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Marching footfalls wove with the harmonious discord of the city’s morning bustle forming an overture to the most beautiful sound in the world: silence. Not just the average, run-of-the-mill silence of nothing happening. The silence that follows the last piteous, mucus-choked burble of an annoyingly unworthy opponent who’s been begging for death by the mere act of sucking air.

All of humanity fit that mold by Marcus Hamilton’s reckoning. The entire species amounted to a niggling itch, like a gnat in the ear.

I’ve spent what feels like ages waiting for the various moratoriums placed by my elders to lift. They brought me into this world to shepherd these stinking flesh bags on the promise that I’d be allowed certain indulgences to pass the time. Once they had me locked in, it just figures that they’d torment me with endless evasions, delays and deferments. Like it’s my destiny to be mired in bureaucracy .

I may offer Mr. Wyndham-Pryce a Cuban before I gut him. He’s done me a great kindness by being a gigantic pain in the ass.

Breezing by stucco walls made dingy by pollution, Hamilton and his colleagues approached the wrought iron gates of the Hyperion. Two of their number rushed forward to open them. Hamilton and his remaining entourage barely had to slow their stride as they turned and entered the open-air vestibule. The same process repeated with two other tertiary members of the party, so that Hamilton himself was unaffected by the transitions. Nor did he have to sully himself by touching things glommed by the miscreants who lived here.

It was a disappointment to find the lobby empty. Waiting is such an unbearably tedious thing.

I suppose I could march upstairs and rattle their doors. That’s about all I’ll be able to do. For a festering pile of putrid puss-pots, these mortals have done a bang-up job of securing their territory. If they’d managed to do anything else half as well, they might be an issue. Unfortunately for them, their brilliance comes and goes like the vagrants that nap on park benches.

Hamilton stepped forward of his men.

A deeply rumbly, exaggeratedly masculine voice boomed from inside the hotel, “My name is Marcus Hamilton. I am here as a representative of Wolfram and Hart.”

Willow had been discussing vamp-Buffy’s fate with Xander. That could wait. The reprieve might even be nice. “Stay here,” she said. “This should only take a few minutes.” That’s probably a fib, but it stands a better chance of stalling him than the truth.

The doors behind her were chained and boarded over. No doubt his handiwork brought on by Buffy’s reign of terror. Events Willow could now see clearly through Kennedy’s eyes. It didn’t even hurt anymore. The memories were just there, laying in the murk of almost-forgotten things. Willow needed only to concentrate to remember. She stripped Xander’s makeshift barricade away without making a mess or leaving a scrap. It was the polite thing to do.

This won’t be so bad.

Or at least it should be better than the nowhere I was getting here. It was impossible to explain why Buffy the Homicidal Maniac is still useful without full disclosure. That would’ve not only taken hours, but also would’ve opened my plans up to inexperienced, unwanted, third party criticism. That’s the last thing I need. I sure couldn’t make with the torture, so… This visit, for all its potential annoyance, is actually opportune. It puts a kibosh on the debate…and gives me something to do besides box Xander’s ears for being the knucklehead who landed us here in the first place.

What more could a girl ask for?

After that little show, she considered ambling inside like a normal girl, but there was nothing normal about disappearing, reappearing, self-organizing lumber. Whipping up a gale force wind was so tempting, but way too ostentatious. She stopped herself. Better to be reserved. Better for the glass doors at least. It’d be kind of silly to go to all of the trouble not to break anything, then break everything for the sake of making a grand entrance.

Besides, who would I impress? Not Hamilton. That much is sure. He and his goon squad will either figure out that I’m not in a trifling mood or they won’t.

Willow dialed it down, arriving on a billowy, hair-wafting, clothing-flapping breeze. The subject of all that controversy withdrew from the shadows near the garden’s corner, coming along for the ride. Woe betide to their ‘won’t.’

Hamilton and his troop stood near the lobby median with the entryway at their backs. They turned as a unit to face her, the largest of the men stepping forward of the others. For hominoids they had remarkably good posture. And fairly decent taste. In fact, as apes in suits went, some of the men were downright spiffy. Most of them were more interested in Willow’s kite-like captive than in her, which was silly. It spoke volumes to their place in the pecking order.

“What do you want?” Willow asked.

Hamilton ignored the question, choosing to ask his own instead, “Trouble in paradise, Ms. Rosenberg?” Curious, he gestured over her shoulder to where a parboiled Buffy Summers hung, suspended like a forsaken marionette. All that’s really missing from this picture is a hat, or a stock pot.

The urge to slap the witch’s smart mouth almost overrode Hamilton’s good sense when she chose arrogance over civility. “That isn’t any concern of yours.”

He clenched his fists hard enough that his nails bit into his palms. Little chickadee needs to learn her place. She’s about as important as a boil on a wino’s ass. Her girlfriend’s only slightly more interesting than lint. Neither one’s really worth my time to notice. The details of their spat might be amusing on the same level as a tabloid headline, but that isn’t my call. The senior partners are interested, so I have to feign interest.

“Yes, well,” Hamilton supplied with all due blandness. “We’re here about the incident that occurred last night.”

“You’re gonna have to be more specific. It was a busy night.”

It irritated him that this Rosenberg woman appeared indifferent to the hostility he was so carelessly concealing. Any human being with enough sense not to stand on the ten during rush hour would’ve been terrified, but not her. She even shrugged. Her friend, hostage, bunk buddy—whatever she was—looked shaken. With her it was all in the eyes…only because she couldn’t move anything else. Trouble is, she’s too stupid to be scared of the right thing.

“I’m sure it was,” Hamilton agreed. “It couldn’t have been easy for a couple of tiny little girls such as yourselves to accomplish what you did.”

Being glowered at was growing old. Willow hoped that Hamilton would notice that she was painfully bored and get to the point. It was so bad that she’d even given passing thought to taking a nap on the geometrically hinky, really-uncomfortable-looking couch thingy.

He finally took a clue. “After I figure out how you managed to cripple our security; destroy millions in specially treated, tempered glass; and kidnap a high ranking member of our staff—all without leaving a shred of evidence—I thought I’d kill you.”

Well, Buffy’s been a busy little beaver.

“You thought you’d try,” Willow hedged through a grin.

Hamilton’s response wasn’t at all what she expected. He rumbled. For a second she wondered if he was growling or grumbling or…then he broke down. A full throated belly laugh shook him all over. He didn’t quite slap his knee.

It took him a moment, but he eventually regained sufficient composure to speak, “You know what I find most annoying about your species?” From his expectant stare, she gathered that the question wasn’t rhetorical and shrugged. “You die so damned fast. I like to settle in, make my enemies earn their deaths, but you’re so feeble all I ever get from your kind is an anti-climactic pop, like a grape.” He laughed again as if something about violent murder might be hilarious.

“Nice you find us so entertaining,” Willow said with marked distaste, “but the way I see it…” hints of mischief played in her eyes “…you’re either puffing yourself up because you’re frightened, like one of those funny little birds—all squawk, no peck…” she had his full attention now and ‘oh, boy’ did he look miffed “…or you’re just tragically stupid.”

Teeny egos being what they are, Hamilton drew back to put the ‘punch’ in ‘punch line.’ It would’ve been easy enough to stop him, or she could’ve evaded him. Instead, she decided to let him have what would amount to a tap. “Either way—” she said, cut short by his fist grazing her cheekbone as it rolled off her defenses.

While Hamilton was busy being wobbly because of the deflected impact, Willow decided to deal with his men. They were getting uppity. Guns were bound to become an issue. Considering the rushed ‘thumpity thump’ of footfalls on the stairs, it seemed like time to spruce the place up. She showed these not-so-nice men the same courtesy she showed anything else that was so potentially dangerous. They went ‘poof.’

Pain wasn’t something Marcus Hamilton was used to. He couldn’t remember whether he’d ever felt anything after hitting someone, besides the raw pleasure that came from dispensing agony and death. This time the tables had turned and he had no idea how. His fingers ached when he moved them. It seemed as though moving them more should’ve eased the stiffness, but it was having the opposite effect.

Somehow he’d fallen. He was on his knees. He never kneeled. He stared at his hand. The skin was gray, mottled with black across his outer knuckles. The discoloration was right where he’d contacted the witch, as if she was dirty. He tried rubbing the stains away on his pant leg. Not only did that darken the marks, it burned like a hell. No, it’s as if the bitch is diseased.

But that’s impossible. We don’t get diseases.

The blackness was spreading, deepening, becoming one solid bruise, smoldering, scorching into his flesh. It’s also impossible that some frail little girl did this to me all alone with no one’s help. There’s just no way. There has to be something else to it. Something unseen. Something horrible.

I have to leave.

He conjured a mental image of the clean, contemporary lines of Wolfram and Hart’s L.A. branch. They’ll figure it out. I just have to go. Get away from this place. Leave this bitch.

An ache grew inside him as he summoned the power to teleport. Within seconds it became unbearable. He felt overfilled, like a balloon, brimming with something prickly, hot, humming, pulsing, looking for a way out. Something explosive. An overloaded circuit waiting to pop. A spring coiled too tight. Something was horribly wrong. He tried, desperate to back out, ease up, stop… He couldn’t.

At the moment of truth, the supposed moment of his liberation, the spring snapped. He slumped forward. His face, a wineglass dashed against the floor. Excruciating pain crashed over him in waves. He couldn’t think. He couldn’t even lift himself up. A scream wrenched from his throat. The breeze that wafted across his skin choked it away.

She approached. Certainty came with her, the shadow of a reaper. He couldn’t hold on. His thoughts drifted like ashes spewed from a fire. This was the end. Pin pricks, like rat claws, coursing up and down his spine. He flinched and something else broke, sending needle-sharp shards into the meat of his back.

Whoops. I may have to pin a note to his chest.

Hamilton sounded like a wounded moose. Willow strangled the ungodly racket off at its source just in time for Giles’ clipped voice to disrupt the silence, “My word. What on earth are you doing?”

To her it seemed his voice held a charge. Poised, ready to detonate, it would bring the few remaining shreds of calm down from where they rested precariously balanced on the head of a pin. I s’pose it’s no wonder—what with Hamilton looking a lot like the villain from ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit,’ there are bound to be questions. Lots of them. They’ll want to know why, how, who, what, when, where…

Xander arrived right behind Giles in a screeching hail of gym shoes, chafing and pounding the slickly polished marble floor like a bad flashback to Gym Class. Good flashbacks of Gym never had anything to do with squeaky sneakers. Within seconds he’d managed to prove her point again by breathlessly stammering, “Wha-what happened?”

I wish I knew. All I wanted was to keep Hamilton here so I could have the last word. I sure didn’t mean to break him.

Willow held her peace. There just wasn’t time to get into it. Judging by the stampede upstairs—the other Buffy—the only Buffy who mattered for the moment—the one who’d be brimming with questions and full of demands—wasn’t far behind.

In a perfect world I’d be looking forward to what comes next.

Willow didn’t look up from where she knelt at Hamilton’s side. She wanted to turn him over, but just touching his head was enough to make her belly lurch. It was like handling a velvet bag full of warm, extra chunky pudding. Fresh, dark contusions discolored his flesh where her fingers had rested. He was slowly turning black. Much, much slower than Kennedy had. His flattened, deflated, excuse for a fist looked as if it was drawn in greasy tar. Both differences are probably about strength. She didn’t shatter herself like this. She just turned black and melted away. Course, I did sort of suck her dry.

It was no use. Willow leaned down to grumble into what remained of his ear, “You will tell your bosses that these people are under my protection. I’ll take it personally if anything happens to them. The Hyperion is my territory. Invade it again, I’ll return the favor. Trust me. You won’t like that.”

Hamilton was such a wreck it was impossible to guess whether or not he understood. Willow touched his cheek again, trying to sense something—anything besides pain. It was useless and Buffy was on the stairs. I’ll just have to take it on faith.

Like it matters. It should be message enough to send their favorite son back to them boned like a fish and rotting.

Willow stood, turning to face the two moon-eyed, slack-jawed men. “I was just cleaning up another mess,” she replied as the warm prickle of Hamilton returning home tickled the backs of her legs.

Another mess?” Giles asked.

He seemed so hopeful of clarification. It almost bothered Buffy to burst in, push past him and generally interrupt. Almost. Not quite.

She damn near ran him over. This was Willow. Her Willow. Not the Willow she left passed out upstairs. The sight of her made the fountain of fervent, feathery, frothy stuff churning around Buffy’s heart almost bubble over. For one fluttery moment it even overwhelmed the teensy pangs of guilt that riddled her with doubt. She cleaved to her hopes. Her hopes of reunion and restoration, of returning home, totally trumped Giles’ paltry hope for understanding. He’d have to wait in line.

Willow lifted her arms, preparing for the embrace. She started to speak, but all she got out was, “Nuh—” before Buffy hit a wall. A barrier that wasn’t even there. A blow that wasn’t quite a punch. The impact sent her sprawling. Someone caught her under the arms. She crashed against this mystery person, whoever they were.

Half-sitting, half-hanging, one foot planted, the heel of the other resting precariously against the floor, unable to move, she goggled. Willow’s hands faced forward now. A signal to stop. That much Buffy recognized, but she was too flummoxed to handle any more.

Babble poured from Willow’s mouth, familiar but unrecognizable, “I’m sorry. I can’t. I want to. You have to know I want to more than anything, but getting here wasn’t free.” The sounds flowed together forming a stream of inscrutable nonsense… “It cost, just like everything else in our lives. It cost too much.” …until she reached this point: “I’m afraid I’ll hurt you.” For some reason that one thing out of everything slipped through and struck home. It made a certain simple sense.

The pressure under Buffy’s arms increased. Whoever had her was lifting her up. She didn’t fight it. She didn’t help. “You won’t hurt me,” she replied, adamant, assured of the truth.

“Not me. What I did to get here might hurt you,” Willow explained as Buffy figured out that her legs still worked and was subsequently released. She stood on her own, focused, finally seeing.

The eyes that met hers were black as coal, empty and cold. Not the full black marble look Buffy had associated with Willow having to try too hard, accidentally or intentionally tapping into something bigger and darker than she was. This was just her irises. Somehow that made it all the more startling.

She didn’t even try and she’d swatted me like a bug.

Maybe it was just that: shock feeding into the sense of alienness. The unnatural pallor that wouldn’t have been so bad if it hadn’t been for the weird, milky iridescence. Glassiness that made Willow look like a porcelain doll that had been mistakenly glazed with the dinner plates. Hard. Distant. Frosty. Not Willowy at all.

Silence prevailed and with it unrest, initially excessive and growing progressively less tolerable. Not that our current situation evolved from a considerably more even keel. From what I’ve witnessed, and the scant information Xander imparted, our predicament has a foundation far more daunting than simple consternation.

It makes a certain perverse sense that progress would bring us to a halt.

He looked at the two women, or more accurately past them to the left, toward the lobby doors. Staring would’ve been a touch gauche. Of the two, the one who was facing him wore an impassive mask. The only expression he’d seen from Willow thus far was the barest twinge of something like grief when she’d repelled Buffy. Her power was more discernible than her emotional state. It was a palpable thing. The other clue was her costume, which seemed a parody to her form.

Perhaps she felt that clowning would set us at ease? That sounds like the Willow I know. Maybe she even thought to distract us from the last time she appeared sallow and raven-haired by conjuring the guise of the Americanized Schneewittchen.

She has to understand that in my case that will never happen. The death she meant for me was far too personal for me to ever forget. I am, however, willing to reserve judgment for now in the hope that she will take Buffy and go.

No. That isn’t fair. She hasn’t threatened us. In fact, appearances suggest quite the opposite.

She isn’t the problem. I am. I’m judging her based on preconceived notions about her appearance. Of all the superfluous details I could pick…

The truth is that I cannot speculate how she’ll behave because I don’t know her. If the one who loves her is any indication what sort of a human being she is, I should be ashamed.

And silence still prevailed.

It occurred to him that perhaps they were communing. Telepathy is a possibility. It’s hardly new to us. Therefore, it should be old hat to them. That might very well explain why Xander, typically tactless and overly talkative, is holding his tongue. Perhaps he’s arrived at the same conclusion.

Though, I doubt the girls are doing any such thing. It looked to me as if everything that transpired was authentic. I believe it more likely that they have no idea how to proceed.

In which case, an uninvolved party putting an end to the deadlock might be welcomed.

Giles cleared his throat. Not to get their attention, though it did work for that. He wanted to be sure of his voice. A certain degree of decorousness was called for. “Would you mind terribly answering a question for me?” he asked, addressing Willow in carefully restrained and cautious tones.

“No,” she replied.

By Xander’s estimation that ‘no’ was a good sign. Or not so much the ‘no,’ but the way the ice princess thawed around its delivery. She looked almost human now.

Giles asked his question, “I’m curious what our guest did to merit such an unusually brutal fate?”

And Xander didn’t roll his eyes. Instead, he continued to examining the transition molding near the base of the staircase. Seriously? That was the best he could come up with. We’re so—

“Your ‘guest,’ as you so misguidedly put it, was Marcus Hamilton, the prodigal son of Wolfram and Hart,” Willow replied. Though the inflection was subtle, she seemed to be poking fun at Giles.

To think I though the term ‘educated idiot’ was just an oxymoron until I met him. It still is, but—

Not that I have any room to criticize. All I’ve been doing is standing here playing chicken. Not the daring, crashy kind, the ‘clammed up,’ ‘freaked out,’ ‘too wigged to even twiddle my thumbs’—

“Trust me, he wasn’t here to sell cookies or borrow a cup of sugar. He was here to interrogate and execute every last person under this roof,” Willow explained, all traces of humor gone.

Xander averted his eyes. The angst-a-thon had been impressively unfun. It still was to a lesser degree. He’d been doing his dead level best to avoid attracting attention. Buffy was regarding him now. Despite his better judgment, he returned the notice and immediately regretted it. It wasn’t that her expression was unfriendly in any way. It was that her watery, oversaturated blue-gray eyes were just as inhuman as Snow Willow’s. How does Willow stand it? Not this Willow. The other Willow. My Willow.  

“You see, they’re a little bit miffed at you guys,” the Willow who wasn’t his Willow said. “It’s okay, though. I don’t think they’ll be back.”

“Is Hamilton dead?” Xander asked, giving un-Willow a quick glance.

“I don’t think so,” she replied. “Not yet, at least.”

“So, what precisely did you do to him?” Giles asked. The hints of accusation in his tone almost made Xander cringe.

After a brief pause to ponder, Willow answered, “I’m not sure.”

“That’s comforting,” Buffy grumbled.

The sentiment was so close to Xander’s own he almost chuckled.

He gave her a sidelong glance as Willow admitted, “I suppose.”

Some the tension slipped away with Buffy’s smirk. 

“But it isn’t like I have no idea what I did,” Willow said, sounding defensive. “I just don’t know why it had the effect it did.”

It was Buffy who got there first, though Giles made a peep before he gave in. “What did you do?”
“I stopped him,” Willow replied. The two women exchanged looks, Buffy with her standard ‘oh, please’ glare and Willow so sheepish it was tough to believe she was still the same super duper scary witch who’d reduced Marcus Hamilton to a squishy lump. The glare won out. “He was trying to teleport away. I stopped him from leaving. That’s all.”

Buffy had been having this ongoing schmoopy dream of Willow charging in all heroic having moved heaven and earth to rescue her. Stupid me, I forgot to account for the cost of the moving.

Now it just made too much sense. Reality sucks.

Buffy felt foolishly naïve, overwhelmed, heartbroken and exhausted. Everything she was doing was a show intended to set the boys at ease so that maybe, just maybe, they’d go away. As a price, the act had brought out the opposite traits. The shame she felt for wanting nothing more than to go upstairs and snuggle up to the one Willow who was actually still Willowy shoved aside in favor of coming off like a snarky, callous bitch. “Just don’t screw up and flatten one of us, ’kay?” Needing to cry seriously wasn’t helping.

“I’ll try,” Willow replied coolly.

Having turned to join in the conversation, the doppelganger had caught Buffy’s eye. Now she couldn’t shake it. Like it might be possible to ignore a full sized clone of myself, suspended a foot off the ground, looking a whole lot less perverse than I want her to. In fact, Bloodsucker Buffy looks better than I do…or at least, she found something nicer to wear than stinky, wrinkly sweats and tee-shirt.

Her expression was even placid. A detail that Buffy found particularly annoying, if not deeply disturbing. The double looking so serene pretty much killed the itch to say, ‘Not feeling so smug now, are ya?’ one of the few pleasures Buffy might’ve taken from her current situation.

Willow glanced her way, then at the double. Catching on, she said, “Okay, I think we should stash the tiniest Tanner before we do anything else.”

Xander and Giles, both clueless, asked in unison, “Who?” Not that Buffy was much better off.

“I need to take her down to the cell,” Willow explained with a nod in the double’s direction to indicate what she meant. “Unless you’d prefer I leave her floating here in the lobby.”

No one took that offer.

The real Buffy Summers, fashion disaster extraordinaire, started for the elevator. “I’ll come with you,” she offered. It was the last thing she wanted to do, but she still had the key hanging around her neck and playing the same sort of sentry she had with Angelus made a certain amount of sense. She was halfway there before she made the ‘Full House’ connection. “Wait,” she said, glancing over her shoulder. “Was that seriously a Mary Kate and Ashley joke?”

“Well, yeah,” Willow replied like it was the most obvious thing in the world. “With twin blonde cuties in the same room, someone had to go there.”

Buffy stepped into the elevator, pivoting on the ball of her foot to level her attention on Willow. “No, no they didn’t.”

“Oh, get over it,” Willow chirruped playfully.

At least Xander was finding this amusing. He snickered as Willow entered the car with her prisoner in tow. Once they were out of the way, Buffy stepped forward to shut them inside.

“I know it’s rough, but I need you to trust me,” Willow said in a voice just audible above the clanking metal.

Buffy held off tugging on the inner door to answer, “Not really.” She pulled. The cage slammed closed. “Not the way you mean at least. I just wish things were different.”

“So do I,” Willow replied. “Believe me, so do I.”