Whither Thou Goest... by Pink Rabbit Productions

Title: Whither Thou Goest...
Author: Pink Rabbit Productions
Pink Rabbit, A Slayer/A Hacker
The characters and show all belong to Joss Whedon, Fox, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui, and God only knows who else. This particular arrangement of words in cyberspace belongs to me, however. Btw, it contains love between two women, so if such things offend you, are illegal where you live or somesuch, kindly don't read it and upset yourself, 'kay. It'll just make life easier on all of us.
Some general 5th season stuff, but nothing major.
soft R
Feedback: Always welcome at pinkrabbit@altfic.com
Author's Note: This is the latest story in the Spin Series (following Spin, Spinning, Spun Out; It All Depends on Your Timing; and Interludis Neanderthalensis.

| Prologue-Ch. 1 | Ch.2-3 | Ch. 4-5 | Ch. 6-7 | Ch. 8-9 | 10-11 | 12-13 | 14-Epilogue |

Chapter Four

"Giles?" Joyce spoke into the phone as she heard it pick up, aware her voice was trembling ever so slightly, but unable to do anything about it.

His voice came back with the unique tinny quality of an answering machine. "Hello, I'm not home right now, just leave a message at the sound of the--"

"Blood curdling scream," Buffy's voice broke in, along with background giggles and then a full throated scream.

"Buffy," Giles' recording continued, sounding highly annoyed.

"Please leave your name and which level of hell you're currently residing in and we'll exorcize you in the morning," Buffy continued as if her Watcher hadn't tried to chastise her.

"Dammit, Buffy," Joyce growled, fervently wishing for the beep. "I don't have time for this."

"I don't have time for this," the Giles-recording echoed Joyce's thoughts before continuing. "Name and number at the beep and hopefully I'll have time to rerecord this message soon," he growled. A second later the phone beeped at her.

"Giles, this is Joyce Summers. I'm at the gallery. You once told me to call you if I ever saw a catalog listing on a DuCourvallier...well, I'm sitting here looking at one. It looks to be a version of Ruth and Naomi, but it's nothing like the one I've seen attributed to the artist and I can't find a listing for anything like it in any of the books I've had time to check. The style and the signature are right though. The piece was shipped to me by mistake and my client is picking it up within the hour. If you want to see it, you have to get over here now." Then she read off the phone number at the gallery as well as her beeper number, and finished with, "Call me." She hung up the phone, then slowly pivoted, staring at the open crate with worried eyes.

There was something about the whole deal that was starting to make her skin crawl, though she couldn't put her finger on the problem. Unfortunately, the size of the contract made it impossible for her to do what she really wanted to at that moment and simply leave. With Buffy's school bills and the debt the gallery had built up during the start-up period, she needed the money too much.

Finally, she moved over to the painting, staring down at the exquisitely delicate work. A part of her wanted to believe it was a fake. Nothing in the few surviving paintings of the Baroque artist had ever hinted at the kind of talent and skill required to create the piece in front of her. In fact, had DuCourvallier not been one of the tiny minority of female artists of the period--even briefly an apprentice of Orazio Gentileschi in Rome, moving amid a circle of people that included great masters like Caravaggio and Rubens--she would have long since been forgotten like hundreds of other apprentices and less-than-masterful artists whose names had been lost to time.

But this piece was on par with any of the great works. The brush strokes delicate and perfectly controlled, the colors chosen to make the piece glow as though a light gleamed behind the canvas. The two women were staged around a campfire that made their skin glow in firelight hues of red and gold while bits of light reflected off a hint of trees and rocks, giving it an amazing amount of depth. The two figures were facing each other, one nearly turned away from the viewer, only a tantalizing hint of gentle features visible within a softly blowing mantle, while the other woman was angled toward the viewer, her dark hair flowing around her, one hand outstretched, fingers almost touching the other woman's face, the tip of her index finger poised as if to stroke her lower lip. There was no physical contact between the two, yet it burned with unspoken sensuality in the grace of their bodies and the way they leaned toward each other, the hunger to touch obvious in every brush stroke.

Joyce wondered if it had been hidden away because of that very sensuality and innocent eroticism. Had some church official seen it and deemed it unacceptable, or had it been stolen because of some greedy noble or cleric's desire to keep it to themselves? Or had it simply been stored away in someone's attic and forgotten? The failed artist in her couldn't help but appreciate the beauty of the work, though she knew it was of little historic significance to anyone but a few researchers. DuCourvallier wasn't of importance to anyone.

So, why the hell does Buffy's Watcher care if one of her pieces show up, Joyce questioned herself, then shivered as she felt as though someone had walked over her grave. She was still contemplating the problem when she heard the sound of the front door chimes ringing. "Damn," the woman muttered as she glanced at her watch and noted the time. She'd totally lost track of the hour while studying the painting and her caller was doubtless looking to pick up her property. Joyce had a funny feeling the woman wouldn't be too thrilled that the crate had been opened, particularly since it had happened since her request to retrieve the piece. She'd just have to delay her another night. Joyce shivered at the thought. There'd been something about Blaine Michaels, something not quite right. She looked like the perfect blond coed, and her smile had been easy, her manner almost too polite and apologetic, but there'd been a moment when Joyce had sensed something more. Something--

The bell rang again, reminding her that she had an impatient customer waiting. The woman slung a protective blanket across the painting and shoved the rolling work table out of the way, then hurried out to receive her guest.

* * * * * *

Giles cursed softly as he re-entered his home, noting the figure sprawled on his couch surrounded by a feast of opened cookies and crackers, not to mention a nearly empty pint of pig's blood. "Spike," he growled in a voice thick with distaste.

The vampire looked up, raising his mug in salute, not because he liked the Englishman, but because he knew it annoyed the hell out of him. "Hey, you should take a look at this," he encouraged as he pointed to the video playing on Giles' tv. "Tabby's about to make a try at that little blond tart again--God, I'd love to sink my teeth into that girl," Spike enthused. "But not as much as that other blond; the one who can't resist the cop. Tasty bit of fluff there. I like my ingénues with a bit on 'em."

Giles glared at the mess and then at Spike. It only seemed to please the vampire. "So, is this what you've been doing all day, hanging out eating Oreos dipped in pig's blood and watching Passions tapes over and over?"

Spike shrugged. "Sure, not like I'm going to be planning any bouts of world domination or major killing sprees." The vampire's expression turned pathetic. "Not like I used to."

Grumbling several impolite invectives, Giles started grabbing up the tattered remains of his cracker cupboard, intent on establishing some tiny bit of order in his home once again.

"Besides, I thought you and the Boy Blunder were out for the evening doing the Slayer's job, 'cos she's too 'upset' to handle it right now."

"I realized I forgot the holy water," Giles snapped impatiently, and abruptly dropped everything back on the couch as it occurred to him that he'd been just about to clean up after the vampire. He hardened his voice as he continued, "Which is what I came here to get." He glared at Spike. "And now I'm going out again and I want this entire mess cleaned up again before I get home." He turned away, flipping open the weapon's trunk to grab what he needed.

Spike made a face at the mortal's back as he mouthed, "I want this entire mess cleaned up before I get home." His lip curled with dislike. Even his mother hadn't been that much of a harridan. It was like living with bloody Felix Unger. He dusted a few crumbs off the couch and onto the floor. Sheez, it was just a few cookie bits. Not like he'd suddenly brought in a load of crypt dust or something. He looked up as he heard Giles moving to leave. "Oh, and you have a message on the answering machine," he said, trying to get back somewhat in the other man's good graces--not that he'd ever been there in the first place. After all, much as he hated them, the Slayer and her friends were all that stood between him and a quick Spike-style weenie-roast. He shuddered. That wasn't how he planned on going. No, he wanted to die peacefully in...well, actually, he didn't ever want to die at all. Which made that whole undead-vampire lifestyle a pretty good choice as far as Spike was concerned.

"Why didn't you tell me before?" the ex-librarian demanded shortly as he spun back.

Spike shrugged. "Didn't think of it." He climbed to his feet, wandering over to listen to the message as Giles played it. "Not like you're going to get a message from a cute bird." He eyed Giles speculatively. "Or even a good-looking bloke."

"Bloody hell," the ex-Watcher groaned as he heard the name DuCourvallier go by. He was already grabbing for the two-way radio to warn Xander when Joyce's message clicked off.

Spike looked at the other man with a wry smile. "Looking for a DuCourvallier," he murmured. "I'd think one of those would be a bit out of your price range...what with the jobless thing and all--"

"I don't want to buy the damn thing," Giles clipped, then focused on the radio. "Xander, this is Giles--"

"Nighthawk here," the teen's voice came back.

"Nighthawk," Spike mouthed, then snickered derisively and took another swig from his mug.

"Xander, I need you to get to Joyce Summer's gallery and get her out of there."

Xander's voice was all business. "Trouble?"

"Probably not, but it's possible. It's a long story--I'll tell you about it later--but for the moment, get her the hell away from there...and if you see anything, don't engage...run!"

"But, Giles--"

"I mean it, Xander. Don't try to fight it. I'll be there as fast as I can." He clicked the radio off and reached for the phone, dialing the number Joyce had given in her message.

"You don't actually believe that old sod about Delaine DuCourvallier, do you?" Spike snorted.

Giles ignored him in favor of the phone.

"Next thing y'know, you'll be telling me you believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy," the vampire continued, though he tracked Giles' progress on the phone out of the corner of his eye. "She's a bloody myth, a fairy tale to scare Watcher-tots in their beds at night." He stuffed his hands in his pockets before adding, "Anyone pick up?"

"No," Giles snapped as he hung up. He dialed another number-- Buffy's this time--and got a busy signal. "Damn," the former Watcher hissed and slammed the phone down in frustration. He was hurrying to leave when he abruptly realized Spike had grabbed his coat and was following him and pulled up short. "What do you think you're doing?" he demanded angrily. He didn't have time for this.

"I'm coming with you," Spike answered as though it was the most natural thing in the world.

"Oh, right, am I to believe you've suddenly seen the light and decided you want save the world and help fight evil?"

"No," Spike sneered at the very idea. He shoved a finger in Giles' face. "I hate the Slayer, loathe you, and would cheerfully put Xander's head through a wall if it weren't for the bloody migraine I'd get, but I rather like the Slayer's mum."

Whatever response Giles had been expecting, that wasn't it.

"Look," Spike pointed out surprisingly reasonably, "if it really is La Coeur Noir, you're going to all the help you can get."

Accepting that he was going to have a passenger, Giles simply headed for his car as he jeered over his shoulder, "Well, I suppose we could throw you at her if things get too rough."

"Hey!" the vampire complained. "That's not funny."

"It is from where I'm sitting," Giles disagreed as his Citroen puttered to life and he pulled out. He shoved his cell phone at Spike. "Now shut up and dial while I'm driving."

* * * * * *

"Important call?" Blaine Michaels politely questioned Joyce as she returned from the back room.

The other woman shook her head. "I don't know." She let out a small stressed laugh. "Didn't make it in time."

Green eyes watched her assessingly, though Michaels' expression remained bland. "Too bad. Personally, I always hate missing late night calls. I'm always afraid it was something important."

Another nervous laugh erupted from Joyce's lips. "I'm sure it was nothing," she denied, then continued uncertainly, "Probably just...um...my--uh--the man I'm dating. He often calls or stops by when I'm working late."

Blaine lifted an eyebrow, but her expression didn't otherwise change. "Very thoughtful of him. After all, you never know what might be lurking in the night."

It was probably just her imagination running out of control--fed by the knowledge of the otherworldly evils her daughter faced--but Joyce couldn't force down the sudden bout of nerves. Every time she looked at Blaine Michaels it seemed as though her fine features had taken on a demonic cast. "Yes," she agreed, hoping the other woman would believe the tale of the boyfriend who might just stop by. "That's the kind of man he is."

"Lucky you," Michaels drawled, then pointedly glanced at her watch. "However, in any event, I'm afraid I do need to be moving along. So if you could just show me the crate, I can be out of your hair in just a few minutes."

"Of course," Joyce assured her uneasily. "If I could just..." she trailed off, grabbing for the beeper in her pocket. A simple message scrolled across the tiny screen, 'Get out.' The woman felt her heart kick into overdrive as she made a fast decision. Money or no money, she was walking--running actually-- away from this one. "I...uh...it's from my date. If you don't mind, I'm just going to go ahead and return this call. It'll just take a moment."

Blaine Michaels' smile was strained, but she nodded. "Of course."

"I'll just be a moment," Joyce repeated over her shoulder as she hurried toward the back room. Once through the double doors that shielded the storage and work area, she broke into a jog, bypassing her office as she headed for the short corridor that led to the rear door, pausing only long enough to grab an antique wooden cross from one of the work tables. She threw the lock on the back door, wrenching it open with the intention of hurrying out.

It didn't quite happen that way. Blaine Michaels was on the other side of the door, lunging forward as Joyce flung the door open--somehow she had to have gone out the front and made it around to the back in the time it had taken Joyce to get to the back door--grabbing her by the throat and forcing her back inside. "Where's my painting, Mrs. Summers?" the youthful-appearing woman demanded implacably, her expression flinty, her grip painfully strong. She shoved Joyce into the wall, lifting her off her feet. "Because I'm tired of the delays."

Gagging desperately for air, Joyce grabbed for the hand wrapped around her throat, trying to take some of the awful strain off her windpipe, momentarily forgetting the cross gripped tightly in her other hand. She was startled a brief second later when her feet hit the floor again and the hand at her throat loosened enough so that she could breathe.

"My painting," Blaine Michaels repeated her voice little more than a low hiss, just in case Joyce was considering forgetting what she wanted. "Where is it?"

Working on instinct, Joyce swung the cross around in a roundhouse arc, trying to use it like a club. A hard hand caught her wrist mid-swing and she heard the crunch of bone shattering against bone as agony bolted up her arm. The cross clattered uselessly to the floor as she was slammed hard into the wall again.

"That wasn't smart, Mrs. Summers...."

* * * * * *

Xander Harris was running as hard as he could, long legs eating up the distance. He was barely breathing hard--being one of the Slayer's pals was a hell of a work-out program--and he had a sharp wooden stake gripped tightly in one hand. Despite Giles' admonitions, he was absolutely determined that nothing was going to hurt Buffy's mother. His own parents were pretty much worthless, and for all the platitudes they mouthed, Willow's weren't much better. But the Slayer's mother--despite any failings--she was different. She honestly loved her daughter and if anything hurt her, he knew his friend would be destroyed. He wasn't going to let that happen.

He reached the front door of the gallery and slowed, pushing the door open enough to peer through and ascertain the front room was empty. A soft, whimpery sound reached the boy's ears and he was through the door in an instant. Joyce Summers had paid him to help out--lifting and moving heavy stuff--a couple of times, so he knew his way around the place. He didn't call out, just moved toward the back room. The double doors to the work area were open, and he glanced through first, checking for anything that might consider him a tasty meal.

"Where?" the voice was light and should have been pleasing, but there was a dangerous hardness to it.

He recognized the second voice instantly. "Go to hell." Joyce Summers, sounding bad, like she was in a lot of pain. Xander knew that tone all too well.

"Been there, done that, not looking to go back, thank you," was the bitter reply.

Xander spotted them in moments; together in the back hallway, Joyce Summers pinned against the wall, one hand cradled against her torso, the woman holding her there smaller, but obviously far stronger than any normal human. He saw the discarded cross and knew what they were dealing with in an instant. Gripping his stake tightly, the teen lunged, pulling back his arm to give the blow added power.

He never made contact as the tiny blond sensed his attack a millisecond before he should have made contact and twisted toward him, sweeping her free hand around, knocking his arm aside, and sending him sprawling on past her. He hit the floor hard, rolled to his feet and came up just in time to meet a hard blow to the face. The teen's head was whipped to one side as he suddenly found himself airborne. He hit the floor at the entrance to the short hallway and heard a growled, "I don't have time for this," as he struggled to push upright again. Somehow, against all odds, he'd maintained his grip on the stake and he brandished it in what he hoped was a menacing way as he found his feet with all the stability of a punch drunk boxer.

"Get away from her," the teen snarled, weaving gently.

Still maintaining a grip on Joyce, the blond turned toward him, her expression forbidding. Or at least he thought the blurry double image that was all he could make out looked pretty forbidding.

"Children," she whispered so softly he wasn't entirely certain that was what she'd said.

He lunged then, swinging the weapon wildly, while Joyce threw a clumsy left-handed punch at her attacker, adding another distraction in hopes of helping the boy. The blond tossed Joyce aside, appearing not to notice the limp blow that caught the side of her face as she turned to meet Xander's attack. She blocked his blow, then hit back with a shove to his chest that literally sent him flying. He landed on a work table, letting out a dull scream of pain as the force of his impact sent the table careening into its neighbor. He was just trying to push upright again despite the pain and dizziness rattling through him, when a hard hand gripped his shirtfront, lifted him and slammed him down again. Only half conscious, the boy tumbled to the floor, a voice ringing in his already ringing ears to create a bizarre echo that hammered back and forth inside his skull.

"Stay down."

Momentarily forgotten, one knee wrenched from a bad landing, her broken wrist throbbing with blinding pain, Joyce used the wall as a brace to push to her feet. The work table with the covered painting was just around the corner, and she lunged toward it, struggling to ignore her own aches and pains. She grabbed for the shelves above the table, searching for, and finding, the cheap lighter that sat next to a pack of cigarettes that she occasionally indulged in when the world was caving in on her late at night. Don't think, just move, she told herself as her other hand fumbled among the open cleaning supplies that lined the floor. Agony shot up her arm as she closed her fingers on a wire paint can handle and forced her shattered wrist to bear the weight. As she lifted it, she used the thumbnail of her other hand to flick the loose lid off. The acrid smell of turpentine reached her nostrils almost instantly. She flicked the flint on the lighter, saw the flame flare to life, and shoved it into the can. The turpentine caught with a soft puff, burning hot, bright blue flames that threatened to singe her hand.

Xander had pushed to his knees and was trying to find his feet. One arm was braced across his ribs and his breath came in huge gasps, while the hand that had gripped the stake so tightly was empty. His eyes lifted to the woman who stood over him, the expression in her eyes suddenly seeming perversely gentle. A hand reached out and slid over his hair, running it back from his sweaty brow. He was going to die. He'd seen enough to know that. "Just do it," he snarled, trying for one last show of bravado.

A strange smile lifted the woman's mouth. "Don't be in such a hurry to die, boy," she said softly and brought her hand around, her thumb under his jaw forcing his chin up with implacable strength. "It's not all it's cracked up to be."

"Better that than a thing like you," he sneered.

"Get away from him!" Joyce Summers' voice was stronger than she would have predicted was possible. "Unless you want it to go up in smoke."

The blond's head whipped around and she tensed as she saw the burning paint can held tightly in the woman's hands, ready to be spilled over the covered crate on the table. With their attacker's attention focused on her now, Joyce yanked the blanket back, revealing the painting with its wooden crate and shredded paper packing.

"Lots of fuel for the fire," the woman snarled, her unsteady grip on the turpentine can making it slosh liquid fire and threaten to spill onto the canvas.

The blond relinquished her grip on Xander as she spun fully toward Joyce. "One lick of fire on that painting," she snarled, green eyes glittering with rage as her face morphed into the arched features of the thing that lived inside her body, "and you'll take a week to die...if you're lucky."

"Xander, get over here!" Joyce ordered as she saw him struggling for his feet. The boy scrambled to her side, somehow managing to snag the cross Joyce had dropped in the first moments of her confrontation with the creature in front of them.

"I don't want you or the boy," the vampire told her, her voice dropping low in an odd combination of threat and seduction. "Just the painting."

"And how long will we live after you have it?" Xander jeered sarcastically.

In an instant, the vampire's features smoothed to a perfect mimicry of normal humanity. "You'll have to take that up with your God. If I were interested in killing you, you'd already be dead." She took a half step forward, eyes tracking the burning paint can with laser intensity, and froze as Joyce readied to tip the flaming contents all over the artwork.

"Don't move!" Joyce snapped. "Or I'll do it."

The vampire stood perfectly still. "All right...I propose a trade," she offered. "Your lives for the painting."

It was Xander who shook his head first. In his experience, when demons and creatures of the night were ready to work deals to get their mitts on something, it invariably meant that they should--under no circumstances--be allowed anywhere near the item in question. "No deal," he growled and brandished the ornate cross.

The woman who'd called herself Blaine Michaels flinched ever so slightly, but didn't lunge back the way most of her kind did. "It's a rather poor example of Rococo workmanship," she observed dryly.

"It does the job," Xander snarled.

A slim brow lifted. "We appear to have a Mexican standoff," the vampire observed, then suddenly tensed, pivoting on one foot as she realized they weren't alone. He eyes landed on the man standing in the corridor that led from the back door, a crossbow braced at his shoulder.

With the vampire aware of his presence and moving, Giles was forced to fire while he was still sighting the weapon, and the bolt hit wide, driving deeply into the small woman's left shoulder, but missing her heart by several inches. She twisted toward him, roaring in pain at this newest attack.

Giles dropped the weapon without even trying to reload, instead slinging a second loaded crossbow from his shoulder to take aim.

"Delaine DuCourvallier!" he called out as Joyce and Xander's attacker danced backwards, her expression twisted with frustrated anger. He sighted the weapon along the bolt perfectly this time, aiming straight for her heart. "I sentence you to hell in the name of the Watcher's Council."

"Just kill her!" Xander shouted, while Joyce just struggled to keep the paint can from tipping fire over the painting, while still keeping it where the threat was still evident.

Giles triggered the crossbow, lips lifting in a satisfied smile as he watched the bolt take flight. Not even a vampire could run fast enough to evade that fast-moving death.

Only, she didn't even try to outrun it. A fine-boned hand lifted, plucking the wooden bolt out of the air only inches from her heart. She rolled it in her fingers, turning the point end their way and Giles' felt his chest contract with fear. In an instant, the bolt took flight once again, this time flung with inhuman accuracy. He heard the thunk and turned to look, fully expecting to see it embedded it human flesh.

Instead, the bolt was embedded in the wall, the length of the bolt sticking through the handle of the burning paint can so it couldn't easily fall on the painting, either by accident or design.

"We'll finish our business another night, Mrs. Summers," the vampire promised, then spun, her coat flaring around her like a black cape as she fled into the main part of the gallery.

"'Ey, Giles, I can't find a bloody...thing..." Spike called out as he entered through the front, his words trailing off into a shocked finish as he saw the slender blond standing in the middle of the gallery.

"Damn," she hissed, then glanced over her shoulder and saw Giles shoving a fresh bolt into place.

A huge arched and multi-paneled skylight made up much of the ceiling of the gallery.

Spike saw the woman's chin lift as she assessed the distance from the floor to the glass--twenty feet at least by his calculation--then saw her brace. "You've got to be kidding," the vampire exhaled. Then his jaw hung open as she leapt straight up, almost seeming to fly as the black trenchcoat whipped around her like batwings.

Giles fired a beat too late.

"Bloody hell," Spike snarled, diving out of the way of the bolt headed straight for him as he threw an arm in front of his face to protect his eyes from the sudden jumble of sharp glass knives that tumbled from the newly destroyed skylight overhead as the blond went through without slowing. He had only a brief glimpse of her figure dancing lightly across the frame that held the remaining glass panels in place before she disappeared into the darkness.

"Damn," Giles hissed peering up into the night sky visible through the missing window panels.

Spike stared up at the newly revealed night sky for a long moment, his expression one of awe. "Bloody hell. I gotta find out how she does that." Then he pushed up on his hands, noting the crossbow bolt stuck in the door right where his heart would have been if he hadn't ducked. "Hey," he complained to Giles, "you coulda killed me with that thing."

Giles barely spared him a glance. "Remind me to care sometime," he muttered as he turned back toward the rear of the gallery.

Spike thrust to his feet, jogging after Giles into the work area. "So, was that really her?" the vampire demanded. "I mean," he laughed triumphantly and punched the air with his fist. "They say when she comes it's always to kill...that nothing...not even a Slayer can stop her." Spike was so jubilant he was almost giggling. "She'll level this town and your precious Slayer with it."

Giles spun on his heel, lashing out with a hard punched that knocked Spike on his ass. "Shut up!" the Watcher snarled through bared teeth. "And while you're crowing so happily, you might want to consider the fact that according to the legend, she didn't like vampires any more than she did humans."

"I just meant--"

Giles leaned closer. "In fact, as I recall, she killed more of them after she died than she did before."

Spike lost considerable color at that little reminder. He'd been so lost in the thrill of the coming of someone who might just put the Slayer and her oh-so-self-righteous Scooby Gang in their proper place at the bottom of the food chain that he hadn't stopped to consider the rest of the rumors...or their possible ramifications in his undead existence. After a beat, he slowly pushed to his feet.

"Hey, Giles, not that I mind the idea of killing fang-boy here, but you're mighty bent out of shape," Xander limped over to intercede. "Okay, so the art obsession is new for the fangy crowd, but we beat her back....."

Giles stepped past the boy, moving to stand in front of the painting. With Xander's help, Joyce had lifted the burning turpentine can off its tenuous support and put the lid back on to douse the flames by denying them much-needed oxygen. The woman was leaning against the rolling table, her broken wrist cradled against her body, her face ghostly pale.

"This is it?" Giles whispered as he stared down at the work, noting the soft glow that seemed to emanate from the very brush strokes.

Joyce nodded. "Yes."

Giles was still staring at the piece as if hypnotized. "Are you certain?"

The woman shrugged. "As sure as it's possible to be without a lot more authentication. It's not something that's listed in any catalog of her work, but the signature is right...and the style...it's a lot more mature than any of her known works, but it definitely has her feel for light, color, and background space. I mean, it's very possible it's a forgery...but why? Her work's not particularly valuable. It's not like discovering a lost Renoir."

Giles was only half listening to Joyce as he stared at the piece, trying to decide if he should just go ahead and burn the damn thing. God only knew what evil DuCourvallier was planning to use it for if it was important to her. As far as the Council knew, she'd been quiet for better than a hundred years, and there'd been considerable hope among the senior members that she had somehow been destroyed along the way. Certainly, none of the many hit teams dispatched around the globe to hunt her down had ever gotten more than a distant whiff that might or might not have been the former Slayer. "We've got to get out here," he said abruptly.

"Here, I'll help you," Spike said solicitously as he moved to help support Joyce when she might have gone down.

"Oh...Spike," Joyce exhaled as she recognized the vampire. Buffy had told her how evil he was, but she'd yet to see any sign of it. Really, he seemed like a nice enough boy as far as she was concerned. "I'd appreciate that."

"The car's just outside," the blond vampire told her, then looked over his shoulder at Giles and Xander. "You two probably ought to bring that painting," he pointed out matter-of-factly.

"Am I the only feeling slightly grossed out?" Xander murmured thoughtfully as he watched the vampire carefully helping the Slayer's mother.

Giles snorted something impolite under his breath, but slung the painting up by the frame. He looked over at Xander who was standing dazedly beside him. "If you're waiting for my tender, loving help," he said acidly. "It's going to be a very long night."

"Well, aren't you coming?" Spike questioned as he looked back, the smile on his face a wicked confirmation that he knew very well just how much he was annoying the other two men.

Muttering under his breath, Giles hurried along, while Xander limped after them in the rear, wondering how they were going to get everyone into the librarian's tiny Citroen.

* * * * * *

Chapter Five

Buffy blinked, momentarily confused as she realized she was snuggled up against a warm body--not a normal event in her life--until she remembered the events of the previous hours. "Oh, God," she exhaled almost inaudibly as it all came back to her. She'd made love with Willow; hot, sweet, incredibly erotic love-- just the memory of it made her pulse pound--then curled up in her arms to fall into an exhausted sleep that was the best she'd had in months.

Way to go, her inner voice encouraged, but Buffy was far less confident about the matter, her head rolling with inner turmoil, while her heart just wanted to hold on and never let go. She was conflicted to say the least.

She pushed up on one elbow just enough to stare down at Willow's face, taking in delicate features softened by sleep. "Ah, God, Will, what are we gonna do?" she breathed, then reached out and tenderly brushed several strands of bright red hair off Willow's cheek. Well, at least she's forgiven me for this morning, she thought with a touch of dark humor. I wonder if she'll forgive herself for how thoroughly she forgave me? I wonder if I'll forgive myself?

Don't think like that, her inner voice chastised.

Shutup, Buffy ordered the voice which had been her constant companion of late. You're the one who got me into this.

Even you don't believe that, her inner Jiminy Cricket disagreed.

Buffy shook her head slowly, wondering if she was going nuts. The dreams, the constantly chiding inner voice, and now whole conversations. It wasn't the sort of thing that boded well for her ongoing sanity. And then she looked down at Willow, lying so trustingly against her side and couldn't squelch the thought before it blossomed in her conscious mind, if this is insanity, bring it on.

Suddenly, she needed to move, escape the thoughts moving through her own head. Buffy was lying on the outer edge of the bed and only had to carefully disengage from the figure cuddled against her side, then slip quietly out of bed to leave without waking her sleeping friend. The sweats and tank top she'd worn to bed were still tangled amid the tumbled covers, so she didn't even bother to try and dig them out, just moved to the chest where she kept that sort of thing and pulled out a fresh pair of sweat pants and another tank top. As she tugged her clothes on, it occurred to her that Willow's laptop was still open on the desk, though the screen had long since darkened and gone into power-saver mode. Willow had probably been doing either homework or late night research. She tended to lose herself in the computer when she was hurting. Still pulling her shirt down, Buffy reached over to at least close the laptop so it couldn't accidentally get knocked over and damaged, jogging it just enough that the screen flared to life. Buffy jumped in surprise as she noted the icon in the corner and realized the computer was still logged on to the Internet and a chat program was still scrolling by, while some kind of other program ran in the background.

"What the..." the Slayer breathed as she saw the discussion going on. Vampires, UFO's, werewolves, and anything else supernatural or strange mixed in with lurid remarks, obvious double entendres, and aggressive cyber-passes. She reached out and scrolled up so she could see the start of the conversation; Willow, as scooby1, looking for someone with the handle artfuldodger and suggestive teasing from the other occupants of the chatroom--chat-surfers with handles like lonegun1, alienluvr, and msfang--about the amount of time they'd been talking to each other recently. Buffy tamped down an unfamiliar flame of jealousy as she found herself wondering if Willow had some online thing going with this artfuldodger character. After all, weren't online sex and romance all the rage, and a screen name like that certainly indicated a tendency toward dishonesty. This guy was probably some sleazebag who bounced through chat rooms, looking for innocent young girls to "cyber" with. Probably some loser who couldn't get near a real girl if he paid for it. And he was chasing Willow. Buffy's hands fisted at her sides as she imagined smashing in his scrawny, ugly, pimply, cheating face.

She was still glaring at the computer screen when she heard the soft sound of Willow stirring in the blankets.

"Buff?" the hacker mumbled sleepily as she rolled over, peering at the dim figure of her roommate where she stood silhouetted by the soft glow from the laptop.

Buffy did a slow pivot, eyes finding the hacker's slender form where she lay tangled amid the blankets in bed...my bed, Buffy mentally amended. Willow slowly pushed into a sitting position and the Slayer felt her heart clench as she saw the way moonlight spilled through the window across her friend's pale skin and bright copper hair, reminding her that she had spent the night touching fine skin, sliding her fingers through the crimson river of hair, tasting the swell of soft breasts. "Will," she croaked.

The hacker suddenly realized the sheet had tumbled down around her waist and tugged it up over her breasts as memories of the heated words and caresses they'd shared washed through her. She swallowed hard, not knowing what to say or do, or how to react. Not when she couldn't regret what they'd shared, but had no way of knowing what her friend was thinking or feeling. "Buffy?" she whispered tightly as she slid out of bed, wrapping the sheet around her body as she moved.

The Slayer swallowed hard, standing absolutely still, her hands hanging at her sides, uncertain whether she should apologize, run away, or just throw herself into Willow's arms and hold on. For once, her inner voice didn't offer any brilliant advice, just stood back and left her to handle it on her own.

"Say something," Willow begged after a long moment of silence.

"Who's artfuldodger?" Buffy whispered at last, blurting the first words that came coherently to mind.

Willow blinked. Of all the questions or comments she'd been expecting, that was nowhere on the list. The hacker frowned, then her eyes flashed to the computer screen where the online discussion was still flowing past. "Dodger's just someone...someone I've...talked with...online..." she babbled. "But...why...I mean..." Willow glanced back at the bed where the blankets were still torn up from their shared passion. "We...just--" She couldn't quite get the words out.

Buffy spun, concentrating on the computer instead of the bed. She could get her brain around the computer. The bed was proving to be a much larger challenge. "So...what...you're cyber-sexing with some creep--"

"Cyber-sexing!?" Willow repeated. "What are you talking about?"

Buffy spun around, feeling more confident now that she could concentrate on an argument instead of the far less comfortable topic of her emotions, and the even less comfortable topic of Willow's emotions. "Oh, come on, I've read about what goes on in those chat rooms, and I can see for myself the kinds of remarks being made in this one...though how vampires and the supernatural translate into online sex totally escapes me--"

"No!" Willow snapped. "If I wanted that, I'd have been talking to lonegun1, not dodger." She stared at Buffy in open confusion, wide eyes showing her hurt. "What's going on here?" she questioned breathlessly.

Buffy spun away, bracing her hands on the desk as she tried to clear her head. "I just...I know you're vulnerable...right now...and ... I hate the thought of someone...some creep...using you...or taking advantage..." she stammered raggedly, accusing herself with every word.

A moment passed before Willow quietly asked, "Is that what you think you did ... took advantage?"

Buffy froze. Now, there was the million dollar question. She wondered if there was any way she could use a lifeline...no, probably not without having to put up with Regis Philbin in the bargain. "Hell, Will, I all but attacked you," she whispered at last, then let out a hollow laugh. "Who are we kidding, I did attack you." A hand landed lightly on her shoulder.

"No," Willow disagreed. "I mean it started out that way," she allowed after a beat. "But that was the nightmare..." She leaned closer to the Slayer, not touching anywhere but her shoulder, but close enough to draw strength from their nearness. "Not the reality...what happened...whatever it was...whatever we want it to be...it wasn't about using each other...or-or taking advantage..." she whispered in disjointed syllables, not knowing what was going to come out of her mouth until the words already hung in the air between them.

Drawn by the emotion in Willow's voice, Buffy slowly turned to face her. Even in the faint light cast by the computer screen, she could see the honest concern in her friend's expression. No anger, no fear...no regret? Buffy was less certain about the last one. There was something there in her eyes, something shadowed and hard to read, and every bit as turbulent as the emotions burning in her own breast. "Will," she whispered after a long moment. Her jaw muscles clenched tightly, and she realized she was shivering violently as if caught in the treacherous grip of hypothermia. Hard throbbing terror ripped through her. "I'm scared," she choked out at last. "I don't ever want to hurt you." She was close to crying again, tears filling her eyes until she could barely see. She lifted her hand, almost, but not quite touching Willow's cheek, afraid that if she actually made contact, she might shatter into a thousand pieces.

"You didn't," Willow exhaled after a beat. Her eyes slid closed and she swallowed hard, summoning her courage to put her heart on the line and whisper, "I don't regret any of it." The moment that followed was among the longest of her young life, then she felt the tenderest of touches on her cheek, stroking very lightly. Green eyes sprang open and Willow could feel her heart thudding against her ribcage. "If you don't want it to--"

"Shhh," Buffy hushed and brushed a finger over soft lips. She didn't want to think about that...didn't want to let herself delve too deeply into her own fears, uncertainties, and hangups...comfortably certain that was a very dangerous route. Her inner nag was babbling away, telling her what to do and how to do it, but she ignored that as well, and just let her body take over, muscles instinctively straining to bring her closer to Willow's delicate frame. She lifted a hand to carefully brush silky hair back from the redhead's cheek, still not quite touching the softness of her skin. They were standing so close that the thin strip of air that separated them warmed with the heat of pouring off their skin, while their breath mingled as their mouths drew closer.

And then they touched, lips just barely meeting, electricity arcing between them. Buffy shivered and tasted Willow's tiny cry. She let the hand at Willow's cheek fall to her bare shoulder, stroking the line of her collarbone tenderly.

Willow shivered in response. It was like flame sliding over skin, leaving overheated, exposed nerve endings in its wake. "Buffy," she gasped through the blending of their lips. She found the curve of the Slayer's waist with an unsteady hand, edging her fingers under the bottom of the loose tank top to spread her fingers against the flat plane of Buffy's stomach.

They were still kissing long minutes later, when a steady, grating beeping sound intruded on the sweet magic. Willow pulled her head back, breathing deeply as she tipped her head to one side to peer past Buffy's shoulder at her laptop.

"Wha'?" the Slayer gasped unevenly, then realized Willow had focused on something else and turned her head, following the path of the hacker's gaze. "What is it?"

Pulling the rapidly slipping sheet back together over her breasts, Willow reticently stepped away as the beeping continued its obnoxious rhythm. "It's a search bot I left running...before..." she didn't finish the sentence, her meaning clear to both of them.

"A what?" the Slayer questioned as her friend stepped around her and reached out to bring up another program. A list of urls and descriptors filled the screen, while the scroll bar indicated hundreds, possibly thousands more entries. A brief second later, a new message box popped up, this time with no more than a half dozen sites listed.

"A search bot," Willow said distantly as she began saving the data. "It's a way of automatically searching for information on the net, plus I wrote in a little subroutine that does some additional cataloguing."

Buffy peered at the information, noting the titles and descriptions with a raised brow. "And just what the hell are you searching for?" she whispered, a new tension entering her voice. Half of the titles she was looking at were in Latin or other languages she had no way of recognizing, but what English she could find kept coming up with terms that made her shiver--like Watcher, Slayer, Watcher's Council, Vampire, The Chosen One, and prophecy--having broken with the Watcher's Council a year before, she had no desire to attract any attention from the shadow group that had controlled Slayers down through history.

Willow did a slow pivot, her expression guilty. She took a deep breath, nerving herself up to continue. She knew perfectly well how Buffy felt about the Council and had known when she started this particular project what Buffy's response would have been had she told her about it in advance.

"Will?" Buffy prompted sharply.

"I've-been-trying-research-the-history-of-the-Slayers-and-the-Watcher's-Council," the hacker got out in a single gasping sentence that bordered on being one very long word.

Buffy flinched as though struck and her breath caught in her lungs. The Watcher's were a secretive organization at best. She was far from sanguine about their possible response if they thought someone was trying to divine those secrets. They'd been more than willing to kill her for the sake of a test, and she'd always suspected that, had they succeeded in transporting Faith back to England, she would not have found herself being tenderly ministered to by a team of highly qualified psychiatrists. "Wha'...Will...I-I...I really don't think...I don't think that's such a good...a good idea..." she muttered in halting, stammered syllables, while still trying to get her brain around the whole concept. Her brain wasn't having the best day on that whole getting around concepts thing, so it wasn't moving very quickly. She looked at the screen again, riveted by the hint of information she could make out. "If they find out...."

"They won't," Willow insisted breathlessly. "I've covered my tracks, worked through proxys, used hacked IP numbers...as far as the net is concerned, nothing I've done ever happened...and if it did happen, it's not me that did it anyway."

Buffy shook her head slowly, horror crawling over her skin for reasons she couldn't even begin to fathom. "It's too dangerous."

"Dammit, Buffy, I know what I'm doing--"

The Slayer spun, catching Willow's shoulders in a hard grip. "I said it's too dangerous," she snarled, then suddenly froze as she saw a flicker of pain in Willow's expression and realized how tight her hold was. Shock etched on her features, she loosened her grip, carefully setting the hacker back from herself. "I'm sorry...I'm sorry," she panted raggedly, her expression twisted to one of horrified contrition. "I didn't mean to hurt you, I just...I don't want anything to happen to you and I'm afraid that's what the Watcher's Council would do if they knew about this."

Willow swallowed hard, biting back hurt tears. "And I don't want anything to happen to you," she whispered through the tightness in her throat. "And I kept thinking that if we...if we understood more about your...Slayerness, then maybe...I don't know...maybe we could find some kind of..." Willow fell silent, afraid to put her fears into words, as if simply by speaking them, she would give the darkness power over the Slayer.

Overwhelmed by the need to do something, but not knowing what, Buffy lifted shaking hands to Willow's face, brushing her hair back from her face, studying the unique arrangement of features that made up the hacker's face. Not anyone's definition of the classic ideal of beauty, there was something irresistible there, something that was wholly and completely a quality of Willow, a part of her very Willowness, and it was an intrinsic part of what had caught and held the Slayer's attention from the very first moment, first in friendship, and later--later, Buffy questioned, then corrected the odd thought, no, now--this was the first time it had ever spilled over into something other than deep friendship. She was still mulling over the strange sense of deja vu when Willow voice broke into her silent musings.

"You've got to trust me...I know there are answers out there." Willow caught one of Buffy's hands in her own, holding on tightly. "It's like I can feel them...just out of reach. That's what Dodger was helping with--he's a historian, that's all--he's done a lot of research on secret medieval and renaissance societies and he's helped me find a lot of really buried information sources and translations that almost nobody knows about...things that mention the Watchers...that might offer some clues about their history..." She reached out with her free hand, tracing the neat arch of the Slayer's brow as if committing her face to memory. "I'm careful, I swear...but I really think there's information that could help..." Keep you alive that much longer, was the unspoken subtext. It didn't need to be said. They both knew that slayage didn't have a lot of long-term employment possibilities and the chances for advancement were limited at best. She touched Buffy's cheek, lips lifting in a funny little smile. "Besides, I have you to protect me."

Thick silence hung in the air between them for a long moment, then Buffy hooked a hand loosely behind the hacker's neck, stroking her cheek with her thumb. "I will, you know," she rasped. "I'd do anything to protect you." They both leaned forward, foreheads just touching, both close to tears. "I won't let them hurt you," the Slayer breathed almost inaudibly.

When they finally straightened, it was to share another soft kiss, lips meeting and stroking, bodies just touching at first, and then molding together more firmly. Buffy wrapped her arms tightly around Willow, lifting and pressing her back onto the desk, deepening their shared kiss as she felt the blood roar in her veins. Clothes were pushed and pulled aside to allow eager hands to stroke and caress, while the sheet was peeled back to make way for the Slayer's exploring lips. Dusting tiny kisses down the center of Willow's chest, Buffy clung tightly to the hacker's slender waist. She didn't want to think, didn't want to debate the pros and cons of what she was doing. All she wanted was to escape her fears in raw sensation.

Willow moaned low in her throat, head falling back on her shoulders as she clung desperately to the Slayer, fingers massaging and roaming over firmly muscled arms and shoulders, overwhelmed by the sudden rush of desire. There were two beds only a few feet away, but neither of them was willing to part long enough to move from their oddly erotic, if somewhat precarious position. Buffy pried more of the loosely wound sheet out of her way, sliding her hands under the soft fabric and down to stroke the tops of Willow's thighs before slipping underneath, tugging her forward on the desk until they were pressed pelvis to pelvis. Delicate fingers worked into the Slayer's hair, while Willow brought her legs up, looping them loosely around Buffy's slender hips. They were both breathing hard, gasping for air as though running a marathon as they stroked and touched, the passion building between them.

Blood throbbing like molten lava in her veins, nerve endings so excited each touch bordered on pain, Willow clung to her lover, fingers spread against the breadth of her shoulder as she trailed her other hand down the length of Buffy's torso to find the bottom edge of her tank top. Needing to feel the softness of bare skin, she slipped her hand under the loose knit fabric, sliding her fingers over taut muscles, then up, brailing the rounded curve of Buffy's breast before peeling the shirt off, not caring where it fell when she let go. A brief moment later, she hooked a toe in the elastic waistband of the Slayer's sweats, running the ball of her foot down the lean length of her flank as she pushed them off. She felt the faint shift as Buffy stepped out of the cotton puddle at her feet, then pressed closer, the sensual press of flesh making both of them shiver with awareness.

Buffy slid up, dipping her tongue into the hollow at the base of Willow's throat, then trailing up the length of her throat, tasting the faint salt of her skin, feeling the unsteady beat of her pulse at the base of her jaw and the soft vibrations of the tiny moans that bubbled up from her chest. Sharp teeth found the delicate fold of Willow's earlobe, dragging gently over soft skin before the Slayer whispered in her lover's ear, "Tell me." Her fingers stroked the banded muscles of Willow's stomach, pausing just long enough to dip into the faint indentation of her navel before sliding lower. "Tell me what it feels like...when I touch you." She could hear the thick pleasure in her friend's harsh breathing, feel the slick heat of her skin. "Tell me," she commanded again when Willow didn't immediately answer.

The redhead slowly tipped her head up, wrapping arm around Buffy's neck as she turned her head until they were eye to eye. Body reacting to the sweet sensations running riot through overstimulated nerve endings, she brought her knees up, tightening them against Buffy's hips and drawing her closer. "Hot...cold...electric..." she gasped, sweat making her skin glisten in the faint light. Agile fingers found a particularly sensitive spot and her eyes slid closed as her body shuddered violently. She gripped Buffy more tightly, fingers pressing into flesh and muscle. Trying to form any kind of coherent word that could even come close to describing the cravings running riot through her body was clearly past the capacity of her already overloaded brain. It wasn't just the physical intimacies, it was the knowledge of who she was sharing them with that aroused her almost past any ability to do anything but hold on and let the tidal wave wash over her. A beat later, she exhaled the only word that came to mind, "Perfect."

"Good," the Slayer panted, pressing a hand flat against the small of Willow's back to pull her upright until they were breast to breast, their sweat mingling wherever bare skin touched bare skin. "I want it to be perfect."

"Absolutely perfect," Willow breathed, trailing her free hand down from the Slayer's shoulder to stroke the outer curve of her breast, then dance along the graceful arch of her ribcage. Her fingers slipped lower, following the pointed arrow of abdominal muscles that led down to soft hair and silky flesh. She heard Buffy gasp, thrilled with the way muscles rippled with sudden tension as she tenderly mimicked the Slayer's uncertain caresses.

Their lips met again, sharing broad, open-mouthed kisses that moved and ranged in rhythm with the instinctive syncopation of their writhing bodies as emotion and sensation built to a fever pitch.

Then Buffy tasted Willow's cry and felt her body tremble with hard spasms. Elation shot through her, the knowledge that she had caused that kind of pleasure every bit as erotic as the physical caresses themselves. And then her breath caught in her lungs, her entire body frozen in place for no more than a heartbeat before her body seemed to implode and then flare outward again.

Orgasm. Hot, hard, rumbling, and tumbling through both girls, electricity arcing from nerve ending to nerve ending, from flesh to flesh. It was like being caught in a beautiful kind of conflagration that licked at their bodies and fired their passion without damaging flesh.

Willow gasped Buffy's name through the shared ardor of their kiss, while she clung to her with almost bruising strength.

And then they were falling back to earth again, rolling end over end before spilling back into the real world. Their kiss broke as Willow leaned back against the wall, then Buffy fell against her, hiding her face in the damp column of her throat. They stayed that way for long minutes, hands touching very gently, rough breathing slowing to normal, enjoying the closeness in the aftermath of their lovemaking. Finally, the Slayer pushed up on her hands, studying her best friend's face in the thin light. Nothing in her life had prepared her for what she was feeling...actually, she wasn't even entirely certain what she was feeling; she just knew that she didn't want to stop feeling it.

"Buffy?" Willow exhaled at last, her voice echoing her sudden uncertainty.

"It'll be okay," the Slayer whispered. She stroked the redhead's lower lip with the pad of her thumb. "Trust me."

"I do...always...." Willow nibbled lightly on Buffy's thumb, rubbing sharp incisors against the faintly callused skin. Weapons training and the night-to-night practicalities of combat and staking the undead had left the Slayer's hands tougher than the average coed's.

They were still tangled together like that when the jangle of the phone shattered their peaceful cuddling. Both girls jumped and Willow glanced over at her laptop.

"It must have thrown me offline since the bot finished the search routine...and it's been idle...since we...well...." Willow shrugged.

"Great timing," the Slayer muttered.

"Could've been worse." Willow couldn't restrain a nervous giggle as Buffy reached past her and grabbed the phone yanking it to her ear, her tone more aggressive than she intended as she growled.


Willow felt her lover tense only a second or two later and instantly knew something was wrong.

"What happened...God...are they okay?" Buffy pulled away from Willow, turning away as she continued, obviously discussing something with the person on the other end of the line. "What...who...no-no... Willow was online doing some research...."

Sensing the Slayer's upset, Willow slid off the top of the desk, tugging the sheet around her as she moved to rest a comforting hand on Buffy's shoulder.

"I'll get there...." Buffy massaged her temple as though she'd developed a sudden headache and her voice roughened noticeably. "Thanks...we-we'll meet her downstairs." As she hung up the phone, her shoulders trembled under Willow's hand.

"What is it, what's happened?" the hacker asked the instant Buffy hung up the phone.

The Slayer pulled away, breaking contact as she moved to start yanking clothes out of her closet. "A vampire attacked my mother in the gallery--"

"Oh God, is she--"

"She's got a broken wrist." Buffy's voice was a tremulous shadow of its normal self. "According to Giles, if Xander hadn't shown up when he did..." she trailed off, unable to finish the sentence. Her back to Willow, she began yanking on her clothes, her movements jerky and lacking in their normal grace. "Apparently, he got pretty pounded too...but he's okay...." She was shaking, her voice coming in rough gasps as she fought the threat of angry tears. "When he couldn't get through on the phone, Giles sent Anya with his car. She should be here any...any minute...to-to take us to the hospital...to see them...."

Willow followed her friend, reaching to massage her shoulder lightly. "They're okay," she soothed. She started to lean against Buffy's back to offer as much support as possible, but the Slayer pulled away before she had a chance, shrugging away from the light hand on her shoulder as she moved.

The redhead frowned, hurt flickering across her face at the sudden distance she could sense between them. She grabbed for her clothes and began mechanically pulling them on, but her gaze remained locked on her friend's stiff back. "Buffy?" she whispered at last.

"I should have been there--"

"You couldn't have known what would happen--" Willow disagreed, cutting off Buffy's self-castigation.

Buffy whirled, anger and something else twisting her expression as she cut Willow off this time. "But I'm the Slayer." Her eyes were edged in silver tears, her voice ragged with emotion. She knew she couldn't be everywhere, that she might be faster and stronger than a normal human being, but she was still human, but she couldn't shake the feeling that she'd failed disastrously.

Willow stared at her friend, trying to read her expression. "Buffy...what are you...talk to me..."

Buffy wrapped her arms tightly around her torso. It was all wrong. She couldn't think straight. It was like something was yanking her back from the edge of a precipice and pushing her over at the same time. She swallowed hard, trying to collect her suddenly shattered thoughts. She didn't even know what the hell was happening to her. Her mom and Xander were okay, Giles had assured her of that, so why was she suddenly sweating with stark terror, doubt burning in her breast. "This--This shouldn't have happened," she choked at last, eyes sliding away from Willow, unable to face the hurt and betrayal she knew she'd see in her friend's expression.

Willow flinched as if struck, some part of her not quite believing what she'd just heard, but she sealed the hurt off quickly, walling it away in that hidden part of herself where she was well used to hiding the petty hurts and insults she'd received so many times during the course of her young life. "All right," she said at last and turned away to finish dressing.

Buffy's hands fisted at her sides as she tried to deny the flood of pain Willow's simple concession opened in her chest. She started to call the words back, apologize, beg for forgiveness, and plead to start over. Started to, but the words just wouldn't come, leaving her watching Willow's back with helpless confusion.

"Come on," Willow said as she finished pulling on her shoes. "Anya is probably here by now. It's not that long a drive." Somehow, she kept from crying, though she couldn't hold back a sniffle or two.

"Yeah," Buffy rasped and grabbed her coat.

Moments later, they left together, their thoughts a million miles away.

* * * * * * *

Continue to Chapters 6-7

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