Setting: Set in the continuation-verse, which picks up about three months after the end of "Chosen". So, spoilers for pretty much everything, including any "episodes" in this series that have come before it.
Notes: Here we go with my most ambitious 'fic project ... well, ever, basically. A virtual continuation of a show with a whole heck of a lot more story to tell. Since deciding to do this project I've discovered that there are, in fact, many Season 8's ... but this is the only one with the Jet Wolf Seal of Involvement, so that guarantees freshness. Or something.
Episodes are posted to www.btvschosen.com weekly, at 8pm EST on Tuesdays, all pretty and HTML'd with graphics and oo! Credits. We have credits, too. Eps will appear the following Friday or Saturday on ff.net. So if you don't want to wait all that extra time (and really, how could you?), the site is the way to go.
(14 May 2004)
Episode 6: "Where the Heart is"
Story by: Jet Wolf & Ultrace
Written by: Jet Wolf & Ultrace
Slowly, the boy's head swiveled towards Buffy. The action drained him of all energy and her presence appeared to take him by surprise. His eyes widened slightly, otherwise remained dull. From his expression, it was obvious he didn't know who she was, and it was also evident that he really didn't care.
Tilting her head to one side, Buffy regarded the boy, noting his gaunt body and the manner in which his clothes hung loosely from his slender frame. His eyes were sunken and ringed with dark circles that had no place on someone so young. Had she been forced to guess, the Slayer would have said he hadn't eaten or slept in days.
"Who are you?" he croaked, although the question was posed automatically, without particular concern for the answer.
"My name's Buffy," the Slayer introduced softly with a friendly smile. "You're Ryan, right?"
He didn't answer, merely continued to affix the blonde with a vacant stare. "Are you here to take me away?"
"Take you where?" Buffy asked gently, taking a small step forward.
Ryan shrugged, and the simple motion seemed to sap all his strength. "I don't know," he muttered. "Away."
Still ensuring there was plenty of space between them, Buffy came to a halt, just beyond arm's reach. "Do you want to be away?"
"Maybe," he replied noncommittally, though the tone was far from argumentative.
Allowing her voice to become mildly stern, Buffy tried to catch the boy's eye. "Ryan, you've gotta stop this."
"The thing with the walking undead...?" she replied. "The zombies?" Ryan's expression remained blank and uncomprehending, and realization slowly settled in for the Slayer. "You don't know ..."
"All I know is ... I miss them," Ryan responded, his voice cracking. "My little brother – you know the last thing I said to him?" He looked to Buffy, expecting an answer, and she shook her head. Ryan's reply was full of shame and self-loathing. "I called him a ... a bad name. That's the last thing he heard. I just keep thinking, if I could see him again, how much nicer I'd be. He always used to follow me around, you know? But I thought I was too cool for him," he shook his head at the notion, as though it were incomprehensibly stupid.
Buffy's spoke urgently, but gently. "Ryan, there's something going on with you. I don't know how, but I think you have this ... this power. And somehow you're—"
"My dad's gonna teach me to fix cars this summer," the boy interrupted, Buffy's words obviously not registering. "We're gonna find this old junk heap," he continued enthusiastically, "and fix it up, make it rad." A smile touched the corners of his lips. "It's our summer project. Last year, he taught me how to fish. If he came ba— ...Maybe when I see him again, we can find an old Chevy. Those are his favorites."
"Ryan," Buffy persisted.
He pressed on, his smile growing wider as his eyes became more distant. "My birthday's next month. My mom's gonna bake a German chocolate cake. She knows they're my favorite. She makes the icing herself, from scratch, and my brother and me, we always fight over who gets to lick the bowl." His smile faltered. "I think this year, I'll let him win."
Still with kindness, but now introducing a forcefulness that could not be denied, Buffy repeated, "Ryan." He visibly flinched, the only indication that he could hear her. Leaning to one side, trying to catch his attention, she held the position until, finally, he glanced at her. "You need to stop," the Slayer stated patiently but unwaveringly. "This isn't right."
As though submerged in molasses, Ryan managed to shake his head, but the movement was slow and emphasized his confusion. "What's not right? I just want things back the way they were."
"I know you do," she commiserated. "And I know this hurts, more than anything. But what you're doing, trying to make everything the way it was? I know you don't mean to, but all you're doing is hurting yourself and your family so much more."
"How?" the boy asked shakily, tears stinging his eyes. "I just want us to be together again. This is so wrong. There's so much I shouldn't have done. So much I want to do ..."
Swallowing hard, it seemed for a moment like Buffy might cry herself. "I know," she told him. " There's always stuff we wish we had or hadn't done. But you can't go back and fix it, Ryan, no matter how much you want to." Her voice was heavy with regret.
Tearfully, Ryan's gaze met the Slayer's eyes, desperately searching for some sort of answer. "What else can I do?" he whispered.
"Keep going forward," Buffy replied without hesitation as the solution suddenly became clear. "You accept that what happened is horrible and unfair, but you let it go. Otherwise every day of the rest of your life will be spent right here. That's not living, and that's not what they'd want for you. You have to let the past rest."
"How? How can I do that?"
Distressed that she could provide no concrete answer, Buffy was forced to admit, "I don't know. I wish I did. But I do know there are some people who can help you, if you'll let them. They've been worried about you." She held her hand out to Ryan. "Will you let them help you?"
Tears spilling down his pale cheeks, Ryan tentatively reached out and grasped Buffy's hand. She pulled him close and with a protective arm around his shoulder, led him away, through the twisted remains of the guardrail.
The front door swung open and Buffy walked through, instantly gazing around, her eyes searching. As the door closed with a soft click, she took the few steps necessary to stick her head into the living room, but no one was there, so she didn't linger. Retracing her path to the door, she went in the opposite direction and entered the kitchen, her pace slowing when she found Willow and Xander standing there, leaning against the counter and chatting amiably. With the appearance of the Slayer, the conversation died and they straightened. For a moment, all three regarded each other in silence.
"Hey guys, I've been thinking," Buffy announced, moving further into the room until she was only an arms length from her friends.
"Us too," stated Willow, her tone guarded but hopeful.
"And you know how much of a favorite pastime that is," Xander added with a grin.
Buffy inhaled deeply and tackled her thoughts headlong, no longer harboring any desire to drag things out. "A lot of stuff's happened over the past few years," she began. "Bad stuff, mostly. It's ... really sucked and we can't change it, no matter how much of it I wish we could. But I think we've been stuck there." Her eyes rested first on Xander and then on Willow as she shook her head, as though clearing out the last of the cobwebs. "And I'm so tired of it. I'm not interested in dwelling in the past any more. I wanna look ahead. And I want you guys there with me. You, Giles, Dawn ... I want us all to move forward. Together."
Nobody said anything. Buffy eyes were affixed on the two people in front of her, the intensity of her stare not allowing them to look at anything but her. "What were you guys thinking about?" she inquired.
Willow favored Buffy with a huge smile that the Slayer was compelled to echo. "Pretty much the same thing," the redhead cheerfully admitted.
"Only with much less words," Xander tacked on, grinning so much that it looked entirely possibly like his head might split in two if it got much wider.
There was no longer any hesitation. Together, they closed the gap between them, arms thrown over shoulders and around waists in a tight three-way hug. This time, there were no distant looks, no detachment – there was only Buffy, Willow and Xander, clinging to each other with eyes tightly closed so as to fully absorb every detail.
Minutes passed, each perfectly content to remain locked in the moment for as long as possible. Xander, being Xander, was eventually the first to speak. "See? I told you guys it was that simple," he pointed out, still grinning. "We couldn't have done this a year and a half ago?"
Without otherwise stirring, not even to open their eyes, both Willow and Buffy moved with exquisite synchronicity and smacked Xander upside his head.
"Okay, ow?" he semi-complained, although his expression never changed.
Slowly and with utmost reluctance, Buffy began to pull back, sniffing loudly. "I love you guys," she managed to get out, her voice thick.
Willow was also sniffly. "No more bad stuff, okay?" she implored innocently. "I think we can do with some vacation time from bad stuff."
"And I say we kick it off right by catchin' the late show," declared Xander, still with one arm around each of his friends.
Buffy wiped her eyes, then grabbed Xander's hand as it dangled over her shoulder. "What's out?" she asked.
Shrugging, the carpenter looked at her fondly. "I have no idea, but right now, I don't think it much matters."
"Not in the least," Willow agreed, wrapping his arm closer and snuggling into his side, which earned her a warm smile. "Hey, I know this is sorta Scooby reunion time, but do you guys mind if Kennedy comes along too? We had sort of a nasty bump earlier. I'm thinkin' maybe if she sees somethin' with enough violence, she'll forget aaaaall about it."
"A cunning plan," Buffy announced. "The more the merrier."
"But she better buy her own popcorn," cautioned Xander, poking Willow in the shoulder as he released the two women and stepped back. "Last time we went to the movies, she inhaled all of mine before the previews ended."
Willow nodded happily as she began to fish out her cell phone. "Deal."
Beaming and looking more delighted than she had in ages, Buffy linked arms with Xander, then snagged Willow, pulling both toward the door. "Home." She savored the word. "It's good to be back."
The halls of Slayer Central were completely empty. Normally it was a thriving network of people heading back and forth from one place to another, to train, to play, to do whatever. But tonight, as the dangers of the darkness outside deepened, summoning both evil and those who fight it, the facility was deserted.
"Of course, the time when you're least likely to find Slayers at home base," Willow mused to herself as she strode alone through the building.
Tipping her head to one side, Willow concentrated, attempting to pick up any signs of life. As she passed the rec room, she stuck her head inside and surveyed it quickly, but the only sights and sounds to reach her emanated from assorted video games in demonstration mode. Straightening, Willow frowned and began to look uneasy as she continued her search.
"Look what I got for you today, sweetie!" she joked, her voice sounding overly loud in the stillness of the halls, despite her quiet tone. "It's called a 'pocket'. You can use it to, you know, not forget your cell phone."
Approaching an intersection, Willow turned to peer down the other corridor then stared straight ahead again. Still she detected no signs of life as she decided to take the branching hallway.
The witch's head perked up as a voice reached her ears, and she visibly strained to listen. It was faint, but undeniably female. "... in four days," it was reporting in an even, detached tone.
"It can't be allowed," came an almost metallic-sounding response, as if the voice were being run through some type of filter. "Destroy the sample."
With a perplexed but curious expression, Willow followed the sounds, which were steadily becoming more audible as she approached. Ahead lay the entrance to the training room, and as the redhead drew near, she tentatively raised her hand, as if reaching out to something invisible. Almost immediately she jerked her hand back like it had been bitten.
"Whoa. Woooah," she breathed, "Not good. Very not-good badness here ..."
"If I'm discovered?" queried the female.
"Unacceptable. Eliminate anyone who finds out about this," came the response, causing Willow's eyes to widen a little. Closer now, she could pick up more details from the two voices. The second, while distorted, bore an unmistakable baritone that marked it as male.
Arriving at the threshold of the training room, Willow took a deep breath and slowly peeked inside. Judith, the lone figure in the room, stood before one of the mirrors lining the wall just to the right of the entrance. The glassed surface was suffused with a pulsating blue glow that seemed to shift with a life of its own as the Slayer regarded it with an unflinching gaze.
Equally as slowly, Willow pulled back, flattening against the wall. "Okay. Okay, no- no problem. I-I'm sure there's a ... a logical, completely rational explanation for all this."
"All of this effort over an inept witch," Judith practically spat, like the words were distasteful. "It's almost inconceivable."
Her face darkening, Willow glowered at the doorway. "Okay, there's your logical explanation," she grumbled angrily. "She's evil."
"Do not underestimate her," the metallic-voice admonished.
With only the slightest hesitation, the witch turned to face the wall she had been leaning against and placed both palms flat to its surface. She closed her eyes serenely for a moment, allowing her breathing to become steady and regular. When they opened again, her eyes were glazed and possessed a far-off look that indicated a deep trance. "Bind the line, find the path," Willow intoned quietly. "I know where I am, show me my destination..." Her hands began to glow with a soft white light that flowed from her fingertips to the wall beneath and beyond. "Loqui sectus."
The metallic voice continued its explanation. "Though Rosenberg lacks finesse, her power is great. She is not something to be trifled with."
Confidence was evident in Judith's speech. "Rest assured, I am taking the utmost—"
A second metallically-filtered voice cut in, this one with a much lower bass that rasped as it spoke, as though literally torn from the speaker's throat. "She is there. She is listening."
"What?" the first demanded, its disbelief evident even despite the odd distortion effects. "That's not—"
"She seeks us," the second stated.
Taken aback by the development, Judith's head swiveled anxiously around the room, searching for any disturbance. Perceiving none, she turned back to the mirror, uncertain of what to do. For a few seconds of tense silence, she could hear only her breath.
"Find her," the baritone suddenly ordered in a tone that left no room for argument. "Kill her."
"What?" questioned Judith, unsure if she had heard correctly.
"Do it now."
Without a moment's further pause, the Slayer spun toward the entrance and strode out, leaving behind a conversation that continued to echo from the still-glowing mirror.
"You can't kill her," a new voice, this one feminine and authoritative, interjected.
"The decision is made," the baritone flatly stated with finality.
"But the Sangerand—"
The bass interrupted her quickly. "This will be a setback, nothing more," it assured, though its gravelly voice left much comfort to be desired. "But if she finds us, then it is we who will be nothing more."
As soon as she stepped into the hall, Judith spotted an oblivious Willow. The redhead's eyes were narrowed in intense concentration as she continued with her spell, and she remained utterly unaware of the impending danger. The Slayer's lips curled in a predatory grin, and she cocked her arm back as she took the final few steps necessary to close the distance between them.
The first punch slammed across Willow's jaw, and sent her staggering into the center of the hallway. For a moment, thin tendrils of energy continued to stream from the witch's fingertips and into the wall before dissipating into nothingness. Somehow Willow managed to remain on her feet, but her expression was still hazy and distant. She never saw the backhanded blow coming, and the force of it spun her around.
Willow fought to regain her focus, but even as her eyes began to clear, it was evident that the strikes to her head had badly disoriented her. Still, the witch gritted her teeth and raised her right hand toward Judith, fingers curling as she struggled to concentrate. "Creo—"
Faster than eyes could follow, Judith lashed out with a sideways kick that struck Willow's outstretched hand and smacked it into the wall, the Slayer following instantly with a vicious stomp directly on the delicate wrist. A loud crack echoed in the hall, and Willow cried out in pain, quickly biting her lip to muffle the sound. The witch turned to her injury just as Judith's boot-clad foot, which had remained extended and waiting, swung in a heavy arc that connected solidly with Willow's face. With a grunt, the redhead collapsed to the ground, blood dripping from her nose and splattering loudly on the white tile.
"Oops, did I hurt your casting hand?" Judith asked contritely with painfully mocking concern as she leisurely strolled forward. "Whatever was I thinking?"
Anger penetrated through the pain that etched Willow's face as she jerked her head toward the Slayer. Her other hand shot up in a gesture similar to the one from earlier, but the action was clumsy and lacked the same assurance. "Creo aegis ..." the witch ground out, panting heavily.
Judith's approach was halted by the appearance of a shimmering wall of magical energy. However far from the expected solid line of defense, it was a wavering, uneven mass with patches that faded in and out, seemingly at random. With a cruel, barking laugh, the Slayer raised her forearm and repeatedly brought it crashing down against the barrier. It took some effort, but before long the field bent and splayed into an opening through which Judith easily stepped, just as the conjuration evaporated entirely.
With no more effort than she might expend in lifting a rag doll, Judith reached out and, grabbing a fistful of Willow's shirt, hefted the smaller woman into the air, propelling her into the nearest wall and pinning her there firmly. Willow's good hand came up and clawed at the Slayer's arm, her fingers digging into the flesh. "I-Imas ..." the witch began shakily.
Rolling her eyes with utmost disdain, Judith backhanded Willow, her restraining grip on the witch never faltering, even for an instant. The incantation died on Willow's lips as the Slayer repeated the backhand in the opposite direction and then, deriving some sort of perverse pleasure from the action, Judith completed several more back-and-forth blows until she became bored and released her hold. No longer supported, the redhead dropped to her knees and forearms. Blood now poured in a steady stream from both her nose and mouth, further staining the floor.
Unable to prevent herself from uttering a pained whimpering with every breath, Willow tried repeatedly to rise to her feet, but her limbs were no longer willing to obey her commands and it was all she could do to remain in her current position.
Watching the redhead with something bordering on wonder, Judith shook her head. "You just don't give up, to you?" she queried, adding, "That's admirable. And stupid, mind you."
Gritting her teeth, the Slayer lashed out with her foot, burying it into Willow's stomach. The force knocked the redhead over and she landed sprawled on her back. Casually, as though she had all the time in the world, Judith straddled Willow's midsection, grinning down at her prey.
Not done just yet, Willow again raised her good arm, but it was too little and far too late. Easily swatting the weak protest to one side, Judith pulled back her arm as far as she possibly could and slowly, with relish, balled her fingers into a tight fist. Like a bowstring, the Slayer's arm remained taut for just a moment before she unleashed with a powerful blow that connected directly into the center of her victim's forehead. Willow's head smacked the floor with a wet crack that seemed to linger long after everything else became still.
With that, almost as quickly as it had started, the attack was over. Willow's head lolled limply to one side, her face pale, swollen and streaked with blood. Looming over her, Judith gazed down admiringly at her handiwork. Shaking her head ruefully, she wrapped both hands around the witch's neck. "What a shame," the Slayer commented without real pity. "You were the best thing this miserable group had going for them."
Her muscles tensing with all the strength she had been mystically given, Judith began to squeeze, but then stopped abruptly. Her head whirled around, but not in time to prevent the blur of motion as a pair of hands roughly grabbed Judith by the arm and shoulder, hurling the brunette away from Willow and into the wall at the far end of the hallway.
Impacting at an odd angle, Judith collided with such force that the wall cracked, but this did little more than momentarily disorient the Slayer. She quickly scrambled to her feet, gazing wide-eyed back toward where she had been just moments before.
Between Judith and Willow, like an impenetrable force of nature, stood Buffy.
"And I thought the highlight was our dental plan," the blonde quipped, hands on her hips.
Judith smirked, brushing the dust from her clothes as she sauntered toward Buffy. "Excellent," she stated with what sounded like genuine glee. "Sparring with Rosenberg's pet Slayer was fun, but I was really hoping for the chance to take you down before I was done."
"You should be careful what you wish for," Buffy told her conversationally, her hands dropping and hanging loosely at her sides as she watched Judith cautiously.
"Give me a break, Summers," the other Slayer retorted with an eye roll. "I've seen nothing out of you but talk." Now less than ten feet from Buffy, Judith paused, maintaining a strategic distance. "What are you going to do, lecture me to death?"
Buffy's gaze never wavered from Judith; she didn't even seem to blink. "Thought about it, but considering what you just did to my best friend, I'm gonna upgrade you to an ass-kicking, free of charge."
"What a generous offer – let's see if you can carry through with it."
Combat began with an eruption of simultaneous action. Both Slayers met in a whirlwind of standard punches that each easily dodged, using the contact to gauge a feel for her opponent.
Neither paid any attention to Xander, who had slipped unnoticed down the hallway and was kneeling next to Willow. The redhead lay deathly still where she had fallen, her body limp and face ashen. The injuries to her nose and mouth had stopped flowing, but now a small pool of blood was spreading across the floor near her head. Stricken, Xander gazed down at the sight of his best friend, his breath catching in his throat as he took in the gruesome sight. "Oh, god ... Will ..." he murmured, fumbling at her wrist to check for a pulse.
Playtime clearly over for the battling Slayers, the intensity of the conflict had increased. Blows were now exchanged with little care for dodging. Both women were comfortable in combat, and the repertoire of attacks at their disposal, coupled with super-human speed, was dizzying. At least half a minute of frenzied activity passed before Buffy sensed an opening and she seized it, landing a fist squarely in the brunette's stomach, doubling her over. Wasting no time, Buffy followed up with a knee to the face, throwing Judith upright again as a small spout of blood sprayed across the room.
Stumbling back, Judith brought a hand to her nose. It came away with her fingertips bright red, and the Slayer stared, blinking with disbelief. For the first time, her cocky demeanor slipped, turning instead to rage. "That's gonna cost you," she spat between clenched teeth.
Buffy shrugged. "Put it on my tab."
The blonde's leg flew toward Judith's head with an audible whoosh, but the other Slayer was ready for it and she caught Buffy's foot in one hand, quickly bringing up her other to clamp onto the heel as she began to twist. Countering, Buffy leapt into the air with a spinning kick, aimed at the other side of Judith's head; the dark-haired girl leaned back, her hair swishing in the breeze left by the kick's wake, and she was forced to relinquish her hold. Buffy landed on her stomach, preparing to rise to her feet, but Judith was already there. Grabbing a fistful of blonde hair, Judith lifted Buffy's head off the ground and drove it back down again into the tile with all her strength.
"I wonder if hair-pulling is still considered fighting like a girl when you can bend steel?" Judith idly mused, her previous good humor returning in full force.
Releasing her grip, Judith reared back to stomp the blonde's head into the floor, but Buffy was nowhere near as dazed as expected. Before she knew what was happening, a barrage of lightening-quick combinations assailed Judith, and in her exposed stance she was helpless to fend them off.
Judith suffered several punishing hits to her face, her stomach, her knees, before she sufficiently regained her composure to attempt any sort of counterattack, and even as she did so, her fist aimed wide of Buffy and became embedded in the wall up to the wrist. Moving swiftly to take advantage, Buffy closed in, but the brunette yanked her hand free and flung a cloud of powdery, ground-up plaster in her opponent's face.
Even as she stood a little unsteady, Judith was unable to mask her arrogance; she crossed her arms and smirked, enjoying the sight of Buffy rubbing fiercely at her stinging, watering eyes. "If I had more of a conscience, I'd feel guilty about killing you when you can't even see me."
Before she could even think to defend herself, much less uncross her arms, Judith reeled backward as Buffy rammed the heel of her hand into the other girl's chin. A running charge from the blonde sent them both flying into the wall, which buckled under the impact. Buffy was relentless, raining blow after blow down on the brunette, who appeared too dazed to do more than attempt to roll with each punch. Showering them with plaster, the wall seemed in danger of crumbling completely when Buffy finally grabbed Judith by the shoulders and slung her, back first, into the opposite wall, where she half-slumped to the ground.
"When somebody talks as much as you do in a fight, you don't need to see them," Buffy pointed out, her eyes red, raw, and angry, but her vision clear.
Several yards away, Xander was trying, without success, to rouse Willow. The redhead had displayed no signs of movement, still sprawled on the ground. Slowly but unrelentingly the pool of blood continued to grow around her head, matting in her hair and beginning to seep into Xander's jeans as he knelt by her side. Feverishly, Xander rubbed her arms, whispering encouragement; it was only through sheer force of will that he was able to keep from shaking her. "Come on, Will," he begged, searching for something, anything in his friend's colorless, inanimate face that would grant him relief. "Wake up. Wake up, dammit!" he commanded, but Willow failed to respond.
Judith had managed, with effort, to get to her feet, and renewed her attack on Buffy, but her attempts were weak, wild and predictable now, and it was clear she was on her last legs. She swung feebly, but Buffy easily caught Judith's wrist in mid-air. Twisting it, Buffy brought up her free hand and slammed it into the other girl's elbow with a sharp, snapping sound.
Remaining true to her bravado, Judith only allowed the mildest grunt of pain to escape between her clenched teeth. She panted heavily for just a moment before letting loose with a primal yell indicative of the strength she was preparing to exert and lunged at Buffy, managing to connect with the side of the blonde's head. It was enough to make Buffy release the wounded arm, but nothing more.
In the training room, the mirror continued to glow.
"Help her," the baritone demanded urgently.
There was no pause to consider and no evidence of regret. "She's beyond our help now," the bass simply responded.
Surveying her opponent coldly and critically, Buffy looked like a snake preparing to strike at its prey. Exhausted, one arm completely useless, Judith no longer presented even a remote threat, and a single roundhouse kick brought her down in a crumpled, panting heap.
Immediately, Buffy dropped to the floor, planting one knee across Judith's stomach and the other on the Slayer's good wrist, effectively immobilizing her. Buffy was furious, and it showed in her eyes – a burning intensity that had seen the death of gods and monsters and was prepared to take on so much more in the defense of what she held dear.
"We played your game. You lost," growled Buffy, nearly snarling as she put extra weight on Judith's stomach to further drive her point home. "Now? You're going to talk. You're going to tell me who you really are and what you're doing here. And you're going to tell me now."
Stoic and defiant, Judith's only response was a glare of seething, bottomless hatred. Buffy reciprocated by driving her fingers into the wounded elbow, twisting them for good measure and eliciting a cry of intense pain.
"Tell me!" Buffy demanded, twisting again.
Judith's attitude was visibly changing, her confidence crumbling under pain and fear. Her eyes darted from one side to the next nervously, as though considering her options before she opened her mouth to speak. Nothing came out, and Judith looked surprised for a moment before she spasmed in torment, her body suddenly wracked with such force that Buffy was nearly thrown clear. The area above Judith's heart began to glow, visible even through the dark shirt she was wearing. Gazing at it, the brunette's eyes widened with terror. "No! Wait! I'm not finished!" she screamed into the air.
"What the—" Buffy began as she jumped off the other girl, an expression of amazement and disbelief appearing on her face as the glow began to take shape, coalescing into the form of an eye on a staff. It grew brighter and brighter, until it actually burst into flames, burning through Judith's shirt.
Still on the ground and with her arm now free, Judith began slapping at the tiny fire, nearly hyperventilating as she vainly attempted to smother the steadily growing blaze. "I can— I can still—" she pleaded, panting and panic-stricken, but she never got the chance to finish the statement, as the fire suddenly erupted into an inferno that spread outward and, in less than a second, completely enveloped her body. Judith screamed, an agonizing shriek that reached a fever pitch, then died away as the flames consumed her utterly and vanished, leaving nothing behind, not even ashes. In the training room, the glow in the mirror intensified momentarily, then grew dark and still.
Frozen and completely taken aback, Buffy continued to stare at the floor where Judith had been mere seconds previously. She might have remained there, simply gazing in disbelief, had Xander not refocused her attention.
"Buffy!" he yelled, his voice cracking.
Visibly shaking her head to dispel the images, Buffy glanced over her shoulder, and saw something much more horrific: Xander kneeling helplessly near a bloody, broken and unmoving Willow.
"Will," she whispered fearfully, running instantly to the other side of the redhead. Buffy inhaled sharply as she absorbed for the first time the extent of the injuries. Reaching out a trembling hand that hovered over Willow's face, Buffy couldn't seem to bring herself to make contact. "Is—" she began, choking on the words, not wanting to give them voice. "Is she—"
"It's bad," was Xander's only answer. "She might still be bleeding, she—" Xander looked up, his eye shining and terrified. "We gotta get her to a hospital, Buffy."
There was a moment of complete panic, where it seemed Buffy had no idea what to do and was unable to tear herself away from the deathly pallor that had settled on Willow's usually bright, vibrant features. But it only lasted a moment before Buffy swallowed hard and reached into her back pocket, yanking out her cell phone and punching three numbers decisively.
As the phone rang, her arm moved of its own accord, and she caressed Willow's cheek shakily and unsteadily, paying no attention to the blood now on her hands.