Summary: Willow, seeking power, comes upon a truly dark tome, and makes a fateful choice. Follow-up to "Dark Bargain."

Disclaimer: I don't own any of the characters portrayed here, they remain the property of their respective owners/creators.

Rating: PG-13, for themes.

Time Frame: During "Two to Go," with changes in the timeline to reflect my earlier story "Dark Bargain." (spoilers)

Archiving: Be my guest, but e-mail me ( ) to let me know. . .I like to know where stuff I write ends up and I might want to see what else you've got.

Author's Note: Anyone who is used to more mellow stories from me is forewarned: this one is dark. Really, really dark. Don't say I didn't warn you. : - )


Part III

The silence was broken by the sound of choked sobs, and Willow seemed to come out of a daze as she glanced derisively at Dawn, who was the one sobbing, then turned to the avenging figure in the entryway. She smiled demurely and called out in a mocking tone, "You know, I'm pretty sure you're dead. I seem to recall getting all weepy about it, then skinning a geek. I don't suppose you'd like to explain how you're standing here alive and looking really pissed off?"

The azure fire continued to crackle around Tara, but her harsh whisper carried across the room: "You did it, Willow: You brought me back."

Willow shook her head and replied, "Pretty sure I didn't do that, baby. I had a rather nasty fight with a demon over the subject. He said that you were dead, and that it had been a natural death, so I couldn't bring you back. Mayhem followed."

Tara shook her head and gestured at her former lover, snapping, "You've unleashed monstrous evil here, Willow. . .evil beyond your comprehension, and with consequences that you couldn't possibly anticipate-"

"Yeah, yeah, yeah. If I wanted a lecture I'd have let the Watcher stay conscious." Willow's voice dripped with contempt, and Tara's mouth tightened subliminally as the Dalorian Necromancer looked at her with narrowed eyes and accused, "This is a trick: Anya or Giles is projecting an image and channeling power through it. I'll put a stop to that right now." She whirled and threw an inky, writhing ball of black energy at Anya: Xander tensed, but paused as he saw there was no way to reach her in time to intercept the attack. Anya closed her eyes and braced against the attack, but it washed harmlessly against a barrier of blue fire. Willow turned and saw that Tara's hands were held in a warding gesture: her mystic senses told her that the spell had come from Tara, not from elsewhere. She blinked, and the other occupants of the room were forgotten as she stepped towards the resurrected Nemesis and asked in a voice that was almost that of the old Willow: "How?"

Tara sighed, then responded, "The powers of the Dalorian Necromancer and the Nemesis are inextricably linked. Where the possibility of one exists, so must the possibility of the other. When I died without training a successor, the potentiality of the Nemesis rested wholly in the tomes you burned. Their destruction triggered a backlash, which resurrected me, with the knowledge of what you had done and the entire complement of spells and powers that the Tomes had to offer, including ones that I had yet to master." Tara smiled, and there was an unfamiliar edge of mockery, tinged with bitterness, in her voice as she concluded, "Not too bright, honey."

Willow ignored the mockery: she was still trying to absorb what she had just heard, and her voice was distorted by sheer disbelief as she asked, "So, if I'd just burned those damned books before I absorbed the Tomes of the Necromancer--?"

"I would have come back, confused but none the worse for the experience." Tara sounded subdued, and the edge of hardness had vanished from her voice. She shook her head and commented, "That would have been a nice bit of information to have: a shame that I wasn't aware of it."

Willow bent over, her hands on her knees, visibly shaking. The others tensed, daring to hope that Tara might have reached Willow even in her current horribly debased state. That hope vanished as Willow straightened and revealed that she was laughing like a madwoman: her eyes shone with demonic glee as her laughter echoed through the room. After a few moments, she recovered and looked back at Tara, who looked shaken for the first time since she entered the Magic Box. The Dalorian Necromancer looked at her foe, grinned, and commented, "Isn't it amazing how stupid little things like that are always happening here: I had this great plan, and it's all screwed up because of something that neither of us knew. This world is too messy, too random: I will transform it and make it a place of order and reason." Willow chuckled and added, "Of course, to do that I have to kill you. Try not to take it personally. What happens when you die, anyway? Do the books come back?" Tara nodded involuntarily, and Willow nodded in response and continued, "I'll put them in a crystal case in my throne room: it's the least I can do to commemorate what we had together, darling. Any last words?"

Tara locked eyes with Willow, not betraying by expression or word the motion in the room behind them as Anya reached into a drawer and pulled out several small objects, handing some to Xander, Jonathan and Dawn, then slipping silently over to Buffy. The Nemesis frowned, then coaxed, "Willow, let's go somewhere isolated and fight this out. I'll give you an even fight, if you don't hurt anyone else here."

Willow snickered, then retorted, "Oh, please. Do you really think I view any of these insects as a threat to me now? I'm not going to give up the advantage that you having to protect them is going to give me, and I'm certainly not going to wander off and let them find some new source of power to make my life unpleasant: with Giles back they might actually be halfway competent at research now." Willow shook her head in mock sadness and concluded, "You're just going to have to make the best of it, baby."

Tara nodded and replied, "I know." Her hands moved in a blur, and a bolt of blue fire leapt in Willow's direction. Willow ducked and rolled, but the bolt crossed two feet to the right of where Willow had been standing, heading directly at Buffy, who was still trapped by the chains. Willow's eyes widened as the bolt abruptly split in mid-air, creating four smaller bolts that struck the shackles, vaporizing them and causing the Slayer to fall free. Willow snarled and fired a crimson power bolt at Buffy, who dove for cover as the bolt blew a five foot wide hole in the wall where she had so recently been hanging. Willow turned back to Tara, who smiled coldly and commented, "It's not all about you, Willow."

Willow stood and glared at the Nemesis, and her voice was distorted with barely contained rage as she responded, "I beg to differ." Her aura darkened, and her eyes flickered with ruby flame as she looked over her shoulder and commanded, "Andrew, kill Giles."

The others flinched, having forgotten the animated remains. The monster's eyes glowed brightly, and it advanced rapidly, its curved blade raised to slay the still-recovering Watcher. Tara gasped and started to weave a spell, but Willow turned back and fired a huge gout of crimson flame at the Nemesis, and Tara was hard-pressed to hold off the attack. The others would be on their own, at least for now.

The scimitar came down with a hiss, but was deflected at the last second by a kick almost too fast to be seen by the human eye. The blade missed Giles and buried itself deeply in the floor, causing the skeleton to grasp the hilt with both hands and try to free it. Buffy stepped closer and began throwing punches at the monster's ribs and spine, hoping to shatter it. Much to her dismay, she found that the undead mockery was far more resistant to damage than what she was used to, and the speed with which the skeleton pulled the blade free and turned to face her gave her the uneasy feeling that Andrew was going to be a hell of a lot more annoying dead than alive. Buffy reached behind her and caught the broadsword that Xander had retrieved from a wall rack, and the sound of ringing blades was soon competing with that of dueling energies.

Willow noted the sequence of events, then called out, "Nicely done, Buffy. . .but the rest of you look bored. How about I get you someone to play with?" She muttered a short phrase, and before long the sound of pounding on the back door was heard. The identity of the new arrivals was made clear when five vampires came charging through the front door. They passed by Tara, and a quick gesture caused her aura to flare blue-white, igniting the hapless vampires and reducing them to ash. Willow sighed and muttered, "Dumbasses" before weaving another spell and resuming the attack on Tara.

Buffy ducked under a vicious swipe from the skeleton's blade, and noticed that she felt sluggish as she fended off the attacks from Willow's undead servant. Giles was sitting up, and he had taken in the scene and was gesturing quickly with his hands and muttering a spell. Buffy wondered what Giles was doing, but had no time to waste in order to find out. She called out, "Everyone arm yourselves and get ready for a whole lot of pissed off vampires!"

Xander, Dawn and Jonathan nodded and grabbed weapons, while Anya shimmered and vanished. Buffy wondered for a moment if she had chosen to attempt flight, then spotted her behind the front counter, pulling out stakes and bottles of holy water. In spite of herself, Buffy grinned: it was back to basics, in a truly twisted manner.

Spike had risen and was moving quickly, snatching a mace off the wall and dashing over to Buffy. The Slayer tensed for a moment, then realized that Spike was moving to blindside the skeleton. She stepped up her attack, and kept her expression neutral as Spike reached the pair and directed a two-handed swing at the pelvis of the monster. At the last second, it turned, but the mace slammed home with a loud crack, staggering it and causing it to have to re-grip its weapon. Spike pressed his attack, and several ribs shattered under the assault; unfortunately, the skeleton seemed undismayed by the loss, and stepped up its attack. Spike hissed in pain as the scimitar bit into his bare chest, causing a shallow but lengthy cut that bled slowly.

Buffy shook her head: enough was enough. She dropped to the floor and performed a sweep against the skeleton, counting on Spike to keep it occupied while she was helpless to defend herself. The vampire noted her move and stepped up his attack, receiving another slash for his trouble just as Buffy knocked the skeleton's legs from under it, knocking it to the ground. Buffy rolled to her feet and delivered a two handed stroke at the monster's right wrist, severing it and sending the scimitar clattering to the ground. It reached for the blade with its left hand, but it was too late: Buffy kicked the scimitar away, then joined Spike in battering Andrew's remains into shards of blackened bone. The skull was the last part to succumb: the eye sockets glimmered for a last time, then faded to darkness. Buffy paused to catch her breath, then turned to Spike and managed a rueful grin before whispering, "Thanks: he was putting up a pretty good fight for a bunch of geek bones."

Spike nodded and replied, "All part of the service." He frowned and commented, "You were looking less than your best there: are you all right?"

Buffy shook her head, then responded, "Something's off, and I think Willow is doing it." She glanced over at Giles, who was still absorbed with his casting, then turned back to Spike, ordering, "Guard him. Kill anything that gets near him." She smiled briefly, all grievances set aside for the moment, then turned to join the battle against the small horde of vampires that had burst through the back door.

* * * * *

* Goddess, she's strong *

Tara shook her head to dismiss the traitorous thought as she parried a burst of purple electricity, causing the spell to strike a candle and reduce it to wax pulp. She had not hesitated for a moment to use her deadliest attacks against Willow: she knew all too well the nature of the change that had taken place in her lover, and that an instant's mercy could spell her doom in a fraction of a second, along with that of the entire world. The first potentially lethal attack had taken every ounce of will she had to deliver, but now she was throwing spells that would have left the Willow she had known only days before a pile of dying flesh, with hardly a thought. Her own power had reached its zenith: the reaction caused by the burning of the Tomes of the Nemesis had burned into her mind the knowledge and ability to use spells that would have taken her decades of study, arcane power that was originally intended to deal with situations where the Nemesis and the Necromancer were fighting a long war of attrition over the expanse of an entire world. Tara knew that dealing with her alternate self would have been child's play at this level of power, as would have been disposing of the Necromancer who slew her mother while dying at her hands.

That being said, she was losing.

Tara had sensed the power lurking inside of Willow from the first time she had seen her, and had watched with ambivalence as Willow had learned to command that power with both grim determination and astonishing ease. Ultimately, it had been the abuse of that power which had sundered their relationship, and her genuine pride in how Willow had managed to give it up in the face of repeated temptation that had permitted her to set aside her doubts and come back to her. . .until Warren's bullet ended everything and started the sequence of events that had led Willow to the Tomes of the Dalorian Necromancer. Along with the power of the Nemesis came the knowledge of their history and that of the Necromancers: Tara knew that no user of the Arts as powerful as Willow had ever become the Necromancer; previously, the cost that was inevitably paid by the would-be adept had seemed too high to one who already commanded great power. Willow's lust for vengeance, along with her already corrupting absorption of dark power and her ability to absorb the Tomes instantaneously, had combined to create a threat that would have awed even the dark power that sacrificed its existence to create the Tomes. Though she had succeeded so far in warding off Willow's assaults, Tara could tell that Willow was still holding back, probing her for weaknesses, while she was pressing to her limits already.

The Nemesis looked over at her opponent, and saw veiled amusement in Willow's eyes. Her heart sank, and an intense desire to give up filled her: she was supposed to be dead already-why not just let it happen? She blinked, and saw that the battle in the back of the store had begun, with her friends grimly holding their own against a group of unusually energetic vampires. Buffy was in the front, holding off three of the undead warriors while shouting commands to the others. Tara's jaw set: Buffy had felt anguish at being brought back, yet she fought on, for duty-and for love. She shook her head to clear it, then redoubled her assault on the Necromancer, ignoring her growing exhaustion as she tapped her inner reserves.

* * * * *

Buffy's head snapped back, and she felt the taste of blood in her mouth. The vampire grinned and looked for another opening for a kick, while Buffy shook her head to clear it, then threw a right cross that snapped the vampire's head back in kind.

There were six vampires, and Buffy was straining to hold off three of them, succeeding partially because they seemed disinclined to grapple her rather than strike, perhaps having heard of her rather lethal abilities in close combat. Xander and Jonathan were each holding off a vampire, and both men were quickly being worn down: Buffy could see parallel lines of crimson on Jonathan's face as he fought on, jabbing and slicing with surprising skill. Dawn and Anya were holding off the other vampire with a variation of distractions, including holy water and random teleports, and neither had been hurt-yet.

Buffy risked a brief glance over her shoulder and saw that Giles was still muttering and gesturing, and that Spike was looking at her, obviously wanting to assist with the pitched battle. She gave her head a brief shake, and turned back to her opponents, wondering if Giles was ever going to get on the ball and-

Abruptly, Buffy felt a burst of energy, and saw the three vampires in front of her flinch as if jabbed by a cattle prod. She took full advantage of their hesitation, staking two with blinding speed and sending the third to the floor with a side kick. She heard a scream and realized that Xander had dispatched his opponent as well. Another glance over her shoulder revealed that Spike looked rather unsettled, and that Giles was still weaving his spell. Willow was also in the Slayer's line of sight, and she glared at the Watcher for a moment before ducking under a blue-white blast of power that blew a hole through the wall behind her and tossed a bolt of crimson fire back at Tara. Buffy noted that there were several such holes visible, and that the building was starting to look none too stable. Giles had boosted their chances by counteracting the anti-life aura that Willow was projecting, but it would be up to them to dispatch their opponents and help Tara.

Buffy heard a noise from the back room, and turned to see several more vampires coming in. She sighed: this was still not going to be a cakewalk. She staked the vampire on the floor in front of her, then moved to intercept the newcomers.

* * * * *

Willow was becoming bored.

She had felt Giles cast the spell that suppressed her anti-life aura, but it had done nothing but neutralize a passive effect that had absolutely no influence on her other powers, which she had been using to inexorably wear Tara down. The Nemesis still wore a determined expression, but Willow could see the growing exhaustion in her motions: she was minutes from collapse. Confident in her inevitable victory, she decided to amuse herself by threatening Tara's friends and forcing her to exhaust herself further to defend them. Humming a cheerful tune, she starting randomly flinging energy bolts into the battle across the room. They had far less power than the ones she had been throwing at Tara, but they would still be very dangerous to an unprotected human.

Tara gasped, and closed her eyes, trying to anticipate Willow's attacks by the subtle changes in the flow of energy within the room. She was remarkably successful, blocking about two thirds of the attacks with energy bolts of her own that caused the dark magic to fizzle out in mid-air. Most of the others struck walls and bookcases, doing more damage and causing the building to shake ominously. Two struck vampires squarely and ignited them, reducing them to dust. One struck Jonathan in the left arm, burning it slightly and causing the young man to yelp, but otherwise doing nothing. Willow scowled, then remembered noticing that Anya had been moving around just before the fight began. * The bitch remembered where the talismans were stored and handed them around. Clever * Willow pondered the situation, and was mildly surprised when a bookcase collapsed, burying Dawn in a pile of heavy books and mangled shelves. The teenager stirred, then went limp. The vampire who had been harrying her grinned and moved in for the kill, only to howl as a bolt of crimson fire from the Necromancer struck him in the chest, vaporizing him. Willow raised a finger in a mock scolding motion, and the other vampires noted the obvious warning and turned their attention to the other fighters. Willow smiled coldly. * That's my meal, thank you very much *

Buffy saw Dawn go down, but was fully preoccupied with her opponents, and she felt a moment of perverse relief when Willow blasted the vampire going after her, even though she knew that Willow had only done it to preserve the source of power that the Key represented. She stepped up her own pace, kicking and punching with reckless disregard for her own safety. Buffy could see that Tara was slowing down: they didn't have much time left.

Spike cried out, and Buffy turned to see the vampire on the ground, writhing in what was obviously horrible pain. Willow grinned again, and called out, "He really should have taken my offer, Buffy: I've always wondered what the undead have that gets your motor running. Oh well, eggs, omelets, yada yada yada." She pointed to the ceiling above Giles, and a blue-white bolt of power leaped out into a ceiling beam, blasting through Tara's feeble effort to deflect it. The beam came crashing down in a shower of debris as Buffy dashed forward, leaving Xander, Anya, and Jonathan to deal with the vampires in the back. A smaller piece of debris struck Giles in the forehead, stunning him and almost causing him to stop muttering the spell; after a moment, he recovered somewhat, but he was visibly hurt, weakening and unable to move aside from the remaining threat. Buffy had caught the heavy beam and was straining to keep it from falling on Giles and crushing him. She struggled to get herself in position to toss the beam aside and return to the fight, only to hear motion behind her and turned to see a vampire with a cavalry saber bearing down on her. She was helpless to defend herself while she was encumbered by the beam: dropping it to fight would kill Giles. She gritted her teeth and tried desperately to shift enough to throw the beam aside. She saw the glee in the vampire's eyes and realized that she was going to fail: she was fatalistically wondering if she could keep the beam from falling on Giles after she was stabbed when a sudden motion caused her to gasp in surprise.

Jonathan had charged over and threw himself at the vampire, knocking it to the ground with a flying tackle. The vampire quickly recovered as Buffy, seeing the new threat, grimly continued to shift her weight and praying that she could be freed in time to save her rescuer. With a last twist, Buffy shoved the beam aside and sent it crashing to the ground inches from Giles. The Slayer turned and cried out in horror as the vampire thrust with its saber, impaling Jonathan in the middle of his torso as he lay helpless on the floor. The vampire grinned as it pulled the blade free, only to have the expression frozen on his face in the instant before he vanished into dust. Buffy dropped the stake and knelt next to Jonathan, noting with alarm that he was getting very pale and that the wet stain on his shirt was spreading rapidly. The Slayer was familiar with anatomy from both school and professional studies: Jonathan's aorta had been punctured. There was nothing she could do for him.

Jonathan opened his eyes, and read the verdict on Buffy's face. Their eyes locked, and they both remembered their interactions of the past half decade, with all of the moments of grief, fear, anger, joy, and absurdity that had accompanied them. After a moment, Jonathan's eyes narrowed and he whispered, "Thank you, Buffy."

Buffy was startled, and she asked quietly-ignoring for a brief moment the chaotic scene around her: "For what?"

The young man smiled weakly, and reached out to touch her hand, replying with a rapidly fading voice: "For making it matter."

Buffy blinked, and a tear fell free as she leaned over and kissed Jonathan gently on the forehead. When she straightened, she saw that Jonathan's eyes were fixed and staring. She reached out and closed them, then snarled low in her throat and looked up to where Xander and Anya were grimly holding off three vampires. With a blur of motion, she snatched up three loose stakes and tossed them one after another into the fight. All three found their marks, and the trio of screams left the former couple bruised but alive. Buffy exhaled, then heard the familiar, mocking voice behind her: "Awww, the little geek didn't make it. You really do fight better when you're pissed off, don't you?"

Buffy stood up and focused every bit of her rage into a glare that she directed at the creature who-until mere minutes ago-had been a friend she would have unhesitatingly laid her life down for. Willow raised an amused eyebrow, and Buffy grated out: "Enough, Willow. This ends now."

Willow chuckled, and noted that Tara was barely on her feet, and that Dawn had managed to struggle free from the pile of books before falling unconscious, blood oozing from a cut on her cheek. The Dalorian Necromancer nodded solemnly and replied, "Yeah, this whole scene has kind of played itself out." Willow raised a hand and waved, calling out, "Bye, Buffy," as her eyes glowed red and a wave of black energy flowed out from her, enveloping the entire room.
Buffy started forward, only to find the strength being sucked from her body as if a vampire was draining her dry. She heard a groan, and saw Giles slump, unconscious. A quick glance to the rear of the store revealed that Xander and Anya were also staggering from the dark magic. The Slayer realized in horror that Willow was amplifying the anti-life energy field that she projected naturally with the full measure of power granted to her, and that Tara was too spent to counteract the effect. Buffy saw the amulet that Anya had handed her glowing in reaction to Willow's action, but it was inadequate against the raw power being used. Buffy growled and took another step toward Willow, only to drop to her knees, narrowly avoiding falling flat on her face.

Willow smiled coldly, then whirled and knocked aside the deadly thrust of Tara's enchanted dagger: the Nemesis had come up behind her foe, only to be betrayed by the slight scraping sound of her shoe on some debris on the floor. The Necromancer chuckled, then snapped her fingers, summoning a blade of black iron that glowed orange with heat. She nodded to Tara, then invited: "You heard Buffy: let's finish this."

Tara was too tired to manage more than a nod before Willow slashed at her, ripping a sleeve and drawing blood. The searing pain gave her a final burst of adrenaline, and she countered, pressing the Necromancer back and forcing her on the defensive. The Blade of the Nemesis contained powerful enchantments designed specifically to be lethal to the Necromancer, but it would require a major body hit to do the job: nicks would only make Willow angry. She risked a look behind Willow into the rest of the Magic Box: Buffy was still on her knees, barely conscious, and Giles and Xander were unconscious. Anya had managed to throw up some kind of defensive magic, but it too was proving inadequate: the vengeance demon was barely managing to stay on her feet. Tara was alone, with only her blade between herself and total defeat. She gritted her teeth and pressed the attack.

In contrast to the pitched battle that had just concluded, the fight between the two epic combatants took place in eerie silence, with only the sound of the blades clashing or biting into flesh and fabric breaking the stillness. The flickering black field still filled the room, and after a few seconds the only other conscious being in the room was Spike, who was in the ironic position of being by far the physically strongest being in the room thanks to the anti-life field, but being helpless due to the intense pain caused by Willow's earlier spell. The vampire writhed and snarled in agony and sheer frustration as he struggled to watch the battle that would determine his final fate.

Both women were bleeding from arm wounds, but Willow still moved freely, while Tara's movements were halting and visibly pained. Willow's expression was a cruel smile: Tara's was a grimace. Several more minutes passed, with more wounds being delivered, and a painful scratch on the shoulder caused Willow to frown and sigh before making a blindingly fast thrust and parry, catching Tara's arm in mid-thrust and sending the Blade of the Nemesis flying off into the main part of the Magic Box, bouncing out of view. Willow chuckled, then thrust again. The glowing blade buried itself in the lower right part of Tara's abdomen, causing a loud sizzling sound and a cry of anguish from Tara. Willow smirked, pulled the blade free, and kicked Tara in the chest, causing her to hurtle back into a wall and spin to the ground, barely conscious. Willow glanced back briefly to make sure everyone was still out, directed more power to the anti-life aura, then walked forward, kneeling next to the stricken Nemesis. Her smile was almost gentle as she whispered, "Hey, baby. Kind of painful, huh?"

Tara had no strength to respond, and Willow nodded and continued, "You know. . .it's supposed to be impossible to corrupt the Nemesis with the powers of the Necromancer, and I figured that I didn't have time to play around. . .but it's just occurred to me: I can bring you back any time I want to just by burning that stupid book. I can try all kinds of spells on you until I find one that works, and we can be together always, with you seeing things my way. Isn't that just the best thing in the whole world? I've got a few details to clean up first, of course, and I don't really need you around for them, so I'll say bye for now." Willow raised her blade over Tara's heart, and waved with her other hand as she called out, "See you in a few, honey." She raised the dagger, and was starting to bring it down when she felt a sharp pain and heard the sound of a blade shearing through flesh and bone. She tried to turn, but instead fell helplessly on her back, her weapon falling to the floor next to her. With an effort, she turned her head to see her attacker, and saw Dawn standing there, the bloodstained Blade of the Nemesis resting in her shaking right hand as she glared down at the woman she had loved like a sister.

In an instant, Willow knew the full extent of her folly. The magic she had used had been extremely effective against the merely human life forces of Xander Harris and Rupert Giles, and even the enhanced force of spirit possessed by a Slayer and a vengeance demon had proven to be no match for it. It had never occurred to her that, while Dawn's human form meant that she could be killed by most mundane means as easily as anyone, magic meant to drain or suppress her life force was grossly inadequate for the purpose of disabling her-it was more or less like trying to put out a forest fire with a glass of water. Dawn had regained consciousness, found the Blade, and simply walked up behind Willow while she was gloating and stabbed her through her black heart.

Willow laughed as she felt her life slipping away. She looked up at Dawn and smiled as she whispered, "It's all so silly, isn't it?" Her eyes fluttered closed, and her body flared crimson before vanishing into a cloud of stinking ash that coalesced into the Tomes of the Necromancer.

Dawn dropped the Blade of the Nemesis and started crying quietly. She felt a presence behind her, and Buffy's strong arms were around her as the Slayer led her sister over to Tara's stricken form. After a moment, Xander, Anya, and a staggering Giles joined them. Tara's eyes fluttered open, and she whispered, "Is it over?"

Buffy nodded and elaborated, "Dawn did it. If she hadn't-"

Tara nodded and looked up at Dawn, who stood silently, tears running down her cheeks as she looked down at her gravely wounded friend. The Nemesis smiled at the crying teenager, then looked back at Buffy and spoke in a clear but weak voice: "Buffy. . .I don't have much time, and I need you to do something for me."

Buffy shook her head and replied, "We'll get you to the hospital, Tara. You'll be all right, I pro-"

Tara shook her head and responded, "No, Buffy, that blade was tainted, and the wound is mortal. I only have a few moments left, and I need to tell you this." Buffy nodded, and Tara continued, "When I die, both the Nemesis and the Necromancer will be dead, with no trained successor for either. When I die, and the Tomes of the Nemesis appear, take them and the Tomes of the Dalorian Necromancer, bind them together with mala vines, and burn them. Do this, and the threat of the Necromancer will be gone forever-the opposing forces will be consigned to oblivion together."

"No, Tara!" The voice was Dawn's, and the young woman dropped to her knees, her expression matching the pleading sound of her voice as she addressed the Nemesis: "Tara, we can burn the Tomes of the Nemesis and bring you back again, then hide the Tomes of the Necromancer. We can save you and still protect the world."

Tara smiled sadly and replied weakly, "Like we did today? Willow only lost because she was careless, Dawn-we came within an eyelash of everyone here dying and the world being enslaved by a monster. It could happen again: someone could get the Tomes and learn their contents. . .or someone could burn them and bring Willow back." The occupants of the room shuddered at that concept, and Tara continued, "It's my job to stop the Necromancer, Dawn-and this time it will be forever. I have to do it, and I need your help. Please, help me do this."

Dawn was silent, and Buffy nodded. Tara smiled appreciatively, then looked at Dawn again and whispered, "Dawnie? Promise me one more thing?" Dawn nodded slowly, and Tara gathered her dwindling strength to lock eyes with the younger woman and continued, "Don't hate her, Dawn. The Willow we loved wouldn't have wanted this to happen, and she loved all of us very much. Remember this day, but love her for what she was to us before."

Dawn bowed her head and nodded once as tears flowed. Tara smiled, and her eyes flickered closed before she shimmered in white light and vanished, replaced by the Tomes of the Nemesis.

The Magic Box was silent: no one moved until Spike staggered to his feet, having shaken off the last remnants of Willow's spell, and walked over to see the group of friends staring at the two sets of tomes, and Dawn cradled in Buffy's arms as they both cried.

* * * * *

They gathered at the mansion where Angel had once lived: it was isolated and had a fireplace large enough for the burning. Spike had attempted to depart not long after Tara's death, but Buffy and Dawn had both quietly but firmly insisted that he stay, and Xander and Giles had not protested the request.

Jonathan's body had been returned to his family, with the authorities explaining the death with the usual story of gang violence. Buffy felt a pang of failure: she had pulled Jonathan back from the edge before, by deed and example, and the fact that his death had been heroic did nothing to diminish the sadness it caused her. She had done her duty by Jonathan as best she could, however, and now she would do the same for Tara and Willow.

Buffy made sure the mala vines were tightened, then deposited the bundle in the fireplace. The other five occupants of the room stood in a semicircle, watching silently. There would be a memorial service for Tara and Willow later: all had agreed that the gravity of this occasion would detract from their ability to say goodbye to them. Buffy met each of their gazes in turn, then ignited the taper in her hand and touched it to the kindling.

The heavy tomes ignited almost instantly and burned fiercely. Buffy retreated to Giles' side, and the Watcher put his arm around her as they watched the flames grow brighter, illuminating the room in gold and crimson. As the conflagration reached its climax, two streaks of light burst from the flames. The first, a globe of black and scarlet flame, immediately disappeared through the floor with a sound much like a frustrated howl, causing the watchers to shiver. The other was a pulsing blob of white and gold: it paused for a moment before the group: Buffy had the oddest sense that it was smiling at her before it vanished through a wall. The flames in the fireplace died instantly after the second orb departed, leaving not so much as a wisp of ash to mark the passing of the two legendary artifacts.

After a moment of silence, the observers filed out, walking into the night. Xander noticed Buffy slowing down and stopping rather than following the others back to the car that Giles had rented. He took a step toward her, only to see Buffy turn back to him and say quietly, "I need to be alone for a while, Xander. Take care of Dawn and the others for me?"

Xander nodded and departed. Buffy turned back and looked out into the night: it was clear, and the stars shone brightly. After a few moments, she sighed and called out, "I should have known that you wouldn't take the hint, Spike."

The vampire slipped out of the shadows and walked over to Buffy, carefully stopping short of invading her personal space. He looked at her and replied, "I'm still here because you asked me to be, Slayer. When you sent them away, I thought that you might have wanted to close the ledger regarding me without upsetting the Nib-Dawn." He swallowed hard, then added, "So, shall we do it here, or find a place with more room to maneuver?"

Buffy looked at him, not pretending to misunderstand him. She looked away, then sighed and responded, "I thought about that, Spike. The chip is gone, and I can't watch you constantly. I trust you not to hu-" She paused in mid-sentence, then began again: "I trust you not to kill me, but if I die for good sometime soon, everyone I care about will be in danger again, and if you leave you'll start killing again. I know all of this: I don't need Giles, or Xander, or anyone else telling me for it to sink in. But I can't do it, Spike, I just can't. I've lost two of my dearest friends, and someone else that I thought I had made a difference for. I feel like everything I've fought for has been stupid and pointless, and my still being on this earth is due to things that never should have been allowed to happen. It's not that I want to be dead again, Spike: it's gone way past that. I just want to know why."

Spike looked at her, and understood. He walked forward and touched her shoulder, and led her to a nearby bench, where they both sat quietly for a moment. Spike sighed, then looked at the Slayer and replied, "The world would make a lot more sense if Willow was sitting here, and it had been me who you had to face in a battle to the death to save the world. It'd sure as hell make more sense to me, Buffy. We've done our best to fight against the roles that have been handed to us, and we've had our share of victories. . .but sometimes we lose, sometimes we fail, and in the end, we're probably never going to know why."

Buffy nodded, and turned back to him with glittering eyes before asking quietly, "You were going to do something when Willow brought you back here: do you still need to do it?"

Spike hesitated for a moment, then nodded once. The Slayer looked at him and continued, "Swear to me that you won't kill anyone except to defend yourself while you're away, and I'll let you go finish what you were doing. If it involves killing me somehow. . .just promise that you'll come straight to me before anyone else when you come back. I'll give you a straight-up fight."

Spike looked into her eyes, then nodded once before standing and turning to go. He paused at the exit and asked without turning, "Buffy. . .what makes you think I'll keep my word?"

Buffy turned to him and was silent for a moment before replying, "Because you were right all along, Spike. It's always been a dance with us, and I know you won't miss the last one before the lights go out."

Spike nodded again, then vanished into the darkness. Buffy looked after him for a moment, then turned back to the night sky, which remained serenely indifferent as its silver radiance glinted against the tears rolling down the face of the Slayer.

As before, comments are welcome and desired.