Title: Descent
Category: Drama
Rated: PG-13 (There is a lot of discussion about Willow's relationship with Tara so if you have a problem with that you might want to pass on this one.)
Spoilers: None, I'm making this stuff up.
Summary: Buffy learns more about the creatures she hunts. A lot more. Takes place during the summer between Freshman and Sophomore year of college.
Disclaimer: Joss Whedon owns everything associated with BTVS, up to and including the posters on the wall.
Feedback: As always, love to hear it. Come on, say something!

PART ONE

"Oh, I give up. She could be anywhere by now."

Xander leaned against the brick wall behind him and looked at his watch.

"Less than an hour before sunrise," he said out loud, shaking his head. Xander's cheeks puffed out as he slowly exhaled. Then he heard something, further down in the alley. It sounded like...like someone crying. He drew the cross from his back pocket and walked towards the noise.

Giving the dumpster on his left a wide berth, Xander continued walking down the alley. He saw her sitting on the ground in the shadows along the wall, just past the dumpster. Her knees were drawn up and her hands covered her face.

"Buffy, is that you?"

The girl didn't look up. She cried even louder. Xander took another step towards her.

"Xander, please...I don't want you to see me like this. Please, just...just go."

"I don't care what you look like. I just want to help. We all do."

"Well, you can start by putting that cross away!"

"Oh! Sorry, I...sorry," said Xander, putting the cross into his back pocket. He took two more steps and knelt down besides Buffy. She wiped her eyes but wouldn't face him.

"Buffy, what are you doing here? We were so worried about you."

"I, I don't know. I was walking and, and I heard a noise. By the dumpster. And...and suddenly the thought of eating a rat didn't disgust me anymore! I mean, if Angel..."

Buffy started crying again and covered her face with one arm. Xander leaned over to touch her shoulder and saw the dead rat on the ground next to her, its head at an odd angle to the body.

"It's not...I couldn't bite into it. I...God, what's happening to me? Why is this happening?"

"Buffy, let me take you home."

"Home? I can't go home! Not like this," yelled Buffy, looking at Xander for the first time. He looked into her yellow, feral eyes, tears streaming down her cheeks. And he had to shut his eyes to remember that this was his friend. Opening his eyes, trying not to stare at her raised upper lip, Xander knew he had to take charge and help her.

Xander simply stood up and extended his hand. Buffy closed her eyes and let him pull her to her feet. She immediately hugged him, hiding her face in his chest.

"Buffy, Giles will figure this out. You know he will. That's what he does."

Xander hugged her a little tighter and felt Buffy's body stiffen in response. She slowly pulled her head back and looked up at him.

"You're a good friend, Xander."

Xander smiled.

"You...you would probably do anything for me. If I asked, I mean," smiled Buffy.

"Sure," nodded Xander.

Buffy brought her face closer to his and lowered her voice to a whisper.

"Remember how we danced that time...in the Bronze?," asked Buffy, her voice like a breath.

"Uh..."

"Sure you do," said Buffy softly, running a finger down Xander's cheek, pausing near his chin and then slowly moving it down his neck.

"Uh...what, what about it?," asked Xander nervously, stepping back so that his body was now pressed against the wall behind them.

"Well, I never apologized. For leading you on like that, I mean. For leaving things so...unresolved," smiled Buffy, placing both hands on his shoulders.

"Yeah. Uh, it...Buffy, it doesn't matter. Now, I mean. Because, because I liked it so...so it wasn't, uh...I mean, who wouldn't? You know, it's going to be light soon. We have to get you inside. Okay?," pleaded Xander.

"Oh, we've got plenty of time, Xander. Plenty of time," said Buffy, no longer whispering. She pressed her hips up against him. "You wanted me then, didn't you? In fact, I was all you could think about. For a long time, if I remember."

Xander's eyes opened wide as Buffy pushed him even harder against the wall.

"Do you...do you still want me, Xander? 'Cause I'm suddenly finding you irresistible," said Buffy, whispering again. She ran her tongue along his neck and suddenly grabbed his head with both hands. Buffy brought her lips up to his.

"Kiss me, Xander. You know you want to."

"No. Buffy, this isn't you! You're not yourself. Buffy, please!"

Buffy pulled Xander's head to one side, exposing his neck. She moaned and felt his body tense beneath her. He tried to struggle free but she was too strong for him.

"Don't," warned Buffy, sensing that Xander was going to reach behind him for his cross. "Just because I can't see it doesn't mean I don't know you're packing. Even in your pocket I can feel it burn my skin."

She grabbed his wrist, smiling, and slammed his arm up against the wall, holding it there. Buffy placed her lips on his, gently at first and then harder as her desire grew. As terrified as he was Xander found himself responding, returning her kiss. Buffy withdrew her mouth, running her tongue over his lips as she did.

"Mmm, that's better," panted Buffy. "Your heart is beating faster...I can...I can hear it."

She looked at him. He stared back, sweat beading on his forehead, his breath quick and loud in the silence between them.

"Buffy...please don't..."

Buffy put a finger over his lips.

"Shh. It's me, Xander. I wouldn't hurt you. We're both anticipating something here, aren't we? Although I think you have something else in mind," she added with a smile.

She withdrew her finger and kissed him again. The scent of his fear made her kiss him harder. Buffy slid her mouth down to his neck. Xander mumbled something but she no longer heard him. Her eyes rolled back into her head, shark-like, as she gently pressed her mouth against the pulse in his neck. Buffy let her mouth linger there, the heat from Xander's body intoxicating to her.

Buffy pressed her teeth a little harder against him. Xander moaned but it wasn't a cry of pain. He even pulled her closer to him with his left arm. Moving in slow circles her tongue teased his skin. Xander gasped as Buffy's fangs pierced his neck...

*****

Three days earlier...

"Blessed be, Willow. Can I help you find something?"

"Evening, Sarah. Just looking, really. Anything new come into the shop lately?"

"Oh, just the usual. You know, raven's feather, bloodroot. Nothing out of the ordinary. Thinking of doing a spell?"

"Nope. Spell free lately. Kinda in research mode right now. Tara and I wanted to try something different and we're not sure what yet and that didn't come out the way I wanted it to," said Willow, wrinkling her nose.

"I know what you meant," smiled Sarah as she reached behind the counter where she stood. "Here, take a look at this."

Sarah handed Willow a thin, leather bound book. She opened the tome and saw that the pages were yellowed and brittle that but the writing was in English, the lettering beautifully printed by a quill pen.

"It's not old as far as magick books go, but one advantage is that it is written in English. No making a mistake because of a bad translation," added Sarah.

"Yeah, I can make plenty of those even knowing the words," laughed Willow.

"My source tells me it's from early eighteenth century New England. Seems to be part spell book and part diary, although I've only thumbed through the pages so far."

"Oh, this is nice!," commented Willow in awe as she carefully turned the pages. "Even has a drawing or two. And if Tara didn't like this I'm sure Giles would. I'm afraid to ask how much," said Willow, glancing up from the book.

"Willow, you're one of my best customers. And I like you, too. I can let you have it for fifty."

Willow nodded but sighed.

"I can get twice that here in the shop," said Sarah.

"Oh, it's not the price. You're being very fair. It's just, well, I only brought forty dollars with me."

"So? You can pay me next time you're in. I'll tell you what...why don't you take the book home and think about it? If you don't like it you can return it."

"Thanks, Sarah. And who are ya kidding here? You know I'm going to keep it," said Willow, handing the book back to Sarah.

"Let me wrap it up for you," smiled Sarah.

The bell on the front door jingled as a man entered the shop. Sarah glanced up at the clock on the wall. It was 8:45.

"I'll be right with you. I do close in fifteen minutes," said Sarah.

The man nodded and began to look around the place. Sarah handed Willow the book and she gave Sarah two twenties.

"Thanks again," said Willow with a smile.

"Have a good night, Willow."

The bell on the door jingled again as Willow left, book under her arm.

"Can I help you?," asked Sarah.

"I hope you can. A, uh, friend of mine recently sold a collection of items to you. Over the weekend, I believe. There was, uh, a talisman or two, some paintings...but there was a book in the lot. A very old book. I'm afraid it was included by mistake. You see, it had been in the family for generations and had, well, sentimental value."

"Oh dear. I'm afraid I just sold it!"

*****

Willow smiled, happy with her purchase. She smiled even more, anticipating Tara's reaction when she saw the book. She'd wait until the morning and surprise her when she woke up. And then Willow realized how quiet it was. And how dark. Even before she reached for her cross she remembered that she had left it home when she switched jackets. Nervously she began to walk faster.

"How long have you lived in Sunnydale?," Willow asked herself. "And still you forget to bring a cross!," she added, hitting herself on the forehead with the palm of her hand.

Willow stopped and snapped her head around. She had heard something behind her. But there was nothing there.

"Just the wind," she whispered, even though there was no breeze tonight. She took another step and bumped into...Buffy!

"Hey, Will. Walk much?"

"Buffy! How...don't do that!"

"Let me guess. You forgot to bring a cross. Again," smiled Buffy, trying to hide her concern from Willow.

"Well, I...you see...oh, what's the use? Yeah, I did," admitted Willow.

"Good thing I was patrolling. Come on, I'll walk you home," offered Buffy, putting her arm around her best friend. "You shouldn't worry your room mate like this."

"Buffy, we're not room mates anymore."

"I meant Tara."

"Oh. Wait, so you're not worried about me?"

"Willow!"

"I know, I know. Just kidding. And about the room mate sitch, we, well we really never talked about it much. I can spend a night or two every so often at the dorm. When Riley's not over or you're not over at his place."

"Yeah. I'd like that. In fact, why don't we make it a rule. Say, Tuesday and Thursday nights we both stay together at the dorm. Okay? I don't want us to drift apart like last year," said Buffy.

"That'd be nice. Deal! Tuesday and Thursday belong to us," agreed Willow.

"Not that Tara can't come over then," added Buffy quickly.

"Or Riley. They just can't spend the night," said Willow.

"So what did you tell you're parents about Tara? Uh, the staying over at her apartment this summer, I mean," corrected Buffy.

"Oh, I sleep at home every now and then. You know my mom, she doesn't seem to care what I do. I told her that Tara and I are friends, that we have classes together and I sleep over there because why should I come all the way home when it's late at night? Told her it was safer. I think she heard me. She may have nodded," explained Willow.

"Just friends? You haven't..."

"Oh, no. I haven't. Not ready for that yet," said Willow, shaking her head. "Big no to the big talk."

Buffy smiled and gave Willow's shoulder a squeeze before letting go.

"And what about the Buffy, Riley, Mom triangle at your house? What does your mom think about you two practically living together?," asked Willow.

"She's okay with it. I think. I hope. I spend a night or two at home, but she knows I'm staying at Riley's apartment this summer. Mostly she avoids the subject like I avoid cleaning my room. And as far as this fall goes, she thinks you and I are still room mates. Room mates who share one big, empty dorm room. I mean, with you staying with Tara and me at Riley's," added Buffy.

"Yep, gotta keep up those pretenses. Guess it's safer for all involved that way," said Willow.

"Don't think of it that way, Will. It's...well, just part of growing up, I guess."

"Yeah. Oh, hey! Lookie at what I got for Tara," said Willow, holding up the package she was carrying.

"Wow. A brown bag. She'll love it. Bet she doesn't have one of those!," smiled Buffy.

"No, silly! It's a book. A really old book, with spells and drawings and, and all sorts of neat stuff."

Buffy smiled and looked away.

"What? You don't think she'll like?," asked Willow.

"I'm sorry. No, I'm sure she'll love it. Just a little jealous, I guess."

"Huh? You wanted a spell book too?," asked Willow, confused.

"No, no. See, you're in that everything's new phase. Looking at the other person when you don't think he, or she, is looking which of course he, and she, are. Thinking about them instead of paying attention to the teacher's lecture. Well, maybe you don't do that. Buying each other presents. It's...cute. Not that I'm complaining. Okay, maybe I am just a little," said Buffy.

"Riley doesn't buy you presents?"

"Uh, sure he does. Sometimes. And I guess I'm guilty of that too. The not buying part. But things are going great. Really. It's just, well, you're floating on air and I'm a little more grounded."

Both Willow and Buffy were knocked to the ground as a man crashed into them. And he never stopped running.

"Hey!," yelled Buffy even before Willow could react. "That's not what I meant by grounded."

"Buffy, he took my book!," cried Willow.

"Not for long," answered Buffy, getting to her feet. He didn't have much of a head start and Buffy knew she could catch him. Less than a minute later she was right.

Buffy stood at the end of an alley. And since this was her home turf, she knew it was a dead end. She smiled and shook her head.

"You know, it would have been so much easier for you if you just had a library card."

The man twisted his head back, looking at Buffy over his shoulder. He had just realized that the only way out was past this girl. He turned and faced her, one hand clutching the book tightly to his chest.

"You have got to be kidding me," said Buffy, rolling her eyes.

"Look, I don't want any trouble. So if you'll just get out of my way, I'll be out of your life," he said, taking a step towards Buffy.

"At least I have a life. You must be new in town. Just passing through?," asked Buffy, reaching behind her to withdraw a stake.

"Uh, actually I am. How did you..."

He stopped walking towards Buffy when he saw the stake she was holding in front of her now. Buffy heard Willow at the end of the alley behind her.

"And speaking of passing through," said Buffy, smiling and pointing the end of the stake at him.

"You must be the Slayer."

"Good guess! I'd say you were smart, but then again you came to my town, knowing I was here."

Buffy took a step towards him and he backed away, still clutching the book tightly.

"You don't understand. See, there's been some kind of mistake. I'm...I'm not supposed to be a vampire."

"Well, we don't always get to choose want we want to be in life, or unlife, do we? I know I didn't," shrugged Buffy.

"No, I...I was never bitten by a vampire, I swear. This is some kind of curse. It, it wasn't meant to be."

Buffy kept walking slowly towards him and he kept backing up.

"That's a new one. Bonus points for creativity. Of course, I've never heard of any other way to become what you are so sorry, I don't believe you. Nice try, though," smiled Buffy.

"Please, I don't want to hurt you!"

"Oh, like you could? Please!"

"No, I know you'll kill me. But I will have to fight back. And you might get hurt," he said, more concern than fear in his voice. Buffy stopped walking.

"Now why would you care about that?," asked Buffy.

"Because I'm telling you the truth! I don't want to be like this! It's not fair, there's been a mistake," he said sadly.

"Buffy, he was in Sarah's shop when I was there," called out Willow.

Buffy glanced over her shoulder to see how close Willow was to them. And that's when the vampire decided to run. He pushed against Buffy with the book but failed to knock her down. She simply stuck out a foot and tripped him, pushing him as he fell so that he landed on his back. The book flew from his hands.

"You know, you've been a great contestant. But you lost. So how about a nice parting gift?," quipped Buffy, driving the stake deep into his chest. She sat back on her heels to watch him die. He cried out in pain. But nothing happened.

"Uh, Buffy? Where's the poof? What's up with the lack of poof?," asked Willow.

"Willow, I didn't miss his heart. Oh my God, you can't be human!"

"Slayer, I...I tried to warn...you," said the vampire, gasping as if trying to breath between words. He grasped the stake with both hands but didn't try to pull it out.

"Remember that. I, I...tried to...I'm sorry...it's gone...it's finally gone!," he yelled, laughing. He tilted his head and stared at Buffy. Suddenly he exploded into ash. And Buffy's eyes grew wide as she stared at what lay on the ground.

The vampire's skeleton and clothes remained. The stake was firmly wedged between two ribs, visible through a rip in his shirt. Buffy scrambled back away from the corpse, not stopping until she bumped into Willow's legs. She put a hand on Buffy's shoulder.

"Buffy, what the hell is that!?"

"I don't know. Will, go call Giles. He needs to see this. No, wait! I don't want you to go alone."

Buffy knelt beside the skeleton and pulled her stake free. A moment later the skeleton exploded into ash. Only the clothes remained.

"Aw, now come on! This is just plain weird!," complained Buffy.

"Yep. Even by Sunnydale standards," agreed Willow. She bent down and picked up her book.

"Let's go. I feel a major wiggins coming on. We'll tell Giles in the morning. I suddenly need to take a shower. Can't be running to him every time...well, okay, I guess I can. But I just need to sort this out first," frowned Buffy.

Willow nodded and they walked out of the alley.

End Of Part One

PART TWO

Tara stretched and blinked her eyes open. And saw Willow, her head propped up by an elbow and smiling back at her.

"Morning, sleepy head," said Willow, leaning over to give Tara a quick kiss.

"Morning. Been up long?"

"No, not really. Oh, okay, almost an hour," admitted Willow. "I've just...been watching you sleep."

Tara smiled. Then she frowned.

"I didn't keep you up, did I?," asked Tara.

"Oh, no. Well, maybe once or twice last night."

"Huh?"
"I was cold. Someone is a blankey hog," teased Willow.

"Oh. Sorry," said Tara, her mouth in a half frown.

"No big. A little snuggling and I wasn't cold for long. Oh! I got you a present," said Willow, rolling over and reaching under the bed. She handed Tara the package.

"Sorry 'bout the paper being a little ripped. I, uh, dropped it," explained Willow.

"Willow, I..."

"Oh, just open it."

"Thanks."

Tara excitedly tore the paper off the book as if she were a little girl again and it was her birthday.

"Oh, wow," said Tara, turning the book over in her hands. "This looks old. Where'd you get it?"

"At Sarah's."

Tara opened the leather bound cover. And immediately threw the book to one side as if she had been touched by an electric shock.

"Tara! What...what is it? What's wrong?"

"I don't know. It's...it's like a chill ran through me when I opened the book."

"But I already looked at it. Nothing happened to me!," said Willow.

The two girls looked at one another. Willow tentatively reached over and touched the book, then picked it up. She glanced at Tara and then opened it. Nothing happened. Tara slowly reached over and placed her hand on the yellow parchment. She looked at Willow and shrugged.

"Giles," said Willow.

"Giles," agreed Tara, nodding.

*****

Buffy stretched and blinked her eyes open.

"Morning, sleepyhead," said Riley, leaning over to give her a quick kiss. "Didn't think you'd ever get up."

Buffy smiled.

"Yeah, I'm beat. Guess I didn't sleep good last night."

"I didn't notice."

"Riley, you wouldn't notice if a train came through here when you were sleeping."

"Well, at least I don't snore," replied Riley. "I don't, do I?"

Buffy raised her eyebrows and looked at him innocently.

"Oh. Did I keep you up?," he asked.

"No," answered Buffy, rubbing her eyes. "And you don't snore. Too loudly."

Riley shook his head and hit Buffy over the head with his pillow. He got up and pulled up the shade.

"Yikes, it's bright out!," complained Buffy, squinting her eyes.

"Yes, it's a beautiful morning," said Riley, turning back to face her. "What's wrong? Headache?"

Buffy nodded.

"Could you get me some aspirin. Maybe eight?"

Riley hesitated.

"Only kidding!"

"Sure. Be right back," smiled Riley.

Buffy lay back down and closed her eyes.

*****

They walked four across, Buffy in the middle with Riley to her right, Willow next to Buffy with Tara to her left. Buffy and Riley were holding hands. Willow noticed and slipped her hand around Tara's, giving her a quick smile. Tara seemed surprised but gave Willow's hand a little squeeze of approval.

"New look, Buffy?," asked Willow. Buffy was wearing sunglasses under a baseball cap. She had a ponytail pulled through the back of the cap. "Uh, not that you don't have it working for you, girl," she added with a smile to imply it was meant as a compliment.

"It's okay, Will. And thanks. I'm...I just have a headache. The sun, it's kinda making it worse."

"Oh."

Buffy knocked on the door and Willow let go of Tara's hand. She was still uncomfortable displaying affection towards Tara in front of Giles. Tara glanced at Willow but she wasn't looking in her direction and she wondered if Willow was deliberately not looking at her. Giles opened the door.

"Good morning. Come on in. Xander and Anya are already here," said Giles.

Everyone got settled in on chairs around the living room. Giles set a tray of tea and coffee on the table for anyone who wanted it.

"So Buffy, tell me more about this vampire you encountered last night. I believe on the phone you used the word 'wigged' twice in one sentence," said Giles, sipping his tea.

"Giles, if I could have worked it in three times I would have. After I staked him there was the usual poofy exit. But his skeleton remained. Kinda like the Master," added Buffy, frowning and looking down at her hands.

"Excuse me for interrupting but are you feeling well? You haven't taken off your sunglasses," said Giles.

"Oh, sure, I'm fine. Just a headache. And it seems bright in here," answered Buffy.

"Oh. Would you like me to pull the shades down?," asked Giles.

"No. Really, I'm okay."

"Alright, uh, please continue," said Giles.

"Well, when I pulled the stake out of his ribs the skeleton poofed but not his clothes."

"Fascinating," commented Giles. "Did you learn anything from your banter phase with him?"

"My banter phase?"

"Yeah, you know, Buffy. Like a cat playing with a toy. You tease him, smack him around a little without your claws out and then...pounce! He's kitty litter!," said Xander.

"I'd call it Slayer foreplay," interjected Anya.

Everyone looked at her without speaking.

"What? We know how horny you get after a kill. Remember?," asked Anya.

Everyone still stared at Anya.

"Uh, and hungry," added Anya with a smile.

Riley stopped looking at Anya and stared at Buffy.

"Um, foreplay involves smacking around?," asked Willow.

"Yes, banter. Banter I did, did I," said Buffy, trying to change the subject.

"Better believe it. She had her punning working, she did," said Willow.

"We are talking like Dr. Seuss, we are?," asked Tara, smiling.

Willow glared at her and Tara covered her mouth with her hand to keep from laughing.

"Uh, he was a little more whiny than your average vamp. Kept saying that it was a mistake, that it wasn't meant to be. Claimed he was never bitten by a vampire, that it must've been a curse. He...he did say that he didn't want to be that way. Oh, and that he wasn't from our neck of the woods. Where exactly is the neck of the woods? There's no head of the woods. You have your head of the class but no neck of the class. That's going to bug me now," sighed Buffy.

"Uh, Buffy...," began Giles.

"Right. Where was I? Oh, he didn't want to fight me."

"Of course not. He knew who you were," said Riley.

"No, it wasn't that. He knew I would kill him. But he was afraid that if we fought I might get hurt. Giles, could...could he have had a soul? Is that possible? I mean, I didn't pick up on him being dead and all right away and that kinda has me wigged too."

"I don't see how," answered Giles, putting his cup of tea down. "I've never heard of someone being cursed and becoming a vampire. Oh, I'll do the research, of course. But, except for Angel, a vampire with a soul? Not very likely, I'm afraid. And even Angel was dead and then had his soul restored."

"Yeah, I sorta knew that one," said Buffy, avoiding eye contact with Riley.

"You did say you weren't feeling well, Buffy. Maybe that's why you didn't realize he was a vampire," suggested Giles.

"Maybe. But it wasn't until this morning that I wasn't feeling good."

"A cold would affect you being able to sense them?," asked Riley.

"Uh, I don't know, actually. Giles?"

"It may. But I'm not positive, either. Did this vampire say anything else?"

"Uh, lets see. Just before he died he told me to remember that he tried to warn me. Then he said something about it being finally gone. Yeah, in fact he repeated that," said Buffy.

"Maybe he was in pain," offered Xander.

"Maybe," shrugged Buffy. "And that's another thing. His face never changed. I mean, even Angel, if he was in pain, couldn't control that. The demon would surface. Then, poof!"

"Is that when you got horny?," asked Anya.

"Anya!," yelled Xander.

"Sorry. Just doing the research, like you guys do," said Anya.

"Huh?," said Xander.

Anya lowered her voice to a whisper. "I thought we could pretend that I was a Slayer and you were a big, bad vampire," she added with a smile.

"Do you ever come up for air?," asked Xander.

"Oh, Buffy! Don't forget about the book," said Willow.

"The book?," asked Giles.

"Oh, yeah. This vamp tried to steal a book that Willow had just bought at Sarah's Magic Shop," said Buffy. Willow reached under the chair she was sitting on and handed the book to Giles.

"He was in there just before I left. Sarah said that this was part diary, part spellbook. And that it was from early eighteenth century New England," said Willow.

Giles opened the book and turned a page or two.

"What would a vampire want with a book of spells?," asked Xander.

"Do many vampires delve into magic?," asked Riley.

"No, it's rare. Maybe even unheard of. Never actually thought about that. Guess I should be grateful," said Buffy.

"It's the whole lack of soul deal," said Tara.

"Huh?," said Buffy.

"It's a lot harder to cast spells successfully without a soul, even, ironically, the black arts. Not impossible, of course," explained Tara.

"Oh yeah. You can lose your soul with the black arts," said Anya.

"Hence the ironic," agreed Willow.

"Not that I...oh, never mind," said Anya, forcing a smile.

"Love that hobby of yours, Will," said Xander, glancing at Anya.

"Oh, and Giles, when Tara opened the book she felt something like a chill run through her. It didn't happen when I looked at it," added Willow.

"Really?," said Giles, momentarily looking up from his reading. "Tara, do you believe the book to be cursed?"

"I don't know. Maybe. But I haven't had that feeling since, and I did look at it again."

"Hmm. Could I borrow this for a while? I'd like to see if there is anything in here that may have interested this vampire," said Giles.

"Sure. Keep it for a spell," smiled Willow. No one said anything and only Buffy smiled.

"Get it? A spell?," asked Willow.

Giles looked at her over the rim of his glasses.

"Sorry," pouted Willow, slumping down lower into her chair.

"And hey, sorry to run, but Riley's offered to take me to lunch. And suddenly I'm starving," announced Buffy as she stood up. "Why don't we meet back here later today?"

"Yes. That's a good idea. Uh, Willow, perhaps you should go speak with Sarah, see if she talked with this vampire. It might be helpful," said Giles.

"Sure thing. Tara and I don't mind spending time in a magic shop, do we?," asked Willow, looking at Tara with a smile.

"Sounds like fun," agreed Tara.

"And I'll...have lunch with Anya," said Xander, realizing he probably wasn't needed. Again.

"Great!," said Anya excitedly. "But let's go somewhere where they don't serve fries, okay?"

Xander looked at her with a puzzled look and Anya knew he was stumped.

"Oh, I get it! You want pizza," said Xander.

Anya shook her head and sighed.

*****

"So, did you ask Buffy about the party yet?," asked Tara.

"Uh, no. Not yet."

"Willow, the party is in two days! Don't you want her to be there?"

"Of course I do! She's my best friend. She should be there," said Willow. "Xander too."

"Trying to convince yourself?," asked Tara.

"What? No, of course not."

They walked for awhile without speaking.

"Well, at least you have someone to ask," complained Tara.

"Tara, you have friends! Come on now, we've been over this. Besides, you have me," smiled Willow. Tara smiled and reached for her hand. Willow looked down as if she were surprised but took Tara's hand and gave it a squeeze.

"Still a little uncomfortable about holding hands in public?," asked Tara, not looking at Willow.

"No. It's just...well, even when I was with Oz I wasn't big into public displays. You're not the only one who's shy, ya know."

"It's not for display, Willow. It's just...natural. It feels right."

"You're right. And I'm sorry. About the party, too. I'll talk to Buffy later. When we go back to Giles. Okay?"

Tara nodded and smiled. They had reached Sarah's shop. Willow put her hand on the handle of the door and turned to Tara.

"I'm letting go now. It doesn't mean anything. Besides, you know Sarah's cool with us," said Willow.

"Just get inside," teased Tara, her hands on her hips. Willow smiled and pushed open the door.

"Blessed be, Willow. Blessed be, Tara. And good morning," said Sarah.

"Good morning, Sarah," said Willow.

"Blessed be, Sarah," added Tara. They were the only ones in the shop.

"Willow did you like the...uh, the things you bought for that spell you were working on?," asked Sarah.

"The what? Oh, it's okay, Sarah. Tara saw the book."

"Sorry. I wasn't sure if it was a present or not," explained Sarah.

"It was. And actually, I wanted to ask you about that. See, after I left there was this man. And he tried to steal the book from me. I'm pretty sure he was in here just before I left. Did he say anything to you? About the book, I mean," said Willow.

"Oh dear. He didn't hurt you, did he?," asked Sarah, very concerned.

"No. He, uh, he left. Rather quickly, too. But he dropped the book."

"That's good. There was something I didn't like about him. Knew it as soon as I set eyes on him, too. Yes, he was here. I had bought a couple of boxes from an estate sale over the weekend and the book was part of that. He claimed that it was from his family and that book was in there by mistake. Seemed very upset when I told him that I had just sold it."

"Did he say what his name was?," asked Tara.

"No. He asked if you had bought it and when I said yes he immediately ran from the store. I'm sorry about that. I had no idea that he might..."

"Sarah, you had no idea he was...like that. Don't worry yourself about it. No one got hurt," said Willow.

"Do you know where the book came from?," asked Tara.

"I have a gentleman friend. He's retired and he drives around to tag sales and such. When he finds something of interest he buys it for me. I can ask him if you'd like," said Sarah.

"Yes, that would be great. I'd like to find out more about the history of the book if I can," said Willow as she reached into her pocket and pulled out a ten dollar bill. "And I believe I owe you some more money," added Willow.

"Oh no you don't. That book has caused you enough trouble already. Please, keep it."

"Sarah, a deal is a deal," protested Willow.

"No, I won't hear of it. Keep it. I insist."

"Okay. And thanks," said Willow, suddenly smiling.

"What?," asked Sarah.

"So, you have a gentleman friend. Any details you'd like to share?," asked Willow, still smiling. "Uh, not small details but big picture details."

"A lady does not discuss her conquests," said Sarah with a serious face. "Oh, all right. His name is Harry..."

*****

"Ready to order?," asked the waitress, pencil in hand and chomping on gum.

"Yes, I think we are. I'll have the hamburger plate, with just lettuce and tomato."

"And how would you like that done?," asked the waitress, trying not to look bored.

"Rare," replied Buffy, lowering her sunglasses for a moment to look at her.

"And you, sir?"

Riley didn't say anything. He just sat there staring at Buffy.

"Uh, Riley? Hello? You ready to order?," asked Buffy.

"Um, sure. Yes, I'll have the grilled chicken salad with the house dressing. Buffy, you want a coke?"

Buffy nodded. "Diet."

"And two diet cokes. Thanks," said Riley as he handed his menu back to the waitress.

"Living life dangerously ordering the house dressing," commented the waitress as she collected the menus. Riley gave her a confused look.

"Just kidding, doll," she smiled as she walked away.

Now Riley turned his confused look to Buffy.

"What?," she asked.

"Buffy, you're not a big meat eater as it is. You ordered your hamburger rare?"

"I know, I know. But, well, I was just in the mood for it. Come on, don't you get a craving for something every now and then?"

"Every night," said Riley with a smile.

"Tell me about it. Not going to be able to close the coffin lid on you when you go."

"What?," asked Riley with a laugh.

"Nothing. So, what do you think of this vamp that I ran into last night? The Initiative ever come across something like that?," asked Buffy, quickly changing the subject.

"Uh, no, I don't think so. Probably would have heard about it if we had. But I'm sure Giles will find something in his research."

"Yeah, that's what he does best. Still creeps me out thinking about it. The vamp, not Giles researching," explained Buffy.

"I figured," nodded Riley. "You didn't wear your cross today. Why?"

"I wanted to wear gold today. See?," asked Buffy, holding up her wrist. A gold bracelet dangled from it.

"And...."

"The cross is silver. It wouldn't match. Hence the gold rope chain around my neck?"

"Oh. Sorry. It looks great on you, of course," said Riley, eliciting a smile from Buffy. "But I'm more comfortable knowing that you wearing a cross in your line of work."

"Riley, it's daylight. You wearing yours?"

"Yes, I am. You know I wear it for more reasons than just vampires."

"I know. Let's not..."

Riley looked away and Buffy suddenly became interested in the initials that were carved on the table top. She wondered who J. T. and S. P. were.

"Riley, you were awfully quiet today. Something on your mind?"

"No. Why?"

"Just...wondering. So you were okay with Tara holding Willow's hand?," asked Buffy.

"Didn't notice. Were they?"

"Riley, I know you saw her. Saw them. Is it a problem?"

"Buffy, we've talked about this. I don't have a problem with it. Okay?"

"And why don't I believe you," asked Buffy.

"Because I go to church? That's not fair. I don't judge," said Riley.

"True. And we agree that people are, well, born the way they are. Can't choose the way you're wired."

"Right."

"Right," repeated Buffy. "But because Willow's had a boyfriend in the past you think she's making a choice. Like she could change her mind again," added Buffy.

"Buffy, I..."

Riley was interrupted by the ringing of his cell phone. He shrugged with a smile and reached into his pocket.

"Saved by the bell," murmured Buffy.

"Hello? Dad? Hi, how are you? What's that? Really."

Riley gave Buffy a concerned look. She sat up straighter in her chair and mouthed the word 'what?'. Riley shook his head and held up one finger.

"But she's okay? Yes, of course. Tonight. No, it's not a problem. At all. Dad, please. I can catch a flight in a few hours. Of course. I'll phone you as soon as I arrive. Yeah. Bye."

"Riley, what's wrong?"

"It's my mom. She's in the hospital. Chest pains. But the doctor says she's going to be fine. I'm going back there for a day or two. Just to be sure."

"That's not even a question. Of course you should be there. Do you want me to come with you?," asked Buffy, reaching across the table and placing her hand on his.

"No. But thanks. Mom's going to be fine. And you've got a lot going on here right now."

"You sure? Maybe I should..."

"Buffy, thanks. I know you're concerned. I'll only be gone a day or three. When you meet my folks I want it to be under better circumstances. Mom will want to make this big fuss over you and not rest for a moment. Believe me, I know her," smiled Riley.

"Okay. But I want you to call. Twice a day," warned Buffy.

"I promise," agreed Riley.

The waitress walked over to their table and dropped their plates in front of them.

"Be right back with the sodas," she said.

"Great! I'm starved," said Buffy. She lifted up the bun and tossed the lettuce and tomato to the side. Grabbing the hamburger with both hands, she took a large bite out of it. Brownish-red juice ran down the side of her face and dripped onto the table.

"Oh, this is so good," said Buffy as she chewed.

Riley stared at her, not moving.

"What?," asked Buffy, still chewing.

"Uh..."

Buffy ignored him and took another big bite. Juice ran down both sides of her mouth. Riley continued to stare at her as the waitress brought their sodas.

*****

Giles turned another page and shook his head.

"Oh dear," he said out loud. He turned another page and read some more from Willow's book. And again he shook his head.

End of Part Two

PART THREE

"Buffy, still with the glasses? How's the headache?," asked Xander.

"Gone, actually. But I must be coming down with something. I'm freezing!," said Buffy, zipping up the jacket she was now wearing.

"Really? It must be almost seventy five degrees in here," said Giles. He stood next to Buffy and put the back of his hand to her forehead.

"You don't seem to have a fever. Any chills? Maybe you should see a doctor," suggested Giles, knowing even as he said it that Buffy would never agree to that.

"No chills. I'm okay. I'll go take a nap later before I patrol. I'm just a little run down, is all," said Buffy.

"Buffy, why not take a night off?," asked Willow.

"Maybe. I'll see how I feel later."

Willow frowned at Buffy's answer. If she was considering blowing off patrol then she must not be feeling well at all.

"Riley left already?," asked Willow.

"Yes, he managed to get a five o'clock flight."

"Oh. Well, maybe we should patrol with you tonight. If you go, that is. Just to make sure you're okay."

"Will, I'm fine. Really. I'm sorry I even brought it up. But thanks."

Willow smiled and nodded.

"So Giles, read any good books lately?," asked Buffy.

"Well, I was going to start that new...oh, you mean...yes, of course. The book. Yes, I finished reading Willow's book. And it's rather disturbing, I might add."

"Oh, good! Details, details," said Anya.

Everyone looked at Anya.

"I only meant that we should know more about that vampire Buffy met," explained Anya.

Everyone nodded and looked back at Giles.

"Whew, tough room," mumbled Anya.

"Yes, the book. Apparently it did belong to a witch who lived in the New England region in the 1700s. Sadly, she seemed to be a rather nice person. At first."

"Sadly? And the nice person part is not a good thing?," asked Xander.

"In her efforts to help other people she decided to delve into the black arts. She underestimated what she would have to give up in order to learn...what she did," explained Giles.

"Oh," said Willow, fully understanding what he meant.

"Buffy, I do believe that this vampire you killed wanted the book. There is a spell, or for lack of a better word a curse, in there that describes what you encountered. We really don't understand how a demon enters a body and takes possession when a vampire turns a victim. And the victim is, of course, dead."

"But that vampire last night wasn't?," asked Buffy.

"You're catching on. No, I don't think it was. This witch stumbled upon a curse that would inflict the demon on a living person. In effect, the demon would fight for control of the body with that person's soul. Eventually it would win, and what is left is a vampire that is alive," finished Giles, taking off his glasses and rubbing his eyes.

"Brings new meaning to the words 'living dead', doesn't it?," asked Anya.

"That poor man!," said Willow.

"Giles, I killed someone. Someone with a soul," said Buffy sadly.

"Buffy, you ended that man's suffering. He was trapped inside that body, forced to watch whatever the demon did, as it killed, as it fed..."

"Thanks for the visual. I get it. But this guy tried to warn me away. Why?," asked Buffy.

"The host does have moments of control. For short periods of time, at least. This kind of possession may explain why his face didn't change. And...there's more," said Giles.

"More?," repeated Buffy.

"Yes. You may face this demon again," said Giles.

"But I killed it. Okay, delayed poof, but it's gone. I saw it!"

"The only way to kill this demon is for the host to turn another person into a vampire. The demon then goes into the dead body. I suppose it feels more comfortable there, not having to battle for control," shrugged Giles. "Then this vampire must be burned, not staked. Otherwise the demon escapes and wanders until it possesses another living body. So, as I said, you may face this thing again. Be prepared," warned Giles.

"Giles, you expect me to beat the vampire unconscious and then set fire to it? And how am I supposed to do that?," asked Buffy, crossing her arms.

"I, uh...oh, yes, I see your point," replied Giles.

"Great! As if this job isn't hard enough," sighed Buffy.

"Okay, I'm glad everyone is sitting down, 'cause I just had a thought," announced Xander. "Now don't look at me like a ravin' lunatic, but why not just inflict a little sunlight onto this new vamp? That should burn it."

Giles hesitated but finally spoke.

"Now why didn't I think of that? Xander Harris, the voice of reason. Oh dear."

"No Christmas bonus for this Watcher this year," teased Buffy.

"Guess it's true what they say about those blind squirrels finding a nut every so often," said Xander with a smile.

"Yeah, after it digs up your entire front lawn looking for that nut," laughed Willow. Xander glared at her and Willow shrugged.

"Honey, you're crazy about crows?," asked Anya.

"No, Anya. That would be a raven lunatic," explained Xander.

"Oh. Oh! Never mind," said Anya, blushing.

"Um, Giles? If this is a simple possession, wouldn't an exorcism work?," asked Tara.

"No, the text is very explicit in that. An exorcism, if it didn't kill the host, would leave the victim quite insane. And the demon would simply be freed to find another body," said Giles.

"Binding spell?," offered Willow.

"Perhaps. But I wouldn't want to attempt it," replied Giles.

"Yeah, sounds like you'd just get the demon mad. Never a good idea in my book," said Xander, shaking his head.

"Still lacking the fun in my patrol duties," whined Buffy.

"Yes, Buffy, be assured that your job will be more difficult. I'll research this a bit more, of course. I find this new aspect of demonology fascinating," said Giles.

"Giles, one word; bowling. You need a hobby and you really have to get out more. So, we done here?," asked Buffy, not waiting for his reaction.

"Yes, I guess we are," agreed Giles.

"Good. Then I'm off for a cat nap before I have to patrol tonight," said Buffy as she stood up. She didn't see Tara elbow Willow in the ribs.

"Uh, Buffy? Wait up. I want to ask you something," said Willow.

Everyone stood up and began to leave. Willow took Buffy aside and led her into the kitchen.

"Will, if this is about patrolling, I'm okay. Really. Besides, don't you and Tara have plans?"

"Well, we were going to see a movie but we couldn't agree on what one. So I thought we'd rent one but she didn't feel like. I don't know, maybe we'll end up Bronzing it tonight," sighed Willow.

"What's up? You guys have an argument or something?," asked Buffy.

No. It's nothing, I guess. Tara's been zigging and I've been zagging lately, that's all. That's why I was happy about finding that book. I was hoping to try a new spell with her. S'pose that's out," said Willow, frowning.

"So, just try an old one in a new way. A little variety to shake things up," suggested Buffy.

Willow looked at Buffy and smiled but didn't say anything.

"Okay, quickly changing subjects now. What did you want to ask me?," said Buffy.

"Oh, that. Right. Uh, Buffy, could you do me a favor?"

"Do you even have to ask? Of course I'll do it. Uh, do what, exactly?," asked Buffy.

"Uh, Tara and I...there's this party and, and I'd like you to be there. With us. Well, you and Xander, actually. But I haven't asked him yet. I'm going to. Just haven't gotten around to it, I guess," said Willow.

"Sounds like fun. When?"

"Saturday night," answered Willow.

"And where is this big event going to be?," asked Buffy.

"Oh, it's not big in the sense that there's gonna be a lot of people there big, but, yeah, okay I guess you could say it's big."

"Uh...right. So, one more time, this not so big big event is happening where?," asked Buffy.

"Oh, at the Espresso Pump," smiled Willow.

"Isn't Giles playing there Saturday night?"

"No. I made sure of that. Not that he doesn't have a nice singing voice. In fact, I think Giles sings very well and if he wasn't so old I might even describe his voice as sexy. If I thought of him in that way, which of course I don't. Think of him, that is," nodded Willow.

"And I thought I was fluent in Willowspeak. Willow, you're playing Sherlock to my Watson here. Why the cryptic?"

"Well, it's sort of a coming out party," said Willow, opening her eyes just a little wider.

"Oh. Oh! You mean..."

"Yeah, I mean," repeated Willow.

"You and Tara?"

"No, me and Amy the rat! And wouldn't that go over smoother than this. Of course me and Tara."

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean...it's just that I'm surprised. This is a big step and there's that 'big' word again. Will, you haven't even told your mother yet and you're going to announce this in public? To a group of strangers?," said Buffy.

"Buffy, it's who I am. I'm not ashamed of it," pouted Willow.

"No, of course not! And you shouldn't be. But who are you doing this for?"

"Huh?"

Buffy took a deep breath and put her hand on Willow's shoulder.

"Is this what you really want or are you doing this to please Tara?," asked Buffy, looking into Willow's eyes.

"Buffy, there's a point in every relationship when you have to decide what's important. I was hoping you would be more supportive," said Willow, looking down.

"Will! I'm going to be there for you no matter what you do or what you decide. No matter what," said Buffy, putting her other hand on Willow's other shoulder. Willow smiled and looked up at her.

"But I'm hearing the logic. I'm not hearing the Willow."

"Uh, again I say huh?"

"It sounds like you're trying to convince yourself, not me. I'm only trying to say be sure this is what you want. That this will make you happy," said Buffy.

"Thanks," nodded Willow, giving Buffy a hug.

"Uh, Will? If I'm there alone, will people assume that I'm coming out?"

"Oh," said Willow, stepping back from Buffy. "Hadn't thought of that. Uh...you could go with Xander."

"And Anya? Won't everyone think Xander is with me and her and not that I'm with Xander and Anya? Follow what I'm saying here?," asked Buffy.

"Oh, this is getting complicated. And I don't particularly care for complicated," complained Willow.

"I'm not loving it either," added Buffy.

"Why don't you go with Giles?," suggested Willow.

"No, that won't do," said both Willow and Buffy at the same time and shaking their heads.

"Know what? I'll go alone. Screw what people think. You want me to be there and that's all that matters," said Buffy confidently.

"Thanks, Buffy. It's important to me that you be there."

"Cool. But think about what I said."

Willow nodded. Then she took a deep breath.

"Now to ask Xander," said Willow.

"Oh, mind if I bail first?"

"Not at all. Go count sheep, get some rest. And have some chicken soup. Hey, can't hurt," said Willow.

"And I'll be sure to look both ways before crossing the street, mom," sighed Buffy.

*****

Buffy rolled the lighter over in her hand, shook her head and put the lighter back into the pocket of her jacket.

"Sure, set fire to them Piece of cake. Oh, wrong thing to say," mumbled Buffy. She had skipped eating before and now, instead of being hungry, her stomach was queasy.

Buffy was getting bored. It was too quiet and she hadn't even seen another person out tonight, let alone a vampire. And then she heard a scream. Buffy ran.

She had to admit the vampire was bold. There he was, right on Main Street where a passing car could see them. He had the girl pressed up against a tree. Buffy was less than a block away when she stopped running but the vampire hadn't sensed her presence yet. Buffy sat down.

The girl's screams had turned to sobs of protest. Even from here Buffy could hear the creature's feeding noises. It still didn't know she was here. Buffy yawned.

The vampire let his victim fall to the ground with a thud. It turned and for the first time noticed the Slayer. He took a step to run but hesitated. Buffy sat there, watching it. The vampire tilted his head, confused. And then he slowly walked away, looking back over its shoulder once, and then disappeared into the darkness.

The scent of the girl's blood came to her. Buffy stared at the body for some time. She noticed a popsicle stick lying on the ground near her foot and wondered if some little kid had dropped it before he or she could finish it. The thought made her sad. And then she stood up, deciding it was time to go home.

*****

Buffy turned the water up as hot as she could stand it. The water streamed down her face and warmed the chill from her body. After a while she reluctantly turned the shower off and reached for the towel, quickly drying herself off. Buffy stepped into a pair of sweat pants and slipped a sweat shirt over her head, then wrapped her hair in another towel.

She brushed her teeth, abruptly spitting out the toothpaste and rinsing her mouth out with a glass of water. The toothpaste tasted funny to her and she assumed it was because she was coming down with something, maybe a cold. Buffy looked up into the mirror and froze.

There was still a lot of steam in the bathroom from the shower. Yes, that must be it, thought Buffy. It made her reflection seem ghost-like, as if...as if she was transparent. As if she could almost see through herself to the wall behind her. Buffy shook her head and rubbed her eyes. She grabbed a comb on the way out of the bathroom. But she didn't look again into the mirror.

She sat down on the edge of the bed and ran the comb through her hair once. When the phone rang she jumped.

"Hello?'

"Hi, Buffy, it's me."

"Riley! How's your mom?"

"She's good. Doctor's sending her home tomorrow. Her blood pressure was up so she switched her medication and that seemed to help. But it definitely wasn't a heart attack."

"Oh, that's great news."

"Yes, it is. They think the tightness in her chest might have been from stress or maybe an anxiety attack."

"But she's doing good now?," asked Buffy.

"Yes. Much better. Thanks. Uh, Buffy...I might stay a day or two. To see how she's doing, help her around the house. Hope you don't mind."

"Don't be silly! Of course not! Stay as long as you need to. We'll make up for lost time when you get back," promised Buffy.

"Sounds great. And I will make it up to you."

"I know you will," teased Buffy.

"I'll call you tomorrow, okay?"

"You'd better!"

"Goodnight, Buffy."

"Goodnight."

The dial tone replaced Riley's voice and Buffy stared at the phone in her hand. She sighed and placed it back on the receiver. Sitting down on the edge of Riley's bed, she ignored the comb lying on the comforter. Buffy felt cold again and wrapped her arms around herself. She saw one of Riley's shirts, tossed onto a chair where he had left it.

Buffy reached over and held the shirt to her cheek, inhaling the scent of her boyfriend. Putting the shirt down on top of the comb, she slipped her sweat shirt over her head and quickly slid her arms into the shirt, only buttoning a few buttons up the front. Buffy pulled the sweat shirt back on over his shirt and got under the covers, leaving the light on.

She hugged the pillow next to her and tried not to cry.

End Of Part Three

PART FOUR

Buffy swung her arm to hit the alarm clock but the noise continued. Slowly she realized that it was the phone that was ringing and she reached for it but knocked it to the floor. With a groan she leaned over and picked it up.

"Hello?," she mumbled.

"Buffy? Are you still sleeping?"

"Willow. Uh, no. Of course not."

"Buffy."

"Oh, alright. But I'm up now. What time is it?"

"Just after 11:30. Uh, in the morning, not at night. You still not feeling okay?," asked Willow.

"No, I feel great. Really. Just...overslept, I guess," admitted Buffy.

"Sounds you got Xanderitis. You know, up at the crack of noon being the most obvious symptom?"

"Is it fatal?," asked Buffy seriously.

"It can be. The only known cure is the eating of donuts or the kissing of an ex-demon girlfriend," answered Willow in the same serious tone.

"Ew! Okay, I'm awake. And please tell me there's donuts where you are. And where are you, by the way?"

"Pay phone. Tara and I just left Sarah's place. I got the address for where she got the book from. We're going to check it out."

"That's great. Why don't we meet up with Giles later?," suggested Buffy.

"Oh goody, a plan! Original, too," added Willow sarcastically.

"Did you know that Xanderitis can make one cranky? And a cranky Slayer is just plain no fun at all," warned Buffy.

"Like I said, that's a good plan. See ya at Giles'. Bye!"

Buffy fell back down on the bed and let the phone fall to the floor. She groaned and pulled the covers over her head.

*****

"This must be da place," announced Willow. Tara nodded in agreement as Willow rang the bell. They waited but no one answered the door so Willow rang the bell again. And still no one answered.

"Maybe the bell doesn't work. Try knocking," said Tara. Willow shrugged and rapped on the door. It wasn't locked and the door opened slightly as she knocked on it. Willow glanced at Tara and pushed the door open.

"Hello?," called Willow, but no one answered. She nodded for Tara to follow her and entered the house. It was quickly apparent why no one had answered the door.

"I didn't see a for sale sign. Why is there no furniture here?," asked Willow.

"Maybe it was already sold and the new owner hasn't moved in yet," replied Tara.

"Which means we're trespassing," added Willow with a frown.

"So? Let's look around."

"Tara! When did you become so, so...sneaky!?," asked Willow nervously.

"Come on, 'fraidy cat. There's no one here."

Tara turned away from Willow and walked down a hallway.

"Hey! Wait for me!," yelled Willow in a loud whisper.

Their footsteps echoed loudly through the empty rooms. Tara stuck her head in a doorway and yelled.

"Pinnochio!"

"Tara! Are you nuts? You're not grasping this whole stealth thingy, or, or lack thereof. We're sneaking!"

"Okay, remind me later to read the Scooby manual on breaking and entering protocol," smiled Tara.

"No, no! We're not breaking anything, only entering! We're sneaking," insisted Willow. Tara grinned.

"What?," asked Willow.

"You're cute when you're mad," laughed Tara. Willow exhaled and shook her head.

"Come on, Ollie," said Willow, nodding towards the hall. Together they walked to the end of the house.

"Willow, did you notice? Every room has the shades pulled down. As if..."

Tara stopped and looked directly at Willow. She lowered her voice to a whisper.

"As if someone didn't want any sunlight to come into this house."

Willow reached for her pocket and realized that once again she didn't have a cross on her. Tara rolled her eyes at her.

"It was daytime! I didn't think I needed one!," protested Willow softly. "Tara, let's get out of here. Like, now."

Tara nodded in agreement but stopped after taking one step.

"What?," asked Willow.

"That door we passed. Think that leads to the basement?"

"With my luck it leads to the Hellmouth itself. And let me guess; that's the only way out, right?," asked Willow. Tara sighed and Willow knew the answer. They both started tip- toeing down the hall. And suddenly Tara stopped.

Willow opened her eyes wide and mouthed the word 'what'.

"What's that smell?," whispered Tara.

"What...oh, yeah. Phew! It's...I think it's coming from behind this door," pointed Willow.

Tara put her hand on the door knob and Willow grabbed her wrist.

"Are you insane!?," said Willow, a little louder than she meant to.

Tara just smiled at her and Willow's eyes grew wide in surprise. Tara turned the knob and pulled. And then she screamed as something fell between her and Willow. Willow jumped back and screamed louder than Tara. They looked down at the body lying on the floor and then stared at each other.

The man had fallen out of a closet. It was obvious he had been dead for several days. It was also obvious what had killed him. Two puncture wounds were clearly visible on his neck. Willow ran down the hall and yanked on a shade so hard she pulled it out of the window. But sunlight now came into the room and she relaxed for the first time since she entered the house. She turned to see Tara kneeling beside the body.

"Tara, can we go now? I don't think the vampire that killed him is still here, but still..."

Tara ignored her and searched through the man's pockets, covering her mouth with her free hand. She looked at something she found, stood and walked over to Willow. Tara handed her a business card. It had the name, address and telephone number of Sarah's shop on it.

"At least we know it isn't Harry," said Willow sadly.

"That vampire that Buffy killed must have come here after the estate sale, looking for the book. Guess he had a temper," sighed Tara.

"Or an appetite," countered Willow.

The girls shut the door tightly behind them when they left.

*****

"Hey, wait up," called Xander.

Willow and Tara turned to see Xander and Anya walking quickly towards them. Willow looked a Tara with a strange expression on her face. Tara looked at Willow and covered her mouth with a hand to hide her giggling. Willow tried not to smile.

"Where are you guys going?," asked Xander.

"We were heading downtown. Thought we might do some antique shopping. It's too early to meet at Giles'," explained Willow. "Hi Anya. Did...did you do something different with your hair?"

"Uh, no, I didn't."

"Still, there's something different about you," said Willow. She heard Tara stifle a laugh behind her.

"You know, I've been thinking the same thing," said Xander. "She seems...I don't know. Happier."

"Bouncy, even," said Tara. Willow had to bite her lower lip to keep from laughing. Even Anya smiled.

"Yeah, but there's something else. I can't put my finger on it," said Xander, shaking his head.

"Oh, I bet you have," said Willow. Tara had to turn around to hide her face.

"What?," asked Xander. Now all three girls began to laugh.

"I don't get it," complained Xander.

"Oh yes you do," said Anya, punching him in the shoulder.

"I didn't mean...ouch!," said Xander, grabbing his shoulder. He looked at Anya and suddenly realized what was different about her.

"Anya, when did you become...such a...well, such a full figured girl?," asked Xander innocently. "Not that it doesn't look good. I mean, hey! You're beside yourself!"

"Since I stuffed my bra this morning. Sure took you long enough to notice!," pouted Anya, crossing her arms and staring at him.

"Well, don't hide them now!," complained Xander. Anya exhaled, blowing a stray hair up off her forehead.

"Anya, you looked great before this. Why the 'got milk?' ad?," asked Xander, spreading his hands apart.

"I did? Xander, you, well...you don't tell me that. So how was I to know?," asked Anya, looking down.

"I...wait just a minute. I give you compliments all the time," protested Xander. Anya looked up and stared at him, looking sad.

"Well, okay, maybe on a weekly basis," offered Xander. Anya didn't say anything but she didn't look as sad. Xander put his arm around her shoulder.

"Anya, I think you're beautiful. I really do. I'm sorry if you felt that you had to change for me."

"Aw, Xander. Thanks. I...I just wanted you to notice. So I figured if I'm going to walk the walk..."

Anya put her hands on her hips and smiled at Xander.

"You gotta jiggle the jiggle?," said Tara.

"Tara!," laughed Willow. But Xander and Anya ignored them.

"Anya, I always wondered about when you were a Vengeance demon. I mean, your gig was punishing males. So why are you so...," Xander hesitated, remembering that they were not alone. "So amorous now?"

"Making up for lost time, I guess," shrugged Anya.

Just then a blonde girl in a short skirt walked by and caught Xander's eye. He looked back at Anya and she was not happy.

"Oh, now, come on. Don't be that way. It was just a quick glance. What, you have eyes in the back of your head? Oh, I didn't mean that just because you were a demon that you might really have had...you didn't, did you?," asked Xander.

"If I did I'm sure it's not them you'd be looking at," replied Anya.

"Well, probably not. I mean...hey!"

"Why do I put up with you? Males! It's been over a thousand years since I've interacted with them and I still haven't figured them out!," yelled Anya. But she looked more sad than angry.

"Oh, honey, come here," said Xander, stepping towards her and giving her a hug. She smiled and embraced him. And then they both stepped apart and looked down at Anya's blouse. It was wet.

"Uh, Anya? Why is one side so much smaller suddenly and what exactly did you, uh, stuff with?," asked Xander.

"Water balloon?," offered Anya with a frown.

Xander closed his eyes and shook his head.

"Well, I wanted a certain...uh...,"

"Bounce?," finished Xander for her. Anya nodded.

"In hindsight, kind of a dumb choice, no?," asked Xander.

"Dumb! I only did it for you! Well, I've never been so insulted!," said Anya as she turned and stormed off.

"Oh, please! You must have been! Anya, wait up."

Willow looked at Tara and let out a slow whistle.

"She's a handful," said Tara.

"Well, maybe a little less than that now. At least on one side," smiled Willow.

Tara rolled her eyes but smiled too. They turned around and began walking down the street again. Tara slipped her hand around Willow's. They didn't get very far before Willow stopped in front a store she hadn't noticed before. She put her arm around Tara's shoulder and Tara responded by putting her arm around Willow's waist.

"Hey, this must be new. Wonder what it is?," asked Willow.

"It's a comic book store," came a voice from behind them. They turned their heads. It took a moment but Willow recognized...Jonathan! She quickly let go of Tara and turned to face him.

"Jonathan! Wow, it's...you. Didn't see you lurking there behind us. I mean me. Behind me," said Willow. Tara raised an eyebrow at her comment.

"Hi Willow. How are you?," asked Jonathan.

"Good. Great even. You?"

"Can't complain. Still do, of course," he replied.

"Oh, you remember Tara, right? Tara, this is Jonathan," introduced Willow.

"I remember. Hi Jonathan."

"Hi."

They all stood there for a moment, not sure of what to say.

"Can I help you find something?," asked Jonathan.

"Huh? What do you mean?," asked Willow.

"This is my store. Are you looking for a comic?"

"Oh. This is...wow. Jonathan, you're a business man now?," asked Willow.

"Yes, I am. Hard to believe, right?," he asked.

"Well, no, I didn't mean..."

"It's okay Willow. I know what you meant. Why isn't the school nerd working for minimum wage and asking if you want fries with that?"

"Jonathan! That's...a little harsh," said Willow, trying to defend herself.

"It's okay, Willow. I was a nerd. But I like my life now. I like myself," said Jonathan with a smile.

"That's great, Jonathan," said Tara.

"Yeah, I did a lot of thinking since the last time we met. And I'm still sorry about that, you know. The whole fame thing and all," frowned Jonathan.

"Oh, don't be silly. Don't even remember it," said Willow, waving her hand at him. "Except for that swimsuit calendar," admitted Willow, blushing.

"Oh, yeah. That. But hey, the store's great. Making money, meeting people, and by opening late every day it doesn't interfere with my social life," said Jonathan, winking.

"Social life?," asked Willow.

"Oh yeah. You remember those twins I was dating during that whole, well...you know."

"Twins? Oh, right! The twins," said Willow. "The twins!?"

"Yep. For some reason they both still like me. The real me. Can you believe that?," he asked.

"Uh..."

"Said something about being a real man because I was so honest. And after all that happened, too. I just had to be myself. Go figure."

"Yeah, go figure. But hey, good for you!," encouraged Willow. "And the owner of a comic book store. That's a...valid lifestyle choice," added Willow. Tara rolled her eyes.

"Thanks. What about you? Seeing anyone? Since Oz, I mean," asked Jonathan.

"Uh, no...no one that you would know, I mean," stuttered Willow, glancing at Tara. Tara opened her eyes wide but quickly looked away.

"Don't worry, Willow. I'm sure you'll find someone. Uh, you know, I've got to open up now, so if you'll excuse me," said Jonathan, holding up a set of keys and nodding towards the door.

"Oh, of course! We have to get going anyway. Nice seeing you again," said Willow.

"It was. And you know what? If you see Buffy, tell her I'm happy. Now that I'm not embarrassed to have people see the real me," said Jonathan.

"I will," agreed Willow, looking down at the ground as he said that.

"Bye, Jonathan. I'm happy for you. See what can happen when you're not embarrassed to be yourself?," said Tara, walking away.

"Bye," said Willow quickly, turning to catch up with Tara. Jonathan gave them a strange look and entered the store.

"Tara, wait!"

Tara stopped and glared at Willow.

"So I'm no one! Even in front of the class nerd, I'm no one!"

"Tara, I didn't mean to..."

"Well, guess what? You did! And, and...and I better leave. Right now. Before I say something that I'll regret later," said Tara with her voice cracking and tears in her eyes. She turned and walked quickly away, one hand over her mouth.

"Tara, please! I'm so sorry!," yelled Willow. But Tara didn't look back and she didn't stop.

"Damn it!," cried Willow, kicking the side of the building she was standing in front of. She winced from the pain and limped away.

*****

Buffy rubbed her eyes and looked at the clock. It was four o'clock and she shook her head in disbelief. Stumbling out of bed, she made her way to the shower...

Buffy kept the shower running long after she stepped out of it. The mirror was steamed over but even so she didn't look at it. She got dressed in the bathroom. Finally she turned the water off and left to see Giles.

*****

Giles opened the door. Buffy was standing there, hands in pockets and still wearing her sunglasses and baseball cap.

"Hey. Sorry I'm late," apologized Buffy as she walked past Giles. "Uh, where is everyone?"

"Tara's not here," answered Willow.

"I can see that. Hence the where is question," said Buffy.

"Oh. Sorry. She wasn't feeling well. And Xander and Anya had a fight so they are either a, still fighting or b, making up. Either way I'm sure there's an ick factor involved," nodded Willow.

"Buffy, you've got long sleeves on! It must be in the low eighties outside. Are you still cold?," asked Giles.

"Yeah, a little," admitted Buffy. "But I'm feeling better. Really."

"I might believe you more if I saw your eyes once in a while," said Willow. "And...what happened to your ears? And neck?," asked Willow as she walked around Buffy. "They're very red. Almost like you got a sunburn."

"And I got that by walking over here? Um, I took a hot shower before I came here. So that must be why my ears and neck are red. So...find out anything about our reluctant vampire?"

"Only that Tara and Willow went back to the house that Sarah bought the book from. However, it was empty. Except for one of the vampire's victims," explained Giles.

"Dead as a doornail," added Willow.

"Now see, there's one of those expressions again. What's so special about a doornail? Lots of things have nails in them. So why is a doornail dead? Argh!," growled Buffy.

"Buffy, perhaps you should patrol in the area around that house. Very possibly it will be a dead end, but it is a place to start," suggested Giles.

"The trail of clues is cold, eh? Does one body a trail make?"

"Buffy!," sighed Willow.

"Sorry. Couldn't help myself. Alright, I'll patrol there tonight. Anything else? I want to be at Riley's place until then. In case he calls."

"His mom is okay?," asked Willow.

"Yes. In fact she's home already," said Buffy.

"Are you sure you feel well enough to patrol?," asked Giles.

"Oh yeah. I'm in a butt kicking mood," smiled Buffy.

*****

"Here, suck wall!," yelled Buffy as she pushed the vampire hard against the wall, forcing his elbow up. She got in three punches to the ribs before he spun and punched her in the jaw, snapping her head back. She let go of his arm and kicked down on his instep, ducking under his other arm as he swung wildly. Buffy got an elbow to his face and then backed off. She glanced down at his victim. The girl's breathing was shallow and she was unconscious.

"Hey, what's the big idea!?," snarled the vampire.

"Excuse me?," answered Buffy, hands up in a fighting stance.

"Just what the hell do you think you're doing?," yelled the vampire.

"What's it look like?," smiled Buffy.

The vampire stood up straighter and put his hands on his hips.

"Oh great, another newbie! Look kid, here's the rules; one, whoever makes the kill feeds first. Leftovers are for the lazy or those too injured or weak to hunt for themselves. And two, we don't hurt our own. Honor among thieves and all that. Who do you think you are, the Slayer?"

"As a matter of fact...hey, what did you call me?," asked Buffy, lowering her hands slightly. "You...you think I'm a vampire?"

"Well, duh! Try looking in a mirror lately? Oh, that's a good one. Yeah, I'll have to remember that one," smiled the vamp.

Buffy glanced down at the girl again and knew that she wouldn't live. For some reason the scent of her blood seemed strong to Buffy.

"Hey, I know it's rough at first, but you'll learn. Tell you what. Help yourself," offered the vampire, pointing to the girl. "I wasn't done, but, well, maybe you'll return the favor sometime. Wouldn't even have to be a meal, if you know what I mean," smiled the vampire.

Buffy looked down again at the girl. The Slayer's face was at first filled with fear at what the vampire had said, then turned to disgust. She took a step towards the vampire, spun and kicked him in the face, knocking him to the ground. In one smooth motion she pulled a stake out from beneath her shirt and drove it into his chest.

The vampire's last expression was that of bewilderment as he exploded into ash.

"Nice try. Had me going there for a moment. Bastard," spat Buffy, getting up and walking away.

She left the girl on the ground, never once looking back at her.

End Of Part Four