Stones In The Road

PART SEVEN

"We cannot tell the precise moment when friendship is formed. As in filling a vessel drop by drop, there is at last a drop which makes it run over; so in a series of kindnesses there is at last one which makes the heart run over." - James Boswell

*****

Buffy heard the knock at the front door and looked out the window instead of at the clock. It was almost sunrise. Willow was asleep next to her, one hand draped across her waist. Slowly sliding away and slipping out from under the covers, Buffy quickly threw on her robe and pulled the belt tight across her waist. Willow never moved. The knock came again and Buffy swore under her breath as she hurried down the stairs.

"All right all ready! Whoever the hell you are, this had better be important!" muttered Buffy.

She opened the door and stood face to face with Spike, one of his hands raised in an attempt to again knock on the door.

"Spike!" whispered Buffy firmly. "What are you doing here? And what's with the knocking? You don't need an invite in!"

"Just being polite," said Spike with a straight face. And Buffy realized that he was being serious. "Still, would it be rude to ask if I could come in, what with the sun rising and all?"

"Get in here," answered Buffy, pulling him across the threshold.

"Sorry to wake you," said Spike.

"No, I was...I was awake. So what's up?"

"Well...have you checked little bit's room tonight? I'm thinking you might be surprised to find her bed made already."

"Spike, Dawn's sleeping over a friend's house. And how did you know she wasn't in her room?" asked Buffy.

"Because she's not sleeping at a friend's house. She spent the night in my old crypt. Not sure what she was up to...none of my business, of course...but I stood watch, made sure she didn't get an unwanted visitor or two. Need I remind you that my kind doesn't need to be invited into a crypt."

Buffy looked at Spike for a moment, blinked, and then stared at him again.

"Stayed as late as I could. You know, the sun coming up, my sensitive skin... still, you might want to put some clothes on and check up on her."

Buffy ran towards the stairs but paused at the first step, looking back at Spike.

"Thank you. For looking out for her."

Spike just nodded. But after Buffy went upstairs, he smiled.

*****

"What were you two doing here?" asked Buffy.

"I told you, research. Buffy, we weren't hiding anything from you," said Willow, trying to keep up with Buffy's pace. "You've got enough stuff to worry about! If it turned out to be something to worry about, well, then I would've worried about it for you."

Buffy frowned at Willow and Willow hung her head.

"Or let you know about," sighed Willow.

Buffy stopped at the door to Spike's crypt and looked back at Willow, one hand on the doorknob.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to yell. It's just...hey, are you alright?" asked Buffy.

"Yeah," nodded Willow, panting. She leaned over, hands on knees. "I don't care if you are the Slayer, how can you not be out of breath?"

"Let's just hope Dawn is safe and sound in here," said Buffy, turning the doorknob and giving the door a shove. "That way I can wring her neck."

They stood in the doorway, neither of them moving. Empty beer cans were strewn about the floor. Buffy wrinkled her nose at the distinct sour smell of vomit. Their eyes quickly adjusted to the semi-darkness and each followed a trail on the floor deeper into the crypt. First were a pair of boots, then a jacket, a shirt, a bra...and then Dawn popped her head up from beneath a blanket, her eyes growing incredibly wide. Dawn's mouth opened but no sound came out. Groaning and rubbing her eyes, a bare-shouldered Kit sat up next to Dawn, squinting at the intruders, trying to comprehend what was happening.

Dawn pushed Kit back down and pulled the blanket up over her again. Willow slowly turned her head to look at Buffy. Buffy just stood there, mouth open, unblinking and slightly pale.

"Um, you know, this isn't what it looks like," winced Dawn.

Buffy finally blinked.

"Buffy, maybe I should talk to Dawnie here," suggested Willow timidly.

"Dawn...what the hell is going on?" demanded Buffy, hands sliding upwards to rest on her hips. She took one step in, her shoe crunching on wind-blown debris, small stones, crumbling masonry.

"Look, I can explain everything. Really!" said Dawn, once again pushing Kit back down.

"Buffy, give her..."

"Willow, stay out of this! I don't need to hear you defending your lifestyle choices at the moment!" barked Buffy, glaring briefly at Willow but quickly turning back to face her sister.

It took Willow a moment to understand what she thought she had heard. Stunned, any pain inflicted by Buffy's hurtful words was quickly replaced with anger.

"My what!?" shouted Willow.

"Willow, not now! I mean it!"

"Buffy, I didn't drink! I swear it! Just let me explain!" begged Dawn.

Buffy glared at Dawn, breathing hard, fighting to remain calm. Failing, she turned to face Willow.

"Give her a chance! Trust her! Isn't that what you said?"

Willow glared right back at her, only getting even more upset now than before. Suddenly Buffy looked like she might actually cry.

"Dawn, is Kit...is Kit...your girlfriend?" choked Buffy.

"My what? No! Buffy..."

"I can't, I can't handle this!" snapped Buffy, shaking her head. She turned and ran out of the crypt. Willow took one step after her but stopped, her shoulders slumping as she closed her eyes.

"Oh, my head!" moaned Kit. "Um, Dawn...where are my clothes?"

Willow reluctantly opened her eyes and looked over at the two girls. Dawn raised one side of her mouth in a forced smile.

"Could be worse?" shrugged Dawn.

Distracted by a sudden noise, Willow looked back towards the open crypt door...and saw that it had begun to rain. Exhaling a sigh, she looked back at Dawn but Dawn wouldn't meet her glare.

*****

Her door was open so Willow didn't look up when she heard the knock. She just sat on the edge of her bed, hands to either side of her, eyes intent on the floor.

"Hey."

Willow slowly raised her eyes to stare at Dawn but her expression was empty, devoid of any hint of emotion. If anything she looked tired.

"Well, all things considered, that little talk went better than expected. Then again, I did all of the talking. Buffy kinda just seemed to be looking at me but not seeing me...if that makes any sense. Like she was distracted. Oh, she nodded a few times, but the silent treatment? Can't believe I'm saying this but I wished she woulda yelled at me," sighed Dawn.

Willow went back to staring at the floor. Dawn frowned. Keeping her eyes on Willow, she started to chew on her thumbnail.

"Yep, that talk went sorta like this. Are you mad at me too?" whispered Dawn.

Willow shook her head but still didn't look up.

"Willow, I did the best that I could. We fell asleep. I wasn't going to stay there. Okay, I was a little wigged and maybe I should've done...I don't know, something else. But I'm sorry."

Willow finally looked up.

"Dawnie, I want you to know something. Guess I should've told you this instead of thinking...instead of hoping that you already knew. I don't care if you've been drinking, or, or stealing a car, or...well, it doesn't matter what you've done. If you need me, anytime, anytime at all, just call me and I'll come get you. No questions asked. None. Understand? I don't care if it's three in the morning."

"Thanks," smiled Dawn, her voice failing her. "I'll remember that."

"Not that I'm encouraging delinquent behavior," added Willow half-heartedly.

"I know," responded Dawn quickly. "Willow, I am sorry."

"It's okay. Things, well, kinda worked out. For you, anyway," sighed Willow.

"And we solved the embalming fluid mystery," grinned Dawn, although her enthusiasm faded when Willow went back to staring at the floor.

"How's Kit doing?" managed Willow.

"Better. Still has a wicked headache. At least her mom didn't find out about..."

Dawn was silenced by a look from Willow.

"Willow, what Buffy said to you, back at the crypt..."

"Doesn't matter. She, uh...she was upset. Buffy needed to lash out and I was in the wrong place at the wrong time," shrugged Willow.

"No. Willow, she's upset but with herself! She's so embarrassed that she can't bear to face you. I mean, she's mortified. Why do you think I got off so easy? She didn't even yell at me! I checked the weather report this morning and hell hasn't frozen over yet so it's still the same old Buffy, she's still my sister. So why ain't I tarred and feathered and grounded until I'm like sixty?"

"Same old Buffy," repeated Willow, smiling to herself. "You may be closer to the truth than you think, Dawn."

"Willow, you guys need to talk."

"No. We don't."

"Yes, you do! Talk about it, fight, scream, whatever! But get it out of your system. You can't not talk about this," insisted Dawn.

"Then she can come to me," snapped Willow.

"She doesn't know how! And what if she doesn't? You're just, what? Giving up? You don't give up that easily. Especially with her. When did this moment of surrender happen? Where was I?"

Willow immediately jerked her head up and Dawn, just for a moment, thought she saw Willow blush but Willow turned away from her, hiding the ache in her green eyes.

"Dawn, I'm going out. I need some air," announced Willow, standing up and walking past her.

"But it's raining out!"

"So I'll take an umbrella," countered Willow.

"Willow..."

Willow stopped and turned around, glaring at Dawn.

"Just leave me alone, okay?" yelled Willow, waving a hand at Dawn. Dawn's mouth opened and she looked away. Without waiting for an answer Willow turned and ran down the stairs. A moment later Dawn winced when she heard the front door slam.

*****

The sun had set more than an hour ago when Willow finally came home. She shook her umbrella a few times and then closed it, letting it drop to the floor. There were no lights on in the house. Taking in a deep breath, Willow took a few steps towards the kitchen but stopped. Buffy stood at the front window with her back to her.

"Hey. Whatcha doin'?" called Willow. But Buffy never turned around. She stood at the window, staring out into the darkness as the rain pelted the glass. Willow walked towards her and only now Buffy did turn to face her, eyes puffy and red from crying.

"Yeah. Guess we need to talk. Sorry I was gone so long. I had to, um, do some thinking, you know?" shrugged Willow.

Willow reached for her but Buffy stepped back, avoiding her hand. Willow froze, her hand still outstretched before her.

"Buffy?" said Willow, panic tinging her voice.

"Did...did you put a spell on me?" whispered Buffy.

Willow lowered her hand. She simply stood there, not even blinking.

Did you!?" shouted Buffy, making Willow jump.

"Wh-what? I don't...Buffy, I...no. No! Of course not!" cringed Willow. "How could you..."

"I'm sorry. Will...I'm so sorry," said Buffy, closing her eyes with the effort.

"Hey. It's okay," soothed Willow. "Don't cry."

"I, I can't...this isn't working. I tried to...oh God. I don't know how to say this," sniffed Buffy, wiping her eyes. She looked up at Willow but had to look away.

"Buffy?" whispered Willow, her voice breaking. Buffy turned to face the window again.

"I can't do this anymore. It's not fair to you. I...I don't feel what you feel. I thought I could."

Buffy slowly turned around.

"But I don't. And I was so afraid this might happen. What...oh God, what do we do now?" winced Buffy.

Dazed, Willow had to reach out her hand to lean against the wall. Her face was pale and her breath came in short, shallow gasps.

"Buffy, I, I...what did I do? I did something wrong. I know I did! Buffy, what did I do? I can't...Buffy!" pleaded Willow, tears clouding her eyes.

"Willow, you didn't..."

"This isn't happening. It isn't," said Willow, looking down at the floor, suddenly feeling sick to her stomach.

"It's not your fault! It's me. Willow...I can't feel anything. I tried, I really did. I'm dead inside!" yelled Buffy, one hand thumping her chest.

"No. No, you were happy. We were happy! You can't fake what I felt, what we did," cried Willow.

"You don't understand. The sex was great. Hell, the sex with Spike was great!"

Willow clenched her eyes shut and turned her back on Buffy, one hand covering her mouth.

"But it doesn't change anything! It's not love. I'm just, just using you. You know that. Deep down, I know you do," said Buffy, her voice faltering.

"No. No," repeated Willow, louder this time, shaking her head. She turned and glared at Buffy, fists clenched, tears streaming down her cheeks. And then the anger left as the pain washed over her. With her back to the wall, Willow slid down into a sitting position, sobbing uncontrollably. Buffy took a step towards her and Willow looked up. The agony in her eyes terrified Buffy and she couldn't take another step.

"Buffy...I love you," gasped Willow. Tears welling up at the corners of her eyes, Buffy forced herself not to look away.

"I'm so sorry," whispered Buffy.

Buffy stepped past her, hesitated, then quickly walked away. Willow closed her eyes, head in her hands. She never heard the door close but the silence of the house pressed down upon her. And Willow knew that she was alone.

"No," cried Willow, fighting back the anxiety, the helplessness that threatened to overwhelm her.

"No!" she yelled, louder this time, finding strength in her denial. Willow stood uneasily and ran for the door, running into the night without bothering to shut the door behind her.

"Buffy!"

She looked to the left, the right...and saw Buffy walking away, passing under a streetlight. Willow shivered, the cold rain already soaking into her clothes, causing her blouse to cling to her back. She ran after Buffy, her footsteps echoing as she splashed through puddles of dark water.

"Buffy!" screamed Willow. Buffy stopped but didn't turn around until Willow caught up with her. Panting, hands on her knees, Willow looked up at Buffy in such pain that Buffy had to look away, her lips trembling.

"Why?" begged Willow, pleading for understanding, for pity, for anything. "Why?"

"Why?" repeated Buffy, her mouth curling back in disdain. "Because it's wrong."

Willow slowly stood, her mouth open, eyes narrowed in confusion. But even more than that, Willow was afraid.

And Buffy laughed.

Willow fully straightened up, no longer crying.

"You're a fool, Willow Rosenberg. Did you actually think your best friend would ever become your lover?" challenged Buffy, eyes hard now, menacing. She slowly began to circle Willow but Willow didn't move. Instead she followed Buffy intently, turning her head to keep her in sight.

"Why would she want you between her legs after she had Spike?" spat Buffy.

Willow winced but kept her eyes on Buffy, forcing herself to keep her breath even.

"A vampire, a Slayer, both supernatural beings...can you even imagine their stamina? Could you even hope to satisfy her like he did?"

Willow glared at Buffy even though her body was shaking.

"It was me, all the time," laughed Buffy bitterly.

"No," challenged Willow, but her voice carried more doubt than conviction.

"Think about it. That first morning, in the kitchen with Dawn. She acted as if nothing had happened the night before. Now why was that?" grinned Buffy, circling around Willow to once again stand in front of her.

"She didn't want to tell your friends...can't tell them something that never happened."

Willow looked away for a moment, thinking back, fear and doubt confusing her.

"I didn't lie to you, witch. Buffy is dead inside, can't feel a thing now. So how could she possibly love you?" cackled Buffy.

Willow flinched and almost stumbled, unsteady on her feet. Suddenly she swung the back of her hand at Buffy's face...and her hand passed right through, the sensation stinging like an icy and cloying fog.

"You lie! You, you can't take corporeal form! It wasn't you!" shouted Willow.

"No...but I can possess people, manipulate them, make them do things...things they never would do, things that would disgust them," said Buffy, smiling as she got right up close to Willow's face. "If they could only remember."

This Buffy laughed, her harsh words colder than the rain that now pelted Willow's face. And when Willow looked at this Buffy now her eyes were dark.

"That's my girl. Give in to your anger, let it take control," sneered Buffy.

Willow took a step back without realizing it. But her eyes were even blacker now.

"Go on, Willow, hurt me. You know you want to," smiled Buffy.

And Willow did want to inflict pain upon this thing. The rage within her rose, her hands trembling as she took a step back towards this girl, this impostor. Her lips parted, forming the first word of an incantation...but Willow looked away, knowing she didn't possess the courage to satisfy this fury, to satiate the hatred welling up inside.

"No. No, that's what you want. So that I'll lose control," whimpered Willow.

"That's too obvious, isn't it?" challenged Buffy, hands on her hips. "Maybe I only want you to think that. Maybe...maybe you really can hurt me. Could it be I'm afraid of you, Willow Rosenberg? Won't know until you try."

Willow clenched her fists, trying to control her anger, trying to slow her breathing, her eyes matching the stygian emptiness of the night around them. Buffy smiled...and Willow looked away. Buffy stepped right in front of her, her face almost touching Willow's own. But Willow felt no breath on her skin from this Buffy, only a penetrating coldness that was almost painful to be near.

"Buffy needs pain to feel. It's the only thing that lets her know she's alive. Give me that pain...and I won't hurt her," whispered Buffy.

"Get away from me," hissed Willow, her teeth clenched.

Buffy smiled.

"You were one hell of a lover, Will," whispered Buffy. "I could taste the abyss on your lips. It lingers, long after the kiss."

Buffy stepped back...and then simply vanished. Somewhere in the cold night a dog barked twice and then was silent.

Willow slowly sat down on the curb, ignoring the rain plastering her hair against her face, her blouse clinging slick to her back...ignoring the cold that numbed her fingers and seemed to seep into her very soul. She drew her knees up close and wrapped her arms around them. Her lower lip trembled but the tears wouldn't come; she was way beyond tears. Rocking back and forth, Willow tried to simply breathe, forcing the air into her lungs.

And then she remembered. Her hand shaking, she slipped it into her pocket, her legs now splayed out before her. Struggling with the wet fabric, her hand emerged and she opened her palm.

A single pebble, worn smooth with time. Time heals, soothes all wounds. Wasn't that what she had told Dawn? Yet Willow drew no comfort from the lesson. Her hand closed and now the tears did come. Willow made no effort to hold them back. And she flung the stone as hard as she could into the night. She covered her face with her hands, sobs wracking her body, the tears stinging even in the icy rain.

Willow heard the footsteps splashing towards her and looked up, already knowing who was approaching. And deeply dreading it.

"Willow, what..."

Buffy stopped, frozen by the pain, the lost look on Willow's face. She slowly knelt down by her side.

"Willow, are you hurt? Are you okay?" asked Buffy, grasping for reassurance. She reached out to touch Willow but Willow drew back, recoiling as Buffy's hand came near her shoulder. Buffy withdrew her hand as if it had been slapped away.

"Willow!" gasped Buffy.

Willow wiped her eyes, unable to look at Buffy.

"We've been looking for you for hours. Where did you go? Will, what I said before, I'm so sorry. I, I don't know how you can forgive..."

"It was that, that thing. Again," winced Willow, frantically gasping for breath, forcing herself not to cry.

"What? Are you hurt?" tried Buffy once more. Willow shook her head.

"It told me things, things I wanted to hear, things...things I so wanted to believe. But they were lies. All lies. I should've known. I should've..."

Willow closed her eyes and shook her head.

"Willow, what did it say to you?" whispered Buffy.

"I can't. I'm sorry, but I can't tell you," grimaced Willow.

"Willow..."

"Buffy, please! Not now. Please," begged Willow, glancing at her but quickly looking away.

Buffy made to reach for Willow, to hold her, but froze when she saw Willow look at her hand out of the corner of her eye. Suddenly understanding, Buffy's eyes grew wide.

"This thing took someone's form, someone you trusted. Someone you loved," said Buffy.

Willow barely nodded.

"Tara," whispered Buffy, the name laced with bitter sadness. Buffy sat down on the curb next to Willow but wouldn't look at her.

"No."

Buffy raised her head as if she hadn't heard.

"What?"

"It wasn't Tara," answered Willow quickly.

"But...who else could it be? It makes sense. Show you what you need most, as impossible it seems...who could reach you, touch you more than her?"

Willow's head snapped around, the anguish in her eyes so visible Buffy had to look away.

"I'm sorry, Willow. I'm not her. I can never replace her. No one can."

Buffy stood up.

"We should get inside," stated Buffy flatly.

"Buffy..."

Buffy turned, hesitated for a moment, then began to walk away. Willow quickly stood up.

"Buffy!"

Buffy stopped but didn't turn around.

"It wasn't Tara."

Buffy slumped her shoulders and slowly turned, confused.

"It was you," said Willow, biting her lower lip. Buffy walked over to Willow and put her hand on her shoulder. Willow didn't move and as she looked into Buffy's eyes she fought desperately not to cry.

"Willow, talk to me."

"It was you," repeated Willow softly. "Don't you understand? Can't you?"

"Willow, what did it say to you?" begged Buffy, her own eyes tearing up.

Willow tried to speak but couldn't. The rain wasn't falling any harder but it suddenly seemed louder in the silence between them. Buffy eased her arm around Willow's shoulder, pulling her in, holding her close.

"It's okay. There's nothing you can't tell me," pleaded Buffy.

Willow began to cry.

"Damn it, Willow! Why are you doing this? Haven't I...Willow, I've shared your bed with you, my body...don't push me away. Share this with me. Please," begged Buffy. "Please!"

Willow blinked, her mouth dropping open. And then her eyes opened wide. Very wide.

"Wh-what? What did you say?" asked Willow excitedly.

"Um...there's nothing you can't tell me?"

"No. No! The bed! You...Buffy, you remember? You know?" grinned Willow.

"Huh? I know? Um, Willow, what..."

Willow leaned in and kissed Buffy on the mouth...and Buffy quickly responded, eagerly returning the kiss. Willow pulled away, smiling at a very confused Buffy.

"She lied! She told me it was her and not you! That you never slept with me. That it wasn't you!" laughed Willow excitedly.

Willow hugged Buffy so fast that she lost her balance and they fell to the sidewalk. Willow's lips were on her mouth, her neck, smothering Buffy until Willow rolled away, still laughing. Even Buffy couldn't help but smile.

"Willow," said Buffy, leaning on one elbow. "Do you know what we must look like?"

"Like lovers in love," answered Willow quickly. Buffy smiled again and tenderly pushed Willow's wet hair from her face.

"What did it say that you could have believed its lies?" asked Buffy, shaking her head.

Willow took Buffy's hand into her own and kissed it.

"Buffy, this thing knows us. Somehow it can get inside, knows what we're afraid of, understands what buttons to push. It told me that you were dead inside, that you could no longer feel love. That you hurt yourself just to feel! I should've known that wasn't true. I'm sorry."

"Why? Why did it come after you?" said Buffy, shaking her head.

"It wanted me to use magicks, to fight it...so that I would lose myself again. Buffy, I almost did! I almost..."

"Shh. You were stronger. Maybe it is afraid of you. Willow, maybe you can hurt it."

"I don't want to know. Buffy, I can't, I just can't."

Willow sat up and pulled Buffy with her, wrapping her arms around her, holding her tightly. Buffy closed her eyes and embraced Willow, feeling the warmth from her body, and began to cry. She could feel Willow against her, could feel the heat from her own body stir, aroused by her lover's touch. This she understood, this she knew. Need, desire, simple primal emotions.

But Buffy also knew that this thing, this evil, could get inside, that it understood what they were afraid of most. It knew.

She was dead inside. Completely cold. Like the night. Like before, except now she was living a lie. And it knew.

Could she ever feel love again? Maybe. Maybe with Willow's help.

But only maybe.

This thing knew how to hurt, how to inflict pain. And Buffy's pain, the fear that haunted her more than this numbness that gripped her, was that she couldn't tell Willow the truth. Even worse, she was terrified that Willow would find out.

"Buffy, what's wrong?" whispered Willow, just now realizing that Buffy was crying. She pushed away even as Buffy held on tighter. Willow held her face in her hands, wiping away her tears.

"I'm sorry. It's...I'm just...happy. So happy," blurted out Buffy, laughing and crying at the same time. She kissed Willow then rested her forehead against Willow's forehead.

"Buffy?"

"Yeah?"

"Can we go home now? I'm freezing my ass off out here!"

Buffy stood and helped Willow up, slipping her fingers into Willow's hand. They didn't say anything on the walk back. Willow smiled, resting her head on Buffy's shoulder. And Buffy was grateful that Willow couldn't look at her, see her face as she thought about what this thing had said.

This thing knew, had told Willow the truth. But Willow hadn't believed it.

This time.

*****

"I can't make you love me if you don't
You can't make your heart feel something that it won't
Here in the dark, in these final hours
I will lay down my heart and I'll feel the power
But you won't, no you won't
Cause I can't make you love me, if you don't" - Bonnie Raitt

THE END