Title: Letting Go (the sequel to Ghosts)
Disclaimer: Still don't own it and if it comes up for bid on Ebay I couldn't afford it.
Characters: More of the usual suspects.
Category: Drama
Rated: PG-13
Summary/Spoiler Warning: This is the sequel to my fic Ghosts so you kinda need to read that one first. I prefer to write within the known boundaries and rules of the established Joss universe but I did a little speculation on Season 5 with Ghosts. Other than Tara having a different background than what has been revealed I will still follow along with the Season 5 storyline, so anything is fair game through Listening to Fear and The Trial (on Angel). I am ignoring some major events in both Shadow and Listening To Fear for now. If you've seen these shows you know what I mean. I did add some dialogue from those shows to this story for continuity. Time to wrap this one up.
Feedback: As always, much appreciated.


"For each ecstatic instant
We must an anguish pay
In keen and quivering ratio
To the ecstasy." -
Emily Dickinson

PART ONE

"Giles, you don't understand! She's acting like nothing happened. I mean, she's not sad, not angry...hell, it's hard enough to know what to say without knowing what kind of mood she's in," complained Buffy. She glanced up and wondered if they would make it to the shop before it rained.

"Perhaps Willow just doesn't want to upset you. The last time, with Oz, I mean...didn't you grow just a wee bit tired of her act?," said Giles, trying to keep up with Buffy as she walked ahead of him.

"What? No, I...well...I tried to be there for her. But Riley and I were just starting out, you know? And it's hard to make time for everyone. Okay! I could've been a better friend. But I want to be there for her this time. I owe her that much, at least. But..."

"But she's trying to do it by herself? Buffy, everyone handles these type of situations differently. As much as you want to be there for her, Willow will have to go through this alone. There's no short cuts, no easy way out. You know that," added Giles.

Buffy sighed and pouted.

"She'll need you at times, of that I'm sure. Be there, waiting, but Willow needs to come to you, not you to her," said Giles, reaching into his pocket for his keys.

"Giles, she wouldn't even tell me what Oz said to her. I left the room to give her some privacy. Forty five minutes later she comes out and tells me she needs to go for a walk. Alone. I...I just don't get it. Why did he have to call now?," asked Buffy, shaking her head.

"I still don't understand why Tara had to leave," said Giles.

"Only thing Will said was that she saw what Tara really was. What she was going to become."

They came to the front door of the Magic Shop. Giles went to put the key in the lock but hesitated, glancing at Buffy.

"What? That's all she said. Really. You know as much as I do," said Buffy.

"Buffy, the front door. It's already open," whispered Giles, nodding at the door. Buffy saw that the door was closed but not shut tightly.

"Stay here," said Buffy softly. It was a command, not a request. She slowly pushed the door open and stepped into the dim store, listening for anyone, or anything, moving around.

She walked further into the store. And then she heard it. Someone was in the back room where she trained. And it sounded like a fight was taking place. Yes, that was the distinctive sound of punches being landed, of sneakers skidding on the wooden floor. Buffy crept up to the door and peered in. And he shoulders drooped in amazed relief. She looked back over her shoulder and saw Giles standing in the doorway. Buffy nodded for him to follow her.

Willow was wearing blue nylon shorts and a gray sweatshirt which was wet and clung to her back. She was so intent on punching and kicking the heavy weight bag hanging from the ceiling that she didn't notice Buffy walk up behind her. Buffy touched Willow's shoulder and was met with a left hook to her face.

"Buffy! Oh my...I'm so sorry! I didn't know it was you!," said Willow, one hand covering her mouth. "Are you okay?"

Buffy smiled.

"Yeah. And you know, that wasn't a bad punch. For a lightweight," teased Buffy as she rubbed her jaw.

"Lightweight? You're just lucky my catlike reflexes allowed me to hold back. A little. And you shouldn't be sneakin' up on me like that!," pouted Willow, wiping her forehead with her sleeve.

"Catlike are we?," smiled Buffy. She glanced back as Giles entered the room then turned to face Willow again. "How did you get in here?"

"I, uh...oh, it was a simple spell. Giles, you might want to consider a few more locks on that door, maybe invoke a barrier? This is a Magic shop, after all," said Willow.

"Yes. Might help keep out the riff raff," glared Giles. Willow looked down at her feet.

"Sorry. I, I needed to work off some stuff. Wanted to inflict some pain instead of taking it for a change, ya know?," asked Willow, her head still down but glancing up to catch Giles' reaction.

"It's fine, Willow. Anytime you want to come here, all you need to do is ask," said Giles.

"Thanks. I'll remember that. For next time," nodded Willow.

"You okay?," asked Buffy. Willow shrugged.

"Tryin' to keep busy. Hey, feel like a workout? Maybe you could show me a move or two," asked Willow eagerly.

"Will, I don't know..."

"Oh, come on. Maybe I'll surprise you. Won't know 'til you try," challenged Willow.

"Um...okay, I guess," agreed Buffy.

"I'll leave you two...gladiators...to your training," smiled Giles as he left the room.

"Stand there," pointed Willow.

"What?"

"Stand here. Maybe we can teach each other," said Willow.

Buffy wrinkled her eyebrows but didn't say anything. Willow stood an arm's length from her and closed her eyes. Her lips moved but Buffy couldn't hear what she was saying.

"What are you up to?," asked Buffy suspiciously.

"Hit me."

"What!?"

"Go on, throw a punch," said Willow. She wasn't smiling.

"Will, are you..."

"Do it!," yelled Willow.

Buffy shrugged and threw a slow roundhouse right at Willow's shoulder. And missed. Buffy stared at her, confused. Willow, trying not to smile, put up her hands up in a fighting stance. Buffy hesitated, then jabbed at Willow's chin with her left hand. Her fist seemed to slide to the right. Willow ducked and landed a punch to Buffy's stomach. Buffy's eyes opened wide in surprise.

"You fight like a girl," teased Willow.

Buffy's glare became serious. She flung her right foot at Willow's side and this time connected. But, even though Willow was pushed to the side, it was like kicking cement. Buffy easily blocked Willow's next two punches but again missed with a jab to her stomach. She jumped back and warily stood in a defensive posture, hands in front of her face. Willow faked a punch at her and smiled.

"Okay, what's going on?," asked Buffy, not lowering her hands.

"What do you think? I am what I am," answered Willow. "And for crying out loud, relax. It's only a defensive spell. I can't hurt you," laughed Willow. And then her face became sad. "I don't hurt people. They hurt me."

Buffy reached out to put a hand on Willow's shoulder.

"Will, don't..."

"I'm sorry. Let's...let's talk about the spell," said Willow, sitting down. Buffy sat down next to her.

"No. Let's talk about you," said Buffy. Willow seemed to consider this.

"In a minute," nodded Willow. "What I just showed you. I thought it might help you, next time you fight crazed demon chick. If there has to be a next time."

"There will be. So...I'm guessing witchcraft is a brewing?"

"Yeah. It's rather simple, actually. Kinda based on Newtonian physics and eye of rat. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Remember that one?," asked Willow.

"Uh...yeah. Maybe," grinned Buffy.

"It's not important. But you saw the effects of the spell. It should deflect her punches or, or at least absorb most of their impact. So you won't get your ass kicked again."

"I didn't...oh, all right. I did. Thanks. I could use a little help in the not getting my ass kicked department. So how long does the spell last?"

"Uh, not long. I might be able to keep it up for, say, ten minutes?," said Willow.

"Huh?"

"See, there's a catch. I, uh...you need to be in my sight for this to work," said Willow, looking away.

"What? No way, that's out of the question! You aren't going anywhere near her!," protested Buffy.

"Then you'll die," said Willow, staring right at Buffy. "Obviously you can't hurt her. But she can hurt you. I can help."

"Will, I..."

Buffy didn't finish her thought, seeing how sad Willow suddenly seemed.

"I don't want to lose you too," whispered Willow, starting to cry. Buffy leaned over and hugged her.

"I'll think about. I promise. Okay?," asked Buffy.

"Okay, " nodded Willow.

Buffy sat back down and held Willow's hands.

"So...talk to me. Why did Tara leave? We kinda figured out that she's part demon. But...so what? No big. Right?"

"Wrong. It's a big. See, the demon in her, it's evil. And every time she uses magic, the demon takes another piece of her. It's cumulative. She's no longer in control," explained Willow.

"And she used magic to save you," said Buffy, beginning to understand.

Willow withdrew her hands from Buffy and rested her chin on them, nodding.

"It wants to kill me. And Tara doesn't think she'll be able to stop it. Hence the leaving."

"Oh. Wow. Big wow," added Buffy.

"Yep," agreed Willow. "Big freakin' wow. And yes, I'm getting the ironic."

"Is there anything Giles can do?," asked Buffy.

"No. At least Tara didn't think so."

"And...about the phone call. Why did he call now of all times?," asked Buffy.

Willow looked up and met Buffy's eyes.

"Oz said that he had a dream...vivid, almost like a vision. All he felt was my pain. And he knew there was something wrong, that I was in trouble. I think...I think Tara warned him somehow. So that I wouldn't be alone."

"Is he coming here? To see you?," asked Buffy.

"No. Not yet, anyway. He's only in Los Angeles, so he's not far away. But I told him I needed some time alone. And, you know, it might not be safe for him to see me right now anyway. If I get upset..."

"I understand. He'll get all wolfy."

"Yeah. He's going to call, check on me. And I have his number. Funny, I thought Xander's track record in love was something to laugh at. I sure do know how to pick 'em," sighed Willow.

"Will, we can't help who we fall in love with," said Buffy. Willow smiled.

"Buffy, I'm going home to take a shower, maybe try to take a nap," said Willow, standing up. "You can teach me a move or two some other time."

"Okay. That sounds good. And I have to go to the hospital but I want you to spend the day with me. Okay? I don't want you to be alone," said Buffy, standing up. "And, well, I wouldn't mind having my Willow to lean on. Kinda nervous about mom's cat scan, ya know?"

"Alright," agreed Willow. "I'll meet up with you at the hospital later. And Buffy, try not to worry. At least not too much. She's where she needs to be, with the best."

"I know. But I have to be strong, for her and for Dawn. I can't give in to it. Not in front of them. Anyway, tomorrow morning, here. Same time, you and me. Gotta teach you how not to fight like a girl," said Buffy. Willow nodded. Buffy smiled and hugged her before she left.

Except for the gentle sound of the rain on the window, the room became quiet. Very quiet. Willow suddenly felt very alone. She sat back down on the floor and cried.

*****

"Dawn can't be running out whenever she'd like," protested Buffy.

"It's more than that," replied Riley.

"What do you mean?"

"You tell me," said Riley, sitting down next to Buffy on the couch.

"We have to be careful. This...demon chick is...exciting and new. I don't know what I'm up against," said Buffy.

"If we're in trouble here, I could contact Graham, maybe get the government boys on it..."

"No! No, I...I, I don't want them anywhere near this."

"Just a suggestion," sighed Riley, getting annoyed.

"Look, the fewer people that are involved, the safer I will feel," explained Buffy.

"Every time I think I'm getting close to you...," began Riley, shaking his head. "I gotta take off," announced Riley, getting up. Buffy stood up too.

"Wait! What?"

Riley ignored her and walked to the front door.

"I'll call you later," he said, not looking back.

"Riley!"

Riley stopped and turned to look at Buffy.

"I want you to help. I'm not..."

"Yeah. I know you got a lot on your mind. You decide you wanna let me in on any of it," said Riley, opening the door, "you let me know. I'll come running."

Riley shut the door behind him. Buffy fought back the urge to run after him, knowing she couldn't tell him about Dawn. Not yet.

*****

Willow wrapped the robe tighter around her waist as she sat down next to the window and stared out at the rain. The hot shower woke her up but didn't drive the chill she felt from within. And the weather wasn't helping. She took a deep breath and slowly shook her head.

"No, Buffy, if she doesn't want to be found, you won't find her."

Willow put her hand on the cold window pane.

"But maybe...maybe she does want to be found. What if..."

Willow stood up and let the robe slide off her shoulders to the floor. Walking over to the bed she slipped her head through a heavy sweater and stepped into a pair of jeans. She sat down and put on a pair of socks and sneakers. Fumbling through the desk drawer, her hand pushed past pencils and half burned candles. Without realizing it, her fingers brushed up against a piece of plastic. Willow hesitated and lifted the toy from the drawer.

A pez witch. She still hadn't thrown it away. She still hadn't told Tara what it meant to her. Turning it over in her hand, Willow allowed herself a brief smile. Then she tossed it into the back of the drawer. Finding the envelope she had been looking for, Willow closed the drawer.

She sat down on the floor. A single large candle had been burning since before she took her shower and the pool of melted wax now filled the bowl it stood in. Willow withdrew two maple leaves from the envelope, one red, one yellow. They were dry now but not brittle. Taking the red one, she crushed it in her hand, letting the fragments fall into the wax. Willow brushed her hands off and lifted a wine glass from the floor. It was full of a dark liquid.

She drank quickly and placed the empty glass back next to the candle. Willow closed her eyes, placed her hands on the floor to either side of her and slowed her breathing. She began to get sleepy.

*****

Willow sat up. It was cold. There were a few patches of blue sky above her but dark gray clouds dominated. The ground around her was covered in a deep bed of orange pine needles. Below her the trees were barren, their naked branches pointing out like bony fingers, the fields thick with tan and dull red leaves. The crisp air held a musty scent of decay. Willow stood up, lightheaded and unsure of her balance.

"Tara?," called out Willow softly. Her breath hung in a white whisper. She wrapped her arms around her chest as a slight breeze cut through her.

"Tara!," yelled Willow. Her voice didn't seem to travel very far. She slowly turned in a full circle. And she knew she was alone.

"Tara, come back...please come back," whispered Willow. She sat back down. Somewhere in the distance a crow called out a solitary cry. Willow buried her face in her arms and no longer fought back the tears.

*****

Willow opened her eyes. The room was dark. The candle had burned out and the wax was hard and smooth in the bowl. She sat up, her mouth dry and her back sore. It was still raining. Willow stood and walked over to the window, pressed her cheek against the cold pane and stared out into the night. The phone rang and Willow sighed as she leaned over and picked it up.

"Hello?," said Willow flatly.

"Willow. Hey, where were you? I thought you were coming to the hospital."

"Oh, I'm sorry Buffy. I, I fell asleep. How's your mom?"

Buffy didn't say anything.

"Buffy?"

"It's bad, Will. She's got a tumor. We, we don't know everything yet. They have to run some more tests. To see if they can operate, I mean."

"Oh, Buffy! I'm sorry! I should've been there for you. I'll be right there."

"Thanks. And I think I'm going to stay awhile. Talk to the doctor, spend some time with mom. Could you take Dawn home for me? I don't know where Riley is and I don't want her just hanging around here. It's...it's too hard, you know?," said Buffy, her voice breaking.

"Of course. Hey, I'll be right there, okay? Do you need anything from home? For your mom, I mean?"

"Uh, I don't know. We'll worry about that later."

"Okay. Bye."

"Bye."

Willow hung up the phone and turned a light on. She saw the empty wine glass lying on its side on the floor. Picking it up, she sat down on the edge of the bed. She glanced at the phone and put the glass down on the night stand. Willow hesitated but then picked up the phone. She tried to hit the first number but couldn't do it. With a sigh she put the phone back down.

Pulling her raincoat out of the closet, she grabbed her pocketbook, clicked off the light and headed for the hospital.

*****

"You shouldn't be coming here, man. You got a rep with these monsters. But you come in night after night...are you looking to get killed?," asked Willy.

"I come for the ambiance. What can I say? The place just reeks of class," smiled Riley, downing his drink. "Hit me," he said, putting his glass down in front of Willy. The bartender refilled his glass.

"Drinking alone?," asked an attractive brunette, walking up to the bar. "That's not a good sign," she added, taking the stool next to Riley.

"So they tell me," answered Riley, looking at her. "I buy you a drink, neither one of us has that problem anymore, now do we?," he asked, sipping his drink.

The woman smiled.

"Vodka tonic."

"Vodka tonic," repeated Riley to the Willy.

"I'm Sandy."

Willy put a napkin down in front of Sandy.

"I'm Riley."

Willy put her drink down on the napkin.

"This place is such a dive," said Sandy.

"No, no. It's great. You just have to close your eyes...plug up your nostrils...then it's fine."

Sandy laughed.

"We could go somewhere else...you know, more private...," said Sandy softly, eyeing Riley with a smile. He smiled in return.

"Sandy, Sandy...it's no good. My heart belongs to another. Besides, I don't go out with vampires."

Sandy looked at her glass and poked at it with her straw.

"Never interested in my intellect," complained Riley to Willy with a shrug. Riley finished his drink.

*****

"I know how lame this sounds, but your mom's going to be fine. Whatever it is, they caught it early enough. They'll do the biopsy tomorrow and, and then...well, these doctors are the best. Just gotta think positive, ya know? Not dwell on it," said Willow, walking with her arm around Dawn. Dawn nodded but didn't look at Willow. She had her arm around Willow's waist.

"Willow, is there something you can do? Magic wise? Like, a healing spell or, or something?"

"No, I don't think so. It's dangerous to mix magic and the mind. I'm sorry. It's just too delicate...I could make things a lot worse. Hell, even some of my simple spells go kaplooey. And don't you tell your sister I said hell," warned Willow with a smile.

"Willow, I...I'm sorry about Tara. Buffy told me. I really liked her. She...she treated me like an adult," said Dawn, looking up at Willow. It was Willow's turn not to look at Dawn.

"Thanks. I just wish I knew where she was. I..."

Willow bit her lower lip and tried to not cry.

"You what?," asked Dawn.

Willow took a deep breath.

"I miss her," she said, her voice breaking. Dawn pulled Willow a little closer and leaned her head on her shoulder.

"You want to look for her?," asked Dawn.

"Wouldn't know where to start," sighed Willow. "Besides, I gotta get you home."

"It's not late. And I didn't mean look look. I meant we search for her," said Dawn, lifting her head from Willow's shoulder and looking up at her. Willow gave her a confused stare.

"You said you wanted to make a witch out of me," smiled Dawn. "And we're not that far from Tara's place. No one would bother us there."

Willow stopped walking. And smiled.

*****

Willow and Dawn sat on the floor. The room was only lit by candlelight and their shadows danced and flickered beside them.

"You remember what to do?," asked Willow.

"Sure. I watched Anya and Giles do this," said Dawn excitedly.

Willow smiled, remembering her own feelings when she first started doing spells, awakening both the thrill and fear of the unknown.

"Okay, then. Let's get started."

Willow closed her eyes.

"Thespia, we walk in shadow, walk in blindness. You are the protector of the night," said Dawn.

"Thespia, goddess, ruler of all darkness, we implore you...open a window to the world of the underbeing," said Willow, blowing the sand from her hand onto the floor between them. "With your knowledge, may we go in safety, with your grace may we speak of your benevolence."

Dawn blew her sand onto the sand Willow had cast. A yellow mist began to form between the girls. The mist became a sickly brown in color, then a deep red. Willow leaned forward, peering into the swirling crimson. The mist dissipated as quickly as it had formed.

"Huh. That was weird," said Willow, sitting back down and glancing at Dawn. "Now why would that happen?"

"Did your sand have an expiration date?," shrugged Dawn.

*****

She opened her eyes, realizing she must have fallen asleep in this chair. It took her a few moments to remember where she was.

"Glory, your most exalted, lovely holiness, did your worthless servant disturb your nap?"

"Of course not! You'd be dead already if you had. But there was...someone was looking for me. I felt their eyes...searching...but they didn't see me. She didn't see me. Dreg, fetch my coat. We're going for a walk. If someone is that curious about me, then it would be rude of me not to visit them."

"Yes, my most noble, magnificent..."

"Oh, just get the coat, would you?," sighed Glory.

*****

"Dawn's been asleep for about an hour, Buffy. She was really beat," said Willow, pulling the blanket over her. "And thanks for letting me spend the night. Wasn't really looking forward to facing that empty room, ya know?"

"How are you doing?," asked Buffy, standing in the doorway. Willow simply shrugged.

"Same as you, I suppose."

"That bad?," sighed Buffy.

"Buffy, try to get some sleep."

Buffy nodded.

"I'll try. Good night, Will."

"Night, Buffy."

As soon as Buffy shut the door, Willow rolled her head to one side and stared at the phone. She sat up and had to hold the phone with both hands after she dialed the number. She glanced at the door, her hands trembling, and tried to keep her voice low.

"Hey. Yeah, it's me. I know it's late, and, and I'm sorry if...I didn't? Good...No. I'm not," said Willow, beginning to cry. "I'm really, really not. And I just needed to talk to someone, you know?...No, I can't bother her. Not now. See, her mom's in the hospital...It's bad. A brain tumor..."

Willow didn't realize that Dawn was just outside her door. Listening.

*****

Glory kicked the door in and stepped into the dark room. She sniffed at the air. And smiled.

"Dreg, bring me that Lei-Ach demon I told you about. I'm going to make myself at home here. And wait," smiled Glory.

END OF PART ONE

PART TWO

"I just wish we knew what we were dealing with. It feels like we're going around in circles," said Willow, closing another book.

"Our circles are going around in circles. We've got dizzy circles here Giles," complained Xander, picking up another book.

Giles glanced over at the group sitting around the table but was busy at the moment with a customer.

"Hey, here's one!," yelped Anya, pointing to a drawing in her book. "Oh, never mind. I remember him. They hung him. Dead," shrugged Anya.

"Hanged," corrected Willow.

"What?," asked Anya.

"Pictures are hung, people, or demons, are hanged," said Willow, not looking up from her book.

"Well, good grammar aside, I remember this one and believe me when I say he was hung," said Anya. Willow looked up from her book and raised on eyebrow.

"Anya, the only lead we have is that this demon is female and you're looking at pictures of your old boyfriends?," asked Xander.

"He wasn't my boyfriend, that was only a rumor!," protested Anya. The table got quiet.

"But I see your point," added Anya, quickly turning a few pages in her book and glancing at the others. Xander sighed.

"I think I've read this one already. I need some motivation here. Better yet, some inspiration! Anya, inspirate me!," grinned Xander.

"Xander! Remember, public place? You know what that nice police officer said the last time we..."

"Okay, suddenly motivated, inspirated and invigorated here. Reading now!," announced Xander, hiding his face in a book.

"Maybe she's not in the books," said Anya.

"What do you mean?," asked Willow.

"I mean, what if she's not a demon or a sorceress or spirit or whatever these books cover? What if she's something else altogether?," suggested Anya.

"Something new?," asked Giles, walking over to them.

Anya shook her head.

"Something old. So old it predates the written word."

"Giles, the Damon sphere. You said that was created to repel...," began Willow.

"That which cannot be named," finished Giles as he removed his glasses.

"So I'm thinking maybe she..."

"Predates language itself?," said Giles, interrupting Willow once again.

"Well, hey, if that means I don't have to read anymore, woo! And might I add a big hoo!"," said Xander, slamming shut the book he was holding.

"If Anya is right, then we're blind. There's...there's no way we can determine...her moves, her habits, where she'll turn up next. She could be anywhere," said Giles. "But if she is as powerful as Buffy says, I imagine it won't be long before she makes herself known."

*****

Glory sat at Tara's desk, tapping her fingernails on the wood and occasionally glancing at her watch. She usually was very impatient. But now she was content simply to wait. Glory smiled at Dreg and he bowed deeply. Glory rolled her eyes and glanced at her watch.

*****

"The doctor said your mom would be asleep for about six or seven hours. Maybe we could grab a quick burger before we head back. If that ice cream doesn't ruin your appetite," added Riley. Dawn ignored Riley, lost in thought on the bench next to him.

"I had my tenth birthday party here."

"Really?," asked Riley, happy to get her talking.

"Mm-hmm. We'd just moved to Sunnydale and...mom rented the carousel for an entire hour for just me and my friends...except I hadn't made any friends yet so...it was just me and mom and Buffy riding it by ourselves, over and over and over again," smiled Dawn, pushing the ice cream in the cup around with the wooden spoon but not eating it. "For the whole hour, just so mom felt like we'd gotten our money's worth. She's, she's not gonna get better, is she?," asked Dawn, her voice breaking.

"Absolutely she will," reassured Riley, leaning closer to Dawn. "Summers women are tough."

Dawn smiled again.

"I'm really glad you're here."

"Thanks," said Riley.

"Buffy's glad too."

"Yeah?," said Riley, skeptical.

"She sure cries a lot less with you than with Angel," said Dawn, watching the horses go around.

"Angel...made her cry a lot, huh?"

"Everything with him was all...eeee, you know?," grimaced Dawn.

"All...?"

"You know...'my boyfriend's a vampire' crazy crazy. Every day was like the end of the world. She doesn't get all worked up like that over you."

Riley was stung by what Dawn had said but she didn't notice.

"I think you've been really good for her," said Dawn.

*****

Buffy nodded her head towards Dawn and she left Riley's side to enter her mother's room.

"You okay?," asked Riley. "You look pretty beat up."

Buffy nodded.

"Minimal damage of the fighting kind. It's all the other kind," answered Buffy.

"Come here," said Riley, opening his arms to her. They hugged.

"It's okay. Just let it out. I'm right here," said Riley.

"I can't," sniffed Buffy, pulling away. "Not now. They need me," she said, glancing at the door. "If I start now...I won't be able to stop."

"Buffy?," called out Joyce from her room.

Buffy bit her lower lip. Riley reached out to touch her face but Buffy turned away and shut the door behind her.

*****

Riley was sitting on what was becoming his regular seat. He held the half empty glass in his hand, simply staring at it. Someone sat down at the bar a few stools down and he looked up. It was Sandy, the girl he had met here last night. She smiled at him. He sat there for a moment, not moving. And then he smiled back. Riley stood up and nodded towards the door leading to the alley out back.

Sandy tilted her head slightly and then smiled again. Riley finished his drink and held out his hand. Her hand was cold, his hand was sweaty, his pulse racing. Willy sighed as he watched them exit.

Instead of pushing open the door to the alley, Riley pulled Sandy into the storage room. It was dark here. Sandy smiled at him and ran her hands over his chest, pushing open his jacket. She slowly leaned forward and gently kissed Riley's neck, causing him to inhale sharply at the sensation. Sandy pulled back and looked up at him, now in full vamp face.

Riley tilted his head, exposing his neck. Outwardly he seemed nervous, but the adrenaline was racing through his veins, hitting him like a shot of whiskey. Sandy leaned forward. Riley tensed as her teeth pierced his skin and he winced in pain but didn't cry out. He closed his eyes and placed one hand on the back of her head as his pain became a warmth of pleasure.

Suddenly he thrust Sandy away from him with one hand. She stared at him but Riley couldn't read the emotion there behind her eyes. Was it fear? Surprise? Sandy crumbled into dust. Riley felt lightheaded and tried to slow his breathing, gripping the stake in his hand so tightly his knuckles turned white. He held a hand up to his neck, wiping the blood away and pressing down hard to suppress the bleeding.

Stumbling back into the bar he sat down. Willy looked at him and he signaled for another drink. Riley exhaled and sighed as he came crashing down from the high, the rush, the thrill of the hunt. Time to soften the landing with a drink. And he wondered what the Slayer felt after a kill. Was it like this?

Knocking back another shot, Riley noticed a girl with red hair take a seat at the end of the bar. A male and female vampire sitting next to her looked up, glanced at one another and quickly got up and left. Riley tilted his head towards Willy. And smiled.

"Trust me, if the likes of those two saw reason to leave, you don't want a part of that," said Willy, nodding in the direction of the girl. He stopped cleaning the glass he was holding in his hand and stared at Riley. Riley laughed and stood up.

"Don't let me stop your great self destruction," mumbled Willy, shaking his head. He picked up another glass and rubbed the bar rag into it.

"Hi. I know it's not original, but can I buy you a drink?," asked Riley, sitting on the stool next to the girl. The girl slowly turned her head to face Riley, brushing the hair from her cheek with her hand. She smiled and Riley's eyes grew wide.

"Tara!," he whispered. "What...when did you...hey, you know, this isn't exactly the safest place for a girl to be, especially at night," warned Riley.

A demon in the booth behind them stood up, looked Tara up and down and then quickly looked away when Tara made eye contact with it. He tossed a ten dollar bill onto the table, not taking the time to pick it up when it fell to the floor, turned and fled. Tara looked back to Riley and saw Willy standing there on the other side of the bar.

"Wrong, Riley. I fit right in with my homeys here," said Tara with a frown.

"Look, I don't want trouble here, but it's a slow night as it is. I don't need you scaring off my customers," said Willy.

Tara inhaled and, glaring at Willy, slowly let out her breath.

"At least order something," shrugged Willy.

Tara glanced at the shot glass in Riley's hand.

"I'll have what he's having," said Tara.

"Bring the bottle," added Riley. "And the good stuff, Willy, not that swill from the well."

Willy hesitated but then, with a frown, reached behind him and placed a new bottle on the bar. From the shelf behind him he placed two empty shot glasses next to the bottle.

"First shot's on the house. Just so there's no hard feelings," said Willy with a nervous smile. He glanced one last time at Riley and left.

"You made quite the first impression on him," said Riley.

"Guess I did," agreed Tara, watching as Riley poured them each a shot of whiskey.

"Does...does Willow know you're back in town?," asked Riley, handing Tara a glass.

"No. And I'd like to keep it that way. Understood?"

"Perfectly," answered Riley. "To our girls," said Riley, raising his glass in a toast. Tara smiled and clinked her glass to his.

"To our girls," repeated Tara. She hesitated for a moment, then quickly downed the whiskey, immediately closing her eyes and wincing. Tara coughed once, her eyes watering, and smiled at Riley.

"And that's the good stuff?," asked Tara, getting a laugh from Riley. He looked at her and she looked at him. The awkward silence slowly became hard to ignore.

"It's...it's not exactly the safest place for you to be, Riley," said Tara softly.

"I can take care of myself," he replied, just loud enough to reveal that he was trying to convince himself as much as Tara.

"I know. And I knew you would be here. See, I have a proposition for you," said Tara, watching Riley out of the corner of her eye to judge his reaction.

"Oh?," answered Riley, pouring them each another shot.

Tara leaned over and whispered into his ear. Riley's eyes grew wide and he slowly put the bottle on the bar.

"Maybe...maybe we should go somewhere a little more...private. To discuss this, I mean," said Riley nervously.

Tara smiled and drank her whiskey. This time she didn't flinch.

"Let me make a phone call first. I'll be right back," said Riley.

Tara had her back to the door and Riley was on the phone. Neither of them saw Oz walk in the front door and sit down in a booth. He glanced around the smoky bar and then stared out the window, obviously waiting for someone.

Riley walked back and put a hand on Tara's shoulder. He felt her body tense up at his touch but she turned and smiled at him.

"Well, if it's what you want to do...we can do it. But..."

"But what?," asked Tara.

"There's a complication," said Riley.

From the other end of the bar Willy watched the two of them talking. The girl suddenly seemed upset. Willy decided it was none of his business.

"Tara, look..."

"No! I'm not going behind Buffy's back. Everything is up front and out in the open...no sneaking around. I mean, except for Willow. She can't know. Not yet."

Tara studied Riley for a moment and then finished her drink.

"Besides, if you're lucky, maybe you'll get to see what I really look like. And I'm thinking you'd get off on that," added Tara, smiling.

Riley threw some money on the bar, grabbed the bottle and slipped it into his coat. Looking at the front door he recognized Oz, sitting at a booth with his head turned towards the window. Trying not to show his shock at seeing him, Riley reached out and grabbed Tara's hand.

"Let's go out the back way. I come in here a lot and...well, maybe it's best if I'm not seen with you."

"Riley, you make it sound so cheap and sleazy. Girl wouldn't want to get a reputation, now would she?," laughed Tara. "Hey, what's up with your neck?"

Riley smiled and led her out of the bar.

Oz suddenly sat up straighter and leaned closer to the window. He slid out of the booth and stood waiting by the door. A red haired girl walked in, saw him and smiled. Willow hesitated, unsure of herself, then practically jumped into his arms and they hugged each other tightly.

Willy stood behind his bar, cleaning a glass with a bar rag, and shook his head.

"Love's a strange, ugly bird," he mumbled to himself. "Of course, so is a peacock, but then, tell that to the peahen." Willy laughed at his own joke.

*****

Spike was standing in Buffy's backyard, something he had been doing more of lately. Especially when he realized how noticeable he was standing out in the street. It was late but the lights were still on in the house. Suddenly Buffy came out onto the back deck, sat down and started crying, her head in her hands. Spike hesitated, unsure of what to do. He frowned, shook his head and approached her, leaving his hiding place in the bushes. Hearing his footsteps, Buffy looked up.

"What do you want now?," she sniffed, brushing the hair from her face.

"What's wrong?," asked Spike with genuine concern.

"I, I don't want to talk about it," replied Buffy, looking away. Her instincts told her not to show him weakness. The least Spike would do would be to taunt her with it later.

"Is...is there something I can do?," asked Spike.

Buffy's eyes grew wide but she wouldn't look at him. She needed to talk to someone but why was he acting this way? Spike sat down beside her. Neither of them said anything. Slowly, and hesitating, Spike reached out and patted Buffy's back. He was surprised she allowed him to do this. He withdrew his hand. And just sat there.

Neither of them spoke for some time. Buffy glanced at him, not turning her head. Spike noticed and looked away. She moved her head slightly, leaning towards him. Now she hesitated but finally let her head rest on his shoulder. And Spike's eyes grew wide. Slowly he raised his arm and placed it around Buffy's shoulder. As soon as his hand touched her, Buffy broke out into tears. She sobbed even harder and Spike pulled her to him.

Buffy didn't hold back. She needed this release, this break from all the pain and pressure and fear. She couldn't give in to it back at the hospital with Riley. But here, alone, she allowed herself to stop being the Slayer, if only for a little while. Spike held her, not saying anything, and let her cry.

Across the yard, hidden from view, Harmony watched her ex-boyfriend in disgust.

*****

Spike walked into Willy's bar with his duster held over his head as if it was raining outside. It was, of course, a bright, sunny day. And the place, as he expected, was empty at this time of day. Except for a redheaded girl sitting in the booth by the door. She looked up at him and gave him a very reluctant smile.

"Hey," she said softly.

"Little early in the day to be hitting the hard stuff love," said Spike, slipping back into his duster.

"It's after twelve. Besides...it's just ginger ale."

Spike sat down across from her in the booth.

"Mind if I join you?," he asked. The question was answered with a one shouldered shrug. Willy came over and placed a glass full of a red liquid in front of Spike.

"Good man, Willy. And how about another round for my friend here?," motioned Spike.

Willy glanced at the girl. She was absently running a finger around the rim of her untouched drink.

"Just nod when she's ready," said Willy, already walking away.

"I come here at this time of day to catch up on the latest gossip. Willy prefers it that way, seeing as how some of his clientele might take offense at my presence. More specifically, Willy doesn't like fighting on the premises. What brings you to this bistro of ambiance?," asked Spike, sipping his drink.

"Needed a place to be alone. Got some heavy thinkin' to do. Didn't expect to run into anyone I knew here," added Willow with a frown.

"Well, if you'd rather I go keep the proprietor company...," said Spike, rising from his seat.

"No...no. Stay. Please?," asked Willow, putting a hand on Spike's arm.

"If you insist," smiled Spike, sitting back down.

"Is it worth it, Spike?"

"You mean Willy's prices? Might be a tad high but he pours a fair drink," replied Spike, taking a sip from his glass.

"No, I mean...Spike, you're in love."

"Um...okay..."

"But, well, circumstances being what they are, you can't be with the one you love. You're even having dreams about this person. Yeah, this new love cuts deep," sighed Willow.

"Go on," said Spike softly, swallowing hard.

"But...you can't be with this person. It doesn't matter how badly you just want to lose yourself in her, thinking of her lips on yours, her arms around you...it hurts you want it so much...and..."

"And?," encouraged Spike.

"And you can't be with her. But...remember your last love? The person who you thought was your soulmate? Uh, 'cept that you don't have a soul, but stay with me here," said Willow.

Spike nodded.

"Everything with that person was new, exciting, every experience just so...memorable. You gave so much, knowing that it would be returned, more than willingly. The two of you were going to be together...always. You meshed together like a hand in a soft leather glove."

Spike smiled.

"But that love is far away now. Oh, the memories are always there. The scent of their hair, a song that you danced to...these things come back, usually when you're alone, at night, but you push them down, not wanting to face them, knowing they can overwhelm, knowing the cost, all the time fighting the temptation to..."

Willow took a sip of her drink. Spike stared intently at her, waiting for her to continue.

"But if you had a chance to recapture those feelings, to embrace the pain just to get past it...you're not ready for this, it's scary and, and your palms get sweaty...Spike, you have a second chance. You can't let go of your new love, the need, but if that first love returned, as terrifying as it seems, do you let the chance pass you by, knowing it may never come again? You're not ready, it's way too soon...but is it worth it, Spike? Or is it just a lie? If Drusilla were to walk through that door right now and called out..."

"Spike!"

Spike jumped. He knew that voice.

"Where have you been hiding?," demanded a voice from behind him. The creature standing in the doorway was some kind of demon, with white, scaly skin.

"I don't hide from the likes of you. Now sod off. Can't you se that I'm entertaining a lady friend?," said Spike, not bothering to get up from his seat. Willow gave the demon a nervous little smile.

"And how do you know him?," asked the demon.

"We...uh, from way back. We're both English. Go Manchester United! Bloody hell and, and all that," said Willow.

"Right," grinned the demon.

"Hey! He said sod off, so isn't it time you get sodding? As in now? Or you want a piece of me?," yelled Willow.

The demon hesitated, then growled and reached for Spike's shoulder to pull him from the booth.

"Ignis incente!," snarled Willow, staring at the demon's arm. His shirt sleeve immediately burst into flame. It took a moment for him to realize what had happened. Screaming in pain, he grabbed Willow's drink and poured it on himself, extinguishing the flames.

"I believe you were just leaving," said Willow, calmly and evenly. The demon glared at her but slowly backed away.

"This isn't finished, Spike," growled the demon. He slammed the door shut behind him as he left. Willow let out a deep sigh. Spike was grinning ear to ear.

"What are you smiling at? I just saved your English bum from a good old American arse whooping," said Willow.

"Oh, that bloke was a Yank?"

"Uh..."

"Least you didn't say tally-ho! You need another drink," said Spike, looking back towards Willy.

"No. Thanks, but I need to get going," said Willow, standing up. "Buffy needs me at the hospital."

"But...but you're not done. With our...with your story, I mean."

"No, I'm not. Love's a funny thing, isn't it? Thanks, Spike."

Willow smiled sadly and left the bar. Spike lifted his glass to his lips but stopped. He slowly put the drink back down on the table and stared at it.

"Bloody hell, Red! Now why'd ya get talking 'bout all that mushy stuff?"

Spike leaned his head back against the back of the booth and closed his eyes.

END OF PART TWO

PART THREE

"Thanks, Will. Getting out for a while was a great idea. I don't know how my mom is not going to go...uh, you know...stuck there, waiting for two more days before the operation," said Buffy, putting her arm around Dawn. The street they were walking down was quiet, without so much as a passing car.

"Well, maybe the doctor will let you take her home until then. We can all help out," offered Willow.

"Hey, why didn't I think of that? When I get back from dinner I'll talk to him about it," said Buffy.

"I? I will? Don't you mean we?," asked Dawn.

Buffy thought about it for a moment, then nodded.

"We," agreed Buffy. Dawn smiled.

"So, whatcha feel like? Pizza sounds good," said Willow.

"Yes it does," said Dawn.

"Pizza it is," announced Buffy.

"Oh, can we stop at Tara's on the way? I left a book there and, well, if you don't mind?," asked Willow.

"Sure. Feels good to...just walk around, you know?," asked Buffy. Willow nodded. Buffy looked at her, knowing she would need to make time to talk to her best friend. And very soon. She was amazed how well Willow seemed to be holding up.

"Hey. How's your mum?," asked Spike, suddenly appearing in front of them. They all stopped walking.

"She's...holding up. Needs an operation, two days from now. Spike, where did you...," began Buffy.

"Oh, just happened to be passing by. Mind if I walk with you? Nice night and all," said Spike, looking up. "And you ladies shouldn't be unescorted on the streets of Sunnydale at night. It isn't safe."

Buffy raised her eyebrows.

"Well, of course, you're here. But why invite trouble? Some old nasty might think twice about approaching if Spike is around," said Spike, ignoring Dawn's giggles.

"It's okay, Buffy. Let him join us if he likes," said Willow.

"Fine. Just...be quiet," said Buffy.

"Right. Quiet it is," replied Spike. "Shouldn't we start walking? If you want to get somewhere, I mean."

"Right. Schlepping now," announced Willow. Everyone followed her.

It wasn't long before they reached Tara's dormitory. They went in and stood outside of her door.

"Spike, I don't know if you can come in. I mean, it's Tara's room and she's not around for the invite, ya know?," said Willow, putting her key in the lock. She pushed the door open without turning the key.

"Hmm, thought I locked that last time I was here," shrugged Willow.

Spike held up his hand to the doorway.

"Uh, Buffy? Can I have a word?," asked Spike. Buffy looked at Willow and shrugged, adding a frown as well. Spike took a few steps back into the hall. He whispered so that Willow couldn't hear.

"I don't need an invite. There's no barrier. I'm afraid Red's witchy wiccan is now more demon than human. Or dead. But I'm thinking you should tell her to invite me in anyway, so as to not upset her and all. Sound like a plan?"

"That's very...considerate of you, Spike," said Buffy, giving him a strange look.

"Oh, and Buffy?"

"Yeah?"

"Love the vanilla scent. What is it, the shampoo?"

Buffy pushed Spike away with one hand.

"Uh, Will? Spike thinks that...well, since you spent so much time here and you and Tara were...you know...anyway, why not try inviting him in? Might work. What do you have to lose?," asked Buffy.

"Smooth," whispered Spike. Buffy elbowed him in the gut.

"You mean besides having one less place to get away from him?," said Willow.

"Well, there's that," agreed Buffy. Even Dawn nodded.

"Hey!," yelled Spike. "I don't..."

Spike stopped, seeing the warning glare from Buffy.

"Only kidding. Lighten up already," sighed Willow. She stepped across the threshold.

"Spike, won't you please come in?"

Spike walked up to the doorway and tentatively put his hand out. He smiled as he took a step into the room.

"Where are my manners? Ladies, after you," said Spike, bowing slightly.

Dawn giggled as she walked past him. Buffy rolled her eyes and followed. After they entered Spike stepped further into the room and grabbed the door handle.

"Thank you, Willow. One thing I'm not fond of is surprises," grinned Spike. He shut the door behind him. And looked right at Glory. She had been standing behind the door.

"Surprise!," announced Glory.

"Dawn, Willow, get behind me!," yelled Buffy.

"What about me?," whined Spike.

"Spike, you're on your own," answered Buffy, not taking her eyes off of Glory.

"You again? Well, guess it makes the wait worthwhile. Actually, no. It was kind of boring. Allow me to introduce myself. I'm Glory."

Spike's face vamped out and he stood between Glory and Buffy.

"A vampire helping a Slayer? Now there's something you don't see everyday!," laughed Glory.

"Actually...," began Dawn. Buffy turned and glared at her. And saw the closet door next to Spike open.

"Spike!," warned Buffy.

Spike looked at Buffy and was hit across the base of his neck with a baseball bat. Spike collapsed on the floor. The Lei-Ach demon that had emerged from the closet held up the now useless broken bat and in a fit of rage threw it across the room. Willow and Dawn ducked as it flew over their heads.

"Behind you?," finished Buffy.

"Hello? I was talking here! Someone performed a ritual here and I'd like to know who. I mean, you were looking for me and here I am!," smiled Glory.

Buffy took a step towards Glory and connected with a vicious right to her jaw. Glory's head barely moved. She raised a fist and Buffy anticipated the blow, using her left arm to block it. But instead of throwing a punch, Glory grabbed Buffy's arm, wrenched it upward and used her momentum to hurl the Slayer against the door. The door splintered and was torn from its hinges. Buffy landed face down in the hall.

Glory turned to see Willow hiding Dawn behind her. Willow's lips moved and she glared menacingly at Glory.

"So you're the spellcaster. That answers my first question. Now you're going to tell me what you were looking for. Somehow I doubt you expected to find me," said Glory, an edge to her voice.

Buffy reappeared, standing in the doorway. Willow caught her eye and nodded. Buffy understood. She took a step into the room but Glory had seen Willow looking in that direction. She swung her arm but Buffy ducked under the backhand. Glory took a punch to her stomach and her chin with little effect. Buffy was only using her right hand; her left arm hung useless at her side.

Glory kneed Buffy in the stomach and drove an elbow into her forehead but was surprised at how little this seemed to bother the Slayer. With Buffy and Glory fighting, only Dawn noticed that Willow doubled over when Glory hit Buffy in the stomach. And that Willow's head snapped back when her elbow connected with Buffy's forehead. They traded punches, neither giving ground. But as Willow fell to her knees, Dawn screamed.

"Buffy!"

Distracted, Glory was able to fling Buffy hard against the wall. Willow fell to the floor, unconscious.

"Buffy, you're hurting Willow!"

Glory laughed. And then Spike moaned and tried to sit up. The first thing he saw was the look of fear on Buffy's face.

"Take her!," commanded Glory, pointing at Dawn. The Lei-Ach demon took a step towards Dawn and she screamed again. Buffy got up but was blocked by Glory. They exchanged punches again but while Buffy's hits still didn't seem to even slow down Glory, her blows were once again felt in full force by Buffy.

Glory grabbed Buffy's left arm and squeezed, forcing her to her knees. Buffy cried out and shook her head, fighting to stay conscious. She glanced at Dawn and saw that the demon had wrapped its arms around Dawn. Her sister stared at Buffy, eyes wide with terror. Dawn drove her heel down onto the Lei-Ach's foot but the demon only held her tighter.

Buffy was hit again across the face, splitting her lower lip and drawing blood. Glory let go of Buffy's arm and kicked her in the ribs, driving Buffy back hard against the wall. She fell on her side as the room spun around her. And then Buffy became aware of someone standing in the doorway.

"Willow!"

The voice seemed far away but Buffy also knew that voice. It didn't make sense, but it sounded like...Oz.

"Buffy, stay down!," warned the voice, slurring into a growl. It was Oz. And he was changing.

"Slayer, you hang around with the strangest people," complained Glory. "What, no mummies?"

With a roar the werewolf tackled Glory. She was driven back and they crashed through the window to the ground below. The Lei-Ach demon hesitated, flicked its tongue once, then threw Dawn over his shoulder and ran out the door. Spike crawled over and tried to help Buffy to her feet but she pushed him away. She stood, bracing herself with her right hand against the wall. Buffy lost her balance and fell to one knee.

"Where the bloody hell do you think you're going?," demanded Spike.

"Where do you think, fool? It's got Dawn!"

"You can't even stand up, let alone take on a Lei-Ach demon with one arm. You trying to get yourself killed?," asked Spike.

Buffy ignored him and tried to stand again. This time she didn't fall down.

"Is bite size that near and dear to you?," asked Spike, only half in jest. Buffy glared at him.

"You don't understand! She...she's my sister," said Buffy, looking like she might cry at any moment. She looked up at Spike and he had to turn his head.

"Sorry," muttered Spike.

"Spike, last night, you asked me if there was anything you could do. If you could help. If you were sincere, please, I'm begging you, go help my sister. I'll...I'll do anything you ask of me. Anything, Spike. You have my word."

Spikes eyes opened wide.

"Please?," pleaded Buffy.

"Can you walk?," asked Spike.

"I, I think so."

Spike knelt down and lifted Willow in his arms.

"Then follow me. Need to get her down the hall at least, away from here in case that bitch comes back. And you better call an ambulance. Your friend's not doing so good, Slayer. Ya got the same parts but she doesn't have your warranty."

"Dawn..."

"Don't worry, I'll fetch. Lei-Ach demons are big on the marrow sucking but knowing who it's taking orders from I doubt there'll be any munching. And Lei-Ach's are big, but they're slow afoot. He won't get far. Now come on."

Spike ran from the room. Buffy stumbled after him.

*****

Buffy had called Xander and he had gotten there even before the ambulance. Buffy hid from the paramedics, not wanting to be taken to the hospital even though Xander had insisted on it. Willow had regained consciousness but after asking about Dawn would only repeat 'I'm sorry' over and over. Neither Buffy nor Xander had been able to calm her down.

They went outside, avoiding the police in Tara's room.

"Xander, she got Dawn...she got Dawn," repeated Buffy, leaning up against the wall of the building.

"Where, where do we look? What do you want me to do?," asked Xander. Buffy only shook her head.

"I don't know," whispered Buffy.

"How about turning your peepers in this direction," said Spike. Buffy looked up and saw Dawn standing next to Spike not twenty feet away from them.

"Dawn!"

Dawn ran to her sister and hugged her, trying not to cry. Buffy gasped and Dawn looked up at her.

"Are you hurt? Are you okay?," asked Buffy. Dawn nodded.

"I'm fine. But you're hurt. Bad," added Dawn.

Buffy shook her head, tears in her eyes.

"No. Not any more. I'm so sorry I couldn't..."

"Buffy, it's okay. You did your best. I was there, remember?," asked Dawn, hugging Buffy again. Buffy closed her eyes and smiled. When she opened them she saw Spike staring at them. He had a gash above his right eye but seemed no worse off for his encounter with the Lei-Ach.

Buffy mouthed the words 'thank you' to him and he nodded and then looked away as if he was embarrassed.

"Buffy. What about Oz?," asked Xander. Buffy sighed and let go of Dawn.

"I should go look for him," said Buffy. Xander was about to say something but Buffy interrupted him. "Xander, take Dawn with you back to the hospital. See how Will's doing, okay? I'll be there soon."

Xander nodded and held his hand out to Dawn. He looked at Spike.

"Don't worry, I'll keep an eye on her," said Spike. Xander looked again at Buffy and led Dawn away. Buffy walked in the other direction and Spike followed. They turned the corner of the building and looked up at the broken window in Tara's room.

"How...how's Willow?," asked Spike.

"Not sure yet," said Buffy quickly. She knelt down and saw where Oz and Glory had landed. Just ahead of her were some broken and twisted shrubs. Walking past them and around to the back of the building, something high up on the wall caught her eye, a dark streak smeared down the vinyl siding. It was blood. Buffy followed it down to ground level. And saw a pair of legs sticking out of the bushes.

"Spike, help me out of my jacket," said Buffy, turning her back to him. Something she couldn't remember doing before.

"What? Oh," answered Spike, catching on. Oz was lying naked in the bushes. Buffy tossed her jacket over him and knelt down beside him.

"The blood is his. And only his," added Spike. "He's still breathing if that's any comfort."

"Oz. Oz, can you hear me?," asked Buffy, gently slapping his face. Not knowing his injuries she didn't want to move his neck. Oz moaned and opened his eyes.

"Buffy?"

"Yeah. It's me," smiled Buffy. "I'm going to get help. Just...lie still, okay?"

"Hey. Thanks for the cover up," said Oz, closing his eyes and wincing.

"More for me than you. And hey, I'm just returning the favor. Remember? School basement, no clothes, strong desire for cheese?," said Buffy, trying to sound relaxed to hide her concern. Oz's face was puffy, black and blue and his hair was caked in dried blood.

"Dare I ask for details?," said Spike.

"I'll be right back. I'm going to get some help. And some clothes. Don't move," said Buffy, ignoring Spike.

"Not an issue. But...you don't understand...can't go...to..."

Oz passed out again.

"Spike, stay here with him. I'll be right back," said Buffy.

Spike shrugged and lit up a cigarette as he watched Buffy walk away.

*****

Giles, Buffy, Xander and Anya stood outside of Willow's door. Buffy finally said something just to break the tension.

"I called Riley two hours ago. Where the hell is he?," she asked of no one in particular. "Giles, did the doctor say anything? Anything at all?"

"Just that her vital signs were stable. But weak. She did seem concerned, although I got the impression that none of Willow's injuries were life threatening. But..."

"But?," asked both Xander and Buffy at the same time.

"But she should be better. It's, it's as if Willow isn't fighting back, not trying to get better. She did tell the doctor not to call her mother. And since she is of age that is within her rights," commented Giles.

"Her mom's in Arizona visiting relatives. Probably just didn't want to worry her," explained Xander. Everyone reluctantly nodded.

"Buffy, I still can't believe that Spike went after Dawn. Since when does he wear a white hat? What's he after, redemption?," asked Xander.

"Spike wants to return bottles for the deposit?," asked Anya.

"Anya, you spent way too much time with Cordelia in high school," said Xander, staring at his girlfriend.

"What I say?," asked Anya, confused.

"I know what he's after," muttered Buffy under her breath. "Hopefully I'll burn that bridge before I get to it."

"Buffy, how's your mother doing?," asked Giles.

"Okay. Going a little stir crazy. Dawn's with her now. I'm going to ask the doctor later if I can take her home until the operation, get her out of here for awhile."

Willow's door opened and the doctor came out, closing the door behind her.

"How is she?," asked Giles.

"Honestly? I don't know," she replied, taking off her glasses and putting them into her coat pocket. "She got beat up very badly. Her blood pressure is low and that's what is bothering me. Our tests indicate no internal bleeding but I'm going to run them again to be sure. She...she simply should be doing better than she is. Has she been depressed lately?"

"Uh...well...," began Giles.

"Probably. No, I'd say yes. Her...a close friend left town only a few days ago. It was very upsetting," said Buffy.

"Close friend? It was her lover," interjected Anya. Xander prodded Anya gently with his elbow.

"That may be a factor. Willow just doesn't seem to want to get better. I have to make my morning rounds but I'll be back in about an hour. You can go in, one at a time. And please be upbeat and positive. She needs her friends right now."

The doctor faced Giles.

"Do the police have any leads in her case yet?," she asked.

"No. Not that I'm aware of," replied Giles. The doctor sadly nodded and walked away.

"Thank you," added Buffy. "Giles..."

"You can go in first, Buffy. I'll head down to the cafeteria, see if someone here can make a decent pot of tea."

"Good luck," smirked Anya.

Buffy entered Willow's room and quietly shut the door behind her. Willow tilted her head on her pillow, saw Buffy and smiled.

"Buffy," said Willow weakly. Her face was badly bruised, one eye puffy and almost closed and her lower lip swollen. Buffy walked over to the bed and held Willow's hand, the one without the IV in it.

"How ya doin'?," asked Buffy, trying to hide her concern.

"Actually, I must be pretty drugged up. Kinda sleepy."

Buffy sat down in the chair next to the bed, not letting go of Willow's hand.

"And how are you, she of the hanging arm and limping foot?"

"Been worse," smiled Buffy.

"Buffy, I don't know what went wrong. The spell was working."

"Yes, it was. But Glory must've figured out what you were up to. She flimflammed your mojo. It wasn't your fault. I wish I had realized what was happening sooner," pouted Buffy.

"Dawn's okay? Really? You're not lying to me?," asked Willow.

"No. She's fine. Just got scared, that's all."

"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have done that spell with her," said Willow, her voice breaking. "I put her in danger. I did."

"Spell? What spell?," asked Buffy, squeezing Willow's hand just a little tighter.

"The one Giles and Anya did, on Halloween. I was looking for Tara. Dawn wanted to help. I should've known better. It didn't work. Everything I do always get so screwed up. Always...," said Willow, tears in her eyes.

"Willow! It wasn't your fault. It was only a spell. Glory knew where you did it, not who did it. Will, it doesn't matter. Okay?"

"Like that wise old sage Eyore said, why bother?," sighed Willow.

Willow didn't look at Buffy. With her free hand Buffy brushed Willow's hair to one side, out of her eyes.

"Hey. I need you to get better. Maybe I'm being selfish, but I need you. I need my Willow. And I'm worried about you," said Buffy, tears welling up in her eyes.

"I know," whispered Willow. "Buffy, how did you get away from Glory?"

"Giles didn't tell you?," asked Buffy, stalling for time.

"No. No, he didn't," said Willow, slowly shaking her head.

"Oz came. He saw you were hurt and wolfed out. Tackled that bitch and threw her out the window. Although he, uh, kinda forget to let go. You knew he was in Sunnydale, didn't you?"

"Yeah. We, uh...we talked. Is he alright?"

"Yep. He's here, in the hospital, but he's fine. You get better and I'll wheel you over to see him, okay?," smiled Buffy.

"If he's fine...why is he in the hospital?"

"Can't get nothin' by you, can I? He's got a couple of broken ribs and a minor concussion. Be up in no time," said Buffy, trying to stay positive. Willow smiled.

"Buffy, I...I'm falling asleep here. I'm just going to close my eyes for a little while, 'kay?," asked Willow, her eyes already closed.

"No problem. And I'm staying right here. You're not going to be alone, Will. You...you get some sleep now," said Buffy softly, sniffing back the tears. She gently let go of Willow's hand and then leaned over and kissed her forehead. Buffy could tell by her breathing that Willow was already asleep.

She sat there, just staring at Willow, unaware of the clock or even her surroundings. Then Buffy heard the door handle turn and she looked over her shoulder, expecting to see Xander. Her jaw opened slightly as she saw Tara walk into the room.

END OF PART THREE

PART FOUR

As soon as Tara walked into the room she inhaled sharply and put a hand over her mouth. She glanced at Buffy, fear visible in her eyes. Buffy got up from the chair and put a finger over her lips.

"It's not as bad as it looks," whispered Buffy, putting her arm around Tara. "Let's let her sleep for now."

Buffy walked Tara away from the bed and over to the window. Tara stared out the window and slowly shook her head. She seemed about to say something but instead closed her eyes.

"Tara, what? What were you going to say?"

"I...I could have done that to her," whispered Tara.

"No! Tara..."

"Buffy!," said Tara forcefully but keeping her voice low.

"I'm sorry. I really don't know what you're going through, do I?," asked Buffy.

"No. No one does, except maybe Willow. Buffy, you kill demons. I mean...that's what you do."

Buffy gave Tara a confused look. Then she understood.

"Tara, where are you going with this?"

Tara just stared at her, not saying anything.

"You can't be serious. Tara, you can't ask me to..."

"No, of course not. I'm sorry. It's just...see, I thought I could run away. The risk of hurting her was just...I was scared. Terrified. So, if I wasn't around her...but...it didn't matter," said Tara, beginning to cry.

"What do you mean it didn't matter?"

"The other night. I was out walking. Alone. There was this guy. He, he followed me. I ran. And then...and then I don't remember. I woke up in an alley. He was on the ground, behind a dumpster. Oh, he was alive, but barely."

"Oh my God. Tara, I...are, are you sure that...you did it?," asked Buffy, cringing.

Tara nodded and looked away.

"I know what it can do. It leaves marks..."

"Oh. Wow," said Buffy, holding Tara just a little tighter. Neither of them spoke for some time.

"I wonder," said Tara.

"Wonder?"

"Th...Third floor. Think the fall would br...break my neck?"

"Tara!," yelled Buffy, louder than she meant to. They both glanced at Willow but she didn't move.

"Tara, you can't..."

"There's another way," interrupted Tara.

"Go on," encouraged Buffy.

"The chip in Spike's head. If one were to be implanted in me, maybe...I don't know. Maybe it would work. I mean, why wouldn't it?," asked Tara, looking at Buffy.

"Hey. That could work! Then you...I mean, it, couldn't harm anyone. We've got to try," said Buffy excitedly. Tara smiled.

"What?," asked Buffy.

"You said we," answered Tara, her eyes tearing up again.

"Tara, I told you that you were family. I meant that," said Buffy, smiling.

"Buffy, there's something you need to know about. A complication. See, Riley's already talked to Graham about this. And Graham said the doctors will agree to the procedure. But only if...only if Riley rejoins the Initiative," said Tara sadly.

Buffy's eyes grew wide and she turned away from Tara. And looked right into Willow's open eyes.

"Buffy, is that Tara?," asked Willow weakly. Tara stepped out from behind Buffy.

"Hey," said Tara, smiling but taking a deep breath at the same time.

"Tara!," cried Willow. She tried to raise her head up from her pillow but quickly gave up. Tara walked over to her, brushed Willow's hair to one side and kissed her forehead. She sat down on a chair next to the bed and held Willow's hand.

"You came back...you came back," said Willow softly, trying to stay awake.

"Yeah. I did," said Tara, trying not to cry.

"Are...are you going to stay? You are, right? You're not going to leave again...you're not."

"Well, that depends," said Tara firmly.

Tara couldn't see Buffy close her eyes behind her. Willow looked at Tara, her lower lip trembling, afraid of what Tara would say next.

"See, the doctors tell us that, okay, you got roughed up pretty good. But they can't understand why you're not getting better. Like someone isn't fighting hard, not trying to get better. That's not the Willow I know. My Willow isn't a quitter."

Willow smiled.

"You said my Willow," whispered Willow, beginning to cry.

"Yep. I did. But if you don't give a damn about us, if you don't start getting better, then I'm outta here. That's the deal. Sound reasonable?," asked Tara, winking at Willow.

"Oh yeah. That sounds..oh yeah," nodded Willow. Tara wiped the tears from Willow's cheeks and left her hand on the side of her face, giving her an encouraging smile.

"I'll let you two crazy kids alone. I'm sure you have some catching up to do," said Buffy, suddenly standing behind Tara. Willow nodded but didn't take her eyes off of Tara. Buffy leaned over and whispered into Tara's ear.

"You going to be okay with her? Alone, I mean?," asked Buffy.

Tara hesitated but nodded.

"If you don't trust me, know that Xander is on the other side of that door. With a stun gun," whispered Tara.

"Where did he..."

"Riley brought me here," answered Tara.

"Oh."

"Hey you two, no secrets!," complained Willow.

Buffy put her hand on Tara's shoulder and gave it a little squeeze.

"Welcome home, Tara. We missed you."

"You mean...," began Tara, turning her head to look at Buffy. But Buffy had already left the room.

Just outside of Willow's room Buffy leaned against the wall and took a deep breath. The wall was cool on her back. She closed her eyes and shook her head.

"Hey, Buff, you okay?," asked Xander.

"I don't know. I...I need some air. Xander?," said Buffy, just now opening her eyes.

"Yes?"

"Don't go far from this door. Just in case..."

"I'm on it," he said, tapping a bulge under his sweater. Buffy nodded.

Walking down the hall, Buffy stopped at a water fountain to take a drink. There was a window to her left, looking out onto the parking lot. She stood there for some time, just staring out, not really focusing on anything. An orderly pushing a cart down the hall behind her broke her out of her reverie. Buffy began walking, not even thinking about where she was going.

And found herself standing outside of Oz's room. She decided to say hello and see how he was doing. Buffy walked into his room. There was a girl standing by his bed.

"Willow?," called out Buffy.

The girl turned and looked at Buffy. Her hair was the same length and color as Willow's, she had the same green eyes and was maybe just a little taller. But she wasn't Willow.

"Oh, I'm sorry. I thought you were someone else," explained Buffy, relieved.

"Oh, I know. You must be Buffy. Buffy Summers?"

"How do you know my name?," asked Buffy.

Oz moaned in his sleep and the girl glanced at him. She stepped away from the bed and nodded towards the hall.

"Let's go out here. He needs to rest," she said in a low voice. They steeped into the hall and Buffy was again unnerved by how much this girl looked like Willow.

"Hi, I'm Kristie," said the girl, extending her hand. Buffy shook it.

"Buffy. But you already knew that, so I'm assuming Oz told you. How do you know him?"

"He didn't mention me?," asked Kristie.

"Well, to be fair, he just got back to Sunnydale and we didn't get much time to catch up before..."

"Oh. Right. Uh, Oz and I...we...we're together," said Kristie nervously.

"Oh. Hey, that's great. Really, Oz is...great. Really," said Buffy, suddenly wondering what to say next. "Uh, how did you know he was here?"

"I knew where he was going. Of course, when I got there you were already gone. But I saw the blood on the wall and figured...well, hoped, that he was in a hospital."

"But, how did you know the blood was from Oz?," asked Buffy, confused.

Kristie sighed and looked away for a moment. Then she looked Buffy right in the eye.

"By his scent."

"By...oh. Oh! You mean, you and Oz...have something in common?," asked Buffy. Kristie nodded.

"Yes. But...it's complicated," answered Kristie.

"There's that word again," sighed Buffy.

"What's that?"

"Nothing. Sorry. Go on," said Buffy.

"We met this summer. Oz was honest with me, very up front right from the start. He told me he went through a real rough breakup with someone. Someone that...he had been very much in love with. And that we looked very much alike."

"I'll say," added Buffy. Kristie smiled.

"Of course, Oz wasn't completely honest with me. I had no idea at the time what he was," said Kristie with a frown.

"Wait. You said you knew his scent. I thought..."

Kristie pulled her blouse up, revealing her stomach. Four parallel scars ran diagonally across her abdomen. Buffy's eyes opened wide and she stared at Kristie. She tucked her blouse back into her pants.

"There's more, but you get the idea. Guess you could say Oz made me into the woman I am today," grinned Kristie.

"But...I thought Oz had it under control. That..."

"You have no idea what Willow did to him, do you? How messed up he is, even now? Oz wasn't emotionally strong enough to control it. Oh, it took him by surprise. But no one was more surprised than me. Still can't believe I didn't die," said Kristie, her voice hollow and flat.

"Kristie, I'm so sorry. That must've been terrifying!"

Kristie waited until a nurse walked past them.

"Ever since then we've been together. He hasn't gotten over the guilt of what he did."

Buffy looked at Kristie, not saying anything.

"I know what you're thinking, Buffy. But don't judge me. I'm not using his guilt to make him stay with me. Oz is free to go, anytime. We're together, but I know I'll never have his heart. He's in love with Willow. Maybe, maybe I'm good for him, I don't know. I mean, I look like her, so...yeah, maybe I'm good for him. I just don't know," said Kristie, sadly looking at her feet.

Buffy put a hand on Kristie's arm.

"You're in love with him, aren't you?," asked Buffy softly.

Kristie nodded and wiped a sudden tear from her eye.

"How can I not be? I mean...he's Oz, you know?"

"Oh, yeah. I know," smiled Buffy.

"Buffy, I talked to the doctor, heard his version. What really happened? What did this to him?"

"We don't know. A demon, probably. One thing for sure is that she's strong. Trust me, I know. Oz saw Willow hurt and he wolfed out. Tackled demon chick right through the window, gave us time to get away. I, I didn't see the fight. But I went back and found him," said Buffy.

"Thanks. For that. Is Willow okay?," asked Kristie.

"She doing better. In fact, she's right down the hall. Tara's with her now."

"Willow is here?," asked Kristie nervously.

"Uh, yeah. Is that a problem? Her being here, I mean?," asked Buffy defensively.

"No. Of course not. Uh, who's Tara?"

"Um, a friend. Her, uh, roommate at school," explained Buffy.

"Oh."

"Kristie, I don't get it. There's no full moon, so how was Oz able to change?," asked Buffy.

"We're still not sure, but we think his not changing when the moon comes has affected his body chemistry. So now, if he gets upset or injured, well, it happens. He can't control it. It's almost worse this way. I mean, before he only had to deal with it three days a month. Now..."

"Wait. Are you saying that he could change if he's injured. Like now?," asked Buffy anxiously.

"I don't think so. I gave him some of the herbs he takes, and as long as he sleeps and doesn't get upset...oh, there's still a chance, sure. But I'll be with him. I can calm him down. Usually," added Kristie.

"Sure you don't want some back up?"

"No. But thanks. It's good to know the Slayer is in the same building if I need her," said Kristie with a smile. Buffy's eyes opened just a little wider than she wanted.

"Buffy, there is something you can do for me. A favor."

"What's that?"

"Well, there's not another moon for almost two weeks. But...see, I don't know how much Oz will have recovered by then. And I don't have the control he has. Hell, I don't have any control at all," said Kristie, obviously embarrassed. "Oz takes care of me during my time."

"Meaning he locks you up?"

Kristie nodded.

"And, I'm not sure, but he might have to be as well. Can you help us? If he's not well, I mean," asked Kristie.

Buffy hesitated, letting her breath out slowly.

"Kristie, I won't help you."

Kristie's eyes opened wide in disbelief.

"We will help you. All of us. Oz is still family as far as I'm concerned. So don't worry about it, okay? Won't be the first time I spent the night with him. Oh, uh, I mean cage sitting!"

"I figured. And thank you," said Kristie, sighing in relief.

"Kristie?"

Both girls eyes met and they walked to the door of Oz's room. Buffy followed Kristie into the room.

"Are you okay, Oz? Can I get you something? Anything?," asked Kristie.

"No. I'm good. Hey Buffy. Didn't know I had company," said Oz, wincing as he sat up. Kristie helped him get comfortable.

"Hey Oz. How do you feel?," asked Buffy.

"How do you think?," smiled Oz.

"Yeah. Been there. Kinda there now, too," answered Buffy. She didn't smile.

"Oh, I'm sorry. Have you met Kristie yet?"

"Um, yes. Yes we have. Out in the hall," said Buffy, pointing behind her.

"I told her, Oz. Everything," said Kristie. Oz nodded and looked up at the ceiling.

"Kristie, could you...could you give me a few minutes alone with Buffy?," asked Oz, looking at her.

"Sure. I'll...go visit the vending machine. Again," said Kristie, forcing a smile. She leaned over and kissed Oz on the forehead before leaving. Oz motioned towards the end of the bed and Buffy sat down.

"How's Willow doing?," asked Oz.

"Better. She...she got some good news. Helped raise her spirits. I think she's going to fine now."

"That's great," replied Oz, not looking at Buffy. He seemed nervous, something Buffy couldn't remember seeing before.

"Kristie, she...she's nice. I like her," said Buffy. Oz nodded.

"Yeah. She's...nice. She told you about, about what happened?"

"Yes. Oz, you don't have to talk about it."

"Buffy...no, maybe I shouldn't. Not really something to be proud of, you know?"

"Oz, I can't say that I don't feel sorry for her, but I know you're a good person. It happened. Don't punish yourself," said Buffy.

"I'm a good person? That's almost funny hearing it said out loud. Buffy, I came back because Willow needed me. Kristie should've waited in LA for me but she followed me here. She knew..."

"Knew? Knew what?," asked Buffy.

"Buffy, I haven't been doing so good. I haven't been able to move on with my life. Letting go of Willow is something that I just can't do. So, yes, I came back because she needed someone to lean on. But I also came back because I saw an opening, a chance, maybe, of getting her back. And you call me a good person? Wow. What a joke."

"Oz, I'm sorry. It takes time. A lot of time. I know," said Buffy, swallowing hard.

"I blew it. It's all my fault. I had everything...what a mess I've made of my life," said Oz, shaking his head.

"Oz, you left because you thought you had to. You left because you loved Willow, that she wouldn't be safe if, if you couldn't control..."

Oz stared at Buffy and said nothing.

"I'm sorry," was all Buffy could manage.

"Can I go see her? Think she's up to it yet?," asked Oz. Buffy took a deep breath.

"There's something you should know. Tara came back. She's with her, right now."

"Tara? But...the demon. Willow's not safe!," said Oz, leaning forward.

"Yes, she is. Xander told you about the chip implant in Spike's head last time you were here, right?"

Oz nodded.

"Well, Tara is going to have one put into her. Riley's...taking care of it," said Buffy slowly.

"Oh."

It was all Oz could say.

"Oz, Willow does love you. But she's happy. Does, does that make any sense?," asked Buffy.

Oz didn't answer.

"Oz..."

"Buffy, you should go."

"Are you sure? I could stay."

"I'm sure," said Oz, staring at his hands. Buffy stood up.

"Okay. But I'll be back."

Oz nodded. Buffy touched his hand and gave it a little squeeze. Oz looked up and tried to smile. Buffy sighed and left the room. She saw Kristie sitting in a chair down the hall. She stood up and smiled at Buffy. Buffy walked over to her.

"You should go be with him. I think...I think he needs you," said Buffy. Kristie nodded, quickly walking away.

"And people wonder why I hate hospitals. What next?"

Buffy walked back down the corridor. She turned a corner and saw Anya, leaning on Xander and crying. He had his arm around her, trying to comfort her.

"No!," cried Buffy, running towards them as fast as her sore hip would allow.

"Xander! What's wrong? Is Willow..."

Buffy stopped, seeing the confused look on Xander's face.

"Huh?"

"Why is Anya crying?," yelled Buffy.

"Oh. Oh! Buffy, Willow's fine. Really. Anya was bored so I let her listen to my walkman. It...it was a tape of country music," shrugged Xander.

"Oh, Buffy, it was horrible! His dog up and died, his wife ran off with his best friend, his pickup truck done got stuck in a ditch, and don't even ask about the crops!," sighed Anya, sniffing. "Who writes this stuff anyhow? I wasn't that mean in my Vengeance days."

Buffy glared at Xander. He tried to laugh but couldn't pull it off. The door to Willow's room opened and Riley came out. He seemed surprised to see Buffy.

"Hey," offered Riley.

"Hey yourself. We need to talk," said Buffy. Riley nodded. The room across from Willow's was empty so they went in there and Buffy shut the door behind them.

"Can't stay long. Have to get Tara to the doctor, you know? How's your arm? Are you..."

"Riley, when were you going to tell me?," asked Buffy. He could see that she was upset.

"About the Initiative, you mean?"

"Uh...yes!," said Buffy, shaking her head.

"Well, it's not like I had a lot of wiggle room here. What was I supposed to do, not help Tara?"

"Of course not," sighed Buffy. "It's just...for everything you've done for them, the Initiative couldn't have helped her simply because it was the right thing to do?"

"A fair point. I believe it's called leverage," admitted Riley.

"Well, I guess I'll just have to deal with them being part of our lives again. And, and Graham's not so bad," said Buffy.

Riley looked down at his feet and sighed.

"What?," asked Buffy, suddenly worried.

"It...it involves a little more than that. I have to leave," said Riley.

"Leave? For...for more training?"

Riley looked up at Buffy but didn't say anything.

"Wait. What do you mean by leave?," asked Buffy, slowly realizing what Riley was saying.

"I mean leave Sunnydale. They don't...they want me away from you. They think you're a bad influence. Still have some issues about me deserting, I suppose," frowned Riley.

"This...this is blackmail! Those bastards! I can't..."

"Buffy, I want to go."

She stared at him as if she hadn't heard what he had said.

"I have to go. You don't understand what I've been going through. I...I need something in my life, a sense of direction or, or a purpose. I had that...I felt that, when I was in the Initiative. I'm trying to hold onto you but I'm not part of your life."

"Not part of my life! You..."

"Buffy! I'm hurting here, big time, and you don't even see it. You, you just won't let me near you. You're holding back and I can't understand why. Buffy, I can't hold onto this any longer. I have to let go."

Buffy's eyes grew wide. She was speechless.

"I don't know what we have...no, what I have here. If you're looking for someone to blame, it's my fault. I couldn't be...I'm what you need, not who you love. Tara's condition only made this easier," sighed Riley.

This, this is easy?," asked Buffy softly. Her anger was being replaced by pain.

"Buffy, why haven't you ever told me that you love me?"

Buffy looked away from Riley's accusing stare.

"Haven't I shown you?," she asked, still not looking at him.

"It's not the same. But I guess I got my answer. I'm outta here."

Buffy heard the door shut as Riley left. She wanted to run after him but she couldn't move.

"Riley," she cried, her voice a whisper. "Riley, I love you. I do."

END OF PART FOUR

PART FIVE

"Will, you sure you're feeling strong enough to be up and about?," asked Xander. "It's only been twenty four hours."

"Xander, what's with the mama hen? I'm fine. Almost. Well, sort of."

"Right. Hence the wheels," teased Xander.

"Hospital rules. I can take it from here, Xander. Thanks," said Willow, smiling and looking over her shoulder. Xander nodded and let go of the wheelchair. Willow wheeled herself into Oz's room. His bed was empty. A girl with red hair looked up from emptying a drawer.

"Oh, excuse me. I must have the wrong room," said Willow, beginning to back herself out.

"Willow, Oz left."

"You, you know my name?"

"I'm sorry, I thought I'd be gone by now. He, uh, left this behind," said Kristie, holding up a jacket.

"But why did Oz..."

"Oz didn't think it was safe to stay. Feeling...well, feeling the way he did," shrugged Kristie.

"Is he okay?," asked Willow, standing up from the wheelchair. "Did the doctor clear him to go?"

Kristie looked down and shook her head.

"You have no idea, do you?," sighed Kristie. She looked up and stared at Willow.

"You...Oz will be mad at me for telling you this, but you have to know. Even now, months later, he can barely make it through a single day. He can't move on with his life. Because he can't let go...of you. And what he did."

Kristie picked up an envelope that was lying on the bed.

"Here, he left this for you," she said, handing Willow the letter. Willow sat back down and stared at the sealed envelope. Only her name was written on it.

"I should go," said Kristie.

"Wait! Who are you?," asked Willow.

"Me? I'm no one. Especially to him."

"But..."

"Willow, I can't fight a ghost. And that's what you are. Someone who's always there...but someone we can't touch. I'm sorry. I, I can't do this. It's bad enough that I know your scent now."

Kristie turned and left.

"Know my scent?," said Willow out loud.

*****

"It's good to have mom home again, even if it is just for one day," said Dawn.

"Yeah, it is," agreed Buffy, smiling. She looked at Dawn, sitting there, trying to catch up on her homework.

"Dawn, how are you doing?"

"Okay. Really," said Dawn, putting down her pencil. "It helps to keep busy, not think about...things. And having mom home feels like we're back to our familiar routines. I like that."

Buffy had to smile at that.

"There's...there's something I want to talk to you about," said Buffy.

"Great, another lecture."

"No. No, not at all," said Buffy, sitting down at the kitchen table next to her. "This is from the heart, adult to adult."

"Oh," replied Dawn, surprised.

"I know you think I sometimes...well, most times, treat you like a kid. I'm sorry. It's just that...I don't want you to grow up so fast. I wanted you to have a normal life, something I never could. But, let's face it. You're not a kid anymore and you're not going to have a normal life. Because of me."

"Buffy..."

"Dawn."

Dawn smiled and nodded.

"I've tried to shield you from, from the ugly stuff. The stuff that gives me nightmares even after it's dead. And I'm going to do everything I can to protect you. But there's some things that I just can't fight."

"Like mom's illness," frowned Dawn.

"Yes. Like that. And maybe like this woman who calls herself Glory. Giles thinks she's a very old and very powerful demon. If you look under your bed you'll see a round, shiny object. It's called a Damon sphere. Giles thinks it was created to repel that which cannot be named. Well, she's got a name now."

"Glory," said Dawn. Buffy nodded.

"This might...this should protect you from her, if she comes looking for you. Don't touch it. Just wanted you to know it was there. And to tell you that if you should ever see this Glory again, even if I'm fighting her, that the best thing you could do is to hide in your room. I might not be able to protect you, but maybe this bit of magic will. Promise me, okay?," asked Buffy. "Please?"

"I promise," agreed Dawn. "Not that my big sis can't kick her ass."

"Dawn!"

"Hey, I thought we were adults," protested Dawn.

"We are. We're just not longshoreman," smiled Buffy.

"Uh, Buffy? Speaking of evil, why did Spike help you? I mean, he doesn't have a soul, right?"

"No. He doesn't. And maybe there's degrees of evil, maybe there's some part of him that remembers his humanity. But more likely he just wanted me to owe him a favor. Everything has a price," pouted Buffy.

"I get it. You mean like the next time he gets you mad you'll think twice about staking him," suggested Dawn.

"Yeah. Let's hope it's something like that," grinned Buffy.

"Oh, I forgot!"

Dawn got up and opened the refrigerator, pulling out a long white box.

"These came for you before. And, uh...well..."

"What?," asked Buffy.

"I'm really happy that you're going to start treating me like an adult and all, but..."

"But what?"

"I read the card. Sorry!," said Dawn, taking the card out of her back pocket and handing it to Buffy.

Buffy sighed and read the card out loud.

"Still thinking of you. Meet me at the Bronze, tonight, at 9:00pm. And let's dress up, shall we? Make the night memorable."

"I knew it! I knew Riley sent those roses last time. I'll get a vase," said Dawn, putting the box down on the table and leaving the kitchen. Buffy looked at the dozen red roses lying in the box.

"And I should go find something to wear for tonight. Something I haven't worn in a while. Something...something that I can burn later," whispered Buffy to herself.

*****

Willow sat on the edge of her hospital bed, her back to Anya. Anya was brushing her hair.

"Willow, this is great. I mean, yeah, Tara's got a chip in her head, but do you know what this means?," asked Xander.

"No more spankings for Willow?," offered Anya, still brushing Willow's hair.

"Anya! We're trying to focus on the positive here and that would be a negative. And I can't believe I just said that!," exclaimed Xander.

"Hmm. There's that," agreed Willow. Xander's eyes opened just a little wider.

"So, ignoring the puffy eye, how do I look?," asked Willow excitedly, turning to face Anya.

"For the seventh time, nice!," sighed Anya. "If you look any nicer I'm going to be the one jumping your bones!"

"Xander? Ignoring the interesting visual I'm sure you just conjured up, what do you think?," said Willow, looking hopefully at him. "I know, nice."

Xander paused and just smiled.

"I was going to go with gorgeous," said Xander, eyeing her up and down. Willow seemed puzzled. And then grinned ear to ear as she remembered and understood what he had said.

"Thanks."

Just then Tara walked into the room. She didn't say anything but simply stood there, smiling at Willow.

"Come on Xander, time to leave. You can tell me how gorgeous I am over a cup of coffee," said Anya. Xander laughed and they left. Willow stood up and smiled at Tara.

"How do you feel? Still hurtin'?," asked Tara.

"Not anymore," replied Willow, smiling even more. "How did the operation go? Did it hurt?," grimaced Willow.

"No, no. Never felt a thing. I, I was a little late because there was a complication, an unforeseen side effect."

"Oh?," said Willow, concerned.

"When I came out of the anesthesia I had amnesia. I mean, think of the irony. Wouldn't that have been a kick in the ass?," smiled Tara.

"But you're okay now? You do know who I am?," laughed Willow.

"Of course. You're Willow. Xander's girlfriend. But...who was he leaving with?"

Willow stared at her, her face expressionless. And then Tara smiled, covering her mouth with a hand as she laughed. Willow shook her head and glared but had to smile too.

"If you weren't defenseless now I'd slap you upside the head! Instead..."

Willow walked to Tara and hugged her.

"I'm sorry. Just trying to make a tense moment a little more..."

"Tense?," suggested Willow.

"Memorable," replied Tara, hugging Willow tighter. "You look great, you know."

"You feel great," answered Willow. "I missed you. So much."

"Me too," said Tara, getting teary eyed.

Willow pulled her head back and looked into Tara's eyes.

"So, this chip thingy works?"

"Oh, yeah. Riley let me try to punch him. Wow. It works, I promise you," sighed Tara.

"Aw. And you had such a promising career as a pugilist," teased Willow.

"Willow, do...do you think Buffy will still treat me the same? I kinda drove off her boyfriend."

"No. Tara, it's not your fault. Believe me, Buffy doesn't think that way. She's very happy for you. And for us."

Tara smiled sadly and Willow gave her a quick kiss on the lips.

"So no pouting, okay?," said Willow. Tara nodded. And then noticed an envelope on the bed.

"Willow, what's that?"

"Oh," said Willow, turning around. She picked up the envelope and sat down on the bed. Tara sat down next to her.

"Oz left this for me."

"And you didn't open it yet?," asked Tara, surprised.

"Nope. Thought we'd read it together."

Tara looked at Willow, confused.

"Willow, that's between you and Oz. I don't..."

"I don't want there to be any more secrets between us, Tara. None. I...I just want to trust you, and you trust me, completely. Say, you don't have any more tricks up your sleeve by the way? Any more surprises?," teased Willow.

"Maybe. You'll have to wait. Until tonight," smiled Tara. Willow's eyes opened wide but she smiled. "Well, go on. Open it!"

Willow tore open the envelope and they both read what Oz had written.

"You're with me, you know? Always. And I'm still waiting. But now isn't that time, is it? I love you. Oz."

Tara put her arm around Willow and Willow sighed.

"Short, sweet and to the point. That's Oz," said Willow softly.

"That's Oz. Nothing wrong with being short, though. We can't all be tall," said Tara. Willow rolled her eyes.

"Oh, and thank you very much for a confusing moment or two," said Willow, lightly punching Tara's shoulder.

"Huh?"

"Oz told me. When you left he started having very vivid dreams. And all he could feel was my pain. So you did a little witchcraft on him? So that he would come to me and I wouldn't be alone?"

"Uh...oh wow!," said Tara, looking away from Willow.

"Oh wow? Why wow and how wow?," asked Willow.

"Willow, noble gesture aside...I wish I had thought of it. But, but I didn't do a spell. Oz...simply felt your pain."

"Oh," said Willow flatly.

"Wow," added Tara.

Willow looked down at the letter in her hand and read Oz's words again.

*****

Buffy pushed open the door and stared into the empty room. Riley's room. She had a sudden flashback of Willow going into Oz's empty room not so long ago and finding the same thing. The idea the Riley could actually leave her began to sink in. She leaned against the doorframe, overwhelmed by several different emotions at once.

There was an envelope on the bed with her name on it. Buffy sat down on the edge of the bed and picked it up. She simply stared at her name, printed in his writing, not wanting to open it. With a sigh she flipped the envelope over and ripped it open.

"Buffy, I don't understand. And I never will. These words aren't mine, I heard them on the radio the other day. But wow, do they cut deep.

I am everything you want, I am everything you need,
I am everything inside of you that you wish you could be,
I say all the right things at exactly the right time,
But I mean nothing to you and I don't know why...

Take care. I'm sorry it couldn't work. It's my fault. Riley"

Buffy lay down on her side on the bed. Here, alone, she didn't have to hold back, she could give in to what she felt. Buffy cried for a very long time.

*****

"Hello?"

"Hi Dawn. How you doing? Hey, is Buffy there? I've got something important to tell her."

"Riley! I thought you were meeting her at the Bronze," said Dawn, glancing up at the clock. "And you'd better get there soon. You know how she gets if you're late."

"She's at the Bronze? Thanks Dawn. Gotta go. Bye."

"Wait! Riley?"

Dawn heard the dial tone and knew that he had hung up.

"Liked the roses," shrugged Dawn as she hung up the phone.

*****

Buffy looked at her watch. He was already ten minutes late. Five more minutes. Just five more minutes and she was out of here. Or until she finished her drink. Couldn't leave an unfinished drink behind, could she? No. It wouldn't be right. Buffy absently slipped her hand into her pocketbook, running her fingers along the wood, taking comfort in the feel of the stake, taking comfort in knowing what it could do. She looked over at the band. For a change they were actually not bad tonight. And then she saw him, walking towards her table. He was wearing a black turtleneck and gray pants. And he was smiling.

"Good evening. You look...incredible," said Spike, eyeing Buffy's black leather wrap around skirt and low cut purple silk blouse. He noticed that she wasn't wearing a cross.

"Thank you," replied Buffy cautiously. "You too."

Spike smiled and nodded slightly to her.

"Can I get you another drink?," asked Spike, taking a sip from his beer bottle.

"All set. For now. Beer, Spike? Thought this would be more of a whiskey night for you," frowned Buffy. Spike sat down across from here.

"No. Wanted to keep my wits about me. Your first?," he asked, pointing his bottle at her glass.

"Second," lied Buffy. It was her third. She raised the glass to her lips and finished half of what was left, not looking at Spike.

"Tough day?," smiled Spike.

"Tough week," answered Buffy quickly. "All right, Spike, I gave you my word and I intend to keep it. So let's get it over with. Where to? The back alley?"

Spike looked down at the table, immediately silencing her. He seemed offended by what she had said. No, not offended. Hurt. The band began playing a song. A very slow song. Spike stood up and extended his hand. Buffy's eyes opened wide and she hesitated but took his hand and stood up, allowing Spike to lead her onto the dance floor.

Buffy tensed as Spike put his right hand on her waist. She tried to lift her left hand onto his shoulder but winced in pain at the effort.

"Still hurting, huh?," asked Spike softly. Buffy nodded but didn't look up at him. "Here. Like this," whispered Spike, gently placing her hand on his waist. Buffy glanced up at him and put her right hand on his shoulder. Spike put his other hand around her waist but didn't try to pull her to him. They began to slowly dance, Spike watching her face to read her mood, Buffy staring at his chest.

She looked up at him and he smiled. But his smile wasn't gloating, it was friendly, almost...almost tender. Buffy turned her head and rested her face against his chest. And Spike's eyes opened just a little wider.

This felt familiar somehow. And then Buffy knew why. Angel. Dancing with Angel at her senior prom. And just for a moment Buffy was no longer the Slayer. She was simply a girl who was scared and needed to be told that everything would work out, that everything would be alright. Spike felt her arms tighten around him. And he allowed himself to smile.

Buffy's eyes were closed and Spike's back was to the door. So neither of them saw Riley when he entered the Bronze. But he saw them. And he just stood there, staring at something he couldn't understand. Riley was numb. He let go of the flowers he held in his hand and they fell to the floor. Someone bumped into him but he didn't even notice.

The dance slowly turned Spike so that he faced the door. All he saw was the door closing as someone left. The song ended and he slowly separated himself from Buffy. The band began playing another slow song.

"You and I, Buffy, are much more alike than you would care to admit."

Buffy looked at him, not saying anything. Spike took hold of Buffy's right hand, raised it to his lips and kissed it, keeping his eyes on her face.

"Thank you for the dance," he said. Spike turned and walked away heading for the door, leaving Buffy on the dance floor.

"Spike!"

He stopped and turned to look back at her.

"Is this some kind of joke? You...you don't want me?," asked Buffy, shocked.

"On the contrary, I can't think of anything that could be sweeter."

"Spike, this isn't like an invite into my home where once it's given you're free to come and go as you please. It's a one time offer. Walk away now..."

Spike walked up to her and gently placed his hands on her shoulders.

"Buffy, your mum needs you. Go home. And...thank you again. For the dance."

This time Spike walked away and didn't look back. Buffy just stood there, staring. And wondering why Spike looked so sad.

*****

Riley finished his drink and slid his glass in Willy's direction. Willy only hesitated a moment until Riley threw another ten dollar bill onto the bar. Willy refilled his glass and Riley noticed the bartender's eyes were looking behind him. A blonde haired girl took a seat to his left and a girl with dark hair took the seat to his right. Seeing the blonde hair made Riley think of Buffy. He took another sip from his glass.

"Evening, ladies. Can I buy you a drink?," said Riley, smiling.

"A gentleman. And in a place like this. Thank you, I think we will take you up on your kind offer. Willy, I'll have what he's having," said the blonde.

"Why not?," added the brunette.

Willy placed two glasses on the counter but never took his eyes off the blonde. She looked very familiar to him. But she couldn't be the woman he was thinking of.

"Do I know you?," he asked.

The blonde girl shrugged.

"Used to come in here some years ago. I've been...away."

The brunette giggled at that.

"That she has," giggled the brunette with an English accent.

Willy shrugged and walked down to the other end of the bar to wait on another customer.

"To old friends," said the blonde, raising her glass in a toast. The brunette giggled again. Riley hesitated but then raised his glass.

"To old friends," he repeated, taking a drink. "So, you're new in Sunnydale?"

"Not really," replied the blonde. "We came back..."

"To look up old friends," finished the brunette, again giggling.

"Where are my manners? I'm Riley."

"I'm Darla," replied the blonde. "And that's Drusilla." Drusilla smiled.

"This town isn't that big. Maybe I know who you're looking for. I mean, I couldn't help but notice your accent. Are you from England, Drusilla?," asked Riley.

"Originally. And we are looking for two men with similar accents. I'm here to find an old boyfriend."

"And I'm here on business. Need to find a Rupert Giles," said Darla, taking another drink.

Riley looked at Darla, blinking once or twice.

"Small world," muttered Riley, smiling.

"Yes, it is," said Drusilla.

THE END

Author's note - The song Riley quoted from was Everything You Want by Vertical Horizon. And in the last couple of episodes of BTVS Tara's hair seemed to be red to me, almost matching Willow's in color and a few other people have also said that. Is she still blonde? This story was written with the Willow/Oz shippers in mind.