DISCLAIMER: Another day, another…they don’t pay me anything at all. I just do this to amuse myself and you. That’s what allows me and mine to slip under the radar while playing with characters created by those more fortunate than us.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Mad-Hamlet wrote portions of the mayor’s scenes. Specifically, the ‘Gummy Bears’ bit was him. Howard Russell also wrote the majority of the Joyce point of view scenes, which was very cool. We got to work together. Special thanks to him as well for all of the lovely commas.
FEEDBACK: valyssia[at]gmail.com
ARCHIVING: A master list of my fiction can be found here. Please do not archive or distribute without my permission.

By Valyssia

Chapter 5 - All the King’s Horses

Willow opened the door to the chapel and ushered Joyce inside. “We gotta do something about this. Its way too obvious,” she noted, setting the packages she was carrying on the floor in the aisle. She spread them out and gestured for Joyce to do the same. The bags began to gravitate toward one another, arranging themselves, like with like. “The ones that stick, we need to pick up and keep together. Having what we’re carrying go all wonky—it’s bad—someone will notice.”

Joyce nodded in agreement. As they watched the bags drift into clumps on the floor, she struck up conversation out of curiosity, “What do you make of Buffy?”

“’Kay…the big ones that wanna stick together we put between us,” Willow commented offhandedly as she began to pick up bags. “Sorry, Mrs. Summers, but we need to get moving. Getting caught…it’d be bad—really, really, bad in new and interesting ways.”

Joyce began to load herself down with the bags until they finally managed to distribute the weight evenly and none of the bags were doing anything unnatural. She walked beside Willow, keeping the bags between them in contact.

“Too much,” Willow finally answered as she pushed the door to the chapel open. After filing through the doorway alongside Buffy’s mom, they set off a brisk pace down the corridor toward the front lobby.


Willow clarified, “Too much. She’s doing too much to hide. She should be more upset, but she’s trying to keep me calm—keep us all calm by putting up a front. I’m really worried about her.”

“I’m glad I’m not the only one that sees it,” Joyce replied as they passed through the lobby. Once they were outside and had begun to make their way across the parking lot, she added, “It’s an awful thing for me to admit, but I think you probably know her better than I do.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that, Mrs. Summers. I’ve only known Buffy for a couple of years.”

“This way,” Joyce directed, guiding their course left down a row of parked cars. “Yes, but, Willow, her life has changed a great deal and you’ve been a part of that. I haven’t.” She stopped at the back of her Jeep and set the packages down. When she managed to locate the keys in her purse, she opened the back hatch and began to load the bags in the car. “There’s something else I’d like to ask you, but—”

Willow placed the last of the bags in the car and stood up to face Buffy’s mother. “But what?”

Joyce shut the back of the car and locked it. “But it’ll probably upset you and I’d rather not. I know that’s sort of silly.”

Quirking an eyebrow, Willow stood patiently waiting for the other shoe to drop.

“I’m just curious what the nature of your relationship with Buffy is?” Seeing the younger woman pale, she continued, “Willow, you have no reason to be upset.”

“Oh,” Willow half gasped. Struggling to choke down the anxiety that threatened to well up, “I-I…I’m—it’s complicated,” she stuttered, then sighed in annoyance. “I’m not sure. I mean I am sure that we’re—it’s just—”

Joyce put her hand up. “It’s okay. I know it has to be confusing for you both.”

Tearing up, Willow nodded gratefully.

“I’m glad she has you.” Joyce placed her hand over Willow’s. “We should go find the others. They should’ve been here by now.”

Jenkins turned the steering wheel, lazily negotiating the van through a bend in the road. He did his utmost to put the sounds coming from the aft compartment out of his mind. Though he was a large, imposing man, he did not have the taste for violence that some of the others on his team displayed. His sheer size was what had won him his role within the unit. He was the one that looked the part, while the other, smaller men played it.

As the road straightened out, Jenkins blinked and confusion set in. Illuminated by the headlamps, a figure stood in the middle of his lane, dead ahead. He started to put on the brakes, but a barked order from his superior forestalled the action.

“Run him down.”

Jenkins studied the man while they barreled towards him. He stood unflinching, with his arms folded in front of him. His leather trench coat billowed in the slight breeze. As the distance closed, Jenkins made out the look of grim determination on the man’s face. Bloody hell!

Time froze the instant the van collided with the man. Instead of the expected jar of tires rolling over a body, the windshield shattered. Frightened by the sudden loss of visibility, Jenkins mashed the brakes. As glass rained over him, a pair of feet smashed into his head. He was thrown across the front of the van. Weatherby let out a yelp as the two men crushed into the passenger door. Jenkins struggled to focus his eyes as the van flipped onto its left side, sending him back across the cab. His head went through the open window. The moving pavement contacted his temple and everything went dim.

Harold stood eyeing the Englishman and his son. One of the plastic bags the young man was holding shifted strangely and he said, “Pets aren’t allowed in the hospital, sir.”

“Quite right, we’ll be pleased to move on—” the Englishman replied coolly, cutting off when the guard spoke over him.

Harold vaguely watched two women approach from the lobby as he demanded, “I’m afraid I can’t do that, sir. I need to see what’s in those bags.”

The eldest of the women walked up behind the Englishman and pinched his ear, tearing into him, “Richard Mills, there you are! How dare you run off like that!”

Appearing stunned, the Englishman tried to pull away.

The blonde began to tow the Englishman away while she fumed, “I woke up alone! Alone! I knew you’d be here sneaking in to see that little hussy of yours!” She released her grip and seized the packages in his left hand. “And what’s this? Bringing her presents too?” she snarled, opening the bags in front of her as she shoved the poor guy along.

Harold stood for a moment watching the display completely slack-jawed. Uh-boy…poor guy, looks like he’s gonna get worse at home than I could ever give him.

Then the redhead shrugged ever so slightly and went into a tirade too. She grabbed the younger man’s ear and started in. “Alex Mills! Shame on you—just shame! Following your father into this mess—” the redhead raged.

“You folks have a nice evening,” Harold mumbled, shaking his head. As he turned to continue his rounds, the young redhead was still going on. Man, do I ever feel bad for those two.

“And getting caught! Embarrassing me and your poor mother like this! When I get you alone there will be beatings…horrible, hurtsome, ouchy beatings…”

Angel jumped seconds before he hit the windshield of the van. This is probably crazy. He tumbled over the top of the van, seizing the luggage rack. Using his inertia, he swung himself into the driver’s side window. His feet struck the driver, causing him to whip the steering wheel to the right. The driver was torn from his seat and thrown to the other side of the cab.

As Angel landed between the two seats, the van started to roll. He braced himself, tucking into the small space. The driver slid across his back when the vehicle listed on its left side. He felt the van tip. A sharp thud sent a shudder through the chassis. Then things went straight to hell. His sense of direction became confused as the vehicle tumbled madly. He held tight to the seats, wedging himself in place. Okay, scratch that—definitely crazy.

When the van came to rest on its right side, Angel pulled himself free. As he moved to the back of the van, his eyes fixed on Faith where she hung from the now-vertical floor. He began to check the bodies of the Council members for keys to remove the manacles that held her in place. The smells of blood, filth, and fear played havoc with his concentration. One dead, lots of broken bones and other injuries. None of these men will walk away. I should feel bad, but— Once he located the keys in one of the men’s pockets, he moved to release the battered slayer.

Angel removed only the U-lock that held the cuffs binding Faith to the floor while he steadied her to keep her from falling. When she was free, he kicked the rear doors open and carried her away from the van, pocketing the keys. He stopped briefly to bundle her bare, broken form in his coat, glancing back at the van. It looked like it’d been put through a car crusher. The others would think I’ve lost it, but I couldn’t let them take her. Not like that.

Trudging across the open field from the wreck, Angel leapt the steep ditch that divided the grassland from the road and stepped onto the highway. Finally reaching his car, he loaded Faith in the rear seat. After taking the driver’s seat of the black Dodge, he backed the car onto the highway, then set off to find them a room. I’ll call the cops when we’re safe. They can collect the pieces.

Willow stole into her friend’s room to find her still awake and flipping channels.

“There’s never anything on this late,” Buffy grumped and turned off the television.

After taking a seat in the recliner, Willow pulled the blanket over herself. “Why don’t you try and get some rest. It’s been a pretty awful day,” she covered her mouth and yawned, “The others are on their way to box up Mayor Meany at the gallery.”

“No more ‘red alert.’ Guess that’s a good.”

Quirking an eyebrow at the blonde, Willow remarked, “Yeah, it’s a good. Now if you’ll rest and get better, maybe things will get normal,” realizing it wasn’t a very good lie once she said it.

Buffy brushed it off by switching subjects, nervously stating, “I’ll go with you.”

Putting the leg rest up, Willow turned onto her side in the chair and mumbled, “‘Go with me’ where?” as she closed her eyes.

“I’ll go to the prom with you.”

Willow turned back to face her friend and leaned forward in the chair. “Oh…umm…wow,” she smiled, “Wow! You mean—?” the smile brightened, “You really mean it?”

When Buffy nodded, the redhead sprung out of the chair. Before she could react Buffy was wrapped in Willow. “Whoa,” she chuckled, “I’m supposed to be resting remember. Kinda hard when—”

Letting go, Willow appeared sheepish as she said, “Sorry. I just…I’m just so happy. We’re gonna have fun. I promise.”

“It’ll be fun if I can walk. Not so much sure now, but you’re right, I should go and I can’t think of anyone I’d rather go with.”

Willow began to positively beam as her friend fell silent. “We’ll make it fun even if you’re still—” she offered resolutely, adding, “I promise.”

“’Kay, Will, I’ll hold you to that,” Buffy replied with a warm smile. “Now put this stupid railing down and give me a hug without all the bendy, twisty chiropractic badness.”

Faith cracked an eye open. As she took in her surroundings, her brow knit tightly with alarm. After unsuccessfully trying to rise, she snarked, “Y’know, I got that you guys were all about the kinky fun, but isn’t this—?” Briefly assessing the nylon rope that held her to the bed, she began to struggle to get free.

“Don’t move, Faith.”

“Ah, Jesus! Not you. Lemme guess, this is another lame attempt to rescue me. Don’cha ever give up?” Faith spat as she continued to thrash against the bonds.

Angel took a cup of blood from the microwave and stepped out of an alcove by the door, taking a sip before he answered with a simple, “Yes.”

“‘Yes’ what?” Faith snarled, continuing to fight until the pain became too much.

Narrowing his eyes, Angel replied harshly, “Yes, I give up,” starting to pace, “The others, they’d be upset if they knew, but I couldn’t let it happen. Not that way. So, just call me Saint Jude.” He rubbed his right shoulder and groaned.

Faith gasped, “Huh?” craning her neck to see the vampire who had walked out of her field of view. Either he’s just that much of an idiot, or—

“Saint Jude, patron saint of hopeless causes and desperate situations.”

He’s that much of an idiot.  “Jude, eh? Sounds like my kinda guy,” Faith replied with a quirky half grin.

“Look, Faith, both your shoulders were dislocated and your right wrist was broken. I patched you up, but if you screw around and mess it up I won’t do it again. That’s part of why I tied you down. They need to stay put until they’re healed. We clear?”

Faith watched the vampire step back into view, taking in the limp and the stiffness in his shoulder before she replied, “Gotcha, boss,” relaxing as she sighed, “Looks like you’re pretty beat up yourself.” Not sure I had Angel pegged as the Vin Diesel type. Witness me, here, now, for the serious clue up. That was one wicked wreck. What I remember of it.

Angel stopped pacing and turned to glare at the slayer. “I’ll live,” he stated plainly, “I need to know where you stand, Faith, and I need to know now.” He took a sip of his dinner. “I’ll protect you—keep you alive—but if you turn on me, if you so much as breathe wrong, I’ll feed you to the first dog that snarls.” Moving to the bedside, he added, “This is it: end of the line. What’s it gonna be?”

“Guess I’m in…like I got loads of choice.” Can’t exactly doubt the sincerity. I’d still be playin’ my new role as favorite bone to those Council brown shirts without—

“Be sure, Faith,” Angel growled.

Nodding, Faith said resolutely. “Alright, I’m in.” Not sure why he gives a shit. ’Specially with the little number I did on his honey, but I got no choice. Wonder what he’s playin’ at. Guess, I stick to see what he wants…and bail as soon as he wants too much.

Angel narrowed his eyes and breathed deeply. Once he was satisfied, he walked over to the chair and sat down. “Get some rest. We move as soon as you can.”

There’s a chance he’s bein’ straight with me, though. I sorta ran outta options a few exits back. If there’s a chance I gotta take it. Not like I inspire all kinda charity. ’Cause right about now…I look like Unicef.

Willow strolled into the library with Xander at her side, taking a seat at the table as he moved to sit across from her. I didn’t want to leave, but Buffy insisted. Now I’m stuck here until this stupid meeting’s over and she’s all alone. I guess she watched TV all day. She probably would’ve done that with me there. At least I got to pick up the assignments we missed. Not so much a deal for me. I have enough credits to graduate even if I fail every class this semester. Buffy, on the other hand…I gotta get her caught up.

They both turned their attention to the stacks when Giles came into view.

Giles remained standing at the end of the table. “Wesley will be along shortly.”

When ‘shortly’ became ‘forever,’ Willow pulled out her chemistry textbook and began to catch up on homework while Giles seated himself to pour over a musty book from his collection. Only Xander appeared immune to the topic of ‘using time wisely.’ His answer to the boredom involved making paper airplanes and seeing how far they would fly. Willow looked up after a particularly dramatic crash—which nearly landed one of the planes in Giles’ tea—to glare at Xander.

The harsh stare caused him to develop an interest in his hands which were placed casually in his lap. Appearing bored to tears, Xander was amid contemplations of either leaving or suggesting they order pizza when Wesley finally arrived.

“Terribly sorry, Los Angeles traffic is abysmal,” Wesley said crisply as he took a seat next to Giles. “Thank you for waiting.”

Xander was the only one that actually turned his attention to Wesley.

Wesley began by making eye contact with Xander as he spoke, his awareness drifted between the other two who seemed to be more interested in their respective books. “I’ve just come from Olive View Medical Center. It seems that Council members who were transporting Faith met with misfortune last night.”

Seeing that he finally had the interest of the room, Wesley continued confidently, “From what I can gather, a man wearing a black trench coat was hit by the van transporting the prisoner. From there the accounts get sketchy at best. What we do know is that there was an accident, one man is dead, four more are severely injured, and that the prisoner is again at large.”

After clearing his throat, Wesley prompted, “Would any of you know the whereabouts of Angel? While it would be ludicrous to discount the possible involvement of agents of the mayor, it certainly does sound to me as though they were describing Angel.”

“Actually, the mayor is in no position to authorize any such action. That is in large part the reason we tolerated your tardiness so readily. The mayor has been detained. It would be very good of you if you could have the Council pick up the pieces for us, so to speak,” Giles offered, ignoring a chuckle from Xander.

“Certainly,” Wesley replied.

After nodding affirmation, Giles remarked, “I will give you the specifics later. As to Angel’s involvement in any such matters: to the best of my knowledge Angel has departed from Sunnydale.”

“There is also the matter of Buffy Summers. We are in the unenviable position of having more slayers than at any time in our history, however not even one that is actually fit to perform the duties,” Wesley commented, openly displaying his dismay. “I have not been able to assess her condition, nor have I been allowed—”

Giles cut Wesley off, remarking waspishly, “Had you proven yourself to be anything more than a political puppet, you would have the access you demand, but I’m afraid that since you are neither ‘friend’ nor ‘family’ you will just have to take my word that she is doing quite well. Now I’ll thank you to drop this matter immediately.”

Wesley glared at the former Watcher as he asked coolly, “What are you hiding, Mr. Giles?”

“Pardon me, one moment,” Giles interrupted, raising a finger. “Willow, Xander, that will be all for now.”

Xander got up to leave, giving Willow a perplexed stare when she refused to move.

Willow defiantly made eye contact with Giles. “No, I think I’d like to hear this.”

Giles replied, “I would prefer you didn’t,” appearing nonplussed at Willow’s open refusal.

Xander hung back, moving to stand behind Willow as if to protect her.

Giles sighed and remarked politely, “Willow, really, I must insist. I do not wish to be curt in your presence.”

Willow crossed her arms and turned to glare at Wesley. “Actually, I’m sorta hoping for a little curt. Curt’s been pretty much absent and I think curt’s long overdue.”

Unable to stifle the subtle smile that flashed across his face, Giles demeanor turned earnest when he admitted, “This would be far easier for me were you not here. You have my deepest apologies.”

Willow submitted, saying, “Alright, Giles,” as she rose to leave. After hastily packing her things, she reluctantly made her exit with Xander in tow. They walked in silence together until they were outside, then Willow asked, “So, how do you feel about Mexican?”

Xander playfully wiggled his eyebrows.

Enjoying the sunlight and fresh air, Willow set off at a brisk pace down the sidewalk. “For dinner, silly. I need to pick something up for Buffy. She’ll never get better with that garbage they’ve been feeding her.”

“Sounds good,” Xander replied, matching pace with his friend. “Did I hear Wesley right? Faith’s free and Angel may’ve made with the big rescue? You don’t suppose he’s—?”

Willow stopped abruptly in the middle of the sidewalk and swung around to face Xander. Giving him a look, she asked tersely, “And just what makes you think that, Xander?”

Xander hung his head. “I dunno. I guess it’s just the disappearing act and—”

“There’s only a couple of things we know of that’ll cause that. One of them is pretty unlikely—what with Giles…and Buffy’s not exactly been feeling frisky,” Willow filled in, adding in a low mumble, “And if she were I—well, I’d hope the frisk would be—” Falling silent, she started off at a casual pace again.

Striding beside her, Xander offered, “I’m sorry, Will.”

Several moments of silence passed between them. Finally, Willow asked, “The charlatan or the fanatic?”

Xander snapped out of his reverie and gave his friend a sidelong glance. “Huh?”

“If you really needed something—just had to have it—and you knew two people had the ‘it’ you needed, but neither one was gonna give ‘it’ up without a fight. One’s a charlatan and the other’s a fanatic, which one would you choose?”

“Dunno, Will. It sounds like bad choices all around,” Xander responded thoughtfully.

“I’d pick the charlatan,” Willow answered resolutely.

Hiking the backpack she carried along with her own book bag, Willow gratefully handed the bag off to Xander as he gestured, then started to explain, “See, thing is, once you get a faker figured, they usually back down. A fanatic never will, ’cause they believe—regardless how wrong they are—that they’re right. You can’t reason with a fanatic. You may as well try to get Cordy to wear shoes from Payless; it just won’t happen.” When she glanced over Xander was motioning for more. “The Council is the fanatic and the charlatan is Faith. Of the two, I’d rather deal with Faith.”

Xander’s expression flashed with understanding for just an instant. Then he went back to looking completely mystified. “What’s that got to do with Angel?”

“There’s hope for the faker. Regardless how we may feel about her, there still may be hope. Angel’s enough on the outside he may see that. He’s disconnected enough she may even listen. Feeding her to them—even I had problems with that and I can’t stand Faith. Just ’cause I can’t stand her doesn’t mean I want to see her tortured.”

Xander quirked an eyebrow and asked, “Tortured?”

Willow gave her friend a quick glance. “Reconditioned, reprogrammed, reeducated…whatever euphemism they’re using this week. Fact is: I go straight to the bad place.”

The receptionist sat studying her computer terminal. It had been miserable lately and she was both worried and grateful that her boss had not been in. A flash of movement in the hallway to her left caused her to divert her attention from the screen. She sat staring at the space for few seconds. Whatever it was, it had been very small.

There was another flourish of motion and she screamed jumping out of her chair as the rat scurried past her. As the rat brushed her ankle, her vision clouded and she swooned. There was a loud cracking noise on contact. Her leg convulsed and she collapsed to the ground twitching.

Giles turned to Wesley. His expression hardened as he queried, “What do you know of the Cruciamentum?”

Wesley quickly rattled off, “It is a test administered to the slayer on her eighteenth birthday. She is stripped of her powers and pitted against a vampire foe.” A harsh glare darkened his features, “It is also the point at which your shortcomings became apparent.”

Brushing off the barb, Giles continued, “When I first became aware of the test, it occurred to me that there was little difference between it and what either of us might confront were we to find ourselves facing a vampire foe.”

Wesley nodded in agreement.

“This would indeed be the case were the slayer pitted against an ordinary vampire. In the case of my charge, Miss Summers, the Council went out of their way to locate a foe so vile that they, themselves feared him. They sedated him to keep him under control. Zachary Kralik.” Giles paused momentarily to watch with satisfaction as Wesley paled. “I see you recognize the name.”

When he received a nod, Giles prompted, “Can you think of a reason they might do this?”

Recovering, Wesley puzzled over this for a moment, finally replying, “I’m certain they had their reasons.”

“This was the thing that caused me to question the wisdom of the Council. It seemed an extreme measure aimed at one purpose.” Giles offered frankly, “My involvement in the test will forever haunt me. It was tantamount to attempted murder. The fact that Miss Summers survived only goes to illustrate how extraordinary she actually is.”

“That seems a bit overstated,” Wesley crisply remarked.

As Giles responded, his brow furrowed with disquiet, “Is it?” and he sighed, “The vampire in question turned one of the skilled agents the Council sent to oversee the test and killed another.”

“I fail to see what this has to do with—”

Giles snapped at the younger man, cutting him off, “It has everything to do with her condition. Do you not see that these people have little regard for the lives of these young women? They view them as one might a tool. The word ‘instrument’ is even freely cast about.” He rose to his feet and began to pace.

When he spoke again, his tone changed to reflect regret, “Would you make a phone call knowing that Cordelia would be injured or perhaps even die as a result?”

Wesley wheezed, “No.”

“Yet you would do the same to Buffy or Faith? How can you not see the flaw? Do you honestly believe that the Council wished to play tiddlywinks with Faith? Can you be so blind to trust that their interest in Miss Summers’ condition is purely academic? You are a much more naïve than I suspected if you believe they would not eliminate her in order to summon a replacement.”

Wesley wore an expression of unadulterated astonishment as he stared at Giles.

“Are you willing to sign her death warrant?” Giles ranted, “The Council loves to tell us that we are waging a war. They tout stories of grand battles and great defeats of good over evil. These are romanticized notions, to be sure. If we really are speaking of war, then the intriguing thing is that in war no civilized leader would promote leaving a wounded man behind on the field of battle. If there was a chance to save the man, aid would be freely offered.”

He grew somber and met Wesley’s gaze. “All I am suggesting is that we show Miss Summers that same consideration. We exist to aid and offer wise council to the slayer. Should we not offer aid in her times of need as well?”

After returning to his chair, Giles concluded, “You are either friend or foe. I will not tolerate anything else. Mark my words when I say you do not wish to cross me. I give you until nine p.m. to make your decision, if you are willing report to my flat.”

Stunned by Giles’ words, Wesley managed to rasp, “Why?” through a parched mouth.

Giles cracked a thin smile, turning to take his leave as he clarified, “Patrol. As they are so fond of saying, ‘the show must go on’.”

Faith scanned her surroundings with marked disgust as she moved through the dank sewer tunnel along side the vampire. “So, what’re we doing again?”

Angel swung the gasoline can he held into his left hand to avoid hitting the slayer. “Helping a friend.”

“Right,” Faith intoned, exaggerating the ‘i’ so that the word seemed to drag on forever. Shaking her head, she added, “We need to get you some new friends.”

Angel chortled as he stopped to inspect a pool of standing water. Once he’d had a close look, he tipped the can up, dumping about a quarter of its contents into the pool. After setting the can down, he pulled a box of matches out of his pocket and took one out. Sweeping the can back up, he struck the match with his thumbnail, winking at Faith. She started to run as he let loose the match.

A plume of fire chased them down the tunnel as the walls around them trembled ominously.

Faith ducked into an alcove and spat, “And they say I’m psycho?” as she pulled the vampire in beside her with her good arm.

Angel started to chuckle again.

Faith bent down, bracing her upper body by placing her left hand against her thigh. “What the hell is that stuff?” Faith panted, gesturing to the can with her bandaged hand.

“Just a little something I mixed up to solve a problem,” Angel explained in loose terms.

“Y’know, ‘pyro’ and ‘vampire’ can only end badly, right?”

Angel ignored the helpful suggestion, setting off down the tunnel from whence they had come to inspect his handiwork.

Careful to avoid the chunks of flaming debris, Faith looked at what had been a standing pool of water. At the bottom there was what looked sort of like chalky gray seahorses with blunt faces. The three tiny creatures wriggled and writhed in pain. Their bodies were still burning becoming more charred by the second. Faith pressed against her temples, trying to stave off the burning migraine she’d suddenly developed. “What the hell are those?”

“My nieces and nephews,” Angel offered cryptically as he turned his back and began to stride down the tunnel again.

She stumbled after him, slowly due to the throbbing pain. Shaking her head, Faith raised and eyebrow and sighed when the pain started to ebb. “Well, it beats the victim act,” she mumbled softly to herself before she set off at a light jog to close the distance between herself and the latest in a series of crazy bosses.

The late afternoon sun beamed through the window warming her shoulders as Willow glanced up from her book and winked at Buffy, giving her a reassuring smile.

Buffy rolled her eyes. Jeez, I feel like a dork. I don’t get the audience. Both Mom and Will insisted on coming to my first P.T. Now I’m on my belly on an oversized beach ball looking like a total idiot. And all to prove to this reject from a bad seventies sitcom that I still own a sense of balance.

“Mrs. Summers, the leg must be moved through its full range of motion at least twice a day now that the” — paper rustled as the physical therapist looked at her patient’s chart — “injury— This can’t be right.”

“It’s okay. Buffy heals very quickly,” Joyce offered in a reassuring tone.

I’m the slayer, lady! Repeating the expected movements, Buffy tilted right and left, then back and forward on the ball. Y’know…one girl in all the world chosen to play punching bag for every evil meanie with a god complex.

“Can we ask you your professional opinion? The doctors haven’t been able to tell us much,” Joyce prodded.

The physical therapist continued to pour over her patient’s chart for a few more moments before she offered softly, “Typically the symptoms of spinal shock don’t clear up for at least four to six weeks after the initial injury. It really is impossible to tell what the patient’s quality of life will be like until after that time elapses.”

The therapist and her mother moved away to speak privately, but Buffy could still hear them if she concentrated.

“Part of my job is to be reassuring while not inspiring false-hope. Surely you can understand that. Patients in your daughter’s situation are prone to deep depression. In fact, depression is expected. Creating false-hope can only make things worse further down the line.”

“I appreciate that, but I am not your patient.”

“I’m truly sorry, Mrs. Summers, but I hesitate to speculate. I’ve never seen anything like this. What I might offer would only be a wild guess,” the therapist concluded, moving back to her patient.

Just gimme my goddamned crutches so I can go home! After briefly considering popping the big blue ball, Buffy went back to mindlessly repeating the actions: right, left, forward, back.

Moving to help her patient up, “Alright, Miss Summers, very good,” the therapist said, “Now we’ll work on getting you mobile again.”

Buffy nodded gratefully as the therapist sat her back in the wheelchair. At least I’m in my own clothes. This would’ve been so much more the nightmare in one of those flimsy paper gowns.

“Have you ever used crutches?” the therapist asked politely.

“Once when I was little.”

The therapist nodded and offered, “Well then, this shouldn’t be hard,” as she rolled her patient over to a set of widely spaced banisters.

After rising to her feet with the therapists help, Buffy accepted the crutches and began to pace back and forth between the banisters as expected before the instruction came. Her lame leg dragged awkwardly on the wooden floor, sliding along against the sock she wore. Not being able to control it enough to even lift it was unnerving, but she ignored the unrest and simply went through the motions required to prove herself. I make it through this and they’ll let me outta this hell. Just a little bit more. It’ll all be good.

“Look at that. You’re a natural,” the therapist encouraged.

If you only knew.

Wesley took a sip from his snifter and settled back into the sofa in Giles’ living room. Pulling the first book down from the stack before him, he noted, “We seemed to function better as a unit this evening.”

After taking a seat in his high-backed leather chair, Giles removed the second book from the pile and laid it open in his lap before he quipped, “Yes, well, I suspect that was largely owed to your not running off at the first sign of trouble.”

“I am a scholar, not a warrior, Mr. Giles,” Wesley remarked defiantly, “I’m still not certain how I allowed you to talk me into this foolishness.”

“The facts speak for themselves, Wesley,” Giles commented offhandedly as he began to read.

Silence hung between them for several minutes before Wesley decided to broach a new subject. “You know, I’ve always had more than a passing interest in Norse legend and mythology. While their culture is largely vilified or romanticized by ours, their sheer contribution to the society from which we herald inspired me to dig deeply into their history,” he offered, speaking stream of consciousness. “Several years ago, I stumbled across a legend that might be of interest. It always fascinated me because it seemed to merely be one piece of a much greater puzzle.”

Positioning a finger as a placeholder in the book on his lap, Giles regarded the younger man with mild interest.

“The legend is of Tyrik Turgeis, great-great grandfather of the conqueror Turgeis who founded Dublin. It predates the proper recorded history of these peoples and therefore is spotty at best,” Wesley offered pensively.

After a moment’s pause, Wesley began to relate, “The legend recounts an attack by a pack of wolves. Tyrik was severely injured. It was thought he would surely perish. Instead, he disappeared along with a score of his strongest men for a time. When he returned he was fully healed save for the hand he lost during the attack. The key element that drew my attention was this: after his return he is said to have lived four lifetimes waging war and dispensing justice.”

Giles reached for his drink, taking a small sip before he remarked, “One might presume that this is the source of the legend of the Norse god Tyr.”

“Indeed.” Wesley nodded. “One must also understand that life expectancy then was much shorter than it is now. Twenty-five years, perhaps thirty. Though, even taking that into account, still places his age at his time of death well over one-hundred years. The natural conclusion would of course be that he was turned—made a vampire—but the remaining evidence fails to support this. He was deeply respected by his people. A vampire would surely feed within the community, thus destroying such impressions.”

Thoughtfully fingering the rim of his brandy snifter, Giles noted, “Medicine during that time would not support many other conclusions.”

“Magick can certainly be used to heal, but only to a limited degree. These people were deeply pagan at this point in their history. That fact would support such a theory. However, the detail of his men’s disappearance would appear to suggest a journey. I intend to dig deeper. The circumstances would certainly apply to our current dilemma,” Wesley reflected, beginning to read when he drew silent.

Joyce helped Buffy painfully move from the hospital wheelchair to the passenger seat of the Jeep. After stowing the crutches in the back seat, she got in, started the Jeep, and pulled away from the curb, all without saying a word.

The two Summers women rode down the street, enjoying an uncomfortable silence. Joyce had too much too talk about so she concentrated on driving; Buffy had nothing she wanted to talk about so she focused on the scenery passing by the passenger window.

After several blocks of rumination, Joyce settled on what she wanted to say. When the Jeep pulled up to a stop sign, Joyce looked over at her daughter and started, “So…” before faltering.

Buffy responded, “So…” with no enthusiasm.

Gamely, Joyce tried again, “So I… I couldn’t help but notice…” Why is it so hard to get from ‘what to say’ to ‘how to say it’? She wrung the steering wheel in frustration as she started driving again.

“Notice what?” Buffy asked flatly. Not that she cared to have a conversation on any of the topics her mother may have had; it was just the expected response so Buffy filled it in.

Glancing over at Buffy again, Joyce tried a new tack. “I really like Willow, you know that, right?”

Buffy looked at her mother for the first time since she got in the car. With a quizzical look, she answered, “Uh-huh.”

Joyce smiled, “It’s—it’s been a joy watching her grow from the timid girl I first met just two short years ago to the vibrant young woman she is now. And it’s obvious that you’re responsible for that. She’s a wonderful person.” Glancing again, she saw the first smile on Buffy’s face that day.

“She is,” Buffy agreed pleasantly.

“She loves you, you know,” Joyce said, punctuating with a look at Buffy to measure her reaction, “It’s so clear…in every look, every…touch.” She let out an amused grunt. “Honestly, other than her gender, she’s everything I ever hoped you’d find.”

Worry creased Buffy’s face, “Mom, we’re not—”

“I just need you to know,” Joyce continued over her daughter’s objection, “what I’m about to say has nothing to do with who or what gender Willow is.”

Buffy waited for her mother to continue, doing nothing to encourage her to do so, futilely hoping she’d pause all the way back to the house.

“I worry about you getting hurt,” Joyce said compassionately.

“Mom—” Buffy started to protest again. Then again, I’m thinking the ride home from the hospital…probably not the place to point out I can protect myself.

“God, just a few months ago I was watching the news about Matthew Sheppard and guiltily feeling relieved that I didn’t have to worry about anything like that.”

“Mom…” Buffy wanted to reassure her, but couldn’t think how.

“I know, I know. You’re this ‘slayer’ and can protect yourself,” Joyce placated. She changed her approach, “But what about Willow? Have you thought about the danger she could be in?”

“Mom, we live in southern California, not Kansas,” Buffy said dismissively.

“Wyoming, dear,” Joyce corrected, then waved it off as unimportant. “Do you think that can’t happen here?” she asked stridently. “I know you’ve never been tuned into the news, but have you really not heard about the attacks in L.A. and San Francisco? The rallies the hate-mongers held right here in southern California after Matthew Sheppard died? Maybe you can protect yourself—” she looked pointedly as Buffy’s leg “—normally, but Willow can’t.”

Buffy looked defiant. “’Kay, so you’re saying that, without the question about liking another girl too much, these people would’ve left the little Jewish girl alone?” Raising an eyebrow, she said, “I’m thinking not.” She crossed her arms and glared at her mother. “I’ve been worrying about protecting Willow from that kind since we met.”

Joyce moved on to her next point. “Have you thought about all the consequences? What about Willow’s family? Sheila and Ira are Reform but other parts of her family are still Conservative. There are aunts and uncles, grandparents and cousins that might never talk to her again. Has she thought about that?”

“I don’t really know,” Buffy answered harshly. “Not that it matters.” Buffy glared at her mother and explained, “With the Reform-Conservative thing, there’s already Rosenbergs she can’t talk to. And just liking-girls-that-way’d be a problem for them, even if she never acts on it. Even if we never become an ‘us’—which is barely a possibility right now—she’ll have to deal with that.”

When the Jeep pulled into the driveway, Buffy angrily flung open her door and started to maneuver her leg out. “And I’m not basing whether me and Willow ever become ‘me and Willow’ on if there’re Summers that won’t talk to me.”

Reaching back to fluff her pillow, Buffy blinked at the textbook in her lap. I dunno why I’m bothering. It’s not like whether I pass history or not is gonna matter. I don’t even intend to be around for the final. Mom and Will are both concerned, so through the hoops I jump…to make them happy. Doesn’t matter what I feel. I just don’t want them to wig.

Buffy set the book on the floor by her bed and manually moved her right leg out to the side, bending her knee. After gently repositioning the rubber catheter hose to where she couldn’t feel it against her left leg, she picked up the book again. Can’t believe that stupid therapist yesterday with her depression speech. She doesn’t know crap, it’s obvious. Another idiot with an expensive degree doling out advice they’re too clueless to give. She’s still walking; until she isn’t…she lacks the qualifications to know shit about it.

A knock sounded from her door and she said, “C’mon in.” And Mom…all concerned about something that’ll never happen. I wish I could put her mind at ease, but what I got—not exactly the sorta thing that makes you rest well. I could never begin to explain it to her anyway. And in a couple days I won’t have to.

Walking over to the bed, “It’s time for your pills,” Joyce remarked, offering Buffy the two pills she was holding and a glass of water.

“Thanks.” Buffy accepted the pills and tossed them into her mouth. Then she took the glass from her mother and drank half of it down, setting it aside when she was finished. I just need to make sure—I don’t want Will or Mom to find me. It’s gonna be bad enough…

Joyce quirked an eyebrow and looked at the text book in her daughter’s lap, trying to see the title. “Are you feeling okay?

I can’t believe—! Oh… Buffy figured out what her mom was looking at and giggled. “Yeah, Mom, I’m fine. I just—I dunno…after my birthday I was sorta struck with this burning desire to actually graduate. Something about them not caring,” she replied with a smile. I just wish—there’s not, so it’s pointless to even waste my time… Useless dreams. Other options…not so much. I’d run if I could, but then if I could run…it’d be a non-issue.

Folding her hand in the book so her mom could see the cover Buffy reflected, “Will helped me catch up on homework, but I’ve still got lots of reading to do. So…can’t do much else. May as well…” I dunno though, someone has to do the job and god knows Faith won’t so… Regardless what I think, what I feel, what I want… It’s the right thing. Travers is an asshole—the very worst kind—an asshole with a point. Listen to me. She hissed.

The smile faded from Joyce’s face as she asked, “What’s wrong, honey?”

Me and my big mouth. Buffy offered her mother a reassuring smile. “Nothing, just something Will said. Y’know how she is.” ‘The right thing.’ Boy, are there ever a few religious whackjobs out there that’d have major issues with that…until they got eaten by vamps…or— Well, fundies actually like apocalypses don’t they? Scratch that.

“Well, get some rest. You’ve got a big day tomorrow,” Joyce remarked and started for the door.

Buffy focused on the book and replied in an aloof tone as she started to read, “I will, Mom.” When her mother shut the door, she reached under the side of her tongue with her index finger and extracted the pills. Opening the drawer of her nightstand, she took out a small jewelry box and pulled back the felt, placing the pills underneath. This is gonna suck. I gotta act like nothing’s wrong when—

It’ll all be over soon.

Chapter 6 - And All the King’s Men

Peering down the sidewalk at the front of the formalwear store, Buffy took in the squad cars, spectators, and crime scene tape, grumbling under her breath, “Oh, you gotta be kidding me.”

“It’s okay, Buffy, we’ll just go to the mall,” Willow offered reassuringly. As she turned to leave, a familiar face caught her eye. Starting to jog down the sidewalk toward the crime scene, she called over her shoulder, “I’ll be right back.”

This’d be a whole hell of a lot easier to take with Darvocet. Moving out of the path of foot traffic, Buffy propped herself casually against the brick wall between two stores to wait, leaning the crutches beside her. She rolled her eyes and mumbled, “Just peachy. Prom’s tomorrow night, no dress, and the tinglies I’m feeling are telling me this is hellmouthy.” Several minutes passed and Willow moved out of the crowd with one of the people Buffy most wanted to see: Cordelia Chase. Great…more angst for the drama that is my life. Thanks. Needed that.

“It was awful,” Cordy said as she walked up, remarking snidely when she saw Buffy, “And where there’s awful, had to figure you’d be around.”

Willow turned toward the cheerleader and snapped, “Lay off, Cordy.”

Glancing from the crutches to Buffy and back again, Cordy’s expression turned curious. “What’s up with you?”

After gathering up her crutches, Buffy replied dryly, “Not much.” I so don’t wanna get into this. Tucking the crutches under her arms, she gave Willow an annoyed glance and took off down the sidewalk at a rapid pace. Not even sure where I’m going other than ‘away.’ It’s close enough for now. By the time Willow caught up, she was almost two blocks from the dress shop.

Willow implored, “Buffy, wait!”

Obviously struggling to keep her temper in check, Buffy slowed, then stopped. She took a deep breath and turned to face Willow, appearing much calmer than seconds before. “Yeah, Will?”

“Cordy said she’d give us a ride to the mall.”

Buffy took one look at the concern etched all over her friend’s face and put on her best smile to cover. “Alright.” I need to get a grip. Placate. Good word. It’s my word for the week. Not gonna use it though. Someone might think I actually paid attention in English class…and we wouldn’t want that. A genuine smile replaced the forced one.

“She said she’d bring the car around.”

“Wow, Will. That’s, like, almost nice. How’d you get her to do that?” Buffy asked with genuine interest.

Willow winked and teased, “A lady never reveals her secrets. It kills that ‘mystery’ thing.”

Rolling her eyes, Buffy ventured, “You paid her?” as she watched Cordelia pull into a parking lot just down the street to wait for them.

A look of mock indignation flashed across Willow’s face, quickly replaced by a warm smile. She matched pace with Buffy as they made their way to Cordy’s car.

Buffy watched her friend climb in the back seat, then passed her crutches off. Blatantly ignoring the looks Cordy was giving her, she sat in the passenger seat and pulled her leg into position with both hands. One word and I’ll be buying two dresses, Cordy. She shut the door and the car immediately started to move. I don’t own enough black clothes. You’d think I would…given… Grateful for the silence, she leaned back in the seat and closed her eyes. Enjoying the warmth of the sunlight and the gentle breeze, she placed her hand over Willow’s when it came to rest on her shoulder.

After negotiating a turn onto a busy main thoroughfare, Cordy glanced in the rearview to make eye contact with the redhead and asked, “So what’s the deal with you and Oz?” After several moments when no answer was given, she continued to pry, “’Cause word is you two are past tense. So me, I’m thinking you must’ve— What was it Xander called it? Ah, yeah, you must’ve had another little ‘fluke’.” She glanced down at Buffy’s leg and commented, “Get another girl hurt in the process too?” Her gaze traveled up to Buffy’s shoulder and she gasped, “Oh! No way!” then Cordy squeaked in pain.

Buffy bent Cordelia’s wrist back as she reflected, “Y’know, Cordy, it’s a beautiful spring day—birds are singing, sun’s shining…and there’s not even that much of a halo around it from the L.A. smog. To make this picture that much more perfect, we’re in a convertible.” She sighed whimsically as she wrenched Cordelia’s hand back just a touch more, smiling when her victim winced and tried to pull away. “What does Cordelia Chase choose to do with such a lovely day? Keep her mouth closed and enjoy it?” She mocked puzzlement by tapping her finger against her cheek. “No. Cordy—” she gestured vaguely “—being the brain-trust she is, decides to piss off a slayer.” As the car rolled to a halt, Buffy released the hand. “Shut up and drive, Cordy.”

Cordy massaged her wrist for moment, seemingly unconcerned that she was blocking traffic in a forty-mile-per-hour zone. When she realized that there was nothing wrong with it other than a little stiffness, she appeared to debate what to do.

Buffy glanced in the rearview to look at Willow. The expression of shock plastered across her friend’s face caused the slayer to giggle. Well, so much for ‘placate.’  “Drive, Cordy,” she repeated firmly. When the car began to move again, she settled back in her seat and closed her eyes. Eventually Willow’s hand returned to her shoulder and she took it.

The sun, silence, and scenery lasted a few moments more and Buffy completely enjoyed them. All too soon she was picking up the dead weight that was her right leg and swinging it out of the car. When Willow handed her the crutches, she rose and moved away from the car. “Thanks, Cordy,” she offered politely while the cheerleader sped wordlessly away.

As they made their way into the mall Willow asked with a smile. “Were you defending me?”

“I dunno—I suppose… Frankly, it was as much me defending me, though. Maybe, me defending ‘us’? Anyway, she did hit the mark with deadly accuracy…and she would’ve kept hitting… It’s just not in Cordy’s nature to know when to stop without prompts. So, I gave her one,” Buffy reflected stream of consciousness. When she glanced over at her friend, Willow was grinning. “Nice I can still make you happy. It might be one of my few useful skills,” she commented, turning right to head into Macy’s to browse.

Willow chided, “Oh, I dunno about that,” following her friend, “But it’s definitely one of your more endearing ones.”

Buffy made her way patiently though the mall with Willow in tow, making suggestions and, more importantly, keeping her mind off the pain. Finally, in a women’s clothing shop called The Vanity, Buffy found what she was looking for: a simple, elegant, floor-length, satin gown that would cover the fresh scars on her back. It was even a good color: pale cream.

Willow helped her to the changing room with the dress. I just hope it’s the right length ’cause there’s no time to get it altered and I can’t exactly wear heels. As Buffy strained to undress and slip the gown over her head, a tear leaked out. She mopped it absently away and turned to the changing room door, opening it so Willow could help her with the zipper. When the dress was closed in the back, Buffy faced the mirror.

“Oh,” Willow gasped and offered, “It’s beautiful, Buffy.”

Studying herself in the mirror, Buffy checked the length and drawled, “Glad you like. ’Cause I’m about…” trailing off into thought. Yeah…this works…one more dress. Weird feeling; I sorta felt this way with the Master, though…and Mom picked that one.

Buffy forced a smile and, using the walls for support, turned around. This is it. The dress I’m gonna die in.

Appearing exhausted, Willow frowned as her gaze fixed on a piece of paper taped to her patio door. She tore the note down and read it. Crawford St.? Weird. Why would Giles want me to go there? ’Kay, well, whatever. If it was anyone else… After stowing her book bag in her room, she traipsed back outside and set off for Angel’s old mansion.

Sticking to a heavily trafficked and well lit route put several more blocks on the journey, but Willow knew better than to push it after dark in Sunnydale. Despite her fatigue, she traveled at a brisk pace.

Anxiety etched her features as Willow considered, I gotta wonder what’s going on with Buffy. The look on her face when she picked out her dress was just creepy. I’m pretty sure she didn’t realize she was doing it. She’s seriously freaking me out.

That thing with Cordy was weird too; Buffy’s not like that with people. That’s the sorta thing she does to the bad.

Briefly massaging her temples as she moved, Willow cast her gaze at the ground in front of her. She was in pain—lots of pain. I caught that. I could feel it if I focused. But she shouldn’t be. I was there tonight helping her with the ‘range of motion’ exercises when Mrs. Summers came in with her pills. She took them. I saw it.

What if she didn’t? But she did. But what if she didn’t? I know Mrs. Summers has been being careful because, well— What if—? Did I look away too long?

Willow thought back and sighed. Yeah…she asked me to help her get ready for bed right after. I got out some jammies for her.

“Gosh darn it, I’m dumb,” Willow murmured and ran her hand nervously through her hair. She used the fact that I’m— Buffy changing in the same room…umm…after… It’s freaksome. I’m afraid I’ll ogle. I don’t wanna ogle. And well…she played me. Has to be it. Dammit! She played me.

Coming to a halt, Willow hesitated as she considered turning around to go back to Buffy’s house. She won’t have enough. It’s not time yet. The dress, the pills, the details, they all point to after prom. Doing anything now could just make it worse.

Willow set off again, nervously doubling her previous pace. I need to know what’s up with Giles. Him asking like this—it’s weird.

Faith looked across the table at Giles, trying to size him up. So, the mayor’s history. No denyin’ the luck. I sorta owe ’em for leaving me free and clear. Not much left to worry about ’cept for the Council sending more goons. I think Angel pretty much took down the best of the bunch, so… She couldn’t help but smile with relief, stifling a laugh when Giles mistook the gesture and returned the smile.

Giles stood up and left the room when a knock sounded from the front door.

Faith was bored to death and staring at her hands when the weirdest sensation struck her. What the fuck! She was flying through the air, but nothing had touched her. A second, or maybe two ticked by before she smashed into the far wall, hanging with her feet off the floor. The pressure on her chest didn’t relent when she hit and she was soon gasping and flailing.

Willow rounded on the slayer as Giles tried to peel her off. She completely ignored him as if he were simply insignificant.

Faith peered bleary eyed at the redhead. She wasn’t sure if she was imagining that they were both hanging in the air or not. None of this made sense to her. She struggled to understand what her attacker was saying, but the words sounded foreign and distant.

Giles was shouting now, pulling at Willow trying to get her to stop.

The point of focus traveled from Faith’s chest to her throat and she gagged as she took in the expression of pure hatred on her aggressor’s face.

As Willow’s voice gradually grew muddier, Faith’s vision clouded and spotted, finally going as blank as the voice. She was vaguely aware of a conflict taking place around her. Eventually everything faded mercifully black.

Angel sat regarding the younger Watcher who had been equally silent during most of the meeting thus far. Trusting this young man was intensely difficult, given his position. A knock sounded from the door and Angel reflected, Finally, we can move on. Talk of hellhounds, while interesting, is not exactly the reason we’re here. It’ll give Faith a chance to prove herself, but—

Giles moved from the table to get the door.

Angel slid back from the table and stood up. It’s a fair bet that Willow won’t be happy to see us. After moving across the room to take position in a shadowy corner, he stood patiently waiting for the young woman to join them. He watched their shadows creep through the open doorway on the same wall.

Then everything went straight to hell.

Faith’s chair toppled over backwards as she was thrown from it by some unseen force. The slayer went careening across the room at a startling rate and was pinned midway up the wall where she hung, gagging for breath.

When Willow entered the room, she wasn’t walking; instead she appeared to be floating on a vortex of air that caused her hair and clothing to billow as it flowed around her. It was as though she was caught in her own personal storm and very much out of control. Rage filled her voice as she rasped, “Tell me, Giles, why’d you bring this thing here? Did you want this? Did you expect me to play nice with the trash that tried to murder the woman I love?”

Angel chanced a glance at Wesley, taking his eyes from the drama unfolding in the middle of the room. The younger Englishman had fled from his seat and now stood wide-eyed opposite Angel against the far wall. At least he’s out of the way.

Appearing desperate, Giles followed her, trying to appeal to the witch, “Willow, you must stop this!”

Alright, so, I may have underestimated how unhappy. Angel watched this with mixed interest, focusing mostly on the witch. This was not the same shy young woman they all knew. Besides what was readily obvious, she simply didn’t feel the same. Something had broken, releasing this new aspect.

Entirely ignoring Giles, Willow closed in on her victim. “I gave you a pass once, Faith. Cut you slack ’cause I couldn’t—not in front of Buffy. I didn’t want her to see me as some sorta monster, I didn’t wanna scare her, so, I let her—”

Faith was fading, she hung unconscious against the wall. It was now or never. Angel flew from his position, hurling himself at the witch. He hit her midsection, breaking her hold on the slayer. They both crashed into the ground while Faith slipped down the wall, collapsing into a heap. Sliding across the smooth floor, he crushed Willow into the far wall. As Wesley scrambled away from them, Faith began to gasp reflexively for breath.

Angel heaved himself up, checking Willow for injuries. She’ll be fine. He glanced over his shoulder to see that Giles was doing the same for Faith.

As the redhead started to stir, Angel spoke in a soft, thoughtful voice, “I love Buffy too, Willow.”

Willow groaned and peered muzzily up at the vampire.

“People make mistakes. You know this,” Angel offered with a sigh, “They get caught up in things they shouldn’t. And once you’re caught up, leaving can be the hardest thing in the world. Change is scary.”

“You really think—?”

Angel sensed the anger again and cut the witch off, “I don’t know, Willow, but we’ll never know if we don’t give her a chance. There’s still hope. I know you see this.” He offered a hand to help her sit up. As she rose, he continued, “And if she tries to pull a fast one you have my word I’ll make it right. One more chance. That’s all I ask.”

Composing herself, Willow nodded grudgingly, then stiffly pushed herself to her feet and moved sluggishly to the table. “There was a reason you asked me to come, Giles?” she queried gruffly as she took a seat.

Faith barreled through the cemetery at top speed, vaulting the obstacles in her path. Fuck! Who knew Red was gonna go all Dark Phoenix on me. I mean, I guess that’s what that was. Not like I gotta good look. She was sorta slinging me around like a rag doll after all. I got that she and B. were tight, but— Wow!

Sensing Angel behind her, Faith knew, if she slowed for a second, it’d be over. She leapt the cemetery wall, barely catching the wrought iron spikes in her hands. Funny, dunno where I’m going other than ‘away.’ Seems to happen a lot. Hazard of my life. When jumping a fence between two houses, she splashed into a kiddie pool, faltering only to recover seconds later. Her sneakers squished on her feet as she continued to run. Shit!

The gap was closing. Faith listened intently; Angel had leapt the pool cleanly. I’m screwed. Springing onto the hood of a parked car, she skimmed across its breadth. As she landed in the street, her legs were ripped out from under her. Flipping over the top of the car, she bounced off the pavement and slid to a stop. Rolling onto her back, only to watch the vehicle speed away, she groaned as Angel peered down at her.

Angel swept the slayer gently up and began to carry her away as he spoke, “You get a whole lot harder to protect when you rabbit like that, Faith. I was talking Willow down when you bolted. Unlike some of us, killing just doesn’t come naturally to her. She should be fine. How about you?”

Hanging limp in Angel’s arms, “Jury’s still out, but I might live,” Faith replied groggily.

Willow sat, vaguely listening to accounts of Norse legend. It sounded like the sort of thing you might tell a child at bedtime, but she knew better than to discount such things. Most of what she now knew to be absolute fact had once sounded like fairy tales to her.

Willow’s gaze traveled between faces as she listened. Giles looked unusually pale, almost ill. Angel sat regarding her with interest as though he were studying her. Faith appeared barely aware of her surroundings. She looked as if she’d been beaten. I wonder what Angel did to her. Only Wesley seemed unruffled by the events of the evening. I don’t feel bad. I’m not gonna say sorry ’cause I’m not. It’s just that simple. Faith deserves a lot worse than I could give her.

“Through my Council contacts I was able to uncover further evidence that does indeed suggest a journey was undertaken by these men,” Wesley offered. Noting the wince at the mention of the word ‘Council,’ he amended, “I assure you that I am neither your enemy, nor a spy. For my part, I have been reporting to the Council that Miss Summers is recovering nicely and that her duties are being performed.”

Willow perked up, scrutinizing Wesley intently. He appeared to be telling the truth. Interesting.

“What Mr. Giles and I need to know is: if this evidence should come to fruition, it will no doubt involve a quest of some description. We will require others to undertake this. I myself am no warrior, a fact which seems to provide Mr. Giles with no end of amusement.” Wesley returned the slight grin Giles was giving him.

“I’m in,” Angel replied firmly, “And where I go, Faith goes.”

Faith lay with her arms folded on the table and her forehead resting on top of them. Speaking without looking up, she remarked dryly, “Sounds like I’ve got loads of choice.”

“You don’t, Faith. It’s either my way, or I toss you to the wolves, a few of which are sitting at this table.”

Quirking an eyebrow, Willow regarded Angel for a moment. She could feel a slight grin pulling at her lips. She didn’t need a mirror to understand why everyone was looking at her the way they were. Huh. A promotion: from sheep to wolf in one night. Kinda nifty. Wonder what Buffy would say? Wonder what Giles will say? Bet that won’t be fun. But I’m still not sorry.

What the hell am I still doin’ here? If I was smart I’d bail. Faith looked down at the borrowed dress and sneered. At least to change. Wearin’ Dru’s old castoffs, so not my thing. I look like a ren faire reject. A noise from the hedgerow drew her attention and she moved out of position at the school’s front door to investigate. Pulling the radio from her purse, she reported, “Think I got company. Double-O Snivel’s still not back, so I’m just gonna go deal.”

“Check back in five, Faith,” Angel’s voice sounded over the radio.

Stalking across the quad, Faith replied, “You got it.” As she fumbled to put the radio away, Faith was thrown across the lawn. Tumbling, she smashed into a concrete bench. A groan crept out. After flipping onto her feet, she faced her attacker and grumbled, “Take it easy, Chewie.” What the hell? Not like I’m an expert—I leave that sorta thing to the pocket protector crowd—but I thought hellhound’s were supposed to be pooches, like the four legged kind. This thing looks like a werewolf. Claws and teeth givin’ me a wicked case of the nerves. My luck, I’ll end up with the strange urge to piss on every fire hydrant I pass.

The hellhound didn’t seem impressed. It snarled and sprung at her again. She sidestepped the attack, trying to swing into a kick. When she raised her leg the tight gown bound at her ankles, causing her to falter. There was a ripping sound as the dress split down the seam and she flopped over onto her back.

“Son of a—!” Faith spat, cutting off when the hellhound pounced on her again. She seized the creature by its throat while it snapped at her face, trying to push it away. Its claws swung wildly at her as she rolled to the right, shoving it away. She quickly kicked off onto her feet once more.

When the hellhound launched at her again, she locked her arm around its throat. As it struggled, she pushed against its forehead with her freehand and drove her thigh up into its chest. There was a satisfying snapping noise as its neck broke. She held it for a moment more to make sure it was dead. After releasing the corpse, she fished out the walkie and huffed, “Two down.”

“Good work, Faith,” Angel replied encouragingly over the shortwave radio.

“Yeah…whatever,” Faith groused, absently tucking her falling hair behind her ears as she trudged back to her post. Guess, it’s not that bad a gig.

Who am I kidding? One more dress and it’s over. I’d rather take my chances. Faith chuckled.

Pausing to hold the door for her ‘date,’ Willow entered the gym. ’Kay, so…we’re here. Now what? Now I smile and act like I’m having fun. A bright smile lit her face as she looked around. Bad music: check. Cheesy decorations and terrible lighting: check. Bet the food’s awful too. Oh…’kay…I can do this.

Buffy stopped at her friend’s side to look around for Giles and Xander. Spying them on the far end of the room, she set off at a leisurely pace around the dance floor.

It could be worse. I’m with the prettiest girl here. Willow followed the blonde round the edge of the gym, vaguely watching the couples dance to a slow number and hoping she wouldn’t see Oz. Thankfully, he hadn’t come. When they arrived next to a smiling Giles, Willow prompted, “Take a seat, Buffy. I wanna try something, ’kay?”

“Sure, Will,” Buffy replied, using her crutches to lower herself onto a chair.

Willow stooped down in front of the blonde, letting her dress fan out around her. “Now, I’m not getting fresh,” she remarked with a slight blush, looking up to see Buffy grinning at her.

Giles moved over to speak with the girls. “How are you ladies this evening?”

Willow shrugged, “Okay,” and glanced up at Giles as she positioned Buffy’s leg with a slight bend at the knee.

Buffy glanced up at Giles and smiled before offering a noncommittal, “Doing good.”

Xander joined the gathering around Buffy’s chair, looking conspicuously alone. “Hi,” he offered sullenly, “Have either of you seen Anya?”

Giles’ brow furrowed. “Why, yes, she left several minutes ago with Wesley. I thought you were aware.”

Xander frowned and stalked off to search for his date.

Buffy choked as she struggled to stifle a laugh. Leaning down, she remarked quietly to Willow, “That makes two.”

Appearing confused, “Two?” Willow prompted.

“Two women Xander’s lost to that cheesy, Pierce Brosnan wanna-be,” Buffy hissed softly through the mirth.

“Be nice, you,” Willow whispered as she grinned and shook her head.

Making eye contact with Willow, Buffy reflected, “I am nice. I’m the model of niceness and nicety. It doesn’t get any nicer than me. I am the nicest girl you’d ever want to meet.”

Willow murmured, “You’re the only girl I ever want to meet, but that still wasn’t nice.” After placing her hand on Buffy’s knee, she muttered the word, “thicken,” and focused on localizing the spell just around the joint. Standing up, she reflected, “I’m not sure how long I’ll be able to keep that up, but it should make it lots easier on you,” and offered a hand down to help the blonde rise.

Buffy rose from her chair and immediately felt the difference.

Smiling brightly at her friend, Willow said, “Leave the crutches. I wanna dance.”

Buffy’s brow furrowed with uncertainty as she noted, “But, Will, I kinda need them. I sorta fall over without them. Well, I can hop, but hopping, it’s not exactly dancing.”

Willow instructed patiently, “Set the crutches down and put your arm around me.” When the blonde complied, Willow focused and began to guide them both toward the dance floor. “It’s like the pencil only bigger, Buffy.”

“’Kay,” Buffy replied uneasily, “Long as I don’t end up sticking out of a wall.”

Turning to put her arms around her friend, Willow commented wryly, “If you’re a nice girl—shouldn’t be a problem.” As the blonde embraced her, Willow began to move them both to the music. “You can lead if you want, so long as you stay in contact.” Willow was a bit taken aback when Buffy nestled her head in the crux of her shoulder and began to slow-dance. The song they were dancing to had an enthusiastic techno rhythm and they were soon attracting attention. “Umm…Buffy?” she prompted, glancing down to make eye contact. Umm…wow. She looks content. Me and my big mouth.

“Yeah, Will?” Buffy drawled lazily.

“Never mind,” Willow tried to cover quickly. She was content. With me even. With everything and with me.

Buffy’s face crinkled with concern. Withdrawing, she asked, “Huh?”

Willow kicked herself, not literally because that would hurt. Couldn’t just leave well enough alone.  “It’s just that…you don’t have to slow-dance. As long as we’re touching you can do what you want.”

“Oh,” Buffy gasped, “I guess I should—” glancing around to see the other couples around them dancing briskly to the raucous beat.

Giving her dance partner a sheepish grin, Willow commented regretfully, “Maybe, but I won’t complain again if you wanna—”

Buffy pulled away and began to experiment. With a little trial and error, she found that she didn’t need to stay in direct contact all the time. She started to sway her hips and move her arms in time to the music, touching Willow every other beat just to keep the connection alive. When the next song started, she was laughing and having a good time.

Willow smiled. Keeping up with her dance partner under normal circumstances was hard. This was almost painful, but seeing Buffy actually having fun made her willing to do just about anything. I just hope the next song is—

Buffy had discovered she could move around her friend by pushing off. By the middle of the second song she was literally dancing circles around the witch.

Willow caught herself mid-sigh, when the next song queued was a slow ballad. As Buffy swung around to face her, just a little too quickly to look natural, the redhead giggled. “Can I try something—I mean it may feel funny, but I read and you know me. I read and then with the ideas…and sometimes the badness,” Willow stammered bashfully as her dance partner nuzzled up to her.

“Long as the badness doesn’t involve me hitting a wall at mach-two, I’m good,” Buffy teased.

They were starting to get more looks, but Willow brushed them off and enjoyed the dance. As they moved together, she gently started to siphon small amounts of the slayer’s natural magical energy. Umm…wow! I could go a lot farther with this, but I don’t wanna scare her. Just enough to keep us going until she wants a break.

After tilting her head to make eye contact, Buffy asked in a soft concerned voice, “Whatcha doing, Will? It feels—I dunno—a little weird, maybe?”

Appearing guilty, Willow gasped “Oh,” and ceased channeling. Nervous energy took over and she babbled to cover, “I was just—it’s just really hard to— I mean, if it bothers you, I can stop. Well, I did stop, but I can never do it again.”

“Relax, Will, I’m not upset,” Buffy replied, punctuating with a sigh, “You’re giving me something amazing—something I never thought I’d have again. If you need something in return, take it, I’m yours.”

Unruffled by the last minute attempt to fluster her, Willow reestablished the subtle power-tap before she began to gently chide, “But, Buffy, you’re gonna get better. You gotta believe that.” I know exactly what she thinks, but I can’t tip my cards.

“But what if I don’t? Tonight may be it. It may be the last time we’ll be in this place with these people,” Buffy whispered just above the music, gradually trailing off as she voiced the final thought. Before her friend had a chance to comment, she added, “Not gonna worry about it now, though. We’re here to celebrate, remember?”

Willow started to reply, “Er…umm…” and stymied. She had an actual answer formulated and right on the tip of her tongue when it all went flooey.

As the song came to a close, Buffy lifted her head and gave her dance partner a gentle, loving kiss. “Thank you, Will.”

I was gonna be mad about something. It was an important something. Willow opened her mouth to speak and immediately snapped it shut. Her brow furrowed as she tried to remember.

Buffy amusedly watched fish-face go through a couple more cycles before the redhead gave up and simply looked aggravated. Chuckling, she remarked, “Boy! Quite an effect. You’re the first person I’ve ever kissed who got annoyed. I must be losing my touch.”

Rolling her eyes, Willow asked, “Something to drink?”

“Lead on,” Buffy affirmed.

Angel straightened his suit coat and opened the door for a young couple. When they were safely out of earshot, he keyed the microphone to his shortwave radio and asked, “How things looking over there, Faith?”

“Well jeepers, Boss, Shaggy here’s still British, so I guess we’re doin’ okay,” Faith’s voice sounded back, “How’s tricks on your end?”

Grinning wryly, Angel replied, “Since the girls went in, I’ve been promoted to Sunnydale High’s official doorman.”

“So, y’think two’s gonna be it?”

His brow crinkled pensively before Angel responded, “I have no idea, Faith. I say we hold till the show’s over.”

“I got not problem with that, ’cept this stupid dress. Y’know how hard it is to kick something in the head in one of these things?”

Angel chuckled. “Bet you looked good doing it.”

“Yeah, right, I looked like a complete idiot. But whatever.”

Still appearing completely amused, Angel teased, “Well, we knew formalwear was the key. Way to take one for the team, Faith. I’m proud of you.”

The radio hissed in reply.

His manner turned serious as Angel instructed, “Let me know if you see anything,” then slipped the radio into his inside pocket.

Faith’s voice sounded from his coat, “Will do, Boss,” as Angel held the door for another couple.

Willow sat with her eyes closed, listening to the music and the people. She focused vaguely on the conversation Buffy was having with Giles.

“Yeah…I dunno, Giles. They keep telling me it’ll get better, but it’s just hard.”

Stifling a sigh, Willow reflected, At least she’s being more honest.

“You’ve been through quite an ordeal. Some patience is indicated, though understandably difficult. However, it’s important that you not lose sight of the facts.”

Willow waited for the snarky comeback and found herself almost proud of her friend when she bit her tongue.

A few moments of silence passed between them and Willow could feel Giles stiffen as he caught on to what she was doing. I wish I could reassure him, but after last night—after that stuff last year—I just can’t. Giving Buffy’s hand a light squeeze, she let her concentration ebb, bringing the energy transfer to a close. Looking sheepishly up at the former Watcher, she offered a sincere, “I’m sorry.” Not for what I did, but for disappointing you.

Giles appeared perplexed for a moment. Recovering, he remarked, “You misunderstand. I fully support your efforts tonight, Willow. Do carry on.”

Willow nodded as she read the subtext: However, I still find you scary and a bit of a freak who will no doubt come to a sticky end if she’s not careful. More of the lecture…and all I wanted to do is help. Be helpful. Go figure. She glanced over to take in the baffled expression on the blonde’s face and whispered reassuringly, “It’s nothing, Buffy,” driving back the resentment that threatened to reveal itself.

The emotion manifested in the form of a despondent sigh. Eventually Willow went back to focusing on gently leeching power. Well, that’s not exactly true. Giles has lots of reason to be nervous. It’s weird that I used to respect him so much. I still do, but it’s different. I used to think he could do no wrong. Now I know he can, so it’s just not the same.

Willow glanced over to see Buffy still giving Giles a questioning look. I could’ve cared less what any of them thought last night. That’s really weird, but it’s true. Though, the truly bizarre: Faith’s alive because of Buffy. I didn’t care about Angel. Nothing he said meant anything to me. That fact that I might… That I would make myself a monster that Buffy couldn’t love—that’s what kept Faith alive. I’d snap her neck like a twig if it wasn’t for— And I want to snap her neck because of— Twisted, but it makes sense.

Giles gave his charge a reassuring smile and commented, “There’s no need to bother yourself, Buffy. It was a simple misunderstanding.”

The sense that she wanted to curl into a tight ball in a very dark corner grew more apparent when Willow caught sight of Anya and Xander moving their way. Great! Not like there’s not enough weirdness, Xander has to be helpful and pile more on. Moron. She chuckled despite herself.

Sentimentality tinged Anya’s voice as she reminisced, “There was this wealthy baroness in the late sixteenth century. Ah, good ole, Margret. Her family kept forcing her to marry. She was one of my best customers for a while. We went through five husbands together. The one I inverted—” cutting her speech short as she noticed the others. She regarded Willow and Buffy with interest, immediately asking, “So, how long have you two been lesbians?”

Angel opened the trunk of his car. Moving to Joyce’s Cherokee, he began to load himself down with bags. “Mrs. Summers, I know you don’t like me—”

Joyce cut Angel off mid-sentence, “It’s not that I don’t like you, Angel. Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t like you with Buffy. I don’t believe you two are good for each other. That’s an entirely different issue.”

Angel nodded and continued the thought as he moved back to his car, “That’s all sort of water under the bridge. We’ve both made our views plain. What I was going to say is: I know how hard this is for you.” He placed the bags in the trunk and started back to Joyce’s car for the remainder. “It’s like you said, letting go can be the most difficult thing, but it can also be the best. I just want you to know how brave I think you are.”

Joyce stepped aside to give Angel room to move the largest of the bags. “I was a little surprised, after our last conversation, to learn that you were still in town. I know why you stayed, or at least I believe I do and I want you to know that I appreciate it. Trying to protect her while keeping your distance must’ve been very difficult for you.”

Angel shuffled the cases and bags in the trunk around to make room for the last bag. “I’m just sorry I couldn’t do more, Joyce. I feel like I let her down. I let you both down.”

“You tried, Angel, and that’s what’s important.”

Wesley gave the brunette a side-long glance. Curious how things work out. Here we stand. The most likely pair in my world but a few short months ago, now reduced to the least likely. Though, here we stand working together for good. If I weren’t such a natural skeptic it might actually give me hope. I suppose it’s the scholar in me refusing to trust what I know not to be irrefutable.  “So, what are your plans, Faith?” he asked conversationally.

Faith leaned casually against the wall next to the front doors of the school and replied brusquely, “I gave up planning a while back. Planning only gets ya disappointed.” Making eye contact with Wesley, she took in the expectant look and asked wryly, “You wanna know if I plan to jet, don’t ya?”

“The thought had occurred to me,” Wesley admitted.

Faith smiled wolfishly and barked an amused laugh. Quirking an eyebrow, she glanced down at the tattered gown she wore and remarked, “Depends.”

Wesley furrowed his brow and motioned for the slayer to continue.

“Depends on you, Webster. See, the way I’ve got it figured is I’m not exactly safe anywhere. So, it really doesn’t matter if I’m in Sunnydale or the south of France. Though, that does sound nice,” Faith commented, looking dreamily away for a moment, “I’m just chillin’. You give me a reason to bail and I will. No reason, no bail.”

Wesley regarded the slayer carefully, trying to discern her intentions. Finally, he reflected, “That seems fair.”

Faith shrugged and chuckled again. “Oh, and, Wes? Playin’ Barbies with the slayer: that’s a reason. Blondie might get off on this crap, but this is my last dress up date.”

Wesley took in the ripped gown and couldn’t help but smile. “Duly noted,” he supplied dryly.

Leaning against her crutches, Buffy watched the couple in front of them smile for the photographer. One last detail: the picture. Something for Will to look back on and remember. The dance and the kiss: all taken care of. Though, it was a bit mean using the kiss to cover the truth—to make her all blushy and stammery.

Buffy moved up into position and offered her crutches to the photographer who obligingly set them aside. She put her arm around her friend and smiled, leaning into the embrace. I wish we could get Xander into this, but Anya would wanna—and not slaying Anya…it’s a serious struggle. She giggled as the photographer snapped the picture. At least she contributed. The smile should look less fake now.

After accepting her crutches from the photographer with a polite, “Thank you,” Buffy moved along side her friend away from the booth. She listened with mixed interest as the prom king and queen were crowned. There was a time in my life when I knew that’d be me. No question. Just a fact. Now I almost don’t care who got it. Taking place at the edge of the room between Giles and Willow, she watched the crowning ceremony with an air of melancholy.

Buffy leaned in to speak to the redhead on her arm, “I’m thinking: we came, we saw, we promed. Whatcha think, Will?”

Willow smiled and rubbed the blonde’s back, then chided teasingly, “I think you’re being a party pooper. I want another dance,” putting on a pout to punctuate. Suddenly perking up, she whispered in her friend’s ear, “And I don’t care what they think. You’re still the prettiest girl here.”

A slight hint of color tinged her cheeks as Buffy smiled. That was really sweet.

“We have one more award to give out… Is Buffy Summers here tonight? Did she, uh…?” Jonathan’s voice sounded out again anxiously over the P.A.

Buffy’s brow furrowed when she heard her name. “Why—?” she half gasped, turning toward the stage.

Jonathan looked out into the crowd spotting the blonde before he continued, “This is actually a new category, first time ever, I guess there were a lot of write in ballots…and, uh, the prom committee has asked me to read this.”

Buffy set off through the parting crowd as she listened, aware that Willow was close behind her.

Jonathan began to read from the note cards in his palm, “We’re not good friends.” He paused to glance up and smile nervously, taking in the crutches. When he resumed his voice cracked slightly, “Most of us never found the time to get to know you. But that doesn’t mean we haven’t noticed you. We don’t talk about it much, but it’s no secret Sunnydale High isn’t really like other schools. A lot of weird stuff happens here.”

The crowd filed in behind them, closing the gap as they passed through and Buffy heard different voices sound out around her.


“Hyena people!”


Buffy grinned. Wonder what happened to that little troll. Oh well, as long as he’s not here, I’m good. As last requests go, seeing Snyder was way down the list—near the bottom, somewhere between bowling and a South Park marathon.

When she reached the stage, Buffy placed both crutches on her right side and leaned on them casually as she listened.

After covering his mouth politely with his fist, Jonathan cleared his throat and continued to read, “But whenever there was a problem or something creepy happened, you seemed to show up and stop it. Most of the people here have been saved by you—” glancing down to meet the blonde’s gaze “—or helped by you, at one time or another.”

Buffy was a bit taken aback when she noted that Jonathan’s eyes were welling up too. Blinking, she felt a tear slip down her cheek and inattentively brushed it away. Umm…wow…I can’t believe they noticed. Funny, it wasn’t that long ago I was wondering if anyone here noticed anything else but their own little drama—their own pain. The crippling—now that’s ironic. I wonder if I should tell him it’s okay?

Reading the next line silently before he repeated it, Jonathan grinned sardonically and offered, “We’re proud to say that the class of ninety-nine has the lowest mortality rate of any graduating class in Sunnydale history. And we know at least part of that is because of you. So the senior class offers its thanks, and…gives you, uh, this…” Holding up a gilded pink umbrella, he declared, “It’s from all of us, and it’s got written here, ‘Buffy Summers. Class Protector’,” reading the plaque attached to the handle.

Buffy accepted the award when Jonathan stooped to pass it to her, saying, “Thank you,” as she struggled to stifle the overwhelming sentiment. She felt Willow’s hand on her shoulder and passed the umbrella off to the redhead so she could turn. Once she was facing the crowd, she mouthed the words again and sunk into her friend’s embrace to conceal the tears. We made it. Though, I never expected any thanks.

When Buffy looked up, she nearly gasped. Standing directly behind Willow was the last person she ever expected to see.

Willow smiled at the look of complete shock on her friend’s face. Asking, “You got her, big guy?” as she moved aside.

Angel nodded gratefully to the witch. Immediately turning his attention to Buffy, he queried, “Would you dance with me?”

“Umm…yeah,” Buffy stammered softly.

After gently taking the crutches from Buffy, Willow went back to Giles and Xander at the far edge of the room. Once she set the items aside, she took their hands and focused.

Buffy felt herself drift off the ground as Angel pulled her into an embrace. He guided her onto the dance floor and a slow, gentle ballad started. “I didn’t expect to see you,” she struggled to say through the tears, “I mean…umm…I thought you left.”

Angel began to lead them in a leisurely waltz, “Willow asked me,” answering in a hushed voice.

Her brow furrowed while Buffy questioned, “How’d she—?”

Angel simply smiled in reply as the other couples moved aside.

After glancing up to take in the smile, Buffy prompted tersely, “Angel?”

While he moved them gracefully to the music, Angel responded honestly, “I’ve been in contact a little. Not much. I couldn’t just disappear.” Peering down into her tearstained face, he offered, “I’ll always be around, Buffy. I care too much to—” leaving the rest unsaid. After a short pause, he sighed and admitted, “Not seeing you doesn’t mean abandoning you.”

Buffy accepted the answer and laid her head against his shoulder, enjoying the dance. As they moved, she began to get extremely weary. It was like she was being lulled to sleep. When the song ended, she could barely hold her eyes open. She felt Angel sweep her up, cradling her in his arms. Struggling to speak, she slurred in a small, weak voice, “Wha—?” and drifted off into a deep slumber.

Chapter 7

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