DISCLAIMER: Buffy and Her Friends belong to Joss Whedon and a bunch of suits. I'm adjusting their realities for fun, not profit, as I own nothing and have the credit report to prove it.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I was working in the yard and listening to the Indigo Girls when this popped into my head.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
'How long has it been?' Buffy Summers wondered as she went through her home again, preparing to relocate. She looked at the letter, not needing to open it to know every word, the last she had heard from her best friend. 'Ex best friend,' she silently corrected herself. It had been six years since Sunnydale, California, was swallowed up by the evil it harbored. The first night, at some nameless hotel, she had been too tired to talk with anyone. She took the key Giles offered, and crawled into bed, still wearing her bloody, filthy clothes, covered in the dust of countless vampires, and stayed there, unmoving, for two days.
By the time she got up, everything was decided. She was torn, still seeing herself as their leader but glad not to have to make those hard decisions any longer. Willow was gone, and Xander was shellshocked, and Dawn had all ready signed on with the new Council. She had tried to listen to Giles, about Cleveland and everything else, but couldn't take it in. She was tired, more tired than she had been before the last time she died. When he realized he wasn't getting through to her, Giles handed her a cell phone and a credit card. The next time she got up, they were all gone.
For two more days, Buffy was at a loss what to do with herself. She slept during the day and wandered at night, habit driving her to seek those things that preyed on the innocent, but the small town was empty of those creatures. The next night, she took her bag - one bag, all that she had brought away from the hole in the ground that was once her home, and began walking. She never bothered to go through the bag, didn't even look as she reached in for clean clothing.
Buffy walked at night, headed always east, into the rising sun, and when she felt its rays on her face, stopped wherever she could for shelter and food. The phone rang, and she ignored it, moving without thinking too much. Thinking hurt. Thinking made her remember, and that made her cry.
Months later, she stood at the outskirts of Cleveland, Ohio, trying to decide what to do. She could feel them there, the energy and life of so many new Slayers, and around them Giles and Xander and Dawn, but not Willow. Buffy knew what she should do, go and at least let them know she was alive, but couldn't bring herself to do it. They were happy, and she wasn't, and she couldn't bear it, the enthusiasm of youth and new beginnings.
Faith found her that night. Buffy wasn't surprised. Faith didn't say much. They had said so much before, and it had come out wrong so many times. They sat under a tree and Buffy cadged cigarettes from the brunette while they passed a bottle back and forth. Not touching, nothing could touch Buffy now, and she shied away from the most basic contact, hating herself for needing it, needing anything. When morning came, they stretched their stiff limbs and looked warily at each other. Buffy couldn't think of anything to say.
"I'll tell them you're all right," Faith said, even though she knew Buffy was anything but.
Buffy nodded, and accepted the envelope Faith thrust at her.
"Take care of yourself," Faith said gently, and Buffy turned and walked away without answering. While she moved, she put the envelope in the stash pocket of her jacket.
She carried it for months before she opened it. After walking in the rain for two nights, Buffy picked a spot and holed up to wait out the weather. She had no idea where she was, but there were trees and no vampires, and when the wind didn't howl, she could hear the ocean. Buffy emptied her pockets onto the table in the small room. There wasn't much, a stake, a pocketknife, some random change, the phone, her credit card. And the envelope. She dumped the bag onto the bed, as surprised now as when she packed it how little it held. Clothes, none of them in the best shape any longer, and some pictures. And another envelope, that made her frown as it fell from the bag onto the small pile.
She didn't want to deal with any of it right now, and stripped. She left those clothes in a damp pile on the floor and went into the bathroom. It was clean, and there was plenty of hot water, and Buffy stayed in for nearly an hour, trying to get warm, although she knew it wouldn't help. She hadn't been warm for so long, since being torn from heaven.
Buffy avoided the mirror while she toweled herself dry. She walked back into the room and found her comb, ran it through her hair. Before getting into bed, she opened the window just enough to hear the weather and the ocean under it, and fell into sleep. It was restless, and full of nightmares and sorrow, and each time she woke, she listened carefully to the wind, hoping it would tell her what she needed to know.
It was still raining when she woke up because the door was opening. Habit drove her from bed into a defensive stance. The maid shrieked when Buffy pounced on her, and Buffy came fully awake as she realized the body she held submissive was human. "Sorry, sorry," she said, and let the woman go.
Her voice was shaking as she said, "I'll come back later," and backed out of the room.
Buffy sighed, and went through the pile of clothes for the least dirty. She dressed in those and stuffed the rest into her bag. The other things, except for the knife and credit card, she swept into a drawer, and headed for the motel lobby. The maid was there, gesturing to the manager while talking a mile a minute about the crazy naked woman who attacked her.
Buffy apologized again, but the maid stayed out of her reach and returned to her duties. The manager looked at her uncertainly. "I need some cash, and something to eat, and someplace to wash some clothes," she said. He was polite and accommodating, adding the $50 he pulled from the register to her bill. The he pointed her toward the attached restaurant and finally showed her on the site map where the guest laundry could be found.
Buffy ate first. Not much, though. Food was fuel now, and nothing more, and she was never hungry. Everything tasted like ashes, so it didn't really matter what it was. That chore finished, she made her way to the laundry room. She leaned against the wall while she waited for her clothes to wash and dry, staring at the empty wall over the machines and seeing the same things she always saw, each of her failures in excruciating detail.
Buffy carried the clean clothing back to her room. She tried the television and as she moved through the channels, a random lyric from long ago came to her. "Fifty-seven channels and nothin's on." She turned the television off and stared at the drawer. It held two envelopes she hadn't opened in all the time she carried them. The weather report said two more days of hard rain before the storm front moved off, and to Buffy that was two more days she would be here.
She got up from the bed and got the envelopes. She started with the one Faith had given her. There were letters in it from all of them except Willow because Willow wasn't with them. None of them gave any indication they knew where she was, and all of them said the same things, choking Buffy with their need. "We love you, we miss you, come home soon."
Her stomach turned. She had no home. Sunnydale was a hole in the ground, another unnatural wonder of the world that held everything Buffy had ever hoped to be and nearly everyone she loved. There was money, too, and another credit card. The only one who hadn't said those things was Faith. She wrote, "The blood dries and itches, but sometimes it's still wet, and we can never wash it off. Can't run away from it, either, or forget how it got there. The night always calls with promises that this time it will be different, better, but it never is, and we can never get away from it. I could say you did everything right, but that would be a lie. You did your best, and it's all you can ever do. When you can't move any more, before you let it catch you, take a deep breath and stand up and hold out your hand. You might be surprised who's there to take it."
Buffy carefully folded the slips of paper and put them back in the envelope and put it aside. The other envelope sat on the bedspread and she looked at it. It was blank, but Buffy knew who it was from, who it had to be from, and she wasn't sure that she wanted to open it. She looked at it for a long time, until she felt night come, and after that. She didn't know what time it was when she finally turned the envelope over and carefully unsealed it.
The pages inside were covered in Willow's handwriting. Seeing it again brought a lump to her throat. Thinking about Willow was complicated. No one knew her better, no one knew better when to push and when to leave her alone. The letter had been in her bag, so Willow must have put it there before they piled into the bus to drive two miles to the place Buffy hated more than any in the world.
Buffy unfolded them gently, smoothing them flat. She wanted to read them, to hear Willow's voice in her head again, and at the same time, she wanted nothing more than to be asleep with nothing to think about. Buffy took a deep breath and began.
"Dear Buffy, stupid beginning, I know, but I don't know how else to start. There are some things I wanted to say to you, and never had the time or the courage, and when this is over, I don't know that I'll be able to say them. Or write them or whatever. I want to start by saying that you are my best friend in this world. You stood by me through so much, and I hope I was able to give you some support in return. I know that things between us have been hard for the past two years, and I know it's my fault, since I'm the one who brought you back. I'm not sorry, though. I'll never be sorry for that, only for the pain it caused you. The others went along with me because I made them, not because they thought it was the right thing to do, and if you survive to read this, let them off the hook. I know you say you've forgiven us, but I know you, Buffy. And I don't blame you for not forgiving me. I don't deserve it. But I want it.
"If I make it through this time, I'm going away. I can't stand to be around them anymore. They expect so much of me, and I just don't have it. If the world ends, it ends. And if it doesn't, then I guess I'll find something to do to keep myself busy. But away from them, from demons and vampires and the endless cycles of fear and research and injury and death. I don't know where I'll go, but wherever it is, I'll be able to see for miles and miles and miles and nothing except memories and my heart will able to sneak up on me.
"I never told you, because I never wanted you to worry, and I know you would. Magick always has a price, and I was so arrogant, it never occurred to me that I would have to pay it. It cost so much more than I ever dreamed, even in my darkest nightmares. Bringing you back cost a lot. When Osiris refused to bring Tara back to me, I knew then that it wasn't because he didn't want to meddle. Tara's death was repayment for the blood sacrifice it took to start the ritual, and my soul was the price to complete it.
"I hope, still, that I'll be able to get out of that part of it, though it seems unlikely. After all, D'Hoffryn offered me a place, and that darkness never went away. It stays with me, absorbing a little more of me each day. I keep trying to do good, hoping to wash it away, replace it with something that doesn't make me do the things I do, secret things, things you never saw and I never told you about, and I'm not going to start now.
"What I want to say, I was too afraid to say for so long. I love you, Buffy Summers. I have a trillion pieces of you in my memory, stored for this time, when we will be apart. I know exactly how you smell, and how you look, even how you look now, reading this. I know you knew, and couldn't love me the same way, so I kept it to myself. You had so much all ready, and the older we got, the worse things got for you. I tried to help you, Buffy, I tried my hardest, and I'm sorry for all the times I let you down.
"You're going to come through this. You're all ready a superhero, and generations of Slayers will know your name. And I know you'll do what you always do when things get too hard. So run. Run as far as you can as fast as you can, and when you can't anymore, call and let them know you're all right. That's all they'll need from you, to know that you're still alive and that you think of them once in a while.
"I told Oz the last time I saw him that I imagine a future where we'll meet somewhere far from Sunnydale. I'd like to say the same thing about us, but I'm not sure that I'll ever see you again. I'm not sure that I even want to. My heart is dark and tight and scarred. Everyone I ever loved left me. Even you. Especially you.
"When you find whatever it is you think you need, you better hang onto it. And be happy. Find a way to smile, to laugh, to not wish for one moment that you were still in your grave.
"I could say a lot more, but it's getting late. Or early, I guess, since the sky is becoming light. Either way, there's no more time for this. Love, Willow"
When she finished, Buffy started to read it again. And again, and again, until all of the words Willow said, and those that she didn't sank into her brain. She saw image after image of the redhead, watching as she changed and grew and became someone Buffy still knew better than she knew herself. So much of Willow was always on the surface. The dark things, too, and Buffy wished for the billionth time that there had been another way for all of them. Her brain played 'what if' for a while. What if she had ignored Willow and taken the pass into Cordelia's clique? What if she hadn't rescued Willow that first night? What if she hadn't permitted them to help? While she did this, her hands automatically folded the letter and carefully placed it back into the envelope. She put it on the bedside table and got up. She went to the window, listening to the howling wind and the soft rush of pine needles and somewhere in the distance, the ocean beating relentlessly against the earth.
There was nothing dangerous out there, she knew, just like she knew that the maid would be watching for her to leave before cleaning her room. It was just another place, as far as she could get from California without leaving the continent, and Buffy was suddenly exhausted. She leaned against the window for a few seconds, enjoying the cool glass against her forehead. If she let them, tears would come, but she was too tired for that, so she lay on the bed and waited to fall asleep.
Things went quickly after that. She liked the little tourist town, so different from Sunnydale, and found a job and a small cottage, and set about remaking herself. She called Cleveland each month, talking with whoever was available to tell them what they needed to hear from her. But she never asked about Willow, and they never offered, and after the end of the second tourist season, Buffy put her things, a few more now, but not many, into the same worn bag, and began walking again. She didn't know why she headed south this time, except that it was someplace she hadn't been before, and she hated the frigid northern winters.
It became her pattern, to settle for a few months, maybe as long as a year, before she had to set off again. She never stopped to wonder what she was running from, or to. The moving was what mattered, because Buffy was certain that as long as she moved, she could be safe. Every six months or so, Faith would track her down, and they would do what they had done that first time, share a bottle and a few cigarettes. Sometimes they sat outside, sometimes at the kitchen table of whatever place Buffy was staying. When the sun came up, Faith would give her an envelope and she would leave. Buffy didn't have to ask how Faith found her; other than Willow, Faith knew her better than anyone, and they always felt each other, more so now.
Each time she moved, the bag got a little fuller, but she never had to leave anything behind. Each time she stopped, it was because the nights were safe and empty and she could spend hours staring at the stars, wondering as she always did what Willow saw in them. Willow stayed in her thoughts and rituals. It was the first thing she did after settling into a new place, read the letters, all of them, Willow's last. She didn't really need to read it anymore. When her eyes rested on the paper, she heard Willow's voice, knew where she babbled and where she stalled, and when Willow reached the end, Buffy carefully put the letter away.
And now, six years later, Buffy was in Jasper, Tennessee, preparing to leave again. Whatever she was looking for wasn't here, in yet another suburb of the new south's boomtown, and she needed to be someplace with more space and fewer people. She held the envelope in her hand, wondering why she still carried it around, but put it in her bag all the same.
Buffy took one last walk through the small apartment, making sure she left nothing, before slinging the bag over her shoulder and walking out the door. She walked west, with a northerly drift, feeling this time like she was going somewhere. The feeling was familiar, but she couldn't exactly place it, so she let her routine carry her. Walking at night, resting during the day. Slaying if she found something that needed to be killed, but mostly pretending that she was nobody, just another woman estranged from life.
The feeling that she was going toward something grew as she covered the miles. She left Tennessee behind and moved into Missouri, and then Kansas. Autumn was coming, and she knew she'd need to find someplace to settle down before winter came again. She chose roads at random, 'not random,' a small voice in her head reminded her, and Buffy ignored it and kept walking.
It was a generic stop and rob, gas pumps, lights that drew insects by the thousands to their deaths, and there should have been nothing there to tickle her senses, but there was. As she got closer, Buffy saw the red hair first, of a woman putting gas into a nondescript SUV, and her brain told her what she wanted to deny. Her stride grew longer and quicker, and she covered the ground between them before the woman finished pumping gas.
"Get in the car," Willow Rosenberg said without looking at her.
Buffy hadn't expected that, nor did she expect to obey so quickly, but she did. She walked around to the passenger side and climbed in, putting her bag between her feet. Willow got in the driver's seat a few moments later. "Seat belt," she reminded Buffy while she clicked her own into place.
They didn't talk while Willow drove. Willow's silence was unusual, and Buffy had grown used to not talking. Whatever they were doing here together, Willow would explain when she was ready. They drove for half an hour before Willow turned off the paved road onto a dirt lane, and several minutes on it before a house came into sight. There was nothing around for miles.
Willow put the car in the garage, and Buffy followed her into the house. It was Willow's, and Willow's alone, she could tell. It looked like the redhead, and felt like her. Buffy followed her through the house. Willow opened a door and stepped aside. "Here's your room," she said, and left Buffy.
When Buffy entered the room, she knew Willow had made the space for her. It was uncluttered, but there were small surprises: Framed photos she thought lost forever, Mr. Gordo on the bed. Buffy dropped her bag and closed the door. She sat on the bed and picked up Mr. Gordo, and all the tears she had held in for so long came out.
Willow left her alone that night, and for that, Buffy was grateful. There would be time to talk, all winter, at least, Buffy suspected. When she woke at sunrise, she found the bathroom and showered, and put on the last clean clothes from her bag. As she did every time she stopped somewhere, Buffy put her papers and other things in a drawer, leaving the bag full of laundry. She went through the house until she found the washer and dryer, and put the laundry in.
Willow found her in front of the washer and handed her a cup of coffee, then left her alone again. Buffy wondered at that. Willow's silence was unusual, but didn't feel wrong. Nearly an hour later, Buffy passed through the kitchen with her clean clothes. She put them neatly into drawers, surprised to find clothes in them, and in the closet, as if Willow had been expecting her. Buffy shrugged. At least she would be warm.
She wandered through the house until she found Willow working in one of the upstairs rooms. It was full of electronic equipment and wires and three of the biggest computer monitors Buffy had ever seen. Willow turned around and looked at her. "I'll be about another hour," she said, and turned back to what she had been doing.
Buffy knew she had been dismissed, and continued her exploration of the house. There were three more rooms on that floor, all guest rooms, but they looked as if they had never been used. Buffy went downstairs, through the kitchen, and found the basement. It was bright, and divided into three parts. The first, nearest the stairs, was set up for entertaining. There was a bar and a large cabinet that held a television, DVD player, and two video game consoles and all their accessories. The door next to it led to a gym. It was full of equipment, but also had a large area, covered with mats. The door on the far side of that room was locked, but Buffy felt the buzz of magic from behind it, and knew that it was Willow's work area.
Her explorations done, she returned to the kitchen. She checked the refrigerator and found it full of food. A package of ground beef caught her eye, and she put it on the counter. Then she went in search of a frying pan. Once she found that, she shaped the meat into patties, haphazardly seasoned them, and put them on to cook. While that went on, she returned to the refrigerator, coming out with cheese, ketchup, mustard, lettuce, and a container of sliced tomatoes and onions. More rummaging produced paper plates, cutlery, and hamburger rolls.
Willow appeared as Buffy put the first burger on a bun. She got drinks for them while Buffy removed the burgers from the pan, and they sat as far away from each other as they could to eat. Buffy ate two burgers and eyed the last one. She was surprised to find that she was hungry; she hadn't eaten like this since leaving Sunnydale, and Willow nodded to let her know it was all right to eat it, too.
Buffy cleaned up while Willow sat at the table and watched. Finished, she leaned against the sink and looked at Willow. "Why now?" she asked, and Willow shrugged.
Buffy had expected something else, but she wasn't sure what. She and Willow looked at each other, assessing the differences caused by six years. Buffy was leaner and her eyes were dark; Willow had regained her confidence.
"There's a phone in your room," Willow said. "You should call them. You missed last month."
"How do you know?"
"I know everything about you, Buffy."
"No." Willow smiled tightly, but didn't elaborate.
"What do you want?"
"The same thing I always wanted from you."
"I can't," Buffy began, but Willow cut her off.
"You won't," she said flatly, and got up from the table. "I need to finish debugging that program. I'll see you later."
Buffy watched her go. She thought about getting her things and leaving again, but it was too much work. Instead, she went out the back door and walked a little way into the emptiness. There was nothing there except fallow fields and bright blue sky and a steady breeze that hinted of things to come, falling leaves, bonfires, football games. Things that once would have mattered to her, but no longer did. The only thing that mattered was that she could walk all night and not find a single vampire, or dead body, or demon, nothing except the ghosts that trailed her everywhere. She felt the magical barriers Willow had constructed, and wondered why she felt the need so far from everything.
Buffy walked in a spiral, seeing how far from the house she could get before Willow's magic faded away, but didn't find that limit. She stayed out until full dark, returning to the kitchen to find Willow putting dinner on the table. She washed her hands and sat in the same place as before, but Willow moved to the side of the table. Not close enough to touch, but closer. They still didn't talk. Buffy wasn't certain what to say, and she couldn't read Willow, who was opaque to her in ways she hadn't been since Tara's death. That thought still stung Buffy, and she pushed it down and ate.
Willow had learned to cook, and after the first mouthful, Buffy said, "This is great."
"Glad you like it."
"Are we ever going to talk?"
"Later," Willow said, and Buffy could tell it was a promise. She nodded her acceptance and returned to her dinner.
This time, Willow helped Buffy clean up. It didn't take long, and when they finished, Willow refilled their glasses and led them to the basement. They sat at opposite ends of a sofa, not looking at each other, and Buffy broke first. "So, what's new?"
Willow laughed hollowly. "Nothing's new under the sun, Buffy."
"Nothing's new with me, either. I work and I hide."
"What are you hiding from?"
"Same things you are." Willow looked at Buffy for the first time. "Destiny. Prophecy. Blood."
"I'm not hiding."
"Right," Willow said slowly. "That's why you've walked all over the damn country instead of helping with the new organization in Cleveland."
"They don't need me."
"They don't need me, either, but it doesn't keep them from asking me to go to them. Just like they ask you all the time."
"How do you know?" Buffy asked.
Willow shrugged. "I know lots of things. I know how many vampires you've staked in the past six years. I know every little town you've been in. I know Faith still struggles to be what she thinks you want her to be. I know Giles keeps hoping that you'll come home. I know that Xander is as hollow as we are, and that Dawn only sleeps when all the Slayers have come in from patrol."
Buffy ignored the pain that Willow's words caused. "You didn't answer my question."
"I know those things the same way you do, Buffy, if you ever let yourself feel or think."
"Why would I? So I can see it all again? Each of those girls falling, bleeding, dying, and for what? So I can see our friends die or get hurt over and over?"
"Is that what you see?"
Buffy got up and began to roam the room. "You want to know what I see, Willow? You want to know what's there every time I look over my shoulder? Every person I couldn't save. Every. Single. One."
"Let them go, Buffy."
"If I let them go, who will remember them? Who'll give a damn that they lived?"
"That's not why you hold on to them," Willow said. She approached Buffy cautiously.
"What the fuck do you know about it?" Buffy snarled.
Willow offered her hands, and Buffy saw blood on them. She looked at her own, not really surprised to find them slick with blood, and Faith's words echoed in her head.
"It never goes away," Willow said quietly.
"Make it stop," Buffy replied hoarsely. "Please, make it stop." It was a demand, and a request, and a prayer, and it cut into Willow the way nothing had since Tara's death.
"It never stops," Willow said, and took Buffy's hands. "It never ends, and it never goes away, and it follows us every minute. If I could, if I knew how, it would have ended long ago."
Buffy looked at their hands, joined for the first time since Willow first returned from England, and all the confusion she felt about Willow bubbled to the surface. She pulled away from Willow, and raced up the stairs and out the back door into the endless night. Willow sighed and watched her go, and without thinking wiped away the single tear that rolled down her cheek.
Buffy ran. There was nothing here that could hurt her, except Willow. Running was safe and easy until Buffy slammed into the ground after she tripped over an uneven spot. She lay there, inhaling the odor of regular dirt, so different from cemetery dirt. After a long time, she rolled onto her back and stared up at the stars. She had seen more, had seen the entire Milky Way sprawled before her eyes night after night. If Willow couldn't fix this, couldn't fix her, no one could. It would quicker to kill herself, but that was easier said than done. Buffy had tried and failed countless times. She healed too fast, and anymore, she believed that anything short of decapitation was just an inconvenience.
Willow would be waiting when she chose to return, Buffy knew. Willow always waited for her, night after night, to make sure that Buffy made it home from patrol, to tend to her injuries and listen to her explain what happened. Buffy wanted that and at the same time, hated it and what it represented. She knew how to end it, walk back into the house and gather her things and walk out again, but she couldn't find the energy to do that, and knew even if she did, Willow's voice would follow her.
Buffy got to her feet and ran more, away from Willow and their past, until she had to stop, doubled over from the need for oxygen. The stars had moved, and the moon set, and to her right, the sky was less dark. She turned around and began to walk back to Willow's. It took longer than she thought it would, and it was mid-morning before she even saw the house.
It was just a house, a farmhouse meant to hold a large family, and now it was full of Willow. Buffy struggled with her feelings for Willow. There was love and affection, and rage so dark she feared it, and other things, too, some positive, some not. She stopped and looked at it. Most of the windows were dark, only the kitchen lit on this side. Buffy knew Willow would be at the table, and coffee would be waiting for her, and hated fiercely for a moment this connection between them that had existed as long as she could remember.
Buffy made herself move forward again, and made herself move without hesitation into the house. Willow was at the table. She looked rested and wary, and Buffy's coffee was waiting at what was now her seat, hot and sweet and fixed exactly how she liked it. She sat and looked at it, then at Willow, and said, "What are we doing?"
"I don't know." Willow looked at the table.
"Why can't you just leave me alone?"
Willow looked at Buffy. "I left you alone for six years, Buffy. I thought we'd die back there, but we didn't, and we didn't, and we didn't. Not like we didn't try," she added, putting something in her gaze that told Buffy she knew Buffy had tried, and that she had, too.
Buffy looked back at her. It didn't matter what they had done, all the ways they tried to leave, only that they were here now, and there had to be a reason. "So?"
"There's so much unfinished between us."
"Can't we leave it that way?"
"No." Willow got up to refill her cup. She willed her hands not to shake as she poured coffee. "What's leaving it be done to us? You can't stay still and I can't move." She returned to the table.
Buffy wrapped her hands around the mug, leeching its warmth into her chilled fingers.
"You don't have to stay," Willow said gently. "I'll be here whenever you're ready."
Buffy raised her head and looked into Willow's eyes. They were sad and resigned and so full of love that she didn't know what to say, so she looked away again.
When Buffy didn't answer and refused to look at her any longer, Willow picked up her mug and left the kitchen. Buffy listened to her move through the house, knowing that Willow was going to lose herself in work, as she had been doing for years. Buffy left her mug on the table and went to her room. She got her bag, and began to put things into it, but halfway through, she couldn't think of a reason to leave. She couldn't think of any to stay, either. She was tired, and pushed the bag to the floor, and lay on the bed.
She stayed there for three days, sleeping or staring at the ceiling, ignoring Willow when she stood in the doorway. It took her that long to realize she wouldn't be able to shut herself down again. The last day, she let the connections open, weeping at Xander's pain, Dawn's fear, Willow's naked need. When she couldn't cry any longer, she got up and showered, and put on some of the clothes Willow bought.
Buffy walked barefoot through the house, toward where she knew Willow was. She stood behind Willow's chair and waited for her fingers to stop flying over the keyboard. Willow finished the section of code she was working on and spun her chair. She wrapped her arms around Buffy's waist, resting her head against her. Buffy put one arm around Willow. The other stroked her hair, softer than Buffy remembered. They stayed like that for a long time, and it was Willow who pulled away.
"There's a plate in the refrigerator for you," Willow said softly.
"Go eat. I'll be down soon."
True to her word, Willow joined Buffy in the kitchen before she finished eating. She sat at the table and watched Buffy eat, and when Buffy finished, Willow put everything in the sink. They went back down to the basement. Willow sat on the couch and Buffy wandered the room until Willow summoned her.
Buffy stood between Willow's legs, looking down at her friend.
"I don't know how to live without you," Willow said, meeting Buffy's gaze.
"I don't know how to live," Buffy answered.
Willow tugged her down. "One breath at a time," she said softly, and kissed Buffy gently. Then she let her go. Willow expected Buffy to run again, but she didn't.
Buffy pulled Willow up and examined her face for a few seconds, then kissed Willow. When they pulled apart, Buffy asked, "Is this what you want?"
Willow, unable to speak, nodded.
"Can you make me feel something that doesn't hurt?" Buffy asked hoarsely.
"I can try." Willow cupped Buffy's face with her hand. She felt Buffy shaking, and still thought that Buffy would run.
Buffy surprised her. She lifted Willow easily, and Willow made a quiet noise at the feeling of Buffy's body pushed so firmly against her own. Her lips moved freely against Buffy's neck. Buffy passed through the kitchen and walked past her own room to Willow's. She had never seen it before, but there would be time later to examine it. What Buffy was concerned with was the bed, now neatly made, and she threw them carelessly onto it.
Their mouths found each other again. Buffy was surprised at how easy it was to kiss Willow, and how her body reacted to Willow's caresses. They lost the day there, fully clothed, and when it was too dark for even Buffy to see, they removed each other's clothes. Willow knew Buffy's body, and noted the changes as she touched her. She had a few more scars, and less muscle, and protruding bones everywhere that made her frown even as she kissed them.
Buffy concentrated on Willow's touches, and on touching her back. She was surprised at how wet she was when Willow slid two fingers into her, and how Willow pushed back against her own hand, and most surprised at how much lighter her heart felt as they held each other silently before drifting into sleep.
Buffy woke alone in Willow's bed and knew she wouldn't be going anywhere for a while. Willow, in a robe, appeared seconds later with coffee for both of them, and kissed Buffy gently before handing her the mug. Then she got into bed beside Buffy. "Hi."
"You all right?"
"Yeah." Buffy sipped her coffee. "You?"
"Yeah." Willow paused. "We ok?"
Buffy thought for a few seconds. Unable to find any other answer, she nodded.
Willow smiled and rested her hand on Buffy's thigh. They still had so much to talk about, but what concerned her most was how thin Buffy was. She had never before been able to see the definition of bone beneath her skin. "Want some breakfast?"
"Nah, not hungry." Buffy sipped her coffee, thinking about other times and places they had done this.
"I know I'm gonna sound like a mom, Buff, but you haven't been taking care of yourself. You need to eat more."
"I'm good, Wills," Buffy answered.
Willow put her mug down and took Buffy's. She took Buffy's hand and ran it along the washboard of her ribs. "You're like that everywhere, Buffy," she said gently.
Buffy frowned. She had been avoiding mirrors for years. She kept her long hair, uncut since leaving Sunnydale, in a single braid down her back, and tended it by touch. How she looked no longer concerned her, but Willow was finding fault, something she never did in the past.
"Are you gonna let me take care of you?" Willow asked in the same gentle tone.
"Can I stop you?"
"You know you can." Willow kept her voice soft and even. They had to start slowly, or they would implode, leaving them running from yet another hole in the ground.
Buffy didn't answer for a long time. She wanted her coffee, she wanted to be warm, she wanted, hard as it was for her to believe, Willow's nude body atop her own. "I think the last time I did that was when Mom died."
As if she read Buffy's mind, Willow removed her robe. It slid down her back, and the motion caught Buffy's attention. She looked at Willow, who turned to her and gently pushed her down. Willow moved on top of Buffy, pulling the blanket along. Buffy had always been hot. "Slayer thing," she said, and Willow had never thought to investigate further. Now, she was hot, and Buffy was cool, shaking beneath her.
It was almost too much for Buffy to bear, so much skin, so much touching. She spent years freezing at the casual brushes of everyday life and dodging anything more. She hadn't even touched herself unless it was necessary. But it was Willow, and Buffy recognized her in ways she couldn't understand, and that made it all right, at least for a while, and Buffy's arms went around Willow, securing her in place. "I'm tired, Willow," she said softly.
"I know," Willow answered. "I'll get you fixed up, and then we can do what we have to do."
"I'm not the Slayer," Buffy said flatly.
"Yes, you are," Willow said. "You are the Slayer."
"I can't do that any more."
Willow chuckled. "You never stopped." She cupped Buffy's face in her hands. "Since, well, since then, you've slayed 1,963 vampires, two Argnoth demons, and four others that I can't find any reference to. You've saved 234 people and one town, and, somehow, yourself."
Buffy closed her eyes while Willow recited her past six years. "I wish I hadn't."
"But you did." Willow kissed her forehead, eyes, cheeks, nose, and chin before reaching Buffy's lips. "I'm glad you did," she said, and kissed Buffy again. This time, Buffy kissed her back.
Buffy left Willow asleep in the big bed and went to take a shower. She dressed in her old clothes and finished packing her bag. She couldn't do this, couldn't be Willow's hero, couldn't save the world again. She struggled against her past to draw a full breath, and checked the drawers one more time.
Buffy walked down the dirt road, her boots kicking up small puffs of dust with each step. She felt the pull of Willow behind her, and set her jaw. Buffy felt rubbed raw, as if her skin had been sanded by the contact with Willow. She ached like she hadn't since the Turok Han beat her down, since she crawled from her grave, since sticking the knife into Faith's stomach. At the paved road, she turned right and kept walking away from Willow and whatever it was she was supposed to do this time.
Buffy didn't bother to stop until late the next morning. She walked into another gas station convenience store and bought water and a sandwich, and ate while she walked. If she stopped, Willow would find her. Not that she couldn't anyhow, Buffy supposed. She kept expecting Willow to pull up beside her, angry and demanding.
Buffy kept walking at a steady clip. She headed south again, away from the cold air she felt coming down from Canada. After three days and two nights, she could take it no longer and needed to stop. There was a tree, and she sat against it to rest, unsurprised when two hours later Faith appeared.
Faith was angry this time, but Buffy didn't care. "What the fuck do you think you're doin'?"
Buffy shrugged. "Same shit, different day."
"She called Dawn in hysterics." When Faith realized Buffy wasn't going to stand up, she threw herself down beside her.
"You don't have to do this."
"I do, B. I need to keep you safe as I can."
"I'm not going with you, Faith."
"Yeah, you are. And I can take your skinny ass if you wanna argue about it."
"Just kill me. That's all you ever wanted to do anyway."
Faith barked a laugh. "That's the last thing I wanted."
"What, now you're gonna tell me you wanted me, too."
"Wanted you, wanted to be you, whatever." Now that she was sure Buffy wouldn't take off on her, Faith reached into jacket and pulled out the bottle. She handed it to Buffy.
"Past tense, huh?" Buffy cracked the seal and took three long swallows.
"All we have left, isn't it?"
"Me, maybe, but not you. You're big kahuna in slayerville."
"Nah. I'm just another body in Dawn's army."
"Dawn's, huh? What happened to Giles?"
"He's officially in charge, but the Slayers all answer to Dawn."
"Good for her." Buffy didn't bother to share the bottle this time. She was tired and wanted to forget everything, and pulled on it again.
"What did you do to her?"
"What did she do to you?"
Buffy flinched involuntarily, and Faith knew she had hit the mark. She lit a cigarette and handed it to Buffy and lit another for herself.
"You belong with her, you know."
"You gonna run forever?"
"Long as I can." Buffy swallowed more liquor. The bottle was half gone, and she was getting warm, finally.
"Listen to me, B. Go to her. She's the best thing that ever happened to you, and you know it."
"You don't know anything about it," Buffy answered.
"Then at least come to Cleveland and get your shit together. You keep doin' this, you're gonna wind up dead."
"Good. I want to be far away from everybody this time, so nobody can find me and bring me back."
"You're gonna hold that against her forever."
"Yup." Buffy finished the bottle and threw it as hard as she could. They heard it land in the distance. "I hate it here. I hate being indispensable. I hate having a destiny. I hate every fucking prophecy ever written. I hate this world, and I'm tired of saving it. Let it end. Let it all end."
"Not gonna happen, B." Faith stood up. "I'm gonna give you a choice. You can come with me or I can make you."
Buffy stood up and squared her shoulders. "I'm not going."
"You sure that's how you want it?"
Buffy didn't answer, and Faith threw the first punch. Despite the alcohol and lack of practice, Buffy was able to keep Faith at bay for a long time without hurting either of them. Faith surprised her with an uppercut, and everything was dark after that.
She woke up in a moving vehicle, her head throbbing each time the tires marked a new section of concrete. She tried to move, and realized she was securely tied up. "Faith!" Buffy bellowed. "When I get loose, I'm gonna kick your ass."
"You're not gettin' loose any time soon, so I ain't worryin' about it." Faith pulled over and stopped the car. "You thirsty?" she asked as she twisted in her seat to look at Buffy. Buffy glared at her, and Faith shrugged. "Fine. Do it the hard way." She started the car again and moved into traffic.
"Where are we going?" Buffy asked after many more miles.
Buffy kicked furiously at the back of Faith's seat.
"Just chill, B. We still got miles to go before we sleep," Faith chuckled.
"I hate you," Buffy screamed so loud it hurt her throat.
"Bout time you admitted it," Faith answered.
Buffy kicked the seat one more time for good measure, and was happy with Faith's grunt. She forced herself to relax before beginning to test her bindings, and heard Faith laugh again. "Magical. Slayer-proof. Tested on many others."
"Definitely. Know what I found out? You struggle too much, you get a heinous rash. Not enough Benadryl® or calamine lotion in the world to help it."
Buffy muttered something, and Faith laughed again.
The sun was low in the sky before either of them said anything else. Buffy broke first. Her muscles were cramped from being in one position for so long, and she was beginning to panic at the thought of her family. "Faith, please don't do this."
"It's not up to me, B. You made your choice. You can't stay with her, you're comin' to us."
"I'll go back."
"And leave again."
"What makes you think I'll stay in Cleveland?"
"They can make you."
"What, it's a houseful of Stepford Slayers?"
"Nothin' like that. Won't even chain you in a basement. There's a hospital area, and from how you look, you'll be there for a while. No windows, one door, and if you act like an ass, they'll lock you in there until you behave."
"Do you hear yourself?" Buffy demanded. "You're taking me someplace I don't want to be and locking me in."
"It ain't jail, B."
"Sounds like it." Buffy kicked Faith's seat extra hard.
"Do that again, and you're goin' in the trunk. I'm just the friggin' messenger."
"Didn't you know? The messenger always gets killed for bringing bad news."
"You had your chance," Faith said and turned on the CD player as loud as it would go. Buffy got the message and shut up. She kicked the seat one more time for good measure, and Faith pulled over. She turned off the engine, and silence filled the car.
"You aren't going to put me in the trunk," Buffy said defiantly.
Faith sighed. "No, I'm not puttin' you in the trunk." She turned to look at Buffy. "What's wrong with you?"
"Hmmm, let's see, for starters, I'm tied up in the back seat of a car."
"Do you ever give anyone a straight answer?"
"What do you care? I'm not there, I leave you alone. Why can't you do the same?"
"They need you, B. How damn dense are you? You missed Dawn's graduation from high school and college. You missed a buncha birthdays, didn't even bother to call. Giles got old real fast when you didn't call, didn't write."
"They don't need me!" Buffy screamed. "All I ever do is bring death. It's my fucking gift, and I'm sick of it, and I'm not gonna dump it on them again."
"What about Red?"
"What about her?"
"You need to get right with her."
"You don't know a damn thing about what I need, Faith."
"Neither do you."
They stared angrily at each other. Faith turned away. "We'll be there in an hour." She started the car, and the music blasted from the speakers again, blending with Buffy's inarticulate howl.
Faith carried Buffy in an alley door. She turned immediately into a small room and dropped Buffy on a cot in it. She closed and locked the door, and through an intercom, spoke the words to release the ropes. As soon as Buffy realized she was free, she began working the cramps out of her muscles. It was slow and painful and helped focus her anger.
Within an hour, Faith was back. She had sandwiches and water, and opened the door cautiously before putting the offering on the floor and quickly closing the door. She returned again after half an hour with two other women Buffy wouldn't have recognized even if she was completely awake. Faith stood at the foot of the bed with a tranquilizer pistol pointed at Buffy while the women examined her. Buffy didn't acknowledge them at all, although she knew they were there. The pistol in Faith's hands was sufficient incentive to remain passive.
Faith returned in the morning with Buffy's breakfast. This time, she leaned against the door, holding the tray of food in front of her as a peace offering.
"You think I'm going to eat that after you drugged me last night?"
"Why does everything have to be so damn hard with you, B?"
"I don't know, F, why don't you tell me?" Buffy answered pointedly. She had a hangover from whatever they had used to knock her down, and her body still ached from being trussed in the back seat for hours.
"It ain't drugged. Just eat it. Dawn and Giles and Xander will be down later. Save the attitude for me, all right?"
Buffy launched herself at Faith, who dropped the food and went into a defensive stance. Faith didn't fight back. She blocked Buffy's blows, and when she could, wrapped her arms around Buffy. Buffy headbutted her, and Faith finally lost her temper. She threw Buffy into the wall and stood at the door, waiting for her to get up for another round.
When Buffy didn't move, Faith frowned and went to check her. Buffy grabbed her upper arm and slammed Faith's head into the wall. Faith blacked out, and Buffy searched her for the key. She found it and let herself out of the room. She turned for the exit and pushed through it, ignoring the alarm that went off. Buffy left the alley and turned left and ran as fast as she could. When she finally stopped, she cursed the loss of her bag. It would be safe in Cleveland until the end of time, Buffy decided. She didn't need the letters, knew every word of each of them by heart, just like she knew the photos. She checked her pockets, found the credit cards and her knife and the phone, somehow undamaged.
Fuel, she needed to eat first, she decided, and walked into the first place she saw. Buffy normally hated McDonald's, but she ordered two Big Mac meals and sat in the back corner by the bathroom to eat them. Then she took off again, walking at a quick clip. She knew she had to get out of Cleveland quickly. Once they found Faith, every Slayer in the city would be looking for her.
She found her way to the bus station and bought a ticket on the next bus. It was headed to Chicago, but she didn't care, as long as she was away from them and all the things they wanted and expected from her. She stared at the back of the seat in front of her, and for one moment wondered what was so terrible that they couldn't handle it alone. Then she laughed out loud. Faith was going to be mad when she woke up. She probably was concussed and out of business for a few days.
Buffy sobered. She had to find a way to cover her tracks so Faith couldn't find her right away. The next time they met, Faith wouldn't hold back on her, and Buffy knew she couldn't take her. She had three choices, she realized: Cleveland, Willow, or death. The third hadn't worked no matter how many times and ways she tried, and she had effectively cut herself off from Cleveland. That left Willow, and the thought of her made Buffy shake.
"She called Dawn in hysterics," Faith had said. Willow in hysterics was always short-lived. She would marshal her resources and regain control quickly, and Buffy guessed that by now, Willow was mad at her, too. Buffy sighed and pulled the phone from her pocket. She went through the contacts list and found three numbers for Willow. The first two were disconnected, but she answered the third on the second ring.
"Where are you?" Willow demanded.
"On a bus."
"What, I'm going to tell you so you can sic Faith on me again?"
"What are you talking about?"
"Faith came and got me and dragged me to Cleveland."
"You're in Cleveland?" Willow asked hopefully.
"No, I'm on a bus. I'll be back before winter." Buffy closed the phone. She knew she had to return to Willow, but she could do it on her own schedule. By her reckoning, she had two months at most. She decided right then that she was going to spend them drunk, or as close to it as she could get without cursed beer.
She got off the bus the first time it stopped. There was, of course, a liquor store close to the bus station, and Buffy got two bottles of dark rum and as much cash as the storekeeper would give her. She put one bottle in her jacket and opened the other. Then she started walking. She didn't have a destination in mind, just walked south until she was tired. She made sure she was alone, and emptied the first bottle. Then she leaned back and went to sleep.
When she woke, Buffy opened the second bottle. She drank just enough to take the edge off, and got up and started walking again. Every time she saw a liquor store, she stopped and picked up another bottle, so she always had one full one in her jacket. She couldn't get drunk, but she could keep everything from being so sharp that reality made her bleed.
Winter surprised her by coming early. She woke up under a tree one morning, and everything around her was white. She didn't realize for a long time just how cold she was, not until she was in a booth at a roadhouse bar that was definitely on the wrong side of the tracks. She ordered coffee and a bottle and the bartender brought her a hamburger even though she didn't ask. Before he left, she asked him where she was. He flipped a pack of matches at her.
It took her a while to focus on the letters, black against red, 'dried blood against fresh,' she thought. She ignored the burger in favor of coffee and liquor, and pulled the phone from her pocket, and for the first time, it occurred that someone must have magicked it so the battery never died. She pushed the send button twice, knowing it would dial the last number again.
Willow answered just as quickly this time. "Buffy, are you all right?"
"I'm in," she paused, trying to read the matchbook, "Sullivan, Illinois. If you want me, you better come and get me."
"Stay there, please. Is there a hotel or what?"
"Redline Bar." Buffy chuckled. "I'll be here until they throw me out."
"Please find someplace to stay. It's going to take me a while to get there." Buffy heard the quiet click of keyboard keys.
"I'll be right here," Buffy said and closed the phone.
The bartender finally left a pot of coffee there with her, and brought another when she emptied it. She had pushed the burger to the far side of the table, and he took it when he replaced the empty rum bottle. Buffy ignored everyone who came near the table. She drank steadily, hoping one liquid or the other would warm her or let her not care, but neither did.
Five and a half hours later, Willow entered the bar. She stood in the doorway while her eyes adjusted to the gloom, and ignored the appreciative looks and comments thrown at her. She saw Buffy. Willow walked to the booth and stood at the table, looking at her. "Buffy?"
"Hey, Will." Buffy slurred her words a little. She was as close to drunk as she had ever been able to get.
"Just gotta pay the man." Buffy finished the bottle before getting up. She pushed past Willow and walked steadily, if slowly, to the bar. "Gimme another," she said.
He nodded and went into the back. He returned with another bottle of the rum the small woman had been drinking all day. He had been expecting to find her passed out on the table, and was surprised that she could still walk.
"What do I owe you?" she asked him, and when he told her, she handed him one of the credit cards. He ran it through the machine, and she scrawled her name across the slip he handed her. She took the receipt and carelessly shoved it and the card into one of the front pockets of her jeans.
Before turning back to Willow, Buffy took a deep breath. She walked carefully to Willow, who waited near the door, and followed her outside. It was colder than Buffy remembered, and she shivered. Willow hovered, making sure Buffy got safely to her vehicle and into the passenger seat before going around.
It was still warm, but Willow turned the heat on high and pointed all the vents she could reach at Buffy, who continued to shiver as Willow got back on the road. She had filled the vehicle with gas just before getting to the bar, and had a bag of drinks and snacks in the console between the seats. Buffy opened the bottle and took a long swallow.
Willow ignored Buffy and focused on driving. There wouldn't be any stops between here and her home, although she planned to drive closer to the speed limit this time. After two hours, Buffy stopped shivering, and Willow turned the heat down a little. An hour later, Buffy finished the bottle, and a few minutes after, it slipped from her nerveless fingers to the floor. Willow reached over and checked Buffy's pulse. She was relieved beyond words to find it strong and steady, like it always was when Buffy slept.
Snow started to fall again while she drove, but Willow ignored it and pressed on. It was four inches deep by the time she turned into her lane, and she knew that neither of them would be going anywhere for a while. Willow parked in the garage and got out. She stretched before going to the passenger door. She leaned across Buffy and released the seatbelt.
The click woke Buffy. She jerked up and looked around wildly. When she saw Willow, she asked, "Are you real?"
Willow smiled. "As real as you are."
Buffy sniggered. "Then we're in a lot of trouble."
"Well, let's be in trouble in the house. It's a lot warmer there."
"Gotcha." Buffy swung her legs out of the seat and dropped to the floor. "Ow," she said softly before following Willow to the kitchen.
Buffy stood just inside the door and watched Willow move through the kitchen, starting a pot of coffee and checking something in the crock pot.
"Go take a shower. You smell awful."
Buffy did as she was told. While she was gone, Willow called Cleveland. "I have her," she told Dawn.
"Is she all right?"
"I don't know."
"Faith said she's coming to kick her ass."
"Tell Faith she'll have to wait." Willow was torn between relief at finding Buffy relatively safe and sadness at the condition she was in. Willow had never seen Buffy voluntarily unkempt. Her clothes were filthy and threadbare, and Willow smelled Buffy from three feet away. It frightened her that Buffy was so utterly hopeless. "I'll call you in a couple days."
"Tell her I love her."
"I will, Dawn. Love you."
"Love you, too, Willow."
When Buffy didn't reappear after half an hour, Willow went looking for her. She heard water running and let herself in the bathroom. Buffy was passed out under the stream of steamy water, leaning against the shower wall. Willow turned off the water and roused Buffy enough to dry her off and walk her across the hall and drop her in the bed. She covered Buffy and got an extra blanket for her. Willow left the door open when she left.
Willow ate and fixed a bowl of stew for Buffy. She took it and coffee to Buffy's room, only to find it empty. Willow cursed softly and put the bowl and mug on the dresser. When she turned around, she saw the closed bathroom door. She opened it to see Buffy, nude, hacking at her hair with a knife. Willow was afraid to approach her, and said her name softly.
Buffy turned, a hank of hair in one hand and the knife in the other. She looked angry and defiant. Willow ignored the attitude and looked at Buffy. She had been thin before, but she had nothing extra on her now. There were new scars, 'always new scars,' Willow sighed mentally. "You hungry?"
"No." Buffy returned her attention to the mirror and grabbed another handful of hair.
"Want some help with that?"
"Want me to leave you alone?"
Buffy's tone was much gentler this time. "No."
"All right," Willow said, and stood in the doorway and watched Buffy saw at her hair. When Buffy decided she was finished, she set the knife down on the vanity and got back into the shower. She stood in the hot water and Willow gathered the hair and put it in the trashcan. She debated taking Buffy's knife, but left it, and was waiting with a towel when Buffy stepped out of the shower again.
This time, Willow took her to her room. She put Buffy in the bed and stripped before climbing in beside her. Buffy still felt cold to the touch, and Willow again lay atop her. Buffy made no effort to keep her there this time, but she soon fell asleep. Buffy's shaking and whimpering made Willow want to cry. Whatever had happened since Buffy had run away wasn't good. Buffy looked awful physically, and if she were a betting woman, Willow would have taken odds that Buffy had been at the end of her rope for at least a month.
Still, she stayed with Buffy, touching her gently and making soothing noises that seemed to make no difference to Buffy, until she, too, fell asleep. Willow woke alone again, but she knew Buffy was still in the house. Willow dressed and went looking for her. She found her huddled under a blanket in the basement, wearing two pairs of socks and sweatpants, two shirts and a sweater. Willow remembered the last time they had been on the couch together as she touched Buffy's shoulder gently.
Buffy looked at her. "I feel like shit," she said hoarsely, "and there's not a damn thing on TV."
"I have movies," Willow offered. Buffy radiated heat, even through all the clothes, and Willow knew she had to have a fever.
"I just want to get warm," Buffy muttered.
"It's warmer upstairs."
"All right," Buffy answered, and moved sluggishly. She kept the blanket wrapped around her and shuffled toward the stairs. Willow stayed behind her. She was afraid Buffy would fall.
They stopped in the kitchen. Buffy collapsed into one of the chairs, and Willow fixed her a cup of mint tea and a small bowl of stew. Buffy made a face at both. She pushed the food around, and ate only a mouthful before wrapping her hands around the mug. She drank the tea while it was still steaming, and had trouble putting the empty mug on the table. Willow took it from her. "Come back to bed. I have an electric blanket."
Buffy nodded and stood up. She swayed unsteadily and Willow moved to her side. She put her arm around Buffy and half carried her back to her bed. She piled extra blankets on Buffy and turned the electric blanket on high. Buffy passed out within a minute. Willow placed one hand on her forehead. Buffy was burning up, and Willow hoped her Slayer healing would kick in soon and take care of it. Willow pulled her hand back and watched Buffy for a long time, wondering what had happened and what she could do to make it better.
For the next two weeks, Willow marked time in small intervals. Buffy's fever was alarmingly high for four days, and Buffy was completely unresponsive to her. During the first four hours, Willow called a friend who was both a witch and a doctor, and put an IV line in Buffy's left hand. She taped the hand to a small block of wood to keep the needle from moving around as Buffy shifted, and waited impatiently for the drugs her friend ordered to be delivered. Once everything was in place, Willow went to another room and let herself cry. After that, she moved restlessly between her office and her bedroom, returning each time Buffy cried out.
Buffy's dreams while she was sick were a disjointed combination of memory and fear. The few times she woke, she didn't know where she was, only that it had to be all right because she was surrounded by Willow, and she drifted away again without saying anything. After her fever broke, Buffy was exhausted and spent most of her time sleeping. Willow woke her to eat and bathe. The IV line came out after a week, when Willow was certain that Buffy would eat and drink enough to keep her alive. They didn't talk during this period, and Willow didn't sleep much. When Buffy woke at night, Willow was there, propped up and stroking Buffy's hair.
Willow kept the house warmer than she liked because Buffy was always cold, dressed in layers and layers and almost always holding a mug of something hot, even if it was only water. She began to eat more, for no other reason than to get Willow to stop nagging her about it. Buffy decided she hated being sick. She felt like she had during the cruci-test thingy on her 18th birthday, when Giles had stripped her of her powers. Every part of her ached, and she was so weak that walking from one place to another wore her out. She was grateful that Willow didn't crowd her, although she was always aware when Willow checked on her, even under the pretense of needing something at the other end of the house.
When she was well enough to sleep alone, Buffy left Willow's bed and moved into the room Willow set aside for her. Buffy liked her room. It was calm and peaceful in there, and the bed was comfortable. It was a good place to think, and the photos made her reminisce about her family. She still had no desire to see them, to face the gaping maw of their need for her. Facing Willow was hard enough, and Buffy had a hard time keeping her memories of Willow separate from her fantasies. Willow was different, but underneath, she was still the same girl who looked up at Buffy and asked whether Buffy wanted her to move from the bench in the high school courtyard. Sure, she was a little darker, but all of them were; there was no way not to be after thousands of nights staring down evil, be it supernatural or human.
Buffy knew that she and Willow had hours and hours of talking to do, and she hated the thought of it. Talking with Willow had been the easiest thing in her life for so long, and it had become the hardest since Warren murdered Tara. Willow still thought about Tara, Buffy knew. Willow had brought some of Tara's things along in her flight from the Hellmouth. There were photos that included the other witch in both bedrooms, and Buffy was certain that Willow had a treasure box somewhere with the doll's eye crystal and probably a few other things. Buffy had nothing like that from any of her ex-lovers. She had left the claddagh ring from Angel on the floor of his mansion, and the few things she had received from the others were abandoned long before the last showdown in Sunnydale.
It was easy to live with Willow. They were both comfortable with silence, and Willow waited for Buffy to be healthier before they tried to have the hard conversations they both knew were ahead. They took turns with cooking and household chores, and as Buffy regained her energy, she spent time in the gym. Sometimes Willow came and watched, as she had so often watched Buffy's workouts when they were younger. This time, though, there was no homework, no studying, just Buffy sweating and panting and Willow watching, noting each day's small improvements.
Once a week, Willow left the house to go to the nearest town to pick up her mail, run errands and stock up on groceries. As Buffy felt better, her appetite returned, and she ate prodigious quantities of food. Willow was happy to see it and happy to fill two carts with things that Buffy liked and a few that she tolerated. Thanksgiving approached, and they decided to do the turkey thing, together for the first time since their first year in college, when Chumash spirits attacked them and Xander was sick with every plague the Europeans brought with them.
While food cooked, Willow persuaded Buffy to call Cleveland and talk with everyone for at least a few minutes. It was clear to Willow that Buffy didn't want to talk to them, or think about them, and that Buffy would find a way to make her pay for those few minutes of her time. Dawn answered, and their conversation was easy, and the phone got passed to Giles, then Xander, and finally Faith, who told Buffy, "You better be gettin' in shape, cause I'm comin' down there to kick your ass from one side of Kansas to the other."
"Sorry about that," Buffy said, smiling.
"You're not sorry, and quit smirkin'. That was your freebie, B."
Buffy laughed bitterly. "Uh huh."
"Go eat your turkey. And don't make me come lookin' for you."
"I'll be right here." Buffy handed the phone to Willow and left the room. She heard Willow's conversations without listening to them, able to tell by her tone who she was speaking with.
When Willow finished her call, she found Buffy in the kitchen, sitting at the table with her hands wrapped around a mug of coffee. Buffy looked up at her. "You're going to make me do that at Christmas, aren't you?"
"I hate talking to them."
"Why, Buffy? They love you. They miss you. Well, maybe not Faith so much, but Dawn and Xander and Giles."
"Stop it, Willow."
"Stop what?" Willow's forehead contracted into confusion.
Buffy sighed and stared into her mug. "Sorry," she said softly.
Willow pulled a chair close to Buffy and sat in it. She put her hand on Buffy's forearm. "Why won't you let us love you?"
Buffy didn't answer. Willow felt her muscles tense and wondered what was coming.
"Buffy," Willow prompted.
Buffy let go of her mug and got up. She headed for the basement. Willow followed her to the gym, where Buffy got onto the stationary bike and started a steady pace. Willow asked her again, "Why won't you let us love you?"
Buffy closed her eyes and came to a stop. Images flitted across her eyelids, Merrick, Ford, Jesse, Jenny Calendar, every one of her classmates at graduation, dead children in the park, her mother on the sofa, Tara in a pool of blood on the upstairs carpet. "Because I'll kill you," she said finally, and got off the bike.
"You haven't. You can't." Willow reached out and caught Buffy's arm as she tried to pass her.
"Willow," Buffy pleaded.
Willow tugged on Buffy's arm and took a step forward. She wrapped her arms around Buffy. "We're here because of you." She stroked Buffy's hair, still rough and unevenly cut. Buffy stood stiffly, permitting Willow to hold her. She felt Willow's hands on her back and despite the layers of clothing, it felt like she was touching bare skin. Buffy wasn't sure whether that would be better or worse.
Willow continued to hold Buffy loosely, hoping the blonde would relax. It took nearly a minute before Buffy unfroze, and 30 seconds after that for her to put her arms around Willow's waist and rest her chin on her shoulder. They didn't talk, didn't move except for the regular motion of Willow's hand on Buffy's hair. Buffy ended the embrace suddenly, stepping away from Willow and sprinting upstairs.
Willow closed her eyes and took a deep breath. It was a start, what just happened between them, but they both needed so much more from each other. Willow believed that Buffy knew that, even if she wasn't ready to admit it. Willow counted to 20, then went upstairs. She was surprised to find Buffy at the kitchen table again.
They ate early and cleaned up, and went to opposite ends of the house. Buffy went from one piece of equipment to the next while she recalled every Thanksgiving with her mother and Dawn, their small rituals. The one during her senior year, before the Council's test, was the best. The last one together was the worst. Joyce was sick and Dawn was an enormous pain in the ass and Buffy burned the turkey so they had peanut butter sandwiches. Buffy didn't realize she was crying as she remembered that, and the Christmas that followed, and her birthday, nearly forgotten in the turmoil around Joyce and Dawn.
Buffy stopped what she was doing and leaned on the wall. She slid down it seconds later, as her legs refused to support her. She curled around her legs, bawling for all that she had lost. Willow was there within a minute, unable to leave Buffy alone when she was so distressed. Willow touched her gently and made soothing noises, and Buffy threw herself at the witch so hard it knocked both of them off balance, but Willow didn't let her go.
When she stopped crying, Buffy made no attempt to move away from Willow.
"What was that, sweetie?"
Buffy closed her eyes and inhaled a deep, uneven breath. "Thinking about Mom," she said.
"I miss her, too."
"Can we just go to bed?"
"Sure." Willow waited for Buffy to move off of her.
Buffy got to her feet easily and held out her hand for Willow. She didn't let go when Willow was up, but waited for Willow to lead her away.
In Willow's room, they took off their shoes and got under the blankets. Buffy didn't ask to snuggle up to Willow. She threw one leg across Willow's and rested her head on Willow's chest. Willow wrapped her arms around Buffy and waited. She didn't want to push Buffy any further than she had.
Buffy didn't disappoint her. After a few minutes, she began talking about her life with Joyce before they moved to Sunnydale, before she was the Chosen One, when she was just another vapid adolescent concerned only with appearances. Willow listened intently and didn't interrupt, and after nearly an hour, Buffy talked herself to sleep. Willow kissed her head and closed her eyes and wondered yet again how they would get through this.
In the morning, Buffy seemed better. When Willow woke, she smelled coffee, and beside the coffee pot was a note from Buffy that she was in the basement and would be up for lunch. Buffy smiled when she came upstairs shortly after noon, and went to take a quick shower before joining Willow in the kitchen. That night, and every night after, when she was ready sleep, she joined Willow in her bed and curled around her.
A week and half before Christmas, Buffy asked to use Willow's computer, and Willow gave her a laptop to keep Buffy out of her work area. Buffy spent hours shopping online, choosing gifts for Dawn, Giles, Xander, and Faith. She couldn't think of anything for Willow, no matter how hard she looked.
They didn't bring in a tree or decorate, and Willow skipped the Chanukah ritual. The only reason Buffy knew it was Christmas was that Willow dialed the phone and handed it to her, and sat nearby while she talked with each of her family in turn. Willow, who talked to them weekly, was brief. She hung up the phone and they sat on the couch and looked at each other.
"I tried to find something for you, Will, but nothing seemed right."
Willow smiled. "You don't have to get me anything, Buffy. I'm happy that you're here."
"Are you really?"
Willow nodded, the smile leaving her face. "I missed you so much. It was worse than being in England, because then, well, I knew I'd be coming home some day, and you'd be there, even if you hated me. But here, you didn't come and you didn't call or write and the only way I knew you were even alive, well, I knew you were alive, but Faith would track you down and then she'd call me and lie about how you were doing."
"I thought you'd just find me once you got your feet under you."
"I'll let you know when that happens," Buffy answered with a small smile.
"Why did it take so long, Buffy?"
Buffy looked away and took a deep breath. She looked back at Willow. "You sure you want to hear this?"
"I, just, I hated you, Will. You brought me back to Sunnydale and for what?" She twisted her hands, the only sign of her turmoil. "You brought me back and you just fucking ignored me. I know now that you were sick, getting sick with the magicks, but. You. Just. Left. Me. Alone. With a sister who was almost as crazy as I was and a huge pile of bills and the house falling apart around me. I'm still mad at you for that sometimes."
Buffy got up, and began to roam the room, then stopped and turned to look at Willow. "I thought things couldn't get any worse, but they always can, huh? And then you left me. Physically. I understand, but I needed you, and all summer I wanted to talk to you and Giles kept putting me off. He told me they didn't even let you have a computer there, so there was no way to contact you. And then when you came home," Buffy trailed off, remembering the shadow of her best friend. That was the only time she had thought of Willow as weak or frail, when she returned from England. "We didn't know how to talk to each other. I still don't know how."
"Just like this," Willow said softly.
"I hated you so much, Will, and I needed you even more, and now, I don't even know how to feel anything."
"That's not true, Buffy." Willow got up and crossed the room. She stood in Buffy's personal space. "Do you want to feel?" she asked huskily.
Buffy closed her eyes, remembering their last time together. Her breath hitched and she wondered why Willow always affected her so deeply.
"Do you?" Willow asked.
Both of them knew Willow was asking more than it seemed, and Buffy kept her eyes closed while she pondered what to do. Willow's nearness, not a new thing, caused long dormant nerve endings to awaken, and when Buffy inhaled, she was dizzy with Willow. It would be easy to give in to her, but would it be the right thing? Buffy opened her eyes and looked at Willow, standing so close to her. She was different, and the same, and Buffy knew that to say yes now would start into motion events that could never be undone.
"Yes," she whispered, and her world exploded at the first touch of Willow's lips, so soft and gentle on her own. She realized she was crying again and didn't understand why. "Willow?"
"Right here, baby." Willow put one arm around Buffy and wiped her tears away with the other hand.
"I promise." Willow kissed Buffy's neck just below her ear. "You either."
"Can't. Oh, god."
"Let it go." Willow said and pulled Buffy's head to her shoulder. Buffy turned into Willow's neck and inhaled deeply.
Things happened quickly after that, too quickly for Buffy to recall them in an orderly fashion later. Willow backed her up against the wall and held her there with frenzied kisses while they removed some of their clothing. Willow's hands were everywhere, but her mouth stayed on Buffy's. They left a trail of clothing through the house, removing the last bits before they climbed back into Willow's bed.
Buffy woke slowly. She and Willow were tangled together in the bedclothes. Buffy beat back the panic that rose quickly when she realized what had happened between them again. She wanted to believe that Willow had tricked her somehow, but knew it wasn't true. Buffy sighed, and Willow moved, pulling Buffy closer. One of her hands covered Buffy's breast, and Buffy looked at it, remembering all the ways Willow touched her the night before.
They would never be finished with each other, Buffy realized. Not just she and Willow, but the others, too. They were bound to each other by secrets and lies and betrayals, and the line of trust that allowed them to stand united against the things no one wanted to see.
"What time's it?"
Willow stretched against Buffy. She rolled out of bed, and Buffy realized that she had been warm only where Willow touched her. She slid into where Willow had been, soaking up her heat.
Willow returned moments later and settled herself beside Buffy. Buffy wasn't so desperately thin anymore, but was still far from prime. "Buff?"
"Hmm?" Buffy put her arm around Willow's shoulders.
"I missed you."
"I'm here now."
"Thank you." Willow pushed herself up and kissed Buffy, and Buffy responded by pulling Willow atop her.
Willow shifted against her and deepened the kiss. Everything else between them needed work, but not this. Their bodies knew each other, and held no grudges. Buffy's hands on Willow's back were cool and smooth, moving in unbalanced patterns while her tongue explored Willow's mouth.
Hours later, they got up to raid the refrigerator before returning to bed.
The next time Willow woke, she was alone again. She frowned and listened for Buffy, but heard nothing. She put on her robe and went looking. She found Buffy in the basement, beating on the heavy bag in the corner of the gym. Willow didn't talk. She knew Buffy would say something when she was ready.
Buffy hit the bag quickly, ignoring Willow for now. She was still conflicted about her, angry over her resurrection and Willow's failure to stop to the mutiny just before they closed the Sunnydale Hellmouth, but remembering how well Willow had taken care of her before that. She remembered all the small ways Willow had shown her love for Buffy, but the scales of her emotion for Willow remained precariously balanced.
Buffy turned away from the bag, stopping it without looking. "I still don't understand."
"Why it matters."
Willow looked at Buffy with confusion. "What?"
"Whether I live. Whether you know where I am. Whether I'm in on the fight."
Willow didn't move. She studied Buffy before answering. "It matters to me because I love you."
"How can you?"
"I just do."
Buffy turned back to the bag. "So you're not going to tell me about the prophecy."
"There's no prophecy, Buffy."
"There's always a prophecy, Willow." Buffy kicked the bag viciously, rattling the chains that supported it.
"I swear, Buffy, if there's a prophecy, I don't know anything about it. I don't talk to them about any of that stuff. I don't help them research."
"You said you'd get me fixed up so we could do what we had to do."
Willow remembered their conversation, the last one they had before Buffy ran again. "I wasn't talking about slaying."
"Yeah, you were. You told me how many baddies I'd killed."
"All we have to do is find a way to survive."
"Well, you got that figured out."
"Do you want really want to die?"
"I want it to stop. I don't want to hear their voices or see their faces or the hands reaching for me. I'm sick of their accusations."
"Who? Buffy answered mockingly.
"They can't hurt you."
"They do. Every second I'm awake." Buffy pounded the bag. "Right now. 'Why didn't you save me?' 'Why weren't you there?'"
"I can't," Buffy screamed, and increased the speed of her blows to the bag.
To Willow, Buffy's hands were a blur. She didn't know what to say. Buffy sounded schizophrenic to her, speaking of voices and visions, and all Willow knew for sure was that any doctor would involuntarily commit Buffy to the mental health ward.
When Buffy was exhausted, she dropped to the floor. Willow didn't get up. She crawled across the mats until she was close to Buffy. Willow took one hand and began to unwrap it. Buffy, chin on her chest, let her take care of one hand, then the other.
When she finished, Willow sat near Buffy, holding her hands. They were hot for the first time. She leaned forward and kissed Buffy's head. "Come upstairs with me."
Buffy nodded without looking at Willow. Willow got up first, still holding on to one of Buffy's hands, and Buffy got to her feet and trailed Willow through the kitchen, up to the room across from Willow's office.
They sat on the bed. Willow held one of Buffy's hands, and with her other, stroked Buffy's hair. Buffy stared at the wall, still breathing hard. She knew saying to Willow what she really felt would hurt her badly, and Buffy wasn't ready to take that final, irrevocable step. She tried unsuccessfully to calm herself; Willow's touch, once the most normal thing in the world, burned her like nothing else.
Willow considered her options while she watched Buffy. She couldn't decide whether Buffy was deranged or possessed or still just hurting from all that she'd been through. This room was neutral ground for them, and Willow hoped it would help Buffy regain her composure. "How can I help?" Willow asked quietly.
Buffy's head swiveled toward her. It was the last thing she had expected Willow to say, and it caught her completely off guard. "Let me go."
"I can't do that."
Buffy turned away from Willow again. She stared at the wall for a moment, then cocked her head as if she heard something. "You know the worst thing?" she asked, but didn't wait for an answer. "It's when they say it's all right, it wasn't my fault. Tara says that a lot. And Mom. And Ms. Calendar. How can they forgive me?"
"Buffy, you need to let them go."
"I can't, Will. I don't know how." Buffy slid off the bed to the floor, out of Willow's grasp. She curled around her knees again, hiding her face, and covered her ears.
Willow was frightened and uncertain what to do. She watched Buffy, seeing the small rocking motion, and took a deep breath to still her racing thoughts. She moved down beside Buffy on the floor and wrapped both her arms around her.
That was more than Buffy could bear. She struggled to get away, but Willow held on, refusing to let Buffy push her aside again. "Listen to me," Willow said sternly, and Buffy stopped, caught off guard by the tone of Willow's voice. "They aren't real. They can't hurt you." Buffy made a strangled sound, part laugh, part cry, and Willow repeated her words.
Buffy didn't answer. She resumed the rocking motion, quick, jagged, like everything around her felt, even Willow's arms around her. Willow swallowed her panic, wondering what to do to get Buffy out of this state. Not for the first time, she wondered how Buffy had survived so long like this, shattered and without a true reflection. She recalled how she had been when Tara died. Remembering that still brought bile into her throat, holding her love's body while her life drained away onto the floor. Once the rage was gone, she had been completely empty. Rebuilding herself had been the hardest thing ever. No one had been able to help her with that, not even Buffy.
At that realization, Willow let her go. Before getting to her feet, she kissed the top of Buffy's head. As hard as it was, she had to let Buffy decide. If she wouldn't, then Willow would decide for her what was best. It wasn't the relationship she wanted with Buffy, to be her caretaker, but she would do it, just as she had tended Tara when Glory scrambled her brain.
Willow walked across the hall and began to research. If Buffy was chemically unbalanced, they could fix that with relative ease. If it was a Slayer thing, a punishment for exceeding her expiration date or something equally stupid, they could fix that, too. Not long after the migration to Cleveland, when Willow was still looking for someplace to settle, she had found the Watcher's Council servers, still up and running someplace in London. The backup servers were in New York. Willow had laughed bitterly. Everything they had ever needed was online, all the books, every Watcher's diary, all the Slayer Codices, all scanned into cyberspace. Willow had sent the information to Dawn with instructions on how to set up her own server system with all the information and backups.
She began there, reading through page after page of ancient information, until her eyes burned. Then she turned around. Buffy remained on the floor across the hall, the rocking the only sign that she remained conscious. That image turned her back to her research.
Willow found only what she expected to find. No Slayer had lived as long as Buffy had. No Slayer had been brought back so many times. Many of the things they had done should have killed all of them. In the end, Willow left the mysticism of the ancient texts and moved into the science of the modern world, with magicks of a different kind. Buffy was depressed and hallucinating, and that led Willow to believe she was schizophrenic.
There was a third option, but Willow couldn't explore it without at least one other person to help. She would need an anchor, and some additional magical firepower, and the people she trusted to provide those things were all far away. Willow wondered how Buffy would react to company, even if it was only Faith and Dawn, though she suspected she would need Xander and Giles, too.
She thought about it long and hard, and decided that the worse case scenario was that Buffy would take off again. If that happened, Faith could run her down and bring her back.
Willow knew Buffy would hear her if she phoned, so she sent Dawn a lengthy e-mail message and returned to Buffy, who had remained in the same position for the hours Willow spent trying to figure out her best options. She knelt beside Buffy and put a hand on her shoulder.
Buffy stopped moving, but otherwise didn't acknowledge Willow.
"Please look at me," Willow said softly, and waited the excruciatingly long time it took Buffy to turn her face so that one hazel eye focused on Willow. "We need to eat something."
"I know, but you need to eat. You don't want to get sick again."
Buffy closed her eyes and tried to settle herself a little. Willow was right, she didn't want to lose what she had regained. "All right."
Willow stood up and held her hand out. Buffy ignored it and rose slowly. She grimaced while feeling returned to her legs, and when Willow left the room, she followed her.
They ate frozen dinners, neither of them ready to do anything more. It was dark outside, the new moon a sliver among the stars, too weak to illuminate the snow that surrounded the house. After they ate, Willow coaxed Buffy back to bed, and lay with her until she was deep in sleep.
Willow was restless. She didn't want to need their help any more than Buffy did, but when push came to shove, that was their family, and the only ones who wouldn't automatically assume they were both insane. She went to the computer, not expecting to have a reply, but one was there.
"If you need us to bring anything special, let me know tonight. We'll leave in the morning and should be there early in the evening," Dawn wrote.
Willow answered quickly, asking only for anything they had of Buffy's and a few herbs she was running low on. She finished the message with a thank you, sent it, and returned to bed. Buffy hadn't moved, and Willow wrapped herself around Buffy.
Willow woke alone again, and cautiously went through the house. She found Buffy curled up in her bedroom, and didn't disturb her. She hadn't been to town this week, and gathered what she would need for the trip. She left a note for Buffy by the coffee machine.
Willow bought double the usual amount of groceries, and added a little more for good measure. She picked up her mail before heading home. She noticed headlights behind her, and thought nothing of it until they turned up her lane. She stopped and got out of the car. She relaxed when she saw the Ohio plates. Faith stuck her head out the driver's window and said, "What the fuck are you doin' in the boonies?"
Willow grinned with relief. "This isn't the boonies, Faith."
"Coulda fooled me."
"I get more TV stations than you do," Willow said, and got back into her vehicle.
The garage was big enough for both Willow's SUV and the sedan holding the others, and they followed her in. After hugs all around, everyone grabbed some of the groceries and went into the house.
Before beginning the task of putting them away, Willow checked on Buffy. She was still curled in the bed, in the same position she had been when Willow left. She stifled her sigh and closed the door before returning to the kitchen.
Giles was sitting at the table, his cane leaning against it. Faith, Dawn, and Xander trooped in and out with bags. Willow began putting things away. She sent Faith out to the freezer in the garage with four bags of food to add to it, and put the rest in cabinets or the refrigerator.
That finished, she made a fresh pot of coffee and heated water for tea for Giles. She sent Faith and Xander after the luggage, and showed them to the three spare rooms, apologizing to Faith that she would have to sleep on the couch in the basement.
They gathered around the kitchen table with their drinks. Willow wondered why it was still so hard for them to talk to each other face to face, but Giles saved her. He cleared his throat and asked, "Where is Buffy?"
"In her room."
"What's goin' on, Red?"
"I don't know. I got it down to three things, and none of them are good." Willow glanced at Dawn. "Sorry, Dawnie."
"Willow, we both know she hasn't been right since she came back," Dawn said.
"So, spill, Will, what's the what?" Xander asked.
Willow drank some coffee before answering. "She says she sees dead people." Willow giggled involuntarily. "Sorry, I'm just tired and that came out, well, not wrong, but, not how I meant it. She says they follow her, and talk to her, and it's just more than she can take. I did some research before I called you guys, and it could be she's schizophrenic. Or possessed or haunted somehow. Or it could be some freaky Slayer thing. I couldn't find anything, but that doesn't mean it's not."
"What do you need from us?" Giles asked.
"I thought you guys could help me figure out what's going on, and maybe we can fix it." Willow paused again. "I don't know what else to do, and I'm afraid we're going to lose her again."
"Tell us everything," Giles said. "Start at the beginning."
"The beginning of what?" Willow asked.
Faith got up from the table. "After we left Sunnydale, I don't know where you went off to, Red. All I know is that Buffy didn't come with us."
"She was worn out," Giles said. "I tried to get her to come with us, but the only response she gave was a thousand yard stare."
"Yeah, I couldn't get her to wake up when I said goodbye," Dawn added.
"I needed some time to figure out what had happened with the spell and all the magicks," Willow said. "That's why I didn't go with you. I couldn't keep doing it night after night. All that energy scared the hell outta me."
"She came to Cleveland," Faith volunteered. "It was, um, we hadn't been there that long, so maybe it was the end of winter."
Everyone looked at Faith. "You didn't tell us that," Dawn said.
"She wasn't gonna stay, so I didn't see any reason to make you hope," Faith told her. "We sat in a cemetery and talked, and I gave her all those letters you guys piled up, and she went on her way." Faith glanced at Willow, who nodded, and Faith continued. "I kinda lied to you guys. I know you thought I was out lookin' for Slayers, but I was usually checkin' up on B. Red asked me to let me know how she was, so I'd call and tell her B was fine."
"I wondered about that," Giles said.
"You lied to me, Faith," Willow said evenly.
"What, I was gonna tell you she was a freakin' basket case? She was alive, and goin' through the motions."
"Stop it," Xander said. "Just tell me what's going on now."
Willow looked at her oldest friend. She wondered why he opted to keep the eye patch, and filed that away for another conversation. "She showed up here at the end of summer, and I thought she was done running, but two nights later she was gone again." Willow looked at Dawn. "That's when I kinda flipped out and called you."
Dawn smiled at her. "'S'allright. I'm glad you did." Dawn turned her glance to Faith. "I sent Faith to look for her."
"I found her," Faith said. "That girl can cover some ground, lemme tell you. She was almost 400 miles from here when I caught up to her, and she thought I was kiddin' when I said she couldn't keep on. I got her down, and tied her up with that Wonder Woman rope and put her in the car and headed home." Faith shook her head, remembering the long ride. "She kicks like a fuckin' mule. Bruised me through the seat. When we got home, I put her in that first room by the back door, untied her and gave her something to eat. We got the healers in there, but the next morning, she pulled a fast one and took off."
"She certainly was stronger than the healers indicated," Giles said, and Faith shrugged.
"She called me," Willow said. "She wouldn't tell me where I was because she was afraid I'd send you after her," she continued, looking at Faith.
"Good thing you didn't," Faith growled. "I'm still pissed about her little trick."
"How'd she end up back here?" Xander asked.
"I got a call from her in October. Remember the early snowstorm we had? It was that day. She called me and said she was in a bar in Illinois and," Willow stopped for a moment, not wanting her voice to shake. "She said if I wanted her to come and get her." She looked down, remembering Buffy in the bar, then at each of them in turn. "I never saw her like that. Never. I've been trying to take care of her since then, but it doesn't matter what I do." Despair entered her voice. "I've done everything I can do by myself, and it isn't enough."
"Like what?" Xander asked. His last memory of Buffy was her standing at the edge of the crater that had been their hometown. He hadn't been able to identify the emotion under the look on her face then; he was just vaguely glad they had made it away, and fleetingly grateful that he had repaired her house for the last time.
Dawn got up from her chair and bent down to hug Willow. "We'll fix it," she said softly.
Giles looked away from them, but Xander stared as he tried to take in everything. "Like what?" he repeated.
Willow looked at him, trying to decide which of them to protect, and finally decided it didn't matter. "She'd been drinking for months, Xander. Not eating. Not bathing. Just wandering around and drinking."
"Buffy doesn't drink."
Willow looked at him, and Faith saved her from saying something harsher than she wanted. "Yeah, she does, Xan. Smokes sometimes, too."
Xander looked confused. "We're talking about Buffy."
"She's not like she used to be."
"None of us are," Xander said, still struggling.
"She wants to die," Faith said, "and she can't do it herself."
Xander, Dawn and Giles looked at Faith, then to Willow for confirmation. Willow nodded. "She tried I don't know how many times. Something from the spell that made the potentials into slayers supercharged Buffy and Faith. I'm pretty sure it's the only reason she's still here."
Dawn's and Giles' eyes widened as they looked at Faith. "You didn't tell us," Giles said after a few seconds.
"Tell you what, oh, by the way, 'I'm damn near immortal now'?"
"Faith, those things are important," Giles chided her.
Faith shrugged. They could sort all that out later. She was certain Giles would make her his favorite new research project when they returned home. "What's important is helping B get her shit together."
"What do you need us to do, Will?" Dawn asked.
"Can we talk about that after dinner?"
"Sure. How can I help?"
Willow smiled at Dawn, then looked at Faith. "There's an Xbox and a Playstation downstairs."
"Awesome." Faith headed for the basement, Xander on her heels.
Dawn looked to Willow, and she smiled again. "Go on, it's all right. I'll yell when dinner's ready."
Dawn headed down the stairs behind them. Willow got a package of ground meat from the refrigerator and started it browning in a deep pot. Giles cleared his throat and Willow turned to look at him. "More tea?" she asked.
"That would be lovely, thank you."
She prepared another cup for him, then returned to what she was doing. When the meat was cooked, she added tomato sauce, whole canned tomatoes, one small can of paste, and different herbs and spices. She mixed it all together, turned the heat down and sat at the table. "Ask away," she said to Giles.
"How are you?"
He caught her off guard. She had been expecting questions about Buffy, not his gentle concern for her wellbeing. "I don't know," she said after a few seconds. "Worried, mostly," she added in a near whisper.
"How bad is she, really?"
"Remember how she was when she first came back?" When Giles nodded, Willow said, "She's a thousand times worse. She can't see any kind of future, and she looks, I don't know what it is, desperate, maybe."
"What have you done?"
Listened to her. Talked. Got her to eat and sleep regularly. She looks a little better. She was skin and bones and a dozen new scars." Willow stuffed that memory down. She was close to her breaking point, and suddenly understood Buffy's panic at her concern. "No magick."
"Was it worth it?" Giles asked.
Willow knew exactly what he was referring to, and answered without hesitation, "Yes."
"Then we must convince her of that."
Excited voices drifted up from the basement.
"I just, if I was sure she was just sick, you know, in a way doctors could fix, but I'm not. We've seen so much, maybe she really is haunted, or possessed." Willow got up and stirred the sauce. "I need to try and get her to join us. Could you get Xander and Faith to put the leaf in the table, please? It's in the closet over there, and we'll need the room."
Willow went to Buffy's room, closing the door after she entered. She turned on the small light on the dresser, just enough to see her way. She sat on the bed on the side Buffy was facing and put her hand on Buffy's shoulder. "Hey."
"We have company."
"I heard." Buffy continued to answer in a monotone.
"They really want to see you. Have dinner with us, and then you can come back here."
"Why should I?"
"Because I'm asking you."
"I don't want to see them."
"I'm sorry, honey. They won't be here long. Just come out for dinner, half an hour at most. Let them see you."
"I'm not going back there," Buffy said flatly.
"You're not going anywhere," Willow promised. "That's why they came here, so we can stay home." When Buffy didn't answer, Willow prodded, "They won't hurt you."
"They all ready hurt me plenty."
"Not tonight." Willow moved her hand up and pushed Buffy's hair away from her face. "If it's too much, you can come back here." She leaned down and kissed Buffy's cheek. "I'll totally make it worth your while."
"Really not interested."
That stung, but Willow didn't let it show. "They'll just come in here."
Buffy huffed. "Fine." She sat up. "I guess I'm supposed to pretend that everything is fine."
"No." Willow pushed the same bit of hair away from Buffy's face. "Just show yourself."
"They came all this way, guess they can see the freak show before they leave."
"First, you aren't a freak show. Second, well, I'll think of that later."
"You do that," Buffy said, and got up. She left Willow sitting on the bed as she left the room.
Buffy went directly to the kitchen. Only Giles was there. Buffy frowned when she saw him. He looked old to her, and moved slowly as he got up to greet her. "Buffy! So nice to see you."
"How are you?"
"Been better. You?"
"Fine, thank you."
They stared at each other, both wondering what to say next. Faith, Xander, and Dawn charged up the stairs, falling into each other when Faith suddenly stopped. "B, I owe you a whuppin'."
Dawn separated from the pile and moved toward Buffy. Her heart fell when she saw her sister, so different now from the woman she had known before. "Buffy?" Dawn said uncertainly.
"Dawn," Buffy answered.
Dawn quickly closed the space between them and hugged Buffy tightly. She was aware of Buffy's bones, still prominent in many places. "I missed you so much."
Buffy's arms went around Dawn from habit, but she didn't say anything, and Dawn stepped away.
After he and Faith added the leaf to the table, Xander approached Buffy. "Hey, Buffster."
"Long time, no see."
"Been a little busy."
"So I heard. Do I get a hug or what?"
"Whatever," Buffy answered, and tolerated his embrace.
Dawn went to the stove and checked the pot. She stirred it and took a taste before replacing the lid. Willow entered the kitchen moments later and got a large pot. She filled it with water and added salt before putting it on the stove. She put a lid on it and turned on the burner.
Willow opened one cabinet and got out a stack of plates. Dawn took them from her. Willow pointed out the cutlery drawer and sent Faith downstairs for wineglasses and a couple bottles of wine. Xander and Dawn set the table while Buffy watched. Willow prepared a bowl of salad and put it on the table. She got a variety of dressings from the refrigerator.
Dinner was strained. Buffy refused to be drawn into conversation, and whenever any of them looked at her, she stared back defiantly. As soon as the meal was finished, she got up and returned to her room, closing the door loud enough that all of them heard it. They looked around the table, one to another.
Faith was the first to speak. "She looks like homemade shit," she said.
Willow took a deep breath and dropped her head. Buffy had done exactly as she had asked. She had hoped Buffy would engage somehow with one of them, but she had rebuffed every overture.
Cleanup was quick, and afterward, they gathered around the table again. "We have much work to do," Giles said.
"Can we start tomorrow, Giles?" Xander asked.
"Why wait?" Dawn said.
"I think we'll do better after a good night's sleep."
"Xander has a point," Giles admitted. He pushed himself up. "I, for one, am ready to turn in."
Willow got up, too, and showed Giles to his room. When she returned to the kitchen, only Faith remained. "What makes you think she can get over this?" she asked.
"She has to."
"Why? World's fulla Slayers now."
"I don't care about the world. I care about her."
"You're puttin' a lotta faith in us."
"I lost one lover. I'm not losing her, too."
"You tell her that?"
"Maybe you should." While Willow thought about it, Faith added, "Night, Red."
The house was too noisy to Buffy. Xander and Giles snored and video games beeped and jangled in the basement. Buffy looked at the clock. It was just after 4 a.m., and she heard an unfamiliar phone ring one time. The video game noises stopped, and someone came up from the basement. It had to be Dawn, going to bed, finally.
Buffy turned onto her back and stared at the ceiling. She didn't want to feel anything, but didn't know how to stop it. A flood of memories ran through her, and the sick feeling she had at seeing Giles, looking like time had caught up with him, and Xander, the eye patch still in place, had been the worst. Faith was, well, Faith, someone Buffy loved and hated and one of the two people she could still tolerate.
And Dawn. Dawn was an adult now, all the gangly, jangly energy replaced by something almost zen. She was beautiful, and Buffy wondered whether if she looked at Dawn and closed her eyes, she would still glow green.
She needed to move, but mostly she needed some silence and a place to be alone. All of those places were occupied now. She rolled out of bed and went to Willow's room, all the habits of being the Slayer back in the forefront now, as she moved from shadow to shadow, avoiding the floorboard that squeaked.
Buffy stood beside Willow's bed and watched her. Willow's eyes opened and she looked up at Buffy, then raised the blankets in an invitation. Buffy didn't respond, just continued to look at Willow until she asked, "What, honey?"
"Make them leave, Will. I promise I'll be good."
Buffy's tone, so desperate, forced Willow to swallow back tears. She sat up and scooted to the bedside. "They won't be here long," she said softly. She reached tentatively for Buffy, and took her hand when she didn't back away.
"I can't breathe."
"It's all right, Buffy." Willow stood up and put her arms around Buffy.
"Did you see them?" Buffy asked. "It's my fault."
"No, baby, it isn't your fault."
"Make them leave, please. Please. I promise I'll do whatever you want, Will."
Willow felt Buffy become more and more tense, and struggled to maintain control of her emotions. "Stay with me, Buffy," she said softly, and reached back with one hand to throw the covers aside. She sat down and moved back in the bed, pulling Buffy along.
Buffy went with her unwillingly, and let Willow pull her close. Her body wasn't enough to drown out the other noises in the house, and Buffy left after only a few minutes. She went down to the basement, stopping on the bottom step when she saw Faith's face reflected in the dark television screen.
"Why're you up?" Faith asked.
Buffy didn't answer. She walked through the room, to the gym and closed the door, hoping that Faith would get the message and leave her alone. Faith watched her, assessing Buffy's condition. She was even skinnier than she had been last time Faith saw her, but Faith still wasn't certain which one of them would win a fair fight. She ignored Buffy's not so subtle request and joined her in the gym.
At first, Faith stood and looked around. Willow had built this room for Buffy, she could tell. There was regular gym equipment, but there were other things, too: a pommel horse, uneven bars, low and high balance beams and the huge empty area. It was better thought out than the workout area in Cleveland, and Faith made a few mental notes for changes to be made when they returned.
Buffy hadn't bothered to wrap her hands before beginning to pound the heavy bag. It swung away from her with each blow, then back into fists that were all ready bleeding from split knuckles. Faith didn't say anything. She caught the bag at its arc and held it away from Buffy.
"Go away, Faith."
"Nope." Faith took one step forward, returning the bag to its neutral position.
Buffy struck it again, and Faith held it in place. Neither of them said anything as Buffy beat her hands into a bloody mess. Soon, each strike squelched on the leather and drops of blood flew. When Faith could stand it no longer, she shoved the bag into Buffy, knocking her from her feet.
Buffy scrambled up immediately and charged Faith, who caught her and held her immobile. Buffy struggled against her, but at Faith's command to stop, she did, surprising them both. Buffy's harsh breathing echoed in Faith's ears, and she recognized the look in Buffy's eyes, having seen it in her own on so many nights. "Ah, shit, B," she said softly.
"Don't you dare," Buffy growled.
"Don't feel sorry for me," Buffy said.
"Oh, pity me," Faith mocked her. "Why the hell would I feel sorry for you? You got everything you ever wanted."
"You don't know what I want."
"You keep telling me I don't know about you, B, but I do. Every time you open up a little, I feel it." Buffy struggled against Faith, who let her go. "You got the same choices you always had. Suck it up, B."
"Fuck you, Faith."
"I think Red would get pissed about that," Faith smirked, and ducked the fist that flew at her face. "Temper, temper," she admonished.
The door opened and Buffy spun around to see Dawn. "I heard noise," she began, and stopped when she saw Buffy, spattered with blood from her session with the bag. "Damn it, Faith," Dawn said to the younger Slayer.
"I didn't do it," Faith said softly.
"C'mon, Buffy, let me fix you up."
"Go away, Dawn. I'm fine."
Dawn laughed at that. "You're a worse liar than Xander."
"I'm fine," Buffy repeated.
Dawn ignored her words and crossed the room. She grabbed one of Buffy's hands and examined it. It was covered in drying blood, but there was no injury apart from a tiny rip on one knuckle, and that closed while Dawn watched. She raised her eyes and looked at Faith, then at Buffy, and released Buffy's hand.
"What's going on?" she asked softly.
"Go away," Buffy repeated. Having Faith on top of her was bad enough; adding Dawn to the mix made her throat close, as if the two of them were taking in all of the air in the room. When neither of them moved, Buffy walked between them, and disappeared from their sight on the stairs.
Dawn looked at Faith. "What's going on?" she repeated. Faith shrugged, and Dawn asked, "How bad is she?"
"On a scale of one to insane, I'd go with insane," Faith said, her tone too casual for Dawn's liking.
"I'm not a Slayer," Dawn told her, "but I can make your life miserable anyway."
Faith laughed. Her day was complete. She'd fought with Buffy, and her boss had threatened her. If she could get Giles to yell at her in the next 12 hours, she'd consider it a bonus. She felt Dawn's glare and forced herself to look contrite. "She was beatin' on the bag." Faith cocked her head and swore softly when she heard an exterior door open and close.
She pushed past Dawn and grabbed her jacket on the way. She put it on while climbing the stairs, and zipped it closed while she followed Buffy's footprints in the snow. Faith began to jog, and caught up to Buffy in less than a minute. She put her hands around Buffy's waist from behind and lifted her. Buffy resisted, but Faith had her arms pinned to her sides and somehow avoided her kicks.
"We're not doin' this again, B," Faith said. "No more runnin' away, no more tryin' to hide. You got a problem with me, deal with me, but don't you dare do this to her again."
"I'm going for a walk," Buffy said through clenched teeth.
"Nobody goes for a walk in the middle of the fuckin' night, and besides, I ain't chasin' your stupid ass all over the country in the middle of fuckin' winter."
"Put me down."
"Nope. We're goin' back to the house. It's too damn cold out here for anybody 'cept Eskimos."
Buffy tried another tactic. She went limp. Faith took advantage by tossing Buffy into the air and catching her over her shoulder. She ignored Buffy's fists pounding her back. When they got back to the house, the kitchen was lit up. Willow was dressed, and opened the door to let them in. As soon as the door was closed, Faith dumped Buffy onto the floor. "That's two I owe you," she told Buffy and went down to the basement without saying anything to Willow.
Willow looked at Buffy, glad to see that she had dressed warmly before going out. Buffy met her gaze. "I went out to get some air."
"You can understand why Faith would think otherwise," Willow said.
Buffy got up and stripped off her winter gear. She left it in a pile on the floor and got a cup of coffee. She leaned against the counter, her fingers wrapped around the mug, inhaling its warmth. "I don't understand anything anymore."
Willow looked at her, but Buffy wasn't there. She had the look that told Willow she was listening to something only she could hear. After a few moments, Buffy put the mug down and left the kitchen. Willow picked up Buffy's coat, hat, gloves, and scarf, and returned them to the closet. Then she went down to the basement.
Faith was in the gym, cleaning Buffy's blood from the bag. "Leave it, Faith. I'll get it later."
Faith continued her work. "I didn't want you to see this."
"I see it all the time."
"How long has she been like this?"
"As long as she's been here," Willow sighed. "We'll have a couple good days and then something sets her off. I never know what, or how to bring her back."
Faith dropped to her knees, scrubbing at the dried blood on the mat. "I woulda let her go a long time ago."
"That's the difference between us," Willow said softly.
"Nah, the difference between us is that she loves you." She finished and stood back up. "Dawn saw her."
"She all right?"
"Dawn's always all right." Faith yawned, and Willow took the hint.
"I'll see you later," she told Faith, and headed back upstairs.
Willow got a cup of coffee and sat at the expanded kitchen table. Having all of them here was no easier for her than it was for Buffy. Like Buffy, she tolerated Faith; the others made her feel varying degrees of guilt. She thought back to Buffy, standing beside her bed, offering promises they both knew she couldn't keep, and got up. She went to Buffy's room, surprised to find it empty, then to her own. There was a lump under the covers, but Willow checked anyway. It was Buffy, hiding under the blankets. She looked back at Willow with wide, dark eyes. Willow leaned down and kissed her forehead, then lowered the blankets over her again.
She returned to the kitchen. Xander was sitting at the table. "Hey, Will."
"Hey, Xan. You're up early."
"It's about the only time I can get anything done without somebody insisting on 'helping' me."
"Want some breakfast?"
Willow went to the refrigerator and got out bacon and eggs. She turned on the oven, got a baking sheet from the cabinet, and foil from another cabinet. She covered the sheet with foil and arranged the package of bacon on it. Her motions were methodical, and Xander watched her, frowning. He knew they'd changed, they'd all changed, but this woman was far from the Willow he had known all his life.
"What's the plan?" he asked.
"I don't know yet. I want to talk to Giles first."
"You should talk to Dawn, too."
"I meant, with Giles. She runs everything, keeps track of the research and stuff."
"I will," Willow repeated. "Scrambled all right?"
Willow cracked eggs into a bowl. She added seasoning and whipped them.
"Anything you need me to do while I'm here?"
"I dunno, replace a light switch, put in new windows, you know, the usual stuff."
"I don't think so, but if you find anything that needs to be done, feel free. Tools are in the garage."
Xander got up and got a second cup of coffee. He pulled plates down from the cabinet, and returned the egg carton to the refrigerator. He got out ketchup and jam while he was in there, and put them on the table. He put bread in the toaster but didn't push it down. Before returning to his seat, he got cutlery for both of them.
"We'll need another setting," Willow told him, and he did what she asked without questioning her.
Moments later, Giles joined them. Xander got up again and filled another mug with water. He put it in the microwave, and dropped a tea bag into it before putting it in front of Giles.
Willow put plates in front of them moments later. She got one for herself and sat at the table.
"Good morning, Willow."
"This is lovely, dear. Thank you so much."
"Did you sleep well?" Giles asked.
"Not really," Willow answered, but didn't elaborate.
They ate silently, and when they finished, Xander cleared the table and began cleaning up. Giles looked at Willow, and she finally looked back at him.
"Tell me how you came to believe what you think about Buffy," he said.
Willow took a deep breath and ordered herself not to babble. "She told me she sees ghosts, and that they talk to her."
"Does she know who they are?"
"Did she tell you who?"
"Yes." Willow took another deep breath. "Tara," she said quietly, and both men heard in that one word all of the feelings Willow still had for their dead friend. "And Mrs. Summers and Ms. Calendar." Willow saw the pain in Giles' face at the mention of both of those women.
"Did she tell you what they said?"
Willow nodded. "She said they forgive her, and she doesn't understand why."
Xander slid back into his seat and looked from one to the other. "Why would they haunt her?"
"I don't know that she's haunted," Giles said.
"So what, she's crazy?" he asked.
"Perhaps," Giles answered thoughtfully. He looked at Willow again. "I don't suppose you've been able to get her to a doctor."
"No. I'm afraid they'll lock her up." Willow watched the remains of her coffee as she swirled it around the bottom of her mug. "She would never forgive me for that."
"No, I don't suppose she would."
"I keep hoping it's something easy," Willow said, and couldn't keep her voice from breaking. "Something like, Slayers aren't supposed to live so long, but if they do, here's how to fix them."
"Buffy is the longest-lived to date, but I've never read about anything like that." He finished his tea. "I'll ask Dawn to work on it. She's the best researcher I know, apart from you," he told Willow.
She nodded and got up. "I didn't get a lot of sleep last night. Make yourselves comfortable and call me if you need me."
As soon as she was out of sight, Xander asked Giles, "What do you think it is?"
"I don't know." Giles removed his glasses and put them carefully on the table. "None of the things Willow describes point toward anything specific. It is entirely possible that Buffy is mentally ill."
"That would explain a lot, even before now."
Giles took a few moments to consider Xander's comment. "I don't believe so," he said finally.
Willow closed the bedroom door quietly. She had forgotten how exhausting it was to deal with people on any other than a superficial level, and wondered whether she had made a mistake in calling them here. She undressed and got back into her pajamas and crawled under the covers with Buffy.
Buffy was still awake, and latched onto Willow. "Please make them leave," she asked again.
Willow couldn't take anymore. She began to cry, silently shaking against Buffy until the first sob came out. Buffy's arms tightened around her, and they stayed huddled under the blankets while Willow cried herself to sleep.
When she woke, Buffy was rocking them both in the same tight back and forth motion she used to comfort herself. Willow stayed curled under Buffy's chin, uncertain what to do. Buffy kissed her head, and Willow raised her face. Buffy's next kiss found her lips. "Please," she whispered.
Willow didn't know what Buffy was asking for, but kissed her anyway. Buffy's kisses were hungry and possessive, her hands cool against Willow's skin where she had pushed Willow's pajamas aside. A knock on the door made them both freeze.
"Willow," Dawn called. "I think I found something you should see."
"Be there soon," Willow answered, and kissed Buffy again. She got no response this time, and brought her hand to Buffy's cheek. Buffy's hands remained still, one between her shoulder blades, the other just past the waistband of her pajamas. "Stay with me, baby," she said softly, and kissed Buffy again.
Buffy's hands went back into motion and she returned Willow's kiss because Willow had chosen her, and would make them wait. Buffy unbuttoned Willow's top, and Willow pushed Buffy's shirt above her head, trapping Buffy's arms in it for a moment. While Buffy freed herself, Willow removed Buffy's underwear and her own, pushing them and the pajama pants away in one motion.
She moved on top of Buffy, pressing their breasts together while she kissed Buffy again, and pushed her fingers into Buffy's tangled locks. There was another knock at the door, but Willow ignored it, even as Buffy stilled beneath her.
Willow put her mouth close to Buffy's ear and whispered again, "Stay with me, baby."
Buffy made a soft noise in reply, and slid one hand between them to squeeze Willow's breast. She locked her attention onto the redhead above her, wanting her world to contain only the two of them. If Willow could do that, she would do whatever Willow asked, no matter how difficult. She could swear allegiance to Willow, but not to herself, and not to the world that continued to move because of her.
Willow hoped she had remembered to lock the door. Anything Buffy wanted came before whatever the others needed from her. Still, she didn't want them coming in, even though there was nothing to see; they were still under the tent of bedclothes, holding in the heat they generated. Willow pushed herself up a little so she could look at Buffy.
Buffy looked back, steadily meeting her eyes for the first time in what felt like forever, and half a second later, pulled her down into another kiss.
Willow got out of bed later because she knew she had to. Buffy had slipped into uneasy sleep after they made love, and Willow hesitated to leave her. She quickly showered and dressed, and stuck her head under the blankets to kiss Buffy's cheek and tell her she'd be back soon.
She followed noise to the basement. Giles was reading in one of the recliners. Dawn had a laptop open on the bar, and Xander and Faith were playing Mortal Kombat while talking trash to each other. Willow went to the bar and stood beside Dawn. "What did you find?"
"You aren't gonna like this," Dawn said quietly.
"Please tell me there's not a prophecy."
Dawn nodded and Willow whimpered. At the sound, the other three whipped their heads around, what they were doing forgotten for the moment.
"I can't tell if it's all ready been fulfilled or if it's new," Dawn continued.
Willow remained frozen, all eyes on her. She blinked slowly, wondering whether she should just do as Buffy asked, send them all away and let them tend to the world and its needs. Then she could rejoin Buffy in the warmth of her bed and let it fall down around them. "No," she said softly.
"It talks about the rebirth of the Valley of the Sun," Dawn continued, as if she hadn't heard Willow.
"No," Willow said, a little louder this time. "No prophecies, no more destiny. That's not why I asked you to help."
"But," Dawn said.
Willow cut her off with another firm, "No. If that's all you have, then go home, or to Sunnydale or wherever, but leave her out of it."
"But," Dawn said again.
"I don't care," Willow said harshly. She spun on her heel and walked away from them, choking on the realization that eventually she would return to hear what Dawn had found, if only to find the loophole that would keep Buffy safe at her side.
"What the fuck?" Dawn said softly. She turned on the stool and looked at the others, but they were looking at the stairs. Dawn rolled her eyes. There was always drama, and those three always froze at it, afraid that they would have to become involved somehow. She reached into her computer bag and pulled out a pad and pen. She began copying the words from the screen. Behind her, the others returned to what they had been doing.
Willow went into her room and made sure the door was locked. She shed her clothes quickly and slipped under the covers. Buffy was warm to the touch for a change, except Willow noted with a quick intake of air, her feet, now wrapped around Willow's calves. She pulled Buffy to her, pleased when Buffy came willingly. "You awake?" she whispered.
"Need anything?" Buffy shook her head, and Willow felt it more than saw it. "You should eat soon," Willow said.
"Will they be there?"
"They're downstairs right now."
"I can't stand seeing them," Buffy said, nearly whispering.
"I know, I'm sorry," Willow answered. "I thought they could help."
"Will you send them away? Please? I swear I won't leave you."
Willow closed her eyes against the tears that wanted to come. Buffy was so frightened of the others, except Faith. Willow was fairly certain that Buffy was angry at Faith. That was the normal state of things between them, one of them always upset with the other for something only they knew.
"Just a few more days," Willow said soothingly, deciding that moment that things would be resolved by years end. If it meant she and Buffy had to leave, they would. Willow had Buffy's passport. They could go anywhere, and the others would never be able to find them again. She felt Buffy's tremors and decided that she could find a way to live with Buffy however she acted. If she was a little crazy, who could blame her? If there were ghosts, Willow would learn how to see them, to take some of that burden from Buffy.
Buffy began to rock against her again, and Willow tightened her arms around Buffy. "I've got you. I won't let go," she said quietly. It took a long time for Buffy to become still against her, and longer still for her breathing to even out into sleep. This time, Willow remained with her.
When Buffy woke, Willow's arms were still around her, her hands moving in small circles. Everything was fine in those first seconds after she woke, and she kissed Willow's shoulder before looking up at her. Willow kissed her gently. "We need to eat," she reminded Buffy gently.
"Not hungry," Buffy answered childishly.
"You need to eat anyway."
Buffy sighed. "I know." She rolled away from Willow's side, onto her back. "I'll be there in a little while."
Willow got out of bed. Buffy listened to her dress, the opening and closing of the door. She finally got out of bed and scurried to the bathroom attached to Willow's bedroom, jumping impatiently into the shower before it reached her favored temperature. As much as she wanted to keep Willow's scent on her, she saw no reason to confirm anything the others might believe. Plus, appearances were important. If she looked fine to Dawn and Xander and Giles, and didn't talk about what she thought or saw, they would accept that there was no problem. They would return to their lives and leave her here with Willow, and if they were lucky, leave them there forever.
Buffy wrapped in towels and hurried to her room. She closed the door and dried herself and began to dress. Socks, thermal pants and shirt, another pair of socks, sweatpants, a turtleneck and finally, a sweater. She combed her hair without looking, not caring that tangles broke off with each stroke.
Before opening the door, Buffy took a deep breath. She stepped into the hallway and listened. It sounded like only Willow in the kitchen, the others in the basement. She went to the kitchen, looking around carefully. Willow stood at the stove making grilled cheese sandwiches. She occasionally stirred a pot of what Buffy hoped was tomato soup on another burner.
"I asked them to leave us alone," Willow said. She turned off a burner and poured soup into two wide, shallow mugs. She transferred the sandwiches to a plate, and Buffy removed it from her hand. They sat at the table, and in the time it took Willow to eat her sandwich, Buffy ate three and finished her soup.
"Thank you," Buffy said.
Willow smiled at her although her forehead frowned. "You're welcome." She pushed her unfinished soup away. "They'll be up in a few minutes."
The basement door opened, and they both looked at Dawn, who stopped and looked uncertainly from one of them to the other. Seeing them together in the kitchen reminded her of times she'd rather forget. "We're ready," she told Willow.
"I thought you were coming up here."
"Oh. We thought you, um."
"I'll be there in a minute," Willow said.
"I think you both," Dawn began, but stopped at Willow's glower. "All right," she said, and returned to the basement.
"I'll go with you," Buffy said.
"You don't have to." Willow returned her attention to Buffy.
Buffy picked up their mugs and moved to the sink. While she washed them, Willow gathered the other things and brought them to her. Willow watched Buffy wash the dishes. She couldn't think of a way to keep Buffy from coming with her, and deep down, she didn't want to face the others alone.
Buffy dried her hands and turned to Willow. She recognized Willow's thoughtful look, and broke her train of thought with a kiss on the cheek. "They can't be any worse than the Council," she said.
"They are the Council, Buffy."
Buffy frowned while she tried to reconcile her mind to the reality that Willow was correct. The people downstairs, her family, were the new Council of Watchers, Buffy and Willow merely their pawns. "At least they pay us," she said.
Willow grinned and cautiously teased Buffy. "Couldn't tell it by your wardrobe."
"Who moved nowhere near the Mall of America?"
Willow laughed. Buffy's words, her tone, her wry smile, were a throwback to a time when their lives were easy, when they studied in cemeteries and held hands in the sunshine. Willow offered her hand and Buffy took it. Their fingers interlaced as they took the first step toward the basement.
Willow climbed on a barstool and Buffy stood beside her. Before the others could speak, Willow said, "Our house, our rules. First," she looked at Dawn, "I don't want to know what you found. Second, we're going to do a spell, and you're going to help or you can wait here. We'll decide what to do next after that."
Willow turned to Buffy. "It won't hurt. It's just so I can see what you see." She took Buffy's hand and pulled it against her chest. "All you need to do is be still. Can you do that for me?"
"Willow?" Buffy asked uncertainly. She hated magic, had hated it ever since Willow brought her back. It was one of the things between them that confused Buffy the most. She remembered applauding Willow's magic use, encouraging her to practice. She had wondered many nights, staring at the sky without seeing it, what would have happened if she had been indifferent to Willow's interest.
"I promise, Buffy." Willow held Buffy's palm against her chest, knowing Buffy felt her heartbeat. "I need Faith and Dawn to help, and the others if they want to."
"Not," Buffy said. She didn't want Xander or Giles any closer to her than they were at this moment. Or Dawn, for that matter, who had stood up and told Buffy that it was her house, too, and Buffy had to leave. "Can we do it ourselves?"
"I need the others."
"Just Faith," Buffy whispered, blind to their looks. Faith had been as low as Buffy was, and no longer feared those things about herself. Whatever Faith saw, she would keep to herself. Buffy felt a lingering responsibility for Dawn, and wanted to protect her from that darkness.
Willow looked at Buffy for several seconds. "I'll try," she said quietly, and slid down from the stool, still holding Buffy's hand. They went into the gym, and Faith followed a few seconds later. She closed that door and went through the open one on the other side of the room.
When she closed the door, it became the safest place Faith had ever been. She looked at Buffy and Willow, standing in the center of the room. A blue-green circle shimmered around their feet, and it spread outward while Faith watched. Willow held out her hand and Faith carefully put her own in it before stepping into the circle.
"Damn, Red," Faith said in a low voice.
Willow ignored her. "All you need to do is lay down with your head in my lap," she told Buffy in the same low tone she had used to persuade Buffy to permit this. Willow sank cross-legged onto the floor, and Buffy followed her down. She put her head in Willow's lap and looked up at her. "I love you," Willow said, and leaned down to kiss Buffy.
Buffy closed her eyes and concentrated on Willow's lips against hers. Her body fell away, and she felt like she was floating. She vaguely heard Willow's instruction to Faith, and felt Faith's fingers at her temples. Then, she forgot everything.
It seemed like nothing was happening, but it was one of the greatest rushes Faith had ever felt. She sat behind Willow, her arms around the redhead's waist to reach Buffy. Their hearts fell into the same rhythm, and Willow hummed something so old that Faith knew it in her bones.
When she opened her eyes, they were surrounded by people. Faith didn't recognize most of them, only the two blond women closest to Buffy. She waited for Willow to take the lead.
Willow couldn't say anything for a long time. She looked at Tara's face, and that bit of her heart she thought healed burst open again. She worked to control herself, to stay in sync between the Slayers, but choked on Tara's name anyway. Willow was glad when Faith took over for a second, challenging them, "What do you want?"
"What's ours," came the whispers of dozens of voices.
"She's not yours, not yet."
Willow stepped up. "Mine," she said firmly. She moved her hand under Buffy's sweater, between her breasts, and held it there. She looked first at Tara, and her tone changed, softened. "Mine."
"What's hers is yours," Tara answered.
"Then leave her alone."
Tara's smile, at once gentle and cynical, preceded her answer. "She doesn't let us rest."
"She can't let us to rest," Jenny Calendar said. Her head remained at the angle Angelus left it, but her eyes were the same warm brown Willow remembered, and she looked away, into Joyce Summers' blue eyes, the same eyes that followed her from Dawn's face.
"It's true, dear," she said, looking down at Buffy. "She never liked to get rid of anything."
Willow struggled with the spell again, to keep the power balanced. She felt Faith's steady strength behind her, and Buffy's heartbeat pulsed against her palm, up her arm, to her own heart and back to Faith's.
"She knows where she needs to go," Tara said.
"Come back," they all whispered, and Willow came out of the trance with a start. She stared down at Buffy, sleeping, and stroked her cheek. Her other hand remained over Buffy's heart.
Faith didn't move except to breathe. Something had happened, and she had missed it. The pulse in Buffy's temple was strong, but Willow was breathing unevenly. "Willow."
She twitched again, shocked into full awareness by Faith's use of her name. "We're all right," Willow answered.
"The hell we are. What the fuck was that? Who were those people?"
"Not people, not any more," Willow answered. After a few seconds, she said, "You can leave now."
"Not until you tell me what's goin' on," Faith said firmly.
Willow's composure cracked and she laughed hysterically for half a minute. She drew a deep breath and tried to gather her scattering thoughts. "I don't know exactly. Something not good." After a few more seconds, she asked, "What does the prophecy say?" Willow asked.
"Dunno. I don't pay attention until Dawn's talking about what to kill."
Willow concentrated on Buffy again. "She needs to rest."
"So do you."
"You, too," Willow answered.
"I'm good," Faith said, meaning it for the first time in longer than she wanted to remember. Willow's workroom relaxed and energized her. Her fingers remained at Buffy's temples, and Faith realized she was feeding some of that energy into the other Slayer. "Rest," she whispered, and Willow leaned back against her. They would stay there as long as it took.
Two rooms away, Dawn continued to work at the computer while Xander lost the same game over and over. Giles read, and each time the house made a noise, the three of them raised their eyes to the door. Giles tired first, and went up to bed, and Xander followed soon after. Dawn waited two more hours, trying to find the original prophecy to avoid translation problems, before she, too, went up to sleep in a strange bed.
Faith enjoyed the nearness of Willow and Buffy. Except when she fought, she didn't let anyone touch her. She had given up sex after Robin left, and funneled that drive into fighting. Like Anya, she enjoyed talking about sex, mostly because it made the others uncomfortable. She had liked Anya, Faith remembered. She usually hated to reminisce; so much of it made her angry or sad beyond words. She was safe here, and unlike Buffy, memories alone couldn't hurt her.
They stayed there through the night. When Buffy woke, her eyes met Faith's over Willow's shoulder. Buffy nodded, and Faith shook Willow gently. Willow woke immediately and bent down to kiss Buffy. Faith scooted away from them.
Buffy ended their kiss and got up slowly. She pulled Willow up and steadied her. She felt good, and its familiarity was a relief. Again, she looked over Willow's shoulder at Faith. Faith nodded this time, and went to the door first. Buffy gave Willow a tiny push, and they filed from one empty room to the next.
Dawn's laptop was still open on the bar, her note pad beside it. Willow went there first and quickly absorbed all the information Dawn had found. She felt the Slayers waiting impatiently behind her. "Go get breakfast or something," she said, and they went quietly up the stairs.
Willow backtracked through Dawn's research, then went over all of it again. Her experience filled in the blanks Dawn had missed, and Willow stood completely still, uncertain what to do next. Her heart pounded. Everything was clear to her. She took a deep breath and found her center before joining Buffy and Faith in the kitchen.
The others wandered in soon, drawn by the smells of coffee and food. Willow let them eat. Her stomach was in knots, and she stayed beyond Buffy's reach so her apprehension wouldn't transfer.
She would tell Buffy alone, Willow decided. Faith finished eating and stretched before getting up to put her plate in the sink. "I need some sleep," she announced, and left them. Buffy stood up next, and joined Willow near the counter. "Us, too," she said, not caring what the others thought. She pulled Willow along to the bedroom.
They stripped and got under the covers. Willow turned on the electric blanket for Buffy and they settled against each other. Buffy yawned. "Did the spell work?"
"Am I crazy or what?"
"You're not crazy."
"I'm not likin' your tone."
"There's a prophecy," Willow said slowly.
"I knew it."
"I didn't know, I swear."
Buffy looked at her, and saw the truth in her eyes. "I don't want to know about it now. Just shut up and kiss me."
"I love you so much," Willow whispered.
"We'll make it better," Willow promised, and Buffy nodded. Willow kissed Buffy gently, and Buffy pulled Willow as close as she could.
Faith wanted to sleep, but couldn't. She still felt connected to Buffy and Willow, and ached with wanting to be touched. She closed her eyes, and that made it worse, because her imagination showed what they were doing with each other. She heard footsteps on the stairs, and sat up, grateful for the distraction.
Dawn sat down beside her. "What went on in there?"
"There had to be something else. Buffy looks so much better."
"You know I don't know shit about magic."
"You don't have to know to tell me what happened," Dawn said patiently. She had been dealing with Faith long enough to understand how to get information from her.
Faith sighed when she realized Dawn wasn't going to leave the subject. "Red asked to see what B sees, and we did."
"Well?" Dawn demanded.
"People. Lots of people. All talkin' at her all the time."
Faith shrugged. "I didn't recognize most of them."
"Who did you recognize?"
Faith sighed again. "Your mom and Tara."
At the mention of those women, Dawn felt 14 again for a moment. "You saw my mom? What did she say?"
"She said Buffy's a packrat."
Dawn choked a small laugh. "Not any more."
"Guess not." Faith looked at Dawn. "What's the prophecy?"
"I'm still not sure. It has something to do with the Sunnydale Hellmouth, but I haven't been able to get any further. That's why I came down. I'm not bothering you, am I?"
"No." Faith was glad for Dawn's distraction. It distanced her from the back and forth between the couple upstairs. Faith felt one particularly torrid moment, and thought to herself that she would have to have a talk with Willow about how to shut it off.
"Is she ever going to come home?" Dawn asked.
"She is home," Faith answered.
Giles and Xander stayed at the kitchen table even after Dawn left. "Giles," Xander said to get his attention.
Giles looked up from his tea. "Yes, Xander."
"What's going on here?"
"I truly don't know."
"Buffy doesn't want us here."
Giles sighed and removed his glasses, using his habit to buy time before answering. Finally, he agreed with Xander. "No, it appears she doesn't."
"So why are we staying?"
"Are you so eager to abandon her again?"
"I didn't abandon anybody," Xander said defensively.
"Convenient memory lapses," Giles murmured, and looked at Xander. "If you were Buffy, would you want to see us?"
"Yes," Xander answered without hesitation.
"Whaddya mean, why? We're family."
"Do you wish to see your family?"
"This is my family," Xander said firmly.
"Then god help our enemies." Giles replaced his glasses.
"If I were Buffy and I saw us coming, I would turn and go another way."
"She did that, and look what it got her."
"She woulda been better with us."
"Do you truly believe that?"
Giles looked down into his mug, trying to read the message in the leaves settled at its bottom. "I don't think so," he said slowly, remembering when he first became their watcher and guardian. The three of them were children, by turns rambunctious and petulant, always racing from one crisis to another. Buffy, now a shadow of the woman she was supposed to be, wanted nothing to do with him, and he didn't blame her one bit. He knew, too, that Willow was Buffy's only hope, and he would have prayed if he thought any entity gave a damn what he wanted, that Willow could succeed where Buffy alone had failed.
"I said, why not?" Xander repeated impatiently. "We wouldn't let her be self destructive."
Giles just looked at Xander, wondering at his blind spot about Buffy. "When did we ever let her do anything? Or prevent her from doing exactly as she wished and the consequences be damned?"
Xander wavered as he tried to recall any instance where Buffy had done anything except what she wanted, and came up with only one. He knew he should feel ashamed for what he had said to Buffy that night, but didn't. He always spoke his mind to her, knowing as he did so that hers was made up.
"Guys, this is messed up." Dawn said from the doorway. She balanced her laptop in her hands, and Faith trailed her to the table. Dawn put the monitor so Giles could see it, and she and Faith stood at either side of him.
"What am I looking at?"
"It's from the Slayer Codex, the first one," Dawn told him.
"Ah." Giles looked at the pages, but it was in one of the languages he didn't speak, so he looked up at Dawn.
"What does it say?"
"We didn't close the Hellmouth," Willow said from the hallway. Buffy was beside her. They were both completely dressed, holding hands.
Buffy looked at Willow curiously as they entered the kitchen. "We saw it," she said.
"We didn't close it," Willow repeated.
"And an earthquake wasn't enough to do the job?" Faith asked.
"No." Willow sighed.
"What do we have to do?" Buffy asked. Just before Willow said the words, Buffy heard them.
"Go back to Sunnydale."
"Oh, fuck me," Faith whispered while they all stared at Willow.
"You're not going," Willow said. "None of you. You can stay here as long as you want before you go home."
"I'm coming," Faith said firmly.
"No," Willow said.
At the same time, Buffy said, "Yes."
They looked at each other, Willow frowning a little. "Are you sure?" Willow asked.
"Hell, yeah," Faith answered, while Buffy nodded. Faith left the kitchen, taking the stairs two at a time to the basement to grab her things before the other two snuck off without her.
Willow looked at Dawn. "You did good, Dawnie. I never would have found that."
"Willow, you can't be serious. Let us take care of it."
"I can't do that, Dawn," Buffy answered. "I can't let anyone else die because I didn't do my job."
"Buffy, no," Dawn insisted. She reached for her cell phone, but Giles stopped her from removing it from her pocket.
"The prophecy says she must close the Hellmouth," Giles guessed.
"They, actually, but it isn't clear who the other person is," Willow said.
"We're covered either way." Faith reappeared, holding her bag and coat. "Three's always a lucky number."
"You're going now?" Xander asked incredulously. "Buffy hasn't said three words to anybody, and now you're taking off?"
"Be careful," Giles said.
Willow nodded, and she and Buffy left the room, Faith behind them.
"We on a deadline?" Faith asked.
"Aren't we always?" Willow gave Faith her keys and got in the back seat with Buffy. Her courage wavered as Faith drove down the lane, and Willow lay down and put her head in Buffy's lap. Buffy began to stroke her hair, and wished for the heat to come on. They had been warm in bed. Buffy felt herself beginning to thaw as she realized that Willow wouldn't leave her again.
Once they were on the paved county road, Faith looked into the rearview mirror. Buffy looked back at her while her hand continued to move in Willow's hair.
"We shoulda known, B."
"My bad," Buffy offered.
"Nobody's fault, just a mistake. We were running for our lives," Willow said. She didn't want either woman accepting more blame. They had taken so much all ready. Faith was better at hiding her guilt than Buffy, but they needed to stay focused on what was to come, not what had been.
"Mine, too," Faith said. "I shoulda sent a team out to check it. They're at all the other hellmouths, even the dormant ones."
"It doesn't matter," Willow said. "We'll close it and then we can get on with our lives."
"How do we close the hellmouth?" Buffy asked, her voice nearly a whisper because she feared she all ready knew the answer.
"There's a spell," Willow said, not wanting them to worry yet. She closed her eyes and wondered exactly what would happen if they turned around and got back in bed and pretended they'd never heard of these things. If she let someone else do the dirty work, would she have Buffy for that much longer?
Willow's hair was soft against Buffy's hand, softer still when it trailed down her body behind Willow's kisses. Buffy wondered why she had to be chosen again, and saw the answer when she looked at her free hand, coated in blood. It was always about blood, who had it and who needed it.
Faith drove and pondered her life, why it led back to Sunnydale, and whether she could leave it for good this time. It was the darkest place in the world to her, darker than Boston, darker than prison. Every time she went to Sunnydale, she got her ass handed to her on a platter with a side order of getting the shit kicked outta her. She had wanted to hurt them so much when she woke from her coma and found the world changed, and had been surprised to find she had limits to her wanton destruction. Instead of seducing Willow, and Faith wanted her badly, she had fucked Riley, figuring that was the next best way to hurt Buffy.
They hadn't been on the road long when the sedan pulled up behind them, lights flashing and horn blaring. Faith sighed and pulled over. They always had to have this final scene. Faith got out of the car, but Buffy and Willow stayed in the back seat.
Buffy heard the discussion clearly. It wasn't so much a discussion as Dawn telling Faith she had dispatched a team and Faith ordering her to call them back.
"It doesn't say you have to do it," Dawn insisted.
"Now," Faith answered impatiently. "You do some more research. It'll talk bullshit about the slayer divided and the witch balanced between the dark and the light, and it'll be almost too late because you won't listen."
Buffy closed her eyes. This same discussion had played out so many times over the years. She wanted them to skip the drama so she could do her job and let whatever had to happen, happen. She pushed a button and the window lowered. Buffy yelled, "We're wasting time."
Faith nodded. "Go home, Dawn." She turned and came back to the SUV and returned to the driver's seat. She put it in gear and pulled back onto the road before buckling her seatbelt. The next time she looked in the mirror, the road behind them was empty.
They didn't talk for a long time as Faith drove west, knowing by instinct where to go. She looked in the mirror and saw Buffy's closed eyes, and checked to make sure the other Slayer was sleeping before asking Willow, "What's the deal with the spell?"
"We'll talk about it later," Willow said. She was deep in her own thoughts, trying to find a way to meet the requirements of the prophecy and have all of them survive the encounter when something occurred to her. "I thought you said you didn't pay attention to prophecies until it got to the part about killing."
"Oh, please. What else would it say? That's who we are, isn't it?"
"So, you wanna hear my guess?" Faith kept her voice low, unwilling to disturb Buffy.
"We need to find a way for the slayer to be whole, and you need to get back on the right side of the fight."
"All right, idea girl, how do we do that?"
"That's your department. I just kill things."
Willow smiled. "I have some ideas, but we need to talk about them together. Let me know when you're tired and I'll take over."
"We can switch when we stop for gas. Won't be long." Faith shifted in the seat, glad that Willow had purchased the deluxe model.
They stopped within an hour. While Willow filled the tank, Buffy and Faith hit the restroom. Buffy relieved Willow at the pump, and when the tank was full, joined she and Faith in the convenience store. They left with a bag each, mostly drinks and junk. Faith got in the back seat this time, and shrugged when Buffy joined her there.
Willow drove this time, the cruise control set to keep them in traffic. Buffy and Faith ate and drank, but didn't talk. When Faith began to fade out, Buffy pulled her down so that her head rested in her lap as Willow's had done before. They joined hands, bloody palm to bloody palm, and while Faith slept, Buffy stroked her hair. She and Willow looked at each other in the mirror. Buffy couldn't read her expression, but there was no mistaking the affection in her voice when she said, "You need to sleep, too."
Buffy nodded, and turned up the heat before putting her head back and closing her eyes.
Each time they stopped, they changed drivers. The front passenger seat remained empty. The next time she was in the back, Willow made Buffy lay down. Willow looked out the window, seeing nothing. She hoped they would arrive before Dawn's team. Willow wasn't certain that Buffy could handle the carnage they would find if they were late.
Just before 11 a.m., Faith pulled off the road. They were just outside the last town before Sunnydale, having passed half a dozen warnings about the road ending. She turned and looked at Willow. "What now?"
"Hotel, motel, bed and breakfast, anything."
Faith nodded and pulled back onto the road. Buffy looked at Willow. "Why can't we just go and do it?"
"There's something we need to do first."
"After," Buffy said firmly.
"Something else," Willow answered, keeping her face neutral.
Faith pulled in at the office of a Motel 6. Willow jumped out and got them a room. When she returned, she directed Faith to the rear of the building. There were no cars back there and no one nearby to hear what they were going to do.
Willow led them into the room and locked the door. She pointed at the one queen size bed, and Faith and Buffy sat beside each other. Their expressions were identical, and Willow allowed herself a small smile.
"Faith had a point," she began, "when she was talking to Dawn about the prophecy. It does say pretty much what Faith said it would. The second part has to do with how we close the Hellmouth. We can't go in without a plan, and we can't go in with the slayer divided."
"I don't think we really have time for a heart to heart," Buffy said with a small frown.
"We need to take a little time now. You two need to work it out. I don't care how. I'm going out for a while to do what I need to do, and when I come back, there better be two healthy, happy slayers."
Buffy got up and crossed the room. She stood inches from Willow. "What are you saying?"
Willow didn't answer. She flooded her link between both women with the love that supported her relationships with them, then kissed Buffy quickly and backed out of the room.
"What the fuck?" Buffy asked, and tried to open the door, but Willow had sealed it.
"So, B, where you wanna start?"
Buffy turned to Faith. "You knew," she accused her.
"I guessed. I'm not as stupid as you think I am. "
"I never thought you were stupid."
"Coulda fooled me." Faith stood and stretched and removed her jacket. She walked to the door, where Buffy stood, and put it around her shoulders. She took two steps to the heating unit and fiddled with the buttons and knobs until it was blasting like a furnace.
"That was a long time ago."
"Eleven years, two months and eight days. More or less." Faith sat on the bed again.
Buffy looked at her for the first time since they entered the room. "What?"
"Since we met in the alley outside the Bronze," Faith clarified.
Buffy smiled tightly as she recalled that encounter. "You were such a showoff."
"Yeah, I know. I just wanted your attention. I wanted you to like me."
"I did like you."
"Not enough to let me into your precious Scoobies."
"Faith, you were in from the first minute. You kept pulling away from us."
"Whose life were you lookin' at?"
Buffy's smile was real this time. "My own, mostly. Occasionally, I'd stick my head out to check on Will or Xander, but not often."
"Truth at last," Faith said.
"Ok, now that we've established that I was a self-centered bitch, can we move on?"
"Sure. You wanna talk about Allan Finch?" Faith offered her hands, again coated in dark, wet, blood.
Buffy showed her own hands, the same blood on them. "We did that together."
Buffy's eyes lowered into slits. "You have no idea how bad you pissed me off with that little trick."
"That was the idea, B. Needed to get your attention somehow."
"I just got him back."
"He never loved you. He never could, not even with a soul."
"How would you know?"
"Look at me. I know love when I see it. Red loves you. Dawn loves you. Giles loves you. Xander loves you. Hell, even I love you. You were just an obsession to him."
"Faith," Buffy warned.
"Does it hurt?" Faith taunted. "Knowin' that you gave him what was supposed to be someone else's?"
Buffy growled, but Faith sat on the bed and smirked at her. "You don't know anything about it."
"I know all about it, B. Talk is cheap, and pretty words are cheaper. He has lots of 'em."
"They helped you."
Faith shrugged. "He said what I needed to hear. But when it came down to it, where was he? Sittin' in the dark, wantin' what he could never have."
"Just like you."
"Turtle," Buffy said, the first thing that came into her head. "Do you remember him?"
"Yeah. Cartoon queen here, remember?"
"I remember you and Xander being crazy over those turtles named for painters."
"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles."
"Them. The world was 10 minutes from ending, and you two were swapping comic books."
"The world's always 10 minutes from ending."
"What do you think Will's doing?"
"Getting right with herself." Faith frowned for a second. "You're not allowed to die this time, got it? If one of us has to, it's my turn."
"All you dyin'll do is destroy her. That what you want?"
"No." Buffy finally moved from the door and stood in the stream of hot air. "All of us or none of us."
"Deal." Faith held out her hand.
Buffy didn't hesitate. She took two steps forward and grasped it.
The connection between them was different this time, and they looked from their hands to the other's face, confusion obvious. Buffy drifted forward, and Faith tried not to panic. "B?" she whispered.
"It's all right," Buffy answered just before her lips touched Faith's for the first time in years. She kissed her gently, and stood up again. She squeezed Faith's hand, warm against her own.
Faith's free hand moved to her lips. "Why did you do that?"
Buffy shrugged. She didn't know why, really. It felt like what she was supposed to do.
Willow felt the shift between them, and pushed a little harder. She didn't need them to resolve everything, but she needed the power their joining would create. She couldn't pull from the earth, as she had learned in England. They were too close to the Hellmouth, and the temple she had once raised, and her own darkness was too close to the surface. Seeing Tara's shade had done something to her. Tara's beautiful face and the ugly hole in her chest, and the thought that her love wasn't able to rest had nearly undone her again.
Willow knew Tara was her weakness, and always would be, just like Buffy was her strength. Long ago, she thought that role to be Xander's, but she had known for sure after they defeated Adam with the enjoining spell that it was Buffy, who had been the center of her life for nearly all its second half. Xander was nothing more than an afterthought now, and Willow knew that even if they came through this, she wouldn't see him again. He belonged somewhere else, he and Dawn and Giles, and she and Buffy were meant to be far from them. Faith was the wildcard, and Willow wasn't certain how they would deal with all the ripples from their actions today, but they would find a way.
She thought about Buffy naked in her bed, and Faith dancing with abandon, and pushed all those feelings down to them. They could both be so dense sometimes, and stubborn, refusing to see what was right in front of them.
Buffy and Faith, their hands still joined, looked at each other. Buffy realized that she would have to make the first move again. She thought of Willow, and would have sworn she felt the touch of Willow's hand on her cheek. Then she leaned down and kissed Faith again.
Faith still hesitated. She wanted Buffy. She had always wanted Buffy. But she didn't want to wreak any more havoc in her life, and was afraid of what Willow would do when she found out. "B, wait."
"No." Buffy pushed Faith down and straddled her on the bed.
Faith's body, separate for so long from any other, screamed at her to pull Buffy down and kiss her like there was no tomorrow. 'Might not be,' she thought just before Buffy kissed her the third time, and Faith's body made the decision for her.
Willow smiled as she felt it begin. She was as close as she could be without watching, palms flat on the door as she drew in all of the energy they created. When they finished, all three were panting and dripping with sweat. Willow hadn't been so charged up since creating all of the slayers. Her eyes glowed white as she opened the door and entered the room.
Buffy and Faith looked at her from the mess of the bed. When Faith saw Willow's eyes, said, "Holy shit."
"Will?" Buffy said.
"I'm all right," she reassured them, and sat in the chair. "Get dressed. We need to be there before dark." Willow closed her eyes, but saw them anyway, glowing steadily, blue next to green, swirled together in the spaces between them.
Faith drove three blocks and pulled into the gas station convenience store. She worked the pump while Buffy went in and grabbed drinks and snacks. Buffy got into the front seat this time. She passed Willow a bottle of Gatorade®, then opened Faith's soda and handed it to her. Before getting her own drink, Buffy ripped open three bags and aligned them on the console so they all could reach them.
Faith parked 100 feet from the edge of the crater. They sat, looking across the sinkhole, seeing the wavering images of the past. They got out and stood in front of the vehicle, the ticking of its cooling engine the only real sound other than their breath. Buffy and Faith looked to Willow, who stood between them.
Willow blinked, trying to clear away the lives she saw moving in the air before them. It was Sunnydale on fast forward, from the time the first human was drawn there by the seductive dark promises of the Hellmouth. She turned to Buffy and kissed her passionately, then did the same to Faith. They joined hands and began what felt like the longest walk of their lives.
Buffy and Faith made certain that Willow didn't stumble as they moved down through the debris. None of them tried to look much further than a few steps ahead. They felt the Hellmouth pulsing with the power it had gathered, and around them, Sunnydale recreated itself again and again.
They stopped at the same time in the exact center of the hole, and Buffy and Faith wordlessly began to move away bits and pieces of the Hellmouth's trash. Willow called them back to her side, and with a few words cleared everything so they could clearly see the seal. It was barely holding. Power leaked from its edges, bleeding into the air around them as they aligned themselves around it.
'Blood,' Buffy thought, and she and Faith offered their palms to Willow.
Willow brought Buffy's knife from her pocket and silently blessed it before drawing the sharp edge across each of their hands in turn. They turned their palms to the seal, and Willow began to chant in a language as old as the earth itself.
Buffy and Faith stood firm, their eyes glued to Willow. They both wondered whether this was how she looked when she did the spell that changed the world. Willow was surrounded by a brilliant glow, her hair streaming back in a wind that affected only her.
Had they looked around them, they would have seen lives coming and going, beginnings and endings, but never the one that caused the destruction that surrounded them, as if the Hellmouth refused to admit its defeat. But they didn't look. Their eyes remained on Willow, one hand on each of her shoulders, the other dripping blood onto the seal while their fingertips brushed.
Willow's voice rose as she recited the spell for the third and final time. She screamed the last lines, and her head snapped back. White light, as bright as a supernova, flowed from her through the Slayers and onto the seal. None of them saw the reversal of times past, as the memory of Sunnydale skated past them and back into ground, like water going down the drain. Willow looked at the sky, seeing the constellations as Tara named them and feeling the rush of magic as powerful as that that first drew them together.
The energy flowing through them reached its zenith and exploded. The three of them tumbled through the air.
Buffy felt light and free. The ghosts she had collected fell away from her as she rose above the Hellmouth, their final words lost in the concussion that blew them upwards. Faith's thoughts were disjointed, barely words, but her body knew what to do. She grasped both Buffy and Willow firmly, remembering what she and Buffy had agreed.
They slammed into sand, and lay there trying to catch some air. The familiar sound of surf was the first thing Buffy was aware of. She remembered it from long ago, and it had seemed so important then. She opened her eyes, and took a quick inventory. She wasn't injured, and she wasn't dead. Willow was beside her, Faith on Willow's other side.
Willow was still, too still. Faith, too. Buffy said their names, but neither moved. Before she panicked, she watched their chests rise and fall. Faith sat up half a minute later and looked at Buffy. "Did we win?"
"Don't know." Buffy shook Willow gently. "Will, baby, you need to wake up. Say something."
"I never wanna do that again," Willow groaned.
"Did it work?" Buffy and Faith asked in unison.
Faith looked past Buffy. "We got company."
Buffy looked over her shoulder. She didn't immediately recognize any of the group advancing on them, and looked back to Faith. "They yours?"
"Yeah." Faith wanted to get up, but didn't have the strength yet.
When she was close enough, Kennedy tossed a phone onto Faith's stomach. "Call Dawn," she ordered.
Faith spun the phone into the ocean. "You don't tell me what to do, Junior. Back the fuck off," she growled, as the others got closer. Faith struggled to her feet. Buffy was right behind her.
Willow sat up. Her head pounded, and her vision swam and she thought she might vomit. "Buffy."
Buffy instantly forgot about the others and knelt beside Willow. "Right here, baby."
"I wanna go home."
"You got it." Buffy picked her up and looked at Faith. "You coming?"
"In a minute."
Buffy nodded, and walked toward the road. The sea of slayers parted to let them through, looking agape at the legends who moved uncaring past them. Before Buffy was out of earshot, Faith was giving orders. She jogged up behind them two minutes later.
"I'm leavin' a team here, just in case," Faith said. She put a hand on Buffy's shoulder, the other on Willow's knee, and fell into step with Buffy. "How's wonder witch?"
"I'll live," Willow answered. "But could you keep it down until then?"
Faith grinned, and Buffy smiled. The car was where they left it, and Faith opened and closed the rear door so Buffy and Willow could get into the back seat. She turned off the road to avoid the vehicles that had carried the others there, and eased onto the concrete as soon as she could.
She drove north, up the coast road until she she saw the Marriott at Laguna Hills, and pulled in there. While Buffy and Willow waited, Faith went in and got the biggest suite they had. It took a few minutes; Faith was grimy and exhausted now that the adrenaline had worn off, and she looked nothing like one of their usual guests. Once her credit card was approved, she took the keycard and returned to the vehicle.
She parked, and they got out and stretched. Willow was still wobbly, even with Buffy's arm around her, so Faith took her other side. They barely noticed the rooms. Buffy and Willow went to the shower immediately. Faith called for room service and ordered two of everything plus a bottle of champagne.
Buffy and Willow joined her in the sitting room, wearing white robes, and Faith showered, then came out in her own robe to wait for the food. She was restless, and gathered their clothes, put them in the laundry bag and hung it on the door.
When the food arrived, Buffy and Faith ate with gusto. Willow picked from their plates, and when they were finished, Faith opened the champagne. She filled the flutes and raised hers in a toast. "Happy New Year," she said.
Buffy and Willow touched their glasses to Faith's and repeated her words. Willow began to fade out, and leaned against Buffy while she and Faith finished the bottle. Faith watched them walk to one of the bedrooms, and sat on the couch, feeling very much the third wheel. A few minutes later, Buffy came out and wordlessly took her hand. She pulled Faith into the bedroom, where Willow slept in the center of the biggest bed Faith had ever seen. She took one side, Buffy the other, and their arms crossed at Willow's midriff, where the robe was tied shut around her. They slept without dreaming or remembering, barely moving, and the world turned around them.
When they woke, more than 24 hours had passed. Faith got out of bed first, leaving Buffy and Willow buried in blankets. She found their clothes, now clean, and dressed before calling room service again. While she waited this time, she thought about everything that had happened. Sunnydale no longer had any claim to her, and she would be happy to leave California behind.
She and Buffy had made their peace, and Faith hoped it would last this time. She knew there would be no repeat of their afternoon interlude. Faith doubted that they would ever talk about it, either, and that was fine, too.
She ate quickly, from habit, then searched the room until she found a notepad and pen. "Your keys are at the front desk. Stay as long as you want. See you around," she wrote, and left it on their clothes.
She grabbed her jacket and went to the parking lot. Her bag was still in the back of Willow's ride, and Faith locked it again after getting it. She left the keys at the front desk and walked out into the weak January sunshine.
Buffy woke up warm for the first time she could remember. Willow was beside her, but Faith was gone. Buffy knew she was fine, and didn't worry. She rearranged her pillow so she could watch Willow wake up. It didn't take long for Willow to turn to her and open her eyes. "Hi."
"How are you?"
"I'm good," Buffy said, smiling. "How are you?"
"I'm good, too." Willow smiled back.
"Ready to head home?"
"Whenever you are."
Buffy smiled again and leaned over to kiss Willow. "Might be a while," she murmured. "You, me, big bed."
"Less talk, more action."
Buffy hurried to oblige her, each kiss followed by, "I love you," and another day slipped away, and then another.
The drive home was three days of junk food, too much caffeine, and singing along with the radio. The sedan with its Ohio plates surprised them, but they looked at each other and shrugged, and went into the house.
They were ambushed in the kitchen by Dawn, who launched herself at them and hugged them both at once. Xander piled on, and over Dawn's shoulder, Buffy saw Giles looking at them with obvious relief.
"Oxygen," Willow squeaked, and they let go.
"Glad to see you, too," Buffy said.
"What happened?" Dawn asked.
"Let us get cleaned up and we'll tell you everything," Buffy answered. She and Willow shared a look that said, "Not everything." They paused at the table, on either side of Giles. They leaned down and both of them kissed one of his cheeks at the same time, flustering him.
When they returned to the kitchen, food was waiting. Buffy and Willow agreed in the shower that the others would have to leave tomorrow. There had been enough excitement in the past two weeks to last both of them several more years, and they needed to decompress.
Conversation flowed around the table while they ate, and Dawn jotted notes while Buffy and Willow spoke in turn about what the they and Faith had done to truly collapse the Sunnydale Hellmouth. Giles listened, the look on his face telling them he knew there was more than they were telling. Xander sat back in his chair and watched at them. Buffy was better, and Willow was talking a mile a minute, Buffy finishing some of her sentences. It reminded him of other days, and he smiled. Buffy saw, and punched his shoulder lightly. "None of that, perv."
"A guy can dream," he teased her back.
"Not right in front of us."
He shrugged, wearing the same goofy Xander grin he always had when he was happy.
Giles watched Buffy and Xander squabble, and Dawn and Willow bent over Dawn's notepad, and thought that he hadn't done a bad job with them.
The Cleveland crew left after lunch the next day. Buffy and Willow spent the rest of the day going through the house together, returning things to their proper order. Willow's bedroom was their final stop. 'Our bedroom,' Buffy corrected herself, and smiled while helping Willow adjust the clean top sheet.
"Penny for your thoughts," Willow offered.
"I'll bring my stuff in here tomorrow, ok?"
"Absolutely." Willow beamed. "I am so glad to be home."
They left the covers folded down, the bed ready for them to slip into when they were ready.
"I love them, but they make me tired," Buffy said.
"The weight of history and its expectations."
"I guess." Buffy crossed the room and sat in one of the chairs she hadn't noticed before.
Willow sat in the other, sighing as she sank into it. "Aaah. A chair that doesn't move."
"Yeah, I'll be glad to stay in one place for a while."
Willow raised an eyebrow. "A while?"
"C'mon, I spent seven years chained to the Hellmouth. There's places I wanna go. Eventually."
"I dunno. I heard there's other continents and stuff."
"Hey, no making fun. You know I had problems with geography."
"I remember them well. And your problems with math, history, chemistry, physics, psychology, English," Willow ticked off, smiling.
"Ok, maybe I should have done some of my own homework," Buffy conceded, grinning.
"Now's a fine time to realize it."
"Better late than never," Buffy answered, and they both laughed.
Willow got up and held her hand out for Buffy. She didn't hesitate to take it, and pulled Willow into her lap. "Hey, you."
"Did I tell you today how much I love you?"
Willow pretended to think for a second. "I'm not sure. Wouldn't hurt to tell me again."
Buffy smiled. "More than the universe," she said, and kissed Willow like it was the only thing she ever had to do.
Buffy was weeding one of the new flowerbeds when a something in the distance caught her eye. At first, she thought it was plants moving in the breeze; it was the same shade of green. It continued to move toward her, and she kept an eye on it as she worked. As it got closer, the colors changed, and it resolved into Faith, wearing black jeans and a red tank shirt, a bag slung over one shoulder.
Buffy finished weeding and brushed the dirt from her hands as she stood. She waited for Faith, who quickly covered the ground between them without seeming to hurry.
"C'mon inside." Buffy turned away and Faith followed her into the house. Willow was in the kitchen, pouring lemonade into three glasses.
"Hey, Red." Faith dropped her bag at the hallway.
"Hey, trouble. What brings you out here?" Willow turned and gave Buffy two of the glasses. Buffy put them on the table and pulled out a chair for Willow.
Faith turned a chair around and straddled it. She drank down half the glass. Buffy got the pitcher from the counter and refilled Faith's glass before setting it in the middle of the table.
"Need some peace and quiet."
"I thought you liked being around all those girls," Willow said.
"They give me a headache," Faith answered. "Especially Ken."
Buffy and Willow looked at each other and smiled. "Control freak," they said in unison.
"Don't start that shit all ready," Faith said, but she was smiling, too. She finished another glass of lemonade. "Don't suppose I could get a shower."
"You even get a real bed to sleep in this time," Buffy said. "You know where everything is. Make yourself at home."
"Thanks." Faith got up. She returned the chair to its place under the table, and grabbed her bag before disappearing into the hallway.
"You all right with this?" Buffy asked.
"Yeah. I'd rather have her here than wandering the roads."
"Oh." Buffy frowned. "She doesn't look like that."
"She always looks like that, honey. It's all right."
"You're sure?" Buffy asked.
"Positive." Willow leaned over and kissed Buffy. "Maybe you can get her to help you pull out those stumps."
Buffy brightened. "Good idea."
"I'm full of 'em." Willow grinned at Buffy.
Buffy looked at her and smirked. She rested her hand on Willow's forearm. "You're fulla something."
"Wanna find out what?"
Buffy didn't need to be asked twice. She got up and pulled Willow along to their bedroom. Willow barely remembered to close the door.
Standing under the shower, Faith felt them begin, and smiled. She hurried to finish and dress, and headed down to the basement so she didn't feel like a voyeur. Willow's work room called to her, and Faith passed through the gym. She put her palm against the door before opening it.
The blue-green circle of light was still in the center of the room, and Faith stepped into it carefully. She sat down cross-legged, and relaxed completely for the first time in months. Cleveland was too busy for her any more. The organized chaos of Slayers coming and going; the constant schooling of new Slayers, Watchers, and witches; and always being on display left her tired and out of sorts. On top of that, her reflexes were slowing and Faith wasn't willing any longer to die in a fight that wasn't hers.
When she felt recharged, she got up and stretched. The house was quiet, and she found Buffy and Willow sitting in the twilight on the lawn. She sat beside them, and they watched fireflies flicker.
"Welcome to retirement," Willow said softly.
"I thought there'd be a parade or something."
Buffy snickered. "We can bronze your favorite stake."
"You're a funny girl, B," Faith groused, and they all laughed.
There was no one to see them glowing under the sky like a small solar system, blue and green circling white. Buffy leaned against Willow and they traded kisses while Faith lay on her back and watched falling stars. In time, they went in, Buffy and Willow to their bed, Faith to hers, and dreamed that light flowed through them, one to another, until it covered the world.
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