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Wesley sat quietly reading. He had no desire to become mixed up in the goings on outside his door. None of the crashing, banging or shrieking pertained to him.

He pictured Angelus puffing up his chest like a great cockerel, strutting, preening, and crowing. Such arrogance was banal. Yet it was one of the two things for which he had a real talent. The other was brutality.

Even if the entire universe had been crashing down around his employer’s ears, Wesley’s position would’ve remained unchanged. He had been maneuvered into doing this job and he intended to do just that and go home. To him this was no different than any other night, until his door lock popped.

Buffy burst into his office. He leapt to his feet, standing stony as she breezed through the room, dragging a bundle that from its size and shape, and the relative proximity of Angelus’s blustering, could only have been him. It happened so quickly, Wesley was still processing the want for his gun when the window shattered. By the time he coaxed movement from his hand, she was gone, out the window, and her captive with her.

Wesley’s heart rapped staccato in his chest. He had expected something—he hadn’t been certain what—certainly something excruciating. Now he was merely perplexed. Last he knew, Buffy was a vampire and therefore given to acts of overt violence, not to mention subject to certain catastrophic effects when exposed to sunlight.

The lack of spontaneous immolation led Wesley to consider that he might’ve been mistaken to the woman’s identity. That didn’t suit him either, but he wasn’t given time to postulate for Illyria entered the room hot on the strange woman’s heels.

“Where are you going?” he asked, operating on a hunch.

Illyria came to a halt, turning to regard Wesley with the contempt that he’d come to know for her passed as acceptance. “You presume to question me?” If he had truly offended her, he wouldn’t be standing, let alone moving steadily to join her at the hole left gaping floor to ceiling by the broken windowpane.

His approach had nothing to do with Illyria. He was curious about the strange woman. Since exiting his office, she’d made not only remarkable, but entirely inconceivable, progress, having travelled nearly three-quarters of a city block dragging a bundle that outweighed her two-fold. “I merely wish to understand,” he said with deference, still attentive to the stranger. “Perhaps I can help.” Watching her cemented the notion: the way she moved was far beyond the run-of-the-mill preternatural creatures with which he had regular dealings. This caused him further doubt.

“Perhaps, but doubtful,” Illyria allowed. “The interloper has taken the half-breed. I will retrieve him.”

She made to jump, halting again when Wesley asked, “Why?” A fraction of the alarm he felt tinged his voice.

Illyria studied him with obvious interest as she formulated an answer. “He has value to the overseers of this place, though I do not presume to comprehend why.”

Cautious of the ragged glass trapped in the window frame, Wesley took hold. By leaning out a little farther he could see the intersection. He caught sight of a familiar red BMW, which stopped, blocking the turning lane as Buffy approached. From her movements and posture he assumed she still had the package in tow. There were too many things obstructing his view for him to be certain. Catching sight of Willow moving around inside the car both heartened him and heightened his anxiety.

He had to prevent Illyria from interfering with them. The unfortunate truth of the situation worked in his favor. “Yes, but Angelus will return with or without our assistance. Why would you care to sully your hands with such a petty matter?”

Surprisingly, she didn’t seem terribly interested in the goings on outside of the room. She was far more intrigued by Wesley. “The interloper has violated our territory,” she countered. “She must be made to pay.”

His suspicions confirmed, at least in part, he deflected, “That ‘interloper’ as you so eloquently put it was Buffy Summers. I’m certain of it. You are aware that she is a vampire, are you not?” Wesley glanced at Illyria. Her interest had not waned. “Care to postulate how she’s running around in broad daylight?”

“I do not know,” she replied, her tone bland. “Why would it concern me?”

“I’m not sure.” His brow furrowed in thought. “What I do know is that in time she will pay,” he reasoned, internally amending, without assistance. “Your concerns are unfounded. So long as we possess the Muo-Ping containing Angelus’s soul, there is no chance that she will achieve her objective. At best, she’s captured a vicious killer to whom she will give quarter. I should think that you would enjoy watching the consequences of such folly unfold.”

Hell if I’m sticking around. These people are out of their frickin’ minds. Like that’s news.

Kennedy twiddled D’Hoffryn’s token between her fingers. The blood on it had dried to a crusty brown film. She’d wiped it away with a tissue. The only thing that kept it from looking like a piece of slag was its roundness. I’m not looking forward to having to slice my finger again, if that’s even necessary. I don’t know. I still remember what it said. Fussing over such a tiny thing made her feel like a baby. It had been like a really bad paper cut, more annoying than painful. Traces remained. She worried at the dead skin with her thumbnail. Damned thing took hours to heal.

The welfare of her fingers outweighed the very real possibility she might never see Willow again. Kennedy was taken aback by how little she cared. You’d think I’d feel some sense of loss. All I get is relief. That’s callous. I can’t help it. I’m sick of her goddamned drama. The recent trend of being blamed for Willow’s psychotic shit was hardly helpful. The deep resentment Kennedy had been fostering had blossomed into near outright loathing.

The post game show’s what’s really got me spooked. Regardless how Willow’s fool’s errand pans out, shit’s bound to hit the fan. She and Goldilocks ran off to give one of the largest and most prestigious law firms in L.A. a wedgie. Or more likely, die trying. Making myself scarce is at the top of my to-do list. They’re on their own.

The only question that remains is ‘how?’ I could still buy a plane ticket and be on the other side of the planet in about a day. That wouldn’t be a problem.

Wouldn’t work either. If I was gonna do that, I should’ve done it yesterday.

Something tells me that the thugs at Wolfram and Hart might take this personally. And I was sleeping with one of the offending parties. Going for the girlfriend is a time-honored tradition among thuggish types. I sincerely doubt even Dad’s money could protect me from that. I doubt Dad himself could. Like I’d ask.

The other offer would place me on roughly the same team as said ‘thugs.’ It would give me enough power to stand on my own. Plus, there might be alliances I could foster. All told, that’s the saner option. It still rubs me the wrong way. It isn’t like I was looking for a spot on the opposing team, but if D’Hoffryn’s any indication… He seems more about mischief. I should be able to run with that. Giving bad people bad things sounds fun.

Kennedy’s head felt light the moment she mumbled, “Screw it.” The bedspread, her hands, the coin, everything in her field of vision swam, gradually dimming. Blind, she plunged, though the bed hadn’t been ripped from beneath her. She was still seated on a padded surface. Unconsciously, she had a white-knuckled grip on the plastic encased steel t-bar that rested across her lap. Inertia’s dizzying pull whipped her topsy-turvy, to and fro, up and down. Wind whooshed.

Asteroids and white pinhole lights that would be stars flung past her. Shrill cries rang out from before and aft, audible despite the triumphant, orchestral blare. Pitched high above the din, metal clattered, sang, vibrated… Tubular tunnels whizzed by lined with lights colored by gel lenses of red, then blue.

A litany of profanity in a half-dozen different tongues accompanied Kennedy cobbling herself together. Though it was impossible to resolve how she’d gotten there, she knew where she was. The man in the moon told her when his broad, cheerful face rolled into view. This was a rollercoaster. Specifically, this was Space Mountain. She just didn’t know which Space Mountain—there were several—but that was where she was.

Seconds passed. Seconds were all it took. A light-filled tunnel dotted the horizon. The cars caught, jerking with their final approach. Kennedy spotted D’Hoffryn’s horny halo above the bolster of the seat in the car in front of her. Applauding, he pronounced the ride ‘marvelous’ and ‘wonderful.’ She didn’t agree, though it would’ve probably been more fun if she hadn’t been hijacked.

As the train drew to a halt, Kennedy corrected herself. This wasn’t Space Mountain. It was De la Terre à la Lune. The mixture of foreign dialects spoken in muffled tones, exclamations, and electronically amplified announcements around her had cinched it. She was in France. Specifically: northern-central France, in a suburb east of Paris called Chessy as she recalled. She’d wished to be halfway around the world. D’Hoffryn had roughly split the difference and thrown a theme park in for giggles.

No one appeared to notice the gangly demon who unfolded himself with some effort from the car directly ahead of hers. This was one of the few places on Earth colorful and costumed enough for D’Hoffryn to have some chance of blending in.

After having been in one position for too long, then tossed into a blender, she had almost as much trouble extracting herself as he did. Without preamble, she followed him what felt like a quarter mile to the exit, ignoring the Space: 1999 themed surroundings, scale model robots, control panels, dioramas of cities of the future.

Outside, the air was temperate. The sun shone bright and cheery. She tried to get her bearings by finding its position and failed. She imagined that it was probably midmorning, but that didn’t correspond with what she knew. It hadn’t been much later than seven at night and there was only a nine hour time difference.

She gave up trying to figure out where and when she was, resigning herself just to go with it. ‘Somewhere else’ and ‘relatively safe’ were enough to know for now. It wasn’t until they were well away from the building, headed through the bustling crowds toward Pluto—or more aptly a bistro that some poor guy sweltering in thirty pounds of black and yellow felt entertained with whimsical jigs and friendly waves—that D’Hoffryn decided to speak, “We’re delighted that you’ve chosen to join us.”

D’Hoffryn’s presumption rubbed Kennedy the wrong way. When did I actually say ‘yes’? She started to protest. Then she realized exactly how foolish that would be. She was as committed to this as she’d been to anything before. No, this presents the best chance I have of surviving the lunatics around me. Dying over their stupidity isn’t even an option.

She entertained the idea of retiring to a sleepy hamlet. Then she scoffed. Places like Séte suited her better. She’d work on her tan while adjusting the itineraries of the unrepentantly affluent in her spare time. Her musings came to a screeching halt when they reached the bistro. Under its colorful umbrellas she was outfitted with a Mickey mantle—not the ballplayer, the goofy mouse ears. She tried to balk, saying, “You’ve got to be kidding. What am I, five?”

D’Hoffryn wasn’t having any of it. “You, my dear, are on vacation. Lighten up. Have some fun.”

“Find anything?”

Giles didn’t look up. It had been perhaps half an hour since Xander had last asked the very same thing. Giles was avoiding his watch at the moment, so it was impossible to know for certain. What he did know hadn’t changed one iota in such a scant bit of time. But then, it wasn’t apt to change should he be relegated to maintain this pretense for days, perhaps even weeks.

Of course, I haven’t found anything, you nit. There’s nothing to find. I’m merely reading to occupy the time. Were I not, I would be given to the same infernal pacing that afflicts you. “No, I’m afraid not,” he replied, careful to keep his tone bland.

The volumes he’d acquired since the destruction of Sunnydale only offered so much information. He’d read all of the pertinent entries twice for good measure. The second pass had yielded nothing more than the barest facts the first had afforded.

For once he believed he understood Wesley’s choice to work out of the offices of Wolfram and Hart. There he would have untold reams of material at his disposal. The campaign the First Evil had orchestrated had been quite successful in that one regard: the Council’s vast library had been decimated along with the bulk of Giles’ own collection. He felt as though he had to scrounge for every scrap of information, while in exchange for his scruples, Wesley had been afforded an embarrassment of wealth, far more than he was likely to be able to manage on his own. Understanding a temptation is much different than actually succumbing to it. To that I must say, ‘far better him than me.’

Giles wondered whether Wesley would approach him. That wasn’t outside the realm of possibilities. He’s sure to have questions. Perhaps we might strike a deal, exchange information within reason, work together on some cursory level…


I can hope.

I have little else. I don’t even know for certain whether Buffy came into contact with him.

Reality was even more painful. I can’t be certain whether she made it out of Wolfram and Hart alive. For all I know—

Giles stopped himself, preferring not to dwell on the negative when the outcome was as yet unknown. Hence my somewhat pointless pursuit. It’s far easier to be busy, than idle in times like these. He turned the page of his book, though he had done little more than stare blearily at the previous. He continued to foster the impression that he wasn’t idle, though the words he read filtered out as quickly as he took them in. His head was too murky to be good for much more.

Some untold time later, his charade was interrupted. The form the pardon took wasn’t the one Giles would’ve preferred. There were no voices to be heard from the lobby, just the ring of the telephone. Nevertheless, he leapt to his feet and raced after Xander to the front desk. Naturally, the lad proved the faster.

“Hello?” Xander said into the receiver. A muffled voice responded in indistinguishable tones. Apparently the person on the other end had asked for Giles because Xander replied, “Yeah, he’s here,” holding the receiver out to pass it off.

Giles took the phone, responding, “This is Rupert Giles.”

“What has become of Buffy Summers?”

The amusement over hearing Wesley’s voice quickly faded. His question was so direct it confounded Giles. “Nothing,” he replied, thinking only of the vampire. She was still very much the same: treacherous and beguiling.  

Giles understood his mistake when Wesley prompted, “Are you certain?” No further explanation was necessary, however knowing when to quit had never been Wesley’s strong suit. “I ask because I had a run-in with her this evening that wasn’t entirely unpleasant, and therefore left me somewhat bemused.”

Manners willed out over impatience. When he fell silent, Giles put in, “I can see how you might be concerned. I assure you, the vampire to whom you refer remains unchanged: brutal, devious, generally unpleasant company. In short: not much fun at parties.” His last statement worked its intended purpose, earning him a grin from Xander.

“I see.” Wesley’s reply carried hints of annoyance.

Oddly, that pleased Giles. For once, Wesley was on the outside looking in. Giles possessed the answer he sought. However leery, he wasn’t a petty person. He asked, “How may I help you, Wesley?”

“Well,” Wesley remarked, his tone pensive, “if you’re unwilling to be forthright in answering my question, I sincerely doubt you can. However, I believe I may be able to lay my hands on something that will interest you. I would prefer a more agreeable response as the item in question will not come without a great deal of personal risk. It would be nice to know up front that I was working with someone who wished to work with me.”

“And this item is?” Giles asked. The little patience he possessed for such verbal fencing was wearing thin.

“Allow me a moment,” Wesley replied. A horn honked in the background. He was obviously in traffic. From subsequent details, Giles derived that Wesley had stopped his vehicle and gotten out, apparently wanting to be well clear of it, in an open, public area. Confirming this were a myriad of sounds, from muffled speech to the calls of distant gulls. They brought to mind the many oceanfront boardwalks that lined the coast. Not that the detail was of particular concern.

“I believe I might be able to acquire the Muo-Ping that contains Angel’s soul. It will be—”

Giles laughed. He couldn’t help himself.

Wesley snapped, “Do you not understand how dangerous this is?”

“Oh, I’m certain that there is a great deal of danger,” Giles said, unable to resist the undignified allure of sarcasm. It mixed with his chuckles to make him sound positively delighted. That was the last thing he was. He sobered. “What I don’t understand is why you didn’t do this sooner? If this was something that was left so that someone at your pay grade stood a chance of acquiring it, you might’ve spared a great deal of suffering by doing just that.”

“Tell me, what do you know of Angelus?” The question was rhetorical. Wesley didn’t wait for an answer. Instead, he went on to clutter the air with more, “Does he seem to you to be the sort of creature who would be careless? Doesn’t it seem more likely that he would want to safeguard something so perilous to his way of life by keeping it close at hand? Wouldn’t it also seem desirable to such an arrogant creature to display it proudly, locked away, yet sufficiently exposed that he might gloat over it in his free time?”

The rhetoric, though mildly condescending, provided Giles a clear picture of what had been staying Wesley’s hand. Angel had the Muo-Ping locked away in his personal living quarters, no doubt behind a shield of magic and technology so elaborate that it would take a miracle to extract it. Wesley had been waiting to attempt such. Clearly, he had needed for Angelus to be removed from the equation before he dared. “I see,” Giles said.

“I hope you do,” replied Wesley. “Now I must run. This phone is about to die. Fate willing, I will be in touch.”

“Thank you,” Giles said. The line went dead.

Willow had done everything. She’d cast the temperamental, complicated locking spell that secured their rooms on the cell door. Angelus was as secure as they could possibly make him. Buffy held the key. Anyone who was insane enough to try and coerce or force her to free him would deserve exactly what they got.

Before they could even begin that, they’d had to gain access to the basement. That hadn’t been an easy thing to do either. Finagling a cranky, cocooned Angelus through the cracks had proven impossible. Willow had finally given up, and in a state of frustration, magically repaired the freight elevator. She wasn’t even sure how she’d managed. She’d been too vexed to think straight.

Shockingly, they’d snuck in and done all of that without running into Giles or Xander. Willow felt bad about giving them the slip, but dealing with them would’ve been one more thing and she was barely keeping herself together as it was. The compromise had been more magic she was barely competent to perform: a brief telepathic pat on the shoulder for both of them. ‘We’re fine. Mission accomplished.’ It bothered her that some of the turmoil she felt might’ve tainted the message. She didn’t want them worry, but her hands were full.

Overfull. Too full. Everything they could do had been done except for the one thing that most needed to be done. But that hardly mattered. Willow knew it was pointless to try. She knew it even as she attempted the spell. Something about it felt above average wrong. This is never going to work.

I have to try. A heavy lump clung in her throat. Her eyes ached. She was about to cry again. Disgusted with herself, exhausted and sore, she chanted, “Asa sa fie. Asa sa fie. Acum.” Even her voice was wrong. It started off strong enough, which was how it should’ve sounded now, but it didn’t. It deteriorated, becoming weak and broken.

Of course, just because the spell was bound to flop, that didn’t make it free. The floppy sorts of spells were always the worst. They consumed outrageous amounts of power in no time flat if she wasn’t cautious. Willow tried to be careful and failed, just like her spell. Light swirled around her, distorted her view as it flared out. Every ounce of energy she possessed siphoned away, ‘poof,’ ‘gone,’ doing who knows what. Arms closed around Willow as she slumped boneless.

It was Buffy. Willow had to think about it. That spoke more clearly to how frazzled she was than anything else that might’ve happened. It scared her. She wrestled to get away. She had to. Some of the power she so desperately needed might be stolen from Buffy.

Nothing bad happened. The delicate sound of Buffy’s voice filled Willow’s senses, assuring her that everything was okay, she was okay, shushing her, soothing her. Warm, tickly breath brought on the shivers.

Willow tensed. She wanted to say something reassuring. It would’ve been nice to tell Buffy she was fine. The accursed tears returned instead, streaming down Willow’s cheeks. She’d been crying off and on since she’d woken that afternoon.

No, not ‘crying.’ She was too numb for anything so dramatic. This was weeping. Tears seeped from her eyes, silent, senseless, devoid of sensation. Her head felt warm, heavy, wooly, yet achy all the same. It’s useless. It’s all useless. I can’t do anything right.

Buffy caressed Willow’s cheek with her knuckles. Her hand trailed up and around to cup Willow’s forehead. “Oh, honey, you’re warm,” Buffy said, her hand moving off as she stood. “Let me help. I need to get you to bed.”

The words tumbled out, muddling, muddying, failing to register. It wasn’t until Buffy’s fingertips extended down to where Willow could see them past the veil of hair that hid her face that she understood what was being asked. She took hold and rose, though that was mostly Buffy. Staying upright was Buffy’s doing too. Willow sagged against her side.

She hadn’t made more than a few listless steps before Buffy took over completely. There wasn’t enough of Willow left to protest being swept up. She hung limp in Buffy’s arms, powerless to stop the crocodile tears that streamed down her cheeks. The damned things were still being incessantly sneaky. None of the tremulous jerks, the gulps for breath, the miserable sobs that would normally, naturally accompany such an outburst happened. It was so infuriating, Willow wanted to scream. Instead, she leaked, clamped her teeth, hung like a ragdoll, jostled with each step.

As they exited the room, she looked past Buffy’s shoulder to the cell. Angelus hung suspended by the heaviest chains and shackles they could find. It was barbaric. The toes of his shoes barely skimmed the concrete. Buffy had insisted on that. She claimed that it would be nearly impossible for him to gain the leverage needed to break free.

He lifted his head. His busted lips stretched into a sickening smile. It had to be excruciating. A weak chortle was all he could manage with a broken jaw. That was more than enough.

Willow averted her eyes.

The squabbling around the table intensified. Illyria kept her distance, opting to stand beside the door, opposite the hulking, flesh-wrapped, chameleon progeny of the Ram, Wolf and Hart who referred to himself as Marcus Hamilton—a hoax which these pitiful pink pustules had fallen for not just once. They were so feebleminded they had forgotten repeatedly that form alone does not make one kith or kin. It was no wonder the creature always appeared so disinterested. All of his charges were infants. Perhaps the shepherds of this place would have their favorite son herding protozoa next?

Illyria was merely bored. She’d begun to consider remedying that by resolving the matter herself when the fat one at the table’s head labored his carcass from his chair to preside over the querulous whelps surrounding him. He presented himself as an entity worthy of fealty, bellowing, “Silence,” scathing to the impotence surrounding him; ludicrous to Illyria. These creatures were too wretched to see that their leader barely managed to control the thimbleful of power granted him. Illyria had resisted gutting the blustering windbag up until now, a decision which remained subject to change.

The points of contention were: the half-breed’s absence and the damages to the glass palace surrounding them. Both situations were easily resolved, yet they quarreled like a pack of ravening mongrels all slathering over the same scrap of gristle. They need only to subjugate the neighboring populace to rebuild this tower out of stone. Though nothing these pitiful creatures did was ever so sensible. The half-breed could easily be reclaimed as well. The ones who had abducted him were children. The fat one himself might possess the power to swat them for their insolence.

Illyria would have already accomplished that had Wesley not intervened. His objection had been perplexing, like so many things surrounding these irrational creatures. That it remained a mystery, although Wesley had long since left for the evening, was hardly tolerable. His refusal to explain had been infuriating. Only his deference secured his pardon. He claimed that he could not explain something which he did not himself understand. That was not unreasonable. He was a vastly limited life form.

Illyria found much about him puzzling. It made little sense that he had been so incapacitated with no actual, physical damage. Illyria had, in time—several seconds, which for her seemed an eternity—put the initial injury down to grief, another frailty of an already hopeless species. Her opinion had not changed, however Wesley had. To her surprise, the injury had strengthened this mortal. He had become more resolute, less taken by the triviality that crippled the majority of his kind. In a sense, his injury had healed him.

The dickering had ceased, replaced by the other thing for which the humans showed some aptitude: scheming. They had unified, intent now on the destruction of the half-breed’s captors. Illyria wondered whether something should be done. The matter meant nothing to her; yet Wesley had seemed quite adamant that the situation not be remedied. On prior occasions, his insight had proven useful. Perhaps he should be alerted to their plans?

A plume of smoke billowed in the open area behind the fat one, beginning much like a firebrand was being held there. It thickened rapidly, startling the rabble around the table. They fell silent. Like all lesser beings, fire terrified them. Their primitive brains were wired to flee. Playing off his fellows, the fat one became aware of his peril, turning, and then scurrying away to cower behind them. His actions only served to further illustrate the feebleness of his race. There was no fire. This was a magical diversion meant to mask the transport of a superior being.

The flash of light that followed made the primitives cower. Illyria stood rigid, attempting to assess whether this new creature posed a threat. The spawn known as Marcus Hamilton was doing much the same. It was surely formidable given the magical wards that were still in place around the fortress. He watched the flamboyant entrance with one eyebrow cocked in interest.

“I’m afraid,” a voice from within the cloud began, “as much as I would enjoy watching you make a mess—” the smoke dissipated sufficiently to reveal a blue-skinned demonic progeny who was fanning his face with one hand “—that you have chosen the wrong course of action. Ms. Summers is under the purview of the Lower Beings.” Though he had no room to make such a pronouncement, his demeanor was sufficiently disarming to befuddle the humans. Not so with the creature Hamilton. He started for the intruder, obviously intent on ejecting him.

The intruder had with him a girl who, from the stench of her, had recently been mortal, but who had been corrupted. An acolyte, no doubt. She wore a black skullcap with two forward-facing, rounded plastic plates that stuck up from her head. It was meant to make her resemble the beige skinned, widow’s peaked, black crowned creature portrayed before a colorful ringed array emblazoned on her crimson shirt. Some human idol perhaps? It certainly looked sufficiently ridiculous to be one of their gods.

So what was the supplicant of a human deity doing aligning herself with the offspring of the demonic hierarchy?

The girl wasn’t as ridiculous as her allegiance suggested. She stepped up to block the Hamilton creature’s advance. He grumbled, “Oh, please,” and tried to lay his meaty hands on her. She evaded, striking him squarely in the chest with her foot, driving him back. This promised to be an entertaining diversion.

Unfortunately, the blue one turned. His hands closed around the girl’s upper arms, as if to restrain her. “I insist that you stop,” he said extending one hand, palm facing forward. The Hamilton creature glowered as the other supplied his name, though ‘D’Hoffryn’ was undoubtedly a lesser form of his true name. No entity with any power to command shared its true identity so freely. There was little doubt that this ‘D’Hoffryn’ would be a formidable foe for the Hamilton creature. With the girl’s help, his chances for victory were promising.

Illyria would’ve enjoyed viewing the Hamilton creature’s death, however the one calling himself ‘D’Hoffryn’ began to explain, “I am an envoy of the Lower Beings, purveyor of the wish,” proving himself a diplomat, not a warrior. The notion filled Illyria with disdain. “These mortals with whom you quarrel are acting under my influence. I assure you that, if you will simply step down, they will come to a sticky end on their own. And when that happens, I will be pleased to present you with their heads.” D’Hoffryn seated himself in the fat one’s chair. The girl sidled up behind him, taking station like a guard, just off his right shoulder.

Several of the humans appeared distressed. Unsurprisingly, the group included the fat one.

D’Hoffryn gave him a brief, affable smile. But when the fat one worked his mouth, gulping fish-like, D’Hoffryn went on, “Our problems are far greater than one misplaced vampire and a few broken windows.” He turned to level his gaze, not on the humans, but on the Hamilton creature. “How are you at coping with pan-dimensional conflict?”

Willow lay on the bed, looking utterly defeated. Buffy needed to go and touch base with Giles. She was certain he had to be worried, but she didn’t feel she could leave Willow either. Torn, she stood at the bedside debating what to do.

It happened again as she stared. She noticed something. Considering how that had gone the last time, she didn’t want to know what the green triangular speck below Willow’s left shoulder was. It could be a tattoo, but Willow doesn’t have any tattoos. What with all the trouble we had in the past, I can’t imagine her being so far gone to think that one would be a good idea. Besides, the color’s too vibrant. Tattoos normally look washed out after they heal.

I shouldn’t be staring in the first place. It’s rude.

She couldn’t help herself. This was a detail she might’ve easily missed. She remembered how Willow had looked when they’d started out earlier that day. Willow’s outfit had been cute, somewhere between ‘carnie’ and business casual. The second part of that impression had come from how crisply starched her blouse had been. Her collar had barely parted in a tight V. The herringbone vest she wore, though cut vaguely under the bust, had held it that way.

Willow was so rumpled now that her collar lay crumpled over, exposing her collarbone. It was hard to imagine how she’d even gotten that way. She’d spent the time they were apart sitting in the car. It’s as though her clothing has somehow been magically mussed to match the rest. Is that even possible?

I s’pose it is. Will gets dressed all the time like that. Why not undressed or disheveled? Maybe she doesn’t even know she did it. It could’ve been reflexive. She’s not big on control.

Buffy was being watched too. She didn’t realize it until Willow’s hand went to her shoulder. She brushed at the area Buffy was staring at, her head at an odd angle so she could look at herself. Realization washed over her face. She lay back and went for the top button of her vest. As Willow undid the button, peering up at her again through glassy eyes, their lids puffy and red, Buffy looked away, embarrassed.

“You didn’t have a headstone.”

That statement, mumbled in a voice so ragged it was barely recognizable as Willow’s, grabbed Buffy’s attention. It seemed such a nonsensical thing to say that Buffy wondered whether she’d heard right. Was Willow alright? Her cheeks were so wet they glistened in the dim, yellow lamplight.

Of course she isn’t alright. But could she be so distraught she isn’t making sense? 

What Buffy did understand was that Willow was undressing. That made her want to turn away even more. The green blotch divided by Willow’s bra strap held her gaze. It was unmistakably a leaf. A tattoo of a leaf, so brightly colored it looked painted on. The leaf was layered in darker and lighter green, an effect that brought to mind topographical maps, or murrine glass, though it was too intricate for most murrine. Light green veins spider webbed through the leaf’s body, more layers tracing their shape, radiating out, each one slightly darker or lighter.

Willow’s vest lay open now. She’d moved on to the buttons of her blouse. The cup of her white, padded satin bra was exposed and she was still undressing. Buffy wanted her to stop. She’d seen enough. Willow has a tattoo. No big, right? Lots of people have tattoos. It doesn’t have to mean anything except she thought it was pretty.  

It is a big. In a sec, Will will be naked to the waist, explaining how whatever doohickey she’s had scarred into her flesh meant so much to her. I’ll have to hear the whole sordid tale, the ‘why’ behind it all. It’s like the law of—

Willow sat up to shuck off her clothes. A few seconds later all that remained undone was the story. She shoved her clothes and pillows to the other side of the bed and lay flat, posed with her arm away from her side, so that Buffy could see.

It’s really, really time for me to leave.

Buffy couldn’t. She stared, transfixed. She couldn’t imagine how she’d missed this last night. It was huge. What I saw was only the tip of the iceberg, a floral ‘iceberg,’ strung together with ivy. The vivid mosaic randomly dotted with purple orchids in various sizes and states of blossoming extended from Willow’s left shoulder, where it looked to wrap around behind her neck or maybe onto her back. It trailed down from there; cupping her breast, covering most of it; hugging the curve of her side to disappear beneath her skirt.

The flowers themselves were different from the ivy. Instead of layered topography, their petals were delicately blended, a smooth gradient concentrating the darkest color at the middle end closest to the flower’s center, the edges faded to pale violet. Oval yellow pollen thingies dotted the points where the petals converged. There were six flowers in view and they were all unique, erotic, beautiful… 

“How far down does that go?” It was the stupidest question Buffy could imagine herself asking, so it figured she had.

“Umm,” Willow stammered, heat rising so fiercely in her cheeks her tears threatened to turn to steam. She angled her face away. “All the way down, or mostly,” she mumbled, hastily adding, “My right leg,” like the side would somehow matter. “It wraps around.”

None of those details mattered. This was the largest tattoo Buffy had ever seen in person and she’d only seen half of it. She remembered being shocked by the idea that Willow’s nipples were pierced. Beside the canvas of her body, the two little rings were nothing, barely noticeable, the dangly charm hanging from her navel, though so un-Willow, a mere triviality.

‘Wrapped in painted flowers…’

Buffy was to the door like a shot. She had to get out of there. The implication that anything that monster had told her was true shattered her resolve. Willow called after her as she sprinted down the hall.