Title: Stones In The Road
Category: Drama
Rated: R. (f/f)
Spoilers: Up to 7.10 Bring On The Night although this story takes place soon after Selfless.
Summary: Willow and Buffy, both hurting, can help each other...if they dare.
Disclaimers: Joss Whedon is laughing even as I write this. Loudly.
Archiving: Just let me know.
Feedback: Isn't that the loud noise a microphone makes? I wasn't going to attempt this fic unless I could make it believable. So yell at me. Swanrvr80@aol.com.
Dedication: To Jamie, for her feedback, insights and inspiration.

PART ONE

"Listen! You hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, high upon the strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in." - Matthew Arnold

*****

Buffy shook her head and turned around, almost laughing out loud. How many times had she done this? Forgetting to bring a stake on patrol was something to laugh at. She passed Willow's door and noticed that it wasn't shut all the way, but that's not what made her pause. As soft as the sound was, a Slayer possessed exceptional hearing and Willow couldn't hide her muffled crying from Buffy by hiding her face in her pillow.

Slowly raising her hand, Buffy froze, wincing, unable to force her hand to knock upon the door. She waited, her hand held still before her, slowly forcing in a deep breath. Another cry, sharper this time...and Buffy took a step away from the door, glancing down the hall to her bedroom. Closing her eyes, taking in another breath, Buffy softly rapped on Willow's door.

"Willow?" whispered Buffy, slowly pushing the door open.

The room was quiet. Willow lay still in the dim light cast from the hallway. And Buffy stood there, listening. She stepped into the room and tiptoed over to the bed, gently pulling the blanket up to cover Willow. Still leaning over her, she was torn between wanting to comfort her with a hug and not wanting to disturb her.

"I love you," whispered Buffy, wishing her words were enough to help Willow heal, to forget. No, not to forget. To help Willow cope, to move on. To live again.

Buffy slowly closed the door behind her, eyes focused on her best friend until the door shut, knowing that Willow was only pretending to be asleep. And understanding why.

*****

The top of the gravestone was almost half covered with small stones and pebbles now. More there than the last time she had visited. And she wondered if grief flowed out of your heart as you tenderly placed each stone upon that cold slab, wondered if there were enough stones to ever ease the pain.

Buffy stood there, alone, not really focusing on the grave but simply remembering. In the silence and stillness of the night she suddenly felt that being here was more of an intrusion instead of a visit but she just as quickly pushed that idea aside. Rolling the small stone she held in her hand between her fingers, Buffy stood there and with a slight breath that puffed out her cheeks shook her head.

Her body tensed and she tilted her head, listening, knowing she wasn't alone. Buffy frowned at being disturbed but as she turned her frown faded and she almost allowed herself to smile. Almost.

"Hey."

"Hey," acknowledged Buffy.

Willow glanced at the grave but only briefly and then, smiling softly, looked at Buffy.

"I couldn't sleep," shrugged Willow defensively.

"Still, you know I worry about you being alone out here at night. I bet you don't even have a cross on you," admonished Buffy.

"Don't really need one anymore," said Willow, once again looking at the grave.

"Oh. Right," nodded Buffy, understanding. She looked away, once again feeling like she was intruding, that she didn't belong.

"Really, I can protect myself. Still, thanks for the worry. It's nice. Having someone worry. About me," added Willow awkwardly.

Buffy turned and faced her again but Willow didn't look at her. Buffy bit her lower lip and followed Willow's gaze to the grave.

"The stones. That's a nice tradition. Is it...I mean, can I?" asked Buffy, opening her hand to show Willow the stone in her palm.

"Of course. You don't have to be Jewish to do that."

Willow nodded towards the grave, encouraging Buffy. Buffy looked down at the stone she held and then quickly, as if embarrassed, added her stone to the others Willow had placed there.

"Thanks," whispered Willow. Buffy nodded.

"I miss her too, Will."

Willow took in a deep breath and sadly smiled. They stood there for a moment, neither one speaking, each lost in their own thoughts. Buffy glanced at Willow out of the corner of her eye but Willow saw her.

"What?" asked Willow.

"Nothing. It's...nothing."

Willow raised her eyebrows and leaned forward towards Buffy. And Buffy smiled.

"No, really, it's...it's not a good time," winced Buffy.

"Right. Guess that's why we've spent so much time talking since I got back. As in not. Because it's not a good time," sighed Willow.

Buffy flinched as if she had been slapped.

"I'm sorry. That's not fair. I mean, it's not like I..."

"No. No, you're right. We haven't...talked. Much," agreed Buffy reluctantly.

They both looked away, each once again staring at Tara's grave.

"I only meant...what I wanted to say, it, it isn't appropriate. Not here," struggled Buffy.

Willow glanced at her and looked away, this time not looking at the grave.

"Okay, okay, stop twisting my arm. I was kinda jealous," said Buffy, watching Willow to see how she would react.

"Jealous?" repeated Willow, scrunching up her eyebrows.

"Yeah," answered Buffy quickly. She slipped her hands into the pockets of her jacket.

"Of...Tara?"

"Um, no. Well...I mean no, of course not. Not of Tara. But of what you two had. And I'm not explaining this all that well," frowned Buffy.

"No, you're not," smiled Willow. "But it's getting...interesting."

Buffy smiled and her voice took on a calm but serious tone.

"Your relationship with her. That was...special. Way more than just physical. Not that I'm dissing the physical, mind you," warned Buffy playfully, causing Willow to grin. "But I never had that connection. Not like that. Not even with Angel."

Willow was about to disagree but something in Buffy's eyes made her reconsider, a distance between them that wasn't there a moment ago.

"Really?"

Buffy nodded and then shrugged.

"Really."

"Oh," managed Willow, somewhat baffled.

"Hey, after all the suffering I've gone through with men, maybe I should see what all this girl on girl action is all about. Seems like it's easier on the heart," laughed Buffy unenthusiastically. But then she looked up at Willow, suddenly horrified at what she had said.

"Oh God, I'm sorry! Will, that came out all wrong! I didn't mean to...I'm sorry, I know you're still hurting. It's not easier for you..."

Willow laughed out loud and Buffy, thrown, simply froze.

"It's okay, Buffy. I know what you meant. It's just..."

Willow smiled at Buffy and Buffy stood up a little straighter, now completely confused.

"Thanks for the visual. You, girl on girl action...need I go on?" teased Willow. Buffy's face became red.

"Just saying," shrugged Buffy, looking away to hide her smile.

Willow looked away once and then looked back at Buffy. Kneeling down, she dug a stone out of her pocket and placed it on top of the gravestone. Pausing for a moment, she placed two fingers to her lips and then touched the cold surface of the polished granite. Her eyes were moist but she blinked back the tears before they could take hold. Bowing her head, Willow stood.

"How about walking me home? Not that I can't take care of myself, but I'd like the company," said Willow.

"I'd like that," nodded Buffy, holding out her hand. Willow hesitated for a moment but then smiled and slipped her hand into Buffy's. They walked away but didn't say anything. And for now they didn't have to. Willow squeezed Buffy's hand a little tighter, taking comfort in the touch, the warmth of her skin.

It had been a very long time since anyone had simply touched her and Willow's smile quickly vanished. Buffy's touch brought back a wave of guilt, both of what Willow had done and of things left unsaid between them. Willow frowned, wondering if she had the courage within her to actually talk to her best friend.

"How's the tummy doing?" asked Buffy, sensing her mood.

"Better. Won't be doing situps any time soon, what with the tenderness and, well, the tenderness. But better. And there won't even be a scar," added Willow happily.

"That's magic for ya," praised Buffy.

"Yeah...but that's only partly true. I couldn't have done it without your help."

"Really?" asked Buffy, tilting her head.

"Oh yeah. Meditating with you, drawing on your strength...let's just say the Energizer Bunny ain't got nothin' on you, girl," grinned Willow.

"I'm glad I could help," smiled Buffy proudly. "And the whole meditating thing...that was, that was nice. Haven't taken the time to do that in, well, I can't remember when!"

"It, um, wasn't too...hmm, what's the word? Intense? It wasn't, you know...intense...was it?" asked Willow awkwardly. "I did ask if you were sure you wanted to help, but you might not have realized how, oh, intimate that sorta connection can be?"

Buffy grinned and her face turned a little red.

"I'm sorry! I should've...see, again with the not talking. You didn't know and, and..."

"Nope," answered Buffy without hesitation. "Didn't mind it a bit. In fact, since you said you couldn't sleep, why don't we try it again when we get back? I'd like to help with the healing...anyway I can."

Willow blinked, unsure of exactly Buffy was hinting at.

"Aren't you going to patrol? Kinda early for you to turn in," reminded Willow, glancing up at the stars.

"Nah, it's a slow night. I think I have something more important to do."

Buffy squeezed Willow's hand. And Willow gripped it tighter in return. But she had to turn her head, not wanting Buffy to see the tears welling up at the corners of her eyes.

*****

"That looks exciting."

"Hardly. Math has never been my bestest subject either."

"No, I hear ya. That was sarcasm. Math is never exciting."

"Oh. Sorry. Dry humor, dry subject, hence my missing the sarcasm. Too much alike."

"Right. I get that. 'Cause opposites attract."

"Well...sometimes," smiled Willow coyly.

Dawn rolled her eyes and shook her head.

"You want some help with that? You probably haven't had that in a while and I kinda know what's going on. We just talked about it in class recently."

"We still talking about math?" asked Willow with a straight face. Dawn blinked twice and opened her mouth but no words came out. Her face suddenly turned red, eliciting a stifled laugh from Willow.

"It's okay, Dawnie, I think I can handle this. It's mostly review. Just like riding a bike."

Willow looked back at her book but then glanced up at Dawn.

"And no, riding a bike didn't imply a sexual position."

Dawn pouted and once again rolled her eyes.

"Although..." began Willow with an evil grin. Dawn's face wasn't red this time. Instead she looked a little pale. Once again she opened her mouth to speak but instead just nervously looked away.

"Sorry. That was too easy to pass up," winked Willow.

"You seem to be in a good spirits today," commented Dawn.

"I guess I am," agreed Willow. Dawn hesitated once but then reached over and slowly pushed Willow's book down onto the table.

"So...you doing okay?" she asked. Willow took in a deep breath.

"Okay is a good word for it. I have my bad days and then I have my, well, not so bad days. Helps if I keep busy. Real busy," shrugged Willow.

"Oh. So you, um, still think about it. A lot," said Dawn as gently as she could.

Willow looked away for a moment but nodded.

"Yeah," whispered Willow, her confession not embarrassing but still awkward.

"I'm sorry, I shouldn't have..."

"No, no! It's okay. I'm glad you asked. It's just..."

Willow saw that Dawn was nervous, almost afraid, but she pressed on.

"You know that old saying, the one that says when someone you love is no longer with you, a part of them stays with you forever? Well, that's a crock."

Dawn narrowed her eyes, not understanding.

"They're just gone and there's nothing that stays with you 'cept a big aching hole where your heart was," sighed Willow.

"Oh! You thought...I mean, I was...oh," winced Dawn, fidgeting in her chair. Willow's eyes opened a bit wider.

"Oh, you thought...I mean, you were talking about magic!"

"Well, um, I kinda sorta did or, or was," frowned Dawn, rubbing her suddenly sweaty palms against her pants. Willow closed the book shut and leaned back in her chair.

"It's okay to talk about that too, Dawn. Not that anyone seems to want to."

"That's not true," protested Dawn weakly. It was Willow's turn to roll her eyes.

"Are you afraid of me?" asked Willow, trying not to show Dawn any emotion.

"Would I be a bad person if I said...sometimes?" winced Dawn.

"No. No, not at all," replied Willow in her best comforting tone. "In fact you'd be a crazy person if you didn't. And thanks for not trying to lie to me."

"I'm not a very good liar," admitted Dawn.

"Dawn, sometimes, to use your word...sometimes, I'm afraid of me. Maybe even a little more than sometimes. And I would be a crazy person if I wasn't. I have this power within me now and I know Buffy's gonna need my help. Something bad is coming. She'd never ask me, but I know she can't fight this alone. I just hope I can help."

"You will," nodded Dawn.

"Don't see how," frowned Willow, crossing her arms.

"Maybe this will help," said Dawn, squirming a moment as she dug something out of her pants pocket. She looked into her hand, looked up at Willow and then gently placed the object on the table between them.

"So that's where that went," smiled Willow.

"Yeah. You left it by the sink last night, after doing the dishes. Soooo...what is it?"

Dawn stared at the pink and polished surface of the stone, a small but perfect oval just slightly larger than her thumbnail.

"You take something that belongs to a witch without asking and only now wonder what it could be?" whispered Willow menacingly.

"Well, I, I just didn't want you to lose it. Besides, if said witch is on the wagon than I shouldn't have a reason to be afraid of...of whatever that is. Right?" cringed Dawn.

"You sure you're still on the wagon as far as stealing things?" teased Willow, trying to hide her smile.

"I am! I swear I am! Really, I just saw it and, and picked it up, and..."

"It's okay, Dawn. Thanks for finding it," comforted Willow.

"It's a talisman of some kind, right?" asked Dawn boldly.

"You might say that," nodded Willow, reaching across the table to pick up the stone. "It's very powerful."

"How powerful?" asked Dawn nervously. "What's it called?"

"Couldn't find a picture of it in any of the magic books you have hidden under your bed?" asked Willow, watching Dawn intently for her reaction. As expected, Dawn froze.

"I, um, well, no I couldn't...hey, wait a minute! What are you doing snooping around in my room?" challenged Dawn indignantly.

Willow ignored her and began to rub the stone between her thumb and forefinger. She answered Dawn without looking up at her.

"I didn't go into your room, Dawnie."

Dawn exhaled a soft sigh of relief.

"Buffy did."

Dawn's eyes opened wide.

"She found them when she was vacuuming. She asked me about them, wanted to know if she should be worried about them. Or you," added Willow, still rubbing the stone, her eyes now on Dawn.

"She doesn't have anything to worry about. I was just curious, you know?" said Dawn, now watching Willow's hand, the one holding the stone.

"That's what I told her. Give her a little credit for not confronting you about it. She's doing okay in my book as far as being your...guardian," said Willow, carefully choosing not to use the word mom. "And you were right, this is a talisman."

"It is? What's it called?" asked Dawn excitedly.

"Well, I'll skip all the Latin. In layman's terms you would call it a worrystone," smiled Willow.

"What? You're kidding," frowned Dawn in disappointment.

"Yep. Something nervous people use as an outlet for their...for their nervousness. It's made from rose quartz."

"I hear that stone has healing powers," ventured Dawn. Willow smiled at her comment. Dawn had been studying.

"So I've heard. Though I'm beginning to have some serious doubts about that," sighed Willow.

Dawn looked away, understanding what Willow meant.

"Not sure why I keep this now. One of my teachers at the coven in England gave it to me. Though I do like the simple message it implies," smiled Willow warmly.

"Oh? What's that?" asked Dawn, sincerely curious.

"This stone started out with rough edges. As time passed, the edges became smooth. Takes a long time, but eventually..."

Willow held the stone out in the palm of her hand.

"Just like someone who's hurting, someone who...well, it's kinda lame, I guess, but time heals all wounds."

Dawn smiled.

"I thought the saying was time wounds all heels," said Dawn with a straight face, though she soon started to giggle.

Willow almost laughed and slipped the stone into her pocket.

"Only to those who hold on to the past," whispered Willow. Dawn stopped laughing, hoping she hadn't hurt Willow's feelings.

"Willow, when the time comes, you'll help Buffy. I know you will."

Willow seemed far from convinced.

"Hey, I know, you can start now," said Dawn, reaching across the table to open a newspaper in front of Willow. Glancing up at Dawn in confusion, Willow followed Dawn's finger as she pointed at an article.

"For the third time in two weeks a local funeral parlor has been broken into," read Willow out loud. "As before, Police aren't speculating on a motive but will admit they're not sure if the crimes are related. Nothing of value seems to have been taken in all three incidents so they are unsure what the thieves were after."

Willow looked up from the paper and shrugged.

"What's this got to do with Buffy?"

"Don't you see? Buffy needs to focus on the more serious stuff as the Slayer. Little things like this just waste her time or cause her unnecessary worry," explained Dawn.

Willow glanced at the paper and then back up at Dawn, even more confused than before.

"Willow, we should check this out so Buffy doesn't have to. Come on, this is Sunnydale. Don'tcha think this is a little odd? If it involves dead people it can't be good, especially in Sunnydale!"

"There's that," agreed Willow.

"So you'll check it out with me?" smiled Dawn.

"I don't know, Dawn," winced Willow. "I'm not really sure you should be..."

"Willow, you said you liked to keep busy, right? And we'll go during the day, right after school, so it'll be safe."

Willow glanced back at the paper, becoming intrigued by the mystery but concerned about Dawn as well.

"You wanted to help her. And you know she won't ask," hinted Dawn.

"Okay. But we don't tell her about this," warned Willow. Dawn nodded her agreement, grinning ear to ear.

"Sounds like a plan," nodded Willow reluctantly. "I'll check the net today, see if the police are holding back information."

"And I'll tell Buffy I'm going over Janice's house. Meet me in front of the school?"

"Tell ya what, why don't I meet you in front of Janice's house? That way we're not exactly lying," suggested Willow.

"You're good," nodded Dawn slowly, impressed.

"Years of practice," smiled Willow, glancing at the paper again.

*****

"Dawn! Hey, wait up!"

Dawn closed her locker and turned around to see who had called out her name.

"Oh, hey Kit. What's up?"

"Just wondering if you're doing anything Saturday night," said Kit, finally catching up with Dawn.

"Me? On a Saturday night?" laughed Dawn. And then she realized how pathetic that sounded. "I, um, I mean, I'm not sure yet. Don't have any definite plans or anything. But it's not like I'm going to stay home. It's like, well, Saturday night, ya know?"

"Exactly! I know I'm asking this on short notice but do you wanna go to a party?"

"Me?" said Dawn, unable to conceal her surprise.

"Yes, you!"

"Oh, um, wow that's...that'll be great. Where is it?" asked Dawn, immediately thinking of what she would tell her sister and wondering how much begging would be involved to convince Buffy to let her go.

"Over at Carlos' house. I already asked him if you could come and he thought it was a great idea. I mean, how could he say no after you helped us get out of the basement, right?" smiled Kit.

"Well, that was mostly...um, thanks. Yeah, I'd love to go," nodded Dawn.

"Great. I'll come by your house around eight o'clock and we'll walk there together, okay?"

"Okay. Hey, we'd better get going or we'll be late for class," warned Dawn.

"No big. I have study hall and Mr. Miller doesn't mind if you're late. He's cool that way," smiled Kit.

"Oh. You know, it's really nice of Carlos' parents to let him have a party," said Dawn, turning to leave. "I know Buffy wouldn't let me..."

"Don't be silly! His parents won't be home. Why do you think he's having the party?" laughed Kit. "Bye."

"Oh. Yeah. Bye," waved Dawn, wondering what she had gotten herself into.

*****

Buffy pushed the door open, surprised to find it unlocked. Dawn had told her she was stopping over a friend's house later and Willow should still be in class. She stepped inside and quietly closed the door behind her, turning at the sound of muffled crying. It was coming from the couch in the living room. Tiptoeing closer, she saw Willow on her side, curled up in a fetal position.

"Willow?"

Startled, Willow looked up and wiped her eyes as she struggled into a sitting position.

"Oh, hey Buffy. I didn't hear you. Is it that late already?"

Buffy quickly sat down next to her.

"Hey, you okay? What's wrong?"

"Nothing," answered Willow quickly, shaking her head and sniffing. "I must've dozed off. Had another..."

Willow winced, hoping Buffy didn't notice her slip of the tongue.

"I had a bad dream, that's all," sighed Willow, shrugging as if to show how silly she was acting.

"Why aren't you in class?"

"Oh, it got canceled. Sat down to study and the next thing I know..."

Willow shrugged again and tried to smile but didn't fool Buffy.

"Wanna talk about it?" offered Buffy.

Willow simply shook her head, causing Buffy to frown.

"Will, Giles told me you were still having nightmares. It's...understandable, you know?" consoled Buffy.

"Sure. I mean, it's not like I don't deserve 'em," replied Willow without looking at Buffy.

Buffy took in a deep breath, waiting for Willow to look at her. But she didn't.

"Willow," whispered Buffy, getting her attention. Willow sniffed once and turned her red and puffy eyes timidly towards Buffy.

"Is there anything I can do? Anything?" pleaded Buffy.

Willow's lower lip quivered and she stared at Buffy without blinking. She saw herself slowly reaching out her hand, touching Buffy's fingers...Buffy following with her eyes but not moving...clasping her hand, raising her friend's warm palm and pressing it against her cheek, comforted by something so simple as a touch...

Willow shook her head and looked away.

"No," she whispered.

"It's going to take some time, but you'll get there. I promise you. Just...let me help, okay?"

"Thanks," swallowed Willow, once again forcing a smile, trying to be brave.

"Feel like some tea?" asked Buffy.

"Yeah. That sounds good," nodded Willow.

Buffy hesitated, watching her, but Willow again wouldn't meet her eyes. With a silent sigh she stood, took a few steps...and then stopped. She turned around and once again sat down next to Willow, only closer to her this time. And Willow did look at her, eyes betraying her nervousness.

"I can't imagine what you're going through. No one can. But last year, when I came back, I was messed up for a long time. A very long time. So I know what it feels like to be hurting and to be alone."

Buffy paused, watching Willow as she chewed on her lower lip. But Willow didn't turn away.

"I'll make you a deal. You can put on your brave face with everyone else. But when you're alone, with me, I just want you to be Willow. It'll be our little secret, okay? I, I just wanna help. Okay?" winced Buffy, hoping Willow wouldn't look away.

Willow took in a deep breath, her body shaking with the effort. Her eyes teared up but she fought for control. Very slowly she reached out her hand, touching Buffy's fingers. Buffy followed with her eyes but didn't move. Clasping her hand into her own, Willow raised Buffy's palm and pressed it against her cheek, gasping as it touched her skin. She shut her eyes tight, pressing her hand desperately to her.

And Buffy finally understood.

Without opening her eyes Willow knew that her friend had opened her arms to her and she eagerly sought the embrace, crushing Buffy to her, no longer able to hold back her tears. Buffy held on to her tightly, letting her cry. Something as simple as a touch, the need to be held.

And Buffy remembered. Her eyes opened wide with the thought.

Hesitating at first, Buffy began to rub Willow's back, comforting her, soothing her. The same way Tara had rubbed Buffy's back when she had broke down and confessed about Spike. The way Tara must have touched Willow so many times before. And Willow continued to cry...but her body didn't tremble as it did before. As if her body recognized the familiar.

Buffy closed her eyes and held Willow tighter in her arms.

*****

"You're late," accused Dawn.

"Yeah, I'm sorry. Buffy came home early and I, um, I had to make up some excuse to get out of the house," apologized Willow.

"Oh. Does she suspect anything?" asked Dawn as they began walking away from Janice's house.

"Buffy always suspects something, Dawn. But I think we covered our tracks. Was Janice even home?" asked Willow, shifting the books she carried from one arm to the other.

"Yep. I told her I forgot to write down a homework assignment. She did wonder why I just didn't call her," frowned Dawn. "So, net-girl, find out anything?"

"Not really," sighed Willow. "Only thing that seems to be missing is a single bottle of embalming fluid."

"That's...weird."

"It gets better. When the last funeral parlor told police about the missing bottle, they went back to the other two involved in the break-ins and only then did the owners realize that they were also missing embalming fluid. Only the thieves didn't take a bottle, they simply took some," said Willow. "Like half a bottle."

"Huh. Meaning that's what they were after because they must've brought a bottle to pour it into. But why such small amounts? Seems like they didn't want anyone to know what they took," said Dawn.

"Exactly," agreed Willow. "Why not just rob one funeral home and take a whole bunch of the stuff unless they wanted it to go unnoticed? And why such small amounts?"

"So what's the plan?"

"We hit the books, see if we can find a demon that needs embalming fluid," replied Willow, raising the books she carried so that Dawn could see them.

"Maybe we're overthinking this," said Dawn.

"How so?"

"Well, think about it. What's embalming fluid used for? I think we should see if there's been any graves broken into recently," smiled Dawn excitedly.

"You mean...someone's taking body parts to...to do what exactly?" asked Willow doubtfully.

"Um, well...okay, so I haven't really thought this through all the way," frowned Dawn. "And, um, I guess dug up bodies would have already had embalming fluid in them. Sorry."

"No, that's good. I like the way you think. Shows that you're open to most anything being possible in Sunnydale."

Dawn smiled in appreciation.

"Sad but true," laughed Dawn. "So we're not going to the funeral home?"

"Don't really see a need to now. And you seem kinda disappointed. Why?"

"It's just...well, I had this whole story made up, where I was going to pretend to be doing a story for school newspaper on crime in Sunnydale and, and...okay, so maybe it was dumb," sighed Dawn.

"No, that's not bad. We'll make a full-fledged Scooby out of you yet," smiled Willow.

"Really?" said Dawn enthusiastically.

"Yep. In fact, I think you're ready for one of the initiations into the gang," mentioned Willow cryptically.

"I am?"

"Yep. You can carry the research materials," said Willow proudly, handing her the books.

"Oh," frowned Dawn, her smile quickly fading.

"Ah, I remember the good old days when Xander had his initiation into the gang. He carried my books for three weeks," winked Willow. "Of course, back then I had a crush on him."

"When did he catch on?" asked Dawn.

"Xander? He never did. Wouldn't know a girl was interested in him unless she stood nekkid in front of him," said Willow, her words surprisingly mingled with bitterness.

"No, I meant the carrying of the books part," corrected Dawn.

"I see we have a quick learner," smiled Willow.

"Um, if we're not going to the funeral home, where are we going?"

"You'll see," answered Willow cryptically.

"Your library on campus?" guessed Dawn.

"Nope, that's too far. We don't have that much time," smiled Willow.

"What, no hints?" snapped Dawn.

"Let's just say it's someplace quiet where we won't be bothered by anyone," answered Willow cryptically.

Dawn frowned so Willow gave her a hint.

"You've been there before."

*****

Buffy gently eased the door open, peering in at her friend, smiling when she saw her sleeping peacefully. Willow was holding a pillow tightly against herself...holding a pillow...Buffy winced, realizing how deeply Willow still missed Tara. Stepping into the room, she reached over and pulled the blanket up over Willow's shoulders. She stirred once but didn't wake.

Tiptoeing quietly away, Buffy closed the door behind her and walked over to Dawn's door, listening. She tried not to laugh when she heard her sister snoring. Satisfied that everyone was safe and in bed, Buffy went to her room, took out her earrings, pulled her hair free of its ponytail, shaking it loose. Looking at her reflection in her dresser mirror, Buffy stared at the bed behind her. Her empty bed.

Feeling restless, Buffy got another stake from her top drawer and once again headed out to patrol.

END OF PART ONE