Actions

Work Header

Vanishing

Chapter Text

Sitting on the floor had brought on above-average levels of achiness some time ago. Willow’s body hurt—the whole thing—not just her poor ouchy tuckus. The discomfort had moved into her legs and back from there and worked its way out. She’d considered moving, but pain wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, not when her silly brain was chasing its tail like it was. Being uncomfortable forced her to focus. It was that or go crazy.  

This is so weird. Buffy was my friend for seven years. I thought I knew her. But the person I remember would be turning this place upside-down right now looking for a way to get home. She wouldn’t let it rest. She’d get that the cause is magical, but that would just mean that she’d be stuck looking to me for answers. She’d push and push until I helped. Even if she didn’t really push, there’d be some expectation and I’d feel that…and I’d…

This Buffy is accepting. That’s like the last adjective I thought I’d ever use to describe her. It wasn’t in her nature to just go along with much. She was always searching for a way to put right the things that were wrong. And there’s no doubt this is wrong. She shouldn’t be here. Yet here she is and what she seems to want to do is help. That part isn’t out of character at all. Buffy helps people. That’s who she is, but—

She’s also hurt. And hurt Buffy is one of two things: either scary proactive if there’s someone or something to fight, or cranky reclusive if there isn’t. There’s no big bad, or none that she can reasonably take on tonight, so she should be off somewhere brooding and plotting, not here playing Dr. Phil to me.

And that’s the really, really weird part. It’s not just that she wants to help, she—

Oh, I don’t know. It’s like she’s been going out of her way to ask me leading questions, and then biting her tongue when she should’ve asked more or argued or—

A harrumph didn’t quite break Willow’s completely fake, relatively calm façade. She shaped it into a funny sigh to maintain the act. Her heart stammered when Buffy looked up. The look turned out to be just a glance. No questions followed. Willow didn’t quite breathe an actual sigh of relief when Buffy’s attention turned back to the tray on her lap.

That isn’t fair either. Of course she cares how I feel. That’s just how she is. Or was. But it’s like—I get the sense that she wants me to talk because she thinks I need to talk. The only time I’ve ever seen her this hyperaware of someone else’s well being is when they were—

That might not be exactly fair either. It’s not like she’s never been nice to me. We used to talk all the time. Maybe where she’s from we still talk like we used to. That’s something that would grow over time, right? We’d grow closer. Maybe that’s it. But she’s still clingier than I remember. Super-clingy in a way that’s wrong. Not bad-wrong—there’s nothing wrong with her being clingy—it just isn’t like her. She’s—

I need to ask. The thought made Willow pale. No, I shouldn’t. It isn’t exactly fair to keep interrupting her while she’s eating. She’s been interrupted so much. Her soup’s probably cold.

Willow dilly-dallied a little longer, but she knew she shouldn’t put this off. If I do, I’ll chicken out and I need to know. “How long?” Her lack of conviction came through in her tone. It was a miracle that Buffy even heard her.

Looking up really quickly, like she might’ve been startled, Buffy half-gasped, “Huh?”

Naturally, Willow had to look away. She felt foolish enough without the attention. Ohhhh, darn it! I have to believe I’m not imagining this. I know I’m not. She’s been making me crazy. The way she keeps looking at me like—

At least I think that’s it. It’s hard to imagine Buffy making googly eyes at me. And with those eyes…those spooky, sparkly, too-blue eyes—they don’t make this easy.

Is it wrong that I want to turn out the lights and see if they glow?

Probably.

Probably on all counts. They probably glow. And I’m probably wrong. I’m probably just imagining things. She’s probably gonna look at me like I’m crazy and I’ll definitely be—

I’ll be whatever comes after ‘mortified.’ There’s gotta be something worse…and that’ll be me. I’d better say whatever I need to say right now, ’cause if this goes the way I think it will, forming coherent sentences from here on out will be—

“Did you want something, Will?” Buffy asked, sounding both concerned and curious.

Oh boy. I—

Willow still couldn’t bring herself to peek, though she got the distinct, disturbing impression that she had Buffy’s undivided attention. I’m stuck now. Her hands went from nervous fidgeting, kneading the thick terrycloth of her robe, to actively trembling. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, ’cause it feels like she needs me, like she expects me to—

Fidgeting had been working out. Her hands were hot, but they weren’t all that slimy. She made a concerted effort to fidget. I know I’m right. I know that’s what this is. “How long have we been together?” It took Willow a second to see just how wrong that had come out. Oh! That was—! I—!

See? I knew I’d—

“Not long,” Buffy replied. There was a lilt in her voice that conveyed her amusement. Otherwise her reaction was utterly deadpan. That lilt wasn’t the least bit helpful.

Willow scrambled to fill in, “Not me and you, the other me and you.” Could be more pathetic? That was so stupid. She considered if what she’d said was okay and decided to add, “Not the other you,” just to be safe, “’cause that’d just be creepy and wrong.” Parallel dimensions suck! They make my brain feel mushy!

“Will,” Buffy said.

This has gotta be wishful thinking. It just has to be. There’s no way she could ever want—

Willow heard her name again, but she still couldn’t bring herself to answer or look or move. She sat stiff as a board, hugging her shins and praying the army of fuzz bunnies littered the carpet would gobble her up.  

“About six months,” Buffy said.

I knew it! Willow looked up from her exhaustive and ongoing study of the carpet. Well, okay, so maybe I didn’t. “How’d it happen?” she asked.

“What do you mean?” Buffy’s response was more smile than question. It was impossible to find that rude.

Willow replied, “You and me—the other me.” The slip made her think that the carpet was safer. Somebody really needs to sweep in here. She combed her fingers through the fibers. Lint clumped around them, adding to the number of fuzz bunnies. It was icky. She was struck with the sudden urge to wash her hands, but ‘going’ and ‘doing’ were outside her current abilities. ‘Running’ and ‘hiding’ were much closer.

“The usual way,” Buffy said. “I hope you don’t need any diagrams or directions ’cause that’d just be disappointing.”

That was a touch too snarky. Willow found her nerve. “That sounds like something you’d say to Xander,” she said. “No, I mean—well, you know what I mean.”

Buffy looked away this time.

Wow. She’s nervous. Like actually nervous. About this. About me. This is just wrong.

She went back to concentrating on her soup, eating a spoonful before she replied, “You just sort of made me see…or the other you did.”

Willow sighed. ’Kay, so…for the record, this is gonna kill me.

She was pretty sure Buffy was done, that that was all the explanation she was going to get, which would’ve been fine, that was all the explanation she needed, but Buffy went on, “Have you ever been afraid that making a move—the first or whatever—would change things between you and someone else?” Her voice was so soft it was barely audible. “Y’know, destroy your friendship?” She was more focused on the tray in her lap than anything else.

Willow replied, “Yeah,” under her breath, catching Buffy’s attention in the process. Willow wanted to climb out of her skin. The unspoken ‘with you’ was a little too obvious. She looked down at the fuzz bunnies.

“Can you see how that didn’t matter?” Buffy asked. Her question was rhetorical. She whisked by it with barely a pause. “Things between us already had changed, and not for the better. As we tried to talk it out, what we had became something else. It just kind of happened.”

The pressure to find some reply mounted when Buffy trailed off into thought. Willow wished she’d say something else. All kinds of complicated stuff rested behind Buffy’s words. Oddly enough, nothing more was really needed. Willow understood. Their friendship had been past strained. Almost broken. She tried to imagine the courage it would’ve taken just to admit how hurt she’d been. One thing would’ve naturally led to the other. That kind of hurt doesn’t come from ‘I think I like you a little.’ I don’t think I could’ve gone there. Explaining how and why would’ve—

This other me must be amazing. “So what’s she like?” The question out and asked before she’d really thought it through. Oh! That was so stupid! Why’d I—?

“Umm…she’s—well, she’s,” Buffy stammered. Her spoon clattered against the bowl. “Well, she’s a lot like you only more, umm…I dunno, confident, maybe?”

Willow’s brain-to-mouth censor failed again. “No wonder.” I would be too if I had—

Yeah, so…this is really gonna kill me. 

Buffy lifted the tray from her lap, set it on the table and stood. “The sun’s coming up. I want to go outside,” she said, quickly adding, “If that’s okay.” She offered Willow her hand. “Do you want to come with? Is there somewhere we can go?” Apparently thinking better of the request, she amended, “Not the patio.”

“Yeah, umm…” Willow stammered. My room has a balcony. Oh, umm…no. No. A world of ‘no.’ Not my room. I mean, umm…

She wants to watch the sunrise with me?

Willow took Buffy’s hand and rose. Oh! No! I can’t. I need to go—somewhere else. Not my room. And not some balcony with the view and the soft, warm light and the breeze and the—

Her hand trembled. She pulled away. I’m doomed! “The room across the hall has a…” she mumbled, backing toward the door. “Umm…” What am I going to do? “Uh…” This is huge! “I’ll have to go to my room to—” Her heel hit the door and she stopped. Unable to take her eyes off of Buffy, she fumbled around behind her, searching for the doorknob.

“Are you sure you’ll be able to get away again?” Buffy asked. “I mean, I thought you and Kenn—?”

Willow glanced, locating the doorknob before she replied, “We do. We are. Sometimes. It’s just—” She tried to open the door. “It’s complicated.” The doorknob rattled in her hand.

“Here, let me help you,” Buffy offered.

Willow stared at her feet, utterly petrified as Buffy moved toward her. She’s so close. So…too— 

Buffy reached around her.

The door opened and Willow ran. She couldn’t resist the urge to glance over her shoulder when she reached her room. Surely a peek would be fine.




D'Hoffryn clutched his hands to his chest above where his heart would be if he had one and sighed. “Ah, young love. Such marvelous fuel for vengeance. This is turning out so much better than I ever could’ve imagined. I might even get an extra witch out of the deal.”

He stared down into the pool muttering, “I must admit that the idea does hold a certain appeal.” Willow was too rattled to even put a key in a lock. Her complexion was about the shade of an overripe strawberry. “Though the Miss Rosenberg from this dimension is rather a pity. I don’t believe I’ve ever witnessed a more pathetic, mousey little creature in all my life.” She dropped her key. “Yes, she does lack a certain flair,” he said, studying her intently as she stooped to retrieve her key.

“But the rage…” He could feel her self-hatred swell. “…the rage she hides is just beautiful. Why didn’t I see that before? I might’ve—”

Contemplating the missed opportunity, he clapped his hands and wrung them. “No matter,” he mumbled. A smile transformed his expression to the very picture of smugness. “In time the stronger of the two will relent. She has no choice. Her world will fall into chaos and she’ll see that she has no choice. She’ll come crawling back to me, groveling for the fate of her dear, sweet Buffy. This poor, wretched little thing will either become friend or fodder in the process. The former would be preferable, but the latter is also acceptable.”

“Huh.” He sobered. “There for a moment I sounded almost diabolical.”




I shouldn’t watch. I know I’m only making things worse, but I want to help. And I have this nearly pathological need to make sure that she’s okay. Of course, because the universe hates us both, by making sure that she’s okay, I’m making her worse.

Buffy was just about to say ‘to heck with it’ when Willow finally got her door to open.

She’s too funny.

The key slipped from Willow’s hand as she disappeared into the room. It bounced once on the carpet and came to rest next to the wall.

And cute. Hopelessly cute.

Buffy still wanted to go help, but Willow turned around, stooped down and snatched it up. The door shut. She imagined Willow leaning against the other side, trying to catch her breath. It’s obviously happening. And that’s too cute too.

She turned from the doorway to retreat into her room. Her hand touched the door. She started to habitually shut it, but thought better of it. She still wasn’t sure about the hinky magic involved. Willow would be right back. What then? What am I s’posed to do? Buffy’s smile faded. The usual. Just my presence is good for at least one ‘Breaking News’ style interruption to scheduled programming every six months. Screwing this up should be no sweat. I don’t even know how I’m s’posed to—

I don’t know. I have no clue how I’m going deal. She’s exactly the same, but different…more vulnerable. Which is just—

An exasperated gasp caught in Buffy’s throat. She hung her head, shaking it as she sighed. It’s slayer bait. A beat later,she turned her attention to the chair. Willow had left her bag behind. Buffy made a hobbled beeline for it. There’s nothing ‘nearly’ about this. I have a purely pathological need to help. She opened the bag and looked inside. It was full of hair stuff, just like she expected. I’m so screwed.

Somebody shoot me. Now. Please.

Her next stop was the bathroom. Moving still hurt, but she was so preoccupied she barely noticed. She placed the bag on the counter and stared at her reflection in the mirror. I need to make the best of it. No telling how long I’ll be stuck here. I’m sure my Will’s doing everything she can. I know she is, but I—

Buffy picked up the brush, intent on distracting herself by finishing what the other Willow had started. She made several passes through her hair before it occurred to her. I’m not even sure my Will still exists. This world could’ve replaced mine.  

The sinking feeling went away after a moment or two. No, I refuse to accept that. Besides, I’ve already been over this once. That’s not how this stuff works. I know it isn’t.

The only thing I know of that can turn things this wacky is a wish. That’s it. And wishy, wacky, vampy Willow was in the same world as us. She was pulled through from whatever Hell she came from.

I wonder if that happened here. And if so, how? Were there two vampy, trampy Willow’s, or was the same vampy, trampy Willow pulled through twice? Was the vampy Willow who visited here even trampy? She could’ve been a different kind of different. Less leather, not so sleazy.

Brush in hand, Buffy stood stationary, staring at where both rested against the bathroom counter. Like that even matters. It took a conscious effort to move again. Like this is doing anything to make me feel any less like all of this should be in black and white, with some creepy announcer guy in a bad suit narrating from the sideline every time something new happens.

Whatever. The point is that vampy, trampy Willow was there with us. Both of them were, so my Willow’s there. My world is still there…and my Willow’s trying to find me.

Whether that was denial talking or just plain sense was open to speculation. Buffy was inclined to see sense. It was better for her sanity. She put the brush down, tilted her head until her chin almost touched her chest and started to braid the back of her hair. It hurt. Her shoulder ached and so did her ribs. The stretching was doing neither any favors, but she didn’t care.

I’m just afraid of what she’ll do. That’s the real bitch of this sitch. The answer—the best answer—the only answer I’ve really got is ‘whatever it takes.’ She thinks that I’m too important to abandon. She’ll do anything and everything it takes to get me back. And considering—

The French braid part was done. She pinched it and looked up, reaching over her shoulder to finish the rest. I should do the same. That much is obvious. I just don’t know where to start.

So, I start with what I know. I can help these people if they’ll let me. It’s probably too much to ask, but maybe in the process, I’ll stumble onto a way of helping myself.

She stirred the contents of the bag. Fishing past all of the combs and clips and junk, she located a small scrunchie and tied the braid off. When she looked up, Willow was behind her, smiling.

She’d changed into a cute little ikat print, tunic dress. It was very simple, sleeveless with an Empire waist. The colors weren’t necessarily flattering on her. Mauve has never been her color—what with her red hair. Go figure she’s always liked it. But the primary color’s more of a pale taupe that leans towards peachy, blending through pinks to dark purple, just a little too warm to be navy. Considering the taupe, it looks okay. She wore a white, crocheted cardigan draped over her shoulders. At least that’s how it looked from the sleeve Buffy could see, but Willow wore it like a shawl.

She even did her hair and makeup. Which of course means that she cheated. Dammit. I wish I could cheat. It looks like she’s ready to go somewhere, not here, not just out on some balcony.

Buffy was trapped between a grinning Willow and the sink. She turned around. The closeness was decidedly bad, so she slipped away through the door. As Willow followed her, Buffy realized that she was no closer to deciding what she intended to do. Now comes the fun part: figuring out how to help. I’m clueless. All I’ve got on vampy-me is find where she sleeps and toss in a grenade. Otherwise…

At the doorway Buffy let Willow pass her. Hitting the softer of the two targets makes more sense.

Willow led the way across the hall and through the opposing door. Buffy half expected her to fumble the key, but she didn’t. It was almost a shame. The bout of Willowy cuteness had passed. They made their way wordlessly into the other room, around the bed, to a set of white curtains that lined the far wall. Willow drew them back, revealing a set of French doors. Once Willow had them open, they passed single file out onto a small balcony.

Buffy went to the balcony’s edge and leaned forward. Resting her forearms against the stone railing, she silently took it all in. Above the roofline the fronds of palm trees were silhouetted in the rosiness of the coming dawn. The air was warm and dry. It smelled sweet with flowers from the courtyard below and there was a briny hint, reminding her that the ocean wasn’t far away. I’m home. A world away, but somehow home. It’s so strange.

Willow stood next to her, keeping a comfortable distance. “Where do you live?” she asked.

“Huh?” Buffy stammered. The question came from so far out of nowhere she couldn’t imagine how Willow might’ve guessed.

“It’s just, you have this wistful, sad little smile,” Willow whispered. “That means you’re remembering something you miss. So I—” She moved a little closer, resting her hand against the small of Buffy’s back. “I guessed. I hope that I wasn’t too presumptuous.”

“No, you’re fine,” Buffy replied. “We live in Scotland.”

“I wondered why you wanted to come outside so much.”

“It rains all the time,” Buffy muttered, unconcerned by what Willow had said. “And it’s freezing in the winter. I hate it. But that’s where we live.” She turned her back on the light, lifted herself up on the palms of her hands and hopped back to sit on the railing. Her feet hooked around the balusters. She sat silently waiting, assuming more questions would come.

Willow held her right wrist in her left hand. She looked down, appearing insecure.

Buffy waited a little longer before she gave up. “I’m gonna need a few things,” she said.

“Anything,” Willow replied. “Just tell me you’re not gonna do something dumb.”

It bothered Buffy that Willow hadn’t even looked up. She mocked, “Okay, I’m not gonna do anything dumb.” She didn’t even bother to hold back the mischievous smirk. It’s not like she’s gonna see. She’s too busy inspecting the coral pink paint on her toenails…or maybe her sandals. They’re cute.

Briefly glancing up, Willow said Buffy’s name reproachfully.

Being scolded with my name—never a good sign. I should just tell her that her sandals are cute. Wonder where she got them.

No, I shouldn’t. I should try to actually stay on topic for once. That’s what I should do.

“It’s not dumb,” Buffy insisted. “I swear. You’re going to think I’ve lost it, but I need you to trust me. I can handle it.”

“So, what is it?” Willow asked. “This thing that I’m going to think is crazy, but you’re so sure you can handle?”

“I’m going to go have a word with your landlord,” Buffy replied. “You know, as a tenant, you have—”

Willow’s mouth dropped open. “Oh, Buffy, that’s suicide!” she gasped.

Ignoring the panic, Buffy completed her thought, “—certain rights.” See? I knew it. I should’ve stuck with her sandals. It would’ve been so much less stress. And she wouldn’t be looking at me like I’m out of my mind.

Well, at least she’s looking at me. Smiling, she amended her previous statement, “Actually, I’m not going to do much talking. There’s no point. He’s not exactly the listening type.”

“You know you’re nuts, right?” Willow said.

I love how she tacked on a ‘right,’ making that a question. Like she’s gonna get any confirmation from me.

Alright, whatever, I’ll give an inch. “Maybe…a little.” Buffy followed her confession with a sunny smile. That should make her good and nervous.

Thing is, I’m not worried about Angelus. Not even a little. I probably should be, but everything else is just too wigsome for words. Like this. This is way more wigsome than anything he’s liable to do. He’s all ‘grrr.’ I’m used to that. And conceited and complacent…and that’s something I can fight. But this… I can’t fight this. I’m screwed. When she smiles, my knees get all rubbery.

Buffy stopped to regroup and clear her hyperactive brain, then she stated the simple truth, “I need to do something and he’s the softest target we’ve got. I have to. I can’t just sit around and wait for something to happen.”

“I know,” Willow replied with a sigh. A long, contemplative pause later, she asked, “So I’m not gonna talk you out of this, am I?” She turned to lean against the railing next to Buffy.

Buffy said, “No.” She didn’t even think about it. Funny, my mind’s made up, I’m committed and I still don’t have a clue what I’m gonna do. She stared at the planter by the door. Tawny stubs of a long dead plant poked up through the surface of the crusty, parched soil that had drawn away from the pot. Or why I’m doing it, other than the obvious pathological need.

“So what do you need?” Willow asked.

My head examined. Other than that… “I guess the main thing I need is to fit in,” Buffy replied. “That means a change of clothes…something that makes me look less like I got lost on my way to a pep rally.” She added things as they occurred to her and ticked them off on her fingers. “Some sunglasses, or even better, a pair of light-gray colored contact lenses. I need them to think I’m her. The ‘me’ that’s ‘me’ here.”

Her right forefinger rested against her left middle finger as if to hold her place. Glancing at Willow to gauge her reaction, Buffy said, “My eyes are a dead giveaway.” It surprised her that Willow didn’t seem more upset. “Colored contacts make my eyes look close enough to normal to pass. I have a supply at home. I wear them all the time, but that’s there and I’m here.” I’m not even positive this will help. For all I know, that avoidy stuff earlier was because she’s in up to her neck with Wolfram and Hart. I wish she’d talk to me, but since she won’t, this is the best idea I’ve got.

I just hope she’ll tell me if this is just gonna make things worse. I can’t imagine how it would, but I’ve only been here for like five minutes, so…

Her stalling yielded nothing. No replies, no arguments, no interruptions… “It’s no big,” Buffy said, trying to placate herself as much or more than Willow. “They’ll be too busy wondering how I got through the doors without setting off every alarm in the place to worry about me much. That’s how I need to play this. I need to be in and out before they figure out what’s up.” She moved her index finger to rest on her ring finger. “A distraction would be nice, but not strictly necessary. It’d help.”

A few moments passed. It was getting lighter out. Buffy realized that she was missing the very thing that she’d come outside to see. She hopped down and turned around. Higher up, the sky was a murky orange, duller than sherbet, but seemly just as substantial. Low on the horizon, it was almost the same hue as the red clay roof tiles. It’s weird the stuff you miss. Visibility’s gonna be terrible today, like maybe a quarter mile.

As she basked in the strange, familiar beauty of a smoggy sunrise, it occurred to her that she’d forgotten something. Ticking off her on pinky, she added an afterthought, “Oh, and I need a great big bag, like one of those huge, canvas, drawstring things you can get at an Army surplus store.”

Willow was leaned against the balcony wall, watching her intently. Her brow crinkled. She asked, “Why?” through an amused grin.

Buffy laughed. “You don’t want to know.”

“You’re probably right,” Willow admitted. “Alright, I’ll give you what you want, whatever that is, but I need you to do something for me.”

Now we’re bartering? Really? Buffy sighed. She was almost afraid to ask, “What?” She may as well have saved her breath. Her simple, little, single-word question was completely overrun by babble.

“Or I want you to. I can’t make you, but I don’t think it would be—”

She leaned forward against the railing to wait it out. When a break came, she tried again, “What is it, Will?”

“I want you to follow your heart,” Willow replied. “Before you flip out and get all wiggy, listen to me.”

Me wiggy? Really? Compared to—?

Again, Willow developed a profound interest in her sandals. “We both know how this works,” she whispered. “You don’t belong here, which means this is either because of one dilly of a spell gone horribly wrong, or a wish. The simplest answer’s the second one. I’m not even sure the first one’s possible, so it probably was a—”

Buffy interrupted, “Did you—?” regretting it the instant Willow lost interest in her sandals.

“No, I most certainly did not,” Willow snapped. Buffy hung her head, staring blearily into the courtyard below as Willow chewed her out, “How can you even ask me that? You know better. I—”

To make matters worse, Buffy spoke too soon, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—” She fell silent when Willow turned away. Buffy thought for sure Willow would fold her arms and pout.

Willow leaned against the rail with her back half turned. “I know you didn’t,” she whispered. Her posture relaxed. Turning, she shifted her weight to both of her arms and picked up her thought from where she’d left off, “Chances are your Willow—the one from your world—is doing everything she can to set things right. I sure would be. I’d want you back more than anything.”

Buffy placed her hand over Willow’s. I think I see where she’s going with this. And she’s probably right.

Willow turned her hand over. “And when she does…” she whispered as Buffy took hold, using her hand to guide her “…everything will go back to the way it was.” Willow came willingly. “I’m not sure either one of us will remember any of this.” She gave in to the embrace, slumping to let her head rested on Buffy’s shoulder. A real hug was nice, not to mention less confusing. “I don’t know,” Willow admitted, sounding lost. “I hate not knowing. I used to think I knew lots of things. I remember feeling so driven to find out more.”

Her unrest was palpable. It was awful seeing her this way. All Buffy could think to do to help was caress her back.

Moments later, Willow picked up, trying to explain, “None of the people at that party—the one Anya went to—with the wish, the Abercrombie and Fitch and the spidery badness—” Her tone had grown softer, subtler, yet somehow more anxious. “None of them remembered anything. You know me. I was curious. I checked. It was like nothing had happened.” She lifted her head to meet Buffy’s eyes. “That happened, right—where you’re from?”

Buffy inclined her chin. That was apparently affirmation enough. Willow’s lips brushed hers. So much for less confusing. It was hard to say whether Willow was right. Thing could go either way. Right now Buffy didn’t care. She let inertia carry her. She expected the kiss to feel wrong. And it might’ve had it been driven by passion. Instead, it was soft and tender. Willow felt like Willow, tasted like Willow, moved like Willow… For the moment, that was enough to erase any doubt.

They parted. Buffy rested her forehead against Willow’s, holding her head in her hands. It felt so good…so normal. Willow’s breath flowed over her skin. Tilting her head back, Buffy guided Willow again, placing a kiss on her brow. It seemed like the right thing, but it probably wasn’t because it was the sort of thing she might’ve done to her friend. It worried her when Willow pulled way. Buffy turned and hopped up on the railing to await her reaction. She can’t expect me to be something—

Willow leaned back, resting casually against the rail. “That was nice,” she whispered.

That wasn’t exactly what Buffy expected, or even wanted to hear, but the air of sincerity with which it was delivered came as a relief. Some imagined weight lifted from her chest. She inclined her head, listening to the delicate sound of Willow’s voice, “I sort of knew, if this ever happened, it’d be nice—” Buffy focused on Willow’s hands where they rested against her tummy. “—that you’d be sweet and gentle.” Peripherally she made out the sentimental smile on Willow’s face. “Of course, I was curious, even when ‘curious’ was the last thing I should’ve been,” Willow admitted through a snicker. “I’m so bad.”

Something caught Buffy’s eye. She turned to look, certain it had been a trick of the light. Willow’s cardigan had fallen from her shoulder. Between it and the shadow of the armhole in her dress was a thin, nearly white line, like a thread had come loose or something. Buffy reached to brush it away.

“I just knew—” Willow said, flinching when Buffy touched her “—in spite of all the other stuff—” Buffy looked down “—the people you were with—” the mark hadn’t changed “—that if you ever touched me—” Willow took hold of her cardigan, trying to cover her arm.

Buffy didn’t have much reason for concern until then. Strength and speed won out. She snatched the sweater. As she pulled down, it tore from Willow’s grasp, exposing uniform, overlapping, horizontal rows of scars. Willow’s attempt to slip free ended when Buffy snapped, “No.”

Lingering doubt turned to revulsion as Buffy inspected them. They were disturbingly precise. Each scar measured roughly an inch in length with an eighth inch gap between it and the ones above it and below it in each column. The columns were deeply woven with their neighbors, creating the illusion of an eighth inch wide vertical stripe in the center of each row. This wasn’t so much a stripe of anything in particular, just a break in the damage.

Tracing this less mutilated section with her thumb, Buffy counted ten down and stopped, measuring an equal distance. There weren’t quite enough, only six more. She counted the columns she could see and arrived at four. There were more. She knew there were, but four was all she could accept at the moment. Sixteen and sixteen and thirty-two, thirty-two and thirty-two are sixty-four.

Even the inaccurate, incomplete number left her distraught. The band of scars was only two inches wide at the most. It was just so condensed. So condensed that Buffy thought Willow could probably still wear a tee-shirt without arousing suspicion. But there are so many.

How can there be that many?

Using the nail of her index finger, Willow pointed to the scar at the tip of Buffy’s right thumb. “Amanda Lawson, age fifteen from Oak Brook, Illinois.”

Buffy couldn’t hold on. Her arms dropped to her sides. She was utterly flabbergasted by how calm Willow sounded.

“Amanda was raised by her mother Natalie after her father passed away in a car accident when she was five. She appeared to have had a fairly normal childhood, though I’m sure money was tight. It always is in single parent households.”

Buffy listened caught up in a sentimental memory of smooth, perfect skin with the lightest dusting of freckles.

“I’m equally sure she idealized her father. That’s how that usually goes. That’s probably why Natalie waited so long to remarry. She’d only been married a few months when Amanda ran away. It’s always easier to run when things seem bad.”

Easier? Buffy’s mind churned as though grasping for something to cling to. That doesn’t make any sense.

Willow moved her finger around her arm, pointing to the scar Buffy’s other thumb nail had been resting against. “Emily Vaughn, age nineteen, Albuquerque, New Mexico.”

None of this makes sense.

“That’s enough,” Buffy said. “I get it.” I have no doubt that her memory of every last detail concerning every single girl is every bit as disturbingly mechanical as each pencil-thin scar. No doubt she spent every waking moment brooding over every conceivable thing she might’ve done wrong.

That doesn’t make this right.

Willow turned, allowing the cardigan to fall. “You probably think this is insane, don’t you?” she asked.

More rows of scars lined her right arm too. They were incomplete, ending in an oversized Band-Aid just left of the uppermost curve of her bicep.

In a word, ‘absolutely.’

Buffy didn’t try to count or add. She still didn’t want to know how much farther this went. Her hands were full already grappling with impossible things: the magnitude of what each scar symbolized combined with the anger in Willow’s question. It’s like she’s accusing me. She had to turn away. I had nothing to do with any—

The top portion of the sun had crested the roofline. It was too bright. She looked down into the courtyard below as Willow ranted, “What would you have had me do? Make hash marks in some notebook?”

“I don’t know,” Buffy replied. “Not that.”

“Why not?” Willow demanded.

Buffy couldn’t answer. She couldn’t walk away. She couldn’t watch. So she became an unwilling audience to Willow’s rage.

“I deserved to wear a constant reminder of the pain I’ve caused. Even if I believe what you say—that it wasn’t directly my fault—I think you’d find it disappointing. You wouldn’t like it if you got it. You’d think that I was less ‘me’ if I did.”

Her eyes lost focus. She refused to blink them. Tears clung to her lashes. One fell into the hazy gray below.

“But that doesn’t matter. Even if that happened, directly or indirectly, I’m responsible and I’d still want a way to remember. Something lasting. Something that can’t be washed away, or burned, or shredded, or broken, or…” Willow’s voice gave out.

Buffy looked up. Willow’s face was streaked with tears, but so was hers. “Do you blame me?” Buffy asked. The question was ridiculous. On some level she knew that, but she couldn’t help feeling that she might be culpable in some impossible way.

Willow replied, “What?” through a gasp. “No.” She turned away. “Oh.

When she tried to run, Buffy caught her. Willow yanked her arm, desperate to break free, but Buffy wouldn’t let go, so she fell apart. A stammered stream of apologies, acquittals and excuses rolled off her tongue. Between the first ‘I’m sorry’ and the last with its many ‘sos,’ Buffy lost track. She just held Willow. That was the important part. She shushed and whispered, “It’s okay,” repeating and caressing until it passed.

As Buffy stood, clinging to Willow, soggy and a little too warm, anger grew inside her. She didn’t understand why at first. So many. How could there be so many? There were sixty-four scars. More than that. I don’t even know how many. Too many. But one would be too many.

If it’s been eighteen months, that’s almost one a week. But there were more. Lots more. Somebody had to notice. How could Kennedy share a bed with Will, even occasionally, and not notice? She should’ve stopped her, but she didn’t. She probably helped. She probably encouraged it. At the very least, she condoned it. In my book, that makes her responsible. Snot nosed, inbred little bitch probably believes that Will—

Buffy let go. She was through the French doors and halfway through the room before she really understood what she meant to do. I’m going to kill her. She turned right into the hallway. What was it Will said? ‘She’s not the same Kennedy’?

The door to Willow’s room opened freely. She expected to see Kennedy…or something. There was nothing. The room looked exactly like the one Buffy herself was in, devoid of any signs that someone lived there. There should’ve at least been a book on the desk. This was supposed to be Willow’s room after all. Buffy turned around, stumped by the emptiness.

The solution was simple enough. She’d picked the wrong room. Now she was stuck waiting and seething. I don’t see how it could be that many. There’s no way police aren’t involved. More than two murders that follow a pattern, that’s how they define a serial killer. But more than sixty? What’s that?

It’s insane! That’s what it is! I wonder what they think. Do they have any leads? The press has to be—

“Where is she?” Buffy asked when Willow appeared in the doorway, but she was too stunned to answer.

And Kennedy’s too goddamned stupid to see that Will’s a victim as much as—

Willow finally managed a strained, “Huh?”

Buffy summoned her patience and asked again, slowly, carefully enunciating each word, “Where is Kennedy?”

“In her room.”

“Where?”

Willow was too shaken to do anything except answer. Using her thumb, she pointed behind her to the door across the hall.

That was all Buffy needed to know. She marched past Willow. The doorknob rattled in her hand when she tried it. She forced the issue, causing it to pop, but the door still wouldn’t open. Her knock was more of a punch. By all rights it should’ve hurt, but it didn’t. Her hand cracked against the door. The thud that should’ve been loud was lost to her too. It came through muffled, drowned out by the rage churning inside her. She shouted, “Get out here, you worthless, sadistic bitch! I want a word!”

Nothing happened on the other side of the door, so Buffy stepped back.

On her side of the door, Willow was coming unglued. She pleaded, “No,” clinging to Buffy to make her stop. “No, please.”

Furious, Buffy said, “Stop,” or maybe she shouted it. She wasn’t sure, but either way Willow backed down.

Buffy hauled off and kicked the door. The crisp popping sound of hard, dry wood splintering cut through the haze.

“She’s mine!” Buffy shouted. “Do you understand me?” She threw her shoulder into the door. The cross fell, striking her and tumbling to the floor. She swept it away with her foot.

“If you so much as look at Will again, I’ll scoop your goddamned eyes out and cram them down your throat!” she yelled, pounding the door to punctuate the sentiment. With each blow, the crack in its center panel swelled and shrank. She expected the door to come apart, but the damned thing was too stubborn.

The hallway lights came on. Giles shouted, “What is the meaning of this?”

As Buffy turned to watch him run toward them, Kennedy yelled, “You can have the nasty, used up, little cu—”

Buffy kicked the door. The left half of the center panel dropped a quarter inch.

“You’re perfect for each other! A whore and a—”

The door clattered when she threw her weight against it to drown Kennedy out. She stood still for a moment, poised to answer insult with injury. Hearing nothing except for sweet, blessed silence, she turned away.

Willow was in her room, her back pressed against the curtains that lined the opposite wall. It was as though she’d backed away and kept backing until she ran out of room. Her eyes were glassy. Her face was streaked with fresh tears. Buffy wanted to hold her and tell her it’d be okay, but she was afraid to even approach her.

Worse, the only way she could think to answer Giles was to show him. She wanted to run over, rip the sweater down, hold Willow out and force him to look. I want to see his goddamned face. Know whether he knows. But it doesn’t matter whether he does not. He’s still culpable. They all are. They sat here like a bunch of useless—

Pulsating waves of heat and pressure welled up behind Buffy’s eyes. Her face tingled. She took a breath and her head swam. The truth of what she was driven to do pulled her under. No, I can’t. It made her feel sick. I won’t. She slipped past Giles and took off down the hall.

He called after her, “Here now! I asked you a question!”

She went straight to her room without looking back. Will can explain if she wants. She can do whatever she wants. I’m—

I’m done.

She stepped inside and slammed the door. The numbness was subsiding. Sharp pain sliced through her shoulder when she leaned against the door. She angled her back flat against it to remove the pressure. Sixty deaths are nothing here. That’s the truth. It sounds horrific. It sounds like it should matter. It should mean something awful. But really, it’s just a bad morning on the freeway. A fifteen second spot on the evening news. The ones who listen barely hear.

Her legs buckled, refusing to support her weight. The cold, hard, uneven surface of the paneled door grated her shoulders as she slumped. Her right knee hurt like hell again. She held it straight. The heel of her right foot dragged the carpet as her left leg folded. Considering the demographic and the time involved…sixty teenage girls, all runaways disappearing over a year and a half… Her left thigh pressed against her breast. Brooding, she held her leg tight. That’s like a drop in the ocean. A steady stream of girls arrives here each day, believing that they’re special in some way…that they might be noticed. And sometimes they are…but mostly by the wrong people. The sharp pain in her right leg and shoulder faded to a dull ache.

Used up, chewed up and spit out.

Her right hand was the next thing on the list to bite. When she moved it, pain like needles stabbed at the joints and across the back. Well, that’s broken…again. She let it drop from its duty of holding her left leg. It came to rest across her right thigh. She looked down. Her hand was swollen and her knuckles were scraped and bloody. That’s nice.

Another thing for the list.

Provided the pile of body parts were disposed of, those girls would never be missed. That’s what Will meant. Wolfram and Hart has been cleaning up the mess. In exchange for what, I’m not sure, but I’d bet that they have files implicating the people here in some if not all of those murders.

So what now, genius? Any more bright ideas about how you can ‘help’?