Disclaimers;

Joss made Buffy and crew, UPN broadcasts them and Paramount owns them. Disney owns the Gargoyle characters.

Rating;

PG for now.  But Spike's involved, and he's spoiling for some action, so that rating could go up soon. 

Feedback;

Oh you know I want it! JDMeans@aol.com

Author's Note;

This is the Fifth story in my Defenders of the Night story arc.  You may want to check out the previous chapters; 'A Prelude in Five Parts', 'Along Came a Spider', 'Her Little Secret' and 'Encounter'. 

Summary;

Buffy wants to help Willow, and ends up dealing with an old enemy, more dangerous than ever.

Defenders Of The Night

Bitter Business

By Kirayoshi

"Tis now the very witching time of night,

When churchyards yawn and Hell breaths out

Contagion to this world.  Now could I drink hot blood,

And do such bitter business as the day

Would quake to look on."
--William Shakespeare

"Hamlet"

James Marsters voice over; "Previously on Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Defenders of the Night;"

That night, before entering the stone sleep at sunrise, Goliath made a silent vow; should he ever encounter this Slayer, or any other Slayer in the future, he would do all he could to aid her in her cause.  No one should have to shoulder such a burden alone.

And as long as there was breath in Goliath's body, the Slayer never would.

--A Prelude in Five Parts

Buffy narrowed her eyes as she looked toward the skies where Demona had vanished.  "You and Xanatos weren't kidding, Goliath," she breathed.  "She's one mean mother."

"Over a millennium of blaming humanity for her own actions," Goliath answered sadly, "has burnt the love out her heart, and now all that is left is the hatred.  And she will strike again, Buffy, and soon."

"Then I'd better be ready for her," Buffy spoke with quiet determination.

"We will be ready for her," Goliath corrected Buffy.  "As long as her threat remains, you may count on my assistance."

"Well then," Buffy smiled, as she offered her hand to Goliath, "Welcome to the Scooby Gang."  Goliath shook Buffy's hand, sealing the pact.

She had a new threat to contend with, but now Buffy also had a new ally.

Tara gulped hard, gazing upon the woman who stood before her.  Not since she encountered the insane Glory had she known such fear in her soul, but she kept a stranglehold on that fear.  She had to know.  "Who-who are you?" she stammered.

The older brunette regarded her warmly, with a motherly affection.  "I am Morgan Lafayette, child.  A priestess of the Goddess." 

Willow became aware of tears welling in her eyes and trickling down her cheek.  And while she was saddened by the realization that she had lost her love, she did not despair.  For she knew with an absolute clarity that it was right.  She felt a closure she had lacked when Oz had left her.  A chapter of her life had ended, but a new one was about to begin.

"Goodbye, Tara," she whispered to the night.

With his left hand, he reached behind Spike's other ear, and this time, produced a small object for Spike to inspect.

Spike's eyes widened as he looked at the small microchip in the magician's hand.  "You had this lodged in your brain stem for nearly three years, haven't you?"

Spike's jaw dropped at the implications.  If this was true...

"What do you want?" Spike asked.

"What do I want?" the magician laughed, his ominous chuckle echoing past the alley.  "I want you to be true to your nature!" 

--Encounter

Chapter One

You're My Best Friend

"Buffy! Willow!" Dawn shouted from the kitchen.  "Breakfast!" 

Willow emerged from her bedroom and stepped lightly down the stairs, asking "Dawn, you still borrowing my clogs?"

"Uh, try my closet, left-hand side, next to my CD collection," Dawn offered.  "But first, sit down and eat something."

"Something smells good," Willow announced as she sat at the kitchen counter.  Dawn was happily monitoring the fry pan, using a pair of tongs to flip something over.  Willow was relieved to see that Dawn wasn't trying to use her fingers for that purpose; in the short time that Willow had been living under Buffy's roof, Dawn had developed a reputation for being a dare-devil chef.  It had taken some conniving on Buffy's part, along with some burnt fingertips, to convince Dawn that spatulas were indeed NOT for wimps.

"French waffles," Dawn explained.  When Willow flashed her a dubious look, Dawn explained; "It's something Janine showed me the last time I slept over at her place.  They're frozen waffles, dipped in egg mix, and pan fried like French toast."  Dawn removed the cooked waffle from the pan, transferred it to a plate and placed it in front of Willow.  The red haired witch noticed that Dawn had already set out a stick of margarine and a bottle of pancake syrup, and helped herself.

"So," Dawn asked anxiously as Willow sampled her first bite, "what's the verdict?"

 Willow smiled, saying, "Hey, this is pretty good.  There's hope for you yet, Iron Chef."  Dawn dimpled warmly, enjoying the praise.

"If breakfast is the most important meal of the day," Buffy grumbled as she emerged from the shower, wearing a thick terry-cloth robe and patting her hair dry with a towel, "why couldn't they give us some incentive to eat it?  Like say, having it later in the day, when more people are up?" 

"And a good morning to you, Grumpasaurus," Willow greeted her friend as she dragged herself down the stairs.  Dawn had finished a second waffle, which she served to her sister.  The scent of cinnamon and nutmeg did much to silence Buffy's half-asleep mutterings, and one taste of Dawn's creation led to Buffy smiling generously.  "Good stuff, Dawn.  My compliments."

"Thanks, Buffy," Dawn answered as she served her own waffle and joined the others at the counter.  As Buffy passed her the syrup, Dawn turned to Willow and asked, "Oh, I just thought of something.  You have Tara's email addy?  I wanted to invite her over for Thanksgiving.  I know it's not your favorite holiday, Willow, but I thought that you two would like to be together for the long weekend."

"Thanks, Dawn," Willow answered.  As Buffy glanced over to her friend, she couldn't help but note that her voice was tinged with a gentle sadness all of a sudden.  "But you won't be able to reach Tara now."

"Oh, is she cramming for midterms?" Dawn quizzed through a mouthful of waffle.

"She's not at Berkeley anymore." 

The simplicity of Willow's statement shocked Buffy more than what she said.  Buffy put down her fork and stared hard at her friend.  "Not at Berkeley?  Did she transfer or something?"

"No," Willow said simply as she poured herself a glass of orange juice, "she's just gone now.  And we, well, we kinda split up."

Buffy sat slack jawed at Willow's announcement.  She instinctively reached her hand to Willow's shoulder.  "Oh my God, Willow, I'm so sorry.  When did this happen?"

"It was while you were talking with Mr. Xanatos and Goliath," Willow said in a conversational tone that unnerved Buffy.  "She contacted me, told me what was happening and we said goodbye.  No big deal."

"No, Willow," Buffy argued, "this is a big deal.  The woman you love just left you.  Deals don't get any bigger than that.  Why didn't you tell me sooner?"

"Like I said, Buffy," Willow answered, raising her voice slightly, "it's not that big a deal.  I'm okay, Buffy.  Really."  Washing down the last bite of her waffle with the remains of her juice glass, Willow grabbed her book bag, and headed for the door.  "Well, guys, I'm gonna locate my clogs, then I gotta go chase my diploma.  You need a lift to school, Dawnie?"

"Uh," Dawn started, as shocked as Buffy by Willow's announcement.  "No, Buffy's taking me.  You sure you're okay, Willow?"

"I'm fine," Willow said in a slightly annoyed voice, smiling for their benefit.  "Don't worry about me.  I'll be okay.  G'bye all."  She ducked into Dawn's room, emerged quickly with her clogs and rushed out the back door.  As she closed the door behind her, the latch of the door bolt was the only sound to pass through the breakfast nook. 

Buffy's mind raced at a thousand miles a second, attempting to process the information of the last few minutes.  Tara was gone, and Willow didn't even seem to miss her.  Something strange was going on, that Buffy was sure of.  Something that didn't make sense.  Something Hellmouthy.

"Dawnie," Buffy asked, "would Janine's folks let you sleep over at her place tonight?"

"Well," Dawn answered, "it's a Friday, so no school tomorrow, so they should be cool."

"Good," Buffy answered as she reached for the phone.  "I'll square things with Janice's parents."

Dawn regarded her sister with a thoughtful expression.  "You gonna be late out tonight?"

"Yeah," Buffy answered quietly.  "I'm long overdue to visit an old friend…"

"And that's the story," Buffy explained to the man sitting across from her, as a young woman with a timid Texas accent offered her a cup of coffee.  "I know that Willow loves Tara passionately.  I mean, when Tara suffered her mental loss a few months back, Willow went medieval on Glory.  She would do anything for Tara.  But now she acts like it's nothing.  And I tried to call Tara at Berkeley, but someone else had moved into her dorm, and her e-mail's been disconnected.  I contacted the admissions department, and they told me that she officially dropped out three days ago.  It's like she fell off the face of the earth."  She sipped her coffee without really tasting it, her worry for both Willow and Tara clouding her senses.  "I'm sorry," she apologized, "I just want to know what happened to Tara."

"Hey," Angel answered as he stood up and strode toward his former love.  He took her hands in his, offering what comfort his cold hands could provide.  "If there's anything I can do for you and the gang, just name it and claim it.  Cordy," he turned to his aide, "open a case-file."

"Right, Boss," Cordy answered as she headed for her desk.  "May I assume this is pro-bono work?"

"Uh, hey, guys," Buffy interrupted, "if money's an issue, maybe we can work out an installment plan or something?"  She started to reach inside of her purse, but Angel stopped her with a curt wave.

"Don't worry about paying us, Buffy," Angel assured her.  "We've got enough regular business to get by.  We're not hurting here."

"Besides," Cordy added, "friends do for friends, right?"

Buffy glanced at the former cheerleader.  "Okay, someone check the attic for pods.  Cordy's been body-snatched."

Angel chuckled as Cordy booted her computer to set up the case file.  "When Cordy moved to Los Angeles, she left the Queen C in Sunnydale."

"Maybe Cordy and I could question some of the staff at Berkeley," the shy Texan offered.  "Find out if they know what happened to Tara.  You have a picture of her, Miss Summers?"

"Right here," Buffy fished a photo of Tara and Willow in a friendly hug and showed it to the girl.  "Tara's the blonde.  And please, call me Buffy."

"Only if you call me Fred."  Buffy glanced sidelong at the woman, who blushed prettily.  "Short for Winifred," she added. 

"Buffy," Angel asked, "do you know the names of any of Tara's friends on campus?"

Buffy thought for a second before answering.  "She mentioned something to me about the campus Wicca group.  It's headed up by a Miss Lafayette, I think."

"That's a good place to start," Angel answered calmly.  "Cordy, can you and Fred mingle with the students tomorrow, find out about this Wicca group?"

"Sure thing, Boss," Cordy answered, and Fred nodded in agreement. 

"Is there anything else I can do here," Buffy asked, "or should I head back to Sunnydale?"

"Well," Angel offered hesitantly, "there is one more place we can check out…"

"Chris," the sickly greenish-skinned gentleman in the sharkskin suit asked his bartender, "where's that Seabreeze I asked for?"

"Just a second, Boss," Chris answered as he scanned the shelves behind him.  "I can't find the grapefruit juice."

Lorne rolled his eyes, before joining Chris behind the bar.  "Chris," he spoke in calming dulcet tones, "you're new here, so let me explain something to you.  Y'see, Nature, in her infinite wisdom and variety, has provided us with the perfect vessel for the storage, transport and dispensing of grapefruit juice."  He reached an elegantly manicured hand into the mini-fridge under the bar.  "It's called…now wait for it…" he withdrew his hand, holding the object in question and displayed it to Chris.  "A grapefruit!  You understand now; I abhor canned juice.  Now, for the cranberry juice, I'll make allowances, because it's damnably difficult to juice a cranberry.  But it is easy to extract juice from the grapefruit.  Therefore, as long as you continue to draw a paycheck from me, you will use only fresh grapefruit juice.  Comprende?"

"Gotcha," a duly chastised Chris answered. 

"Good boy," Lorne answered.  "Now, with that spirit in mind, may I expect my Seabreeze shortly?"

"Right away," Chris nodded as he picked up a knife to cut the grapefruit.  Lorne smiled, confident that his bartender understood his instructions, and turned his attention to the front door.  A familiar and welcome customer had just entered Caritas, with an attractive blond guest.  This piqued the host's interest, and he immediately left to greet them.

"Angel," he announced, his arms wide open as though greeting a long-lost beloved relative.  "How's the hero business, bro?"

"Same as usual, Lorne," Angel answered.  "Still helping the helpless.  Oh, and this is Buffy Summers.  Buffy," he turned to his companion, "this is Lorne, the Host here at Caritas."

"Well," Lorne's smile was broad and generous.  "I didn't know we were entertaining a celebrity tonight.  You wouldn't happen to be the famed Slayer, would you?"

"That's what my Watcher keeps telling me," Buffy answered. She regarded Lorne dubiously; the yellowish complexion and hooklike nose set him apart as a demon, and even Xander during his sophomore year at high-school would have been embarrassed to own a jacket like the one Lorne was currently wearing.  On the other hand, his friendly nature, while flamboyant and a trifle overbearing, was genuine.  Plus, nothing about him tripped her Slayer alarms.  She decided to trust him, at least until he gave her reason not to.
"A pleasure, milady," Lorne took Buffy's hand and kissed her knuckle.  Ushering the two into a booth, he sat opposite them as a waitress handed him his Seabreeze.  Sipping the beverage, he asked Buffy, "Now then, to what does my humble establishment owe this honor?"

"A friend of mine's gone missing," Buffy answered.  "She's a witch.  Angel seems to think you might be able to help."

"Well," Lorne hemmed and hawed for a second.  "You wouldn't happen to have a picture of the girl in question, would you?"

"Right here," she produced the photo she had shown Fred earlier.  Lorne examined it briefly, then asked, "The blond or the redhead?"

"The blond," Buffy answered.

"Hmm," Lorne mused.  "They've both got good taste.  I'll keep my eyes and ears open, see if any information makes itself available."

"I was wondering," Angel added hesitantly, "whether you might be able to provide any special…insight."  He held the last word in his teeth for a second, providing it with just the right amount of emphasis for Lorne to pick up Angel's meaning.  The Pylean host nodded. 

"Okay, guys," Buffy glanced between the demon and the vampire.  "For the benefit of those of us who left our secret decoder rings at home, what're you guys talking about?"

Lorne regarded Buffy for half a second, then spoke; "I can see things.  Special things.  Past, present, sometimes future.  Maybe I can get a reading off of you, see if there's something in your aura that can help you out."

Buffy pursed her lips hesitantly, turning her eyes toward Angel.  "Actually," he offered, "that might not be a bad idea.  His visions have helped me out a few times.  Especially earlier this year, when I was near the end of my rope."

Buffy regarded the gregarious demon warily for a moment, then said, "What the Hellmouth?  Okay, Lorne," she challenged the host.  "What do you see?"

Lorne arched an eyebrow at the Slayer.  "Uh, no, Buffy, my insights don't work that way.  In order for me to 'see' you," he paused slightly, his expression suddenly serious, "you must stand exposed to me."

"OKAY!" Buffy shouted suddenly.  "That's my cue to leave.  It's been a pleasure, Broccoli Boy, but I have to be going now."  She grabbed her purse hastily, then stopped as Angel and Lorne started to chuckle.

"Please, Buffy," Lorne replied soothingly, "I apologize for my ill-chosen words.  I didn't mean that you must strip for me.  I meant 'stand exposed' in a metaphoric sense."

"Sorry, about that," Buffy answered as she returned to her seat.  "I had a bottle-blond vamp sniffing my underwear drawer last year, so I'm a little touchy about that sort of thing."

"Understood, Buffy," Lorne answered.  "Trust me, you're not my type.  Don't get me wrong, for homo sapiens you're quite dishy, but you don't quite do it for me.  I'm talking about something else entirely.  There's a moment, dear Slayer, when your soul stands absolutely naked and exposed to the world.  The moment when you sing, you stand revealed to everyone who sees you.  It is that moment when I can properly read your soul."

Buffy took a furtive glance at the lounge, and for the first time noticed the small stage that dominated the area.  A leathery-skinned demon with a microphone in his hand was belting out a slightly off-tempo chorus of Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive".  "That one, for example," Lorne observed as Buffy watched the performer, "is secretly gay, and has a passion for Monty Python.  He just doesn't tell his buddies about it, because he's proud of his fierce image." 

Buffy turned away from the odd sight of a singing demon, and back to Lorne.  "So you're saying that, in order to read me, I have to get up there and sing something."  She furrowed her brow in thought, and answered, "Okay.  You got a playlist?"

"Right here," Lorne produced a sheet of paper, and handed it to Buffy.  "Just pick one you like, go up to the stage and hand it to Lenny at the control panel.  He'll set you up."

Buffy scanned the list, looking over the song titles.  At first nothing stuck out or attracted her.  "The things I do for Willow," she muttered half to herself as she glossed over the list.  She found herself thinking about her best friend; how she had stood steadfastly by her side through thick and thin.  And in Sunnydale, she thought sardonically, things can get pretty thick and rather thin.  

Glancing back at the list, she noticed one song title, and the band's name.  She nodded at the title, smiling.  "Okay, I got one."  She stood up, headed for the stage and spoke briefly with the young man at the control panel.

Five minutes later, it was Buffy's turn.  She stood on the stage, took the microphone in her hands, and looked out at the half-full lounge.  A few demonic faces peered out from the darkness amid a mostly human audience, but none seemed threatening.  Angel had earlier told her that Caritas was a neutral area, where humans and demons could drink without fear of molestation.  She closed her eyes, waited for the recording to begin, and started to sing;

"Ooh, you make me live!

Whatever this world can do to me,

I got you, you're all I see.

Ooh, you make me live, now honey!

Ooh, you make me live!"

"She has a good set of pipes on her," Lorne commented as Angel watched his former lover perform.  "Uh, did she die recently?"

"A few months ago," Angel answered, squirming slightly.  "Long story."

"Most of the good ones are," Lorne commented.  "I keep getting this running theme of her sacrificing herself for others.  She does that a lot."  Angel nodded, and went back to listening to Buffy sing.

"You're the best friend that I ever had,

I've been with you such a long time,

You're my sunshine and I want you to know,

This feeling is true,

I really love you.

Ooh, you're my best friend."

"Hmph," Lorne snorted.  Angel glanced at him, asking, "Comment?"

"She's in love with her best friend, y'know," Lorne said quietly.  "The redhead from the photo, Willow, was it?" He snapped his fingers, adding, "I know where I saw her; when we got back from Pylea, she showed up in your lobby."

"Willow, that's her," Angel answered slowly. "She was telling me about Buffy's death."

Lorne looked at his friend.  "You don't seem too surprised that Buffy's in love with Willow, bro."

"I always sensed something between them," Angel answered sadly.  "When I was Angelus last time, I was obsessed with hurting Buffy.  And the best way to do that was to hurt Willow."

"And now," Lorne observed conversationally, "Buffy's going to help find Willow's girlfriend.  Even if it means losing her chance with Willow.  Whatta gal!"

"In rain or shine, you're still by my side,

I'm happy at home,

You're my Best Friend.

"So," Angel asked, "any sign that she'll find Tara?"

"Hmm," Lorne pondered Angel's question, as he stared at the singing Slayer.  "Eventually, she will, when the Powers That Be decide it's time."  He said nothing more, leaving Angel slightly frustrated.  Whenever the PTB were mentioned, he tended to chafe slightly.  The Powers tended to be vague with their desires, and it was beginning to look as though this was not going to be an exception.

"Ooh, you make me live!

Whenever this world is cruel to me,

I have you to help me forgive.

Ooh, you make me live, now honey!

Ooh, you make me live."

"Oh," Lorne said suddenly, turning to Angel.  "Unrelated side note; I ran into one of your old drinking buddies the other day.  Tallish, long jacket, annoying British accent, slicked back hair, poster child for peroxide abuse."

"Spike," Angel fought back the vague anger that he always felt whenever he contemplated his grand-Childe.  "What was he doing here?"

"A fair to middling impression of Billy Idol, as a matter of fact."  Lorne sipped his drink again.  "I got the impression that he wanted to put some serious hurt on Buffy.  And that he'd get his chance soon."

"Thanks for the heads-up," Angel answered.  "I don't think there's anything that Spike can do that Buffy's not ready for."

"Here's hoping," Lorne answered.

"Amen to that."

"You're the first one,

When things get bad,

You know I'll never be lonely.

You're my only one, and I love the things

I really love the things that you do.

Ooh, you're my best friend.

As Buffy neared the end of the song, she imagined that all the faces before her, human and demon, had disappeared, leaving behind one face.  That of a young woman with red hair, a disarming smile, and a core of pure steel.  A woman whose outward shyness disguised an inner strength that had sustained and saved Buffy more times than she could count.  A woman who had won Buffy's heart from the first moment they met.

A woman named Willow Rosenberg.

I'm happy at home,

Ooh, you're my best friend.

Ooh, you make me live!

Ooh, You're My Best Friend!"

During the quiet two-hour drive from Los Angeles to Sunnydale, Buffy considered what Lorne had told her.  His visions weren't as informative as she had hoped; all he could say was that she would see Tara again, when the time was right.  He also said something about the Powers That Be, which rather galled her.  The PTB were notorious for not volunteering information until they felt it was required, and she had no idea when they would deign to contact her.  Furthermore, she felt there was some information that Lorne was keeping back as well.  When she approached Angel about what Lorne had said, or what he didn't say, Angel also fell strangely silent. 

There was also the matter of Lorne's run-in with Spike a few days earlier.  Lorne had warned her that the Brit vamp wanted her dead, but that didn't worry her much.  After all, he was still neutered by that chip.  If he showed his face in Sunnydale, she figured that she was more than capable of taking her down.  She found herself remembering the scene in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" where King Arthur hacked off the limbs of the Black Knight.  She figured that any fracas between her and Spike would be as easily decided.

By the time she pulled the Jeep into the driveway, she was ready to crawl into bed and vegetate for twelve hours.  Fortunately UC Sunnydale was holding its annual arts and crafts bazaar at the Community Center, so her weekend self-defense class was cancelled for tomorrow.  She quietly unlocked the front door and slipped in, hoping to go unnoticed.

The moment she entered the living room, she stopped cold, nearly dead in her tracks.  She tried to speak but control of her jaw proved difficult.  Sitting on the sofa across from where Buffy was standing was Buffy.  A perfect doppelganger of the Slayer sat motionless, almost serenely so, her glassy eyes staring at a spot on the wall to the left of where Buffy was standing.

Buffy tried to clear her throat, finally succeeding on the third attempt.  She swallowed hard and managed to call out, "Uh, Willow?"

"Willow is in her bedroom," the double answered as her head swiveled toward Buffy.  She sounded so unnervingly like Buffy yet at the same time different, droning and inflectionless.  "She is locating some spare RAM cards to supplement my main memory."

Buffy's eyes lit up with understanding at that moment, as Willow walked into the living room.  Willow noticed her friend standing and staring at the figure on the sofa, and smiled slightly.  "Hey, Buffy.  I hope you don't mind that I salvaged the Buffy-bot.  I just wanted to take a look inside her, see if I could reprogram her.  I've made some progress, actually; Warren might be a total sleazoid but he did make his bots user-serviceable   I managed to boost her memory, and erase her programmed attraction to Spike."

"This is true," Buffy-bot answered.  "I no longer desire to have sex with him, even when I remember his washboard abs."

Buffy crooked a sarcastic eyebrow at Willow, who blushed slightly.  "Well, maybe there's some backup memory I need to tweak.  But if this works, maybe we can train her to fight, so she can help you on patrol."

Buffy considered Willow's suggestion for a moment, then nodded reluctantly.  "Maybe.  With Demona about I suspect I'm gonna need all the help I can get.  But it may be awhile before we get Buffy 2 up to fighting specs."

"Maybe," Willow smiled as she sat next to the android and popped open a service hatch between her shoulder blades.  "But I love a challenge.  So," she added, as she popped a RAM card into an exposed slot, "how was your patrol?  You were gone late, so I figured you were cleaning up a larger nest of vamps than usual."

"Oh, yeah," Buffy said suddenly, uncomfortably settling into a chair next to the sofa.  She didn't like to lie to Willow, but also didn't wish to raise false hopes regarding Tara.  "Big nest, mostly newbies.  No real challenge, just time consuming."

"Oh?" Willow glanced over Buffy with a questioning eye.  "Then shouldn't you be covered in vamp dust?"

Buffy looked down at her clothes, mentally hitting herself for not noticing their relatively pristine condition, considering that she was supposed to have slain a nest of vampires.  "Oh, yeah. That," she stammered, feeling the quicksand slowly swallowing her.  "I used the car-vac.  Y'know, the mini-vac that plugs into the Jeep's cigarette lighter slot?"

"So how's Angel?" Willow asked in a level voice.

Buffy sagged her shoulders, scolding herself mentally for even being surprised that Willow knew.  "He's fine.  I think he's got a thing for Cordy now."

"Go figure," Willow muttered absently as she reached for a jeweler's screwdriver.  "In case you're wondering, Buffy, Cordy called me about ten minutes ago.  She wanted to make sure you got back safe, and asked me to have you call them when you got back.  Oh, and she also wanted to assure me that they would do everything they could to locate Tara."  Willow crooked her eyebrows at Buffy.  "You went there for me, didn't you?"

"Oh," Buffy smiled sheepishly.  "Yeah, something like that.  I just didn't want to see you unhappy."

Willow flashed Buffy a smile that Buffy understood to mean 'You're off the hook, this time.'  Relieved, Buffy got up from her chair and walked briskly toward the kitchen to pour herself some iced tea.

"Then Willow told her to drop the search," the Buffy-bot announced.

Buffy stuck her head out of the kitchen door, her eyes wide with shock.  "You did what?"

Willow sat with clenched teeth as the android looked blandly at Buffy, "Willow told them to call off the search.  She said that Tara was not in any trouble, so they don't need to search for her." 

"You sure you weren't supposed to be a Cordy-bot?" Willow scowled at the android as she adjusted a circuit board in her chest cavity.

Buffy slowly approached Willow, knelt beside her and placed a hand on her arm.  "Okay, Willow.  Drop the screwdriver and back away slowly from the android."

"Buffy," Willow complained quietly, "It's fine, really, I—"

"It's not fine, Willow," Buffy insisted as she sat beside her friend.  "You're starting to scare me, Willow.  I mean, this is Tara we're talking about.  Remember, Tara Maclay?  Love of your life?   The woman whose mind you managed to pull back after Glory brain-sucked her?"

"Yes, Buffy," Willow nodded.  "I know who she is.  And I still love her.  And if she ever got lost that way again, I'd move Heaven and Earth to get her back.  But she's not lost this time."

Buffy looked closely at her best friend, reading her facial expressions and body language for any sign that she was hiding something from her.  She realized that there was no artifice about Willow's behavior; she wasn't smiling for Buffy's benefit, she was telling her the truth.  "So you know where she is?"

"Yeah," Willow smiled sadly.  "Well, not 'know where she is' in the sense of actually knowing her current location, but at least knowing that she is someplace.  And Tara knows where she is, and that's what matters.  I can't tell you where she really is, but I know that she's where she needs to be.  Y'know?"

For the next five seconds, Buffy digested what Willow had told her.  "This is scary, Will.  Your babbles are starting to make sense."  Willow chuckled as Buffy looked lovingly at her.  "I just don't understand how you know, uh, whatever it is you know.  Did Tara manage to cram all that into an email, before she went—well, where she went?"

"Not an email, Buffy," Willow said softly.  Buffy could almost detect the reverential tone that suddenly infused her friend's voice.  "She was here.  Her spirit was, anyway.  Remember last month, when we rescued her from Aaron Webb and the cult of Anansi?"

Buffy nodded, "Yeah, and she sent that blue Tinkerbell thing to guide us to her."  Buffy's head snapped up suddenly.  "Did Tara visit you in that sprite-form again?"

"Yes," Willow said, tears shining in her eyes.  "She couldn't tell me everything, but she let me know that she was doing something important.  She—she joined her soul to mine for a moment.  Just a second in real-time, but it was like hours with her.  Without words, we said so much to each other.  We communicated on the deepest level possible.  We shared our souls for that instant, Buffy.  It was the most intimate moment I ever had with anyone."

Buffy looked on in awe and wonder as Willow spoke of her final moment with Tara.  "Wow," she whispered.  "Sounds like you two shared something special.  You think she'll visit you again like that?"

"No," Willow answered, with the faintest tinge of sorrow.  "As we parted, we realized that we weren't gonna be together that way again.  She's destined for something different, Buffy.  We both are.  Like Ben Kenobi said to Luke Skywalker, her destiny lies along a different path than mine."

Buffy felt her own eyes welling with tears, and absently started to dab at her eyes with her sleeve.  "Willow, I'm so sorry.  I had no idea—"

"Don't be sorry for me, Buffy," Willow smiled warmly, assuring Buffy.  "I know that we'll see Tara again.  And even if she and I aren't together, we'll always remember what we had.  I'll always love her, Buffy, but that doesn't mean I won't love anyone else."

"I'm glad to hear that, Willow," Buffy breathed out a sigh of quiet relief.  "I guess I was worried about you, especially after how sad you were when Oz bailed."

"You mean," Willow said archly, "you were afraid that I'd try that 'I Will It So' spell, and you'd end up smooching on the couch with Spike again."  Buffy mock-glared at Willow, causing them both to giggle.  "I'm okay, Buffy.  Like you said, Oz bailed.  He ran away.  Tara's not running away, she's running toward something.  She's doing this because she needs to, and how can I say I love her if I didn't give her the chance to do what she needs to do?"  Willow took Buffy's strong hand in her small one, and gave it a warm and loving squeeze.  "It hurts a little, letting her go, but I'll never lose her.  I'm okay, Buffy.  Really."

Buffy squeezed Willow's hand back, wishing to convey the love she bore for the Wiccan hacker.  "Is there anything I can do for you, Willow?  Anything at all?"

Willow returned Buffy's watery smile with one of her own.  "Two things, Buffy.  One, be my friend."

"Always," Buffy nodded enthusiastically.

"And two," Willow added, "hand me that Phillips screwdriver.  I think I may have Buffy-bot's humor reaction programming licked.  She still needs work on her comebacks."

"I can do knock-knock jokes," Buffy-bot chirped, oblivious to the screwdriver poking her innards.

"Knock-knock?" Buffy asked skeptically.

"Who's there?" Buffy-bot chimed in.

Buffy rolled her eyes at her double, then turned back to Willow.  "Look, Willow, you ever need to talk about anything, you knock on my door.  Anytime at all.  You need me, I'm there."

"Thanks, Buffy," Willow answered.  "And I'll probably take you up on that soon."  Buffy took Willow's hand in hers again, simply content to enjoy the contact for a fleeting moment.

"Look-Willow-you-ever-need-to-talk-about-anything-you-knock-on-my-door-anytime-at-all-thanks-Buffy-and-I'll-probably-take-you-up-on-that-soon WHO?" 

Buffy and Willow glared at the blank-faced android, then slowly dissolved into a fit of laughter.  It was a healing laugh, the kind that required deep breaths that allowed oxygen into the system, restoring the body and cleansing the soul.  A few minutes later, as the two best friends collected themselves, Buffy fetched two glasses of iced tea while Willow turned back to repairing the android.

As Buffy allowed herself to enjoy the company of her best friend, a pair of eyes glared at her through the living room window.  Unseen, a dark figure stood under a large tree, his form and face shrouded in the darkness of the night.  His eyes smoldered dimly, angry and bloody thoughts dancing behind them.  He ran his hand through his slicked back hair, and considered his plans.

"Soon, Slayer," Spike vowed as he took a swig from a can of Guinness, "soon."