think about the more apprehensive I am that she might be right?

And also check me out with SAT words and everything! And I'm even pretty sure that I used 'apprehensive' right in a sentence.

...I did, right?

Anyway. That's pretty much it. Same old, same old. Except that Xander Harris is gainfully employed rebuilding Sunnydale High School which is just all kinds of wrong. Doesn't really compute, you know?

I just stop from time to time and try to figure out how the hell I got from celebrating its explosion to rebuilding the damn thing. Dawn says I am traitor and the Enemy of the People. (By the way did I ever tell you how Thankful I am that you gave her that French revolution book? No? There is a reason for that.)

So yeah. Nothing really major since the last time. My sympathies on being subjected to the English food. A pig out at IHOP is on me when you get back.

Get better soon ok, Will? I miss you.

Xander "The Enemy of Teenager People" Harris.

Willow smiled a little wistfully. Sometimes she wished she didn't know Xander so well. She enjoyed hearing from him but the patently obvious effort that went into carefully removing any upsetting news from his emails...

She shook her head. No doubt he thought he was being slick when in fact the glaring omissions seemed all the more important. No mention of Spike or Anya. And all the well-wishing carefully worded to avoid the mention of Tara.

She could almost see Xander at the computer, concentrating, swearing softly as he abused backspace to correct a misspelling or substitute a word. She sighed, a little wary of the sudden warmth in her chest. She could nitpick all she wanted but the tacit sense of the unconditional love that permeated his every email was something she treasured for the precious and rare gift it was. She carefully saved the message to the 'Xan' folder, to join the rest.

The smile returned as she imagined the shrink's face if she ever gave into the temptation and told her that Xander's emails did more for her peace of mind than anything almighty Dr. Maria and her preachy sermons tried.

She nodded firmly, turning to the next email. "That's right! I can so be catty if I wanna."

Her eyes fell on the header of the next message and she felt the familiar cold dread uncoiling in her stomach. Such a little thing really. 'Only 3 KBs,' she thought. Five sentences, tops. So why was the message still unread?

She didn't care to examine her reasons too closely.

Was she afraid of the short, cold break off? Buffy cutting all ties forever? Or was she scared to see a cheery, painful in its blind denial note that pretended that nothing happened and everything will just return to normal the minute she's back in Sunnydale? From Xander something like this was a solace. From Buffy...

Or worse yet, was it simply Buffy saying that she understood and forgave.

Willow squeezed her eyes shut. No. She didn't care to examine her reasons for leaving the email unread too closely. Not at all.

With careful, almost cold detachment she clicked on the last message instead and almost despite herself felt her lips quirk in a smile..

Emails from Xander were a soft comforting presence in her life. And calls from Dawnie (collect of course) were a delight. It was surprising at first. She fully expected the same cold-shoulder treatment Dawn gave her after the car accident. And that paled compared...

She swallowed pushing back the memories; the echoes of the hateful words, the feel of pulling magic together. Magic to kill Dawn. Suddenly the room seemed cold and she pulled the blanket tighter still about herself. And then, as if a ray of a rising sun dispelling the last vestiges of the dying night, the memory of that first, shocking in its unexpectedness phone call came rushing back. Loud and noisy and babbling and bright like Dawnie's voice as she screamed into the phone over the screech of the smoke detector going off in the background.

She laughed remembering the absolute horror and abject desperation in Dawn's voice.

 

"... from Dawn Summers. Will you accept the charges?"

"Ah... Yes, yes!

Click.

"Oh God! Oh God!! Hello? Willow? Willow! It's on fire! They're on fire! And then I tried with the towel and the whole catching was BAD!"

"Huh?" Not the most intelligent contribution to the conversation, Willow had to admit even then but ...

"My pancakes are on fire! Clem, what did you do?! Good God! ...wow. Look at all the smoke. I mean... No! No wow! Buffy is gonna kill me! Willow, what do I do? Oh God! She's literally gonna kill me dead! She's gonna slay me! Then resurrect me and the... Noooo! Cleeeeem!" Dawn's voice died down into a sort of awed and horrified whisper.

"Hello?! Dawnie? Dawn?! Are you all right?" Willow remembered sprinting across the clutter of the Giles apartment, cordless clutched to her ear, cursing him for picking this day to make the appointment, visions of Dawn trapped in burning house dancing before her eyes.

".. yeah. Uh. Sorry. Yeah, I'm here. It's all cool. Clem did some magic abracadabra."

"No more fire?"

"Uh... no. But I think we just created the first sentient flour-based life form. Uhhh... Heh-heh. There's no reason Buffy should know about this, right?" Dawn paused suddenly and Willow clearly heard a smacking sound. "Oh, duh! Sorry about the whole magic mentioning thing. "

"No-no! It's all right. It's good to hear from you, Dawnie."

"Yeah, I know." Dawn agreed with unassuming arrogance of the 16-year old. "Right. Wait. Why did I call you?"

"Umm.. pancakes?"

"Nah. That was just a tragic accident which we shall never mention again... unless the pancake zombies turn out to be carnivorous and try to take over the world and Buffy has to slay them. But what are the chances of that happening, right?"

"On the Hellmouth?" Willow asked before she could catch herself.

".... oh bloody hell." Dawn's voice faded slightly as she apparently turned away from the receiver. "Clem? Did you see where they skittered off to?"

Willow shook her head in quiet appreciation. "Wow. You really weren't kidding about magiking the pancakes alive, were you?"

"Umm... I plead the fifth. Gittem! Right there, Clem! Yeaah! Kill it! Kill it a lot! Way to go! My hero!"

Wilow laughed out loud then. For the first time in weeks just happy, for the first time since Tara's death not trapped in a seemingly endless wakeful nightmare.

"Oh, damn. Xander is here! I gotta go. I'll call you back though! But remember ÷ this never happened!"

 

And she did. In fact she called more than anyone else. Willow chuckled softly, Xander preferring the epistolary medium to talking. Hidden depths indeed.

Yes. Xander's emails and Dawn's calls were something that became a permanent and cherished fixture of her life. She grinned as her eyes fell on the header of the last email. Be that as it may, and shocking though it was... She shrugged and admitted it to herself. Anya's emails were a trip. She found herself looking forward to them with increasing enthusiasm.

Magic Box is doing very well, thank you for asking. We are having our best year, in fact. Or we would have if it wasn't for all the damage repair. Coincidentally the mortality rate in Sunnydale is up, but I'm sure the two are not connected.

Willow snickered. Priorities as always were obvious. Well, not for nothing she carefully made sure to inquire about the well-being of the shop in every email.

Stop telling me how sorry Xander is. And I wish Buffy and Dawn would also stop. It's very irritating. You're trying to make me feel guilty. You don't think I understand. Well, I do. And I don't think it's fair. I don't have anything to feel guilty about. I liked having sex with Spike. He was a very accomplished lover.

Willow coughed. Trust Anya to be direct.

And if Xander didn't leave me at the altar there would have been no comfort-Spike-sex. So it's all his fault.

The image of Anya nodding firmly as she worked out this little bit of logic and tapped the keyboard resolutely, flitted through Willow's mind and redhead smiled absently as she read.

I think Buffy is bored. Can a Slayer get bored? Because I think this is what she is. She set me up on a blind date recently. And no, that doesn't mean that you have to blind your date. I also made that assumption at first. Foolishness. If you call it a blind date what are people supposed to assume? But no, this is rather odd ritual where you have to meet for dinner with a person you don't know.At all.

It's very impractical. What if the other person is ugly? Or even worse ÷ poor? Very strange custom. But Buffy was very insistent and she was scaring the customers so I agreed. His name was Tom. He wasn't too ugly. He said that he believed in feminism and letting women pay for dinner. He gave me stuffed bunny. It was a very traumatic experience.

Willow tightly clamped a hand over her mouth, afraid that her laughter would wake people up.

Dawn is very happy. Which is good. Superior morale is imperative to high productivity. She's almost done working off all the debt she incurred by stealing valuable merchandize. I think she's mostly pleased because Buffy is spending a lot of time with her now. They are training all the time. And they visit the High School construction site together to bring Xander his lunch.

Also they spend much time making fun of him and what Dawn described as 'oogling' the members of the construction crew. I tried to tell to the social worker about that when she asked about 'quality time' but Buffy got very overwrought and dropped the Ming vase she was crating so I had to go and help her. You would think a Slayer had better reflexes. Fortunately it didn't break.

A high-pitched giggle echoed faintly down the hall of the slumbering mansion.

Buffy also seems much happier now and hardly ever suicidal any more. Unfortunately now that she seems to have got her life under control she seems determined to butt into mine. And it's very clear that she doesn't even have a plan. One day she wants me to make nice with Xander and the other she's introducing me to Tom the bunny-loving degenerate. Xander was very angry at her for that. I'm thinking of agreeing to the second date just to show him that he has no business to worry about people I might have sexual relations with anymore. I don't think he gets it yet.

Every time something happens or we have to fight something bad, he is following me like a puppy. And I know what he's thinking. He's waiting for some bad guy to come after me so he can be a big hero and save me. Which is just dumb. I'm a demon now, I am stronger and faster. And smarter, but that's not new. And he's just being stupid.

And he doesn't even talk to me. He just talks _about_ me, even when I am standing right there! It's very rude with all the 'some people's and 'she's. But I don't care. It's not my business anymore. I just want him to leave me alone.

Obviously, Willow thought, her smile a little sardonic.

I hope your uncrazifying treatments are going well and Giles is feeling better. Tell him I love him and he should hurry up with transferring of the tax papers. Time is money.

Bye.

Anyanka.

Anyanka. One word that said it all and said nothing.

Willow liked magic, liked the feeling of having the forces of creation and destruction and her fingertips. Liked feeling her entire body humming with power. Liked the slightly scared, slightly awed look in Tara's eyes. But Tara was wrong. She always thought that Willow didn't like the other side of it. That it bored her.

The books, the history, the line stretching into the darkness of time... How could it ever bore her?

It was like being eight again and slipping out of your own birthday party to sneak a look at the Brief History of Time. Reading those old books, the smell of them the sense of unreality wafting over her. It was like coming home. Reading and remembering the things she never knew. But she could never explain it, could never put into words, didn't want to in truth ÷ it would cheapen it somehow.

And it hurt to see Tara sigh softly and turn away hiding disappointment. She never knew how much it meant to her, how when things got too much she sought solace in that very first, dog-eared copy of the Imperium Vox.

Chapter 1: The Power of Names.

Anyanka.

The demon that was a girl.

They never liked each other much, the witch and the ex-demon. He always stood between them, the bumbling boy-hero with large hands and big mouth. And then the other little, unimportant things. And then Anya asked her to be 'Xander's bridesmaid.' And then Xander left her.

And then Willow tried to kill them all.

She shivered and closed her eyes. The week before they left for England was the worst. Thankfully she didn't remember much of it. It all blurred together in one long day of trying not to drown in her own magic, trying not to think of Dawn's skin dissolving as she freed the Power beneath. One long day of not being able to sleep and desperately afraid to even try.

Xander was with her she was pretty sure. Just talking, trying to keep her sane. And then suddenly he wasn't there and Anya was. And she was yelling and her hand was moving so fast and the sharp pain of the slap seemed to come out of nowhere. And then she was crying into Willow's lap and Willow was patting her hair and crying into it. And then they fell asleep together, clutching to each other on the old fold out sofa in the basement.

And there was Bath and opening her email account for the first time and seeing Anya's message.

Her eyes still closed, Willow leaned back, burrowing into the chair and folding her legs under her. It seemed so strange. Only six years since Buffy first came to Sunnydale. Only six years and yet it felt like a lifetime. 'How clichÄd,' she thought tiredly, 'How terribly clichÄd.'

Xander, laughing, joking, unsure Xander is actually more grown up than any of them. And he doesn't laugh that much anymore. Cordelia, the Queen C, the proud, the arrogant, the beautiful Cordelia Chase is in LA helping Angel. For a brief moment Willow wondered how she was before her thoughts ran away with her.

Oz. Where was her Oz, her wolf. What distant shore was he at, seeking the hidden Truths and the elusive peace.

Spike... enemy-friend, confusing and confused, dangerous and scary and pretty, he was there when they needed him most and disappeared when they needed him worst. Wherever he was, Willow hoped he'd find what he was looking for.

Faith, seductive and beautiful like a striking cobra. Somehow it seemed so wrong to think of her in a jail. Caged. It just didn't... fit. Just like it seemed so wrong for a long while for Spike to be so... pathetic. Trapped in his own body.

Giles, the Dad none of them ever had, the stuffy oh-so-very-British librarian who knew everything and had all the answers. Who was Ripper. Who left. Who had to stop every couple of steps now and lean on his cane to catch his breath.

Just six years. Six years, a dozen Apocalypses, and Tara, and the coming of Dawn, and the death of Joyce and Tara, and the death of Buffy, and the Hellgods, and black magic, and Tara, and Initiative and ... And. It seemed almost surreal.

How did they manage to cram so much living in just six years. How did they manage to cram so much dying? How did they get from three laughing high schoolers sitting at the library to...

Sometimes it seemed like a bad soap opera. It wasn't... it just didn't seem possible to reconcile the two halves of her life. Which one was her real life? Which one was the real Willow Rosenberg?

She wished Tara was here. She would know exactly what to say. Or maybe not say and just pull her closer and smile and kiss her and name the stars for her. And everything would be all right with the world. Because it had Tara in it.

She known exactly when her happiest day was. Not many people can say the same. But she can. She remembers the exact minute, the exact second.

The sun was so bright and it was falling on her hair and her face seemed golden as she turned to Willow.

"I know exactly what they see in me. They see you. "

She was truly happy then, there in that instant she was. Was. And Tara was smiling at her and all around her there was a sickly yellow trail of the memory spell.

The one person that took her as she was and thought her perfect. That looked past the Geeky Willow and Weirdo Willow and the Spaz Willow and looked at her like she was something special. And when she looked at her, Willow was. Special. Shining. Perfect. Needed. Loved.

She would do anything to keep that feeling.

She did.

Oh God, she did. Her beautiful girl... she reached into her mind after Glory, after her family. Tara trusted her and loved her and wanted to help.

And she betrayed her. Betrayed her beautiful baby girl..

Willow wondered sometimes in those horrible lonely nights when the bed seemed so big because she was not there. And she wondered still ... sometimes... Was it really love? Was this gnawing, yawning emptiness love? Was she really gay and just needed to realize it? Was it meant to be?

Or did she simply latch on to Tara because she was willing to be hers. Forever. Because of how she looked at her. Because she made her feel like... like Buffy.

"I am, you know. Yours."

Her eyes itched suddenly and Willow blinked reflexively. The screen glowed dull silver in the murkiness of the room, the ads and headings blooming like overripe flowers across the unassuming backgrounds, catching her attention. She scrunched her nose, amused, as her mind spontaneously supplied the memory of the first meeting with Anya.

'God, I was callow.' She thought wincing in embarrassment, remembering her overloud, overly quick agreement to do anything to help this new and oh-so-cool girl. Who heard of her and hey ÷ magic! She could do magic! And this was like cool and stuff, pretty much a standard finding spell only with a few really nifty tweaks. Just to help Anya find....

Willow sat up suddenly, the forgotten blanket sliding off her shoulders as she stared at the screen and saw nothing, blinded by clear, brilliant in its simplicity, realization of what she had to do.

 

"Fuck!"

Something brushed by him and Spike lashed out blind, his lip pulling up in vicious triumphant grin at the pained grunt. The whip of the blue fire reached for him and he danced away feeling the fragile controls slipping and his demon and his soul united for once; screeching in a hunting joyful fury of a hawk swooping in for a kill.

A lucky break. Early on in the fight a stray shot took out a fuse box which seriously cramped the mercs' style for a while. Spike on the other hand had absolutely no problem with the dark.

But.

'The tossers are pro,' he thought lightly, ripping the night vision goggles off the nearest face and launching their owner headfirst into the general direction of the window. That was all right though. There were still a couple of things working for him...

"Shit! Motherfucker!"

"Get this bleached faggot already!"

"I thought he couldn't get it up against humans! Fuck!"

... like that for instance.

He whirled around, to track the sharp cracking sound and bared his fangs at the sight of a uniformed figure toppling amidst the shards of a broken chair. Guitar-boy was doing all right for himself. The air in the cantina smelled sharp and tangy, the distinctive taste of ozone burning on his tongue as he fought. He waited, catching the edges of it but the true, beautiful, euphoric madness of a back-to- the-wall fight refused to come and he was getting tired.

And so he laughed, his lips stretched in a hideous death-head grin and Changed. And laughing still beckoned the soldiers.

 

The letters were still clearly visible although the ink of the simple inscription had faded a bit.

To Willow from Tara with love.

The intricate letters of the gothic font wove their way across the page.

IMPERIUM VOX.

The slender trembling fingers that brushed the page with quiet tenderness were pale but Willow's face was calm and her mouth resolutely set.

She started speaking but her breath caught and she had to stop. Swallowing and closing her eyes she started again, chanting quietly but imbuing each word with force that made the room throb with unseen power.

"Eryishon. K'shala. Meh-uhn." She stretched out her hands turning them palms up. The standard prayer gesture somehow transformed into a symbol of despondent supplication.

"Diprecht. Doh-tehenlo-nu-Eryishon." Giles came awake with a jolt and grasped blindly in the direction of his cane even before the last fetters of sleep fell away.

"The child to the mother." The waves of inconsolable grief pulsed throughout the house and Lucy's hands shook as she kept trying and failing to tie the shawl around her.

"The river to the sea." The hold of the slim hand on the ornate green-glassed bottle was firm, the chanting never faltered even as the redheaded witch felt the thumping of the feet on the stairs.

"Eryishon, hear my prayer." The sacred sand flowed gently, almost seductively into the cupped palm and poured through the sallow fingers to strike the book underneath. Her eyes were still closed and so there was no one to see the placid torrent arch and seemingly slow down as every particle floated unerringly to the single destination as if the simple faded inscription pulled them all in.

The sound of the cane striking the door seemed to snap the time back into its proper pace.

The door flew open just as the first grain of sand reached the book.

The silence was deafening as it enveloped Giles.

Lucy staggered under the wave of formless sound.

Willow smiled, her lips white and Giles felt his heart stop as he met her eyes.

Her dark, pupilless, green on green eyes.

Cane and all, he was there to catch her as she fainted dead away.

 

His left arm hung useless, the dead weight at his side, and the blood trickling from the gush above his ear was in his eyes and he was so tired and he didn't give a shit.

The sounds of violence around him succored Spike, the complexities and complications of his unlife dissipating in the simple, familiar rhythm and he bayed in triumph even as his right leg buckled suddenly. He weaved and danced away slamming the mercenary into the wall with a negligent shove. The blood, like a macabre mist, hung all around him, the thick taste of it filling his senses, maddening the demon and he swiped his hand across clearing his vision for a precious second.

The muzzle of the gun held by two mercenaries seemed without end. Blackness sheer and bottomless threatened to swallow him and he limped back, away from it, his mouth still opened in a soundless howling laughter as the Hand of God picked him up in a backhanded casual slap and threw him through the wall.

 

The redheaded girl hung limply in the older gentleman's arms as he carefully almost tenderly lowered her to the bed. "Lucy, tend to her."

"But Mr. Giles what abou.."

"Now!"

She winced and backed up in reflex at the familiar stinging voice of anger and authority and the man turned to her. His stern face filled her vision as he towered above her like Elder Wallace at the end of a sermon. Unconsciously she backed up farther, unaware of the soft mewling sound of panic that escaped her lips.

And then suddenly in a space of a heartbeat he... Giles(?), was not a wrathful prophet but a tired old man, fumbling with a pair of old glasses, leaning heavily on the simple wooden cane and looking at her almost helplessly through red-rimmed, kindly eyes.

"Tara..."

 

The wakefulness didn't come easily. Slowly he became aware of the pain blossoming across his body, his knuckles stinging and fingers wet, sticky. He inhaled and felt his lips twitch in smirking satisfaction. Blood.

"Glad to see you find this amusing."

He was puzzled when his right eye refused to open. He didn't remember getting hit there... and the jagged pain of the broken rib answered him. "Fuckers worked me over when I was out."

He tried to reach for it, to force the eye open with his fingers, but his hand seemed to be caught on something. He swallowed, his lips feeling alien and thick, unwieldy. 'Swelling must be pretty bad,' he thought absently.

The gray-eyed guitarist looked worse than he felt. Which was saying something.

"Where... " He coughed and felt the blood bubble on his lips. "Fuck." And furiously, "Fuck!" As he realized what was on his wrists and keeping him from opening his eye or wiping his mouth.

The shackles clanked softly against the wall of the truck as he twisted to catch the other man's eyes. "Where..." The whisper cut off again as he absurdly felt himself choking on his own blood before he remembered he didn't need to breathe.

"Relax, before you sprain something. " His companion sighed tiredly and stretched out along the bench, closing his eyes. "LA. We're going to LA."

 

Oh, bloody hell.

 

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