Love Squared

Author: Cyclone <cyclone[at]>

Feedback: Please be gentle.

Distribution: Gimme credit and a link. Plus, archived at

Rating: I'm gonna go say R.

Spoilers: Up to Normal Again.

Disclaimer: The characters depicted herein belong to the almighty Joss. I'm just borrowing them for a while.

Summary: Sequel to Dancing Around Love. The Scooby Gang comes to grips with the recent events and deals with the Trio.

Author's Note: B/W/T/X.

Latest addition

Chapter 1

"Okay..." Willow said, tapping on the laptop's keyboard. "We start by looking at recent real estate deals and... uh huh."

Buffy leaned in to look over Willow's shoulder and raised an eyebrow in surprise, "Wow. That's a lot."

"This is Sunnydale, Buffy," Willow reminded her, taking a sip of her coffee. "People move in and out of here faster than any other city in California."

"Yeah, I know, but still. This is gonna be a long night, isn't it?"

"Looks like."


"How's the search going?" Tara asked as she entered, carrying a large pot of coffee.

"Done with the Ls, so we're about halfway," Willow replied, stifling a yawn. "Still way too many hits."

"Well, I brewed you two another pot," Tara said unnecessarily, filling each of their mugs.

Willow brought the steaming cup to her face and closed her eyes, inhaling deeply and savoring the scent of the caffeinated beverage.

Buffy, on the other hand, simply slugged back her coffee, relishing in the feeling as the hot liquid scalded her throat and increased her alertness.

Neither noticed Tara as she surreptitiously held her hand up to the back of the laptop screen and cast a quick spell. Her hand glowed orange briefly, then she withdrew her hand.

Willow peered back at the screen, then smiled and tapped it. "Hey, I think we've got it!"

"So, you're sure that's where they are?" Buffy asked, looking over Willow's shoulder at the laptop.

"Well," Willow hedged, tapping in a command and bringing up more details, "not one hundred percent, but yeah, I'm pretty sure. Look, the new owner paid in cash. Plus, 'Jaster Mereel'? Who else would use that name?"

"Huh?" Buffy said blankly.

Willow sighed with a nostalgic smile, "Never mind. Just something I picked up while hanging around Xander back in high school. I love him, but he's still a geek sometimes."

"So, wh-what now?" Tara asked.

"We go after them," Buffy said.

"Sh-should I wake Xander?"

Willow paused and looked at Buffy, who shook her head, "Nah. Me and Willow can handle this. You stay here with Xander, Amy, and Dawn."

Tara nodded. "A-all right."


Tara crawled into bed beside Xander, and he shifted and rolled over to look at her sleepily. "Hey... where's Wills?"

"Something came up," she said. "Nothing important."

"So I guess I'm all yours tonight," he grinned.

"Yes... you are."


"Is this it?" Buffy asked, eyeing the house dubiously. "Looks deserted."

"They're probably hiding," Willow replied. "Let's check around back."


They were about halfway around when the demon dropped down behind them. Buffy whirled around, but Willow, bereft of supernatural reflexes, was a little too slow, and the demon grabbed her arm.

"No, Willow!" Buffy cried as she leaped toward the demon.

The demon ignored the Slayer for the moment, tugging Willow away and rearing its other hand back. A spike extended from its knuckle, and the demon jammed it into her arm, despite her best efforts to twist away.

"Hold her still, will ya!"

Willow stopped struggling and blinked in disoriented confusion at the two men holding her and the brightly-lit white room she suddenly found herself in. One was injecting something into her arm... right where the demon had stabbed her.


Then all went black.


When she regained her senses, Willow wasn't quite so sure she had. She was being carried, that much was obvious, but her other senses didn't seem to agree on anything.

Sometimes, she'd see the darkened streets of Sunnydale and Buffy's small frame as she used her Slayer strength to carry her. With that, she heard Buffy's footsteps, crickets, and other sounds of the night. She smelled various smells -- gasoline, wet grass, fresh-dug graves -- as they passed.

But other times, she smelled the familiar antiseptic smell of hospitals and heard the endless hustle and bustle of a busy building. She saw a white corridor and a large man carrying her down the hall.

And sometimes, the senses mingled, the antiseptic hospital smell mixing with the smell of wet grass, the sound of impossibly loud cricket calls almost drowning out the chatter of psychiatrists.

She couldn't tell how long she had been carried, but when the movement finally stopped, she found herself being laid down onto... was that a bed or a couch? She wasn't sure.

"How are you feeling, Willow?"

She found herself on Buffy's couch with Xander sitting across from her, but just as she felt reassured by that, her vision swam, and the Summers home was replaced with a white room, and crouching before her was...


"Come on, Wills, snap out of it."

"But how?" she asked. "Xander... he..."

Jesse gently took hold of her shoulders, and his face grew sympathetic and sad. "There is no Xander," he said softly. "He's a hallucination."

She blinked back tears and found herself once again in Buffy's living room, facing Xander, who had apparently just finished saying something.


"I said, 'It's me. _I'm_ Xander. You're hallucinating,'" he said, concern written all over his face. "You okay, Wills?"

She nodded and said uncertainly, "Uh, yeah. I-I think so."

Buffy shook her head, "No. That demon pumped something into you when it jabbed you, some kind of drug."

"I told you," Willow said. "I'm fine. Just a little... woozy. That's all. Dreaming about Jesse."

Xander nodded in understanding, "I know. I have nightmares about him too sometimes."

Willow bit her lip and held out her arms for a hug like a little girl, and he gladly slid into her arms, wrapping his own around her and patting her back comfortingly.

All her life, there was only one person she could always count on, and she needed that reassurance, that reminder that he would always be there for her.

Watching from across the room, Buffy sighed, "I envy them, sometimes."

Tara nodded. "So do I. They're closer to each other than any other two people I've ever met."

"It's like... there's Willow and Xander... and then there's everyone else," Buffy said. "They have this... thing... between them that runs deeper than anything we could ever have with either of them."

"Yeah," Tara smiled, "but that doesn't mean we can't try."

"True enough," Buffy returned the smile and turned to contemplate the couple across the room.


"...telling you, Mrs. R, she recognized me for a moment."

Willow blinked in confusion and looked around the white room. She saw Jesse again, standing hand in hand with Cordy. Next to them were a black man in a white duty coat and...

"Mom? Dad?"

All five turned toward her.

Shiela Rosenberg immediately rushed over and pulled her into a brisk hug, crying into her shoulder, "Oh, baby, you're back."

The black doctor nodded, "Good. She's lucid. Keep talking. It should help anchor her."

"I'm so sorry, Willow," Mrs. Rosenberg said. "I'm sorry I wasn't there for you, but I'm here now."

Her father crouched down beside her mother, the big man easily dwarfing both Rosenberg women, and said quietly, "I'm here too, Willow. I know... I know it seemed like my job was more important than you, and I'm sorry, but I'd give up every contract and deal in the world for my little girl, don't you ever doubt that."


"Hey, Wills," Jesse said, flopping down to sit next to her. "You still with us?"

"Jesse!" Cordy hissed, smacking his arm. "Sorry, but you know how insensitive the dolt is." She smiled, "That's why I love him."

"What?" Willow blinked uncomprehendingly at her before her gaze dropped to the brunette's hand, where she saw a wedding ring.

Cordy sucked in a breath and fiddled with the ring, "Oh, God. Willow, I'm sorry. I forgot you had a thing for him."

Now Willow was very confused, "Me? A thing for _Jesse_?" She shook her head, "No, I love Xander. Always have."

Everyone in the room froze. Her father and the doctor looked worried, her mother looked like she was on the verge of bursting into tears again, and both Cordy and Jesse looked away.


Jesse took a deep breath and looked into her eyes, "Willow... Xander's not real."


Chapter 2

"That's the demon," Buffy said. "I was right. Good work, Dawnie," she patted her sister on the back.

Dawn smiled at the compliment and said, "Anytime."

Buffy turned, "Tara, we've got a demon to hunt. Xander, take care of Willow."

Xander nodded and shot a worried look at the catatonic redhead curled up on the couch, "It's what I'm here for."


"What do you mean, 'not real'?" Willow demanded. "Of _course_ he's real!"

"No, he isn't," Jesse said softly. "Th-the doctor said he's like some kind of idealized version of me, one that never..." his voice broke and dropped in volume, " that never left you, Wills."

Willow looked up at the doctor, who nodded sadly. She turned her gaze toward Cordy, suddenly desperate, but the cheerleader shook her head and said, "And this 'Buffy' is like my good side, my friendly side when I wasn't being a bitch to you for appearance's sake."

She shook her head in denial, "No, no. I-it can't be..."

Her mother took her by the shoulders and said, "Say it with me, Willow. 'Xander's not real.'"

"Xander's... not... real?"


Buffy and Tara walked through the forest near the house where Buffy and Willow had been ambushed. Tara clutched the tranquilizer rifle uncertainly. She wasn't comfortable with the gun, but they wanted to take the demon alive... just in case.

"A-are you sure we can find it?"

"We have to," Buffy said, determined. "I'm not going to let Willow go through that."

Before Tara could ask what Buffy was talking about, the demon suddenly launched itself from the bushes at Buffy, who grabbed the demon and flung it against a tree. Tara fumbled with the tranquilizer and fired, but the dart went off-target, striking the tree instead.

Buffy continued wrestling with the demon and suddenly found herself in a headlock.

"Oh, this is _so_ not good," she muttered, then twisted and elbowed the demon's midsection. She stuck her foot between its ankles and brought her leg around in an arc, tripping it and freeing herself.

"Shoot it!"

Tara -- having taken the opportunity to load another tranquilizer dart into the rifle -- screwed her eyes shut and pulled the trigger, this time scoring a direct hit on the demon.


"Got the demon," Buffy said, hauling its unconscious form over her shoulder. Tara was a step behind her, carrying the tranquilizer rifle.

The Slayer dumped the demon on the floor... and froze. "What's wrong, Xander?"

"I'm not real," he said, his voice hollow. "In Willow's little world... I'm not real. I-I'm her Xander. I've _always_ been her Xander, and now... now she doesn't even believe in me anymore."

"It's not her, Xander; it's the demon's crazy juice. As soon as we get her the antidote, she'll be back to normal. Don't fall apart on us now," Buffy said, shoving aside the envy that threatened to rise. "We need you. _Willow_ needs you."

Tara was a little more direct, instead setting the tranq rifle down and pulling him into a hug.

Buffy bit her lip and watched for a moment to make sure he would be okay before turning to Dawn, "Can you make the antidote?"

"I-I think so," she said hesitantly. "I-I mean... this is Willow's specialty, y'know. I-I've never done the whole 'magic potion mixing' thing before."

"I know, but now it's up to you."


"I'll help," Tara said. "W-we'll need some things from the Magic Box."


"Here's the cure!" Dawn said triumphantly as she and Tara entered the Summers home. "Buffy? Xander?"

"They're not here right now."

"Willow?" Dawn blinked.

The redhead stood rigid, her face grim, her eyes black, and she said, almost sadly, "You're not real."

She held an arm out, and Tara stepped forward between them, "No!"

Red lightning crackled out from Willow's fingertips and struck the magical barrier Tara erected.


Amy shifted and sat up. She... sensed something. Something was happening outside. Maybe she should...?

Nononono. No. Better to stay here, inside, where it's safe. No mirrors, no demons, no vampires, no magic, no... other stuff.

She curled up again and tried to shut out the world.


Dawn blinked her eyes open groggily. "What...?"

"You're not real," Willow said, repeating the phrase like a mantra as she fiddled with the ropes tying the demon down.

Dawn's eyes went wide, and she whipped her head around, "Xander? Buffy? Tara?"

They too were tied up. Buffy struggled with the manacles that bound her, and a strip of duct tape covered Tara's mouth, keeping her from speaking... and thus from casting any spells.

Tara's eyes looked... -- Dawn blinked -- no, must've been a trick of the light.

Thoughts about Tara suddenly fled her mind as Willow finished freeing the demon, which began stalking towards the tied-up Slayerettes.


"Shut up!" Amy shrieked at the empty room, clutching at her temples, trying to drive out and ignore what she was sensing, but she couldn't, and it was driving her nuts!

She had to do something about it, mirrors, demons, vampires, magic, and other stuff be damned!


"Take your time, sweetie," Willow's mother said, stroking her hair aside. "I know it's hard, but you'll be okay."

Jesse draped a comforting arm around her shoulders, "C'mon, Wills, she's right. It's rough, but you have to come back to us. The real world's not a nice place, but you can handle it. You're the strongest woman I know, and you can deal with this. No matter what happens, we'll always be with you. Remember that."

Willow blinked up at him, then smiled, "I will. Thank you, Jess." Her smile faded, "Goodbye."

"Willow? Willow!"


Amy stormed down into the basement and flung out a hand, "Eximete!"

Slayer and Slayerettes suddenly found themselves free as Amy grabbed the demon and punched it in the face, her own face twisted into a mask of fury, but the demon backhanded her and easily threw her against the wall.

Tara rose and tore the duct tape from her face, "Vis zenobia! Solvere!" The demon was flung across the room, and Buffy ran over to pull it into a headlock.

The demon struggled against Buffy's hold, but just as it was about to break free, a small pipe flew through the air and embedded itself in the demon's chest.

Willow leaned shakily against the stair railing, her hand still extended toward the demon from when she cast the spell that skewered it.


"No response," the doctor said, shining his penlight into Willow's blank eyes. He looked up at the four people in the room and shook his head. "We've lost her."


"I'm sorry, Xander," Willow said, rocking back and forth. "It's just... it made so much _sense_, you know? I-I mean, crazy girl in the psych ward or world-saving super-witch on the mouth of hell?"

"I know, but that wasn't you, Willow," Xander said, giving her comforting hug. "You don't have to apologize. It wasn't you, and you're cured now. It's not going to happen again."

Buffy nodded, "Yeah. I'd probably do the same if it were me." She blew out a sigh, "Back when I first... when I was first Called, I kinda panicked, told my parents. They put me away until I shut up about it. Sometimes... sometimes I wonder if I'm still back there."

"You aren't, Buffy," Xander said firmly.

"I know," she said, "but sometimes... I wonder, y'know?"

Willow nodded, "Yeah. I do."

After a long silence, Xander and Buffy left to see to Amy and Dawn's welfare. Tara -- who had been silent up until now -- glowered at the redhead, who shrank back. It didn't look like she was going to be as understanding as everyone else.

The blonde witch said quietly, "You used magic. I thought you'd quit."

"Tara, I..."

"You used magic, Willow!" Tara accused harshly. "Against _us_! When we were saving Xander, that's one thing, but... this! How could you?!"

"I-I'm sorry..." the redhead mumbled, but Tara whirled and stormed out before she could get the apology out.

"Oh, God," Willow said, her heart heavy. "What have I done?"


Chapter 3

Buffy let out a sigh and began tracing random patterns on Xander's chest.

He looked down at the blonde and frowned. That sigh wasn't quite one of contentment. "What is it, Buffy?"

"Hmm?" she blinked at him in surprise. "What's what?"

"What's bothering you, Buff?"

She shook her head, "It's nothing."

He looked at her skeptically but let it pass. He wasn't going to press the issue. "All right. Just remember, you can talk to me. If there's anything I can do to help..." he left the statement unfinished.

"Well..." she said, her face twisting into an impish grin, "there _is_ something you can do to make me feel better."


"Ravish me, Xander," she said, putting as much excessive melodrama in her voice as she could. "Have your wicked way with this poor helpless little waif."

Playing along, Xander tried to turn his goofy grin into a more sinister smile, but his genuine amusement proved too great an obstacle for his limited acting skills to overcome. "Gladly, my sweet."


"Amy?" Willow called into the bathroom. "Are you all right?"

The other witch opened the door and said shakily, "I'm... not feeling too good. I think I just threw up everything since last year's Thanksgiving dinner."

Ever since Amy had come to their rescue last week, she had been getting better at dealing with her ordeals as a rat and possessed host, but she'd also been getting quite ill.

Willow smiled sympathetically and asked, "Feel up to some breakfast?"

"Uhm..." Amy paused. "Maybe."


Yawning, Xander trotted sleepily into the kitchen.

With the workout Buffy had just given him, he was _really_ glad he didn't have to work Sundays.

He blinked at the two people who were sitting at the table and staring at him.

"'Morning," he said with a wave. "How you feeling, Aims?"

"Uh, Xander...?" Willow said, pointing. Amy was still frozen in shock, her face beet red.

He looked down and found to his embarrassment that his bathrobe was hanging open, giving the two women a clear view of his "assets." He quickly gathered the robe around him and coughed, "Ahem. Right. Thanks, Wills."

Doing his best to be nonchalant, he headed to the fridge and grabbed a box of Eggos from the freezer. Setting the waffles in the toaster, he leaned on the counter and said, "So, again, how are you feeling, Amy?"

"Um, better," she said, somewhat distracted. "Still a little nauseous, but I'll be okay." She coughed, "Um... I think I could use a little air..." That said, she got up and stumbled out.

Xander looked at her strangely, "She's acting kinda weird."

"I'll go talk to her," Willow said in a rush, getting up and following.

He blinked, then shrugged as he heard the toaster ding, signaling that his waffles were ready.



She whirled, "Willow! What is it?"

"You tell me," the redhead said.

Amy's face colored, "Well, i-it's just... that's the first time I saw a... and I remember when I cast that love spell for him... are they _all_ that big?"

Willow felt her cheeks burn and thought back to Oz. "Well, ye-..." she froze. Wait. Xander wasn't... "No. No, they're not," she said distantly, her eyes glazing over.

She really regretted missing her night with Xander and Tara to go after the geeks.

Maybe she should have paid more attention to that when Amy's mom had kidnapped him...


"Hey, Buffy?"

"Willow, hey," the Slayer replied. "What's up?"

"I-I just... wanted to ask you something."

"Could you make it quick?" Buffy requested. "Xander's gonna be here any minute."

"That's... sorta what I wanted to ask about."

Buffy's face darkened, "He's mine this week, Willow."

"I know that!" the redhead said defensively. "I just... I was wondering if... maybe... I could join in?"

Buffy stared. "Excuse me. What?"

"I want to join in tonight."

"Oh," she blinked. "Why?"

"Well," Willow said, "two reasons. I missed my turn with him and Tara when that demon drugged me. I've known him longer than anyone who isn't blood-related, and I _still_ haven't... well... y'know... with him yet. It's not fair."

Buffy bit her lip, "Oh. I-I just... I dunno..."

"What's wrong?"

"Well... it's just...," Buffy sighed, "you and Xander... you've got something with him I can't begin to match. It bothers me sometimes."

"Oh, Buffy, don't think that," Willow said. "He loves you; you know that. I love you too."

Buffy recoiled at that, and Willow said hurriedly, "No, no! Not like _that_!" She paused, "Well... mostly not."

"Uh, right..." Buffy tried desperately to keep from panicking. She wasn't a homophobe. She wasn't! But she didn't swing that way, either.

*This isn't working,* Willow concluded. *I've wigged her out.*

She decided to try a more direct approach.

She kissed her.


Willow stirred her coffee absently, her mind on other things. She had gotten Buffy to loosen up and... experiment.

There were _good_ things to be said about the direct approach.

She still hadn't gone all the way with Xander, though. She was saving that for tonight, when she'd have him all to herself...

"'Morning!" she chirped as Dawn entered the kitchen.

"'Morning," Dawn replied with a yawn. She took a closer look at Willow and asked, "Where'd you get that shirt?"

"Huh?" Willow looked down at the oversized shirt which was the only article of clothing she was wearing, then smiled. "It's Xander's. I, uh, kinda got it from him a few years back."

"He gave you one of his shirts?" Dawn asked, genuinely puzzled.

Willow felt her face turn scarlet, "Actually... no. Um, remember that love spell he cast that one Valentine's?"

"Yeah?" Realization struck, and Dawn nodded in understanding, "Oh. Ohhhh..." She wrinkled her nose in puzzlement, "So why...? I thought it was Buffy's turn."

"It is. It was," Willow said, her smile broadening.

Dawn's jaw suddenly dropped open. "Oh. My. God. You seduced my sister."

"I wouldn't say 'seduce'..." Willow said defensively.

"Hey!" Buffy said cheerfully as she stepped in. "'Morning, all!"

Willow smiled and waved, "Hi, Buffy."

The Slayer pulled the redhead into a hug and turned to hug Dawn, who scrambled to her feet and said, "Uh,yknow,Igottagotoschoolnow.Bye!"

Buffy frowned, "Dawnie?" She turned to Willow, "What was that all about?"

"Uhh..." Willow bit her lip, "I kinda hinted to her about last night."

"Oh," Buffy said, "I guess... she doesn't..."

"Hey, it's okay," Willow said, pulling her into another hug. "She just needs to adjust. You kinda freaked too when you found out about Tara, remember?"

"Yeah, you're right," Buffy smiled. "I guess I'm over _that_, though, don't you think?"

"_Way_ over," Willow smiled back, leaning in to kiss the blonde Slayer.


Tara tried to calm herself but found the task a little beyond her.

Why hadn't they invited her? This whole arrangement had been her idea, after all. This was manifestly unfair! She should...!

*No,* she thought when she saw her eyes flash dark in the mirror. She closed them and steadied her breathing, *Calm down. Mustn't... lose control.*


Xander juggled the grocery bags and fumbled for his keys.

"Damn it!" he swore when they tumbled to the ground at his feet.

He considered his options. He could put the groceries down and get his keys... but that would defeat the purpose of balancing all these bags and bringing it in one go in the first place. He could try to balance the groceries and get it... but that came with a sizeable risk of dropping them all. Or he could try ringing the doorbell.

He twisted around and prodded the doorbell button with his nose... but his nose pressed flat, and the stiff button stubbornly refused to depress.

So he kicked the door. There was probably someone within earshot and he _refused_ to put these groceries down until he was in the kitchen.

His face brightened when he heard footsteps approach from inside the house, but when the door opened to reveal Amy, his good humor faded a little.

He was no Sherlock Holmes, but he didn't have to be to figure out what Amy -- or, rather, Amy's mom (*And may I just say 'eww' to that? * he thought) -- had done to him while he was unconscious.


"Hi, Xander." She beamed at him, "Need a hand?"

"Sure," he said. "Thanks, Aims."

"No problem," she said, taking some of the load from him and carrying it to the kitchen, Xander a step behind her.

"So, how've you been?" he asked. "I see you haven't locked yourself back up again."

Amy blushed as they began sorting through the groceries, "I'm doing fine. Getting better. Thanks for asking."

"Good to hear."

"Although..." she added thoughtfully, "'s a bit hard to get any sleep with what you and your harem do every night, though."

His jaw dropped, and he squeaked out, "_What_?"

"Just kidding!" she admitted with a mischievous grin.

He mock scowled, "Amy, I got enough of that from the work crew even _before_ we wound up in this weird setup. Don't you start." He waggled his eyebrows suggestively and added, "Unless, of course, you'd like to join my little 'harem'?"

Amy flushed and snapped, "You wish!" She spun on her heel and stormed off angrily.

He blinked in surprise, "What'd I say? It was just a _joke_, jeez."

Shaking his head, he put away the groceries and headed to Willow's room, where he would be staying for the next week. He blinked in surprise when the door swung open ahead of him.


The blonde Slayer was grinning stupidly and said, "Ah, hi, Xander. I was... just leaving. Willow's really looking forward to tonight."

*Okay...* he thought, *sweaty... stupid grin... the smell of... ohmygod, she just got laid -- with Willow -- and I wasn't there. I guess they _really_ enjoyed last night.*


Chapter 4

"You have endured the required trials."

"Bloody right I have," Spike spat as he slowly struggled to his feet. "So you'll give me what I want. Give me what Buffy wants in a man?"

"Very well," the demon said, placing a hand on the vampire's chest. "We will return your soul."

Spike screamed.


"Wow," Xander said, staring at the ceiling while Willow freed him from the handcuffs. "That was just... wow."

"We're not done yet," she said.

He boggled at her and squeaked, "We're not?"

She leaned down over him and whispered in his ear for a minute or so. When she sat up again, all he could do was boggle again, "Wills... how do you come _up_ with this stuff?"

She smiled mischievously, "Hey, I've been dreaming about this night for _years_. So I got a little creative."

"I see," he said, nodding. "Remind me to kick myself tomorrow morning for being such an idiot all those years, okay?"


"Wow, look at them go," Andrew said in awe, his eyes glued to the monitor. He turned to Warren, "Why don't we have hot chicks like that ready to screw us?"

"Probably because we killed the last one," Jonathan muttered.

"What was that?" Warren glared at the shortest member of the group.

"Nothing," Jonathan said, shaking his head. "Nothing."

The other two geeks exchanged a meaningful look.


Willow snuggled up against Xander and sighed happily.

Plastered on his face was a smile that would require a crowbar to remove, and he asked, "So, um, are we done yet? 'Cause I got work today."

She smiled, "Yes, we're done. You can relax." Her smile slipped, "I just wish..."



"C'mon, Wills..."

"Well, it's just..." she sighed, "I wish Tara could be here."

"She still mad about the magic thing?"


He frowned, but before he could say anything, she said, "And I don't want you talking to her about it again. I appreciate it, but... this is something we have to work out ourselves."

"If you say so," he said dubiously.


When Xander returned from work that day, he was in for a surprise.

He entered the kitchen in search of a sugar rush and stopped dead in his tracks when he got a rush of an entirely different kind. An incredibly hot, sexy woman stood at the counter, facing away from him.

She wore tight jeans that clung to her legs like a second skin, and he could see no crease lines that would indicate panties beneath them. Her light blue shirt was equally tight, though her long blonde hair hung loose and obscured his view until she turned and greeted him... and when she did, it was clear she wore no -- ahem -- support either.


"Hi, Xander," the blonde witch smiled seductively and pulled him into a hug.

Which sent some rather interesting sensations into his chest.

"H-hi," he squeaked. "How are you?"

"I'm fine," she said. Then she pouted, "But I've been a little lonely. Maybe you can help?" Her face brightened innocently.

"Um, h-how? Exactly?"

"I think you know..." she said as she gently pushed him out of the kitchen and toward her bedroom.


"Xander! There you are!" Willow smiled when she saw him stepping out of Tara's room.

He jumped, "Wills, hey."

She frowned. What was with him? Oh, well. "Hey," she said, leaning into his arms and kissing him. "Mmm..." Smiling up at him, she asked, "Have I told you lately that I love you?"

"No," he said, his face splitting into a crooked smile, "but then, I haven't told you how much I love you lately either."

"Aww..." she said, nuzzling her nose against his, " sweet."


Jonathan glanced over his shoulder nervously. It had been a week since he'd decided to betray Warren and Andrew, but he'd only now just gotten the opportunity.

He rang the doorbell.

The door swung open.

"Buffy, I..." He blinked, "Amy?"

"Hi, Jonathan," the witch said, eyeing him carefully. "Aren't you one of the bad guys now?"

He shrugged, "It's... complicated. Look, could you get Buffy? I kinda need to talk to her, and I don't know how long the cameras'll stay offline."



"Okay, that's the last of them."

"Geez, I can't help but 'eww!'" Willow said distastefully. "I mean, how much did you guys _see_?"

Jonathan flinched, "I..."

"All right," Buffy said, her arms crossed. "You came clean on the cameras, but I still don't trust you. Start talking."


"Five words or less."

"They're planning a robbery tomorrow night," he sputtered quickly, then winced. He had said six words.

Her face darkened, "Details, Levinson, details."


The armored truck drove away. Nothing had disturbed the transfer of money. Buffy glared at Jonathan, who shrank back.

"I-I don't understand. They should be here... unless they changed the plan."

"That we did, Shorty," called a voice as a figure stepped out from behind a tree.

"Warren," Buffy growled.

But the King of All Geeks ignored her, instead focusing on Jonathan as he walked toward them. "Y'see," he said, "we're geniuses, but we didn't have to be to figure out you'd gone to the Slayer after we found out you'd taken out the cameras."

Warren's easy demeanor faded as he suddenly whipped a hnad up and grabbed him by the throat. Lifting Jonathan off the ground, he said, "Payback time, Sparky."

Before he could throttle Jonathan, Buffy punched him across the face, sending both of them flying. Warren recovered first and ignored Jonathan as the shorter nerd scrambled away. Warren turned to face the Slayer, a smirk on his face. "Think you can take me?"

Buffy snorted, "_Who's_ the Slayer here?"

"You'd be surprised. I'll be slaying _you_ soon enough." Warren's arm blurred, and Buffy blinked as she stumbled back from the punch to her face, but she didn't have time to recover as Warren continued the assault, landing punch after lightning fast punch.

After a particularly brutal uppercut, Buffy flew back. She paused and shook her head, trying to clear it. Blinking past the spots in her eyes, she saw Xander swing his weapon of choice -- a baseball bat -- into Warren's chest... and saw it shatter.

Warren backhanded the construction worker and sent him flying back even as Willow leaped on his back and began pounding on the back of his head. Warren flipped the redhead with a fluid grace...

...and was flung to the side by a bolt of purple lightning.

Tara's eyes were concealed by the shadows of her bangs, but purple lightning visibly crackled around them as she continued to channel magical electricity into Warren's twitching form.

"Tara!" Willow shook her head and grabbed the other witch's arm. "Stop it! You're killing him!"

Tara seemed to snap back to her senses and blinked at Warren's prone form, then stuttered, "H-he hurt Xander."

Buffy hauled herself to her feet and jogged over to Warren's body. "C'mon, he might still be..." she trailed off.

"What?" Jonathan asked as he walked up cautiously, then stopped as realization crossed his face. "Oh."

"Oh, what?" Willow asked.

Jonathan looked at her, "It's a robot."


"Tara," Willow said reprovingly, "you lost control."

"I know," the blonde said quietly.

"I mean," Willow continued, as if she hadn't heard her, "if that had been the real Warren, you- you- you'd've _killed_ him!"

"I know!" Tara screeched, glaring at Willow. "_You're_ the _last_ person who should be talking to me about the responsible use of power!" she snarled.

Willow stepped back, stunned speechless.

Tara turned on her heel and headed for the door.

Xander wordlessly watched the exchange and followed Tara as Buffy wrapped a comforting arm around Willow's shoulders.

"Tare, you gonna be okay?"

She nodded, refusing to succumb to the desire to bury her face in his chest. "Yeah. I-I'm sorry I blew up like that, but... I just... need some time. T-to clear my head."

"All right. You be careful out there, okay?"

She smiled wistfully at him, "I think I can handle myself."


Rack glanced at the waiting room full of eager patrons, and his gaze flicked over to a blank section of wall. He nodded toward the empty space and focused on one of his customers. Her calmness stood out among the shaking junkies that filled the room.

Pointing at Tara, he said, "I believe she's next."


Chapter 5

Winifred Burkle and Charles Gunn were all that remained of Angel Investigations, and they were swamped. Technically, Conner was a part of the team as well, but aside from his combat prowess and intuitive thinking, he had little to offer the team, which was sorely lacking the sort of supernatural expertise that had been provided by Wesley and -- to a lesser degree -- Angel himself.

Between the cases that kept coming in and the search for Angel and Cordelia, the two barely had time to catch a breather, even with the usual summer dry-up that was starting. Lately, though, there had been fewer cases coming in, and they'd been able to start clearing up some of their backlog.

A wild-eyed man burst into the Hyperion Hotel. He was slender and well-muscled and had bleached blond hair. "All right, where is he?!" he demanded.

Gunn looked up, "Where's who?"

"The Poof," Spike snarled. At the matched pair of blank looks he recieved, he sighed and said, "_Angel_. I need to have a few words with 'im."


Buffy kissed Xander and smiled.

"Mmm... I never get tired of that," she said coyly.

Xander smiled, "You'd better not, 'cause there's the whole me loving you bit."

"God," Buffy said, shaking her head, "I can't believe I turned down kisses like that. If I knew what I was missing..."

"Hey," Xander grinned, "in your defense, my natural talent for smooching had yet to be revealed."

"Well, let's find out what other talents you have," she grinned, looping her hands behind his neck.


"What do you mean, he's missing?!" Spike bellowed incredulously. "Bloody hell!"

"Exactly that," Gunn said. "He's been missing for the past couple weeks. Why you lookin' for him, anyway?"

"It's all his fault," Spike growled. He sighed, "Look, forget it. What can I do to help find the Poof?" His gaze drifted toward Conner, "And who's the puke?"

"Oh, that's Conner," Fred said. "Angel's son."



Xander blinked. It was night time, and he was outside with no weapons, standing in front of a house with its front door ajar. This _had_ to be a dream.

At least, he darn well hoped it was.

Shrugging to himself, he slipped through the opening and looked around inside. The place had a homey atmosphere, but it was tainted with... something. Most things were neat and tidy and tucked away like any home... but he could tell. He could see the signs, the little tell-tale signs that filled his own home.

This was a house of violence. Over there, a white spot on the wall, about shoulder level, where a hole about the size of a fist had been plastered over. Near the far wall, a wooden chair duck taped back together. Next to the chair, a table with a leg broken off and a pile of books under it to support that corner.

He shuddered but stepped in. Somehow, this was important. He could feel it in his heart.

And he always trusted his heart.

He stepped down the hall, noting that the hallway double-backed into a staircase, and peered through the banister posts.

Xander frowned at the sight. Tara cowered in the corner, surrounded by vaguely familiar people. It took him a moment to recognize Donny and the other Maclays.

When he heard the epithets and taunts they were hurling at the blonde witch, anger boiled up from inside him, but before he could act, a soft voice crooned, "Do it, sweetie. You know they deserve it, after what they did to you... to me. To us."

He blinked at the woman sitting on the stairs, looking sympathetically at Tara. With a sudden jolt of clarity, he realized that the woman must be her mother.

Suddenly, Tara's head jerked up, and Xander felt his throat catch at the sight of her all-black eyes. The blonde witch swept out her hand, and purple lightning leaped from her fingertips toward her family, who crumbled to dust.

Her eyes met his, and her arm faltered as her eyes returned to normal.

"Xander?" she said uncertainly.

Pain. Searing white pain flashed through Xander, even as the image of a person dressed in brown robes and obscured in shadow burned itself into his memory.

He bolted up and looked around wildly. He was covered in sweat on Buffy's bed, the Slayer lying peacefully next to him.

*What the _hell_ was that?!*


"Bloody f***ing hell!" Spike swore as he ducked the massive axe and sent one-two-three punches into the demon's gut.

Dancing back again, he shot a look at Gunn and demanded incredulously, "Is there _anybody_ in this town dear old Daddy _hasn't_ pissed off?!"

"You've known him longer. What do _you_ think?"

Spike snarled and vamped out, launching himself into a more aggressive attack.

*This is all _your_ fault, Angelus!* he thought angrily.

It was getting to be a regular mantra for him lately.



Tara looked up and smiled, "Xander, hey."

He glanced around her room nervously, "Look, uh, this is gonna sound strange, but, uh, have you had any... weird dreams lately?"

She blinked in surprise for a moment, then shook her head, "N-no. Wh- why?"

He shrugged, "Ah, well, it's just... I been having some dreams lately. You were in them, and they felt so... _real_ -- I mean, scary real -- and I just... got worried."

She smiled and rose off the bed. Kissing him lightly, she said, "That's sweet of you, Xander, but I'm not having any nightmares."

"Good to know," he said, relieved. He turned and left, closing the door behind him.

Had he lingered by her door a moment longer, he might have heard her sob quietly, "I lied to him. I lied to Xander."

A figure detached from the shadows in the corner and sat on the bed next to her, saying soothingly, "It's all right, honey. You know it's for the best."

"Yes, Mother."


Spike splashed water on his face and glared at the empty mirror. Bloody hell, this was starting to annoy him. He shook his head and hesitantly reached down to the item on the counter.

It was a nightly ritual for him, a way to punish himself for what he'd done. He began each night with this ordeal, an ordeal that would last all night and remind him of the people he'd tortured... raped... killed.

Steeling his nerves, he picked up the small crucifix and quickly looped the chain around his neck. He bit back a cry of pain as the holy symbol burned into his chest, letting out a low hiss instead, but he couldn't stop the tears from welling up.

Blinking them back, he put on his shirt and donned his jacket, concealing his penance, ready for another night in search of his sire.


"Amy? Jonathan?" Willow raised a curious eyebrow at the two as she entered the Magic Box. "What are you two doing here?"

Amy looked down from where she was arranging some books on the top shelf behind the counter. "Oh, um, Xander kinda inherited the place after... and we figured..." she shrugged.

Jonathan nodded as he put down the box he was carrying, "Yeah, we figured someone ought to keep the place open, get some money flowing in, so... here we are. It'll let us keep track of who's buying what, too, in case we need to head off another apocalypse."

The redhead smiled, "Good idea." She frowned, "Hey, are those dark magic books?"

Amy nodded, "Yeah. I figured it'd be safer sticking them up here. If we put them into storage, someone might steal one, and we wouldn't even know it until it was too late."


Spike slammed Marissa up against the wall. "No more games, pet. Did you see anything?"

She spat in his face, but he didn't flinch. Instead, he slowly -- not by choice, but by necessity, as every instinct screamed for him to hurl the burning thing away -- drew the cross from beneath his shirt and held it up to her cheek.

Marissa howled in pain and outrage as the holy symbol burned into her face. He pulled the cross back and said evenly, "I'll ask you one more time, then I start getting creative. Where. Is. Angelus?"


Chapter 6

Amy was on the verge of panicking. She stared at the object in her hands, willing its wrongness away, but the item refused to change. She closed her eyes and shook her head, certain that she was seeing things.

Nope. Still there.

"Oh, boy."


"All right," Buffy said. "Why do you think they'll try to hit the armored truck again tonight? That's stupid."

"Well, um," Jonathan hesitated, "this is going to sound strange but... because they don't think you'd think they'd dare try it again."

"Huh?" Xander blinked. "You wanna run that by us again?"

Jonathan sighed, "It would be stupid to try again. They've made it a point to make themselves look smart. If they wanted to throw you off, that'd mean doing a stupid heist."

"That..." Buffy sputtered, "...that doesn't make any sense!"

"That's _comic_ _book_ logic!" Willow blurted out.

Xander raised a finger, "And who are we dealing with again?"

They looked at each other in silence for a long moment before the room erupted with activity.

"Right," Buffy said. "Xander, get the weapons."

"On it."

"Willow, find out the armored truck's schedule."

"Bringing it up now."

"Tara, find some spells; we may need the extra punch."

"A-all right."

"Dawn, you stay here."

"Aw, but Buffy!"


"Wow," Warren said cockily. "That almost hurt, kitten."

"We're just getting started."

Warren snapped his head around and saw Xander holding a tranquilizer rifle, "Nighty night."


Warren smirked, brushing the dart off his shirt, "You think that's gonna work? Please."

Xander shrugged, "It did its job."



Warren found himself flying through the air, writhing in pain from the spell Tara had unleashed on him from behind. Staggering to his feet, he glared at them and snarled, a touch of insanity in his voice, "C'mon! Is that all you've got? I can take whatever you can dish out!"

"Really?" Willow called out. "Are you bulletproof?" She held up one of the guards' guns and fired.

"As a matter of fact," Warren replied as he advanced on her, "I am."


Warren picked himself up and glared at Tara. "Cut that out, you f***ing bitch!" he yelled, tearing a piece of the road away and hurling it at the blonde witch.

"No, Tara!" Xander leaped toward Tara, intending to tackle her to safety, but he found himself thrown back by some kind of force field instead.

The debris shattered against the magical barrier, and Tara smirked. "Welcome to the big leagues, little boy."


Warren shook his head dizzily. The voltage on the last blast was enough to penetrate even the protective magic of his orbs.

Buffy stood over him and said sunnily, "Good night." With one swift motion, she crushed the Orbs of Nezzla'khan beneath her foot.

Warren scrambled back, "Get away from me!" He struggled out of his jacket, revealing what looked like a Flash Gordon reject prop, and backed away, "I swear to God, I'm gonna take you down, you piece of..."

Buffy stared as Warren flew off, "Oh, come _on_..."

"What the heck was that?" Xander stared in disbelief.

"Well played, Slayer," Andrew said dramatically, revealing his own jetpack.



Andrew slumped to the ground unconscious as sirens began to wail.

Willow looked up, "We'd better get moving."

"Yeah," Xander nodded. He took the gun Willow had used and gave it a quick wipe with his shirt before dropping it back to the ground.


Willow stretched and stifled a yawn as she stepped out of the bathroom. Last night's confrontation with the Evil Trio -- or was that Evil Duo, now that Jonathan was on a redemption kick? -- had drained her. It had been hard to keep herself from using magic.

"Uh, Willow? C-can I talk to you?"

"Sure, Amy. What is it?"

"Uhh..." the recovering witch said hesitantly. "When Mom was possessing me, did she...? Did she, um, sleep with anyone?"

Willow paled, "Why?"

Amy held up the pregnancy test wordlessly.

"Oh, God." Willow sagged against the wall, babbling, "You're pregnant. You're pregnant with Xander's baby."

Amy's eyes went round, "X-Xander?"

Willow nodded wordlessly, then asked, "Does Jonathan know?"

Amy shook her head, "No. No, he doesn't. He's been working at the Magic Box all day."



"Hey, Buff, how's it going?" Xander asked.

"Pretty good," she said. "Still worried about Warren, though. After that jetpack deal, who knows what else they kept Jonathan out of the loop on."

"Hey, you'll get him," he said confidently. "I believe in you."

"Thanks, Xander," she said, pulling him into a hug.

"You think you can just do that to me?" a crazed voice rang out. They whirled around and saw Warren storming toward them. "You think I'd let you get away with that?" He let out a not-entirely-sane laugh, then looked at them with level eyes, "Think again."

"Buffy, get down!" Xander cried out as he shoved the Slayer aside. He felt a piercing pain in his back and saw the ground rushing up to meet him before he blacked out.


From her second story bedroom window, Tara watched, her eyes blazing red. She held up her hand, and the bullet that hovered in front of her face dropped harmlessly into her palm. She clenched her fist and angrily hissed out one word.



Willow jerked her head up, "That sounded like..."

"Gunshots," Amy finished.

The redhead rushed outside, Amy right behind her, and saw Buffy crouching over Xander's prone form, pleading, "C'mon, Xander, wake up, please!"

"Oh, God," Willow's voice caught. "Xander!"

Buffy looked up, "Call an ambulance! Hurry!"

The redhead nodded and stumbled back into the house, racing toward the phone.


"Hide or fight?" Rack asked simply.

"Both," Warren said impatiently. "All of it. I-I still have a few tricks up my sleeve, but it's not enough. I need... I need a cover, and I need lots of firepower."

"I can't guarantee anything," Rack said. "Not this time." His voice dropped, "The girl is running on pure fury. I've never felt anything like it." He smiled.

"Thank you for the tip, Nostradamus," Warren said snidely. "Just load me up, okay?"


The bell rang, indicating that someone had entered the Magic Box.

Jonathan looked up, "Tara! There you are. Everyone's been looking all over for you! It's Xander; he's been..."

"Shot," she said, looking up at him. "I know."

He froze when he saw her eyes. "Oh, no."

She smiled, "Oh, yes."

With a flick of her wrist, she hurled Jonathan against the wall, knocking him unconscious. Another gesture, and the dark magic books lining the top shelf flew toward her.

She touched the books, and the texts flowed into her, staining her blonde hair an oily black. She threw back her head and cried out, reveling in the ecstasy of the sheer power now at her command.

She giggled hysterically. Ohh, that felt _gooood_.

It was payback time.


Chapter 7

"This'll get me all the way to the border?" Warren asked, accepting the ticket folder.

"You'll have to change at the city bus," the clerk replied. "It's all in the folder."


"Is he gonna be all right?" Willow asked anxiously.

"He's very lucky," the doctor said. "The bullet didn't hit any major organs. He's going to be fine, but he'll be in here for at least a couple of weeks."

"No permanent damage?" Buffy asked worriedly.

"No permanent damage."

Willow and Buffy both sighed in relief. "Can we see him?" Buffy asked.

"Yes," the doctor replied, "but try not to wake him."


Tara stood in front of the bus on the deserted and dusty highway, even as the driver struggled to control it. It screeched to a halt mere inches from striking her.

She calmly walked around the bus and gestured. The doors slammed open, and she ordered, "Get out."

None of the passengers were inclined to argue, and they began to file out fearfully.

None, that is, except one.

Bolting out the emergency door in the rear, Warren made a run for it, looking over his shoulder in fear.

Tara whirled around and threw one hand up. The asphalt highway curled up in front of Warren, and he ran right into it. Sprawled on the ground, he shook his head, then scrambled to his feet and turned to face Tara, who walked toward him with calm, measured steps.

"H-hey," he said, searching for something -- anything -- that would save his life. "Look, I know you're mad, but... come on! You're one of the good guys! You can't _do_ this! I-I'll do anything. N-nice hair, by the way."

"You killed him. All I want you to do... is die," she said calmly, jerking her hand back swiftly.

Spikes of stone shot out from the wall of asphalt behind Warren and skewered him. Sparks flew from the injuries, and Warren slumped, hanging from the spikes.

But there was no blood.

"Another robot," she hissed to herself. She had _felt_ his essence.

*So the geek has help,* she thought. Well, no matter. She'd find him anyway. He was only delaying the inevitable.

And when she found out who tried to help him...


"Amy? Yeah, it's Willow." The redhead's eyes widened. "He's hurt? You're sure it was her? Oh, God. We'll be right there."

"What is it?" Buffy asked.

Willow looked up, a haunted look in her eyes, "It's Tara."


"Okay, Amy, you sure you can do this locater spell?"

The pregnant witch bit her lip uncertainly, but before she could reply, Jonathan spoke up, adjusting the cold compress on his head. "Uh, I can help."

Buffy hesitated... then nodded.


Tara sauntered through the woods confidently, looking around. "Oh, come on, Warren. You know you can't run forever. Why don't you just save us both some trouble and come out where I can kill you?"

She suddenly whirled around and caught the handle of Warren's axe as he swung it down. She smirked and backhanded him to the ground, "Strike one."

He scrambled to his feet and stumbled back. She smiled, "You've got balls, I'll admit that. We'll fix that soon enough."

She hurled the axe at him, and he jumped. The axe barely missed his crotch, and he turned and ran. She waited for a moment, then began to follow him... or rather, the trail of his essence.

Suddenly, she heard a fluttering sound, out of place in the otherwise eerily silent forest. What...?


The tiny metal box flitted and hovered in front of her for a moment before it detonated. The explosion threw her off her feet, and she shook her head dazedly.

Eyes blazing as the magic worked overtime to heal her wounds, she snarled, "Strike two."


Warren ran, looking over his shoulder, but there was no sign of the witch. The flying bomb trick seemed to have worked. *Good,* he thought. *Wouldn't want to rely on Rack's little gizmo. His other thing sure as hell didn't keep her off my back for long.*

He burst out of the woods and turned, backing away and watching the edge of the forest. Nothing emerged. *Made it!*

He backed into something and turned, sucking in a breath.

It was Tara.

He let out a nervous laugh, "Cute. That's a cute trick."

He backed away from her, back towards the forest, as she took steady, even steps toward her.

"It was an accident, you know," he said. "A-and besides, he's not dead."

"And I should believe you?" Tara snorted. "Even if I did, do you really think I'd let you off just because you're incompetent?"

"It... it wasn't personal, that's all," he said.

"It is now."

Suddenly, he bolted, and Tara flicked her hand out. The ground erupted in front of him, and he slammed into the earthen wall and fell to the ground.

He struggled frantically out of his backpack and hurled the device Rack had given him. "Capture!"

Tara blinked in surprise as the ball of blue goo struck her in the gut and began to spread, binding her arms to her sides and covering her completely.

Warren scrambled to get away, and Tara's eyes began to burn red with fury.

Even as the last of the goo melted away, Tara's eyes narrowed, and she whispered, "Irretite."

Warren struggled in vain with the vines that bound him as Tara walked up to him.

He opened his mouth, but she waved her hand, and he found his lips stitched shut. She smiled at him and said, "Strike three. You're out."

He watched her silently, whimpering in fear, as she inhaled deeply through her nose. "I'm beginning to see why you like this. The fear, the pain... the power. That's what it was, wasn't it? Ever since you killed Katrina -- oh, don't look at me like that; Jonathan told us everything -- you've been looking for the... rush." She licked her lips, "I can see why. That's why you went after Buffy, isn't it? Slayer, super powers, what better rush than killing the savior of the world?"


The witch turned and saw Willow stumbling through the woods toward them, with Buffy right behind her. The redhead paused to catch her breath and shouted, "You don't have to do this! Xander's in the hospital, but he's gonna be okay."

Tara hesitated for a moment, then smiled and shook her head. "You don't understand, Willow. He does. You did too, once. Back when I was still the same sort of naive, shy, _stupid_ little geek you turned yourself back into... but not anymore. It's not about revenge. It's not about Xander."

She looked at Willow with eyes as black as pitch. With a careless flick of her wrist, she sent a wave of energy from her fingertips that blasted Warren's flesh from his bones, layer by layer.

"It's about power."

Chapter 8

"Where _is_ she?" Willow muttered, looking around frantically.

"I don't know," Buffy replied, also scanning the area.

"We have to find her, Buffy," Willow said. "Stop her before she goes too far."

"She already has," Buffy shook her head sadly.

"No," Willow snarled, "she hasn't, not yet. Warren deserved what he got. I'm more worried about that 'power' thing. That's not like Tara."

Buffy held silent for a moment, then asked, "What makes you think she'd go after Andrew?"

"It's what I'd do," Willow said tightly.

Buffy stopped and looked down. She pulled out her vibrating cell phone and flipped it open. "Dawn? Wha-...? Whoa, whoa! Hold on! Slow down!" Her eyes went wide, "Oh, God." Snapping the cell phone shut, she turned to Willow, "We have to get to the hospital."


Xander stirred and blinked his eyes open.

"Hey, you're awake."

He looked up, "Tara? What... what happened?"

"You were shot, sweetie. How do you feel?"

"Tired," he said. His eyes snapped wide as his memory began working again, "Warren!"

"Don't worry about him," she replied. "We took care of him. You just rest now, okay?"

He nodded, then frowned, "Hey, what happened to your hair?"

She brushed the dark locks aside and said hesitantly, "I just... thought I'd try something new."

"It looks good on you," he said, "but I have to admit. I'm more of a natural color guy myself."


"Just how long was I out, anyway?"

She smiled, "Not as long as you might think. Look, Xander, there's something I have to go do now. I'll be back, okay?" She leaned down and kissed him.


"Bye, Xander," she said, looking over her shoulder before she opened the door.

"Later, Tare," he called to her back as she stepped out of the room.

He sighed and slumped back into the bed, stifling a yawn. Tara was right. He needed rest.

His eyelids drooped, and he dozed off.



"Gah!" he cried out, snapping awake. "Dawn, what's going on?"

"You're all right," she sighed in relief as she hugged him again.

"Uh, why wouldn't I be?"

"Tara, she..." Dawn trailed off, her eyes widening as realization struck. "You don't know."

"Know _what_?"

"Tara's gone berserk," Buffy said quietly, stepping into the room, Willow right behind her. "After you got shot, she... she absorbed the dark magic books from the Magic Box. She killed Warren."

"Oh, God," he slumped back into the bed, stunned.

Dawn looked at them and said, "I'll... I'll be outside." She turned and stepped out, giving the trio privacy.

After a long moment, he turned to Willow, a haunted look in his eyes, "Wills, Buffy can't stop her. She doesn't have the power, you know that."

Buffy turned and watched Willow as she developed an inkling as to where Xander was going with this. Willow's eyes widened as she too realized what he was about to suggest. She backed away and shook her head furiously, "No... Xander... I... I can't. I'll lose control."

He sat up and captured her hand in his. "No, you won't," he said firmly, locking his eyes on hers. "You can do this, Willow. I believe in you."

"But, I..."

"It _has_ to be you, Wills. No one else has the power."


"He's right, Willow," Buffy said softly. "I _can't_ stop her." She looked up at Willow with sorrow-filled eyes and took her by the shoulders, "You're gonna have to be our big gun again."

"I... I can't..."

Buffy sighed and closed her eyes. "All right," she said. "I understand," she turned and headed for the door, "but someone has to stop her." She turned to look at them and choked out, her eyes shimmering, "You guys know I love you, right?" They nodded, and she left, closing the door behind her.

Willow looked first at the door, then at Xander, then back at the door again, emotions warring on her face.


"That child doesn't belong to you."

Amy cringed as another magical attack blasted her meager defenses. The protective barrier around her shrank considerably. Jonathan already lay on the floor, unconscious... again.

"I'm sorry!" she sobbed in fear. "How many times can I say that?!"

The dark witch shook her head, "Shhh... don't apologize. That takes all the _fun_ out of it."

Amy's eyes widened as she shrank back, "Why are you _doing_ this?"

"Because I can."

"Not anymore." The new voice came from behind Tara, and as she turned, Buffy's fist collided with her face, sending her flying. Buffy looked down at Amy, "Amy, run!"

The Madison girl wasted no time, scrambling to her feet and hauling ass, pausing only to pull Jonathan out of the line of fire. Tara rose, glancing at the fleeing witch for a moment, then turned to Buffy.

"You really think you can stop me?"

Buffy shook her head and said honestly, "No, but I have to try."

Tara smiled and flung her hand out, throwing Buffy back and into a wall lined with shelves.

Buffy cried out, more in surprise than pain, then rose to her feet and charged. Tara held up a hand and blasted her back again.

"Persistent, aren't you?" Tara said. "Let's turn it up a notch, shall we? Fulmenos venite!"

The blast of lightning that leaped from Tara's fingertips jolted Buffy's sprawling body.

Suddenly, a strong voice called out in Latin, and the electricity fizzled. Tara turned, "Mr. Giles. Fancy meeting you here."


Willow ran through the streets of Sunnydale. She could feel Tara's power growing, and she had to stop her. Buffy and Xander were right. She was the only one who had enough power to stop her.

She only hoped she wasn't too late.


"I'm here to help you, Tara."

"I don't think I'll need any help to kill off a wannabe witch and a geek behind bars... but I'm not about to turn it down. So where'd you get that power you're borrowing?"

"The coven that sent me here," Giles said calmly. "Tara, you can still stop. This isn't you."

"Shut up!" Tara snapped. "The only help I need from you is that extra little juice you're packing."


Tara flicked her hand up and incanted under her breath as the binding spell streaked toward her... then looped around and trapped Giles.

"Amateur," Tara snorted.

She walked up and pressed a hand to Giles's chest, absorbing the power he wielded.

Planting a kiss on his forehead, she said, "Thanks for the recharge, Mr. Giles," and walked out.


Xander struggled out of the hospital bed and onto his feet. "Gotta talk to Tara," he muttered. "Gotta stop her..."

"You think it'll be that easy?" a voice snorted.

He turned and stared in disbelief, "Jesse?"

The image of his long-dead friend smirked, "Whaddaya think's gonna happen, Xandman? You're just gonna walk up to her and tell her you love her, and everything's gonna be peachy keen, she'll be back to her old diabetes-inducing self? Dream on. Doesn't work that way, X- man."

Jesse's image wavered and was replaced by Spike, who smiled, "She's all mine now, you stupid git."


"Hey!" Willow shouted as she stumbled to a halt near the Magic Box. "You said this was about power?"

Tara turned and cocked an eyebrow, "So I did."

Willow held up her hands, magical energy crackling around them, and said, "Well, show me what you've got... and I'll show you what _real_ power is."


Xander's eyes narrowed, "Who are you? _What_ are you?"

Spike's form wavered and was replaced by that of the Master. "I..." he began melodramatically, " the beginning..." the image shifted again, this time to match a certain hell goddess, who smirked and said cockily, "...and the end, baby."

Glory was replaced by Adam, who paced around and said, "Everything is going according to plan..." Adam faded, and Mayor Wilkins crouched down in front of him, chuckling cheerfully, "...and there's just nothing you can do about it."

Xander closed his eyes and shook his head, "You're wrong."

"Am I?" Angel's -- Angelus's -- voice whispered in his ear. "Am I _really_? That's the way it's _always_ been, White Knight. You're nothing but a useless waste of good blood, and you're just too stubborn to admit it."


"She's killed," Warren told Xander. "Killed me, actually, and you know what? She _loved_ it. You shoulda seen the look on her face..."

The recently-deceased robot-builder's form changed again, this time to Drusilla, and said, "The timid tiger has annointed her claws in blood now, Kitten. She shan't stop merely at your request."

Xander whirled and lashed out, his fist passing cleanly through the apparition, then turned for the door, "Maybe, but I gotta try."

"I thought the same thing too once," Ben's voice called from behind him, but he ignored it. "About Glory. And we all know how well _that_ turned out."


A ball of sickly green fire splattered harmlessly against an invisible barrier that shimmered briefly from the impact, and a split- second later, a barrage of blue, needle-like bolts of energy curved around and struck the spherical barrier from all directions in rapid succession.

Willow grit her teeth as her shield flickered. She had more power than Tara -- she always had -- but the veteran witch's greater experience was showing, as spell after spell struck weak points in her defenses. This last attack had nearly penetrated.

It was time to go on the offensive.


Tara stumbled back as a curling wave of blinding white energy suddenly rolled toward her from her lover. She staggered back at the sheer power of the attack as it hammered her defenses, nearly cracking it. She gasped as the pressure crushed the air from her lungs.

*All right,* she thought, grimacing and closing her eyes. *Time for a surprise.*

So far, the two of them had been assaulting each other with pure magic or conjured energy. Lightning had danced with fire, and raw mana had clashed in brilliant technicolor displays that would put any fireworks show to shame.

Now it was time to try something a little less direct.


Willow almost didn't notice the flash of magical fire lancing down into the street... toward the gas line that ran beneath.

She did the only thing she could think of. She shoved as much energy as she could spare into overcharging her protective spell.

The explosion threw her off her feet, and through the inferno in the middle of the shattered street, she saw Tara fleeing as she shook her head clear.

She struggled to her feet, but her vision wavered, and soon, she blacked out, exhausted.


Tara slumped against the wall. The battle with Willow had exhausted her, drained her of her power, and ever since she'd drained Giles, she'd been feeling an overwhelming assault on her psyche.

"It's the pain of the world, Tara."

She blinked and looked up, "Mother?"

The woman's weathered features twisted into a sad smile, "Yes, dear, it's me."

"How do I make it stop?" she asked desperately.

"Stop the suffering," the image of the deceased witch said quietly, looking away. "Stop the suffering, and you'll stop the pain." Her eyes flicked to the side. "You know where to find the power you need... and you know what he did."

Tara's gaze drifted to follow her line of sight, and suddenly, she understood.


Rack rose as the door to his establishment suddenly blew apart, flying inward. His eyes widened as he recognized... not the witch who stood where the door once was -- though recognize her, he did -- but the aura of the apparition next to her.

Glaring at the incorporeal form, he howled, "No! I did what you asked!"

But the intangible figure did not answer. Tara did.

"You helped Warren," she said evenly, and Rack's blood ran cold. "And you shouldn't talk to Mother like that."


"Oh, God," Xander gasped as he ran and crouched by the red-haired form lying prone on the ground. "Willow?"

She groaned and blinked her eyes open, "Xander?" She suddenly burst into tears, "I'm sorry, Xander. I couldn't... I just..."

"Shh," he murmured, holding her close, "it's okay. Where's Buffy?"

"I... I don't know."

"She's inside; hurt, but she'll be fine."

Xander looked up, "Giles? What are you doing here?"

The Watcher sighed, "A coven in Devon contacted me, and I came as soon as I heard. They'd received visions of this, but they weren't sure if it would be Willow or Tara. Xander..."

"I know," he said, rising. "We have to reach her, the real her. Don't worry, G-man. I got it covered. I just need to find her first."

Giles closed his eyes tiredly, "All right... go to Kingman's Bluff. She'll be there. I... I don't know any more, but the coven was certain about that much."


Suddenly, the flow of energy Tara was funneling into the Satanic temple was disrupted.

"Get out of my way, Xander," Tara said. "You can't stop me."

"Yeah, I get that," he said. "It's just... where else am I gonna go, huh? I love you, Tare. World gonna end... where else would I want to be?"

"Shut up!" she shouted, slashing at him, magically slicing him across his chest.

"No!" he shouted, stepping toward her again. "I love you, Tara. I love shy, stutter-y Tara, and I love... scary, veiny Tara. So if I'm going out, I'm going out right here. If you wanna kill the world... well, then start with me. I think I've earned that."

She paused for a long moment, looking at him.

"All right."

*Oh, shit,* was the last coherent thought he had before the magical blast sent him flying. He felt something hard strike the back of his head, and darkness claimed him.


"So, you're leaving?"

Spike looked up from the duffel bag he was carrying. He nodded to his sire, "Yeah."

"Going back to Sunnydale?" Angel asked.

The bleached blond vampire shook his head, "Not yet. Look, mate, I appreciate the talks, they really helped, but..."

"You need time to think," Angel nodded in understanding.

Spike shrugged, "Figure I'd do the road trip thing."

"Well," the other ensouled vampire said, "good luck. If you ever need anything, call. I still owe you for pulling me out of the ocean."

"Damn right, you do," Spike grinned.


Tara closed her eyes as she continued to channel energy into the blasphemous temple. She wasn't thinking; she refused to think. It hurt too much. All the pain, the misery, the despair... she was going to stop it all, shut out the... the suffering.

Tears ran down her cheeks. Not much longer now...


The channel was interrupted again, and her eyes snapped open. "Willow. You couldn't stop me before, what makes you think you can stop me now?"

"Who said I was here to stop you?" Willow asked. "I just... came to say goodbye. It would be rude, y'know, to... leave... without saying goodbye to the ones I love."

"Rehashing Xander's plan?" Tara snorted. "Save the world by telling me you love me?"

"Maybe." The redhead stepped forward, and Tara lashed out again, slashing open Willow's cheek. "Tara, I do love you."

"Shut up!" Tara shrieked, blasting Willow again, but the redhead kept going, a Resolve Face etched on her face. "Just go away!"

"Not gonna happen," Willow shook her head. "I love you. Always. I never stopped loving you. Even when I thought I'd lost you."

"Shut up!"

"You were partly right, Tara," Willow said, reaching out to pull Tara into a hug. "It's not about revenge. But it's not about power, either."

"What is it about, then?" Tara snarled, a hint of desperation in her voice. "Pain? Grief?"

"No," Willow said quietly, stroking her cheek. "It's about love." The redhead leaned in and kissed the blonde, who crumpled against her.


Xander groaned as he sat up, trying to shake his head clear.

Where was he? What had happened?

"Xander, you're awake," a familiar voice said, clearly relieved.

He looked up, "An? Wh-where are we? What happened?"

Something was wrong. He could feel it... but he couldn't pinpoint what.

"That doesn't matter, sweetie," Anya smiled, crouching down in front of him. "You're with me, now. Everything will be all right."

Unseen by Xander, beneath the facade of his dead fiancee, the First Evil laughed.


Author's Postscript:

Watch for the sequel, Road to Love, in which the First Evil's master plan comes to fruition! One that actually makes sense, I hope, unlike the shoddy writing we got in canon. Did ME even ever actually _give_ the First a plan that made sense in canon?