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FEEDBACK: To rsietz[at]

By Counterpunch


Chapter 11

After staring blankly into the sun for a moment (when was the last time he'd done that?), Spike had blinked and scrambled into the shade out of dark habit. Safe behind a veil of shadow, he then tentatively thrust his hand into the sun and snapped it back. Satisfied that his hand didn't sizzle and pop like frying bacon, Spike let out the breath he didn't realize he had been holding.

Experiment completed. It was time to go exploring.

Nothing had been worse than those first few hours, down in Africa.

Was this a nightmare? Spike didn't even know. He thought he had just gone crazier, if it were possible. It had been months since he had retained any sense of lucidity for longer than a few minutes, so how could he tell? The hissing voices of his past victims surrounded his every thought and stirred up a dust cloud of raucous torment that led to constant headaches.

But, no. That wasn't even the worst of it, was it, Spikey boy?

His heart. Oh, how his heart had ached. It rotted inside him with a dull throb, blackness and evil oozing from ventricles and arteries like sewage. He could feel it poisoning him slowly. It seeped into his soul, laying waste to whatever was left of virtue and goodness lay within.

That was why he had tried to cut it out. That was why it burned. After all his hard work, his soul was being ravaged, and there was nothing he could do to stop it.

But here... Here it had all stopped. The discordant buzz in his brain hadn't reared its nasty head. A giant mute button had encapsulated Spike's mind. It confused him at first, but then sunk to a deep dread. Could it have gone? If the voices had fled, had his soul gone with them? It was just so quiet.

Which begged the question: Where was he really? Spike wasn't even sure anymore.

It looked like Sunnydale, but didn't sound like Sunnydale. For there were no human fingerprints to be found. No screeching traffic of cars, no indistinct smattering of voices, no music parading from a restaurant window, and no patterns of life in the air.

It felt like Sunnydale, but didn't smell like Sunnydale. It couldn't have been.

There wasn't a scent of warm blood anywhere.

Something was wrong. Deadly wrong. Determined that the simmering stew of anxiety wouldn't get the best of him, with a snarl Spike headed to the only place he ever expected to find answers.



Chapter 12

With a whoosh, automatic doors opened and blasted an air-conditioned gust onto sweaty skin, creating the pleasant cooling sticky sensation that only summer can bring.

Rubbing her arms in a vain attempt to chase the growing goose bumps from her flesh, Dawn grabbed a shopping cart and started meandering towards the school supplies.

Anya accompanied her, looking skeptically at the products in front of her, as if suspecting they were all sub-par. "So," she said, "Have you given any more thought to my spectacularly-prepared suggestions?"

Dawn rolled her eyes, "Anya, you've cut out every single coupon from the newspapers and magazines for the last month and flagged the best deals with hi-lighters and post-its." Scrunching up her face, she added as an afterthought, "And it's still August."

Seeming quite pleased with herself, Anya started parading down the aisles, admiring the colorfully-labeled rollback prices along the way.

"Well, you can never be too prepared. Careful and well-researched purchasing is the cornerstone of American capitalism. You don't want to jump in all willy-nilly into the market, do you?"

Despite knowing it was best to ignore any discussion about free enterprise with Anya, Dawn stubbornly refused to give in to her quips. "I'm not jumping into anything. It's just back-to-school sales. They're the same every year. Chill."

"Everyone keeps telling me that, but I don't understand," said Anya in a suddenly less-than-cheerful mood.

Slightly confused, Dawn asked, "What, back-to-school sales?"

Anya waved Dawn's question away with a flick of her wrist and continued, "Chill. You use the word so casually but do you have any idea what it's like trying to pretend everything is perfectly normal all the time? I can't chill ."

Awareness crept upon Dawn as she recognized the simmering anger behind Anya's voice. It was a bitter frustration that pressed upon the chest like a slowly turning vise. The hurt it left behind in its destructive grip left nothing sacred. She knew because it had ensnared them all.

"Things just keep getting worse for you humans, how can you stand it? I'm...riddled with these unpleasant feelings and memories and I can't do anything about it! I visit Tara twice a week, and I don't understand why it still doesn't feel any better."

It kept spilling out, unbidden and unending, and it was all Dawn could do to stand and watch helplessly with somber understanding.

"This ache isn't going away and none of you will talk about it! I mean, my god, don't you ever tire of bottling everything up?"

The tension was palpable. It wore thin on restraint and stoicism by testing even the furthest limits of Scooby suppression. It cracked them slowly. Differently. They were each caught in the deepest muck and drowning slowly. This time, no one was coming to rescue them.

How did we get so lost?

Willow was gone, nursing and rehabilitating in England with Giles, and Dawn didn't know if she was ever coming back. Even if she made it back to Sunnydale, Willow would never really come back. Not without Tara.

Buffy, on the other hand, was so laden with guilt, it was a miracle she was still standing. Dawn could see it press on Buffy's shoulders in the morning when she didn't think Dawn was watching. How could she have missed it before? Blinded by admiration and sisterly jealousy, Dawn had mistaken the sad and lonely burden of the Slayer for glory and celebrity. She was glad, now, to have escaped that fate. She could grow and be loved and have a life all her own, safe from destiny and circumstance.

Anya and Xander... Well, they danced so finely around each other, Dawn wasn't sure where they stood. Hell, Anya and Xander weren't even sure. Tangled in the past, they simply couldn't figure out how to unravel and just forgive themselves. And each other.

And Tara...Tara was dead. There would be no more milkshakes and movies, no more morning couch-cuddles or pancakes. A great warmth was gone and Dawn had never felt so utterly alone, motherless once more.

"Anya. I get it," Dawn spoke, sounding very small.

Anya made a face and shrugged, as if embarrassed, and gently put an arm around Dawn's shoulders. Abandoning the shopping cart, they exited the store, fading into the summer wash of customers and cars.


Chapter 13

Woke up and wished that I was dead
With an aching in my head
I lay motionless in bed
I thought of you and where you'd gone
and let the world spin madly on
:The Weepies-World Spins Madly On:

The quiet suited her.

It soothed and whirled in the wind as it caressed her, gently blowing wild her hair and rubbing raw her skin.

The wind didn't speak. It didn't quietly cower like the Coven or blatantly forgive like Giles. It simply blew the broken pieces of Willow into blessed nothingness as she sat. And as far as she was concerned, it was the most welcoming thing on earth.

The tree was her furthest hiding spot from the cottage. Sometimes, when the prospect of living seemed too daunting and paralyzing, she needed the quiet growth and easy seclusion of the woods for company.

The magick lessons, of course, didn't help. The magick was where it all began. And ended. There was nothing Willow wanted to be farther away from than it.

A part of her was innocently fascinated with what the Coven taught her. How it was all connected--Gaia and the root systems, like millions of tiny computer wires in a vast network. But every tendril she followed in the system drew to a forsaken, shuddering end. It might have all been connected, but none of it led back to Tara.

So what was the point?

The interest ended there.

She engaged them, of course. The good student was too deeply ingrained to ignore, and it proved useful. But this time, no dormant, hopeful purity hid underneath. The driving force wasn't thirst for knowledge or geekish habit, but an empty inevitability.

All she wanted was a silent solitude; to be left alone and meditate until nothing remained. But they pressed, with their magick and teachings, so she had no choice but to learn.

"Willow, you must try to focus."

And because she had nothing left, she did. She took deep breaths and tried to imagine the edges of her sight hazing into white. But white just made her think of red. Faltering, she looked desperately into Ms. Hartness' eyes, her own pleading and begging and raw with fear.

"Willow, listen to my voice. Hum with me."

Weakly, she had forced her vocal cords to vibrate. Small and fragile at first, but with Ms. Hartness' hum resonating in the background, Willow inhaled and started again low. She didn't have the strength to tighten the pitch, but the deep strum grew strong and steady on its own.

The hum encompassed her, filled her bones with a resonating rhythm, and drugged her mind. Willow sank into the vibrations in her chest, down into the dark, and a warm tendril pulled forth and surrounded her in a giant yawn.

Nothing existed in the black except the safe and the pulsating warm. Willow was no more or no less than a hum.

Slowly, percolating drops of consciousness seeped into her mind, collecting and forming shape. It was an hour later that Willow fully came into herself again.

Her eyes fluttered open into the dusky light and she saw the patient, tender face of Ms. Hartness wearily smiling back at her proudly.

Willow hadn't understood until later, as she lay in bed in the dark, that she had relearned how to fall asleep. Away from the nightmares, Willow circumvented her way to slumber. Safe from the white, red, and inevitably, the blue.

Willow sat up straight as she inhaled fully, stretching her and back and lungs. She stood and balanced herself on the tree, momentarily dizzy and lightheaded.

When the fuzz around her vision cleared, the long green stared in front of her; speckled with grass, shrubs, and wildflowers.

With a lasting breath, Willow began the long trek back.

It's time to learn.


Chapter 14

"Will, it's time you learned how to do this," Tara began patiently.

Approaching the counter with more than a hint of trepidation, Willow asked timidly, "Are you sure? My cooking skills are kinda not so great. Remember the George Forman grill? It's not so George Forman-y anymore."

Tara smiled at the memory of the deceased kitchen appliance's demise. "That reminds me, sweetie, lesson number one: Grilling, baking, and cooking are three very different things."

"Uh, right. Okay. And sautéing is....?"

"A type of frying," Tara answered with a half-grin. "But don't forget the roasting, boiling, searing, poaching, braising, and deep-frying."

A look of blank awe smacked Willow across the face. "Wow. That's uh... a lot of terms."

Her smile never faltering, Tara nodded as she twisted around and reached for the cabinets. "Mhmm, so we'd better get started."

"Tara?" Willow squeaked.

Tara retracted her arm and turned around to face her girlfriend, who had backed herself into the island counter in the middle of the kitchen. "Yes?"

Gnawing her bottom lip, Willow glanced down at her feet before nervously asking, "What if I can't cook it right?"

At that moment, Tara fell in love with Willow all over again. Right down to her jittery, bouncing toes encased in fuzzy pink socks.

Seeing Tara's lazy smile grow even wider, Willow grew puzzled. "Why are you smiling? This isn't smiley-face material. This is...I-could-start-a-fire-and-burn-the-house-down material. Not at all with the good."

Crossing her arms, Tara asked, "Willow, can I ask you a question?"

"Of course."

"What's sodium chloride?"

"Um, the ionization of sodium and chlorine atoms?"

Nodding, Tara questioned further. "Good. And what is the square root of pi squared."

After a moment of contemplation, a baffled Willow squeaked, "Uhhhh, pi?"

Opening a cabinet door, Tara pulled out a bowl and a large wooden spoon from the drawer near her thigh. Slapping them on the countertop next to Willow, she slid close to her lover, feeling their legs and hips melt together like warm chocolate. "And how did you know both of those answers?"

Growing incredibly distracted by the lips dancing in front of her eyes, Willow offered, "Three quarters of a bachelor's degree and a handful of mediocre classes in high school?"

Putting her arms on the counter on either side of Willow, Tara leaned in and whispered, "Follow the formula."

Gulping, Willow's brain wasn't making the neural connections necessary to catch Tara's point. "Following the...what?"

Pulling back with an extremely satisfied look on her face, Tara grabbed the bag of flour and placed it into Willow's capable hands. "The recipe for salt requires synthesis of the ingredients sodium and chloride. For the other, you had to first multiply 3.14 by itself, then divide that by itself to reach a conclusion, yes?"

Willow nodded.

"All you have to do in order to cook is break down the recipe into an equation. It's no different than a science experiment or a math problem. Follow. The. Steps," Tara finished, punctuating the last words with a kiss on Willow's nose.

The pieces finally clicking into place, a warm confidence poured into Willow, and her face blossomed into a brilliant smile. "How do you do that?"

Tara gathered Willow in a loose embrace, "Well, it was easy 'cause I love you so much. But I'll admit, I had an ulterior motive."

Looking up into Tara's eyes, the redhead implored, "And what might that be exactly?"

"Well, where would you be when you want to pamper your poor, sick girlfriend who's stuck in bed with the flu and you don't know how to make pancakes?"

With a burst of laughter, Willow pecked Tara lovingly on the cheek and began gathering supplies and ingredients with a vivacious flourish.

Soon, buttermilk pancakes were sizzling in the pan and Willow was stirring another batch of batter in a bowl. The kitchen was pregnant with love, and the air was laden with the warm scent of baking. Blissfully content, Tara soaked up the smell of a perfect Sunday mo-

Tara's eyes fluttered open to the sunshine dancing through the window blinds. She lay under the blankets, still a bit groggy from her dream. It had been so easy for the memory-smell of pancakes to sensually waft her into consciousness. She let the familiar heaviness settle into her heart like it did every morning, but suddenly her eyes snapped open.

Wait. Where's that smell coming from?

Tara yanked her bathrobe from where it hung on the wardrobe and pulled it on when every single nerve in her body jumped in alarm.

Tara froze.

A clang. It may have been muffled through the floorboards, but a definite and resounding clang reverberated throughout the house and shattered her world.

Tara's pulse pounded in her ears as she stood motionless, but was soon jolted into action as she heard indistinct mutterings join the clattering downstairs.

No. It's impossible.

Scrambling to the door, Tara flattened one palm against the hard surface and cracked open the door. The cool air from the hallway blew onto Tara's face and she closed her eyes with joyous rapture.

It had been so long, oh so long since she had heard those sounds-- any sounds. Tears leaked from her eyes. It was almost unrecognizable, this feeling. So foreign, Tara had long given up any expectation of having it again. Something as simple as hope had abandoned her. Yet here it was, sizzling and glowing and welling within her, as she let herself believe her waiting might be over.

She was about to swoop down the stairs in excitement, but a sudden fear caused Tara to pull back. Was it all another trick? A dream? For all Tara knew, she could still be asleep now, floating on the tendrils of fantasy, only to again wake with a horrible and consuming emptiness.

But the smell. It pulled her from her misgivings and she took a first step into the hallway. Hardly breathing, as if it would shatter the possibility of the moment, Tara slowly crept down the stairs, each step bringing her closer to the euphoric noises in the kitchen. Slinking across the floor, Tara's heart resumed its rapid fluttering as the sounds in the kitchen grew clearer. It nearly thumped out of her chest when she saw a body at the counter.

Whatever hope had blossomed inside Tara earlier, in an instant burned to ashes. The metallic taste of copper invaded her mouth and her heart dropped into her stomach. The smile that had graced her face withered into a grotesque twist when the figure turned to face her.

As Tara wavered in the doorway to the kitchen, Spike turned around, spatula in hand, and watched her fall to her knees.

"Oh, you. Need more eggs," was all Tara heard before she blissfully let blackness claim her.


Chapter 15

Buffy shuffled into the kitchen just in time to see Xander grab a carton of juice from the fridge. He pulled a glass from the cabinet over the sink and turned, offering her a cheery salutation.

"Ahh, mornin', Buff. I see you're all rise with the shine."

The morning Slayer greeted him with less enthusiasm, grabbed a cup for herself, and motioned for him to pour her some juice as well, before slumping into a chair. She drained the cup in a few gulps, put the glass down onto the counter, and grunted a reply. "Ugh. Mornings? So not my thing."

"Funny, considering how many times you get to see it after a whole night of not sleeping."

Since the juice had little effect on her ravenous appetite, Buffy shot Xander a look of pure unamusement before getting up to grab a box of Pop-Tarts from the shelf.

Xander returned the look with one of his own, as he asked, "Which leads me to my next question: How is it you've clearly never been introduced to the world of breakfast foods before?"

With a look of mock offense on her face, Buffy held up a foil-encrusted package, "I'm all about the breakfast foods! This? Total nutrition. It's a meal in pancake form."

Xander raised his eyebrows and countered, "Yeah, if normal pancakes had partially hydrogenated soybean oil, high fructose corn syrup, and chemicals starting with the letter 'x' in them that no-one-can-pronounce, then sure... color them nutritious."

The sound of footsteps thundering down the stairs interrupted the wildly entertaining conversation. Dawn strutted into the kitchen, and squealed at Buffy, "Oooh, Pop-Tarts? Sa-weet!" She yanked the other sugar bomb out of the package and promptly began devouring it with gusto.

Buffy threw her hands up in frustration. "Have you no respect for your elders?"

"Actually, I'm a few thousand years old. So, technically? I'm older than you."

Before the sisterly affections got out of hand, Xander interrupted, "Ooookay, I think that's enough breakfast talk for now."

"What, no more discussions of Pop Tarts or Fruit Loops?"

Xander claps his hands together, "Hows about I take Dawnie here out for a tour of her happy, new Hellmouthy home?"

Despite the fact that her mouth was still full, Buffy tried to speak, "Mmm! Xander, don't forget to bring the plans back before school starts." She turned to Dawn, wagged her finger, and continued, "And you, missy, best behavior. Don't even think about trying to steal Tito's hammer again. I won't get in the way of the angry carpenter next time."

Dawn rolled her eyes and huffed, "Omigod. For the tenth time, Xander dared me to."

Xander shook his head and smiled nervously as he quickly shuffled Dawn out, waving to Buffy as they left.

The kitchen felt hollow now, empty of all noise and sound. Silence slowly settled like a cloak and hummed against her skin. Buffy turned back around to face the window above the sink and stared into the sunlight.

She watched the particles float in and out of the flickering shadows of the blinds, swirling and dancing in the luminous rays. They warmed Buffy's face as she closed her eyes, letting her skin soak up the soft moment for a long while.

Then, she grabbed the phone from the cradle, dialed, and waited for the call to go through. After a moment, she heard a small click as someone picked up.



Chapter 16

The first thing she noticed was the sound. It pounded and pulsed everywhere.

With a groan, Tara tried to sit up but a sharp twinge forced her to fall back down. As the pain subsided, she realized the loud sound was, in fact, her head throbbing. As she reached up to rub her temple, Tara opened her eyes tenderly and blinked several times to get used to the light.

She found herself lying on the couch in the living room and again attempted to sit up. This time, however, she was met with success.

From the left, she heard, "Careful, luv. You hit the floor hard, bound to leave a mark."

In a flourish of panic and alarm, Tara fell off the couch and scrambled back as fast as she could, hitting the far wall with a thump. She clutched her chest and felt her heart pound. "W-w-wh..." Too shocked and rattled to speak clearly, Tara cursed herself, and tried again. "What are you ?" she hissed.

"What, you don't know me? Spike. Vampire. Big Bad. Helped you Samaritans out of the goodness of my own heart."

Tara shook her head, still crouched on the floor. She was about to speak when Spike interrupted her.

"And I should be askin' you the questions here, luv. You're the one that died," he finished, slumping back into the couch.

The blood in her veins turned to ice.


Somewhere, Tara vaguely remembered feeling numb in the tips of her fingers.

Spike examined his fingernails and reclined in his seat, hoisting his feet up onto the tabletop. "Great. So I'm stuck in some crazy dimension with Red's dead bird. Brilliant."

Dead. Is that what all this is? Tara heard his words through a fog. Time had slowed in a tiny space of her mind. Endless days passed through her mind, reflecting the lonely hours that had loomed ahead, scratched bare of hope or belief.

She remembered the first few terrifying and horrific days. But nothing, nothing had been worse than the first moments.

Willow was radiant. The room had glowed. No, she had glowed with an intense love that warmed Tara right to the gut like a shot of whiskey. It started in the throat, trickled down into her bowels, and spread through her system, leaving Tara merrily drunk in its stead.

Everything was perfect.

She should have known, right then, when people are happiest on the Hellmouth, that something wrong would happen. Blinded by Willow-light, Tara hadn't heard the window shatter. She hadn't registered anything other than her love's beauty marred.

"Your shirt..." she had said, before she tripped, numbed and shocked, to the ground.

She had to get up. Willow was covered in blood. She must have been hurt. Willow was hurt, and Tara had to get to her. She pushed the cold away and scrambled to her feet, desperate to help.


The room was gone. Willow was gone.

Tara snapped around, her hair whipping the side of her face, causing several strands to catch at the side of her mouth.

She faced the White.

Piercing ivory surrounded her on all sides and she tried to find her way back. The air was thick -- cottony and unyielding. Tara yelled and sprinted forward with her arms outstretched. As if a giant wall had suddenly relented, Tara's momentum propelled her through the White and downward as it gave way, causing her head to smack into a maroon carpeted floor.

She forced her head up, and used her hands to push herself unsteadily to her knees. Darkness pressed on the backs of her eyelids, but she stubbornly wobbled up. She jolted forward, "NO!"

The room was back. But Willow was gone.

Tara had spent countless nights screaming into nothing, and days frantically searching Sunnydale for any signs of life. She hadn't showered. She hadn't rested. She hadn't eaten. She hadn't done anything except look for a way back. And when that hadn't worked, she found herself melting in sobs of hysteria.

She had finally succumbed to exhaustion and slept for what felt like days. It had been the only time she had slept through the night since.

Spike's words were far away, but eventually they seeped into Tara's ear and registered at once. Her head snapped up and she looked wildly into Spike's eyes. "What?"

Realization slowly dawned on Spike and he looked at her with a hint of curiosity.

"You really don't know, do you?" He asked curiously.

Tara shook her head.

Spike let a long sigh and ran his hand through his hair. "Word on the streets says you died a few months back. Shot."

Ice filled her chest.

No, it can't be.

"No," she said firmly, speaking more to herself than to him. " Willow was shot."

Her stomach churned and her throat pounded. Tara shook her head forcefully. "No, she can't be. I promised I'd never leave again. I p-promised I'd never l-leave."

Air couldn't come fast enough. It seemed to evaporate the moment it entered her lungs. She tried to gulp it down, but her breathing hitched and gave way to a sob. And that sob to another.

Suddenly, there seemed to be no end to the river that flowed out of her. She cried for all the nights she had spent grasping a pillow to her breast hoping to shake the darkness from her heart. She cried for the mornings she woke with screams and the sound of a window shattering echoing in her ears. She cried for herself. But mostly she cried for Willow. And how it was that she existed without her.

Spike must have gotten off the couch at some point, because eventually an arm started to stiffly rub her back, awkward but genuine. Through her tears, Tara clutched onto him and gave herself over to the only arms that had held her in months.

And there she sat, hunched on the floor, crippled by grief and bruised by circumstance as she let her aching heart cry.


Chapter 17

Willow felt her then.


A deep pang of Tara that sliced her open and made her gasp with hurt. The pain was suddenly everywhere. She felt it echo and pound around her, dragging her down into the deep. Willow cried out, felt her knees buckle, and the world spin.

In a flash, Giles dipped to catch Willow where she fell, and kneeled in the grass, holding her strongly. The ground was damp from the rain the day before, and tiny water bubbles surfaced as his boots squished into the grass. He had missed the subtle nuances of the earth while in Sunnydale. The pristine California sunshine had spoiled him, but here he remembered how to relish the wet mornings and early fog. They rooted him, deep and ancient, into the countryside. He felt more connected than he had in a long time. In the end, maybe that was one of the reasons he had brought Willow here. Perhaps here she could feel the rustic strength and wisdom that infused the weary and the lost. Including him.

Laden with Willow's dead weight, Giles counted the moments until she regained consciousness. He never got used to them, but eventually grew accustomed to the bouts of heartache and agony that overwhelmed Willow and forced her to the ground. He knew the blackouts were connected with her lessons. The new magicks introduced into her black-scarred system were bound to have their bumps and bruises along the way. She needed to re-learn how to use the light she was given.

He sighed.

I was so blind. So foolishly blind.

He knew the dirty residuals that rehabilitation created, clinging like sand to clammy flesh. It had haunted him in dark corners when Slaying business had retired for the evening and he was left alone in his house with naught but a smooth glass of scotch for company. How little he had touched magic since the days of Ripper. He let the power shrivel inside, too afraid to wrestle with his own potential. For good or bad, he didn't care to find out.

The dank guilt of his deeds tumbled inside of him for decades, sequestered, but never forgotten. It nagged on his conscious and pulled often, like a gentle tug. Don't forget me, it said.

He never forgot.

He did, however, hoard his flaws, like nuts for the winter, keeping them safe and secret. And because he was narrow in his ways and determined not to let the past repeat itself, he inadvertently let it happen anyway. He ignored the warning signs and led his daughter astray. His fears and shortcomings had led to her downfall, and he would not be so quick as to let it happen ever again.

And so he held her protectively, and waited for her to return.

As the third minute slowly ticked by, Giles felt Willow stir.

Gently , he thought.

He watched her eyelids tremble and flutter. Her green eyes, dull like frosted sea glass, quivered open and she looked up at the pale sky. A moment passed as she stared blankly, her gaze passing over the faraway clouds. Willow's face strained as she pursed her lips, closed her eyes, and exhaled through her nose.

Giles felt like he was intruding on a desperately private moment. He quietly cleared his throat, and soft as a lamb's breath asked, "Are you all right?"

Eyes still closed, Willow nodded and pressed her head into Giles' sleeve. "Can you just...hold me for a moment? Please?"

"I'd love nothing more." With that, he kissed the top of her head, and gazed at the spongy green hills across the valley, crowned with clusters of trees, as the sun made its way, tumbling through the sky.

His eyes were filled with green and his hand with red as Giles absentmindedly stroked Willow's hair. Thoughts of his recent phone call circled lazily in his mind, lingering like day-old baked goods at the grocery store.

Buffy's voice had warmed him instantly. The brittle ice surrounding his spirit melted with the spring of her bright greeting. His eyes had crinkled at the corners like tissue paper when he smiled. He had forgotten, just for a moment, that there was more to the world than pain and grief.

Trust Buffy to remind me.

It was more than just a phone call, really. Buffy had sounded much more collected than she had in quite some time. There wasn't a secret weariness or reluctant acceptingness that tinged her every move. Buffy seemed...ready. And Giles was proud of her. She had done it all on her own, and he knew at what cost.

The call started innocently enough, with light banter sprinkled in like cinnamon, but soon he could hear the nervous curiosity that tinged her voice. It was a full twelve minutes before he even broached the topic of Willow.

"Giles, are you sure? I thought this was supposed to be a six-month shindig. Now you're telling me she's ready all of a sudden?"

"Buffy, this not about it being sudden. She doesn't have a choice in the matter, it's time."

"Time for what, the Copacabana? This isn't some sort of Coven initiation test, is it? See if she goes all Dark-Eyed-Magic-Mamma again at the 'Welcome to Sunnydale' sign? 'Cause I don't much like the sound of that."

Giles' loud sigh could be heard muffled into the receiver. "Some matters have merely been taken into account, and we've come to the realization that it's time for Willow to go back. No tests, no dark magic, no experiments."

There was a pause.

"'We've come'? Giles, does Will even know she's coming back yet?"

A lack of motion made Giles realize his hand had stilled, and was now resting heavily atop Willow's head. He looked down to see that she had cradled her fist beneath her chin and was clutching her other arm close to her chest. Her eyes still stared blankly into the hills beyond.

Ever so gently, Giles took his hand and nudged Willow's chin, tilting her head so she looked up at him. He stared deep into her eyes, leaden and weary, and felt the weight of a world on his shoulders.

He took a deep breath to steel himself, felt the saturated air permeate every pore in his lungs with a primordial strength, then met her gaze. "Willow," he began. "We must talk."


Chapter 18

The afternoon light was heavy with gold as the hours slowly matured into early evening, saturating the air. Shadows stretched across the floor, reaching and crawling under furniture and up walls. Twilight was coming, and Spike was tired. The sun was sucking all the energy from his bones, he didn't remember the last time he'd been awake with the sun and it was exhausting.

He sank deeper into the couch, absentmindedly flipping through a magazine that had been lying out on the table while Tara fussed about in the kitchen making lunch. It had been hours since either of them had eaten. Eventually Tara wiped her eyes dry at the stubborn insistence of their stomachs. Besides, the crying had to stop sooner or later.

For one thing, Spike had had enough emotion to last him for another two hundred years as far as he was concerned. But strangely it hadn't bothered him as much as he thought it would. He felt a strange calm settle upon him like fine silk at the mere recollection. He might not have known where he was--or, for that matter, why he was, but for now, he had a purpose: Hold Tara.

So hold her he did.

And he felt strong and good. But their growling hunger had interrupted the lonely spasms of heartbreak, so then came resolve and sandwiches.

"Spike, do you want regular turkey, or smoked?"

Not bothering to glance up from the magazine, he didn't miss a beat. "Smoked."

Spike continued to mindlessly flip pages, but the words twisted and blended into a tangle of text. Overcome by a sudden dizzy spell, he pressed the heels of his palms into his eyes, hoping to relieve the pressure. He vaguely heard other voices, muffled, from the kitchen, "Pop Tarts or Fruit Loops?"

As soon as it began, his nausea ceased, and Spike found himself balanced precariously at the edge of the couch. Trying to shake off the strange feeling, he shouted back, "What are you playing at, Blondie? I said I wanted smoked."

A moment later, Tara entered the living room carrying two pale blue ceramic plates, topped high with potato chips and sandwiches, with a frown plastered on her face. "Spike, who are you talking to?"

He opened his mouth to speak, but shut it abruptly and glanced over his shoulder. Seeing nothing, he turned back around to look at Tara who had sat down across the table and was staring at him worriedly. "Spike?"

Tiny alarm bells rang in the back of his brain. Something was wrong. He'd been both undead and around the Slayer gang long enough to know something wasn't right. Maybe the voices were coming back, but he found himself strangely comforted by that idea--it was nothing more than he deserved.

"Nothing," he said, changing the topic quickly and gesturing to the sandwich. "S'not blood, but it'll do."


Chapter 19

There is a magic, delicate moment, sometime during the inescapable night, when time and space blend together like watercolor.

It had been hours since darkness descended and cast the world into weary shadow, pronouncing the deep tired that seeped into Tara and Spike's bones. It was an exceedingly draining day, and sleep was long overdue.

As the haze of unconsciousness fuzzed Spike's mind, he could no longer recall how long it had been since he'd shut the lights, peeled down the sheets, and crawled into bed. Sleep hummed in the back of his brain, pressing behind the eyes like a faint headache. He recalled, somewhat curiously, how foreign the sheets felt, weighing down his feet at the cliff of the bed. The fabric, although soft, seemed laden with starch when texture rubbed against his skin as he turned onto his stomach and flipped the pillow over to the cool side.

How long had it been since he had lain in a bed? It felt alien, having no chilled stone slab beneath him. Despite the warmth of the layers, the mattress remained distinctly cooler, reminding him, even in sleep, where he had come from- a tattoo of cotton.

But this moment, this delicate wire of transubstantiation, soon began to work its magic.

In that tissue paper veil that shrouds sleepy time thoughts in embryonic cocoons, Spike disintegrated like paper pulp into a vat larger than himself. Soon, feeling passed beyond sensation, and the bed and everything on it ebbed into the ocean of numb. It could have been Dreaming, but there was no sense of self in this place.

No, this was something far greater in which the being known as Spike traveled. It was beyond Space and Time itself.

On and on he tumbled, passing milky nebulas and streaking stars, floating gently through space. It was then that Infinity stretched out with its smoky tentacles, encased him in a haze of possibility and spat him out into the sun.

It was bright, it was sudden, and it sizzled. As the offending pain bored into his flesh, identity smacked back into him like a wet sock and Spike the Vampire was returned to the world.

And there he sat, crumpled up behind a restaurant alley, dumped rather unceremoniously by unknown forces. He stared dumbly at the crust of black nail-polish clinging stubbornly to his cuticles as the voices trickled back into his head. The loudness again overtaking his mind distracted him from the sun while steam slowly started billowing out of the sleeves of his jacket.

His eyebrows furrowed in a weary confusion as a crowd only he could hear pounded in his eardrums. It was familiar, this feeling, and that made him more nervous than anything. Panic grasped him as he raised his head and queried to the empty alleyway, "Mommy?" before his legs crumpled and darkness overtook him.


Chapter 20

The heat was disgusting. This particular summer had ushered in that special heat that even a good cold shower can't fix; the second you're dried off, the sticky heat comes back with a vengeance.

Clem wiped his brow and felt beads of perspiration ooze from the 387 separate gland zones on his body, and wished he'd settled somewhere farther east. Where there were four seasons. And where it was cold six months out of the year. Five of which involved snow.

Mmmm, snow.

Clem frowned and tried to push images of white-capped trees and mittens out of his head. Instead, he pinched his soaking, oversized t-shirt in a vain attempt to let it air out. He felt more than conscious sitting in a pool of sweat, but was somewhat comforted knowing his companions were equally plagued. Three straight hours of poker in the back of Willy's Pub could do that to a demon. Hell, it would do that to anyone, demon or otherwise.

Employing a self-control he didn't realize he possessed, Clem managed to keep his fidgeting to a minimum while the table finished its hand. The last card had barely touched the table when he pushed his chair back and slapped his hands on the table. "Well, fellas, this's been fun and all, but I'm thinking a break is in order. Think we can call ten?"

Various hisses, snorts, and whistles replied. "Great, thanks. Oh, and Mike? I have those roaches I owe you, just left them in my car. Thanks for the loan, buddy," he called back as he hovered in the rear doorway.

Business taken care of, Clem turned to face the night. His shoulders sagged in relief as the cooler air in the alleyway nipped at his flesh. His perspiration was bordering on unsanitary, so he took out the small towel he'd decided to carry with him and sopped up the unsightly mess of his glistening skin.

"I bet its fifty degrees and raining in Massachusetts. Why didn't I listen to Mom? She warned me but, nooo. I just had to 'Go west, young demon'," he grumbled as he folded the cloth and put it back into his pocket. He sighed and looked up at the sky. The industrial orange glow of Sunnydale cast itself into the heavens, but a few stars managed to twinkle at him in the distance. Clem waved back, and was mid-swing, heading back inside, when something glittered and caught his eye.

"Oh, no."

Moonlight danced off silver buckles on a pair of black boots sticking out from behind a dumpster. Attached to the boots lay a very unconscious Spike.

As he crept closer, Clem immediately became concerned with the cuts and wounds that littered Spike's body. Parts of his leather jacket had melted onto his skin, which made visible the red and blistering burns that seemed to still sizzle. A deep gash on the cheekbone under his eye looked like something had nibbled on it for dinner. "This is not a good place for you, buddy," Clem grimaced, and knelt down to pick up his friend. He grunted as he hoisted Spike onto his shoulders and staggered under the weight.

Clem had since redecorated the place he was supposed to crypt-sit. As the months had gone by, it hadn't seemed like Spike was returning, so he'd made himself comfortable. Twisting around, he racked his brains for another location. Somewhere safe. Away from prying eyes. And daylight. Especially daylight.


The card game and cockroaches forgotten, Clem set forth with heavy cargo, resolve, and an idea. "All right, let's pray that new high school's up to code. I hope it doesn't collapse again. That would just be... unpleasant." He clambered on, footsteps fading into the distance--and silhouette into the mist--as night swallowed them up in one big gulp.

Part 21

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