Joyce Summers resisted the urge to curse as she took another swallow of lukewarm coffee. For perhaps the thousandth time, she glanced at her watch, noting the slowly advancing hour with a disgusted sigh. It looked like she wasn't going to get any sleep. Not that the client she was scheduled to meet wasn't worth the effort--after all, she was contracted to get ten percent of the auction of the extensive collection of impressionist paintings and sketches the woman was selling--but she was already nearly two hours late and Joyce had had a long day. There was also the niggling worry that it was Sunnydale and going missing in this particular small town was seldom a positive experience. She knew more about that particular facet of her adopted home than she might have preferred since her daughter was the Slayer--the Chosen One--tasked to protect the world from the evils of the night--which included the Hellmouth, an entry from the Netherworld that just happened to reside in Sunnydale, and attracted every sort of evil known to man. She was proud of Buffy for the responsibility she'd taken on, respected her child, knew that she was often all that stood between life and eternal damnation.
But, if and when she was honest with herself, she had to admit it scared the living hell out of her. Mostly, she dealt with the fear through sheer, unadulterated denial, but it gnawed at her and left her terrified that she was somehow failing her child due to her own inability to deal with the ugly realities of life she'd discovered the night Buffy ran away from home. Her daughter had come back and they'd made some kind of peace, but it all still frightened her, driving her to push herself until she couldn't think anymore. If she couldn't think, she couldn't worry and wonder what was happening to Buffy, couldn't imagine the funeral she would probably have to attend one day. She didn't know much about Slayers, but she'd learned enough to know there was no retirement plan. Her daughter would die one day, and the chances were very high she would all too young when it happened.
Joyce shuddered as though someone had walked over her grave and took another sip of her coffee, silently willing her client to appear. Anything to block the morbid path her thoughts were taking.
As if in answer to the unspoken summons, a soft knock rattled the art gallery front door. Joyce's head snapped up, a relieved expression on her face as she called out, "Yes," and hurried toward the door.
"Mrs. Summers," a warm, softly accented voice called through the door. "My apologies for running late."
Joyce swung the door open, revealing a very pretty young woman with short blond hair, and what looked to be an almost delicate build under her heavy black trenchcoat. She didn't appear to be much older than Buffy. Surprised, she took a half step back. "Devon Carstairs?" She had expected her customer to be considerably older.
The young woman smiled and shook her head. "I'm afraid not," she said hastily. "I'm Blaine Michaels, Ms. Carstairs personal assistant...." She shrugged, still looking embarrassed. "Also her niece if you must know the truth. Dev had to leave for France rather unexpectedly...there was a fire at an estate she owns near Luxembourg. She sent me down here in her place...and unfortunately, I managed to have both a flat on the Ten and a dead cell phone battery." Visibly flustered, the young woman ran a hand through her hair. "I apologize for keeping you waiting. Truly, I had no idea I'd run this late or I would have called you before leaving Los Angeles to let you know about the change." She stuffed her hands in the pockets of the calf length black trenchcoat that flared around her slender legs. Again she flashed an embarrassed smile, making Joyce feel churlish for any annoyance she'd been feeling at the lateness of the hour. "God, I swear, if I weren't family, Aunt Dev would just fire me."
"Don't worry about it. I had to work late anyway," Joyce inserted, and held the door wide as she waved the young woman in. "Come on in. Your aunt faxed me the crate number that was miss-shipped, and it's right back here," she continued as she led the courier through the gallery toward the storage area in the back.
"I'm sure she'll be very pleased with how organized you are."
Joyce laughed softly. "Well, it's quite a collection to get ready for sale. She has some wonderful impressionist works."
"Yes," Blaine Michaels agreed smoothly. "She inherited much of it from my grandmother. She was the serious art collector...and, in truth, some of the more valuable pieces in the collection came from her father...he was in Europe before the war and picked several things up for a song."
"I'm just amazed she's selling. I'd think it would be awfully hard to part with some of them."
"Yes, well, I'm afraid my aunt has suffered some financial setbacks this year. The market has not been kind and she needs the cash."
Joyce flinched sympathetically. "So sorry to hear that."
The girl shrugged philosophically. "It happens."
As they entered the tightly packed confines of the back room, Joyce wove between several rolling work tables as she gestured toward the front crate in a stack of flat, painting crates stacked against one wall. "It's the top one," she informed her guest.
The young woman stepped fluidly past Joyce, her posture stiff as she pulled up short in front of the crate. "No," she said almost instantly. "This isn't the right one. It's too small." She reached out, brushing dust off the packing slip taped to the outside of the wooden crate. "Here's the problem. There's a scuff mark. If you don't look closely, it looks like it says Oh-four, but it's Oh-seven." She straightened and Joyce heard a soft curse as she leaned past her to look at the error.
"I'm so sorry," the tall blond apologized. "How much larger?"
The young woman gestured with her hands, indicating a package roughly three feet by four feet.
Joyce resisted the urge to curse. "It must be one of the ones at my house." She flushed at the annoyed look turned her way. "The collection is so large, and I needed more work-space here," she said defensively. "I stored some pieces at my house. If you like, I can go back, get them, and bring them here for you. It shouldn't take me more than an hour...two at the most."
The young woman glanced at her watch where it resided on her inner wrist. "Unfortunately, I have to be back in LA at eight am and I'm cutting it close as it is." She uttered another curse under her breath.
"I can have it shipped to any address you'd like--" Joyce offered, but Blaine cut her off quickly.
"No," she said very quickly, then offered a tight smile. "Aunt Devon asked me to see to it personally. It's something of a family heirloom. I'll just have to drive back tomorrow night. Is ten o'clock tomorrow evening all right with you? I'm sorry it's so late, but I've got meetings all day tomorrow, and I won't be able to get back to Sunnydale before then."
"Of course," Joyce agreed quickly.
The young woman smiled. "Thank you, hopefully this time things will go a little more smoothly and I won't be quite so late."
Joyce forced down an unexplained shiver as she nodded in agreement, shaking hands politely and wishing her young customer well. She missed the brief glimpse of thick blood congealed and drying on the young woman's dark shirt front as she stepped out into the night and a fresh wind caught the edges of her coat, briefly blowing them apart before slender hands pulled them back together. Certainly it never occurred to her that she was doing a business deal with the dead.
* * * * * *
"Just another fun night in Sunnyhell," Buffy exhaled where she sat on the front porch of the Twenty-Four/Seven, her legs stretched out in front of her. To the east, the horizon was turning the soft shade of pink that heralded morning. She looked up as she heard soft footsteps, smiling limply at Willow as the hacker sank down next to her and leaned her head against the Slayer's shoulder. "You okay?"
"They had a lot of questions. I feel kind of stupid because I couldn't really answer them. It all happened so fast that I'm not quite sure what happened."
"Yeah," Buffy sighed tiredly. She would have sworn she'd known what transpired in those final moments, but when she'd tried to describe it to the detective, somehow she couldn't quite lay things out in a way that made sense in her own head.
"I'm not sure they believed me," Willow added, then buried her face in Buffy's shoulder as though she could block the ugly events of the night out of her mind.
"Not surprising," the Slayer exhaled. "They've obviously looked up my files. That whole mess with Kendra came up..." She leaned her cheek against the top of Willow's head. "God, some days I think I'm cursed."
"You live in Sunnydale. I think it's one of the requirements," was Willow's muffled response.
"Point taken," Buffy sighed, so exhausted that she didn't have the wherewithal to resist the urge to nuzzle Willow's hair affectionately, taking comfort from the feel and smell of the silky strands.
They were still sitting there like that long minutes later, when Rupert Giles' aging Citroen pulled up. The Englishman climbed out, his hair and clothes askew, his expression rife with worry. "Buffy...Willow..." He searched for any signs of injury as he hurried forward.
"We're okay," Buffy assured him while Willow looked up and offered a wan smile.
Giles ran a shaky hand through his hair as he looked inside the small store, noting the police still working amid upended shelves and shattered glass. "What happened?" He looked at the Slayer again. "Who...when..."
"You forgot why and where?" Buffy said acidly as she pushed to her feet, then reached back to tug Willow up. "But the answer is, three guys in ski masks with shotguns, about three hours ago--"
Giles appeared horrified. "You should have called me sooner."
"Not an option," Willow sighed tiredly.
"Mm," Buffy mumbled in confirmation. "The police had a lot of questions, and since Willow and I were the only ones not unconscious or dead..." she trailed off suggestively.
"Dead?" Giles exhaled, losing another shade of color at the thought.
"Yeah," the Slayer sighed and nodded toward the front door of the store. "Another customer. She never had a chance." She dragged a hand through her hair, her tone disgusted as she muttered. "So much for my vaunted Slayer powers. I couldn't even stop three stupid thugs--"
"They had shotguns, Buffy," Willow reminded her. "Nobody could have done any better."
Giles settled a hand on the blond's narrow shoulder. "I'm sure Willow's right," he tried to reassure her. "You may be the Slayer, but you're not invulnerable. A shotgun blast will kill you just like anyone else."
Buffy's mouth twisted in an grim smile. "Yeah, tell that to the dead woman's family. I'm sure it will be a lot of comfort." Then the Slayer broke away and climbed into Giles' car without further comment.
Willow turned a sad-eyed look Giles' way. "You know how she gets when...well...when she loses one."
A muscle flexed in the Watcher's jaw. "Yes." He looked at Willow seriously as though trying to assess her condition. She'd been through so much recently that he was worried about her. "Are you all right?"
There was a certain lack of sincerity to Willow's tone when she answered. "I'm fine. Just tired...it was pretty bad." Her shoulders tipped in a prosaic shrug. "But then again, we've both seen things that were a lot worse."
Frowning, Giles demanded, "What were you two doing here at this hour?" as though somehow their schedule was at fault.
The hacker shook her head. "Just being silly," she brushed the question off. She wrapped her arms tightly around herself, shivering in the predawn chill. "Look, Giles, I really think we should get back to the dorms. It's been a long night." She wavered on her feet, so tired she could barely remain upright.
The two stared at each other for a long moment, Giles suspecting there was something else he should say, but at a total loss as to what. Finally, he just nodded. "Get in the car. I'll take you back."
It was only a little over a half a mile back to the dorms and the drive took place in total silence, the three occupants of the tiny car all lost in their respective thoughts. Willow had wiped most of the blood from her hands on a towel the officer who interviewed her had handed her, but it was still caked on her clothes and smell of it filled the crowded space despite the open windows, reminding each of them of the night's high price.
Giles pulled into the small parking lot at the rear of the dorm, and parked near the back doors, then turned to peer at the Slayer where she lay sprawled in the back seat. After a brief glance at Willow, who appeared equally worn out, he cleared his throat. "Look, you two both look like hell. I'm not sure a dormitory is quite the right place for you right now. Why don't you come stay at my place for a day or two. Get some rest...deal with...what's happened..."
Buffy let out a grim bark of laughter. "I don't know. Will, you think Dr. Walsh would let us have the day off for stumbling into the middle of a murder?"
A swell of hysterical giggles bubbled up from the hacker's chest. "Only if we were the victims."
That appeared to strike Buffy as hilariously funny much to Giles' chagrin, though he quickly realized it wasn't real laughter, but rather a way of venting the monstrous stress of the evening. "Buffy...Willow..." he said in a carefully controlled voice. "It's obvious that you're--"
"Too tired for this conversation," Buffy cut him off impatiently as she climbed out of the small car, then reached back to catch Willow's hand and tug her out as well. She ran a trembling hand through her hair. "Look, Giles it's not that I don't appreciate the offer, but I really want to sleep in my own bed tonight..." Then, noting that it was rapidly becoming daylight, she snorted something impolite under her breath. "Or not sleep as the case may be." She sighed heavily. "Besides, hanging with Spike and watching Passions together is not my idea of a therapy day."
Giles glanced at the sleepy redhead standing next to the Slayer. "Willow?"
The girl shook her head. "I don't think so," she demurred without further explanation.
The Watcher sighed heavily, quashing the urge to order them back into the car with effort. He could see the exhaustion and hurt in every facet of both girls and wanted nothing more than to protect them and help them through it. Unfortunately, by the look of it, they were no more receptive to the help he wanted to offer than he would have been at that age. "Be careful," he said at last. "And remember, you can always call me..." He turned a piercing gaze on the Slayer. "I know I'm not officially your Watcher anymore, but I hope I'll always be your friend."
"Of course you are," Willow filled in instantly, though the Slayer was silent for a long moment. Suddenly, she blinked back to the real world and nodded, confirming Willow's words.
"Of course we're friends, Giles," she assured him.
And if there was a note of reserve in her words, well, it was understandable after the night's events. Shock and all that. At least, that was what Rupert Giles told himself as he got back in his car and drove away.
* * * * *
"Do you want to talk?" Willow questioned, her voice sounding curiously hollow even to her own ears.
Buffy looked at her sideways. "Not really...you?" The question was dryly asked, making it clear that the Slayer was in no mood to discuss anything. She turned away and began digging through her closet, yanking out clothes.
Willow stared at her friend's stiff back, uncertain what to say or do. The comforting closeness that had existed between them in the aftermath of the attack had evaporated somewhere during the drive to the dorm, and the hacker was far from certain why. "Are you okay?"
"Fine," Buffy clipped without elaborating as she continued putting her things together.
Her arms wrapped tightly around herself, Willow blinked back the tears threatening to fill her eyes. "Yeah, I can see that," she said so softly Buffy almost didn't hear the words.
Buffy froze, stiffening. A beat passed, and then she slowly turned enough to look back over her shoulder at her friend, wincing as she saw the blood that still stained Willow's clothes, a hauntingly tangible reminder that she wasn't the only one who'd had a bad night. A muscle pulsed in the Slayer's jaw and she started to say something only to fall silent at the last moment. Finally, she just muttered, "I need a shower before I get to class," and hurried out. Coward, that annoying inner voice whispered in her ear, daring her to turn back, but for once, the Slayer wasn't up to being brave. She just needed to run away.
Willow stared at the closed door that lay between them for a long time before she finally staggered forward and grabbed her own clothes. Buffy wasn't the only one in dire need of a shower and the thought of being alone left her slightly nauseous.
* * * * * *
The day that followed was the sort that crawls--slowly--by. Willow sat dazedly in her classes, barely conscious of what her teachers were saying and perversely grateful that she only had one class with Buffy on Fridays, the eminently ditchable Freshman Composition--her grade was so high in there that she'd have to miss it for a month before she even dropped to a B--and after the little scene in their dorm room, she just wasn't in the mood to see her best friend.
When her four o'clock class, Principles of Concurrent Programming--a whiz-bang paradigms course from the computer department that even she found more than a little challenging--swung around, she was so tired of it all that she almost scrapped it and took Giles up on his offer to use his guestroom. If it weren't for the fact that Buffy's Watcher would have wanted to know what was going on--and Willow honestly didn't have an answer for that--she would have. So instead, she went to class, sat in the back--a lonely position to say the least since the ambitious crowd that made up the student-body tended to take the front rows--and spent the entire ninety minutes doodling in her notebook and completely ignoring the professor's lecture. Particularly somewhere during the last fifteen minutes when she started crying and couldn't seem to stop: big fat, soundless tears that fell from her cheeks and made her doodles blot when they hit her notebook. Lost in her own private misery, she didn't notice class had ended until she realized other students were filing out the door, most of them merrily plotting a wild weekend of programming and hacking. The joys of Fridays in the farthest reaches of geekdom. If she hadn't already felt so depressed, it would have taken Willow down another notch. As it was, she just ducked her head, letting her bangs fall across her forehead, and hoped no one noticed the tears as she pretended to be finishing up her notes. Finally, when everyone had gone, she stuffed her things together and hurried out. To hell with it all. She was so tired she could barely stay on her feet and if Buffy wanted to fight, she was comfortably certain she could just sleep through it.
* * * * * *
Willow was already asleep--or at least she was in bed and feigning sleep--when Buffy got in. It was barely dark out, making her feel guilty for not being outside fighting the evils she knew ranged through the night--Giles and Xander had both more or less ordered her to take the night off, promising to take her place. Her hands fisted at her sides. She would have preferred to just see to her patrol. It was her duty. Besides, the notion of killing something was almost uncomfortably appealing. She'd been hoping to blow off some of the angry stress that had settled in the pit of her stomach and between her shoulderblades. Unfortunately, both of her friends had been insistent and even Anya had helpfully commented on how awful she looked. After that, the walk back to campus had seemed longer than she remembered. Unfettered by the strain of concentrating on the fight at hand, the Slayer's brain had busied itself by pursuing any number of mental paths she would have preferred to avoid.
Like the way she'd treated Willow in the dorm room after Giles dropped them off. She'd blown that one completely and she wasn't even quite sure why. Maybe it was just the guilt and the reminder that, as the Slayer, she was supposed to protect people, but from the moment she'd seen Giles she'd been even more on edge. But, whatever the reasons, the fact remained that she had failed and hurt Willow. One. More. Time.
Buffy ran a hand through her hair, mentally castigating herself as she stared at her friend's figure where she lay coiled into her blankets. She was fairly certain that she wasn't sleeping, there was just too much tension in her position and her breathing seemed too controlled, but she wasn't quite certain enough to risk waking her. Or maybe you're just afraid that you've finally well and truly blown it for good, her personal Jiminy Cricket whispered in her ear. And if that's the case, you've really screwed up your life but good this time.
Buffy sighed softly, amazed that she could be so brave when faced with death and so damn cowardly when faced with her own emotions. Finally, she just turned away and readied for bed in silence before finally falling onto her mattress in a heap. Despite the profusion of thoughts running unchecked through her head, she was so tired that she was asleep in moments. She never heard the soft movements less than an hour later as Willow slipped from her bed to turn on her computer. She'd slept for awhile on returning to the dorm, but Buffy's return had wakened her, and she just couldn't seem to fall back asleep, so she decided to get some work done, hoping it would distract her from her own thoughts and fears.
* * * * * *
Joyce Summers grunted softly as she hefted a heavy crate containing her customer's missing painting from the hand truck she'd used to transport it in from her trunk, up onto a work table in the back room of the gallery. Several nails and one plank had come loose during the transport and they needed to be hammered back together. She cursed softly as another plank came loose while she was lifting the crate. The delivery staff had been rough with everything, but by the looks of it, this piece had suffered the worst of the group. Once it was stable, she grabbed a hammer and moved to tap the nails back into place only to set it aside as she noted the packing material leaking from the gap between planks. Poking at it to try and push the shredded paper back inside the bounds of the crate, she succeeded only in pulling more of it out through the gap. After another round of curses, she used the claw on the hammer to pull up several nails, hoping that if she released another plank, she could repack the whole thing properly and then seal it up.
And froze. Joyce leaned closer, staring at what she could see of the painting through the gap in the wood and packing. The painting was obviously wrapped in thick felt padding to protect it, but the felt had ridden up, revealing an ornate gilded frame and the bottom right corner of the canvas. Joyce frowned, head tipping to one side as she saw the last part of the signature. She leaned closer, frowning to make out the little snippet of the name. "It can't be," she whispered to herself, not believing what she was thinking. She brushed more of the packing material aside and carefully pushed the felt out of the way until the signature was completely revealed. "It can't be," the woman whispered, then glanced at her watch. It was only a little past six. Four hours until her client was due to arrive. Which left her with more than enough time to open the crate and then repackage it. She paused for a long moment, debating whether or not she should do it. She leaned closer to peer at the flowing script for a long moment, then picked up her hammer and began removing nails.
* * * * * *
Buffy Summers was dreaming and half aware of the dream state even as she watched the events unfold. She was at the Bronze, wearing something soft and slinky that left her arms and shoulders bare and swirled around her thighs in soft waves. Riley was there, dancing with her, his eyes glittering with the familiar lights of lust that she'd learned to expect from most men, while his friends were all around them, only they weren't dressed like they normally did. Instead, they were wearing camouflage fatigues and some kind of combat vests. She tried to pull away, and see better, but he kept tugging her back, his voice smooth as he urged her to ignore them.
"That's not important," Riley insisted, still moving to the music. "Only this is important."
The Slayer twisted and caught a glimpse of red hair, before her line of sight was blocked by camouflaged men. "That's Willow," she exhaled and started to pull away only to have Riley yank her back.
He smiled down at her, hips swaying with the rhythm. "Don't worry about her," he insisted.. He leaned down and nibbled on Buffy's bare shoulder. "She's not like us."
Buffy tried to subtly pull away, but his grip was too strong as he pressed against her. She heard a pained cry and looked back in time to see Willow try to break through the camouflaged wall of flesh, only to be grabbed and yanked back.
"Ignore her," Riley muttered, trying to drag her back into the dance. "She's just a distraction from what's really important...us...you belong with a real man..." His hands slid over her shoulders and she couldn't pull away even though she wanted to. It was like something held her there and wouldn't let go. She braced her palms on his chest, trying to push, but somehow unable to make her body obey the dictates of her mind, she found her fingers digging into his vest--"vest?" her dream mind questioned--and dragging him closer.
Willow cried out again, her voice thick with pain this time. "Buffy!" She grunted, and the Slayer heard the sound of flesh striking flesh as Willow cried out, "Let me go!"
And then the Slayer did find the strength to twist away, stumbling back from Riley to turn toward her friend. Willow was being held between two of Riley's camo-pals and they laughed cheerfully as she struck at them and tried to break free. Parker was standing behind the girl, and he threw a leering wink Buffy's way as he slid an arm around her friend.
"Buffy, please," Willow whimpered, still struggling with her captors. "I need you!"
"No she doesn't," Riley whispered near Buffy's ear and yanked her back around. "She's not important," he repeated. He gripped her by the hips. "My friends will teach her what she needs to know."
Willow screamed then, the sound panicked and angry, and Buffy twisted away from Riley, breaking his hold as she spun around.
The camo-creeps had lifted Willow onto a pinball machine, and Parker was standing next to her, only now he was dressed all in black.
"Now, isn't this a revolting development?" a soft voice whispered near Buffy's ear. The Slayer glanced back into pale green eyes. It was the blond who'd died in the Twenty-Four/Seven, a wry smile on her mouth, an ugly gash still marring her midsection. "Don't you think it's about time you get over it and do the hero thing...before it's too late?" she asked dryly, then she disappeared as Riley stepped right through her.
"Don't you get it, Buffy," he demanded, dressed all in camouflage now. "We belong together...and she's just in the way." He grabbed her one more time at the same time that Willow screamed. Parker was climbing on top of her, pulling back his fist to hit her.
And Buffy lost it. She slammed an elbow back into Riley's face, thrilled by the satisfying crunch of bone that echoed through the Bronze's loudspeakers, then leapt at the men holding Willow, to send them flying like tenpins. She hit, punched, and kicked with raw ferocity, taking them all down with vicious glee until Riley's voice pulled her up short.
"You just don't get it," he growled, the words punctuated by Willow's tiny cries and Buffy slowly turned to face him. He was dressed in black now, an arm wrapped around Willow's slender body, a sharp stiletto pressed against her throat. "You don't have a choice in this...and if I have to kill her to get that through your thick skull...." He trailed the point of the blade down Willow's torso. "Then I guess that's just what I'm going to have to do." He shoved the point of the blade upward under the bottom edge of Willow's ribcage so hard he lifted her off her feet.
Buffy couldn't move. It was like she was caught in cold tar as she heard Willow's agonized cry and saw the way her breath caught. The hacker's face twisted with shock, while her blood spilled over the blade where it was thrust into her body.
"I was just following orders," Riley said and flung Willow's body aside.
"NO!!!" Buffy's scream echoed back to her as felt the awful paralysis lift and she leapt at him, tackling into his body, taking him down hard. She pinned an arm across his throat, his answering gags music to her ears, and chalked her fist back, fully intending to kill him.
But before she could strike, the scene wavered, colors running like wet paint in the rain, slowly morphing into another scene: Willow staring up at her in horror, her hands held protectively in front of her face, her eyes huge and terrified in her face. The Slayer frowned, uncertain what was real and what wasn't. She glanced around herself, spotting the familiar landmarks of her dorm room--the desks, posters, Willow's open, dully glowing laptop, Mr. Gordo--then back down at the woman lying pinned beneath her on her bed. "Will?" she croaked at last and dropped her fist, self-consciously uncertain what to do with it. A dream...it had just been a dream.
The two girls stared at each other, both breathing hard and shaking with shock and fear.
"Oh, God...Will..." Buffy exhaled heavily and yanked her arm back from the hacker's throat, bracing it on the mattress near Willow's head. They were lying stretched out on her bed, Willow closest to the wall, Buffy half on top, pinning the hacker to the mattress. "I...I was...dreaming... I guess--" By the look of it, she had grabbed her friend, attacking her in place of the dream-Riley.
"More like a nightmare," Willow coughed, her voice rough in the wake of Buffy's choke hold. "I...I was getting some work done when you screamed... I just came to see what was wrong..."
Buffy brushed a few strands of hair off of Willow's brow with a gentle hand. "I am so sorry," she croaked in a voice suddenly thick with tears. "I didn't even know it was you...I-I thought...I thought...someone...was trying to hurt you..." Without thinking, Buffy let her head fall forward until her forehead was resting against Willow's upper chest. "...and I couldn't protect you..." Her hands were braced against the bed on either side of Willow's waist and she shifted them to cling tightly to the hacker's slender frame. "I tried..." she whispered as though still caught in the nightmare. She could feel salty tears sliding away from the corners of her eyes. "But I couldn't...." She couldn't think straight, still overwhelmed by the awful horror of the nightmare, the image of Willow's dead body still burning brightly in her mind. She just needed to hold on and reassure herself it wasn't real...that Willow was okay.
"Buffy," Willow whispered and lifted a hand to the back of the Slayer's head, ruffling her hair gently. "It's okay...I'm okay..." She brought Buffy's head up with a light touch, stroking her cheek and then along her brow, staring deeply into the Slayer's eyes as she tried to soothe her fears. She felt the wetness of the Slayer's tears on her finger and stared at it in awe. "You...you're crying," she exhaled at last.
"I couldn't handle it if anything happened to you," Buffy breathed, her voice so soft Willow had to strain to hear her. The Slayer stared down into the hacker's upturned face, taking in the softness of gamine features, the sweet beauty of her worried expression. Kiss the girl, her inner voice urged, now, let her know how you feel.
For once Buffy was too tired and too steeped in need to resist the siren's song of her own hidden desires. With hungry passion, she ducked her head, tasting soft lips. She felt Willow tense and gasp, and only pressed the kiss deeper, drinking in her friend's startled breath.
The hacker whimpered low in her throat, momentarily confused, but Buffy just kept kissing her until she was lost in the burst of heat that flooded her veins. She arched up against the Slayer, instinctively seeking more contact. Had she been less tired, or less depressed and in need of comfort, Willow might have been able to resist the sweet temptation, but not at that moment. She needed the closeness...the feeling of being loved. Willow surrendered completely to their passion, working her fingers into thick blond hair as she pulled Buffy closer.
Warm curves neatly dovetailed together, the two girls kissed, caressed, stroked and explored, the soft sounds of their lovemaking filling the room as they surrendered to the need flooding through them in that instant. Buffy pressed soft kisses into the valley between rounded breasts, stroked the curve of Willow's hip, trailed her lips along the arch of the hacker's ribcage--pressing tiny kisses over the precise spot where the dream-Willow had taken the knife as though to wash away the imaginary injury--then slid back up, shuddering and moaning softly as Willow's hands and lips slid over her skin until she could barely breathe.
And for once, the voice in Buffy's head just sat back and applauded.