Title: Fear Of Falling

PART NINE

Faith smiled, seeing that Buffy had finished her pancakes and yet still seemed hungry.

"You still hungry? Want something else?," asked Faith.

"Oh, no. Thank you."

Faith kept smiling and shook her head.

"You sure?"

"Well...could I have some coffee?," asked Buffy, not expecting Faith to say yes.

"No problem. But just one cup," warned Faith with a wink. Buffy smiled. Faith waved to the waitress and ordered two cups of coffee. After she brought them over Faith stood up from the counter. Buffy immediately looked worried.

"Hey, I'm just going to call Willow. Okay? The pay phone is right over there," pointed Faith. "I want her to know that you're alright."

Buffy nodded.

"You know the number?," asked Buffy.

"Uh, actually I don't. Do you?"

Buffy reached for a napkin and grabbed a pencil that the waitress had left on the counter. She wrote the number down and handed it to Faith. Faith looked at it, feeling her breakfast at the back of her throat. The writing was scrawled like a little child had printed it.

"She should be at the Magic Shop by now," said Buffy. Faith didn't want to ask what that meant.

"I'll call her. She'll probably want to talk to you. Just, uh, drink your coffee. I want to talk to her first. And don't rush, it's hot," warned Faith. Buffy nodded and began to pour sugar into her cup.

Faith stood in front of the pay phone, reread the number and took a deep breath. She knew that if Willow heard her voice she might just hang up the phone. Unless...

Faith picked up the phone and dialed the operator.

"Yes, I'd like to make a collect call."

Faith read the number to the operator.

"Who? From Buffy. Tell them it's Buffy," said Faith.

The phone picked up after the first ring. A good sign, thought Faith. They're hoping Buffy will call.

"Hello?"

"Yes, I have a collect call from Buffy. Will you accept the charges?," said the operator in an even, practiced voice.

"Yes! Oh, yes!"

It was Willow's voice.

"Buffy? Buffy, where are you? Are you okay? Are you hurt?"

"Willow, it's me."

Silence.

"Willow, it's..."

"I know who this is. What do you want?"

Cold and direct, thought Faith.

"I need your help."

Willow didn't even try to hide her laughter.

"Willow, please...don't hang up."

Silence.

"Alright, who is this? The real Faith would never say please."

"Come on, Red, you know it's me."

"Look, we're hoping...we're expecting a call and don't want to tie up this line, okay? When things settle down I'll have Giles call the prison and..."

"I'm not in prison! I have Buffy."

Silence.

"What!? What do you mean you have her? Faith, I'm warning you, you'd better not hurt her. I'm one bad ass witch now and, and I'm not afraid of you!," yelled Willow.

"No, just listen! I didn't mean...Red, I found her. She's here, in LA. But...," Faith glanced back to see Buffy sipping her coffee and lowered her voice, "there's something wrong. What the hell happened? What did you do to her?"

"What did...what do you mean there's something wrong? What..."

"She thinks she's a little girl! Or at least that's how she's acting. She knows her name, where she's from and...well, not much else. She doesn't know she's the Slayer and she sure as hell didn't recognize me. Did you screw up one of your spells again or something?," asked Faith.

"She...hey, why do you think I screwed up a spell?," demanded Willow.

"Why do you think I want to hurt her if I'm making this call?"

Silence.

"Okay, fair point. Guess we have certain assumptions to get past here," admitted Willow.

"Look, I need help here. Angel's missing..."

"Angel's missing?," repeated Willow.

"Yeah, I can't find him. And I really don't want to call Cordelia, ya know?," sighed Faith.

"Gee, imagine that! Can't think of a reason why she wouldn't want to talk to you."

"Willow!"

"Sorry. Couldn't pass that one up. Old habits and such. Uh, Faith? You didn't happen to escape from prison, did you?"

"No! I don't know why I'm out. But we don't have time for that right now!"

"Right. We think Buffy might be under a spell, maybe a curse. And not mine, by the way! Is she acting any differently?," asked Willow.

"I just said she thinks she's a little girl! Is that different enough?," snapped Faith.

"No, I mean is she getting worse? Regressing more, talking less, uh, afraid more..."

"Oh. Well, yeah, she's wicked afraid. Kinda wiggin' me out here."

"Faith, Giles wants to talk to her. Can you put her on?," asked Willow.

"No! Uh, she really shouldn't talk to him right now. It's...hard to explain."

"Huh? What do...why?"

"All good questions. Uh, I don't know what's been going on between those two, what kind of training she's been doing...but Buffy is afraid of him," said Faith cautiously.

"What?"

"Yeah, she...she thinks he molested her."

Silence.

"Willow?"

"Uh, sorry. Just trying to take this all in and not scream, ya know?"

"I hear you," sighed Faith.

"Where are you now?," asked Willow.

"In some diner. I don't even know the address," said Faith.

"Can I talk to Buffy?"

"Sure. Hold on a sec," said Faith, letting the phone hang down by its cord. She turned around. Buffy was gone.

"Shit!"

Faith scanned the mostly empty diner and noticed the front door was just closing. She ran to the door and stepped outside. There were people walking up and down the sidewalk but she couldn't see Buffy.

"Damn it!," winced Faith. She walked back into the diner. And saw Buffy coming out of the rest room.

"Buffy!," yelled Faith, causing a few patrons to look up at her. She ran over to her and hugged her. Buffy looked up at her with a confused look.

"Don't do that! You scared the hell out of me!," admonished Faith.

"I, I only went to the bathroom," whimpered Buffy, looking scared.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to yell. But I didn't know where you were!"

Buffy nodded.

"I'm sorry," said Buffy.

"Oh my God! Willow! Hey, come over to the phone. Willow wants to say hi," said Faith, leading Buffy by the hand.

"Willow?," said Faith, even before she had the receiver near her mouth.

"Faith! Where the hell were you? What happened?"

"It's cool. I lost sight of her but she was only in the bathroom. Here, she wants to talk to you. And, uh, remember what I said, understand?," asked Faith.

"I know. Put her on."

Faith handed the phone to Buffy and smiled, nodding her encouragement. Buffy timidly took the phone.

"Hello?," said Buffy, her voice small.

"Buffy! Oh, it's so good to hear your voice! Are you okay?," asked Willow anxiously.

"Yeah. I'm okay. I'm with Faith. Do you know her? She's nice," said Buffy, smiling at Faith. Faith smiled back.

"Um, yeah, yeah she is. I...uh, Buffy, I want you to stay with her, okay? LA's a big city and I don't want you to get lost. We're going to come get you this afternoon. You can spend the day with her. Okay?"

"Um, Willow...who's going to come get me?," asked Buffy nervously. Luckily Willow picked up on the tension in her voice.

"Oh, uh, just me. And Tara. And maybe Xander. Okay?"

"Okay," agreed Buffy, the relief in her voice obvious. "Willow?"

"Yes?"

"You like Tara, don't you?," asked Buffy.

"Yes. Yes I do," laughed Willow.

Buffy smiled.

"Can I talk to Faith again? I have to ask her where we are going to meet."

"Sure. Bye," said Buffy, handing the phone to Faith.

"Any doubts now, Red?"

"No. We can be there in a few hours. Where should we meet?"

"You know where Angel's new place is?," asked Faith.

"Giles does."

"Good. We'll be out in front at two o'clock. Maybe Cordelia will show up or something."

"Make it one, okay?"

"Sure."

"And Faith?"

"Yeah?"

Willow hesitated for a moment before speaking.

"Thank you."

Silence.

"Hey, no big. I'll have a chance to brush up on my babysitting skills, ya know? Gotta go Red. Get rolling on your end," said.

"Right."

The phone clicked dead and Faith took a deep breath before hanging it up. She turned to Buffy and smiled.

"If I remember right, you were...you are a big nut for ice skating. And I think there's a rink not far from here. Want to go check it out?," asked Faith.

Buffy's answer was a smile.

*****

Willow hung up the phone.

"Why didn't she want to talk to me?," demanded Giles.

Willow sighed, puffing out her cheeks and rolling her eyes as everyone in the room stared at her, waiting for an answer. She stepped up on her toes and whispered something into Giles' ear. His eyes grew wide and for a moment it looked like he might throw up.

"Here's the sitch. Faith is out of prison. Not sure why or how, but that's not important. Okay, it is important but...anyway, she found Buffy. Buffy's okay, except, well...she doesn't remember everything. And...and she thinks she's a little girl. Faith tried to get in touch with Angel but he just ain't around. We're going to meet Faith in front of Angel's new office at one o'clock. You do know where that is, right Giles?"

"Yes," replied Giles.

"She thinks she's a little girl?," asked Xander.

"Makes sense," said Tara.

"Huh?," said Xander and Anya at the same time.

"She's retreating into herself. Her mind is trying to protect her the only way it knows how. Think about it. If Buffy is regressing, it's because she's going back to a time when she felt safe. When she wasn't the Slayer," explained Tara.

"Oh," muttered Xander.

"Why doesn't Faith call Cordy, stay with her until...oh. Never mind," sighed Xander.

"I left a message but she hasn't called back yet. She must've spent the night out with some guy. Same old Cordy," frowned Willow.

"Can you help Buffy? Magically, I mean," asked Anya.

"I'm not sure that we should. This may be the best defense Buffy has against this threat. Not to mention how dangerous mixing magic with matters of the mind is. No, we have to find Mr. O'Flynn," said Giles. "Willow, Tara, Xander and I will go to get Buffy. Anya, you'll stay her in case Faith, or Cordelia...or even Angel calls."

"And if Mr. O'Flynn calls?," asked Anya.

"Oh. Yes, Mr. O'Flynn. Tell him that I went to LA to get his book for him and that I will be back tonight. And that I want to see him, that...that I've discovered something that may help him. Call me...oh, I guess we'll have to call you," said Giles.

"Really should invest in a cell phone, Giles," said Willow.

"Yes. Soon. Anya, call Joyce, tell her what's going on. Let's go, people," said Giles, already heading for the door.

*****

They were walking down the sidewalk when Buffy suddenly froze.

"What?," said Faith, but Buffy ignored her, instead just staring ahead. Faith looked in that direction and saw a sign for a funeral parlor.

"Does that bother you?," asked Faith, nodding in the direction of the sign. Buffy nodded.

"Hey, no big. Let's cross the street," suggested Faith. Buffy hesitated and then nodded with an nervous smile. She slipped her hand into Faith's hand and now Faith smiled. There was no traffic coming so they began to cross over to the other side. A construction worker was kneeling next to an open manhole and glanced up at them. He whistled at them.

"What are you looking at?," snapped Faith.

"Hey, just wondering, ya know? Wondering if you ever had a real man. Might prefer it to girls if you found the right one, if you know what I mean," he smiled, glancing at Faith's hand holding Buffy's hand.

"Thanks for the advice. And if I see a real man I might take him up on the offer," replied Faith.

"Dyke!," yelled the man.

"Bite me," answered Faith. They crossed to the other side and walked away.

"What was his problem?," asked Buffy.

"His problem was that he was a male and most males happen to be jerks," said Faith.

Buffy glanced at her hand and rolled the claddagh ring around her finger.

"Faith, was Angel a jerk?"

Faith smiled.

"No, Angel is one of the few good ones. I wish I knew where he was 'cause I'd take you to see him. Cordelia knows him but I really don't feel like talking to her," said Faith.

"Cordy lives in LA?," asked Buffy excitedly.

"Yeah. You remember her?"

"Oh, sure. Why don't you want to call her?," asked Buffy.

"Well, see...I said some things to her...I was kinda mean. I want to apologize, but I, I just don't know how," shrugged Faith, looking away.

Buffy nodded even though she didn't understand. She rolled the ring around her finger again.

*****

"Good morning, this is the Magic Box, Anya speaking, how can I help you?"

"Hi, Anya. This is Cordelia. Is Willow there? She called, something about Buffy and a life or death situation. Same old Sunnydale."

"Cordelia! Oh, I'm so glad you called. Buffy's in LA and she might try to kill Angel!"

"Huh?"

"Yeah, but see, she thinks she's a little girl so we're not exactly sure what she's thinking," said Anya, turning around to look at the photo of Buffy and Giles on the shelf behind her. The front door bell jingled as someone entered the shop but she didn't turn around.

"Huh?"

"Buffy's got this thing right now for demons. She sees one and she goes all WWF on it. So if she sees Angel, well, she might not be able to control herself and dust the poor guy. Oh, did I mention that she might be under a spell?"

"Huh? Anya, I'm a little hungover this morning and this conversation is not helping, to say the least. Is Willow there?"

"No. Willow went with Giles. Left for LA about half an hour ago. They're going to meet Faith in front of Angel Investigation's new office at one o'clock. Oh, yeah, Faith's out of prison and she's with Buffy," said Anya.

"What!? When did homicidal psycho chick get a get out of prison free card, don't pass go, don't collect two hundred dollars, take a ride on the freakin' loony bin railroad? Aren't they supposed to notify a victim when their attacker gets released? Oh wait, I don't think I ever filed charges. Damn! Know what, I think I'm going to start drinking again and just stay in bed," sighed Cordelia.

"You know, I like playing Monopoly too, but I'm better at...wait, no! You have to warn Angel!," shouted Anya.

"Yeah. Well, if I can find him I'll tell him. Tell you what, I'm going to jump in the shower and have some coffee. I'll call you back and maybe this will all make a little more sense," said Cordelia.

"Yeah, you do that. Hey, must've been one hell of a date," smiled Anya.

"Not really. Hence the extra drinking. So...how's Xander?," asked Cordelia nonchalantly.

"Great. Really. He's got a good job now in construction, and, well...we're really happy," grinned Anya.

"That's great. I'm glad, for both of you. I'll call back soon, okay?"

"Sure. Bye."

"Bye."

Anya hung up the phone and turned around. Mr. O'Flynn was standing on the other side of the counter, staring at the photo of Buffy and Giles.

"Mr. O'Flynn!," said Anya, more than startled.

"So, it seems that I misjudged our Mr. Giles," said Mr. O'Flynn, not taking his eyes off of the photo. "He went to get her. Doesn't matter. Buffy is only buying herself some time. Being apart from me only slows the process down, it doesn't stop it. I don't even have to find her...I just need to be nearby."

"Mr. O'Flynn, we found a copy of that book you wanted. Giles, he, he went to get it for you. Tonight...he'll have it tonight," said Anya nervously.

"As it is written...the heart is devious above all else, it is perverse...who can understand it?"

Mr. O'Flynn finally looked away from the photo and glared at Anya.

"I can understand it. I am the Confessor! And the evil will be cleansed."

Mr. O'Flynn turned and stormed out of the shop.

*****

Giles pulled the car over to the side of the road, his knuckles white from how hard he gripped the steering wheel.

"Giles, relax. It's only a flat tire. You, uh, do have a spare in the trunk, right?," asked Xander.

"Yes. But now we will be late," snarled Giles through clenched teeth.

"Only a little bit," comforted Willow.

"Okay, everybody out of the car and get over onto the grass. I'll change the tire," said Xander.

*****

"Buffy, you must be hot in that sweatshirt. If you're not going to take it off, why not at least roll up the sleeves?," asked Faith.

"No, I'm fine," answered Buffy, pulling her left sleeve up to cover her wrist. She picked up her spoon and poked at her ice cream but didn't eat any.

"What's not to like about a hot fudge sundae? C'mon girl, dig in," said Faith, taking another bite from her own sundae.

Buffy smiled but just twirled the spoon around in her hand.

"B...Buffy...what's wrong? You don't feel good?"

"I...I don't know," answered Buffy.

"Hey, the sign said the rink opens at one. We can go back there later if you want," said Faith.

"No, it's not that," sighed Buffy.

"So, what's up? You can tell me."

Buffy looked up at Faith and seemed embarrassed.

"Well, don't laugh at me, but...I, I guess I'm just a little homesick," shrugged Buffy.

"Buffy, that's not something to be ashamed of! And we're going to meet Willow soon. You'll be home before dinner," smiled Faith. Buffy nodded and smiled.

"I know. I'm sorry," said Buffy.

"You'd better hurry up there, that ice cream is melting. Here, you want my cherry?," asked Faith, spooning her cherry on top of Buffy's sundae. Buffy grinned, took a big spoonful of ice cream and put it into her mouth.

"Uh, Buffy? I need to go to the bathroom. Do you have to go?," asked Faith.

"No."

"Um...alright, but I feel kinda funny leaving you here alone," frowned Faith. "Sure you don't want to..."

"Faith, we're in a crowded restaurant in the middle of the day. What could happen?"

"Okay. You're right. I'll be right back."

Buffy took another bite of ice cream and looked over at the register. A man, with his back to her, had just come in and ordered a cup of coffee to go. He had short black hair and was wearing a black leather coat.

"Angel?," called out Buffy.

The man either didn't hear Buffy or chose to ignore her. The waitress handed the man his cup and when he turned Buffy realized that she didn't know him. Buffy put her the spoon down and touched the claddagh ring on her finger, spinning it around without looking at it. She hesitated and then slowly brought her hand up to her throat, gently touching a small scar there.

"Angel," whispered Buffy once again.

Her hand began to tremble so she put it into her lap. She wondered if anyone had seen her but no one seemed to be looking in her direction at the moment.

Cordelia knows him...Cordy lives in LA.

There was a pay phone on the wall behind her. Buffy got up and pulled out the phone book from below the phone. Flipping through the pages, her finger ran down the list of numbers until she found the address she wanted. She glanced over her shoulder. The waitress seemed busy so she ripped the page from the book and stuffed it into her pocket. Buffy pushed past someone coming into the restaurant and left.

Faith came out of the restroom and immediately saw that Buffy was gone. She quickly flagged down the waitress.

"Excuse me! The girl I was with...where did she go?," asked Faith frantically.

"Honey, I'm alone here until three o'clock and you can see how busy we are. I can't keep track of everyone, ya know?," shrugged the waitress.

Faith pulled two five dollar bills from her pocket and threw them onto the counter.

"Here, keep the change," said Faith, already running for the door. Once outside she looked up and down the street but saw no sign of Buffy.

"Shit!," yelled Faith. She looked left and then decided to go right, running as fast as she could.

The waitress began to clear away their dishes, happy with the tip. She realized one of the steak knives was missing and she leaned over the counter to see if it had fallen onto the floor but didn't see it. With a shrug she looked up as a new customer sat down.

"I'll be right with you," she said.

"Only have time for a cup of coffee," said the man, glancing at his watch.

After tossing the dishes under the counter the waitress wiped off the counter and poured a cup of coffee, setting it down in front of the man.

"Say, I have a meeting at Angel Investigations and I was told it was near here. Do you know how to get there?," asked the man.

"Sure, it's only about six blocks from here. Just take a right out front and you can't miss it. I think it was once a large hotel, maybe back in the fifties."

"Yes, that sounds like the place. Thank you," said Mr. O'Flynn.

END OF PART NINE

PART TEN

Cordelia parked her car about half a block away from Angel's office. Faith had seen her drive up so there was no sense in staying in the car. She reached into her purse, pulled out a can of mace and got out of the car, never taking her eyes off of the Slayer. Faith put her hands into her pockets and looked down at the sidewalk, trying to present as submissive a posture as possible so that Cordelia would know she was no threat. Cordelia stopped about ten feet away from Faith, hand out in front of her, tightly gripping the mace.

"Okay, where's Giles? What have you done with him? And stay right where you are, I won't hesitate to use this. And, and I can scream real loud like if I have to," added Cordelia.

"Cordelia..."

Faith took a deep breath, trying not to get upset.

"Giles hasn't shown up yet. He's late. And I'll stay this far away from you, or even further back if you want, but put your hand down. It's...embarrassing," said Faith.

Cordelia hesitated but lowered her arm.

"Where's Buffy?," demanded Cordelia.

"I don't know. She ran away."

"What!? And you let her?"

"I didn't let her! I, I just lost sight of her for a minute and..."

"Great. So now what do we do?," asked Cordelia.

"I don't know," sighed Faith. "Do you know where Angel is?"

"No. Is the front door locked?," asked Cordelia, nodding towards the office. Faith nodded.

"Well, I have a key. I'll check to see if he's in, but even if he is, I doubt if he'll help us," said Cordelia.

"What? We're talking about Buffy here," said Faith, astonished.

"Yeah, well Angel fired me. And Wesley and...let's just say Angel has some major issues right now, the biggest being Darla."

"Who?"

"You don't know who...long story," said Cordelia, rolling her eyes. "I'll be right back."

Cordelia moved cautiously past Faith, never turning her back to her. Faith turned to face the street again, closing her eyes and wincing when she knew Cordelia couldn't see her face. She opened her eyes and looked around. Traffic was light. An old Volkswagen beetle slowed down as it drove by but Faith ignored it.

Another twenty minutes went by. Cordelia came out, shook her head and stood about twenty feet away from Faith. Finally Giles' car turned the corner and pulled up in front of them. Faith smiled...and then didn't, seeing everyone in the car staring at her. She put her hands back into her pocket. All four doors opened at once but only Giles approached Faith.

"Faith, where's Buffy?," he asked.

"She let her get away," snapped Cordelia.

"I didn't..."

Faith stopped, seeing the disappointment on Giles' face.

"I'm sorry. She was only out of my sight for a minute. She ran away...I don't know where she is," said Faith.

Giles closed his eyes and cursed under his breath.

"When you last saw her, how was she?," asked Giles.

"Fine. We were eating ice cream. Believe me, I looked for her," pouted Faith.

"Giles, I talked to Anya. She said something about a Mr. O'Flynn, that he was coming here, to LA," said Cordelia. She had Giles' full attention. "This guy was in the shop and overheard Anya talking to me, that we were going to meet here in front of Angel's office. Said something about his being near Buffy was all he needed for the spell to work, that being apart from her only slowed the spell down."

"Is Angel...," began Giles.

"He's not in. I checked."

Xander, Willow and Tara had not moved away from the car and had not spoken. They were now looking at Giles, waiting for him to decide what to do.

"Giles, we need to go look for her. Buffy likes ice skating. There's a rink not far from here. I was going to take her there while I waited for you but it didn't open until one. Maybe she went there. Why don't we split up? Someone can go with me, you can drive around...the restaurant we were at is only six blocks from here, she couldn't have gone far," said Faith.

No one moved. Giles looked back at the others and then turned back to face Faith.

"What?," asked Faith with a shrug. But still no one said anything.

"Oh. I get it. Look, I don't expect any of you to like me. I'm down with that much, but if we're going to find Buffy, if you want to help her, you're going to have to trust me!," said Faith.

Everyone looked more uncomfortable than before.

"Right," laughed Cordelia.

"Hey! I called you, didn't I? Shouldn't that count for something? You never even would've known...oh, what's the use?," said Faith, shaking her head. She wouldn't look at any of them.

"Faith."

Everyone looked at Willow.

"I think there may be a way for us to trust you," said Willow. She leaned over and whispered into Tara's ear. After about a minute Tara smiled and nodded. Willow faced Faith again.

"Okay. There's a simple incantation I can perform. It's...kinda like a post hypnotic suggestion. Basically, if you try to hurt one of us you'll get a searing sharp pain in your head, bad enough that you might pass out. Then again, you're a Slayer, so who knows?," shrugged Willow.

"I'd take a slap in the face to see that," commented Cordelia. Faith pretended not to hear even as Willow glared at Cordelia.

"It's similar to the chip in Spike's head," added Tara.

"So...you trust me with my magicks?," asked Willow.

"Hell no!," snapped Faith. "But if it's the only way you're going to trust me...go on, do your bippitty, boppitty boo and be done with it," frowned Faith.

Willow smiled and dug out of her backpack a vial of dark oil, deep gold in color.

"This won't take long," she announced.

Willow took the cap off of the vial and placed her thumb over the opening. She first anointed her forehead, then Tara's, all the time her lips moving although she didn't voice her words. She repeated this for Xander, Giles and finally Cordelia, who looked unhappy with the whole procedure.

Standing in front of Faith, Willow hesitated and stared into the Slayer's eyes.

"You will not harm my friends," glared Willow.

Surprisingly, Faith looked away as if she was offended. Willow anointed Faith's forehead, closed her eyes and mumbled softly words that Faith didn't understand.

"My will be done," commanded Willow, removing her hand from Faith's forehead and stepping back.

"Great. Can we go now?," asked Faith.

"Yes. Yes, we should," agreed Giles. "Cordelia, there is a chance, however slim, that Buffy may try to call you. Why don't you go back to your apartment and wait? Xander and I will drive around the area. Willow and Tara will go on foot with Faith to the ice rink. We'll all meet back here in one hour, unless you find Buffy. Then you'll call Cordelia. Agreed?"

"Sounds like a plan," nodded Xander, happy to finally be able to do something. He glanced at Faith and quickly looked away when he noticed that she was looking at him.

Cordelia drove off, saving one last sneer for Faith. After Giles left with Xander there was an uncomfortable silence among the girls.

"Follow me," announced Faith as she walked off. Willow and Tara quickly caught up.

"Faith!," whispered Willow loudly.

"What?"

"No, don't look at me. Just keep walking and listen. Act casual. And don't turn around. We're being followed," whispered Willow, glancing at Tara to make sure she was listening as well. Tara nodded.

"By who?," asked Faith, not so much as turning her head to look at Willow.

"His name is Mr. O'Flynn. He's the one working this mojo on Buffy. He's about my height, has thinning reddish hair and is wearing a black turtleneck and a gray suit jacket. I just noticed him get out of his car when Giles drove off. Maybe he thinks we'll lead him to Buffy."

"Why does he need Buffy?"

"Like Cordelia said, something about the spell working quicker if she's close to him," explained Willow.

"So why don't I just jump the guy? Is he something to be afraid of?," asked Faith.

"You shouldn't let him touch you. We think it's how did the spell," said Tara.

"Hell, one quick punch to the jaw should do it," complained Faith.

"I'm liking your thinking," agreed Willow, drawing raised eyebrows from Tara. "Tell you what, let's turn right at the next corner and wait for him to catch up. He won't be expecting it."

"And I'm liking your thinking," smiled Faith.

They reached the corner and turned, moving up against the building with Faith in front. And they waited. Almost two minutes passed.

"Something ain't right here," said Faith. She stepped out past the corner and looked in the direction they had come. There was no sign of Mr. O'Flynn.

"Shit again!," barked Faith.

"He must've gotten suspicious. Damn it! Faith, we have to find him," said Willow.

"What about Buffy? Need to find her too, and before this guy," said Faith.

"Where's this ice rink?," asked Tara.

"Just stay on this street, you can't miss it," pointed Faith.

"Okay. Willow, I'll go try to find Buffy. You and Faith go after Mr. O'Flynn," said Tara. Willow looked none too happy with leaving Tara alone and Faith picked up on it.

"Red, she'll be fine. You got any better ideas?"

"No," sighed Willow. "Alright, but be careful."

Tara nodded and left.

"Come on," said Faith.

*****

Cordelia tossed her keys onto the table and then walked into the bathroom. Looking at her reflection in the mirror, she fumed at the oil on her forehead but didn't dare remove it. There was a knock at her door.

"Cordy?"

Cordelia's eyes flew open.

"Buffy!"

Cordelia ran to the door, grabbed the knob and opened the door a few inches. And the door was slammed shut. It took a moment for her to figure out what happened.

"Dennis! You let me open this door right now. It's Buffy. She's a friend. Well, okay, we're not best buds...okay, we're not even that friendly. But...oh, just let me open the door!"

Cordelia tried to open the door but it was again slammed shut.

"Dennis! Oh, wait, I get it. The last Slayer that was here punched me! Dennis, this one's the good one, nothing to worry about. Okay?"

Cordelia placed her hand on the knob and tentatively turned it. The door opened.

"Buffy. Oh, it's so good to see you! You've got everyone worried sick."

"Hi, Cordy. Can I come in?," smiled Buffy, giving the door a wary glance.

"Of course! How did you find me?," asked Cordelia, ignoring her look.

"Oh, I just asked someone for directions after I gave them your address."

Cordelia shut the door.

"Are you alright? How do you feel?," asked Cordelia.

"Okay, I guess," shrugged Buffy.

"Great. I can take you to see Willow in about forty five minutes. Believe me, she'll be happy to see you. Can I get you something?"

"No thank you. I like your apartment," commented Buffy, looking around.

"Thanks. So..."

"Cordelia, where's Angel? I need to find Angel," said Buffy.

"Angel? He's...well, he's not home right now. But I can call him, leave a message. Why do you need to see him?," asked Cordelia suspiciously.

"I...I don't know," replied Buffy, suddenly looking confused.

"Oh. Hey, why don't you sit down and...and...oh no..."

Cordelia grabbed her head and fell to the floor. The vision came suddenly and was very vivid. Two hands were reaching for her throat...and then they were on her throat...Cordelia couldn't breathe, felt her throat being crushed...she looked into the eyes of her attacker...and saw Buffy.

"Cordy! What's wrong?," yelled Buffy.

Cordelia shook her head, trying to focus on the Buffy now kneeling by her side. And she saw fear overtake the Slayer. Buffy scrambled away from her, mouth open, shaking her head.

"No. No...not you too," cried Buffy.

"Buffy?," said Cordelia, trying to stand but still too dizzy to do so.

And now Buffy stood. She was no longer afraid. And she was holding the steak knife that she had stolen from the diner.

"Cordelia."

Buffy's voice was now cold and distant, devoid of any emotion.

"I'm going to help you. I'm going to set you free of the demon."

Cordelia's eyes opened wide, staring at the knife in Buffy's hand.

*****

They came to an intersection but saw no sign of Mr. O'Flynn. Willow darted to her left but Faith grabbed her arm, pulling her back.

"Wait. We need to split up, to cover more..."

Faith stopped, staring at Willow's arm.

"Hey, I just yanked on your arm pretty hard. Why didn't that spell kick in?," asked Faith, now looking at Willow's eyes. Willow began to say something but changed her mind.

"Faith, there is no spell. I did it for the others, so that they would trust you. Well, maybe trust you is pushing it. I did it so they wouldn't fear you," admitted Willow.

"Oh. But...but you trusted me?," asked Faith, letting go of her arm.

"Yeah. Figured that if you were going to hurt Buffy you would've done it already and not bothered to call about it. Unless it was to brag," added Willow.

"Wow. I....just, wow."

"Hey, I trusted you. I didn't say I liked you," said Willow.

Faith smiled.

"So what was the oil?," asked Faith.

"Olive oil. I like to put it on my salads," answered Willow with a grin.

Faith shook her head.

"Witch," accused Faith.

"Slayer," countered Willow.

"Okay, you go that way, I'll head down here. Sound good?"

Willow nodded.

"And I knew there was no spell," said Faith.

"Oh, you so did not!," protested Willow.

Faith smiled again.

"Be careful," warned Faith.

Willow looked at Faith for a moment.

"You too," nodded Willow.

*****

"Buffy, listen to me! You don't have to do this!"

Cordelia tried to keep the table between herself and Buffy. She would move to one side, opposite of the direction Buffy went. Buffy held the knife point down, her eyes dilated as if she were in a trance.

"What is it with you Slayers? You're like a carton of milk! As soon as you hit a certain date you go all sour and then you go bad!," yelled Cordelia, again changing direction.

Just then a chair slid across the room and knocked the knife from Buffy's hand.

"Thank you, Dennis! And may I add it's about time?," grimaced Cordelia.

Buffy ignored the knife, looked at Cordelia...and smiled. Then she jumped up onto the table in one smooth motion, landing on her feet.

"Oh, this is not good," whimpered Cordelia. She knew she would never make it to the door in time.

Buffy jumped down onto the floor in front of Cordelia.

"Buffy...please," begged Cordelia.

Cordelia screamed even before Buffy's hands gripped her throat.

*****

Willow almost ran past the side alley. She stopped...and there he was. Mr. O'Flynn made no attempt to run away. He simply stood there with his arms crossed, watching her.

"What the hell do you want?," barked Willow, walking towards him.

"Same thing as you. I'm looking for Buffy."

"Why?," demanded Willow.

"It's simple, really. I will free her of her demon."

"She doesn't have a demon! Buffy helps people...she protects us!," protested Willow. She was now only an arm's length away from him. "Don't you understand? Buffy is the Slayer."

"You're wrong. I know...I can sense them," replied Mr. O'Flynn flatly.

"What's going to happen to her?," asked Willow, her voice breaking.

"Same as all the others. She will either be free of the demon...or she will go insane. Perhaps kill herself. They often do, unable to bear the guilt of their sins," added Mr. O'Flynn nonchalantly.

Willow stared at him.

"How, how many of the others became free of their demons?," asked Willow.

"None. They were all found to be unworthy," he replied, taking a step towards Willow.

Willow took a step back, stumbled, but caught herself.

"You still don't understand, do you?," he laughed. Willow took another step back and bumped into the brick wall behind her.

"I will finally be free of the curse. A curse put upon me by one of your kind, witch!"

"My kind? But I didn't do it, I've never harmed anyone...I'm not evil!," protested Willow.

"Really?," he smiled, taking another step towards her. Willow could smell the alcohol on his breath now.

"The Gift doesn't lie to me. I sensed the evil in this Buffy, even you don't deny that, calling her a slayer...but I didn't have to sense it in you. I saw you with that girl, holding hands. You disgust me!," he sneered, leaning in, his stale breath making Willow wince.

"You, you mean...Tara? What does...I don't understand. Why should..."

"What's there to understand? It's wrong!," he yelled.

Willow began to comprehend what she was facing. And she felt her own anger begin to rise within her.

"Wrong? Evil? What gives you the right to judge anyone!? Who the hell do you think you are!?," yelled Willow, stepping towards him, their faces almost touching. He stood his ground.

"I'm the Confessor," he replied, as if simply stating a fact.

"You're going to break this curse," commanded Willow.

"I couldn't even if I wanted to. The evil within her will consume her. My debt will be paid, and I will be free."

"Be free? Your debt...I, I don't understand," yelled Willow.

"It's the curse. I must find evil...and destroy it. And at first I didn't understand my destiny. I thought I knew, but I was wrong! But it's all so clear to me now. It's not how many must die for me to be free. Don't you understand? It's so simple. What matters is how great the evil is! Even you must sense it in Buffy! How can you not? The darkness is so deep within her. She must die...and, and I won't have to kill anymore. I will be free!," he screamed.

"You're insane! Buffy's not evil! You fool, she helps people! She's not a slayer, she is the Slayer! It's not the same thing! You, you can't just take a human life! You have to break this spell you put her under!," yelled Willow. "There must be a way! Please!"

"No."

"Has anyone, even just once, lived through this?," begged Willow.

"No. They were all unworthy," replied Mr. O'Flynn with genuine sadness. Willow saw that maybe, just maybe, she could make him understand.

"What if you made a mistake? Isn't it possible? Couldn't you have mistaken an innocent person for what you thought..."

"No. She's deceived you. She must be cleansed of her evil. Buffy will die. And there's not a damn thing you can do about it," he smiled.

"Is that a fact?," snarled Willow.

She turned and backed away from him. Willow closed her eyes. The Confessor took a step back and withdrew a gun from inside of his jacket, pointing it at her, unsure of what Willow was doing.

"Speak a word, witch, and I'll use this. You'll not use your evil on me," he warned.

Willow opened her eyes. She looked at the gun, then at the Confessor's face. Willow clenched her fist and the gun was knocked from his grasp and slid on the ground by Willow's feet. She quickly knelt down and picked it up. He took a step towards her but froze as Willow stood up.

"I knew it! My instincts are never wrong. Witch!"

Willow smiled and closed the distance between them. The Confessor smiled back.

"Damn right," laughed Willow, thrusting the gun against his left ear. The Confessor's smile turned into a grin.

"Interesting. But you forget, the Gift allows me to envision your soul. I know you, perhaps better than you know yourself. You cannot take a human life. The hatred, the intensity needed to give into the moment, it simply isn't within you. You fear what the act would do to you."

Willow pulled back the hammer with her thumb. The click of the metal snapping into place echoed loudly in the alley. For the first time a look of uncertainty clouded the Confessor's eyes.

"Willow, no!," yelled Faith, suddenly appearing at the end of the alley. The Confessor glanced behind her at Faith but Willow never took her eyes off of him. Faith didn't move.

"Are you now judging me? To use your own words, what gives you the right?," he asked calmly.

"You have no humanity left within you," whispered Willow, tears welling up in her eyes.

The Confessor smiled. Willow's hand began to tremble.

"You can't kill. Some people just don't have that in them," he whispered.

Willow pulled the trigger.

END OF PART TEN

PART ELEVEN

Cordelia slowly opened her eyes. At first the only thing she understood was that she was breathing. Then she realized that Buffy's arms were on her. Frantically she pushed them off and scrambled away before seeing that Buffy wasn't moving. She touched her neck, painfully sore from Buffy's grip. Cordelia stared at Buffy and wasn't sure if she was breathing. She couldn't decide whether to check for a pulse or to get a frying pan to hit Buffy with. Knowing how futile kitchen utensils would be against a Slayer, Cordelia crawled back and placed two fingers on the side of Buffy's neck.

Buffy opened her eyes.

*****

"Willow, give me the gun."

Willow didn't move. Her arm was still raised in front of her. She was staring, eyes unfocused, at where Mr. O'Flynn had been standing.

"Willow."

Willow slowly turned her head and faced Faith but didn't seem to recognize her. Faith spoke very slowly.

"Willow, give me the gun."

Willow still didn't move. Faith very slowly reached over and gently pried the gun from her hand.

"Faith?"

Faith knelt down and put the gun on the ground, avoiding looking at the body. She stood back up and took Willow's hand, pushing her arm down by her side.

"Faith...what happened? Is...is he dead?," asked Willow in a whisper.

"Yeah. He is. Willow, look at me."

Willow surprised Faith by looking at her.

"There's not much time. We have to go. Someone will have heard the gunshot. You understand?," asked Faith.

"What? No. Faith...Faith, I killed someone. Oh my God, I killed him!," cried Willow, her eyes suddenly full of terror. "Oh my God..."

"Willow..."

Willow's eyes met Faith's. If Faith had shown any other emotion than what she saw Willow would have simply lost it, would have broken down and never stopped crying. She had never seen sadness or sympathy in this girl before, ever. From anyone else it wouldn't have mattered, it would have been expected. But Willow knew Faith understood.

Faith swallowed hard and put her hands on Willow's shoulders. When she spoke her voice was barely a whisper.

"We've got to go. Now. Before someone sees..."

Willow shook her head in refusal.

"He said Buffy was going to die...Faith...he said she would die," whimpered Willow.

"Willow...get out of here. Now!"

Willow looked down at the body. She didn't cry tears but her body shook with sobs. Faith let go of her, glanced at Mr. O'Flynn and shook her head.

"Willow," she whispered, trying to get her attention. Willow closed her eyes and began to cry.

Faith sighed and began to pace, whispering to herself.

"I can't do this...damn it...I can't do this..."

Faith stopped pacing.

"It's. Not. Fair!," she screamed.

Faith faced the brick wall behind them and closed her eyes, resting her forehead against the cool brick. She opened her eyes...and violently punched the wall. Faith doubled over in pain, holding her bleeding knuckles with her other hand. She turned and saw Willow staring at her.

"Pain. Helps me think clearly," explained Faith, holding up her bleeding fist.

Willow gave her a baffled look. Faith put her good hand on Willow's arm.

"Get out of here. Now. Run," said Faith.

"What? Be we can't..."

"There is no we. I'll stay. Now go."

"Faith, what are you saying?"

"Do I gotta spell it out for you? I'm taking the fall for you. Hell, my prints are on that gun now so it doesn't matter what you tell them. Who's story are they going to believe? A straight A honor student or someone who just got out of prison for assault?"

Willow stared at Faith and then, again, looked down at the body. She quickly looked away, her stomach churning.

"No...no, I won't let you. You're right, it isn't fair!," protested Willow, pushing Faith's arm away.

"Learned that a long time ago. Life never is. Doesn't matter what you tell the cops, I'll just say you're trying to cover for me," said Faith.

Willow started to cry.

"Damn it, you gotta go! Someone is going to see you!," yelled Faith.

Willow covered her face with her hands. Faith grabbed her and shook her.

"Red, snap out of it! You can cry later, not now! I'm not going to let you throw your life away over one mistake! This guy deserved it. Hell, he tried to kill Buffy. You understand that? Buffy would've died, right? Right!? You...I...just got to him first. It's that simple."

"It's not that simple!," yelled Willow.

"What do you want from me? You want to run away, both of us, right now? Been there...it doesn't work. Willow...Willow, what's one more sin on my resume? I can never make it right. But you...Willow, do you want to go to prison?"

"I...Faith, I can't think right now. I, I'll say it was self defense. I...I..."

Willow began to cry again. Faith looked back down the alley. It was still empty.

"There's no easy choices here. None. But I have an idea. Problem is...you'll have to trust me," said Faith.

Willow looked at Faith, looked at the body...and nodded, wiping the tears from her eyes.

*****

Cordelia's eyes opened wide in absolute fear. Her first thought was to smack herself for not running away when she had the chance. She didn't have time for a second thought. Buffy's hand shot out and grabbed her wrist.

"Buffy!," yelled Cordelia. She felt Buffy's grip ease up just a bit.

"Cordy...it's okay. It's me. Really."

Her voice was soft, almost reassuring. Buffy let go of Cordelia's wrist. Cordy stood up and backpedaled until she hit the wall behind her. Buffy stood up.

"Cordy, I'm sorry. I can't explain what happened...I know what I did, but, but that wasn't me. Are you okay?," asked Buffy.

Cordelia nodded but didn't move, not quite convinced she was safe yet.

"I oughta slap you," threatened Cordelia.

Buffy smiled. And then her expression changed to one of apprehension.

"Willow," whispered Buffy. "Cordelia, something's wrong. Something's terribly wrong."

*****

Faith rummaged through the litter in the alley, getting angry. Then she saw several wooden loading pallets stacked up by a door. She picked one up, threw it to the ground and kicked it into splinters. Hefting a good sized piece of two by four in her hand, she walked back to the body.

"This will have to do," she said not looking at Willow. She grabbed Mr. O'Flynn's right hand, forced it open and pressed the wood against his palm. Then she tossed the two by four to one side, picked up the gun by the barrel and pulled her shirt free from her pants. Wiping down the gun as best as she could, Faith put the weapon into Mr. O'Flynn's hand, wrapping his fingers around it and wiping down the barrel where she had touched it with her shirt.

Faith stood and faced Willow.

"Are you ready?," asked Faith nervously.

Willow swallowed once, looked at the body, then focused on Faith. She nodded slowly, her head barely moving, her lower lip trembling. Faith nodded and turned as if to go.

And then Faith whirled, lashing out with her fist, catching Willow in the stomach. Willow doubled over and Faith followed up with a hard punch against the side of her face. She collapsed face down on the ground and didn't move. Faith knelt down beside her.

"I'm sorry, Red. I wish there was some other way."

Faith got up and ran.

Tara crossed the street just in time to see Faith tear out of the alley and run away from her. Tara began to run after her.

"Faith! Wait!"

Faith never slowed down. Tara reached the alley and stopped running. Curious, she glanced in that direction. And at first she couldn't comprehend what she saw.

"Willow!"

*****

Cordelia pulled up in front of Angel's office and Buffy opened the door even before the car came to a stop. She jumped out and Giles, Xander and Anya all shouted her name at the same time. Giles ran to her.

"Buffy, you're alright!," he said, so excited he almost laughed. But Buffy didn't seem happy to see him.

"Giles, I'm okay. Look," said Buffy, pulling up her left sleeve. The snake tattoo was gone.

"How...," began Giles, smiling with joy.

"Giles, where's Willow?," demanded Buffy, her voice full of concern.

Before he could answer they both heard someone running towards them. Turning, they saw it was Faith. Giles glanced at Buffy but she never took her eyes off of Faith. The other Slayer reached them, gasping for breath.

"B, you're okay!," smiled Faith. "Where..."

Faith froze, seeing the look on Buffy's face, a look she knew all too well. Contempt. Naked contempt. Faith knew the old Buffy was back.

"Faith, where's Willow?," snapped Buffy.

Faith stared at Buffy, her open mouth desperately inhaling air. Buffy took a step towards her.

"Faith!"

Faith looked at Giles and saw the same bitter look on his face.

"Giles, call an ambulance. Now!," said Faith. She turned so that they wouldn't see the pain she knew she couldn't hide.

*****

"Giles, what's taking so long?," asked Tara. "Why can't I see her?"

"Tara, the doctor said she'll be fine. She's awake now. It could've been worse; only a mild concussion and two fractured ribs," reminded Giles.

"But why does the detective get to see her before us?," whined Tara.

"We're not immediate family, Tara. If we were, then things would be different," explained Xander.

"But, but I'm her girlfriend. D...doesn't that count for something? Mm...may...maybe I should tell them," said Tara hopefully.

"Maybe in a perfect world," sighed Anya.

Xander sadly glanced at Giles and then put his arm around Tara.

"It won't be much longer. The nurse said we could go in two at a time. Tell you what, when the detective comes out, you can go in first. Be alone with her for a little while, okay?," suggested Xander.

Tara nodded and put her head on Xander's shoulder.

"Thanks," whispered Tara.

"Where's Buffy?," asked Anya.

"She's on the phone with her mother. Safe to say that Joyce is more than happy to hear her daughter's voice," said Giles.

Faith sat apart from the group. No one looked in her direction.

"I think I'll go to the restroom," said Tara.

"I'll go with you," offered Faith, standing up.

"Thanks, but I'll be alright," smiled Tara. "Really."

"Tara, there's something you need to know. Something you need to hear...from me," said Faith, only looking at Tara. Tara hesitated but then nodded. Faith walked with her as they left the group.

"There's no way she isn't involved," said Xander.

"What?," asked Anya.

"Oh, come on. Does anyone really believe that this O'Flynn wanted to kill himself?," asked Xander.

"Well, he wasn't exactly sane," offered Buffy. Xander looked at her and then at Giles.

"Giles?," said Xander. "You think she set him up to avoid prison? Did Faith take him out?"

Giles looked at Buffy. His only response was a slight shrug of the shoulders.

*****

"I'll make this as quick as possible, Willow. I know you're not feeling good."

Willow nodded appreciatively. The left side of her face was swollen, black and blue with some yellow mixed in as well. She was sitting up uncomfortably in her bed.

"This man that attacked you...you never saw him before?"

"No."

"What were you doing in that alley?"

"I got lost. I came to Los Angeles to look for a friend. He's...missing," said Willow.

"Missing?," repeated the detective.

"Yeah. Haven't heard from him in a while...his phone is disconnected. Has an office right around the corner from where...from where I was attacked."

"What's his name?"

"Angel. He's a private investigator, runs..."

"Angel Investigations," finished the detective. "How do you know Angel?"

"I knew him when he lived in Sunnydale. We...we have a mutual friend," said Willow. "Do you know Angel?"

"Yes. We've worked on a few cases together. But I haven't heard from him in a while either."

"Oh."

"So...what happened? Something about this assault just isn't making sense to me," said the detective.

Willow tried not to look scared.

"Well, I realized I had made a wrong turn and when I turned around this guy was in the alley behind me. I just figured he was another homeless person looking for money. He...he asked me what time it was...I could smell the alcohol on his breath. I told him I wasn't wearing a watch...and then he asked if I could help him out, give him some money for a cup of coffee," said Willow, swallowing nervously.

"Could you hand me that glass of water, please?," asked Willow.

"Sure. Here."

"Thanks."

Willow took a few sips from the glass, keeping her eye on the detective.

"So...he, uh...I told him I didn't have any money, which was true! I mean, if I had some I would've given him something, you know? He didn't believe me. And then...and then he got very angry. There was a piece of wood on the ground...he picked it up...and he hit me, in the side...and then..."

Willow began to cry.

"I'm sorry," said Willow, looking away.

"It's okay. You're doing great. You don't remember anything else after he hit you in the head, obviously," said the detective.

"No," sniffed Willow.

"Did he seem suicidal or act strangely in any way?," asked the detective.

"No. But...but he did say something about...demons. That he could see demons. I don't think he was completely sane."

"Demons?," repeated the detective, quickly writing something down in her notebook. "No, it doesn't sound like he was in his right mind. One last thing. Was there anyone else in the alley, any witnesses?"

"No."

"Oh. Because we have one witness..."

The detective flipped through her notebook.

"Yes, the girl who found you. Tara Maclay. She first told the paramedics that she thought she saw a brunette girl running away from the alley, although I guess she's now saying that she's not sure, that it might've just been someone jogging. But you didn't see anyone?"

"No," said Willow firmly.

"You know this Tara, don't you Willow?"

"Yes. She..."

Willow turned and stared the detective in the eye.

"Tara is my girlfriend."

"Oh."

"Detective Lockley, what doesn't make sense to you?"

"Well, this man, a Mr. Jack O'Flynn, wasn't homeless. Still had his wallet on him, with several hundred dollars in it. Strange that he would be asking for money from you, isn't it?"

Willow ignored the question.

"We found his car. It was parked across the street from Angel's office. I just can't imagine this guy wanting to kill himself. Can you?," asked the detective.

"No," admitted Willow.

"Not much to go on. Hopefully another witness will turn up."

"Are we done, Detective Lockley? I'd like to see my friends now."

"Of course. I'll be in touch if I have any other questions. I'm sorry your visit to LA had to be like this. Not sure why, but I can only assume this guy felt remorse for his actions and, maybe because of the influence of alcohol, took his own life. We might never really know," shrugged the detective.

"Remorse," whispered Willow, shaking her head.

"Thank you, Willow. I have some papers for you to sign, some formalities to wrap up with your statement. I'll bring them by later. Get some rest. I hope you feel better soon."

"Thank you," replied Willow flatly.

*****

Tara washed her hands in the sink and dried them off with a paper towel. Faith was staring at her but she ignored her.

"You couldn't just have said that they struggled for the gun and it went off? You had to do that to her?," asked Tara, still not looking at Faith.

"Tara, even though he isn't much bigger than Willow, how would she be able to explain her wrestling the gun from him? Is she strong enough to not only turn the gun against him, but to raise it to his head as well?"

Faith reached over and touched Tara's arm so that she would look at her.

"This was the perfect alibi. She was unconscious when the ambulance got there. Even I remember how bad a liar Willow is. I'm sorry, I know it sucks. I was just trying to help," frowned Faith.

Tara looked down and nodded. Then she took a deep breath and let it out.

"Hey, if anything, I put my own neck in the noose. I mean, what if someone saw me? How would I explain..."

"Faith?"

"Yeah?"

"Just go."

"Wh...what?"

"You heard me," said Tara, glaring at Faith. She turned and left the restroom.

Faith watched as the door slowly closed. The room seemed too quiet when the door clicked shut. Her attention was drawn to the drip of the water faucet. Faith leaned forward, gripping the sides of the sink with both hands. She closed her eyes and gripped the sink even harder. The anger rose within her and she welcomed it. This she understood. This she could lose herself in, could hide behind like so many times before. But this time it wasn't working. Faith closed her eyes tightly shut, trying to force back the tears.

She didn't realize that her body was trembling until she opened her eyes and looked at herself in the mirror. Faith turned and almost didn't make it to the toilet before she threw up.

*****

Buffy sat down in a chair in front of Willow's room.

"You're mom maybe just a little bit relieved?," asked Xander.

Buffy nodded.

"Okay, let's leave these two alone," said Xander, taking Anya's hand.

"Xander, you...you don't have to go," said Buffy, standing up.

"Nah. You need some time alone," replied Xander, glancing at Giles.

"Oh, does that mean we get some time alone?," asked Anya excitedly. Xander rolled his eyes. Buffy watched them as they left, then turned to face Giles. He smiled at her.

"This is the first time we've been alone since...," began Giles. Buffy nodded.

"How are you doing?," he asked, reaching out to touch Buffy's arm. But Buffy lowered her arm before he could touch it. She looked up at him, trying to ignore the look of confusion on his face.

"Alright, I guess. Giles, there's something I need to tell you. And I don't know how to explain it so...so just hear me out. Okay?"

Giles nodded.

"I'm kinda weirded out right now. See, I'm having trouble remembering things."

"Well, that's understandable," interrupted Giles.

"No. You don't understand. I can't remember anything, and even what I can is...very confusing. It's all...it's like I can feel the emotions I went through and, and I see glimpses of places...or faces...but I don't remember being there. Or seeing these people. Am I...am I making any sense?," asked Buffy sadly.

Giles stood there for a moment.

"Maybe...maybe it's just like a temporary amnesia. Perhaps your mind is just trying to protect you, like when a person can't remember being in an accident. Or, or maybe it's a side effect of the spell. Or..."

Giles looked at Buffy, suddenly scared by how sad she looked. And then he felt nauseous.

"My God. Buffy...what's the last thing you can clearly remember?," asked Giles anxiously.

Buffy winced.

"I was standing outside of your door. It was raining. And I was cold."

Giles felt the room began to spin and had to sit down in a chair.

"Giles?," said Buffy loudly, placing a hand on his shoulder. She knelt down beside him.

"Buffy," whispered Giles, shaking his head.

"Giles please. I need time. You're going to have to be patient with me. Maybe I'll remember. But...Giles, I'm scared. I have all these conflicting emotions, and, and they're all mixing together. I can't make sense of it. I'm going to need your help. But...but not just yet. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe...Giles?," said Buffy, looking up at him.

Giles face was empty, as if someone had just died. She remembered seeing that look on his face once before.

"Buffy...I need to get some air. I'll...I'll be right back."

Giles stood and quickly walked down the hall. Buffy closed her eyes and rested her head against the chair.

"Giles...I'm sorry," whispered Buffy. But only a passing nurse heard her.

*****

Tara entered her room and Willow almost cried because she was so happy to see her. Tara practically ran over to the bed as Willow opened her arms to her.

"Hey," said Tara, hugging Willow closely.

"Oh, honey, go easy. The ribs?," winced Willow.

"Oh! I'm sorry!," yelped Tara, letting go.

"It's okay."

"Sorry," repeated Tara.

"I know...I'm hideous," pouted Willow.

Tara laughed and shook her head.

"Impossible. You're just too damn beautiful," smiled Tara.

Willow smiled back, almost embarrassed.

"How's the pain?," asked Tara.

"Just a little headache. You know, like some big elephant is sitting on my head while at the same time whacking me with a sledge hammer?,"

"You know any small elephants?," asked Tara with a straight face, drawing a smile from Willow.

"They did give me some neat pills," grinned Willow. "Oh, how's Buffy? Is she..."

"Our old Buffy is back, safe and sound. The tattoo on her arm is gone. I guess when..."

Tara stopped, seeing how quickly Willow became upset.

"Tara, I have something to tell you. And, and you're not going to like it. I'm...I'm afraid that...that you're not going to like me," said Willow, tears forming in her eyes.

"See, that's where you're a dummy," said Tara, sitting down on the bed beside Willow.

"But...you don't understand..."

Tara silenced Willow with a kiss on the lips, letting it linger for a moment. She took Willow's hands into her own.

"Darling, I know. Faith told me."

"Tara...I'm sorry. My God, I can't imagine what you think of me," cried Willow.

"Willow. Did you ever stop to consider that O'Flynn's spell may have been at work in you?"

"Huh? But...but I didn't have the mark."

"Neither did Buffy. Not at first. And look at the way she was acting before the mark appeared on her," said Tara.

Willow considered this. Tara gently raised her chin so that Willow looked into her eyes.

"I know my Willow, and you're no killer."

"But I am," answered Willow.

"No. You saved Buffy's life."

"Does that make what I did right? Is that how I justify pulling that trigger?," begged Willow. "Was there any other way?"

"The girl I love is not a killer," smiled Tara.

Willow tried to smile but couldn't.

"Tara?"

"Yes?"

"Hold me?," said Willow, her voice small.

Tara gently held Willow, letting her rest her head against her shoulder. She rubbed Willow's back with one hand and, only because Willow couldn't see, allowed herself to cry.

*****

Faith was splashing water on her face when Detective Lockley walked into the restroom. Their eyes met but Faith couldn't read the emotion in Kate's face.

"You know this Willow Rosenberg?," asked the detective. Faith nodded.

"Back in Sunnydale...she was a friend of Angel's," replied Faith.

"How...interesting. Yes, how very interesting," smiled Kate. "Think I'll find any of your fingerprints in that alley, Faith?"

Kate let Faith think about that and then went into one of the stalls. Faith dried her face with a paper towel and left, trying not to think about what Detective Lockley had said.

*****

The nurse adjusted her bandage and she winced.

"Sorry," said the nurse with a shrug. "Not much we can do for fractured ribs. You were lucky. If a little more force had been used we'd be treating you for a punctured lung."

Willow glanced across the room but her visitor quickly looked away.

"Yeah. Lucky," she repeated flatly.

"How's your headache?," asked the nurse.

"Better," she lied.

The nurse looked at her and smiled. Without realizing it she absently brushed her red hair forward, trying to cover the ugly bruise around her left eye.

"I'm just down the hall. If you need anything, anything at all, just use the buzzer."

Willow nodded but didn't make eye contact with the nurse.

"Wish all my patients were this much trouble," sighed the nurse as she left. Not two seconds later Detective Lockley returned with Buffy. Buffy smiled at her and took a seat as far away from her visitor as possible. The tension between the two was palpable even to the detective.

"I know you've signed your statement and that you must be very tired, but I just need to go over a couple of things and then I'll be gone. So...," began the detective, flipping through her notebook and rereading what she had wrote, "you said that you had never seen this man before last night."

The detective looked up but got no reaction. Just a cold stare. She looked back at her notes.

"He told you something about demons and he got upset. At this point did he have the gun in his hand or the two by four?"

"Uh...I, I don't remember. Wait, I never saw the gun."

"You don't remember?," asked the detective with a frown. "Well, did he pick up that piece of wood from the ground or was it already in his hand when you first saw him?"

"Oh, uh...picked it up. Of course, he picked it up. What would he be doing with..."

"And he hit you first in the ribs and then the head. Or was it the other way around? Head first, then the ribs?," she interrupted.

"I've already told you this. Twice. What's your point?," demanded Willow, getting angry.

"Sorry. Just following procedure. One last question and I'm outta here; did your friend here see him hit you?," asked the detective, jabbing her thumb behind her in the direction of the Faith.

"If she did I wasn't aware of it," Willow snapped back. "I already told you..."

"Fine. Thank you for your time. I'll be in touch."

The detective turned and faced Faith.

"Somehow I get the feeling that you're involved. I can't prove it, but if I do, you're going back to prison. For a long time."

Faith didn't even look up at her, but kept her eyes on the floor.

"Detective Lockley, are you calling me a liar?"

The detective turned around to face Willow, who was now leaning forward as if she wanted to get out of bed.

"What? Uh, no...no, I didn't mean to imply..."

"Good. I didn't think you had a pair big enough for that. Now get the hell out of this room and don't let me see your God damned face again!"

The detective just stood there for a moment, speechless. She glanced back at Faith but her eyes were wide open and staring at the Willow. Without a word the Detective Lockley stormed out of the room.

Willow's hands tightened on the covers beside her. Ever so slowly her lower lip began to tremble. As hard as she tried she couldn't stop the tears from coming. Buffy stood up and took a step towards her. And froze as a hand gently tugged at her sleeve. She looked down at the hand and not at the face behind it.

Faith stood up and Willow opened her arms to her. Buffy watched wide eyed as they hugged. Willow's body shook with sobs and she held the other girl tightly, as if she was terrified to let go.

"Faith...make it stop," begged Willow, her voice small, less than a whisper. "How do you make it stop? Every time...every time I shut my eyes I see him. Oh God, what have I done?"

"Willow, it's too soon. You just have to ride it out for a while. I know you feel alone, but I'm here. And I know what you're going through. Believe me...I know."

Willow could no longer speak. She gave in to the tears and Faith let her cry, gently stroking her hair with one hand. Buffy felt her legs give out and collapsed into the chair. She wasn't upset that Willow had sought out Faith to seek comfort in instead of her. Buffy had simply realized what Willow had done.

END OF PART ELEVEN

PART TWELVE

"She's doing great, Cordy. We're taking her home today. They only held her overnight for observation," said Buffy.

"That's good. Tell her I'm thinking about her. Poor kid. But you know, it still doesn't make sense. This guy beats her and then offs himself? I don't get it. Maybe that detective will find out something about him."

"Yeah. Maybe."

"Sure you don't want to stick around for a day or two? If we can find Angel, maybe you can talk some sense into him. I'm worried about him, Buffy. He'd listen to you," said Cordelia.

"No, I can't. Not with Glory around. But you have to call us, keep us up to date. Okay?"

"Well, duh!," teased Cordelia.

"And Cordy? I'm really sorry about the whole neck thing," cringed Buffy.

"Good. You should be," said Cordelia adamantly.

"Bye, Cordy," smiled Buffy.

"Bye."

Buffy hung up the phone.

"Same old Cordy."

*****

Faith stood in the doorway of Willow's room. She was about to knock to announce her presence but saw that Willow seemed to be sleeping. Unsure of what to do, she turned to leave.

"Faith, it's okay. I'm not sleeping."

Faith turned back and smiled for Willow.

"You, uh, getting any sleep at all?"

"Not much," replied Willow. "Actually...none."

Faith nodded with a knowing smile.

"I was just..."

"Come on in," interrupted Willow, sitting up and wincing. "Damn. Wish I had a Slayer's healing powers right about now."

"I'm sorry," frowned Faith.

"Hey. Not your fault. It was my choice."

Faith walked over to the bed.

"Have a seat," offered Willow.

"Nah, I can't stay. Got places to be, ya know?"

"Aren't you going to wait for Buffy?," asked Willow, surprised.

Faith shook her head.

"Buffy's been through a lot. And not just this past week. She's not ready to deal with...with our issues. Not yet," said Faith.

"Maybe. But soon..."

"Soon," interrupted Faith quickly. "I know."

"Faith, where are you going to go?"

"I'm going to look for Angel. Figure out what's up with our legendary brooder. Maybe it's just a midlife crisis, ya know?," laughed Faith. "And maybe I can help him. He helped me. Big time. It's not like I can leave LA anytime soon, what with my probation and all," shrugged Faith.

Neither of them knew what to say next.

"So, I guess I should get going, right?," announced Faith, turning to leave.

"Faith, wait."

Faith turned her head but her body still faced the door.

"I just wanted to say thank you. For everything. I owe you."

"Whatever. No big," smiled Faith.

Willow reached out and grabbed her wrist.

"No. It is big. I mean it. I really do. You didn't have to..."

"It's okay. I get the message," said Faith uncomfortably. Willow let go of her wrist and smiled. And then Faith smiled.

"Re...Willow. You're going to be fine. What you're going through...it's like when you were little and learning how to ride a bike for the first time. You're all alone and no one can help you and you're afraid. And you're going to fall. You can't prevent it. Now you can either get back up and try again or you can quit. Doesn't matter how many times you fall, it's what you do after that counts. At least you have friends. Even if they don't catch you, they will be there to help you up. You...you're not alone."

"Oh, Faith," said Willow, her voice full of sympathy.

Faith just smiled, but it was an empty smile.

"So, you learn how to deal. But you don't forget, do you?," asked Willow.

"Never."

Faith's one word answer held so much more depth of meaning than Willow had expected.

"You're going to get through this. You're a lot tougher than you think," said Faith.

"I hope so."

"Trust me," smiled Faith.

And Willow smiled.

"Gotta go," said Faith. Willow nodded.

"Faith?"

"Yeah?"

"One word."

Faith gave Willow a puzzled look.

"Soon," said Willow.

Faith hesitated but then nodded.

"Yeah."

*****

"What's taking so long?," sighed Buffy, again looking at the clock.

"Paperwork," mumbled Giles. He looked up at Willow with an encouraging smile. "I'm sure it won't be much longer."

Willow, sitting on the edge of her bed, nodded but didn't smile.

"Willow, where's Tara? I mean, I just thought...shouldn't she be here?," asked a confused Buffy.

Willow couldn't hide her smile.

"It's okay, Buffy. I know about the party," said Willow.

"Party?," repeated Buffy.

"You don't have to pretend. Tara confessed...she, uh, told me about it last night. Oh, did I ever mention how ticklish that girl is?," asked Willow with a knowing smile.

"Party?," repeated Buffy.

"The welcome home party for me. Xander took her and Anya home. She's helping Dawn decorate the Magic shop," said Willow with a frown. "You know, that was really nice of Anya to come up here last night to see me. It was really...unexpected."

"Um, Willow? The surprise party was for both of you. Buffy didn't know about it," said Giles.

"Oh. Oh," whined Willow with an understanding pout.

Buffy smiled at her friend's embarrassment.

"Surprise," said Willow with a shrug.

"Willow, can I ask you something?," tried Buffy, her voice small and full of hesitation.

"Sure."

"How did you know?," asked Buffy.

"I just told you...oh, you're not talking about the party, are you?," asked Willow nervously.

Buffy shook her head.

"Know?," repeated Willow, bringing her hands together in her lap. She began to absently rub her thumbs together.

"When you...when Mr. Flynn died, how did you know the spell would be broken?"

Giles looked as if he was going to interrupt but then he just closed his eyes. Willow didn't notice. She looked at the floor and didn't answer Buffy.

"Willow?," said Buffy, stepping to her and placing a hand on her arm. Willow took a deep, labored breath and closed her eyes.

"Hey, it's okay, you don't have to..."

"I didn't," whispered Willow, keeping her eyes closed. Buffy felt her body stiffen to her touch.

"Wh...what?"

"I didn't know," said Willow, only a little louder. She opened her eyes but wouldn't look at Buffy.

"It didn't matter. I didn't care. I...I just hated him so much at that moment, that he was hurting you..."

Willow couldn't finish and began to cry. Buffy quickly held her but Willow didn't raise her arms to return the embrace.

"Will, you were under the spell too. That's why you did it."

"But...but the mark...I didn't have the mark," sobbed Willow.

"And neither did I! Not at first, but wasn't I acting differently before it appeared?," asked Buffy. "Aggressive much, was I?"

"That's, that's what Tara said. And I keep telling myself that...but that's not what I feel. Not in my heart," sighed Willow.

Buffy leaned back, her face close to Willow's.

"Oh, and another thing. When I woke up at Cordelia's, I knew something was wrong, that you were in trouble. I could feel it. Now, you're my bestest friend, but do we have that kind of connection? We were linked by the spell," assured Buffy.

"Maybe," shrugged Willow.

"You are not a killer! You know that! Shh...I'm sorry, I shouldn't have asked. Will, I'm sorry, it's going to be okay. I promise," sniffed Buffy, hugging her tighter. Willow finally raised her arms and returned the hug, crying on Buffy's shoulder.

"I know it hurts, and I'm going to be there for you. And so will Tara, and Xander...we all will. You know that. Willow, you saved my life. Has that kicked in yet? I would have died," said Buffy, leaning back and holding Willow's face in her hands. Willow smiled through quivering lips and nodded.

"But I didn't know. I hoped, but..."

"Shh. Not now," encouraged Buffy.

"Insane or not, Mr. O'Flynn was a fool. There's evil in all of us. There are no exceptions. If he could truly sense...what I mean is that he could have cursed anyone," said Giles awkwardly. Buffy smiled.

"Buffy?"

"What?," smiled Buffy, wiping away Willow's tears with her thumbs.

"You really don't remember? Anything?," sniffed Willow.

"It's hard to explain," shrugged Buffy, suddenly very aware that Giles was standing behind her. She stepped back so that she could see him as well and took a deep breath.

"I remember emotions and sensations. Like intense anger and heat becoming one. Physical pain like darkness, wild mood swings of incredible happiness, numbing fear...being very content one moment and being paralyzed by a crippling emptiness of being alone. It's all so confusing. I see snippets of places I don't remember going to, flashes of people's faces...I'm not making much sense, am I?," sighed Buffy.

"Perhaps it's like amnesia. Maybe your memory will return. In time," added Giles, unable to return Buffy's stare.

"Buffy, what's the last thing you remember?," asked Willow, wiping her face with the palms of her hands.

"It was raining. And I was cold...and standing in front of Giles' door."

Giles finally looked at Buffy. And his eyes couldn't hide the fear and pain that up until now he had been able to mask from her. She knew he was pleading with her to remember. And she knew he couldn't express himself in any other way.

"Did I embarrass myself? Did I hurt anyone?," said Buffy out loud to the room. Willow looked at Giles but he didn't speak. Buffy turned and fully faced her Watcher.

"Giles...is there anything you want to tell me? Anything?," whispered Buffy.

Giles glanced at Willow. She stared at him and gave him a nod of encouragement.

"Only...only that we were all very concerned, of course. And that each of us, in our own way, did everything they could to take care of you as best they knew how."

Willow's mouth dropped open and her eyes turned to watch Buffy's reaction. Buffy only nodded.

"I think I'll go see what's taking that nurse so long," announced Giles. He turned and left the room. Buffy staggered back and collapsed into a chair. She wouldn't look at Willow.

"Uh, Buffy, wait here. Just for a minute...in case the nurse comes back or, or something," said Willow jumping to her feet. "There's...I have to ask Giles something."

Willow didn't wait for an answer. Buffy nodded her head slowly but didn't look up. Willow ran down the hall to catch up with Giles.

"Giles, wait!"

Giles stopped but hesitated before turning to face Willow. He looked at her but didn't say anything. Willow glanced over her shoulder to make sure Buffy was out of earshot.

"You have to tell her!," cried Willow.

"Willow, she doesn't remember."

"But, but..."

"You didn't see how she pulled away when I touched her last night. It was the spell. That's the only reason she...it's better this way," said Giles, finding it difficult to look into Willow's eyes.

"No! No, it was...okay, I don't know why she pulled away. But that's not important! You can't just walk away from this. Buffy needs you!," cried Willow.

"I'm still her Watcher," replied Giles.

"Still her...are you going to stand there and tell me you don't have feelings for her?," demanded Willow, trying to keep her voice low. Giles looked away as if she had punched him in the stomach.

"Oh, Giles, I'm sorry! I didn't mean...of course you have feelings for her. That wasn't just stupid, that was mean. Cordelia mean," sighed Willow.

"Willow, who are we kidding? It was the spell. Why else would Buffy...I remember her first day of college. Or was it her second day? She came over when Olivia had spent the night. She was very upset at seeing Olivia, especially since she was only wearing one of my shirts."

"So, maybe Buffy was...jealous?," offered Willow.

Giles laughed.

"I asked her if it was okay with her that I had a private life. She said no, that I was very, very old and it was gross," said Giles, taking off his glasses and rubbing the bridge of his nose.

"Giles, you know how she sometimes talks before thinking about what she's really saying. Unless..."

Giles put his glasses back on.

"Did you ever consider that she lashed out at you because she really was jealous?," asked Willow, knowingly tilting her head just slightly.

Giles winced, but not because of what Willow had said. Had he missed something? Had Buffy, even then, been trying to tell him something? Could he really have been that blind?

"Giles, you heard her. She remembers being very happy. Hell, she used the word content. When was the last time you heard her say that?," asked Willow.

"When she talked to me about Riley," replied Giles.

Willow shook her head, trying not to get angry.

"I won't lie to you. For the first time since Jenny, I found...happiness. But Buffy doesn't remember. It was the spell. And the spell is broken," sighed Giles.

"No. There had to be something there in the first place for her to...well, you know."

"Need me?," suggested Giles.

"Love you," corrected Willow. "Giles, maybe her memory will return. Just a little at a time. And with you there, beside her, helping her to remember..."

Giles' shoulders sagged and he leaned up against the wall behind him.

"Don't you think that's what I want?," said Giles, his head drooping forward. "Willow, I just don't know what to do. I don't."

Instead of feeling sorry for him, Willow was surprised at how afraid she suddenly felt. She grabbed both of his arms and forced him to look at her.

"Giles, trust your heart. Please?," begged Willow.

Giles thought for a moment and then slowly nodded.

"I am. And that's why she must never know," said Giles softly but with conviction.

"Huh? Did I miss something here?," asked Willow, confused.

"If this was meant to be, it will happen. Again. But I shall not force it."

Willow let go of his arms.

"Giles, please...think about what you're doing. If not for her, than for the both of you!"

Giles lowered his head again, unable to look at Willow. Perhaps for the first time since he had known her he thought of Willow as an adult, no longer the innocent child, his Slayer's best friend. Willow touched his chin and raised his head up, forcing him to look at her.

"Buffy will die young. We all know that but we never talk about it, we avoid that subject at all cost. But there it is. I said it. Don't you think she has a right to be happy? After all she has sacrificed, and will again? Giles...it just isn't fair," sniveled Willow, her voice cracking as the tears formed at the corner of her eyes.

"Life is never fair," whispered Giles.

"Please reconsider, Giles. Please."

"Willow, you must promise me...you must...to never tell Buffy. Xander, Tara, Anya...they can't tell her. Ever. She mustn't know."

"Don't ask me that. Anything but that," cried Willow.

"Willow, please! I can't do this alone. I can't," repeated Giles, tears in his own eyes now.

Willow closed her eyes and reluctantly nodded her head.

"I promise...damn you, I promise!," sobbed Willow.

Giles hugged her, both to comfort her and to hide his own tears from her.

"But...you were so happy," whispered Willow.

Giles didn't say anything.

*****

Buffy entered the Magic Shop and immediately caught Anya's attention. Anya looked up from the book she was reading and realized that it was too late to pretend she was busy. She sighed and waited for Buffy to walk over to her.

"Hey," said Buffy, taking a deep breath.

"Hi, Buffy. How...how are you feeling?," asked Anya, not trying to hide how uncomfortable she was being alone with Buffy.

"Better. Much so. Anya, you know I don't remember much. But I've been told that I was, well, kinda mean to you. Just wanted to say how sorry I am. Oh, I, uh, got you a little something," said Buffy, nervously putting a small wrapped box onto the counter in front of Anya.

"So this would be a peace offering? I'm familiar with the ritual, Buffy. Xander's used it once or twice himself, but you don't have to buy me anything. I understand what happened to you," said Anya, forcing a smile.

"I'm not trying to...what I mean is...see, Xander is very important to me. In a safe, non-sexual way, of course," added Buffy quickly. "And I know that you make him happy. Very happy. So...that makes you important to me. Do, do you understand what I'm trying to say?," asked Buffy, trying not to pout.

"I do. I really do. Thank you," said Anya, genuinely touched by her words. "And thank you for the gift."

"Open it," smiled Buffy.

Anya grinned like a child on Christmas morning. She ripped off the paper and opened the box. Inside was a pair of silver hoop earrings.

"Oh, Buffy. They're beautiful," said Anya, running her fingers over them.

"Thought they'd look good on you," nodded Buffy.

"Thanks."

"Whatcha reading?," asked Buffy, tilting her head to look at the spine of the book. Anya lifted it up so that she could see.

"It's something Willow gave to me. Emily Dickinson. Said I had to read it slowly so that I could think about what she was trying to say. Unlike my other reading material," smiled Anya. She opened to book to a marked page and began to read.

"If I can stop one heart from breaking I shall not live in vain..."

"If I can ease one life the aching or cool one pain...," finished Buffy, suddenly distant.

Anya looked up, surprised. Buffy smiled, but just for a moment.

"Oh, I had a friend, back in high school. He really liked Emily Dickinson. In fact he...he introduced me to her," explained Buffy.

"Know what I think?,' asked Anya.

"What?"

"This was one depressed chick. Talk about needing a lover in her life! Whew!"

Buffy smiled again.

"I gotta run, do a few things. But I'll be back later."

"Thanks again," said Anya.

"Thank you. About Xander...I meant what I said."

"I know," nodded Anya.

*****

Dawn stood in Buffy's doorway but her sister lay on her bed, staring at the ceiling, and didn't notice her. Dawn reached in and knocked on the door. Buffy, startled, looked over at her and then smiled.

"Hey," said Dawn.

"Hey."

"Can I come in?"

"Sure," answered Buffy, sitting up and patting the bed next to her. Dawn smiled and quickly sat down next beside her.

"Tough week, huh?," said Dawn.

Buffy nodded and sadly looked at her hands.

"So...you really don't remember anything? That must be so...weird," said Dawn.

"You have no idea," sighed Buffy.

Dawn reached over and took her hand in hers. Buffy smiled.

"There are some things that seem clearer to me than others. You know what the worst thing was?," asked Buffy.

"Kissing Spike?"

"No, actually that wasn't...um, right, that was gross. Disgusting even," nodded Buffy. "But no, the one thing that wigs me the most is me not knowing you were my sister. Big time wig. And it must've scared you, too," added Buffy, covering Dawn's hand with both of hers. "I'm sorry.'

"That's okay. I know you didn't mean it," replied Dawn, embarrassed but still very happy.

"Dawn, I would do anything for you. I love you," said Buffy, giving her hand a little squeeze.

"Me too. Now stop with the maudlin already," said Dawn, rolling her eyes.

"Alright," smiled Buffy, letting go of Dawn's hands.

"Buffy, can I ask you something?"

"Sure."

"Well, the thing is...see, I've never had a boyfriend before, and I was wondering...uh, what I mean is..."

Dawn glanced at Buffy and then looked away. Buffy didn't say anything, knowing that her sister would eventually blurt out what she needed to express.

"Okay, I've seen what you went through with Angel. I've seen what Willow went through with Oz. And now, you and Riley...well..."

"And you're wondering if it's all worth it?"

Dawn looked at Buffy, smiled and nodded. Buffy didn't hesitate.

"Oh yeah. It's worth it. Not that you're ready for dating!," warned Buffy.

Dawn raised one side of her mouth in a half frown.

"Dawn, is there a boy you're interested in at school?," inquired Buffy.

"No! Like they'd notice me anyway," frowned Dawn.

"Oh, they will. And soon. That's one promise I know I can keep," teased Buffy. Dawn smiled but still had her doubts.

"Buffy, what would you do if someone asked you out? I mean, are you going to wait for Riley? You think he's coming back?"

"Wow, um...I don't know. I do hope he comes back. There's so much I want to say to him, so much...as for dating again? Sorry. I'm just not ready yet," said Buffy, shaking her head.

"But...you said it was worth it. How are you going to know if you don't take the chance?," asked Dawn.

Buffy took a deep breath and looked at her sister. She was growing up. Fast.

"It's a little different with me, I think. I can't really hide the fact the I'm the Slayer from someone and at the same time have a meaningful relationship. Not one built on trust, anyhow. And, and then this person would get all worried every time I went on patrol..."

"Everyone worries about that, Buffy. We just don't talk about it," said Dawn.

Buffy smiled and lay her head down in Dawn's lap, just like she had done with Buffy so many times before. Dawn ran her fingers through Buffy's hair as they talked.

"I know. And I try not to think about it. About what you and mom and the others would go through if something happened to me. I mean, I can't think about it, you know?"

"And Giles."

"Huh?," asked Buffy.

"You didn't mention Giles," said Dawn.

"Oh. He was included in the others part."

"Oh."

"Maybe..."

"Maybe what?," asked Dawn.

Buffy took a deep breath before continuing.

"Maybe that's why I didn't give my heart over to Riley completely. Because I didn't want to think about him, about what would happen if I...well, you know. But I'm sorry I didn't. He deserved that. He really did."

"He'll come back. You'll see," said Dawn.

"I hope so. Oh, and as far as me dating again? No, thank you. It just isn't fair to the other person. Or to me. I won't let him love me...I won't...because I don't want to get hurt again," whispered Buffy, wiping a tear from her eye. "And I don't want to hurt him."

Buffy, you're talking like you already have someone in mind."

"No. No, there's no one," swallowed Buffy.

"You'd rather be alone?"

"No. But there's no way this can have a happy ending," sighed Buffy.

"Buffy, you don't get it, do you? We're all alone. Isn't that the point of finding another person?"

Buffy tilted her head back and looked up at Dawn.

"Wow. When did my baby sister get all grown up on me? Where was I?," asked Buffy with a grin.

"You were right here. All the time," smiled Dawn.

*****

Giles sat on the edge of his bed and took another gulp of scotch straight from the bottle. He forced himself to look to his left. The photo of Buffy and him was propped up against the pillow. Giles filled the empty glass he held in his other hand with more of the amber colored liquor and placed the bottle on the floor. He ran his hand over his chin and stood up.

Taking only a sip this time, he put the glass on his dresser. The booze, as much as he had consumed, didn't seem to be helping. Giles slowly reached for the picture frame and stared at it, wondering why the image seemed to be from so long ago. He took a deep breath and shook his head.

Giles turned and pulled open the top drawer of his dresser. Moving aside several socks and undershirts, he cleared out a corner. And even though he knew it was there, seeing the rose quartz pendant that had been Jenny's sent a chill through him. He quickly turned the frame over, fighting the temptation to look at it just one more time, and set it down next to the pendant. Giles pushed shut the drawer.

The room suddenly seemed smaller and yet more empty than it had been a few moments ago. Giles grabbed the glass and drained half of what was in it, the burning in his throat forcing him to close his eyes. When he was able to open them again his eyes were drawn to the bed.

It was so easy, too easy, to imagine her there again, to be able to lose himself in her...to remember the vanilla fragrance of her hair as he held her...

His right hand was shaking and Giles had to hold the glass with both hands to steady it. As hard as he tried he couldn't tear his eyes from the bed. So Giles simply closed them. And then, driven by the anger that was rising like bile in his throat, he hurled the glass against the far wall. The sound of the shattering glass didn't even register with him.

Giles sat on the edge of his bed, head in his hands, and gave up the fight. A low moan of pain escaped him as he desperately tried to breathe between the sobs that gripped him. Part of him wished that the pain would never end. But another part of him knew that in the morning he would have to be there for her.

*****

Buffy sat down on the edge of her bed. Joyce was at the gallery, Dawn was at school and the house was very quiet. Too quiet. But it was better to be here than to have to face Willow. Or Giles.

She saw the frame and the broken glass still lying on her dresser. Dawn must have picked it up. Buffy looked away but knew she couldn't ignore it. Taking a deep breath, she leaned over and carefully picked up the frame, keeping it face down on her lap. Her mouth suddenly seemed dry and she found it difficult to swallow. Buffy's right hand began to tremble and she knew that if she didn't look at the photo now she never would be able to.

With a sigh that had no breath behind it she flipped the frame over. The photo was only covered by half a pane of glass, broken in diagonal from the upper left of the frame to the lower right. And there they were, her arm around his waist, his arm across her shoulder, pulling her closer to him. The smiles were the same but to Buffy they no longer seemed happy. Rather, they now appeared empty, haunting in their simplicity.

Even as she ran her fingers gently over his face Buffy felt the tears begin. She didn't even try to hold them back. She took her right hand and touched her shoulder where his arm had rested. It was so easy to imagine the warmth of his touch against her skin. Buffy closed her eyes, unable to look at the photo anymore. The frame slipped from her fingers and crashed to the floor.

Buffy fell on her side and buried her face into her pillow, her body wracked with sobs. Even though the house was empty, she didn't want anyone to hear. She couldn't let them know. Ever. Her fingers dug into her palms until she drew blood as her body begged for physical pain so that it could flee the anguish that gripped her now.

But there was no release. There was no one there for her. Buffy, like Faith, was alone.

THE END

"Faith...she had it rough. Different circumstances, that could be me." - Buffy

"No way. Some people just don't have that in them." - Willow