DISCLAIMER: The characters of BtVS belong to Joss Whedon, M.E. Production & other suit types I don't know. The original characters in this piece do belong to me. Also, we'll put this at an R rating for language and violence…maybe some sex between Buffy and Willow too…
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I had this thought moons ago about what happened after Sunnydale (this was before the comics). About who Buffy was and the way the Scoobs were left at the end of Season 7; how I really didn't like it. This is a story about reconnection and forming new bonds. Hopefully, it worked. As an FYI…given the canonical comics, this so A.U., but truthfully, I prefer this world as opposed to the one that Joss is painting for us. I at least let the Scoobs find a small amount of peace. This will eventually be part of a series. The second portion of this story arc is completed and will be a crossover with Dexter. The third and final portion is currently being worked on and is not even half way done. I hope that you'll get to read it all. This story was originally published back in '07. Due to some encouragement it has been worked over, steam rolled, red inked and re-edited to bring it up to a livable standard. When I first started writing, I didn't have a beta or a clue as to what the hell I was supposed to be doing. I've learned. I've grown. And I've gotten LOTS of help. I'm also still learning. So… =0) That being said, any mistakes are all my fault. Yell in my direction. Thank You's: Dirk for being my wonderful primary beta. Dennis for the moral support and the humor. Thumper for allowing her minion some alone time. Howard Russell for his spit and polish on the final touches. Lastly, Valyssia, who when this is all said and done, should probably get writing credit on it as well.
FEEDBACKGood, bad, I usually take it all…leave it here or drop me a line: whedonistic.tendencies@gmail.com
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

One Last Shot
By Whedonist


Chapter 10 – Tear It Down

Escaping the chatter in the living room, Buffy guided Willow down the hallway to their borrowed bedroom. When they were finally shut away, she took her girlfriend's arm, turning her. Willow echoed the need, falling into the offered embrace without hesitation. Under the soothing touch, some of their collective tension eased. The slayer inclined forward, resting her brow against her lover's.

Willow let a few moments slip by, then withdrew only enough to make eye contact as she murmured, "How'd it go today?"

Releasing her hold, Buffy shrugged and took her witch's hand, leading her towards the bed. A bright smile lit her features when she faced Willow again and chirped, "Good, good..." Allowing a few seconds to tick away, she took in the warm, but dubious grin her lover offered before she amended, "But then I like emotional trauma. Let's me know that stuff's are pretty much normal."

Willow playfully swatted her partner's arm and chastised, "You know what I mean."

A small mischievous pout formed and faded, foreshadowing Buffy's concession, "Things will be okay, I guess." Eager to shift focus, she asked, "What about you and Xander?" The bed bounced under her weight when she sat on its edge with significantly less than her usual grace.

Taking a seat beside her partner, Willow replied, "It's gonna take a lot more than him being an ass for us not to be friends." An air of significance affected her as she supplied, "Hello…first boyfriend."

Smirking, Buffy pointed out, "Uh, Will, you were five."

"Yes, but it still counts," she remarked decisively. Punctuating her rightness with an emphatic nod, she slipped her arm around Buffy and asked, "What about you and Giles?" Her tone was laced with concern.

Buffy started off positively, "We're gonna be okay—" pausing to sigh "—I think." Her sigh colored the clause, leaving an impression of doubt. She shoved away the disquiet with a wry grin and mumbled, "I still want to suit him up and hit him with sticks."

"And Dawn?"

"Uh, okay, I think. It's just hard with her. I think…I hope it'll be okay." Buffy rested her head against Willow's shoulder and whined, "We have a house full of people. And two more on the way."

"Yeah, who knew Jimmy had kids?"

"Uh, Will, about that, I need to tell you a story." She lifted her head and recounted the situation concerning Jimmy and his family.

Brow furrowed, Willow let the new information filter through. As she came to a decision, the witch bobbed her head up and down, saying, "Okay, so he was wrong, he knows that now. Let's see if we can help him out."

Buffy smiled at her girlfriend's easy acceptance of the upcoming drama, then deflated as she remembered the guests that were there. "Maybe making up with everyone wasn't the best idea. Can we just stay in here? I promise cuddles and smoochies. And if you're extra naughty, maybe more."

"Buffy, what's up? You like being around people. You're a people person."

"Correction, I used to be a people person. Now, I'm a girl who likes the quiet time. Unless you're there and then I'm a girl that likes her Willow time." Buffy relented when Willow gave her sad eyes. "You're right, okay, I give. Let's go be one with the Scooby clan."

They walked out of the room, Willow following the blonde. Before they got to the living room, she grabbed a slacks-clad rear end and whispered, "If you're super good, I'll fake being sick and we can go to bed early."

When Buffy halted, the witch leaned in to nip her earlobe. A tingle ran down her spine. That's me, the model of super goodness. I wonder if trying will earn me any bonus points? Usually not. Summoning her resolve, she led them the rest of the way into the room. There were two new faces in the crowd. As she was about to introduce herself, Jimmy came out of the kitchen with a tray full of drinks.

Setting them down, he righted himself and made the introduction. "Buffy, Willow, this is Susan and James," he offered awkwardly.

The crowd broke down into comfortable groups of two or three. Jimmy was busy talking to Faith and Giles while Xander and Dawn were trying to get Kennedy to go with them to see Spam-a-Lot.

The four remaining people eyed each other, trying to come up with conversation. Susan and James took two chairs that were brought out from the kitchen while Buffy and Willow sat opposite them on the loveseat.

"So, Buffy," James queried, "You work with my dad?" hoping to break the stalemate.

Buffy rested her arm across the back of the seat and played with Willow's sleeve as she answered, "Yeah, let's see, it'll be eighteen months in July."

Snorting, Susan laughed, "Sorry about that. He can be stubborn."

Willow tried to suppress her own laugh, but the sharp jab from her blonde counterpart squeezed it out of her.

James eyebrows rose at the interplay. "What are my sister and I missing?"

Reigning herself in, Willow said, "It's just that Buffy here's probably the most stubborn person in the world. Your dad really isn't a match for her."

Buffy shot her lover and incredulous glare. "Will, I'm not that bad."

Willow gave the blonde a sideways glance. The corners of her mouth turn up in a smirk. "Honey, if the house was on fire, but you didn't want to hear it, not even the bright, red fire trucks outside could convince you otherwise."

"Hey, that's…" Realizing that Willow was just razzing her, Buffy stuck her tongue out and said, "Fine, I'm stubborn. Happy?"

Willow nodded and turned to the brother and sister. They both had slightly curious, amused looks on their faces. "So, what do you two do?"

Susan answered, "I teach at PS 173, 4th grade," gesturing to her brother. "James manages a club down in Soho." She turned her attention to the couple on the loveseat and inquired, "Buffy, you work with my dad so that's easy, but Willow, what about you?"

"Uh, between jobs right now. Trying to go back to school."

"What for?" James asked.

"Medicine, I think," Willow answered cheerfully. Growing pensive when she added, "Although, my focus would be forensics. I was talking to an advisor and she suggested teaching and research." Her nose crinkled. "My parents did that, so I don't know if that's what I want."

Susan responded aridly, "Oh," Clearly that wasn't what she was expecting. She eyed the other two uncertainly, then gave her father a suspicious glance, tossing in a hasty, "How nice," to smooth things out. The result of which only served to make her appear more jaded.

Buffy watched Jimmy's daughter choke at the small talk and piped up, "James, what kind of club? I've been to a few here, but haven't found one that I like. Maybe you can help me out."

"Uh," James glanced at his father and swallowed. Stalling a moment before he added, "I don't think you would be interested in it. It's not really—cops don't really like my place."

Buffy knew they were treading on thin ice. I promised Jimmy we'd try to warm them up for the talking. Thing is, I don't so much feel like a rat as I do an intruder…at least to a degree. This really isn't my place. Smiling, she tried again, "I don't know about that. I'm not much for cop hangouts either. The music usually sucks and no one can dance."

James laughed and shrugged. "That's true," he offered with a weak smile, "It's called The Phoenix. It's, uh…" He cleared his throat before dropping the bombshell. "A gay club." He flinched and waited apprehensively for the reaction. Last time I saw my father it didn't go well. Actually I was thrown out of this very house. I love my dad, but I'm just not sure if I like him anymore.

To his surprise, Buffy smiled at him and said, "Cool, Will and I will have to come and check it out one night."

'Buff,' Willow warned mentally.

Keeping her expression neutral to mask the internal conversation, Buffy responded, 'What? Look, it's not like I can say, "You're dad's uber sorry for the way he treated you. My girlfriend and I are kinda acting like a buffer until he gets the stones to come over and talk to you personally and ask your forgiveness. And tell you that sure he kicked his gay son out of the house, but accepted his partner and her very, gay, incredibly sexy girlfriend with open arms when they needed to get away from their own family." Now can I?'

'No need to get snarky.'

'Sorry, but I'm running out of things to talk about.'

'Fine let me try.' Willow looked at James and saw that he had gone a little white. She smiled and said, "Buff and I wouldn't mind. We might actually drag the gang there, provided the music is good."

Susan looked from the blonde to the redhead and saw the glance that they had shared. "Guys, uhm…if you'll excuse me for a moment."

"Sure," Buffy and Willow said in unison.

They watched as the girl walked over to her father and herd him into the kitchen. Willow knew they were losing the battle and decided to try a Buffy maneuver. "She's not gonna go all angry and self-righteous on him is she?" she asked James.

"I'm thinking she might. Just out of curiosity, you two are an item?"

Buffy's brow furrowed. Her expression warmed with amusement. "Uh, yeah…I'd say we're pretty much item-like," she confirmed.

James prompted, "And my father knows?" shock evident on his features.

"We're kinda staying here until my family leaves," Buffy replied.

"Hmm, but you didn't answer the question. He knows you two are lovers?"

Willow interceded, "Yeah, he's—James, I know that your dad didn't have the best reaction when you came out. Some stuff happened and he talked with Buffy. It was really hard on him. Then she suggested you guys should talk." As Willow went on, the filter turned off and she broke into a guilty, full disclosure babble, "So he invited you over for dinner and—I dunno—we hoped that maybe you guys could come to some sort of understanding. So tonight's gonna be about showing you that your dad's cool with everything. He's really sorry for, uh…overreacting. He gets how wrong it was and wants a chance to make it up to you." Willow sucked in a breath and hoped he caught everything she said.

James just stared at her dumbfounded. Alright that was the longest run on sentence in the history of mankind. My dad's letting two lesbians stay with him? Did he get a brain transplant? Hell freeze over? "Ah, so I think I caught all of that and—well, we're talking about the same James McAllister, right?"

"Yeah," Buffy said, "He's changed. I think it's from when you guys stopped talking. He's trying to get you to see that tonight. It was actually my idea that he bite the bullet. He didn't want to, but he does want to…if that makes sense. So uhm, maybe you should go in the kitchen and see if you can help your sister ou—" she was cut short by Susan storming out of the dining area and grabbing her coat and purse.

"Come on, James, let's go," the brunette snapped.

"Why?" her brother asked, not moving from his spot on the chair.

"Because this is—I can't believe he would do this. God, he's insufferable."

"Susan Josephine McAllister, you get back here right now," Jimmy bellowed from the kitchen.

Buffy and Willow looked at each other as their family and simultaneously muttered, "Oh boy."

Turning back to shout through the open doorway, Susan ranted, "Dad, don't, okay? I can't believe you. This is ballsy, even for you. Jesus H. Christ, I'm so stupid. I should've known."

Jimmy's voice rang out from the kitchen, "Suzie-Q, please, don't be like that. I'm trying to apologize. I told you, I know it wasn't right." He poked his head out the door. "What do you want me to do? I can't turn back time and I sure as shit can't change the past."

Faith walked over to Buffy and whispered, "Why do I get the feeling we are witnessing a strained family reunion?"

"'Cause, we are. It's kinda a long story, but…eh, pay attention. I'm sure even you can catch up," teased Buffy.

Faith nodded then walked back over to where she was sitting.

Jimmy was red, the cords in his neck were standing out and the vein in his temple was throbbing. Trying to call on her time in Sunnydale as a counselor, Buffy stepped between daughter and father.

'Will, get the gang out of here for a few minutes, please. Kitchen. Then come back in here,' Buffy directed through their link.

Willow moved to usher the Scoobs from the room. She smiled and gave them a thumbs up before going back out to the living room where the petite slayer was putting herself between an upset Susan and her frustrated, burly cop, father. Willow looked to James and he shrugged.

Out of patience, Buffy snapped, "Both of you. Stop, okay?" Her right hand reflexively went to her hip. "Can I get you to sit down and maybe talk, instead of yelling, or am I asking the wrong people?"

Much to Susan's surprise, she watched her father stalk over to the couch and slump into a seat. He listened? Since when does he listen? Especially to the likes of her. She might be two-fifths his weight—maybe fully dressed and soaking wet. That and she's a good foot shorter—more like fourteen inches. Dad's got a serious temper. I may have to stick around just for the punch line.

"Susan, if you could, please, just entertain me." Buffy glanced at Jimmy's daughter, then at Will, realizing that the latter was giving her a 'stop being crazy slayer girl' look.

Willow saw the look Buffy returned and relented. Right, she can do this. Breaking up fights isn't exactly new territory for her. Easy peasey. Maybe I should give them some space. The redhead looked at the younger James and smiled before offering him an out. "Our family's good in the kitchen for right now. I need to go pick up food. You didn't want to stay for this, did you?"

James glanced between his father and sister and shrugged. Suz's got way more anger than I do. Maybe they can get through it, finally. He nodded at the redhead and walked to the door.

Buffy watched her lover's retreat, then turned to the two sitting across from each other. "'Kay, so…who wants to start?"

Willow walked a little down the street and stopped. Turning to face James, she apologized, "Sorry for all that. I don't think that's how your dad wanted to start this evening out."

"It's cool," he replied matter-of-factly. His interest got the better of him and he asked, "Can't say I wasn't curious why he would want to see me. Are you sure he wanted to welcome his 'faggoty ass' boy back into his life?"

Her face fell with shock. She scrambled to recover, failing miserably. "He said that to you?" she gasped.

"Only like five times," James replied dismissively, "I'd tell you the rest, but you seem to like him, so…"

"I don't think he meant it, if that helps."

Offering a weak smile, he shrugged and responded, "Oh, no, he meant it…then," pausing to rake his fingers through his hair. "I'm just not sure he means it now. He is, after all, partnered up with a lesbian. And he's allowing said lesbian and her partner to crash in his house. I just can't believe it's the same guy."

"People change, James. Regret's a thing," she offered, struggling to catch up herself.

"I know, but I just never thought I'd see the day that he would be as…accepting as he is now. He really wants us back in his life doesn't he?" James jammed his hands in his coat pockets and started walking again.

It took a moment for Willow's feet to start working again. When she caught up, she said, "All the arrows would seem to point to 'yes'."

"So what's the story with you and the blonde?" James asked, giving Willow a sidelong glance, amusement reflecting in his eyes.

"Ah," she fidgeted and went with a vague, "It's a long..." trailing off into thought.

"Then at least tell me how you two ended up staying with my dad?"

Taking a moment, Willow recounted the non-mystical version of why her family came to town to visit. How that resulted in fights and the current sleeping arrangements. And how his dad had talked Buffy into trying to start patching things up with her family while Buffy had convinced Jimmy to do the same. "So today after everyone made up, Buffy wanted our family here tonight, thinking that it might be easier for you two, but now I'm not so sure that was a good idea."

"Wow, no, it's cool. I mean, my dad usually doesn't take to people, but he likes you guys. That's good."

"Thanks," Willow said through a giggle, smiling as they walked into the restaurant. It took a few minutes for the hostess to put together their order. Leaving the restaurant a few minutes later, they walked slowly back to the house each carrying two bags full of delicious smelling food.

Willow stepped through the door and found Buffy and Jimmy standing in the middle of the living room. Susan looked calmer and it appeared that things were kind of on track. Willow waved and smiled at her girl.

Jimmy looked up at his son. "Junior, can I see you a moment?"

The man smiled at his father and shook his head 'no.' "There's no, reason. You and I are cool. Thank you for inviting us over tonight."

"Wha…?" Jimmy asked clearly confused.

"Dad, let it go. We're good. I'll take tonight as an apology and I'll assume that my pig-headed sister will too."

The detective gapped at his namesake. James approached the shocked man and wrapped him in a hug. "Love you, Dad."

Buffy watched the display unfold and an ache spread in her chest. I wish Mom were here. Projecting her thoughts, she asked, 'Will, what did you say to him?'

'I told him the truth. He's cool.'

Just then Xander's head appeared through the swinging doorway. "Everyone have all their parts?"

"Sure thing, Xander. Why don't you bring everyone back in and we can eat. I could eat a horse. Cupcake, here, only let me have a salad for lunch. Somethin' about keepin' my girlish figure for the ladies."

"I'll get you metro-sexualed up in no time," teased the blonde, "Next, wardrobe. Those ties should go wherever ties go to die."

"Hey, my ties are one of a kind," Jimmy rebuked, looking down at one of his favorites. Far from unique, it was green and brown plaid.

Dinner was scuffle-free and enjoyed by all. Afterward, everyone split off into groups chatting and taking pleasure in the company. Willow and Buffy were standing in the corner with Xander, hearing about the Cleveland slayerettes. Jimmy had taken his son and introduced him to Giles and Faith. Susan was talking to Dawn and Kennedy.

For all of the drama, it was pretty worth it. There's...thing's feel right. Better than they have in a long time. The blonde tightened her grip around her lover's waist and placed a series of light kisses along the back of her neck.

Hmm...gonna hafta thank my witch properly at some point. Hopefully we'll get a break in this case. One way or another, things have to normal up. Buffy practically purred when Willow pressed closer. Stifling the urge, Buffy directed her thoughts towards her lover. 'Will, not to be a party poop, but you wouldn't happen to be ready for bed would you?'

'Getting tired, or looking for naughty fun?'

'Uh…a little of both work for you?'

Willow let her mind drift for a moment as the idea of Buffy and bed merged in her mind. It was Xander's annoyed voice that brought her out of it.

"Willow…Earth to the redhead," Xander prompted, waving his hand in front of her face. "You in there?"

"Uh? Oh, sorry, Xander, just tired is all."

"If you're so zonked that you're missing my riveting, yet redundant tale about the slayer who ran into Clem, then you really are out of it. Go to bed."

"You know, that doesn't sound bad." Willow hugged Xander and kissed him goodnight on the cheek.

She turned to the rest of the people in the house and announced, "Uh, long day, guys, I'm headed to bed. James, Susan, it was really nice to meet you."

"Same here, Willow." James beamed from his perch on the couch. "You bring that blonde of yours and the rest of these people and I'll show you the best club in New York."

"You bet." Turning to Buffy, she asked, "You want to go to sleep?"

"Ya know, witch-o'-mine, that's not a bad idea," Buffy replied with a smirk, taking the offered hand. She addressed the entire room, saying her goodnights and allowed a bouncy redhead to drag her off to bed.

Xander walked over to where Faith was standing. Sitting down, he pulled his pregnant girlfriend into his lap.

She kissed his cheek and whispered in his ear, "You do know that they totally bailed on us to satisfy that low down tickle?" He met her gaze, his expression thick with confusion. Rolling her eyes, she clarified, "They bailed on us to go bounce, Xander."

He responded dismissively, "No, they woul…Ah, man…" But denial utterly failed him and his face flushed red at the flash of naughty mental images.

A ray of sunlight shown in through the window, lighting Buffy's face and causing her to stir. Groaning, she sluggishly pulled the covers over her head and wiggled, snuggling up to the redhead behind her. She kissed the arm that her head rested on and let her mind wander.

Three dead girls, all from Sunnydale and nothing to go on. Not yet anyhow. Right now, I've got diddly squat. Hell, I've got less than diddly squat, I've got bupkis. Jimmy's thinking 'witch.' I don't know why. I mean there's nothing to point to anything magicky. A low, frustrated growl sounded from Buffy as she shifted into the tightening embrace of the woman behind her. Thoughts of work and the girls lying in the morgue drifted out of her mind when Willow kissed the back of her neck.

Hmmm…Willow. Cocoon of Willow. I could stay like this for like eternity. It's been—what, nearly four years since I was there. Even though my memory's at best spotty, I still can't seem to shake the feeling that Heaven was never really this good. I think it was nice, or what I remember of it was nice…but it wasn't—it just doesn't live up to this.

'Kay, so…need to stop with the romantic drivel. I'm liable to make myself sick. It's nice though. Being able to be…just be a person in love. I'd forgotten what this is like.

Of course, I could always go for depressing…this is probably never going to work. I dunno, can't seem to help myself. There's this small part of me—a very small part that's thinking we have a shot. Really, I'm more thinking Willow won't give me a choice. The first night Willow came to town—when she was talking—she had that 'resolve' thing going on with her voice and expression, like I didn't get a say in the matter. I hope she keeps that 'resolve' thing. She's always been the strongest. Even at her weakest, she was stronger than I could ever hope to be.

She felt a hand stroke up the length of her stomach and knew her witch was awake. Turning to face her girl, she placed a light kiss on the corner of Willow's mouth.

The redhead popped an eye open and smiled.

"Morning," Buffy whispered, smiling back.

"Hmm, it is morning. How'd you sleep?"

"Good…the best even."

Willow tightened the embrace and cuddled up closer. With a little sneak, she managed to shift their bodies so that Buffy was playing pillow. The blonde firmly pinned, she tried to go back to sleep. That lasted for a few minutes until Jimmy interrupted by knocking at their door.

"Cupcake, Red, up and at 'em. Nekko called and said he might have something from vic three. Also, Willow, an advisor called for you and she wants to meet today. I ain't playin' secretary anymore. Let's move!" Jimmy boomed through the door.

Both women groaned and rolled away from each other, stretching. They both made quick work of their showers and were out in under twenty minutes. Willow pushed a lock of damp hair from her face as she trudged to the dresser to grab some clothes. Picking a brown wraparound skirt and a green blouse she turned around and found Buffy half-dressed and staring at her. "Buff…Earth to the slayer. You here?"

Buffy mumbled, "Uh, oh yeah, just got uh, side tracked is all," mindlessly continuing to dressing as she answered. "Hey, did you ever come up with anything at the library?"

"No, but I did find an older prophecy about the enjoining spell we used for Adam," Willow replied, busying herself with getting ready too.

Buffy's face lit with curiosity. "Oh yeah, what'd it say?"

"The usual. We were supposed to die."

"Hmm…yeah, alright, a prophecy stating that I'm supposed to be dead. Color me stunned. Hey, you think I broke some sorta mystic record?"

"For what?" Willow held the bedroom door open and waited on Buffy to finish slipping on her boot.

"On thwarting prophecies." Buffy righted herself and checked the full length mirror one last time before continuing, "I mean, I should be in the Guinness Book of World Records, or something."

Willow's eyes rolled as she said, "Honey, the only record book they'd put you in is the crazy one."

Buffy mock pouted and then finished getting dressed, clipping her badge to the front of her slacks and securing her firearm in its holster. They stepped out of the room together and were surprised to see Susan in the kitchen with her father.

"Morning, you two. Coffee's up and fresh," Jimmy said, hooking a thumb towards the coffee pot.

"Hmm, caffeine." Willow made a beeline for the mugs and fixed both her and Buffy a cup.

"So what did Nekko find?" Buffy took a seat across from her partner.

"Some deposits on the girl's clothes. I think it was oil or tar or something. It might give us a location for the kill site."

"Nifty. Now all I have to do is have the redhead break out her crystal ball and divine the many possible places it could be," Buffy said sarcastically.

"I don't do crystal balls, babe," Willow said with a smile as she handed over Buffy's coffee. "Besides, there might be an easier way. When are you guys going to see the 'what'?"

"Now, if I can get Cupcake to wake up enough. What the hell did you do to her last night, Red?"

"The usual." Willow smiled and winked at Buffy as she blushed.

"Okay, enough," Susan called from the chair next to her father. "Dad, since we stayed over last night, James took the car. He had to be at the club early. Can you give me a ride to the school?"

"Sure thing, kiddo. Alright, troops, let's haul ass," Jimmy ordered, dumping the rest of his coffee in the sink and shutting off the pot.

After dropping Susan off, the trio headed over to the morgue to talk to Nekko. They were ushered into his office and a few minutes later, he came bustling in with a stack of folders.

"Well, if it ain't my two favorite D's and a wonderful redhead. My day just got better. I take it you got my message?"

"Affirmative. So, what'd you find?" Jimmy answered.

Nekko remarked, "We've found quite a bit." Working his way past the others and taking a seat behind his desk before continuing, "The first two bodies were in pristine condition. Nothing on the clothes except alley juice, no extraneous fibers, nothing much really…" he rifled through the stack of folders "…but this girl, she brought in a lot of trace." After locating the correct one, he thumbed through the pages as he filled in, "The C.O.D. was exsanguination, but if the blood loss hadn't killed her, the septicemia would have. Your unsub lacerated the liver twice. She was dead inside a half hour from the initial cut."

The dots started to connect in her head. Buffy sat up straighter. "Why didn't the unsub clean her off?"

"Dunno, kiddo. But it's good for us." Jimmy said with a shrug.

Absently flipping through his notes, Nekko remarked, "Well, Blondie, as an educated guess, there were three hesitation marks surrounding the upper cut and one around the bottom one."

"Hesitation cuts? None of the other vics had that. Was she bound? Any ligature markings?" Buffy persisted.

Nekko smiled when Willow came around the desk to read over his shoulder. He passed the file back as he offered, "No, but that doesn't mean they didn't have her tied down. May've just been careful about it. Also, this is the only one that was actually—it looks like a lot more thought was put into how to kill her."

"Whaddya mean?" Jimmy asked.

"The first vic's C.O.D. was strangulation. Pressure was applied to the throat, cutting off her air supply. But—and here's the interesting part—when I get strangulations, I usually find that the vic's hyoid was broken; her's wasn't. It looked like there was just enough pressure applied to cut the flow of oxygen until she passed out and died," Nekko explained, pausing to rub his chin pensively before moving on. "The second vic was stabbed between the 5th and 6th rib causing puncture wounds to the left lung. It caused the lung to collapse and she drowned in her own blood."

Satisfied, Willow returned the file and reclaimed her place next to Buffy.

When Willow was facing him again, Nekko finally answered the question, "With our new girl, between the hesitation marks and then the killing strokes, I would guess that your guy—it looks like they were trying to be more precise about how they killed her."

The others nodded and Buffy asked, "So, what else did you find?"

"Well, there was some dirt on the vic's clothes and we just chalked it up to her being dumped in an alley," Nekko commented. Turning his attention to his desk when he admitted, "Which was stupid. I was getting ready to hose the body off when I saw the same coloring on her back. I nearly missed it, but because of my persistently annoying tech, I stopped. We took some samples and narrowed the trace elements down. It's engine grease and sand. Typical of what you would find in shipping districts."

Looking up to gauge the other's reactions, Nekko continued, "Also, there was some strange powdery, uh…dust material. This stuff—when Laura called me into the lab to look at it under the scope, I thought she was putting me on. But this stuff is wild. It presents like soot, but there's more in it than that."

"Like, calcium deposits that look like bone, dried blood, and other weird things that shouldn't be there?" Willow asked.

Nekko appeared a little shocked, but recovered quickly. "Yeah, for the most part. Other minor trace elements, but yeah, that is most of it. What do you know about it? I've been through the federal databases and the only hit I've come back with is some lame explanation."

"Lemme guess, PCP burn off or some other drug related derivative?" Willow replied with a knowing smile.

Nekko laughed. "Uhm, yeah, pretty much. So, you know what it is, Willow"

"Crematorium soot," Willow lied.

Nekko cocked his head in surprise, but let it go.

"So, Cupcake, what do you think?" Jimmy asked, turning his attention to his partner.

"I think we have a starting point. It's better than sitting around and doing absolutely nothing."

"Hear, hear…so, Nekko, what else can you tell us?" Jimmy asked.

Nekko went into a bit more detail on the variations between the three victims while Willow engaged Buffy in a silent conversation.

'Buff, I need to get to the body, preferably with no one around.'


'I've got an idea.'

Buffy glanced at Willow. When she saw the redhead rustling through her purse, Buffy's brow furrowed.

Willow looked up, meeting the blonde's questioning gaze, and offered, 'Okay, I remembered everything.'


Buffy was rewarded for her curiosity with a barrage of Willow babble, 'Scrying…I'm gonna try some scrying. I was going to try it on the other two but hadn't figured out the correct combination of spells. She's dead though, so I'm not sure how this is going to work. I think I've thought of everything, I just need to be really specific.'

'Okay,' was the best answer Buffy had.

'Uh, but how am I gonna get alone-time with the body?'

'I'll take care of that. Just watch for my signal.' Fixing her interest on the medical examiner, Buffy asked, "Hey, Nekko, can we go take a look at the body?"

"Sure. She's still on ice," Nekko replied with a shrug. He went to the door and held it, waiting on everyone to file out.

Pulling Jimmy back, Buffy whispered, "Will needs some one-on-one time with the vic's body. Follow my lead and leave Willow to her thing."


"Just pay attention and agree with me."

"Cupcake…" Jimmy warned.

"Shhhh…" Buffy moved ahead and left Jimmy confused.

They entered through the cutting floor and moved to the lockers. Nekko disappeared for a moment, before poking his head out of the locker room to motion the others in.

The place was freezing. There were a few occupied gurneys sitting next to the drawers. Nekko wheeled out the body so that they could look at it without having to step completely into the room. Willow angled herself to the side of the body, just inside the door. Buffy and Jimmy were at the entryway as Nekko moved opposite Willow and removed the sheet.

'Buff, anytime you want to create a distraction would be good.'

'I know I'm thinking. I never would have made it as Mata Hari.'

Willow had to stifle a laugh. 'Yeah, but I bet you'd look much sexier in the outfits.'

'Oh…'kay…on another note—a slightly more pertinent note—diversion...back to the lack of a diversion. I think I should have thought this out some more. Got it. Follow my lead.'

Buffy stepped back and tripped over a chair leg that was sticking out from a desk. Wind-milling her arms, she stumbled back and appeared to hit her head on the edge of a table. When she went down, Jimmy and Nekko were by her side immediately.

Seeing the opportunity, Willow grabbed the door and slammed it shut. Jimmy's head snapped back and noticed the latch closing before he could stop it.

"Buffy!" Nekko yelled. "Buff, are you okay?"

Buffy pretended to be dazed and winced. "Ow…my head. What happened?"

Jimmy saw that she was okay and then turned back to the closed door. Willow was currently inside the locker room with about eight stiffs.

"Willow?" Jimmy called out, tugging at the door. He tugged a second time and found that the lock wouldn't budge. "Red, you okay? Can you open the door?"

Buffy stepped in behind him and tugged on the door. Will really hit the target with this one. If I can't budge it, you can bet the boys won't have a shot. She'll come out when she's ready. "She'll be okay," she offered reassuringly.

Coming up behind the two, Nekko looked around and asked, "Where's Willow?"

Jimmy motioned to the door and said, "Apparently, locked in."

"What? That door doesn't lock. Watch out." Nekko moved past the detectives and grabbed the door handle. It wouldn't budge. Tugging again, this time putting more force into it, his hands slipped and he stumbled back. "Okay, that's not right. Willow can you hear me?"

No reply.

"Willow? Shit. Alright, I'll be back." Nekko took off down the hall at a dead run.

Jimmy turned to his partner, appearing completely unimpressed and huffed, "Tell me this isn't your master plan?"

Buffy grinned and nodded.

"Cupcake, seriously. Is she okay?"

"Yeah, she should be done soon."

"Jesus Christ Almighty in a little red nightie," Jimmy cursed. His mood wasn't improved by his partner's giggle. A gale-force rant was in order. And not to disappoint, Jimmy let them have it. "I can't believe you two! Willow, if you can hear me, you are in a world of trouble!" The man mopped his face with his left hand and waited for something to happen. "Fuck it!" He took out his pack of cigarettes and lit up on the cutting floor.

It was about four minutes before they heard the pounding of shoes coming from down the hall. Nekko rounded the corner with a crowbar in hand. He was breathless and clearly panicking. He wedged the bar between the handle and the door and pulled with all his might. The handle wouldn't budge. He grunted with extra effort and slipped, falling back on his ass.

"Nekko, it's cool. Relax. I'm sure she's fine," Buffy said and offered her hand to the doctor, helping him up.

He just looked at her and raised his hands in exasperation. Not wanting to give the guy a heart attack, Buffy walked over to the door and gave it a light tug. The latch released with ease and Willow exited the room smiling.

"You okay, Will?" Buffy checked, taking her witch's hand.

Willow nodded and said, "Yeah, I heard you, but I guess you guys couldn't hear me. What happened?"

Jimmy had the good sense to just walk away while Nekko fussed over the redhead.

"Are you sure you're okay? I mean I've had cops freak out just by being in there for a moment before the door reopened. I don't know what happened."

Willow shrugged. "Must have been stuck. No big though. Hey, Buff, I need to get to campus. Can we go?"

"Yeah," Buffy said, "Nekko, can I get those reports?"

"Sure." He walked over to one of the computers on the desk and had the reports on the printer in under a minute. He handed them over to the blonde and shook his head again. "I'm gonna have to have that door looked at. I can't have people getting stuck in there."

Buffy and Willow turned away from him and suppressed the laughter, welling up inside. They exited through the receiving doors and found Jimmy pacing the lot, smoking and muttering to himself.

Willow and Buffy moved ahead of him and let out the laughter they had been stifling.

Jimmy huffed and followed behind them, "Ya know, that ain't funny, you two. I swear to God. You two are worse than teenagers."

"Jim, we need to drop Will off at school."

"Ah, no, you don't. I'll call my advisor from the car. We need to go to the lower east side. I've got a location from the body. We need to go there and you aren't going without me."

"You heard the redhead, Summers, let's go." Jimmy smiled and relaxed a bit. Hot damn, something more to go on than suspicion and photocopied IDs.


Chapter 11 – Get Well Card

Jimmy lumbered down the alleyway between two warehouses, matching pace with his partner…and her partner. "Buff, your spidey thing-a-ma-whats-it all a flutter?" he grumbled impatiently. Stupid midtown traffic. Took longer than Creation to get here. I swear I'm growing older by the second. And at my age…

After quickly glancing at another homeless person hiding in the debris, Buffy admitted, "Nope, can't say that it is, old man. I'm dead in the water." Pretty much the only thing on the radar so far is evidence that our welfare system could use a serious rethink.

They reached the end of the alley. Yeah…thanks for the backup, kid. As Jimmy paused to look around the narrow intersection, he asked, "You, Red?"

She replied, "Yeah, but nothing too major right now," pointing to a solitary structure off to their left, "The building's just up ahead."

The old building towered above the others around it. It was one of the largest in the area and coincidentally the most run down. The top row of windows were completely busted out and the front left side of the roof was collapsing.

"Red, you sure this is the place?" Jimmy asked, peering up at the warehouse skeptically. Don't think much would be in there 'cept spiders, rats and roaches—the two-legged and the eight-legged kind.

Cautiously approaching the building, Willow nodded and affirmed, "I am," to reassure Jimmy as she led them inside. I mean, sure, I'll ignore the fact the windows look like a gaping busted mouth and the shards of glass hanging from the window frames look like jagged teeth that are gonna eat me up. Nope, not gonna think about it. I was raised on a hellmouth. This? No problem. Yep, no fear, or worry here.

Little light filtered through the structure. It took a moment for Willow to adjust. Buffy hung back with her, giving them both time, but Jimmy pressed ahead. She started to say something. Instead, her good intentions turned into a stifled giggle fit when he stumble over a cylindrical object, lost his footing and fell. He went backwards much the same way she had at the morgue, but he landed much harder than she had.

Buffy ran up to him and knelt beside her partner, "You okay?"

His face was visibly red and he fought to get his breath back. Finally, getting air into his lungs, he wheezed out, "Yeah, just fuckin' peachy."

Buffy helped him up and he looked back to where he slipped. Willow was hunched over the diminished pile and harrumphed. "Vamp dust," she said, brushing her hands off.

"Explains why they found it on Eaton's body," Buffy said, kneeling down beside her girlfriend. She touched the small pile of ash and cussed. "Unbelievable. Will, we need more light. Can you assist?"

"Can do," Willow replied with a smile and began muttering in Latin.

Buffy watched with amusement. A small orb of light grew in the palms of her lover's outstretched hands. As the intensity of Willow's muttering increased, the orb grew brighter.

Satisfied with the size of the artificial ball of sunlight she had conjured; Willow cast another spell, sending the orb high overhead. It stopped about fifteen feet in the air and hovered, bathing the building in light.

Buffy flashed a grin at her witch. The warmth drained out of her features when she looked up. There was a spiral design carved into the floor of the building. At the center of the spiral, a small platform stood with two posts protruding up from either side. There's enough blood. Those girls were killed here. And outside the spiral, five piles of vamp dust arranged all pentagram-like. She froze, stopping to suck in a deep, trembling breath when Jimmy mumbled some type of prayer and crossed himself. Wonder if Will's seen this before. It looks familiar, but not.

"Good work, Red. Looks like we've got our kill site. I'm gonna call it in. Cupcake, whatever mumbo jumbo you and your girl need to do, make it quick."

Willow circled the crude platform and shuddered. "Buff, not to be a scaredy cat, but there's some serious badness coming off this." The hairs on the back of her neck stood up and she turned toward the source of the discomfort. Behind her, was a staircase that led to some offices. On the landing above them, a figure stood staring down at them.

"Buff," whispered the witch. When she had Buffy's attention, Willow motioned with a subtle dip of her chin.

Buffy's head whipped around. Her eyes tracked the indicated path, settling on the figure above them. The shadows wrapped around him. Even with the slayer's enhanced vision she couldn't make much out.

The stranger cooed, "Why, Ms. Summers. And look—how nice—Ms. Rosenberg," sounding so much like Snidely Whiplash that Buffy nearly cracked a grin.

Jimmy drew his gun and leveled it, targeting the shadowy figure.

Raising his hands, the stranger turned to Jimmy and studied him for a moment before speaking. "Detective McAllister, a pleasant surprise. I take it from your presence that your partner has filled you in on her sordid past."

Jimmy growled, "Look, why don't you just come down the stairs nice and slow…" gesturing with a sideways jerk of his gun "…so we can talk this out."

The figure let a smile play at the corner of his lips. He ignored the older detective and focused on Buffy. "Slayer, I'm surprised it took you so long to find this place. Actually, I'm a little disappointed. To hear it told, you're the ultimate adversary."

Buffy snarked, "Yeah, well…I'm not so much for giving a crap about other people's opinions," rolling her eyes dismissively. "What is it with you guys? Do you go to some school that turns out evil masterminds? For Pete's sake…" she placed her hands on her hips "…I'd think that some of you would hook up between classes, compare notes and find something a little more original. Is there a manual I don't know about?"

Jimmy glanced between the two, then glanced over his shoulder at Willow. To his surprise, she appeared amused. His head whipped back to the figure on the balcony. What the fuck is she doin'? Red seems happy about this. They're gonna have to clue me in when this is done. If I didn't know better, I'd think Cupcake's enjoying the conversation.

"I just expected more from you. More of a disciplined warrior instead of—well, you. The council really did slip up with your studies," the stranger snarled smugly.

Buffy glared at him. Her right hand rested on the butt of her gun, but she still kept her stance relaxed and cocky. "Well, if I've said it once, I'll say it again, I'm really not one to toe the line. I do things my way. Why don't you come on down and let me show you how my way feels."

'Buff, you do know he's setting you up right?' Willow's voice cut into her thoughts.

'Yeah, but I figured you'd have something in the mojo department to back me up.'

'One little word and this guy's toast,' Willow confirmed.

'Love you, Will. What would I do without you?'

'Be dead.'

Buffy glanced at Willow and winked. As Willow faced the bad guy, she clung to Jimmy's side, ensuring that she was in a position to protect him.

"Slayer, tell your witch to back off."

"Sorry, buddy, she's got a mind of her own." Buffy shrugged, automatically returning her hands to her hips.

Willow felt the surge before she saw it. Reflexively, she conjured a shield. The air concussed around them, but they were protected from the majority of the blast.

Jimmy winced and his gun discharged.

Willow glanced at the stranger. When the shots hit to his right, he loosed another burst of magic. To her surprise, it arched up. She tracked the stream and got his intent.

Calling out for Buffy to move closer, Willow shored the shield up. Under the force of the blast, the rafters shook. The rotten, old roof tore apart, showering over them.

Willow held the barrier, sensing the impact of the debris. She wasn't going to keep them safe for much longer. Scraping the limits, she channeled more energy. But she was fighting a losing battle.

As the shield shrank, they were pulled closer together. Willow clung to Buffy and Jimmy, chanting the one incantation she knew would save them. Sorry, guys, best I've got. It feels pretty much like being sucked through a soda straw, but—

They were spat from of the building. Hurling through the air, they landed about one-hundred feet away with a sharp thud.

After several moments, Buffy stirred, groggily sat up and shook herself off. Plumes of dust billowed from her clothing and hair. Her attention set on Willow first. She was splayed out groaning, only a few feet away. But when Buffy gently jiggled, Willow tried to bat her hand away. She'll be fine…just tapped.

Buffy crawled over to Jimmy and asked, "You okay, old man?" He was breathing heavy and shaky. Grabbing her arm, he tried to respond but no words came out.

She called out, "Will, something's wrong," her voice trembling.

Willow pushed herself up and looked at her friend. He doesn't look so hot. Oh Goddess…ashy, struggling for breath. Oh goddess, oh goddess, oh goddess. Jimmy don't. Stay with us. Willow blindly reached for his pulse and picked up the irregular pattern. Tie. Get his tie. Willow's finger's moved deftly and undid Jimmy's tie, then moved to his shirt. What will work? Think brain. Emergency first aid. I can do this. Aspirin! Who would have aspirin? I need an aspirin. Jimmy. Jimmy needs an aspirin.

"Buffy, you don't happen to have any aspirin do you?"

Buffy looked dumbly between her unconscious partner and her now black haired lover. Willow looked just as bad. Her face was pale and clammy. Blood dripped from her nose. Why's Will wigging? He should be fine. And why would I have aspirin? "No. Will," Buffy replied. Grabbing the panicky witch, she forced eye contact, staring into coal black eyes. "What's going on?"

"I think he's having a heart attack. Call an ambulance." Willow pulled free and reached for her purse. Dumping out the contents, she shuffled through looking for anything to help. She swiped at the blood dripping from her nose with her left and checked for a pulse with her right. Not finding one, she knelt over his chest and began CPR.

After giving dispatch their location, Buffy knelt beside Willow, awaiting instructions.

"When I tell you to, breathe into his mouth," Willow huffed through the compressions. She counted to thirty and ordered, "Breathe," in a voice, slightly too loud.

Buffy craned over Jimmy, pinching his nose and puffed twice. When she looked up, Willow resumed compressions. This time Buffy counted, finding the rhythm. On the next repetition, a command wasn't needed.

As they worked together in tandem, an eternity passed, exhaustion taking its toll. The ambulance arrived almost unnoticed. Willow glanced over her shoulder to see two EMTs unloading a gurney.

"Grab the crash box! His heart's stopped!" she yelled.

The younger of the two stared at her for a moment, then ran back to the rig. The other came up and moved Buffy out of the way so that he could bag the detective.

"How long as he been down?" asked the elder EMT.

Willow looked up at him to answer, but couldn't get words to form.

Buffy stepped in and said, "Since I hung up with dispatch."

"Seven minutes, Jose, are those charged?"

"Ten seconds," the other EMT replied, kneeling next to his partner.

Jose pushed the dark-haired woman aside and attached the gel pads to the cop's chest. "Alright." He grabbed the paddles and hit the cop with a jolt.

Jimmy arched, his muscles locking, then going limp.

Willow watched for a moment as the two EMTs worked on her friend, then took her place at Buffy's side. The witch heard another, "Clear," followed closely by the sound of Jimmy falling back to the ground.

"Wait, we got a sinus rhythm. Okay, let's go," Jose said.

Buffy stared numbly as they loaded her partner on to the gurney, then ran to get in. Jose stopped Willow from following the slayer. "One person can go."

"You really want to try and stop me," Willow purred, leveling a glare at him. Yeah…I know I look pretty. I can feel it. Black hair and eyes, a little blood congealed under my nose and mouth. I look exactly how I feel. Pretty much like poop. May as well use it.

As he met the witch's gaze, the color drained from his face. Taking a step back, he stammered, "No, uh…no, ma'am. Get in," raising his hands, then gesturing for her to board. He piled in behind her. Cautious to keep his distance, he crossed himself. Santa Maria! If Momma saw, she'd say 'demon.' Gonna go to mass tonight. Fuckin' freaky bitch. Think I'll let her do whatever she wants.

Through locks of red hair, Willow stared vacantly at the white tile floor at her feet. The bench she sat on could've been an unpadded piece of wood for all the comfort it provided. It hurt. The pain and fatigue were obvious, just from her appearance. She slumped, her forearms resting against her knees.

Boots came into her field of view. They clicked faintly against the floor. She tracked their progress as they fell: perfectly straight, graceful, heel to toe.

When the boots and their owner moved away, she turned her wrist to glance at her watch. Another minute. It's been almost an hour and still nothing. You'd think they'd say something.

Like clockwork the boots returned, moving the other way. She slowly lifted her eyes, taking in the details. Grungy patches of dark alley dirt stained her lover's cream colored slacks. It was easy to see from the depth of the stain that Buffy had skidded on this side, her right side and rolled onto her back.

A tear in the hem of the slayer's blouse drew Willow's interest. Oh…I liked that shirt. The blue brought out her eyes.

Suddenly, the witch's face tensed as a wave of pain and nausea hit. She scrunched her eyes closed. Letting her head fall into her hands, she massaged her temples. I wish she'd just stop. It's making me…

A soft thump followed by whooshing and a slight breeze snapped Willow out of her daze. She turned as the clicking of Buffy's heels grew louder and more purposeful. Her attention fixed on the man who entered the hallway. He was older than either of them, perhaps her parent's age, well built, tall and dressed in a suit. It took her a moment to understand why this man was so familiar to Buffy.

Leveling his gaze on Buffy, he asked, "Any word?" When she shook her head, his eyes narrowed. "What happened?" he added with marked interest.

A subtle smirk curled the corners of the witch's mouth as Buffy took a little creative license, filling him in with a more mundane view of the day's events.

Her captain asked, "So the guy got away?" chewing on his lower lip.

She muttered, "Yeah," her tone reflecting disappointment.

He nodded, making eye contact before offering a reassuring, "It's alright. We'll get him eventually."

Buffy let the comment slide and asked instead, "Hey, did anyone think to call Jimmy's family?"

"No, I just got down here as soon as I heard," her boss responded with a shrug.

"It's okay. I'll call," Buffy mumbled, turning to leave.

"Hey, Summers…"

She stopped at the sound of the authoritative voice.

"Don't, okay," he directed, "It's not your fault…" meeting her eyes when she faced him "…just shitty timing there, California." His expression warmed with a supportive grin.

Graciously, Buffy replied, "Thanks, Pat. I'm not," returning the smile. It faded as she amended, "Blaming myself that is…" her demeanor hardened "…but when I find this bastard…" she let the sentence trail off along with the implication. She received another understanding nod from her captain. Turning on heel, she walked down the hall to sit with Willow. "Hey, you," she said when she reached the bench.

Willow looked up, offering a tiny smile and whispered, "Hey, back." Waiting for Buffy to take a seat before she asked, "Who's that?" to verify her impression.

Buffy replied, "Our boss," tentatively cupping her hand over the back of her witch's. "He just popped in to check on Jimmy." As Willow turned her hand and gave a gentle squeeze, the slayer lamented, "It's not like there's a whole lot of information about what's going on though."

"I'm still not sure if quick would be good or not," Willow offered pensively, trying to comfort. It seems like the hospital would contact his family. We sorta gave them everything they needed, but… "Did anyone call Susan or James?" she asked. That'd be putting too much faith in their competence. God, I hate hospitals. They're just not gonna tell us much.

Numbly shaking her head, Buffy mumbled, "I don't know—" she rested it on Willow's shoulder "—what do I tell them?"

Willow touched Buffy's thigh and gave it a gentle caress. "I've got James' number. We kinda had a bonding walk last night. I'll call and tell him," she offered, giving the thigh a pat before rising to her feet. When Buffy snagged her wrist, the witch turned, meeting the sad hazel-blue eyes. With a weak grin, she said, "Stay put. I'll be back in a jiff. The rest of the gang should be here soon." Ignoring the woozy, she reluctantly pulled away and started down the hall for the door.


The sound of her name caused her to freeze mid-stride. She spun around.

Buffy began almost timidly, "I just—" cutting off to pull her thoughts together. She cleared her throat and tried again, "Getting us out of there today was wow-worthy. Thank you."

Closing the distance between them, Willow leaned down and placed a lingering kiss on her slayer's lips. Offering, "Never thank me for that," between smooches, she finally relented to whisper, "I love you." After peering adoringly into her lover's eyes for a moment, she straightened and started down the hall.

Stupid hospitals. Stupid waiting rooms. You'd think for all the waiting they force you to do they could at least manage a comfortable chair. Buffy's head rested on Willow's shoulder. She turned it a little to sneak a peek at her watch. Waiting…it's been nearly four hours and no one's come to talk to any of us.

Her attention drifted over the occupants of the room. Memories of sitting in Sunnydale's hospital flashed through her mind. This is almost as bad as waiting to hear from the doctors after Mom's surgery. I need to find something to do.

She looked over at Giles and caught his eye. Then nodding at Xander, she stood and motioned for them to follow her.

Buffy left the room and proceeded down a corridor to an empty room with the two men in tow. Shutting the door, she turned to face them and said, "I know Will went over some of the stuff that we found at the warehouse," crossing the room as she spoke, "I want to know what you can dig up." She leaned against of the end of the bed, her shoulders sagging. The dark circles under her eyes made her look gaunt.

"And you say that you recognized the markings," asked Giles.

"Yeah, but I can't remember," Buffy replied, shaking her head in frustration. That design's just so familiar. Too familiar, like I can almost put a finger on it, but not. The 'not' may lead to Happy Hour. I could seriously use a drink.

Giles rubbed at the back of his neck saying, "Very well then. Might I suggest you coming back to the apartment to begin looking over some texts? Something there might jog your memory."

"Not leaving," Buffy stated obstinately and folded her arms across her chest to punctuate her stance.

"Buffy, please be a little cooperative," Giles pleaded.

"No way, no how," she mouthed through clenched teeth.

Still by the door, Xander broke his silence to suggest, "Well, hey, Buffster…" he chuckled when they flinched "…why don't you just draw a picture? I think we've gotten by on less. Then we can take it back and start looking over some things while you and Will wait here."

Giles started, "Xander, please…" turning silent and malcontent when Buffy cut him off.

"Giles, that's not a bad idea." Pushing off the bed, she leveled a glare at her former watcher and reiterated, "I'm not leaving, so it's the best you're gonna get. Sorry, I'm setting up 'Camp Buffy' until they let me see him. You guys can go be researchy."

"As you wish. I'll go and hunt down some paper and perhaps a pencil for you to draw with," Giles muttered. Walking out the door, he mumbled under his breath, "I swear, how the world is still in working order after having her as a slayer for ten years is really beyond me."

Buffy snapped, "Hey, I heard that!" Plastering on a thick pout, she followed them out of the room.

The pout had nearly faded when they reached the waiting room door. Big, stupid, dork guy. Giles should totally get this. She took position at Xander's side while Giles talked one of the nurses out of some paper. Funny how a couple of days ago Xander was being a butt and Giles…it's like they switched roles.

As he passed by, the watcher handed off the material to his ex-charge before entering the waiting room.

Following the others in, Buffy reclaimed her seat next to Willow. After situating herself, she began to draw the patterns and set up in the warehouse.

Ever the curious one, Dawn peered across Willow's lap and watched her sister draw. "Buffy, why are you drawing that?" Dawn asked worriedly as the drawing began to take shape.

"It's what was on the floor of that warehouse. What's the big?" Buffy said with a shrug and went back to puzzling over the sketch she'd made, wondering if anything was missing.

Dawn replied, "That looks like that thing that sent you to that alt…" Stopping to consider the company, she glanced at Jimmy's kids and rose to her feet. "Uh, Willow, Buffy, come on," she said, motioning for them to follow. They left the waiting room. Once outside and alone, she continued, "That little shadow toy that sent you to the alternate dimension." Taking in the puzzled expressions, she added, "Where you were gonna get super-slayered. Remember?"

"Yeah, I do." Buffy thought back to the design on the floor and let the memory of being chained to the shadow men's posts come back to her. The image flashed in her mind and she finished drawing the picture.

Dawn asked pensively, "Why was that on the floor?" taking the drawing from her sister.

Ignoring the grabby hands, Buffy replied "I don't know." She rolled her eyes. I'd forgotten how much fun this wasn't. The eye roll went totally unnoticed. Everyone had their eyes fixed on the scrap of paper. Hoping for answers, she directed her attention to the resident magick expert and asked, "Will, any ideas?"

Willow appeared less than impressed when she grumbled, "Nope. I knew that stupid thing looked familiar."

"So then there was vamp dust, ritual markings on the floor and the creepy warlock guy," recapped the slayer, ticking each item off on her fingers. Uh, yeah…lots more nothing. Nice. Really nice. Her hands automatically went to her hips when she remarked, "And the clues all still add up to a big 'huh'."

Willow fixed her eyes on a blank patch of wall behind Buffy, staring unblinkingly as she recalled, "There were—the last time I was in Devon—there were some books about slayer lore. Not a lot, but enough to keep me busy for a few hours. There was a set of spells and rituals that took the original ritual and augmented it. They did different things to the person performing the ritual. It could be that whatever he's doing is something from one of those books."

Buffy waved her hand to draw her witch's attention before she asked, "Okay, that makes no sense. Why? I didn't think a he could do slayer stuff."

"Willow is there any way you could get those books? Maybe I can translate them better," Dawn offered.

"I don't know. Maybe," Willow replied frankly, her interest still focused on the wall. The witch fidgeted and bit her bottom lip. Could call Althenea and see if we can get them shipped.

Buffy's brow furrowed. She raised her hand to eye level and snapped her fingers.

As Willow mumbled, "I can ask," she tracked the slayer's hand back to her waist. She clenched her eyes shut for a moment. When she opened them, pain marred her features. Swallowing thickly, she finished her thought, "The coven really doesn't like their books leaving the grounds," glancing up apologetically when she was done.

One look from her slayer and Willow nodded, walking down the hall, her cell phone already at her ear.

When her witch opened the door, Buffy glanced up and smiled. Thank God! She gave her wristwatch a quick peek. Since when does it take nearly forty minutes to make one stupid phone call? Her head tilted to the side. Uh, yeah, so…not really fair. It's just…one more minute of Teletubbies and I may make the morning paper.

Using Willow's entrance as cover, she gave Susan a passing glance as she returned her attention to the door. Thankfully, the other woman had her eyes glued to the television. I really want to like her for Jimmy's sake, but something tells me this is gonna get complicated. Like maybe the fact that every time she thought I wasn't looking—well, hostility begins to describe it. I wonder what her malfunction is this time.

Willow closed the distance between them. There was a spring in her step that had been missing since the altercation at the warehouse. 'Kay, so…firming up. I'm glad she took the time…Willow feeling better—never a bad thing.

The witch stood in front of Buffy with a warm smile on her face. Buffy reached and grabbed Willow's hand, pulling her into her seat. When Willow was settled, the slayer asked hopefully, "So do we have books?" suppressing her voice because of the mixed company. Susan clueing up that there's Scoobiage afoot—yeah, that'd be helpful. Bad enough she's got this 'Don Corleone' sorta charm.

Resting her head on her lover's shoulder, Willow gave a subtle nod and whispered, "Althenea said she'd overnight them…" speaking up for Giles' benefit "…and I told her to bill the Council."

Giles' lips pursed, but then seemed to think better of it. Tipping his head in agreement, he said, "That's fine, dear."

Perking up, "Hey, guys," Faith interrupted, "I dunno about you, but I can't sit here anymore." She stood up and stretched. "Xander and I are gonna go back to the apartment. Call us when there's more info, B."

Appearing supremely bored, Kennedy echoed the stretch. Her movement jostled a sleepy Dawn. She stirred. "I think Faith's got a point," Kennedy said, rising to her feet. She turned her attention to her girlfriend and asked, "Dawn, you want to go?" When Dawn yawned and nodded her agreement, Kennedy offered a hand.

Giles stood with the others. Directing his attention to Buffy, he offered, "I believe I will join them." Adding a cryptic, "There's some material I should review," he gave her a curt nod.

Dawn hugged her sister and Willow goodbye and followed the gang out the door.

Buffy watched as her family made their departure and heaved a sigh of frustration.

As Willow sat with her lover, she sensed the knots in Buffy's back tightening. Trying to ease some of the tension, the witch began rubbing small, soothing circles over her slayer's muscles. Give and take. She got rid of the blackies when we got to the hospital. I scared about half of the staff. That wasn't loads of fun. Now, if only I could remember the rest of those books. It's just—there wasn't enough in those books to go on. It was more light reading while I was there. I couldn't have expected this. Goddess, I should know by now.

James looked over at the two lovers and smiled. He sighed and got up, offering, "I need to go make a call," as he left the room.

Susie sat, dully staring at the TV. She abandoned it, turning her attention to the carpet at her feet when Paris Hilton appeared with another insipid little blonde clone.

Willow inquired, "Susan?" smiling when she caught the other woman's attention, "I'm going to the cafeteria to get some coffee and bring back edibles. You want anything?"

"Ah, no. I'm good. Thanks though," Susan replied with a forced smile.

As she stood and started patting her pockets for her billfold, Willow asked, "Alright, Buff, what do you want?"

Buffy grinned, watching as her witch moved on to her purse, continuing the quest. When the missing item was finally located, the slayer mumbled, "Coffee…and maybe a donut?" perking up slightly as she added, "Jelly if they have it." Can't have stress without donuts. It'd be badness.

"'Kay," Willow confirmed. Placing a kiss on top of Buffy's head before she walked out the door. I wonder if there's a tragedy-to-sugar ratio that I've never looked at. We've never gone without the aid of sugary goodness when the stress spikes. Would the world end if they stopped making jelly-filled donuts?

Buffy watched her lover retreat and then turned her attention to Jimmy's daughter. Can't seem to figure her out. Other than the super-sized chip on her shoulder. Actually, I think her chip has chips. Oh! She glanced at the door. Dammit. I could seriously go for some salty, greasy goodness, but I'm so not chasing her down. Might be a better call than staying here 'cause, besides chips, I'm drawing a total blank. Time to take another one for the team. Summoning her nerve, Buffy began, "So, ah…" letting the sentence die. It'd be good to hold off the talking till I have a clue what to say. I could talk about chips. Yeah…that'd go well. Giving up, she just leaned back in her chair.

Snarking, "My thoughts exactly," Susan sized the small blonde up. Finally, she voiced what she had been wondering about since the blonde's supposed family had arrived, "So you want to tell me what all the hush-hush stuff was about?"

Buffy balked at the question and hurriedly answered, "No hush here. Nothing hushy at all, just trying to stay on top of the case. They help." Nice Buffy. Willow's rubbing off on you in the bad way too. She suppressed a snicker.

Susan mocked, "Right…" exaggerating the word to unreasonable lengths "…and I'm the Queen of England." After barking out a bitter snicker, she added contemptuously, "Shoulda known I wasn't gonna get a straight answer outta the Prom Queen."

Her teeth gritted, Buffy let it slide. She's stressed just like me. Patience. I think I have some of that—well, I hope I do, at least. Shaking her head, she forced a polite tone and said, "Really, that's all. They're just here to help out."

Rolling her eyes, Susan pushed herself up straighter in the chair. Her eyes narrowed before she remarked, "Buffy, look I don't know what exactly is going on, but I know there's more than anybody's telling me." Pointing an accusatory finger, she seethed, "My dad doesn't take to his partners. He doesn't let them stay in his house and he doesn't treat them like he's treated you. So tell me what the hell is going on with you and my father?"

Buffy let the confusion show. 'Kay, so…the conversation I'm having isn't the conversation she's having. What'd I miss? Finally, she offered a bemused, "'Kay, clue a girl in. What are you talking about?"

Susan let out another chilly snicker and clarified, "I'm talking about you and your girlfriend being attached at the hip to my father. I'm talking about my dad never being close to his other partners." A frustrated sigh passed her lips and she continued, "I mean, growing up with the guy, I never once heard him mention anyone at work. Now he's letting coworkers stay at his house? On top of that, you have a girlfriend and both of you seem awful cozy with my dad, just like he seems way too close for comfort with the two of you. He's not a warm and fuzzy guy, okay?"

As Buffy considered Susan's words, her lips pursed. This isn't getting any better. And It isn't gonna till it gets worse. May as well get it over with. Biting the bullet, she huffed, "Oh…'kay…I'm sure somewhere in there you hit on a specific question."

"Are you and the redhead fucking my father?" Susan spat, glaring at the blonde.

Buffy kinda felt like Wile E. Coyote after a crate of ACME dynamite exploded in his face. Struggling for words, she tried to form sentences, but her brain just wouldn't cooperate. It was like the tape of her life had gotten jammed in the VCR from Hell and was replaying that one moment. Me, Jimmy, Willow, naked? In the same bed? Visibly shaken, she eventually managed, "Tell me you're joking?"

Quirking an eyebrow, Susan replied, "Oh, I'm dead serious," folding her arms across her chest, "He's way too comfy with you two for this to be just a working relationship." She chuckled. "Hell, he didn't even treat our mom as good as he treats you two. So, just tell me if you guys are screwing my father. It's the least you should do." She sat back in her chair, awaiting the denial.

Buffy's mouth opened and closed like a beached fish. She couldn't form a response. Finally, she choked out, "No…" rising from her chair "…emphatically not!" Mechanically, she started to pace. Her fingers swiped through her hair. As her fist closed, holding onto the crown of her head, she froze in her tracks. She stared blankly at the floor, trying to collect her thoughts.

Finally, she continued, "Besides, if we were…" releasing her hair "…what business would it be of yours?" She focused on Susan. "We're not, but I—" When words failed her again, the pacing resumed. Suddenly sobering, she stopped and spun to face Susan with her hand on her hips. "What would make you think that?" she asked earnestly, trying to understand.

As Susan tried again to put her finger on how this petite woman could be so imposing, the blonde's face drew into a hard scowl. Susan clung to her resolve. Meeting the chilly gaze, she responded with the truth. "The way he looks at you two. That's why. The way you two go out of your way to make sure he's okay." She sat forward, placing her elbows on her knees. "You never notice the way he laughs when you guys are around. That's not my dad. That's a man I don't know."

"You can't be serious," Buffy replied bluntly. Throwing her hands in disgust, she immediately let them fall. They clapped violently against her legs. She refused to break eye contact with her partner's daughter. Finally settling on letting her hands grip her hips, she spat, "Jimmy and I are friends. We work together and 'yes,' we've gotten closer over the past few months, but nothing's going on."

When Susan glared in disbelief, Buffy shifted her weight to her left foot and asked, "Are you out of your mind?" Her hands left her hips, balling up into fists and she hissed, "Of course you are. Why didn't I see it before? You go out of your way to defend your gay brother. That's great. Commendable even…" Shaking furiously, she took a step forward.

Buffy loomed menacingly over the seated woman and ranted, "But me? You can't even entertain the idea that we might just be friends. No, according to crazy girl and her double standards, I couldn't possibly be happy without a man in my life. There's no way. I'd have to make a play." She let out a frustrated sigh. "What is it about me that makes you think that?"

She backed off, starting to pace despondently as she raged, "No, no…not just me. What would make you think that about Will? You know what, I'm done with this conversation. I tried. I want to get along with you for Jimmy's sake, but you're insane and—eww, just eww. Your dad's not a bad looking guy, but I'm way involved and eww—did I mention the eww? He's like my big brother!"

Willow came into the room carrying drinks and donuts just as Buffy finished her 'eww' speech. She set the stuff aside and caught Buffy by the upper arms, halting her mid-pace. Looking from one woman to the next, she raised an eyebrow in question.

Susan leveled her gaze on the redhead and just went for it, "Are you fucking my dad?"

Willow tightened her grip, holding the slayer still as she seethed. It took a moment for the question to register. When it did, she almost let go. Tilting her neck, she glanced at Susan as if inspecting for signs of insanity. Her attention quickly returned to Buffy. "Did I miss something? I missed something. A huge, scary something. Buffy?" she pleaded for clarification.

The blonde rolled her eyes at Willow and shrugged. Without breaking the witch's grip, she waved her hand in Susan's direction and filled in aridly, "Miss 'Gargantuan Chip On Her Shoulder' thinks, 'cause we're chummy with her father, that we must be screwing him."

Willow mumbled, "I have no words," Letting go, she plopped down in her chair and studied the teacher quizzically.

"You and me both," Buffy groused, sitting down next to her lover and grabbing a doughnut.

"You two are so full of shit," Susan fumed.

James chose that moment to walk back into the waiting room.

Buffy looked up, forcing a thin, tight-lipped smile more because of the doughnut in her mouth than her mood. Neither was good, but…

Willow waved and picked up a doughnut, taking a bite.

Buffy's eyebrow tilted slightly as James's lover walked in. The detective put the other man a few inches above six feet. He had a shaved head with sideburns ending at the jaw line. Clean-cut in slacks and a button-down checkered shirt. She glanced at the floor and saw the scuffed up Doc Martens.

James beamed back at the two and grabbed his lover's hand. "Buffy, Willow, I'd like you to meet Tim." He turned to his boyfriend and directed him to the chairs nearest them. "These are the girls I was telling you about."

From his general appearance, Buffy wasn't sure if the guy was going to speak or grunt. But when he smiled, the casual hostility vanished. His features softened and he gently offered his hand in greeting to the two women. "Hi, James has said a lot. Nice to meet you both." He winked and turned his attention to Susan, "Sus, it's good to see you again. How's it been and who's full of shit?" he asked, taking the seat next to James.

An acerbic smile curled Susan's mouth as she clipped, "Good. And those two are." She waved a dismissive hand in Willow and Buffy's direction. "They're full of shit. They can't even be honest with me."

Buffy shot Susan a hostile glance and grumbled, "Honest? What honest? Your version of honesty has me lying through my teeth." Rolling her eyes, she went back to her doughnut. Further proof—like we needed it— that the colon and the cranium should never meet. It's badness.

Susan remained tight lipped. James studied both parties, then pleaded with his sister, "Okay, I obviously missed some vital parts of the conversation. Sis, fill me in."

Susan's response was another wave of her hand and a scowl. James read the look and shook his head. Sighing, he said, "Oh Jesus, you're not on this again are you?"

"The hell I'm not! Our dad's in the fucking hospital and they can't even be honest about their relationship." She sat stiffly in the chair, daring her brother to challenge her.

James softened a little and tried to go for reason, "So am I, Susie-Q. They aren't, okay, trust me? If you'd spend five minutes talking to them, instead of being bitter, you'd see that they're pretty cool people. Dad just likes 'em." After taking a moment to consider, he qualified, "As friends, likes them."

Snatching her purse from the floor, Susan stalked out of the room, leaving two stunned couples in her wake.

James' face was red as he turned to his new friends and tried to find the words to apologize, "Uhm, I…"

Willow suppressed the giggle and just shook her head. Mumbling, "That was, uh…" she turned toward the TV and pointed, announcing, "Oh look, Spongebob." Buffy squeezed her hand. Everyone shared her interest in the yellow cartoon sponge, choosing to ignore the events of the past few minutes.

Mesmerized by the television, time evaporated along with Buffy's brain. It caught her completely off-guard when Jimmy's doctor entered the room. She followed numbly along as the doctor explained, "It's common with most major heart attacks for the patient's arteries to be nearly blocked. Fortunately, this wasn't the case with Mr. McAllister. The attack was stressed induced. He had two medium blockages stemming from the Right Coronary Artery. I apologize in the delay, but because the R.C.A collapsed, surgery took longer than expected. I stented the collapsed artery and cleared the majority of the plaque. He should make a full recovery."

"When can we see him?" Buffy asked.

"I.C.U. is very strict about visitors, Detective Summers. I can allow two in at a time. Five minutes per visit and a maximum of four visits per day. You need to understand that Mr. McAllister needs to recuperate. If it hadn't been for the people that started CPR when they did, he wouldn't be here. You may decide who goes in. Just be sure to let the nurse know," the doctor concluded and, turning to leave, bid everyone a goodnight.

As the doctor left the room, the air somehow felt lighter. Buffy glanced from one relieved face to the next. When she arrived at Willow, the witch suggested, "James, why don't you and Buffy go first. I'll try to get in touch with Susan while you're gone and give her the news."

Standing, Buffy stretched and said, "Thanks, Will," turning to give the witch a smile.

James remained seated. Casting a concerned glance at Willow, he asked, "Are you sure? I could—"

But Willow stopped him short by responding firmly, "I'm sure. Now skedaddle." When James didn't move, she added, "Scoot." She dismissively waved him away. "Go see your dad. It's cool, I've got this."

Facing Buffy, James mumbled, "Arguing—pretty much pointless, right?" When Buffy replied with a subtle dip of her chin and a smile, James just grinned and rose from his chair. Shaking his head, he conceded, "Alright," and followed Buffy out of the room.

As the doors to their waiting room opened, Willow glanced up from the magazine she was reading. Her lover and James entered the room. Still reading, the witch asked, "How'd he look?"

"Okay," James offered, sounding more despondent than convinced. He reclaimed his seat next to Tim.

"He looks like I did after my first…" Buffy stopped the analogy and just smiled, continuing the conversation covertly. 'He looks like I did after my first fight with a Turka-Han.'

'Turka what? Oh! Turok-Han.'

With a subtle eye roll Buffy reflected, 'Whatever, uber-vamp thingies. Will, I'm worried, he was pretty unresponsive. He wouldn't even look at me.'

'It's okay. We'll have him fixed up in no time, but I need you to go in with me.'

'You have another plan?'

Responding by barely dipping her chin, Willow stood up and offered Buffy her hand. They walked to the I.C.U.'s nurse's station hand-in-hand and were led back to the room.

"Heya, Red," Jimmy rasped out "Cupcake, you're back. Sorry about a minute ago, I was kinda out of it." He swallowed thickly and shook with a sudden coughing jag. He motioned for the cup of ice water sitting at the end of the tray. Buffy grabbed and offered him a sip from the straw. Satisfied that he could speak without dislodging a lung, he joked, "Nurse came in asked if you and Junior were an item. I think maybe I scandalized you." He tried to laugh, but was stopped by the pain and threat of another round of coughing.

Buffy smiled at him and shook her head 'no,' choking back tears of relief.

"Good, so why you two here? We got a killer to catch." He tried to sit up, but stopped when Buffy placed a shaky hand on his shoulder. He scowled up at her and said, "I'm laid up is all, kiddo. It's all on you."

Willow carefully sat down on the edge of the bed, "No need to worry about that. We're covered. You, on the other hand, have us worried. I want to try and help heal you, but I don't have much time and I need your permission."

"Heal how?" Jimmy asked.

"Just some magick. Nothing dangerous," Willow replied, giving his arm a reassuring pat.

He looked from slayer to witch and nodded his consent.

Her attention focused on Buffy. Willow took the offered hand with her right and gently scooped up Jimmy's with her left.

The slayer mirrored Willow's position, relaxing as though this were old hat.

The muffled sound of Willow's chanting was nearly lost behind the metered beeps of the heart monitor.

Soothing warmth spread through Buffy, surrounding her like a snuggly blanket. Her eyes grew heavy. She could barely hold them open. As she submitted to the comforting waves, they fluttered closed.

Jimmy gasped a sharp, trembling breath.

Buffy's eyes snapped open. She shot a concerned glance, but the witch was gone, lost in a trance.

Sensing that Jimmy was doing the same, Buffy forced herself to calm and she shut her eyes.

That little bit of effort proved to be too much. The thick pulses of warmth claimed her. She struggled to open her eyes again for a time, but finally gave up. The pull was too strong. It was useless.

An overpowering haze, tingly and comforting, washed over her. She drowned in it, imagining it was like being swallowed.

Helpless. Pulling away was impossible.

Eventually, the oppressive calm lifted like a veil. It shifted at first as Willow broke the connection, slowly relenting as the seconds ticked by.

As the slayer recovered, Willow peered at Jimmy. His attention was fixed on Buffy as though somehow instinctively he knew.

Willow used the back of her hand to wipe the faint dew of sweat from her forehead. Breathlessly, she asked, "Better?"

The silly grin was a good indicator, but he said, "Better? Hell kid, I feel twenty-two again. What did you do?"

"Mended the damage," she replied frankly. An impish grin curled the corners of her mouth. It faded as she amended, "Or as much as possible. With any luck your doctor will just think you're a freak of nature and have you out of here in no time."

"Cupcake," he said, "You didn't tell me your girl was one of the handiest people in the world. Why not?" A small pout, the first Buffy had ever seen from her partner, crinkled the corners of his mouth.

Shaking off the haze, Buffy smirked at both of them and replied, "Well, that's just part of her charm. She surprises you every day."

"Hot damn," Jimmy exclaimed, unable to curb his enthusiasm. He sat up. This time Buffy did nothing to stop him. After adjusting in the bed, he asked, "So while I was out of it, did you guys learn anything new?"

Before either of the women had a chance to answer, the nurse poked her head in the door. Giving them a harsh, disapproving glare, she said, "Ladies, the detective needs his rest. I have to ask you to leave."

Buffy met the nurse's gaze and asked politely, "Sure…" extending her index finger "…one more minute, please?"

"Fine, a minute. But not one single second more," she replied, turning and leaving them alone.

When the door clicked shut, Jimmy prodded hopefully, "So you were saying, Cupcake?"

"Nothing. You need rest. We'll be back in the morning," Buffy replied, giving Willow a mischievous look. Simultaneously, they leaned down and kissed the man on either cheek.

As they pulled away, he sputtered. "Cupcake, Red…" he said with playful indignation, mopping his cheeks. "What will the staff think?"

Buffy raised her eyebrow and made her way to the door. Casting a glance over her shoulder, she waved and said, "See you tomorrow, old man. Behave."

Willow waved goodbye and followed her girlfriend out.


Chapter 12 – Stranger

As Buffy read over the preliminary report that the CSU's primary, Andre Loe, had written up, her fingers drummed against her desktop. This day could just be over. I mean, anytime now, really. I promise I'll be good. Her free hand went to the side of her face. She brushed a few stray wisps of hair away, tucking them behind her ear before propping her head up.

Only half interested in what she was reading, she listlessly turned the first page. It's bad enough I spent the entire morning jumping through hoops for Internal Affairs. They so weren't impressed with what happened at the warehouse. She scanned the first couple paragraphs.

Her vision clouded. Staring blankly at the white swirl, she muttered under her breath, "What is it with me and shrinks?" It seems like pretty much everyone who has some sorta interest in—or authority over me sends me to a goddamned shrink.

Her head pivoted against her hand as she shook it. Oh well, I was a good girl. I called Doctor Costanzo to let her know I haven't completely flipped out…yet.

Buffy scrunched her eyes and rubbed them. Maybe next week? Could be fun. They fluttered open and she skimmed the page, quickly moving on to the next. It's procedure. I get that.

Funny, when the 'cop' thing first came up back in high school, the uniform was what made me cringe. But there was sense there, so here I am. And the threat of polyester was nothing—nothing getting a detective shield couldn't fix. Thing is, stuff goes the least bit sideways and—

God I despise shrinks! It's not like I can object. Being committed as a juvenile—while it may look great on paper, it's not exactly a stunning career builder. Sensing someone's approach, Buffy looked up.

Andre Loe smiled as he neared her desk. Leaning casually against its right side, he remarked, "California, I see you got my report."

Buffy blinked her bleary eyes. Instantly chipper, she replied, "Hi, Loe, I did." In no way is it good to fall asleep on the CSU report. She glanced down at the pages, hoping there wasn't any drool. Especially, what with the… After offering him her most fetching smile, she amended, "Well, sort of. I just got done with Pat and started reading. Anything new?"

"There was actually," Andre offered. His attention drifted from the report. He met Buffy's eyes and explained, "Les ran the blood on that platform. From what I understand, there have been a total of three vics." When Buffy nodded to confirm the statement, he continued, "But when we typed the blood on the platform, we found five different blood samples. We haven't run a DNA analysis on them yet, but I thought you should know."

"Thanks for the heads up," Buffy said as she shut the folder. Pushing it aside, she inquired, "How long before we can bump anything against CODIS, or NDIS?"

Confidently, Andre responded, "Give me forty-eight hours and I should have it for you. Your boss wants whoever it is found. I get it." His expression softened as he asked, "How's your partner by the way?"

Absent-mindedly picking up a pencil, she replied, "He'll live," downplaying the concern. She turned the pencil between her fingers.

Andre's brow crinkled.

She teased playfully, "Oh, c'mon, Jimmy's way too mean to let a little thing like his heart get in the way." Her smile turned gracious. She glanced self-consciously at the pencil before adding, "The doctors said he'd be okay."

He watched the pencil fall to Buffy's desk and roll. When it came to rest against the base of her monitor, he offered, "Good to hear. We didn't get much of a chance to talk non-shop talk at the scene, so I wanted to make sure. Couple of us techies were gonna stop by after work and check in on him. You want to go with us?"

Buffy shook her head and explained, "I wish I could, but I've got to get back to my apartment and pick up some of my family before I head over."

Andre commented, "Gotcha," appearing preoccupied. "Well, uhm, then I'm gonna let you get back to work." He pushed off the side of the desk and made to leave. Stalling, he fidgeted with his watch while he muttered, "Uh, Buffy, I was wondering…if you're not busy—maybe Friday—would you like to get a drink with me? I know we kinda work together, but I checked and it's good. I mean, if you want to. It's safe and uh, legal."

She couldn't help the grin as he sputtered his request. She reached out and grabbed his hand, trying to calm him. "Loe, I can't." She smiled in hopes of letting the young technician down gently.

"Oh," he gasped anxiously. His face fell. He scrambled to cover. "That's okay. Maybe another time then?"

Putting her hand up, she said, "Stop." She dropped her hand to the desk and quickly filled in, "I'm involved. Like seriously involved. If I wasn't—" she grinned "—I'd take you up on the offer."

Pleased with her response, he calmed a bit as he remarked, "Oh, lucky guy."

"Umm, no guy. Lucky girl," Buffy supplied candidly.

The tension picked right back up. He took a step back and corrected, "Huh…well, uhm, lucky girl." He offered a feeble smile, followed by mock cheer. "That's cool. Thanks for letting me know."


"No, no, it's okay. I didn't know, or I wouldn't have asked," he replied. His posture stiffened. Already moving, he excused himself. "I need to check with Les before we leave for the hospital. I'll see you around, California."

"Have a good night, Loe," Buffy said with a lame wave. But he'd already rounded a cubical wall, skittering off towards the labs.

Willow walked out of her and Buffy's bedroom still damp from her shower. Now at least I feel kinda normal. Not like bright-eyed, with the bushy tail, but feeling kinda human instead of greasy, grimy pseudo-human will always be a plus in my book. Now all I've gotta do is wait for Buffy.

She padded into the kitchen and grabbed a glass of water. I sorta feel bad leaving the gang to finish the footwork, but I seriously needed the slack.

Intent on relaxing for at least a few minutes, Willow went to the living room to turn on the TV. A knock at the door stopped her from sitting. She cocked her head. Did the buzzer sound? Did I buzz anyone up? Sighing, she walked to the door and looked through the security lens.

She squealed as the face came into focus. Rushing to undo the lock, she threw the door open and jumped into the arms of the grinning, slender woman standing there. "Oh my Goddess, Aradia, what are you doing here?" she exclaimed.

Aradia returned the embrace with equal fervor. A moment passed and she mumbled, "Willow, I'm afraid that I may pass out. Please."

Willow's cheeks colored. She released her friend and took a step back. Meeting the other witch's hazel-green eyes, she explained, "Sorry, it's just that it's been too long. You weren't in Devon the last time I was there and no one would tell me anything." The hallway might not be the best place to talk. Not to mention, it's just plain rude. Taking Aradia's hand, Willow led her into the apartment and shut the door. As she strode to the couch, gesturing an invitation, Willow asked eagerly, "When did you arrive? And what are you doing here?"

Aradia set her bag down by the entryway, answering, "I just arrived. Trans-Atlantic teleportation spells are tricky," as she followed the excited redhead. She took a seat, reclining casually back and commented, "Althenea felt it was best. She thought you could use some help, so I offered to come."

"You brought the books?" Willow asked. Of course, she brought the books. Stupid, stupid…get a grip, this isn't an interrogation. Bashfully, she added, "And why weren't you in Devon the last time I visited?" staring self-consciously at her lap.

Aradia replied, "They're in my bag," shifting to face Willow. "I wasn't in Devon because I was in San Francisco with Liz. She finally got the restaurant finished and she had this celebration I had to go to."

The excitement returned and Willow gushed, "She did it finally. That's great. I'll have to call her."

Aradia glanced around the empty apartment before inquiring, "So, where's the famed Sunnydale gang?"

"Uhm, we've been shaking down the demon community. It's been…bad."

"Well then, hopefully what I brought will help."

Willow was about to respond when the front door swung open. Buffy entered the apartment, followed by the rest of the gang. Willow shot off the couch and all but tackled her slayer.

Appearing mildly taken aback, Buffy said, "Hey, Will…" directing her interest to the other redhead standing in front of the couch "…and…?" Weird. When did Willow get a sister? She reached out with her senses and touched the energy the other woman radiated. 'Kay so, if I wasn't a slayer, she'd get a wide berth. She's strong—like nearly Willow strong. She glanced from one witch to the other and asked, "You didn't let her have coffee, did you?"

Willow chidingly tapped the slayer's forearm.

Aradia smiled and walked over to Buffy. "Hi Buffy, I'm Aradia Iver. Sorry to pop in on you unannounced, but Althenea said that Willow sounded worried and we don't like hearing her worry."

The playful pout Buffy wore turned to a smile when the other witch approached her. She took the offered hand and grinned. Willow knows her and apparently likes her. That's enough in my book. "Well then, thanks for the help. We could really use it."

The rest of the gang stood behind Buffy, awaiting introductions. Xander coughed loudly and said, "Sorry to break up the reunion, but…"

Willow tapped her forehead with the heel of her hand before making introductions. "I'm sorry guys, this is Aradia. Aradia…" she pointed as she went through the names "…that's Xander, Faith, Dawn and Kennedy. You've met Buffy. And Giles you already know." She stepped aside to allow for the expected pleasantries and platitudes.

Aradia confirmed, "I do," presenting her hand in greeting. "Hello, Rupert. How've you been?"

Smiling warmly, Giles gave the offered hand a firm shake and replied, "Quite well. And you?"

Returning the smile, she said, "Good," turning her attention to the rest of the gang. "Hi. Willow's said so much about all of you. It's a pleasure to finally meet you all."

Anxious to move things along, Willow caught Aradia's eye and prompted, "So…?"

Aradia clued to the vague hint and responded, "Ah, books." Stooping to open her satchel, she removed three books and handed them to Willow, who turned and passed them off to Dawn.

Dawn took the new material to the kitchen table while everyone else piled into the living room and made themselves comfortable.

Willow scooped up her slayer's hand and asked, "Buff, you want to go over the 'what' with Aradia?"

Buffy nodded and peered across the living room at Aradia. After taking in the relaxed demeanor of the newcomer lounging in her chair, Buffy began to recap the events. Several minutes elapsed while everyone patiently listened to her explanation. "And that's pretty much the 'it'," she concluded with a shrug. Moving on, she added, "We've gotten little to nothing from the demon community here in Manhattan," for Willow's benefit as well. Then she speculated, "Could be 'cause we haven't been hitting up the right spots. I'd like to start looking south since that's where we found the site."

"So the symbols on the floor were replicas from the calling of the first slayer?" Aradia asked for clarification.

"Yeah, but it was different kinda. There was—like if you were to draw a pentagram through the spirals—where the points would hit the outer spiral, there were piles of vamp dust. That and the platform that sat in the center was bloody. Like Texas Chainsaw Massacre bloody. My tech team typed the blood. And the funny… Everyone listen up. There were five different blood samples, not three."

Aradia inquired, "Anything else?" glancing around the room to see if anyone had something to add.

"We didn't get to look at too much seeing as how 'Mister Creepy Guy' interrupted the looking," Buffy offered with a shrug.

Aradia gave her friend a nod. "Willow." When the other witch met her eyes, she asked, "What sorts of energies were given off?"

"I…it's hard to describe," Willow stammered, struggling to voice what she felt. She collected her thoughts, then reflected, "It felt like whatever was there was supposed to be destructive, but in a controlled way." She added, "Sorry—" with a soft sigh "—that's the best I can do."

Glaring, Dawn poked her head up from the books and whined, "Guys, please, I need some quiet," growing progressively more frustrated as she went on. "Can you maybe, uh…go somewhere else? Has anybody been to the hospital today? Maybe you guys could go out to eat, or something, anything, not here." A sheepish smile curled the corners of her mouth. She finished the rant by apologizing, "Sorry. It's just—"

A flurry of shrugs and glances quickly gave way to planning.

Eager to escape her whining sister, Buffy suggested, "Aradia, do you maybe want to come with us to the warehouse? I might be able to get you a peek at the scene. And we need to go to the hospital too. That is if you don't mind."

"That's fine. I'm here to help."

Buffy gave Xander and Faith a passing glance. She didn't want to take Faith with them, for obvious reasons, but she also wanted another slayer there with her. Fixing her attention on Kennedy, she nodded. "'Kay, then, Xander, Ken, you're with Aradia, Will and me. Faith, Giles, Dawn hold down the fort while we go have a look-see and drop in on Jimmy."

Faith protested, "Hey, why do I get stuck with book sitting duty?"

"Because you're with child, Faith. I'm not risking you miscarrying. No way. Deal. If you didn't want to give up the action, you should have used a condom," Buffy replied firmly, unable to suppress a smirk. Placing her hands on her hips, she awaited the challenge.

There wasn't a lot to say. Faith folded her arms across her chest and pouted, offering a sullen, "Fine, but when you and Red decide to squirt one out, I'm makin' you stay put while I go and have all the fun."

Buffy shook her head and giggled. Everyone that was going gathered their things and piled out the door.

Buffy held the door to the ICU for Willow. As they approached the nurse's station, they were stopped by one of the nurses on duty. "Ladies, Mr. McAllister was moved to the third floor."

Buffy was slightly taken aback by the familiarity. Wondering what she had done to leave an impression, she stuttered, "Oh, uh…what room?" I bet it's the questions. There aren't many medical miracles in a place like this. I know I'd be looking for answers. The 'who' is sorta part of that.

Overhearing the conversation, the desk nurse interjected, "Three-fifty-two."

"Thanks," Buffy replied as Willow echoed the same. Giving the nurses a warm smile, Buffy turned and led the way out of the ICU. Jimmy being moved is a good. I'm so not complaining. But the running's kinda getting old. It's been way over an hour and we've gotten a whole lot of nothing done. I figured the warehouse might be rough, but who knew the forensics teams would still be there?

When they reached the waiting room, Buffy gestured for the others to follow, explaining, "They moved him." Smiles and nods were the only communication needed or offered. Good.

After leading the gang to the third floor lobby, Willow and Buffy set off to find Jimmy's room. A game of 'follow the signs' later, they stepped into the room and smiled when they saw him sitting up in bed eating. A small scowl passed over Buffy's features when she saw Suzie sitting next to him. He looked up and beamed at the two women approaching his bed.

"Well, look what the dog dragged in. You guys coming to bust me out of here? Susie-Q won't let me leave and neither will the doctors. I'm right as rain and they say it's not normal," he grumped lightheartedly, giving Willow a wink.

After she weaved past the furnishings in the cramped room, Buffy replied, "No, not busting you out. Just wanted to see how you were." She eyed the bed table. "And from the three empty trays, I'd say you're good,"

Jimmy grinned and patted his stomach. "I'm good, despite the cynicism from the medical staff. Almost everyone in the precinct's been in. Even Andre and Les stopped in."

Shaking her head, Buffy smirked and said, "Good. Loe said he was gonna." She paused to move the bed table aside so Willow could slip in next to her before she commented, "Really?" quirking her eyebrow, "Les showed too? Wow, she must like you. She doesn't talk to anyone."

Jimmy snorted. "It's the rugged good looks. That and I think she was hopin' to get a sneak peek at my tuckus. These damn hospital gowns."

An amused grin warmed Buffy's face. She shook her head, bowing it as she snickered.

Willow leaned in and gave Jimmy a peck on the cheek. As his face flushed, she pulled back and smirked.

Stepping around Willow, Buffy lowered the rail and sat down on the edge of the bed. She completely ignored the harsh glare Susan was giving her and asked, "Seriously though, you're feeling better?"

Seemingly aloof to his daughter's angst, Jimmy responded, "All is good. Wouldn't lie to you about that, Cupcake." He smiled sheepishly and asked the sixty-four-thousand dollar question, "So, we got anything yet?"

Buffy rolled her eyes and replied, "Y'know you're supposed to be resting, right?" When Jimmy put on the puppy eyes, she sighed and said, "Oh, alright…we'll know more by tonight. A friend of Willow's brought some material that may prove useful. I'll call you." Buffy took Jimmy's free hand and leaned down to kiss his cheek. As she rose from the bed, she teased, "You be good, old man," giving Jimmy a wink. "You wouldn't want us to have to punish you." With a quirky grin on her face, she waved to Susan and chirped, "Toodles, Suz." After returning the bed rail, she took Willow's hand and led her out of the room.

Once they were in the lobby, Willow pulled Buffy aside, "What was that?"

"What was what?" Buffy asked innocently.

"The kiss and the toodles," Willow answered gruffly, "And the punish."

Rolling her eyes, Buffy replied, "Oh, I just thought I'd have a bit of fun." When Willow put her hands on her hips, appearing way less than amused, Buffy shot a defensive. "Willow, come on, you can't tell me that wasn't funny? Did you see the look on her face?"

"Yes, and if looks could kill, you'd be dead again," Willow grumped. She shifted her weight, cocking her hip and asked incredulously, "What were you thinking? Were you channeling Cordelia?"

"No, it's just—she's all with the hate and the jealousy. She—she's groundless for the icky thoughts and deserves the poking," Buffy said with a pout.

Willow threw her hands up in the air and took off toward the others. Things are bad enough without that. Stubborn slayers! Or maybe it's catty girl's from Southern California? Whatever it is, I forget that she was just as bad as Cordy before she became a slayer. Waiting for Buffy to catch up, she escorted the gang wordlessly out of the hospital in a huff.

Buffy clambered unsteadily out of the cab, making room for Willow to pile out behind her. She handed the cabbie a wad of cash and tromped off to get the door. After propping the door open, she glanced at her watch. Twenty minutes. Not bad for someone with a fake green card and license. I mean really, I drive better than him.

When Xander entered the building, he remarked, "So right, if I'm ever late in this city again, I'll run to where I need to be," for Buffy's benefit. He waited for her to file in behind them before concluding sarcastically, "Or maybe finally get the radioactive spider bite I've been dreaming about for years."

As they boarded the elevator, Aradia mumbled, "Well, it could be worse, I was in Argentina last month, and let me tell you, the driver I had gave this guy a serious run for his money."

Once they reached the apartment, Buffy opened the door and ushered the others inside. After locking up behind them, she asked, "Hey squirt, what did you find out?" as she strode across the living room. Plopping down into the recliner, she swung it around to face the kitchen table.

"Uh, wow. Back so soon? I figured it'd be at least forty-five minutes when you called," Dawn replied, appearing bemused.

An evil grin made a brief appearance, corrupting Buffy's features before she demanded, "Look, munchkin, I didn't risk all our lives getting back here just to have you stall. Spill."

"Okay, okay…I'll give you a lollipop if you can get it in three?" Dawn conceded with a snarky grin.

Buffy tapped her right index finger against pursed lips, mocking serious contemplation as she replied, "Was it the meaning of life?" When Dawn stifled a laugh and shook her head, Buffy tried again, "Did it explain the 'why' behind Tom Cruise on Oprah's couch?" Big surprise, Dawn shook her head and Buffy went on, "Was it a, hmm…prophecy?" This time, Dawn rolled her eyes and nodded.

Buffy gave an excited theater clap and extended her hand, demanding, "Where's the lollipop, runt?"

Dawn absently reached into her purse and tossed a sucker to her sister.

As Buffy unwrapped the raspberry Tootsie Pop and shoved it in her mouth, her eyes lit up.

Dawn peered thoughtfully down at the book while she explained, "There's that and a spell. What I could get from the spell is that it seems to be a written record of how to unmake the slayer line. At least I think so. I'm going to need more time with the prophecy though. From the wording, I think it was translated from Latin into French. Then, circa the fourteen-hundred's, it was finally translated into English. It's not the best."

"Unmake? As in unmaking a bed, or perhaps untying a shoe? We can 'un' lots here," Xander teased, pulling Faith down on his lap.

"Xander," Giles warned.

Xander retorted, "What?" his tone conveying traces of hurt and disbelief. He gave Giles a glare that was more playful than mean before explaining, "All I'm saying is that if undoing what was done was so easy that they could just leave instructions lying around, then obviously they were off their game."

Willow pinched the bridge of her nose and looked at Faith, pleading, "Do something with him."

"Sorry, Red, no can do," Faith replied with a grin as she patted Xander's arm.

Buffy pulled the lollipop out of her mouth, twirling it between her fingers as she remarked, "Uh…not to agree with the Xander, but…" The delicateness of her tone reflected wariness at the prospect of getting caught in the middle of another Scooby spat. When no one retorted, she went on, "You can't just 'unmake' a 'me' or a 'Faith'." She gave Kennedy a quick glance and added, "Or a 'Ken'," as an afterthought. Why's this stuff always so non-sensey? What if…If it was that… Struggling to find the words, she stammered, "I…if it was that easy," picking up steam as she went, "what about the First? My opinion: way easier to work a little mojo than to go around finding and killing a bunch of random teenage girls."

"It's a rather valid point," Giles noted from the kitchen counter.

Xander grumped, "Now it's valid," rolling his eyes.

Dawn interjected, "Before we start with the jumping, let me finish," cutting Xander's grumble short. When she had everyone's attention, Dawn explained, "The book has a few spells in it. There's the original spell cast to actually make a slayer. I'm not sure how accurate it is, but it gives a recipe high on the ick. Also, I might like to add, the spell for the reversal—the one that we should be most interested in right now—is equally gross. Maybe even retch-worthy. While this wouldn't really be a turn off for something like the First, it does add a slight complication."

"Still not seeing the 'why' for the spell. Kind of already been done, or tried at least. I mean, we've sorta been and done. And the t-shirt wasn't very nice either," Willow said, appearing confused.

"Willow, my Willowy Waffle, what do all evil masterminds want?" Xander asked. Sticking a finger in the air to comically punctuate, he declared, "I will tell you. They want—" his tone dropped to a deep rumble "—world domination of course!"

Buffy raised her eyebrows and asked "If it's world domination he's after, why not just make a death ray and hold the world hostage?"

Perplexed by the seriousness of Buffy's statement, Xander stammered, "I, well, maybe…"

Faith interjected, "Give it up, Xan…" When his brow furrowed, she snickered and remarked, "Best I've got," shrugging for emphasis. She took on a more serious manner as she recapped, "So our baddie unmakes the slayer line. That leaves this world open to become a smorgasbord for the demon kind at large. Spells trouble. Lots."

"So what now?" Buffy asked, still playing with her sucker. Focusing on the spinning red candy, she commented, "We've got a spell and a prophecy that hasn't been decoded. Still sounds like a whole lotta nothing," popping it back in her mouth when she finished.

Aradia interjected, "Not necessarily," drawing the interest of everyone in the room. "Considering the coven houses the oldest written records of the slayer in existence, what I'd like to know is where this person got the spell."

Dawn looked up from her notepad and said, "I'm not sure how he got them, but from what Buffy and Willow have said about the warehouse and the bodies, I don't think it's a proper translation of the spell."

Giles perked up from his perch against the wall and asked, "How so, dear?"

"Well, the way the girls were killed. There isn't a sacrifice in this spell. Not a traditional one. It says something about 'grazing the vessel.' Whatever that means. But there's no death, or bleeding, or any of that stuff." Dawn stretched and felt her back pop. I need to find a better way to research. If I keep this up, I'll look like Quasimodo before I hit twenty-five.

Appearing puzzled, Giles glanced at Dawn and said, "I haven't the foggiest," then turned toward Buffy to explain, "Perhaps, Buffy—to answer your question—The First wasn't aware of its existence."

While the others continued to discuss the spell and its ramifications, Aradia caught Willow's eye and motioned towards the hallway. Willow nodded and excused herself from the group. Aradia followed a few minutes later.

"What's up?" Willow asked as she shut Buffy's bedroom door. She walked over to the bed and sat down then motioned Aradia to sit with her.

Smiling, Aradia joined her friend and tried to explain, "I-it's, this is rather different and not what I had expected."

Willow cocked her head to the side with confusion. "Umm…?"

Fidgeting with the ring on her right hand, Aradia tried again, "I'm sorry, Willow. This isn't…" But words failed her, so she trailed off.

"You know words usually help when you want to talk," Willow joked, hoping to lighten the mood.

The other woman blushed and nodded. "I'm sorry. This isn't what I expected."

"Again, huh?"

"You didn't say you and Buffy were together," the other witch finally admitted.

The lights came on and Willow gasped, "Oh…oh!" The confusion returned and she stammered, "I—well, there wasn't much time. But why would that matter?" You not…and—well, us not—I sorta thought it was over. What the heck is she getting at? When she motioned for more with a wave of her hand, Aradia supplied, "Because you need to understand that she's in danger. We didn't get to cover this either, but that spell. I've looked at it. Not as closely as Dawn has, but your girlfriend is in danger."

Willow's features softened and she grabbed Aradia's hand. "I get what you're saying, but the thing with Buffy is that she's always in danger."

"I'm glad you realize that, Willow, but it doesn't mean I can't worry." She found herself unable to voice the rest of the thought. Her gaze dropped to her lap

"Don't worry. It's what we do. I'm not. It'll be okay," Willow chattered eagerly. When she sensed that Aradia didn't share her confidence, she added a tentative, "Okay?"

Aradia nodded and laughed. "You know the reason I took the assignment?"

Playing coy, Willow teased, "Because it's New York and you love this city?"

Aradia squeezed Willow's hand tighter as she responded, "No." A wry grin curled the corners of her mouth. She loosened her grip and admitted, "Well, okay, maybe just a bit. But it was more for you."

Willow tried to shrug off the blush. Miserably failing, she mumbled, "I kinda figured, but…"

When Aradia interrupted, "But you and Buffy are special," Willow fell silent.

She shook her head and struggled to explain, "We're just…us, I guess."

With another miserable failure in the bag, she allowed Aradia to continue, "Willow, have you bothered to read her aura?"

Becoming more sheepish, Willow replied, "No, I don't like to. You know that was never my strongest area."

Aradia caressed Willow's back to comfort her as she reflected, "True, but you should be able to see hers. It's magnificent. It's bright and steady. The white nearly looks blue, but then it changes."

Shifting, Willow put a little more distance between them before she responded, "Auras do from time to time," sounding amused. She gently pulled her hand free and combed her fingers through her hair.

Aradia laced her fingers together in her lap and peered down at them. "True, but there's—" her brow knit "—if I could describe the color when you're around her and she's around you, I could probably sell it to Crayola."

Willow's mouth pinched and asked, "So we read funny non-colors."

Aradia muttered, "You do and that makes you a target. Do you know what it would mean to undo the slayer line?"

Willow considered the question for a moment and replied, "I'm thinking world endy type situations. Granted it wouldn't be 'The First' bad, but it'd be pretty close."

"To say the very least," Aradia answered with no hesitation. She sighed before stating the obvious, "There'd be nothing standing in the way between the demon world and human one. This is a very unique situation you've found yourself in."

Willow shrugged and stated nonchalantly, "It's kinda standard really. One ride of badness after the other. You just sorta learn to deal."

"Willow, you know what I mean. You've read the texts as much as I have." She suppressed a laugh as Willow looked at her. "Okay, so maybe not as much. But you've read them and—with you and Buffy—you have to know that a slayer like her has never existed."

Looking glum, Willow tilted her chin, giving a brief nod before she responded, "It makes her more of a target. But Buffy's special. And not just in the slayer way."

"She'd have to be for you to do the things you've done for her," Aradia bluntly remarked. Her demeanor became more morose as she commented, "And here I thought we could…" Falling flat, she focused her gaze on the carpet.

Willow offered a sympathetic smile that went completely unnoticed. After a long pause, she remarked, "Well, not saying that it wasn't fun times, but I'm with Buffy."

"I know," Aradia whispered, looking up to meet Willow's soft green eyes. She slowly inched closer, giving her friend a chance to withdraw. Aradia lacing her fingers through Willow hair and murmured, "Take it as a goodbye," drawing her into a brief, tender kiss.

Willow went with it for all of two seconds before she pulled back sputtering. Aradia pressed her finger to her ex-lover's lips and hushed her, merriment at the befuddled look Willow wore dancing in her eyes.

Willow kissed the finger that rested on her pursed lips, lifting it away before she mumbled, "If Buffy wasn't, then—"

Aradia hushed her friend once again and replied, "I understand. What you two have is special. Coming between that would be monstrous and, while one could argue that I have my moments, I'm not that bad." Aradia smiled warmly and took Willow's hand placing a kiss on her palm. "If you two ever decide to bring in a third party, I beg you don't lose my number."

Willow laughed, then wagged her finger as she teased, "You're terrible. I might even say incorrigible."

Aradia's features turned from playful to shocked. "I don't want to be treated like a little boy."

Rolling her eyes, Willow said, "You've seen that movie way too much. You can overdose on Julie Andrews you know?"

"This from the girl that watched The Breakfast Club every Friday for three months?" Aradia snarked.

Willow grumbled, "Hey, it's John Hughes. What do you expect?" indignation clear in her tone.

"From you, nothing."

Part 13

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