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Darkness choked the dank, tight space. Shackles hung heavy around his wrists and ankles. The chains that joined them laterally, forming a set, and vertically, linking one set to the other, were so short he couldn’t lay flat. The lid crushed against his knees. His shoulders pulled. The shackles bit into his wrists. He could barely move, let alone gain the leverage to free himself.

Something sharp gouged his back. He’d tried to shift himself. His wallowing only turned up another fragment. It dug into his lower back, while the first inched closer to his spine. Further wiggling only brought more of the same. The ‘bed of nails’ effect was too much to take, but he gave up, telling himself, it’s useless. You’re only making it worse.

He wasn’t afraid. By all rights he should’ve been. A grade-A, raving loony held him prisoner. And that was just the short answer. To her he was just an oversized blood bag, conveniently kept at a pleasant ninety-eight point six for her dining pleasure. Yet he was more annoyed than anything. Annoyed at himself for being captured. Annoyed at the discomfort. Annoyed at the endless nothingness of his tomb.

Time stood still there. That lasted until his bladder grew full, then the passage of time became a painful thing, every lingering minute an eternity. The trial went on for—

He had no idea. He didn’t care. When the crypt door finally did creak open, it filled him with excitement. That made no sense. Neither did shouting, “I’m in here! Help! Let me out!” Not that it mattered. He was so parched that his shout came out a rasp. His throat burned. He coughed, his stomach muscles contracting, his forehead whacking the stone slab above. None of that curbed his enthusiasm. He tried again, hoping to hell that, whoever had come, it wasn’t Buffy.

It was. The lid made a heavy grating sound. From how it moved he knew it was her before he even saw her face. No one else could have slid the massive slab aside so easily.

Moonlight shone in through a stained glass window behind her. Filtering through her hair, it lit her head with a golden halo. “Comfy?” she asked.

He couldn’t see her face. He didn’t really need to. The lilt of her voice told him she was smirking. Bitch.

His legs were asleep. The pins and needles sensation made him cringe. The rest of him ached from disuse. He sat stiffly up when she turned away. He half-expected her to wheel around and wallop the snot out of him. His hands went up defensively. The chains pulled tight.

Instead, she sauntered purposefully toward the rear of the crypt, scoffing, “Stupid, stupid people.” Metal clattered against stone. “You believe I actually sat down with Giles?” Her voice pitched higher, ringing out as she mused, “Just like old times.”

She’d dropped something. He fixated where the sound had emanated. The adjacent sarcophagus was rendered in a tribute to Paradise Lost. It seemed a valid case-in-point that good sense and taste were rarely squandered on the rich. Not that any of that meant anything to him. He was only concerned with the ornate filigree that concealed whatever had made the noise.

Buffy’s voice echoed throughout the tomb, reduced by his indifference to a thrum with tinny accents. He was more interested in what she was up to. But it really didn’t matter so long as she wasn’t watching him. And she wasn’t. Something in the corner held her interest. He needed to know what she’d dropped. Whatever it was, he felt certain it was something useful.

When she stooped down to reach for something near her feet, he lifted himself up. His chains rattled. He froze, but she didn’t seem to notice. She stood up with a bag of dark liquid, probably red, that probably wasn’t Kool-Aid. While she was dinking with that, he lifted up high enough to see. His heart fluttered. The discarded object was a ring of keys.

He glanced at her. The bag was no longer in view. She wasn’t drinking it. Her mouth was the only thing about her that was moving. Judging from the position of her arms, she was holding the bag out in front of her. Is she pouring that into something?

He needed to quit trying to figure her out. She’s a psychopath. There was no telling what she’s up to. Better not to know.

His arms ached from the strain of holding his body up. He eased himself down. As his weight fell, he sounded like Marley’s ghost. It was the loudest thing he’d ever heard. Again, she didn’t seem to care. He knew that’d change if he got up.

I need a plan. It isn’t like just getting the keys will accomplish anything. I’m basically screwed. I can’t run in these chains. I can’t even get to the keys without tipping her off. That’s probably why she just dropped them there. She knew I couldn’t do anything with them.

His heart fell when she looked over her shoulder. He averted his eyes, which probably made him look guilty as sin. He’d been looking at where the keys were after all.

Scrutinizing him, she said, “People are so screwed up, it’s sad.” With her shoulders twisted the way they were, he could just make out whitish tufts of something level with her midriff, just above the second sarcophagus. He fixated on it, trying to figure out what it was. It could be hair. But that seemed impossible.

She huffed contemptuously, “Like you’d know the difference,” turning her back on him. “Why am I even talking to you?” She busied herself with something. No telling what. “You’re worse than they are.” Whatever it was, she cast it off, spun on heel and started for him.

He expected to get clobbered. His mouth fell open when she marched past him out the door. He stared into the corner where she’d been, past the neighboring sarcophagus, completely oblivious to the keys. He couldn’t get his head around what he saw. It was a head.

He lifted himself up to gain vantage. The decapitated head sat with its neck seated in a wide-mouthed urn. It didn’t look rotten or desiccated. Save for the obvious, it wasn’t really even all that gross. There was no gore. Its cheeks were gaunt, its complexion sallow, but it was undoubtedly alive. The damned thing even blinked once in the time he gaped.

A thud from outside the crypt shook him from his stupor. He extracted himself clumsily from the coffin, all but flopping onto the floor. The animated hat rack stared at him, its eyes moving, tracking his hunched and hobbled progress. But the damned thing didn’t make a peep. You’d think it’d call out. Alert its mistress. Something. That obviously wasn’t it.

Reaching the keys was both a blessing and a curse. He hadn’t realized there were so many. Oh, jeez. This is going to take forever. He started trying them one-by-one as more crashing came from outside the tomb. What the hell is she doing, feng-shui-ing the headstones?

Whatever her game was, he hoped she wouldn’t get bored. Frantically, he tried key after key. His hands shook, making it hard to work. Even holding onto the padlock that held the shackle while he manipulated the keys was hard. Finally, he located the key that opened the shackle around his right wrist. Then he discovered that each padlock took a different key. He started to panic, took control, crouched down, and kept trying.

The silence outside was deafening. He grew suspicious that she was staying away on purpose. She should have returned by now.

Or maybe it was just the Hessian’s obsession. He felt that being watched by that thing would be enough to freak anyone out. He kept expecting it to speak, to tell him to hurry up. It looked annoyed enough to heckle.

Ages passed before he found all of the right keys. He stood and made his way to the door. He knew the damned thing would creak when it opened. He applied careful pressure, hoping against hope. His teeth gritted a cacophony with the rusty hinges.

The door was open. No one pounced.

Connor ran.

Giles had in mind a good book, some pleasant music and a snifter of brandy as he climbed the stairs. The soothing melodies of Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude played through his head inspiring him to hum. It had been a long, trying day. He felt due for a rest.

His focus on the treads at his feet was broken by the rattle of a door opening in the hallway up ahead. It was Buffy. She hurtled toward him, showing no sign that she might stop or even slow down.

The instant Giles saw her, his plans changed. He felt a sudden, inexplicable need to detain her. To that end, he asked the most reasonable thing he could come up with on short notice, “Did you manage to secure Angelus?” knowing full well that she and Willow had. He’d been downstairs to check on their prisoner, and to turn on the surveillance cameras so they might better keep an eye on him.

Giles’ question had the desired effect. Buffy halted two steps shy of his position. The hem of her black evening dress was tattered, her makeup smudged. She looks dreadful, which I suppose is no surprise, given where she spent a goodly portion of her evening. That can’t have been easy, though I would’ve expected her to be cleaned up by now. She was always so fussy about her appearance.

She regarded him for a long moment before she confirmed, “Yeah, he isn’t going anywhere.”

“If you have a moment,” he said, gesturing with an outstretched hand, “I’ve received some news which might interest you.” The gesture proved adequate. Offering a curt nod, she proceeded up the stairs with him. He led her to his room, opened the door and motioned her inside. “Please, make yourself comfortable,” he said and went to switch the electric kettle on for tea.

She took a seat in the less ‘lived in’ of the two corner armchairs, the other had a folded afghan draped over its back. Once settled, she looked expectantly his way.

Having a plan would’ve been wonderful. As it was, when he asked, “Can I offer you something?” he felt as if he were stalling. Nonetheless, he suggested, “Tea?” and “Perhaps some biscuits?” as an afterthought. He expected her to see right through him, become impatient and demand to know what he wanted.

She did none of those things. Instead, she mumbled, “Sure,” with the same enthusiasm she might’ve had he offered her liverwurst or fruitcake. She then sat quietly, inspecting her lap, the floor, her hands and anything else she might without lifting her head. The times he snuck glances as he prepared their tea, she looked utterly dispirited.

He wondered where she had been going in such a rush, but he suspected he knew the answer. She was running away. Perhaps not for good, but something had obviously upset her enough that she needed to get away. I believe I can deduce what it might’ve been, given this morning’s row. The only mystery I see is what might be done about it.

Well, I suppose I can start with what little news I have and play it by ear.

Giles began to fill in, “Wesley contacted me this evening,” as he loaded a tray with tea service and a plate of biscuits. “He believes he might be of some assistance with Angelus.” He carried the tray over to where she sat and placed it on the table. “I’m uncertain how he intends to manage, which leaves me somewhat skeptical, but it isn’t as if we have scores of allies running to our aid.” He seated himself in the vacant chair. “At any rate, he believes he may be able to lay his hands on the Muo-Ping containing Angel’s soul.”

“That’s good,” Buffy replied, sounding as if she felt it wasn’t any good at all. In fact, it seemed, from the weightiness of her inflection, as if she felt nothing might ever be good again.

Her reaction was so absurdly histrionic Giles had to stifle a chuckle. It would’ve been insensitive to make light of her angst, though it wouldn’t have been the first time. He was tempted to laugh just to see if he could infect her and perhaps lighten the mood.

That’s a horrible idea.

Though surely premature, he poured himself a scant cup. The tea had scarcely had time to steep, but it was a pleasant shade. He lifted his teacup, saucer and all. Tabling it in his left hand, he blew across the surface of the liquid. It smelled nice too. The thin bone china saucer warmed in his hand. It was too soon to sip, yet he flirted with it, angling his head just so to avoid fouling his glasses, finding both the warmth and the steam soothing.

Several moments passed. Nothing around him changed. Buffy still looked as if she’d kicked a puppy.

She succeeded in capturing Angelus. She should be somewhat pleased with herself. That was no small feat. Her unrest must have something to do with Willow. I can’t think of another single thing that would elicit such a strong reaction. He tried to imagine how Buffy might cope with Willow behaving irrationally. His deduction seemed plausible, though this entire line of thinking was all a vain effort to convince himself he was following the right track. Going out on a limb like this made him dreadfully nervous.

Yes, and I can hardly hope to help if can’t even broach the topic.

Intentionally choosing an established, if not tired tack, he said, “Human beings are remarkably resilient.” He remained intent on his cup. The puff of his breath disturbed the steam, sending a billowing plume to fog his glasses. He chided himself as he blindly returned his cup to the table. It was a wonder that he didn’t burn himself.

“It’s astonishing the conditions we can endure,” he remarked, reaching in to his inner jacket pocket to retrieve a handkerchief. He removed his glasses and proceeded to clean them. “Though we’re also creatures of habit, as they say. Often a sudden change can be more traumatic than the unhealthy condition that preceded it.” He replaced his glasses, and then looked up to find that Buffy was scrutinizing him, apparently annoyed. Oh, dear.

After a long pause, which included a scathing glare that caused Giles to rekindle interest in his tea, she said, “Why don’t you just say what’s on your mind?” Another beat passed before she added the caveat: “In English—human English—the kind everyone else speaks. And skip the clichés.”

“Please forgive me if I spoke out of turn. It was never my intent to offend you.” His defensive prattle was met with an even sharper glare. He read the ‘oh, please’ without a single word being spoken. Good show, old man. This is fine kettle of fish you’ve opened.

“Very well,” he capitulated. Still it took him several moments to compose himself. Finally, his thoughts collected, he explained, “I believe that perhaps Willow believes that she’s committed some wrongdoing. And that she’s accustomed to certain reprimands as a result. And that you are—”

“Oh, Giles, I can’t do that,” Buffy interrupted, appearing aghast.

“Well, of course you can’t,” he replied, bemused. Though remarkably, his poker face held. Bolstered, he stated the unvarnished truth, “I wouldn’t believe that you are who you claim to be if you could.”

Buffy appeared to compose herself, a process which required no small amount of effort. At last she said, “No.”

“No?” He inquired. “Was I mistaken?” But she indicated that my supposition was correct. How—?

“Yes,” Buffy replied, “but ‘no’.”

Giles opened his mouth to point out she couldn’t have it both ways.

Before he could utter a sound, she put in, “You’re close, but that’s not what’s wrong.”

He quickly overcame the stumble. “Alright. Do tell. What happened?”

“I can’t tell you that,” she said, her tone resolute.

“Okay.” Giles agreed. That was well enough, though he claimed, “I’m not sure—”

“No, you don’t get it,” Buffy said, not affording him an opportunity to express his uncertainty, which again, was well enough. She was quite right.

“Obviously,” he admitted. “I can’t exactly ‘get’ something you won’t explain.” The exchange had left him puzzled and more than a little frustrated.

Buffy reacted to his irritation by growing introverted once again.

Giles took that as license to nurse his tea, gratefully allowing its effects to influence him. He’d actually managed to gingerly coax a few sips from his cup when Buffy spoke again, “I’m sorry.” She appeared thoughtful as though she were choosing her words carefully. “I think you’re right. But I hope you’re wrong.” Traces of a smile ghosted across her lips. “Y’know, this isn’t even my—” she fell silent, obviously thinking better of what she had in mind to say. She drew in a protracted breath. “I have my Willow to think about too.”

Your Willow?” Giles asked, sure he was missing something.

“Yeah, you didn’t get that?”

“Get what?”

“We’re—” she fell off again, unable to finish. That was fine. The tightness of her voice and pinkness in her cheeks spoke volumes.

Light dawned. Giles said, “Oh,” half in shock, half in recognition. My word. They’re lovers. Well, this is— Only half aware, he heard himself say, “This must be awful for you.”

“More like stressful,” she admitted. “What would you do if it was you who—?”

His sympathy for her flourished as he considered how he might react under similar circumstances. I’m not certain I would’ve handled the situation any better. It’s likely I would’ve managed worse.

The best advice he could think to offer didn’t seem like much help at all. “Comfort her,” he said, though it seemed probable that such compassion would only serve to further confuse matters. However, indifference would be impossible. She has little choice. “That’s all you can do.”

Wesley clawed absently at his forearm through the sleeve of his sports jacket. Naturally, once one complaint was quelled, another rose. He ignored the tickle behind his shoulder for as long as humanly possible. He had fancied his role in this endeavor would be catlike. It stood to reason, given the perverse sense of humor the universe had in matters concerning him, that the only thing ‘catlike’ about his performance would be the appearance that he had fleas.

It would’ve been courteous of Kivryn to suggest calamine lotion as a suitable complement for his spell. Alas the codex was sadly lacking in such kindnesses.

At least the epidermal embellishments seemed to be performing their primary function. He’d walked in through the garage entrance without tripping a single alarm. The long, barren corridor he was currently traversing was loaded with booby traps, better than half of them lethal. Unfortunately, he was only aware of their existence, not their exact natures or locations. The uncertainty combined with the passing tingle of electricity skating across his skin had made him downright skittish at first. His caution wore thinner with each passing meter, though the intense intermittent bursts static did serve as useful reminders, as did the occasional whiff of some indescribably noxious chemical.

I’m sure everything will be fine. All I need to do is follow this corridor to the end; make a right; then an abrupt left; call for a lift; stand like a lemon waiting for said lift; convince said lift to rise twenty-three floors to the penthouse suite; foil what will undoubtedly be some of the most advanced and deadly security systems in the world; acquire a hopelessly fragile, mystical biscuit barrel that must not be broken or opened inside these walls; then make a hasty retreat; passing through said security systems again. And accomplish all of that without alerting any of the resident minor malevolent deities to my presence. It’s a piece of cake.

But then there is the universe to consider.

The universe didn’t intervene. It waited, humoring Wesley, allowing him safe passage to the lift. He punched the topmost button on the panel. The doors slid to without a fuss and he began to rise. He leaned against the back wall, his mind already cluttered with worries and vain speculations about what he might find. The truth was he no idea. There were no avenues of research to follow, nor places he could go to seek out information. He might as well be going to Mars.

The lift bobbled almost imperceptibly, shaking Wesley from his thoughts. It was slowing. He looked up, feeling as though his heart had been held stationary while the car still rose. This was all wrong. It was too soon. The light on the panel flashed indicating the fifth floor. His knees turned to jelly.

Resolve alone kept him upright. Horrors ran through his mind as the doors parted.

The view hadn’t changed in forever. Buffy was getting bored. From her vantage point atop the crypt, she peered into the distance. Row upon row of headstones striped the lawn, a hodgepodge of short and tall, thin and fat. Just like humanity. Rich people with their bigger, better, excessive more. Poor people with their scant, shoddy, minimalist less. Unwanted, uninvited, extra people dropping in to screw things up. The headstones she’d had to replace because of the extra were somewhere in the middle. Ordinary, average, everyday, not unlike the slow, stupid boy who got in my way.

Speaking of…

A shrill, tremulous groan broke the stillness, escalating to a frantic shriek. The crypt door banged against its stops. ‘Slow and stupid’ was finally with the program. He took flight like a bird startled from a thicket.

Buffy sacrificed a little more of her patience to the cause, among other things. Temptation came to her on a light breeze. Connor was a sweaty, salty, tantalizing mess. She got over it. Yeah, I’m starved. It’s been days. But going all Pavlovian over some snot-nosed brat would be totally embarrassing. He needs to feel like he has a chance. And I need to let him. Dread will do its thing that much better if I do.

This was like waiting for a pot to boil with the ‘never’ from the ‘watching.’ Buffy wondered if he was holding something back as he sprinted across the lawn. Considering the ingredients that went into whipping up this little freak of preternature, you’d think he’d kill in the hundred yard dash, but ‘nope,’ his performance is pretty much yawn-worthy. Least he isn’t glancing over his shoulder every ten feet like some chainsaw catcher in a gorno film.

Whistling seemed like just the thing, or maybe tapping her nails or foot. More silly compulsions to resist were exactly what she needed. She shrugged and looked up at the sky through breaks in the canopy. It was a nice night. There were even a couple of stars out. And the tawny ring around the moon didn’t seem to double its size.

He was halfway to the fence before she hopped to the ground and took off after him. She still had to pace herself to keep from running him down. The moment of truth came. He leapt for the fence and she leapt for him, plastering him face-first against the bars. His hands went out to stop the splat. That was convenient. She snatched his left wrist. The bar slipped from his grasp. She wrenched his arm down, then up from the small of his back. He whimpered when his shoulder popped.

Her other hand went for the things all men value most. They might claim they love this or that more than anything else, but really, these little nuggets of joy always come first. Totally understandable, considering. Through a handful of denim, she squished them, not quite to a pulp. She wanted him conscious, which might or might not’ve been good.

The whole ‘testicles in a vice’ thing made Connor a bit cranky. Eventually his crankiness toppled them. As they started to go over backward, Buffy pushed off, let go, and leapt back. She landed crouched near his head. He doubled, clutching his crotch, wailing like a baby. She shut him up with a single tap. It was hard to gauge just how hard was ‘hard enough.’ Putting a fist through his ribcage would’ve been unfortunate. She didn’t. Her tap was just right. It proved, yet again, that shrieking like a little girl was pretty dependant on the shrieker’s ability to breathe.

He flopped back. It was totally reflexive, but it seemed as if he meant to defend his battered ribs.

Buffy pounced, pulling a little spin in her hop. She landed, facing the other way, straddling Connor’s middle. His expression reflected the full myriad of expected things: shock, horror, pain, desperation… That made the thought that had been hanging in her mind all this time ring not quite true. She asked anyway, “You aren’t very bright, are you?” then punctuated it by going for his valuables again. A puffier, firmer package bulged beneath the denim. Just a touch made him wince.

“You fucking bitch!”

“Yeah, yeah,” Buffy said, sounding bored. “Y’know, calling a person who might be considering killing you names pretty much proves my point.”

Adding injury to insult seemed like just the thing. He almost unseated her when she clamped down. His expression transformed from your garden variety panic tinged with pained outrage to the sort of desperation usually only seen in wild animals. He erratically, frantically scanned his surroundings looking for a way out.

His search came to an abrupt end when Buffy went for his throat. That seemed a reasonable thing to hold onto. He probably wouldn’t throw her if it meant her taking a souvenir or two. The ride got lots less bumpy as his face turned purple. He looked loads more compliant.

“You stole something from me,” she said, the blandness of her tone almost passing for patience. “Do you know how stupid that was?” Her hold on his throat loosened just enough for him to croak his assent, not that he bothered. His legs thrashed, but his feet didn’t dig in. It was probably involuntary. She bore down again and the shaking gradually eased. Unfortunately, he looked about ready to pass out. It’s time to make my point if I’m gonna. “The smart thing would be for you to help me get her back.” An amused smirk twisted her lips. “That gonna be a problem?”

Getting an answer wasn’t strictly necessary. Neither was his cooperation. Still, he shook his head when she let up.

Willow occupied a chair that was only hers by forfeit. Buffy hadn’t wanted it, so

Willow didn’t belong. She never really felt like she belonged. She sat with her thighs to her chest, hugging her shins tightly, even though she was sweltering, swaddled in a thick terrycloth robe worn over the many layers of her clothing.

The impulse to leave was so strong, but she couldn’t face it. She had nowhere to go. Nowhere she felt safe. Leaving, even just to hide, meant moving, an activity which carried with it a strong possibility of bumping into some other random someone. She couldn’t face anyone, so she sat like a lump, frozen, awaiting the inevitability that someone, probably Buffy, would discover her. The odds of that were good, seeing as how this was Buffy’s room.

Living in the shadow of consequential dread felt so normal she almost found it comfortable in a really uncomfortable kind of way. Anticipating the rap on the door, the sweet sound of her name as it rolled off Buffy’s tongue, made Willow jumpy. The proper kind of jumpy where every little ping or tick or click the old hotel or its occupants made sent chills down her spine and a twinge through her frame.

She’d had it in her mind that Buffy would see her tattoos and love them. Any other response had been unimaginable. How could she possibly dislike something so personal, so difficult, so painful, so…

They were for her. I picked them especially for her.

Her mind lost in a haze of memory and rampant emotion, Willow unconsciously clawed at her left side. Thick layers of cloth dulled the sensation. Kennedy suggested a tattoo, probably to make me sick and sore. I was sick and sore for so long. It was horrible, but I had a reason. I was careful, even though I rushed. The artist hated the rush. She said I was taking on too much, that it wasn’t healthy. She wasn’t comfortable, but comfort can be artificially stimulated with suitable incentives. Lots of things can. That might be the one thing Kennedy taught me. I’d never seen that premise tested so grotesquely.

The rush didn’t matter. Not really. The artist was careful. I was careful. I picked everything so carefully. I wanted it to mean something.

And it does. How can Buffy hate something that’s so—?

That’s so her. In various mythologies the orchid represents love, refinement, rare and delicate beauty, strength, and fertility with all its subsequent sexiness. It was perfect, like being wrapped in her.

Or I thought so.

Willow felt herself souring from the inside out. The idea, the art and the act turned to poison in her mind. She felt silly and stupid, like some simple-minded, romantic little girl, so obsessed with a triviality that she couldn’t see how much of a fool she was making of herself.

There was no body, mostly because the monster who’d stolen it was still using it. Somehow the thought of putting up another headstone had just seemed horrible. Precious moments passed as she envisioned the monster, standing over her own headstone, laughing at their pitiful sentimentality, making Willow feel substantially less sane. The vision went away in snatches by sheer force of will. We’d already done that once. I’m sure the Hellmouth thought it was yummy. It ate all of our memorials: Tara, Buffy, Joyce, Jenny, Jesse…

This seemed so perfect. It was for me. Just for me to remember.

But it wasn’t perfect. It’s so—


It’s too—

It’s something she’d never want me to do. She’d never pick this. It’s so garish. So bright. So colorful. So vain. So—

Willow wanted it gone. She was mortified that Buffy had ever laid eyes on it. She wants the other me. The me that’s not me. The me that has enough sense not to defile herself for the sake of sentiment. The me that’s not too maudlin to see how wrong—

A tap at the door had the opposite effect it should’ve. Instead of looking up like a normal person, instead of saying ‘yes’ or ‘who is it’ or any of the many other greetings that people normally use, Willow curled in on herself that much more. Her head ducked lower, the grip she had on her legs grew tighter. She even curled her toes. The terrycloth felt hot, soggy and sticky against her face. It was yucky. She focused on that, praying Buffy would just have the good sense to go away.

Hearing her name made Willow flinch. Good sense and Buffy don’t exactly mix. She grew more insistent, saying Willow’s name louder…and louder…and louder.

Though, to be fair, this is her room.

On the fourth try, Willow said something that was completely out of line, “Leave me alone!” No one was more surprised than her that ‘saying’ came out more like ‘shouting,’ but then, she was about to crawl out of her skin, so strictly speaking, control wasn’t something she had in abundance.

“What’s wrong?” Buffy asked, sounding genuinely hurt, and more than a little confused.

The hurt made Willow feel horrible, the confusion made her feel mad, in order and almost that quick. She huddled in silence, growing progressively more distraught, unsure whether to be mad because of the interruption or ashamed because of everything else.

Anger won out. “I am what I am, Buffy,” Willow shouted, this time on purpose. “I don’t know how to be anything different. I didn’t do what I did just for fun. I had a reason, but you wouldn’t know that because you didn’t ask and you didn’t listen. You didn’t give me a chance. You stomped off in huff.” Her rant lost steam as it poured out. “There are always reasons. I can’t help it if you don’t like them. My reason is my prerogative. It is what it—”

“What?” This time Buffy’s confusion was pronounced and darned hard to miss.

It derailed Willow. She’d had this whole thing about the ‘whys’ and the ‘wherefores.’ She was completely lost now, not a thought in her head, only static. It’s just as well. All the excuses in the world aren’t going to make her like something she hates.

“Can I come in?” Buffy’s question was accompanied by the rattle of the doorknob, so obviously she could.

Willow hadn’t locked it. Her silence eventually worked as consent, though she wasn’t quite sure how. That always seemed to happen and it never made sense. Or almost always. Some people were smart enough to take silence as a ‘no’ and go away. Those people weren’t Buffy. Although, in truth, Willow couldn’t remember whether Buffy was one of those people or not before things went flooey. Before Willow could come to a decision, she was huddled in Buffy’s shadow. The weight of it was horrible.

“What’s wrong?”

When Willow heard the question, she realized that this was the second time Buffy had asked. It was hard for Willow to dismiss the concern she sensed. It made it that much harder for her to bury her face. Though the whole ‘inability to breathe’ thing was making that pretty hard even without the added angst.

No answer came, so Buffy repeated herself a third time, “What’s wrong?”

Concern was quickly moving toward panic. Willow needed to answer. She summoned her nerve and chose the simplest way to put it. “Well,” she said, a bitter laugh added a lilt to her voice. “Mostly it’s that you think I’m ugly.”

“What?” Buffy gasped, “No,” and stammered, “What makes you think that?”

Willow looked up, still weeping, but genuinely annoyed now. “Most people don’t run away when I take my clothes off.” She ignored Buffy’s ‘oh.’ It was a pointless vocal tic. What Willow was trying to explain was far more important. Her brow furrowed as she considered what she’d just said. “Not that there have been lots of people. There haven’t. But the ones that there have been were actually able to look at me and they didn’t feel the need to flee.”

“I didn’t—”

“You did,” Willow snapped. “You got this look on your face like I was the most awful thing you’d ever seen.” Her glare or her words or both finally broke Buffy’s resolve. “You were almost in tears when you ran away.”

Buffy hung her head. “I’m sorry,” she mumbled. “I didn’t mean—”

“What happened?” Willow demanded, biting the words off.

There was a long pause, during which Buffy slumped to the floor, settling on her knees. The flush of her cheeks, the forward cant of her head, the slackness of her mouth, the glassiness  of her eyes, the surrounding tension, all said ‘please don’t make me do this.’ Willow couldn’t find any sympathy for her. That didn’t mean that she could maintain her steely gaze either. It gave out moments before Buffy pleaded, “I can’t explain, but you have to believe I didn’t mean it that way.”

Willow started to reply, “That’s—” when Buffy took her chin in hand and lifted her head. She never got to explain how good Buffy’s answer wasn’t. She was overruled.

“This isn’t even about that,” Buffy insisted. “The two things aren’t even related.” Willow wanted to maintain her anger. It was comfortable in a sick sort of way. Soft, tender, salty, soggy smoochies threw her out of her snit. She blinked, chipping away at the warm, muzzy goodness, struggling to focus as Buffy amended, “Not really.”

Willow was losing ground at an alarming rate. Somehow Buffy kept up. She kept talking, stayed coherent, while sneaking smooches between words, “I’m entitled to my reasons too and this one has nothing to do with whether I’m attracted or not.”

The feel of Buffy’s breath, wafting warm over Willow’s moist cheeks and lips sent shivers skittering down her spine. That alone would’ve been enough to turn Willow into a great big, senseless, puddly mess. But that wasn’t how this was. It was a mix of many terribly wonderful, awfully distracting, horribly consuming, wickedly enthralling things; not nearly enough of which Willow could track. If this kept up, there could be dribbling…of gray matter through ear canals. The other kinds of dribbling were easier and already embarrassingly evident.

“I’m totally attracted,” Buffy concluded, her voice a faint, husky, mellifluous resonant entity bent on securing Willow’s surrender. “I don’t know how you could even think I’m not.”

It won. Hands down. No contest.

It and all the other stuff that had changed since Buffy monopolized the conversation. There were brief moments between kisses where Willow glimpsed that thing—the thing that had completely bowled her over before: the look in Buffy’s eyes that suggested that clothing was an issue—one of those potentially troubling, temporary, fleeting kinds of issues that would probably work itself out with minor violence and lots of tearing.

Her fingers were snarled in Willow’s hair. Her other hand was working frantically on a less violent, less destructive version of the ‘tearing,’ otherwise known as ‘unbuttoning.’ Willow’s robe was already open. She didn’t remember it being opened, but that was okay. The unbuttoning was happening to her vest, but she was well past caring about such trivial things. That was probably because her now kinda numb, super-duper warm, extremely slippery, tingly lips were in the process of becoming numb, warm, slippery and tingly—with the smushing, nipping, nibbling and sucking, and the panting that, born of necessity, worked its way in between the beguiling effect of the kisses, gropes, caresses and tastes that matched the wonderfully sweet, musky smells, all of which made every nerve ending in her body stand at attention, like a yippy little dog begging for Snausages.

Willow’s mind had filled with placid fog somewhere around the same indiscernible time her robe had come undone. That happy, muzzy, brain-wrecking fog had turned into steam, hopelessly tainted with need. She was so consumed by it that the whole hotel could’ve come crashing down around them, and provided the crashing remained around and not on them, she probably wouldn’t have noticed.

The cherry on this cake was an underlying sense that something about this wasn’t fair, not that she could do a darn thing about it. Not that she even wanted to. Kisses were fine. Better. Much better than fine. In time, these kisses and caresses could make it all go away.