He sat on the passenger's side of his mother's car, gazing absently out the window. His mother occasionally took her eyes off the road and glanced at her son. She wondered what he saw as she drove toward Los Angeles to visit his aunt. Whatever the twelve-year-old boy saw, she could safely assume it wasn't just the landscape.
They had just passed through a small town called Sunnydale en route to their destination, and until they went past the sign saying, "Please Come Again" the child's body seemed to tense, as though shot through with electricity. At one point, they had stopped at a local fast food place, the Doublemeat Palace, for a quick bite. As they ate their burgers, she saw the pained expression on his face. She couldn't help but lean toward her son and ask, "Are you okay, honey?"
"Yeah, mama," the child assured her, but not with conviction. "It's just this town. It's noisy.""Okay," she said simply, not wishing to discuss the matter any further. It was over a year since her son revealed his strange gift, how he could see the spirits of the dead and communicate with them. She didn't fully understand this strange ability, but from what he said about his conversations with her late mother, she could not deny that he had this gift.If indeed 'gift' was the proper word. Cole would gladly give up his gift for a chance at a normal life. The dead visited him constantly, to speak of their deaths and their lives, to finish some unfinished business, to be heard. This town, Sunnydale, was especially haunted. He didn't know if it was the location, or simply the fact that it was Halloween, but the ghosts in this town were more numerous than in his home in Philadelphia. Many of them died violent deaths, some from strange causes. And Cole saw all of them, and they wanted to speak to him.
"All I wish," his mother muttered quietly as Cole looked at his half-eaten burger, "is that the dead would leave you in peace for one day. Just one day." As they left their lunches behind, they didn't notice a chestnut haired young woman who sat a couple of tables away from them. She sipped her soda and watched the child and his mother returning to their car.Anya nodded toward the boy and his mother and said, "Done."
"Dawn," Buffy smiled as she heard her sister's voice on the telephone. "How's the Halloween party at the Bronze going?"
"Kinda slow," Dawn admitted, leaning against the sink in the Bronze's women's room, the only place in the club quiet enough for her to use her cellular phone. "Janine and I are gonna hang for half-an-hour, then we're cutting out. I'm gonna walk her to her place, then head straight home, okay?"
"I dunno," Buffy pursed her lips. "Vamps don't normally go out on Halloween for some reason, but I still don't like the idea of you walking alone at night."
"Hey," Dawn defended herself. "Janine and I will be fine till we get to her house, then it's just a couple of blocks back home from there. And I'll stay on well-lit streets all the way."
Buffy paused and thought for a second. "Well, okay. See you in hour?"
"I'll be there. Love ya."
"Love ya back, Dawnie," Buffy smiled as her sister hung up her cel. After all that had happened to them over the last couple of years, it was gratifying for Buffy to finally succeed in reconnecting with Dawn. Her new job as student councilor at Sunnydale High was working out well enough, and she finally was able to stop worrying about the bills and the budget and build a real relationship with her sister.
If only it were that easy to reconnect with all the people that mattered to me, Buffy mused.
It had been nearly a month since Willow had returned from England. Giles had called from London to give Willow a clean bill of health, and to assure everyone that she wouldn't go ballistic again. And Buffy had hopes of getting her best friend back.
But even though she had moved back in with Buffy, Willow just wasn't the same. She seldom spoke, and when she did speak, it was halting, almost formal, and seldom more than a few words at a time. She hadn't heard a single one of Willow's trademark babbles, or even a Willow smile. Sure she occasionally smiled, but only with her lips; the smile never reached her eyes. It was like everything that made Willow the special person whom Buffy called her best friend was leeched out of her, either from the trauma of Tara's murder or Willow's descent into darkness or from the ordeal of her recovery. All she saw was the shell of the beautiful and vibrant person Willow had been.
Buffy's heart went out to Willow, but she didn't know what to say to her. Even now with her own life changing for the better, there was still a hole in her heart. A large, Willow-shaped hole. And Buffy didn't know how to fill that hole.
The chime of the front doorbell brought Buffy out of her melancholy, and the young woman grabbed the bowl of Snickers bars by the sofa, and opened the door. When she saw who was at the door, Buffy nearly dropped the bowl of candy.
"Hi, Buffy," a familiar buxom blond greeted her, waving her hand shyly.
Buffy stood stock still at the door, her eyes snapped wide and her mouth hung open as the candy bowl dropped from nerveless fingers. "T-tara?" she whispered.
The ghost at the door smiled. "I thought stuttering was my thing," she teased Buffy.
Giles sat in his favorite chair, looking outside his window at the milling throng of celebrators in their garish costumes, all celebrating the Feast of All Souls, commonly known as Halloween. All Hallow's Eve, he recalled. Dia de los Muertos, The Day of the Dead. Buffy was probably either at the Bronze with Xander, or at home riding herd over Dawn and her friends. Willow, on the other hand, he had no idea.
What are you doing now, my young pupil? Are you sitting alone in meditation? Perhaps marking the Feast of Samhain with other wiccans? Mourning Tara?
More and more frequently, Giles' thoughts turned toward the sad young woman who left for Sunnydale less than a month ago. He didn't know if she was ready or not, but she wanted to go back home, among her friends again. She had to return to the place where it went wrong. She had to face her demons.
Where better to face demons than the mouth of Hell?
Her state was partly his fault, he realized sadly. He should have done more for her, tutored her in magic instead of trying to dissuade her from practicing it. Magic was a part of her, as much a part of who and what Willow was as her appearance or her name. Asking her not to study magic was like asking her hair not to be red.
But he feared that she couldn't handle it. He feared that she would become another Ripper, that the power would consume her the way it almost consumed him during his 'angry teen years'. So he discouraged her at every opportunity, even to the point of berating her when she used the Urn of Osiris to resurrect Buffy last year. Of course, this only caused her to dive deeper into the magic pool, until she nearly drowned in it.
"It's my fault," Giles muttered sorrowfully. "It's all my fault."
"Don't do this, Rupert," a kindly voice replied to his quiet musings. "She made her decisions. You are not to blame."
Giles turned quickly, and gaped as he saw a disheveled figure reclining casually in his favorite chair, a snifter of brandy in his hand. Despite his uncombed gray hair and shaggy chin, he still gave an air of authority, and his eyes sparkled with intelligence. Giles stood transfixed, unable to speak or to look away as he beheld the man he once called his mentor.
"So, Ripper," Merrick asked cheerfully, "how is Buffy these days? Still a pain in the ass?"
Xander had just punched out from his job at the construction site for the new wing of the Sunnydale Mall and had taken his regular seat at the Espresso Pump when the first little monsters emerged from their homes. So far, he had seen four Spider-Men, two Green Goblins, three Spongebob Squarepants and one Martha Stewart, along with the normal assortment of mummies, ghosts, witches and clowns.
The one person he hadn't seen was Anya.
And he still wasn't certain whether or nor he wanted to.
He did the right thing, he knew that, by leaving her at the altar. He had been shown a dark future, one where he became the very thing he feared most. His father. He wouldn't do that to Anya. Better that she be jilted now than destroyed later.
But later, when she returned to her old life as a vengeance demon, he questioned the wisdom of his actions. Now, he wondered if he was responsible for unleashing a greater evil. Man, I thought I was helping her, but now I'm second guessing myself. Did I drive her back to D'Hoffryn? Did I make her the enemy?
"Hey, how's the mocha here?" someone took the seat opposite of Xander. "Still a little light on the chocolate?"
Xander took a sip of his drink. "Yeah, but it still beats anything at Starb---" He found himself spitting out his drink as he recognized the figure sitting across the table from him. "Jesse! What are you doing here? You're dead!"
"Yeah, I know," the sandy-haired young man answered brightly. "I was there, remember?"
"This ain't real," Xander gasped, "this is a dream and I'm gonna wake up any minute now. This is not real."
"Hey, for the record, Xander," Jesse chuckled, "even if this were a dream, which it ain't, I resent being called not real. Of course I'm real. Everything's real, right? What's the first law of metaphysics, Mr. Spock?"
Xander couldn't help but laugh as the ghost of his high school friend quoted from one of the Star Trek movies at him. Halloween night in Sunnydale, he reasoned. What else should you expect? "Nothing unreal exists," Xander answered his friend. "But what are you doing here?"
"Oh, unfinished business among the living, that sort of thing." Jesse dropped a small key on the table, saying, "I wanted you to have this. I can't think of anyone I trust more with this key."
Xander picked up the key, and looked at it. A simple nickel plated key, with a small plastic tab attached to it, bearing the name 'Taylor's'. "What's this for?"
"You'll find out, buddy," Jesse smiled, before he faded away quietly. Before Xander could ask any more questions, Jesse was gone, as silently and as subtly as a dream.
Xander leaned back and studied the key once again. "And again, Jesse," he muttered to himself, "you've been a font of nothing."
"Willow," Amy greeted the young hacker after their wicca group ended their weekly meeting, "how is the meditation going?"
Willow lifted her head and smiled weakly at her former classmate. "Slowly, Amy. I'm still maintaining control of my magic, but the temptation's still strong, y'know?"
"Yeah, I know," Amy sat next to Willow as the redhead stretched her limbs, still sore from sitting in lotus for an hour. "I'm still having flashbacks from those bad trips that Rack gave me." She lowered her head and took Willow's hand in hers. "Hey, I'm sorry I hooked you up with that sleaze. Maybe if I hadn't set you up with him, none of that crap would have happened."
"No," Willow shook her head, "don't blame yourself for what happened. My need for power would have brought me to him sooner or later. I'm just glad that you were able to get away from him."
"Hey, you're the one who finally took him out."
"Yeah," Willow puffed absently, her voice weak with sorrow and guilt. "Only to take his power and turn it against my friends." Standing up, she shook the dust of the floor off of her jeans, and nodded to Amy. "Hey, I'm heading for home, you need me to walk you back to the dorm?"
"No, I'm gonna hang here for awhile," Amy smiled. "You go back home, spend some quality time with Buffy and Dawn, you'll be fine."
"Yeah," Willow sighed, "but will they?" She smirked for a moment. "I'll see you around campus, Amy."
"Merry part and merry meet again," Amy said in farewell.
Willow clutched her jacket closer to her to ward off a sudden chilly wind as she headed back home. No, she corrected herself, back to Buffy's house. It's not really home anymore. I don't get one of those.
It had been over three weeks since she came home and she still didn't feel right. She hadn't seen her parents, she didn't participate in her classes the way she had before, and she still didn't know where she stood with her friends. And the wicca group, while friendly enough, was still populated by 'wanna-blessed-bes'.
All she wanted was her old life, to be Willow again. Well, you got it, she thought morosely. You're back to being the lonely little girl standing outside the rest of the world. Just like you were before you first met Buffy. Only this time it's deserved.
Of course, Buffy wouldn't think of throwing her out on the street. She welcomed her home, chatted with her nightly, and even gave her some of her strength to speed her recovery from the skin-eating demon. Willow could still feel the remaining vestige of Buffy's strength moving through her, like a portion of her best friend now resided in her. That thought brought her comfort, but only so much. She still saw Warren's leering face in her nightmares, either boasting about how he killed her beloved Tara, or damning her for taking his life. And in the deepest recesses of her heart, she knew that she deserved damnation for her crimes.
Not wanting to think about it anymore, she picked up her pace, seeking shelter from a chilly Sunnydale night. Against her normal common sense, she decided to take the short cut through Whetherly Park, and avoid the trick-or-treaters. She forced her eyes to stare straight ahead, casting only furtive glances left and right at the occasional twig snapping beneath her feet.
"Willow—" an eerie voice whispered to her. She tried to ignore the voice.
"Willow—" The voice was louder, more menacing. Willow spun around, pulling a stake out of her purse. "Who's there?"
"Hello, Willow," a hoarse voice breathed behind her. "You don't look at all well." Willow turned around again, only to face two bloody eyes that stared, unblinking at her. The reason that these eyes didn't blink became apparent as Willow gazed at the hideous head before her; they had no lids. Indeed the entire head was skinless.
Willow backed away, taking in the body before her. He stood before her, naked, stripped of all skin, revealing a bloody musculature, and some of the internal organs in the stomach cavity. He rather reminded Willow of that anatomy model she constructed for a science fair in the fifth grade. "Oh, come now, Willow," the skinless man growled at her, "don't you recognize me?"
Willow could feel fear clutching her heart like a cold bony hand. "W-warren?" she squeaked.
"In the flesh," he chuckled. "Or not."
Spike swigged down the dregs of his Guinness bottle, tossing the empty glass aside absently as he made his way through the graveyard. He spent much of his time drunk, or attempting to reach that condition, since he returned from Africa. The alcohol deadened the pangs of guilt, the terrible images of his past life that threatened to drive him mad.
He wondered if this was how Angel felt when the gypsies first restored his soul. The constant guilt, the knowledge of his past crimes, the cringing as he heard people screaming in fear from the demons and monsters of Sunnydale, each cry of pain a stab at his heart. This was life for a vampire who possessed a soul.
"Yo," a voice called out to the hapless Brit. "Nice jacket."
Spike glanced toward the voice, seeing a tall African-American woman in an afro. Blue eyes sparkled with a feral knowledge, almost a predatory gleam. "I said, nice jacket. And I should know, considering that it was mine."
Spike blinked at the unwanted visitor, as a jolt of recognition pierced his drink-fogged mind. "I know you," he slurred, "you were a Slayer, weren't you?"
"Very good, Spike," the woman smiled darkly. "Anything else coming to you?"
"Yeah," Spike pointed at her. "I—I killed you."
"Give that vamp a cee-gar!" She whooped. "The name's Nicky, Spike. You killed me in a New York subway car in 1980, and stole my jacket."
"Nicky?" Spike asked, a rush of adrenaline burning out the alcohol in his system. He started to back away, tripping on an old tree stump and landing gracelessly on his rump. Nicky stepped over his body, standing over him with a cold contempt.
"Look at you," she chided. "William the Bloody. The Scourge of Europe. The Slayer of Slayers. Man, I must have been way off my game to be iced by a loser vamp like you!"
"Look, Nicky," Spike stammered, "I'm sorry about that, but I've changed! I'm not the same person from New York—"
"Yeah," Nicky grabbed Spike by the collar, shaking him until his inner ear vibrated. "You've gone from being a pathetic vamp to being a pathetic whiner with a soul! What did a punk like you ever do to deserve a soul?""I did it for Buffy!" Spike tried to crawl away from the dead Slayer. "I wanted to give her what she deserves!"
"She's getting what she deserves," Nicky laughed mirthlessly. "But not from you! As for what you deserve…" she gestured to her left, "I think I'll leave that up to my friends."
Spike screwed his eyes, focusing on the landscape behind Nicky. Slowly, shapes emerged, shadowy figures slowly stepped forward, a sea of blood-drained bodies, eyes sunken in their sockets, hands bony and pointing condemning fingers at the bleached-blond vamp. "They all had souls too," Nicky snarled contemptuously at Spike, "but you stole them. Now they want to return the favor."
Spike backed away, struggling to his feet, and started to run from the army of his victims. Diving behind a tombstone, he wiped his brow, thinking he was safe. "Think again," Nicky's voice taunted him, as more lost souls converged on Spike. Fleeing in blind terror, Spike stumbled toward his crypt. Rushing inside the crypt, he slammed and barred the door, and collapsed in an exhausted heap.
"You think you can escape us that easy, Spike?" Nicky's voice boomed from every wall and every stone inside the crypt. "We've been a part of you from the moment you became the monster you are! We've been screaming inside you, unheard for over a century! Now, we're gonna be heard!"
One voice became ten. Ten became a hundred. A hundred became a thousand. Ten thousand. Fifty thousand voices and more, each one listing the particulars of how Spike had taken a life or stilled a beating heart. How he robbed a mother of her daughter, a boy of his father, a husband of his wife, a parish of its priest, a town of its children.
Unable to shut out the terrible litany of his crimes, Spike screamed, and screamed until his voice gave way. And still he howled, the agony of guilt stripping him of his sanity, his mind.
"So," Janine started to quiz Dawn as they walked home from the party, "you scope out Steve at the Bronze?"
"Steve?" Dawn feigned innocence. "Which one was he?"
Janine rolled her eyes at her friend's seeming ignorance. "Steve Bisette, you know, in the Phantom of the Opera costume. Was he not the finest thing at the Bronze tonight? And he was eyeing you, girlfriend. He was digging your genie costume.""No way, Steve from the basketball team?" She lifted her veil from her costume and cinched her denim jacket a little tighter around her body as a slight breeze caused her satin pants to flap around her legs.
"The one and only," Janine giggled. "Trust me, mi amigo, he's in the 'scoping you out' stage, thinking to himself, 'What to do, what to do.' I figure in two weeks we'll see him reach Stage Two, the 'asking out' stage."
"Followed by the 'getting past Buffy' stage," Dawn quipped. "You remember Buffy, right? Star of the new hit series, 'Eight Simple Rules for Dating my Teenage Sister'."
Janine laughed out loud at Dawn's observations. "Hey, Buffy's cool, and Steve's not into anything hinky. He's an athlete, his GPA is higher than yours, he's funny, smart, doesn't drink or do drugs…Hey, any cleaner and he'd be an Osmond!"
"Yeah, but can he cook?" Dawn challenged. The two friends shared a laugh, as they reached the wooden gate in front of Janine's house. "Hey, thanks for seeing me home, Dawn."
"No problem," Dawn answered. "You wanna meet up at school early tomorrow? We can do some quick cramming before our Social Studies pop quiz."
Janine raised her eyebrow in thought. "I thought that the idea behind a pop quiz was that it isn't scheduled, therefore it's a surprise."
"Right. Now if only someone would explain that concept to Mrs. Thompkins, who always holds pop quizzes on Fridays." Dawn stopped for a second. "On second thought, don't. It'll be our little secret."
"Good idea. See ya at the library tomorrow?"
"I'm there," Dawn nodded. Janine waved a good-bye, and Dawn turned away, and headed up the street, toward home.
Home. A simple word that meant so much. Protection, hearth, heart, family and friends, all encapsulated in four letters. And so many times in the last couple of years, Dawn had come close to losing that home, either to an insane goddess, irate vampires or an unpleasant child services employee. Her mother's death, Buffy's death and subsequent resurrection, Tara's death and Willow's moment of madness, all the events that had changed her life over the last year and a half, all threatened to erode Dawn's concept of home.
Now she had her sister back, Willow was back, and things were starting to gel again for her. But once in a while, she would catch Willow in an unguarded moment, and see the sadness in her green eyes. Or she would notice Buffy and Willow staring at each other with more than a filial concern; Buffy perhaps staring too long at the swell of Willow's breasts, or Willow's eyes following the curve of Buffy's back. If I didn't know any better, I'd say that they were checking each other out!
The more that she considered it, the more she warmed to the idea. She had always liked Willow before her fall from grace, and had managed to begin rebuilding her trust in the young woman. She always regarded Willow as something like a foster sister, and a part of her family. Would it be too difficult for Willow to actually become a family member?A rustle in the bushes behind her caught her attention, causing her body to assume a defensive posture that Buffy had taught her. She slipped her hand inside her purse, taking comfort from the weight of the stake inside. She quickened her pace, remaining alert for the slightest sound.
The figure stalking her growled from hunger and lunged toward her. Dawn had just enough time to twist around before the vampire landed on her, trying to push her to the ground. She fell backward as the vampire attacked, rolling on the ground and lifting her leg to kick her attacker off of her and into a nearby tree. Quickly scrambling to her feet, she grabbed the stake from her purse. The vampire collected himself and charged Dawn, who stood her ground, unflinching. "Hey, vamp-boy, do you like apples?" She suddenly parried just as the monster was within reach, piercing his unbeating heart. "Well, I just dusted you. How do you like them apples?" A cloud of dust whipped past Dawn, who smiled smugly at the remains of her fallen foe. "Piece of cake," she commented, brushing vamp-dust off of her jacket.
"Nice moves, friend," a deep feminine voice called from behind her, causing Dawn to spin around. "Did Buffy teach you that?"Dawn regarded the stranger guardedly. A woman about Buffy's age, with dark brown skin, black hair tied back into a severe pony tail, wearing a white muscle shirt and black leather pants. "Uh," Dawn asked, "do I know you?"
"Not personally," the woman answered, and Dawn noticed the thick Jamaican accent. "But I knew your sister." Extending her hand to Dawn for a handshake, she announced, "I am Kendra."
Dawn gasped slightly, as she took the woman's hand. She was surprised to feel a solid hand, especially considering who she was speaking to. "Buffy told me about you," Dawn said casually. "Mainly that you were dead."
"Yes, I know," Kendra answered. "Drucilla was too tough for me to beat alone."
"Yeah," Dawn whistled calmly. "Uh, no offense, but why are you here, tonight?"
"Where else should a ghost be on Halloween?" Kendra answered. "There's one night where ghosts walk among the living, Dawn."
"I guess," Dawn admitted.
"Listen, my friend," Kendra told the younger girl, "My time is short, and you must hear me. You are a capable girl. You have much power that you still haven't harnessed. And that power will be needed in time. I cannot tell you what is going to happen, but a storm is coming. Buffy, your friends and family, they will all need you. And you will need them." The ghost of the dead Slayer began to shimmer, to fade away. "Take care, Dawn. Be there for your sister…"
Dawn stood alone on the sidewalk, pondering what Kendra had said to her. Slowly placing her stake back in her purse, she resumed her trek home. "Man," she whispered, "I can't wait to tell Buffy about this!"
"Tara? B-but you're dead," Buffy said timidly. "Uh, don't get me wrong, you look great, but still…"
"Yeah, dead," Tara admitted, fidgeting on Buffy's porch. "I was there, remember?"
"Sorry," Buffy said. "I mean, I know that doesn't begin to cover it. But we miss you. Willow especially, but we all do."
"I know," Tara's smile was beatitude, a gesture of grace given happily to the Slayer. Buffy accepted her warm smile with thanks. "Look, I can't stay long, but I have to ask you one thing."
"Name it," Buffy answered.
"Do you love Willow?"
Buffy stood in shock, not expecting that question. "Uh, yeah, of course I do," she answered hesitantly. "She's my best friend and all…"
"No, Buffy," Tara insisted serenely. "I didn't ask you if you were still Willow's friend. I asked you if you love her."
Buffy breathed deeply, attempting to calm her nerves. She considered Tara's question, wondering if she could answer it easily. In a flash of realization, the truth came to her and had to be spoken.
"I do, Tara. In every way that one person can love another. I could not possibly live in a world which didn't contain her."
The light in Tara's eyes brightened, her smile suffused in joy. A faint spiral of light surrounded Tara, and her ghostly body shimmered, dissipating slowly. "Tell her, Buffy," she pleaded as her body began to fade. "Tell her she is loved, that she can be loved. She deserves it. And so do you, Buffy. So do you." In a twinkling, the ghost had disappeared, as gently as a sweet dream.
Buffy stared at the vacant porch, and then slowly closed the door. She stood at the door, considering Tara's request. I can't do it, Tara, she thought sadly. I can't tell her, no matter how deeply I have always loved her. I won't cause you any more pain, Willow. I can't force you further into my life than…
A memory came to her, unbidden. A memory of Willow, her sweet innocent Willow, happily announcing that she was going to remain in Sunnydale, to aid Buffy in her war against the darkness. "It's a good fight," Willow had said, "and I want in."
Epiphanies happen in a quiet manner, strong but not loudly. They aren't like explosions, they're like the sunrise. A steadily growing light, illuminating a truth, revealing the path that should be taken.
Willow had sacrificed so much to stay beside Buffy and fight the good fight. The least Buffy could do was sacrifice her pride, to let Willow know that she would do everything in her power to insure her happiness. She glanced at the clock, suddenly impatient for Willow to come home.
"—and when I told Buffy that it was her destiny to fight vampires," Merrick began to chuckle as he related his anecdote to Giles, "she stared hard at me and asked, 'Does Elvis talk to you?'" The two men laughed heartily at the memory.
"Yes, that does sound like Buffy," Giles nodded, sipping his brandy. "Oh, would you care for a drink while you're here?""I can't," Merrick insisted. "I'm a ghost, remember?" Giles nodded, understanding. "Anyway, I can't stay long."
"Is there anything I can do for you?" Giles asked his late mentor.
"Only live your life without regrets," Merrick answered solemnly. "I know you, Ripper. You're not content to sit back and let others do for you. You want to be in the thick of the fight."
"It isn't my place, Merrick," Giles answered sadly. "I'm just the Watcher."
"You're hardly 'just' anything, old friend," Merrick chuckled. "And I never knew you to back away from a fight. Something large is happening in Sunnydale. It's going to be one hell of a fight, Ripper. Don't regret missing it. Your place is there, old friend."
"Is it, Merrick?" Giles began to ask, but as swiftly and silently as the ending of a dream, Merrick disappeared.
Giles sat in his living room, brandy glass in hand, not speaking or moving for nearly forty-five minutes. He rolled Merrick's words around in his mind, weighing and measuring them over and over again. Once again the Slayer would face a threat to the world. Once again the bravest, strongest people he had ever had the privilege of knowing would place their lives on the line for all that was good.
And in the end, only one question remained in Giles' mind;
What the bloody hell am I doing here?
Giles began making arrangements to move back to Sunnydale.
Taylor's Storage was located three blocks west of Xander's apartment, and luckily for him, the premises were open late at night. The night-manager, Mr. Pabst, was a robust balding man, who cheerfully directed Xander to Storage Unit #22, matching the number on the key to the number on the door. "Whoever rented this locker kept it paid up for a few years," Mr. Pabst commented. "But the lease is due to run out in a few months, so I guess you got lucky."
"Thanks," Xander smiled as he held the key in his trembling hand. Pabst left Xander alone and headed back to the front office. Swallowing hard, Xander looked at the key, and slid it slowly into the lock. As he turned the key, it stuck for a moment, but with gentle persistence on Xander's part, the latch clicked open. "Okay, here goes," Xander whispered, as he turned the doorknob and opened the door.
He felt along the wall by the doorframe, locating a light switch. A fluorescent fixture on the ceiling flooded the room with light. The room was larger than a walk-in closet, and nearly empty, except for a stack of cardboard boxes in the corner. Xander approached the boxes, blew the dust off of the top one, and lifted the lid. When he realized what he was looking at, Xander dropped his jaw in amazement;
Years before his death, Jesse had bragged about his late uncle's comic book collection. Jesse claimed that he had inherited enough Golden and Early Silver Age titles from his uncle to pay for his college education if he was to liquidate the collection. Xander and Willow had always teased Jesse about the collection, denying its existence. Now, staring at the cases of comics before him, Xander was never happier to eat his words.
They stood inside the box, neatly sorted and filed, each one sealed in a mylar bag. Xander took one title out at random; an early Detective Comic title, one of the earliest appearances of Batman. His pulse raced as he thumbed through the books in each case; the first issues of the X-Men. World War II issues of Superman, Captain America and Wonder Woman. A near-mint condition Amazing Fantasy #15, the very first appearance of Spider-Man. A huge grin nearly split Xander's face from ear to ear as he held these treasures in his hands.
The familiar voice shook Xander out of his reverie. Turning toward the door, Xander was greeted by the vision of a young woman with chestnut hair. The deferential attitude was new. "Hey, Anya," Xander waved slightly as he greeted his ex-fiancée.
"I, uh, was passing by," she said feebly as she entered the storage space, "and I thought I'd see how you were doing." Xander smirked at her, causing Anya to sag her shoulders in defeat. "Okay, I was following you out of the Espresso Pump. I guess I needed to talk to you."
Xander's gaze softened, and he nodded toward her. "Sit down, Ahn," he patted the floor next to him. Anya took the seat next to Xander and looked at the comic in his hands. "What are all these?"
"Comics," Xander announced. "My childhood friend Jesse owned all these. He kept them in this locker, and I guess he wanted me to have them."
"Really?" Anya's eyes lit up like a movie marquee. "Let me see." She rifled through the box, lifting a few titles. "Oh my God," she whispered, "Detective Comics #17. The very first Batman! Whoa, do know the selling price on this?"
"Anya," Xander said, but the young demoness wouldn't be interrupted. "I'm serious, Xander. Nicholas Cage sold his collection for 1.6 million a few weeks ago. You know how much you could get for these books on E-Bay?" She glanced at Xander's hooded eyes for a moment. "Uh, not as much as the memories of your childhood friend, so I'll shut up now."
Xander started to chuckle, then silenced himself as Anya lowered her head in sorrow. "Hey, Anya, you okay?"
Anya shook her head, answering, "I saw this kid today. He and his mom were passing through Sunnydale. The kid can speak to ghosts, and I heard his mom wish that the ghosts would leave him alone for one day. So I said 'done', and now ghosts are speaking directly to the living. I guess you must have seen Jesse." She sat silently for a few minutes, and Xander didn't say anything, knowing that she had to unburden. "I saw a few ghosts of people who I took vengeance against. People who didn't deserve it." Anya lifted her head, and Xander could see the tear tracks on her cheeks. "I don't want to do this anymore, Xand. I went back to D'Hoffryn because I was mad at you for leaving me at the altar, but I can't stay that mad anymore. I miss you, Xand. You, Buffy, Willow, you were the first real friends I ever had."
"Hey, I'm sorry," Xander answered, leaning toward Anya and letting her head rest on his shoulder. "I never meant to hurt you, honey, you gotta believe that. I just didn't want to end up like my old man, and that other me who showed me the future—"
"Was working for D'Hoffryn," Anya announced. "I just found that out; he was a demon on D'Hoffryn's payroll, and he sent him to turn you against me, so I'd go back to my old vengeance demon gig." She tugged at her sleeve and sniffled into the fabric. "Xander, do you really think you could end up like your father?"
"Believe me, Ahn," Xander admitted, "I pray every night that I don't. I just didn't want to end up hurting you, the way Dad always hurt Mom and me. Jeez, I wish I could explain it to you better."
Anya regarded Xander with a slight smile. "Done."
Xander blinked briefly. "You can do that?"
"No," Anya giggled. "But I do understand, a little. I've seen so much of the worst of humanity as a vengeance demon. And I contributed to it, that's for sure. I was an immature eighteen year old girl for nearly a millennium, and when I became human again, I just grew older. Maybe after a thousand years, it's finally time for me to grow up." She reached around her neck and unclasped the necklace that D'Hoffryn gave her so many years ago, and returned to her a few months ago. "This," she stated, dropping the necklace to the ground, "is all that I was." Standing up, she looked passively at the necklace, then lifted her foot and stamped hard on it, grinding it into tiny pieces on the floor.
Xander stood up next to Anya, and took her hand in his. "So, Ahn, what happens to you now?"
"I go back to being human," she answered. "Maybe this time I'll be better at it. Uh, do you think you could help me there, Xand? Help me be more human, I mean?"
Xander smiled broadly, taking Anya into his arms in a warm and welcoming hug. "Done," he answered.
Willow ran until her legs started to give way. She ran until her lungs threatened to burst. And still she ran, away from the unholy specter that stalked her. She collapsed in pain and exhaustion beside a gnarled oak, praying to the Goddess that she had lost the thing that was chasing her.
"You naughty girl, Willow," Warren's voice creaked through a lipless mouth. Willow shuddered as the skinless figure shambled toward her. "You caused me a great deal of pain, you bitch. And I'm going to take it all out on you."
Willow wanted to struggle, but her muscles were weak from the exertions of her flight from Warren's ghost. The undead thing glared at Willow with unblinking eyes. "You called me a killer, but after what you did to me, I'm just an amateur." He grabbed Willow by the hair, and yanked hard. "But I learn quickly." Willow felt a knife being pressed slowly against her neck. "Don't worry, Willow," Warren cackled, "this will hurt a lot."
"Back off, you monster!"
Willow fell as Warren's hand let go of her hair, as the fiend backed away. The second ghostly figure stepped out of the shadows and confronted Warren with a cold and unforgiving glare. "How dare you attack my family?" She grabbed Warren's arm and threw him to the ground. "You have heaped enough misery on this girl, you bastard. No more, do you hear me? No more!" Warren cowered before the avenging angel above him, and then he faded to nothingness. The other ghost stooped beside Willow, lifting her to her feet with gentle arms. "Are you all right, Willow?"
"Yeah, I guess, I—" Willow glanced at her rescuer, and stopped, her mouth hanging open. The warm and loving face of Joyce Summers smiled back at her. "Mrs. Summers?" Willow gasped. "What are you doing here?"
"What else should I be doing?" Joyce answered. "I'm not going to let a thing like my death stop me from keeping an eye on my family."
Willow bowed her head, unable to show Joyce her shame. "I don't know if I qualify there anymore," she lamented. "Not after all I put Buffy through." It didn't occur to Willow to question why her best friend's late mother was comforting her. She simply chalked it up to a typical Sunnydale Halloween.
"Oh, Willow," Joyce consoled the sad young woman. "Buffy has always called you family. And so have I." She turned Willow's face upward with a kind hand. "Go to her, Willow. She needs you in her life." She backed away from Willow, and started to fade. "You have my blessing, Willow. Go to her." A shimmer of light and she was gone.
Willow blinked repeatedly, staring at the spot where Joyce Summers had stood. She could still feel the phantom sensation of Joyce's arm on her shoulder, her hand wiping away a tear.
You have my blessing…
The final tumbler fell into place, unlocking a secret long since hidden from her heart. For the first time since a bullet struck down Tara McClay, Willow felt a lightness in her soul. And there was only one place in the world where she could even think of being right now. With wings at her feet, she ran directly toward Buffy's house.
For the fifth time in as many minutes, Buffy checked her appearance in the mirror. The cream-colored silk dress hung off her body perfectly, flattering her natural curves. She was amazed that it still fit as well as it did; she hadn't worn this particular garment since her last actual date with Riley Finn a lifetime ago.
Suddenly she heard the front door open. "Buffy?" She exhaled deeply; her Willow was safe. Buffy emerged from her bedroom and headed down the stairs. "Hey, Willow," she greeted her, looking at her best friend as though for the first time. "How did the wicca meeting go?"
"It was good," Willow answered, fidgeting slightly. She found her eyes traveling along the length of Buffy's body, appraising the swell of her breasts, the curve of her belly. "Uh, I like the dress. It hangs nice on you."
"Thanks," Buffy felt her cheeks warm at Willow's compliment. "I just felt like putting on something pretty, you know?"
"Oh?" Willow's voice took on a teasing tone. "Were you expecting anyone in particular?"
"Oh, no," Buffy said suddenly, then caught herself staring hard into Willow's sea-green eyes. "Only you, Willow." Buffy tentatively reached out to Willow, taking the young witch's hand in hers. The contact was electric, sending a thrill of desire through both their bodies. The spell thus broken, Buffy immediately closed the gap between them, molded her body to Willow's and kissed her fully on the lips. Willow didn't allow herself to analyze her feelings, she simply flowed with them, wrapping her arms around Buffy's body and leaning into the kiss.
For a full minute, they allowed their mouths to travel along each other, savoring the building heat between them. Finally, Buffy broke her head away from Willow, but still remained in her embrace. "Oh, Willow," she breathed, "I've wanted to do that since you came back from England.""What kept you?" Willow asked, flashing a canary-eating smile.
"You were still mourning Tara," Buffy admitted. "I didn't want to risk losing you."
"You'll never lose me, Buffy," Willow promised, leaning forward for another kiss. "I love you so much."
"And I love you," Buffy answered, her lips moving against Willow's mouth. Their kiss grew more passionate, more urgent as the two lovers fell onto the sofa, their bodies never losing their sweet contact. Buffy's hands began to roam against Willow's back, almost instinctively knowing where to apply pressure to heighten Willow's arousal, as Willow's fingers were deftly stoking Buffy's fires.
"Hey, Buffy," Dawn slammed the door behind her as she rushed into the living room, "You won't believe who I ran into—Oh…my…God!" Dawn stood silently, watching her sister and her best friend making out in front of her.
Buffy and Willow turned their eyes toward Dawn, and clumsily tried to disengage their embrace. "Oh, hey, Dawnie," Willow greeted Buffy's sister, blushing a furious crimson. "Uh, I know that this must look weird—"
"I'll say," Dawn grinned. "I don't remember the last time I saw Buffy looking this happy." Willow looked at Buffy, who was apparently biting her lip to keep from laughing. "Hey, I've seen the way you two were scoping each other out since you came back from England, Willow. Buffy, Willow, I think it's great that you two finally hooked up. It just surprised me, is all."
"Oh," Buffy sighed, relieved that Dawn so understood the situation. "Good, because I'm planning on hanging onto Willow for a good long time."
"Darn tootin'," Willow answered happily. She snuggled back into Buffy's arms, and kissed her nose.
"Okay," Dawn answered. "That's great." Seeing her sister's impatient eyes looking at Willow, Dawn added, "Uh, I'm gonna go upstairs, and, uh, not be here. Okay?" If Buffy had heard her sister, she didn't give any indication, as she found herself engrossed with Willow's lips, which she resumed kissing. "Uh, yeah. Just keep it down, okay?" She tiptoed out of the living room and left the two older women alone.
Slowly, Buffy and Willow relaxed from their intense kissing, and Willow lay her head on Buffy's lap, content to luxuriate in their newfound closeness. "Hey," Buffy whispered in her ear as she stroked her red hair, "You think it'll be safe to move this upstairs and continue where we left off?"
"Yeah," Willow purred happily. "When Tara and I first moved in, we had a soundproofing spell placed around our bedroom. I think it still works."
"Good," Buffy grinned evilly, lifting Willow's body in her arms and making her way upstairs. "Let's make some noise." Willow chuckled throatily, her body trembling with desire. As Buffy carried her up the stairs and into her bedroom, Willow offered a silent prayer of thanks to the Goddess, and another prayer to Joyce Summers.
A prayer that she would always be worthy of the blessing of Buffy Summers.
The voices finally stopped. But they would never fade.
Spike slowly lifted his body from the crypt floor, looking around him. The ghosts were gone. He had survived their onslaught.
He could feel the laugh welling up within his gut, and slowly work its way out of his throat. It was a cold laugh, a laugh of triumph against his conscience. He reflected back on the ghosts that tormented him, both on the previous night and since he returned from Africa. The guilt, the underlying self-loathing that he had experienced since he had his soul restored, it was gone. He clapped his hands giddily. His soul was gone.
He found himself thinking about Buffy. The Slayer. He cursed himself for having allowed her into his heart before, for being fool enough to think he loved her. He was a monster. He didn't love. He couldn't love. And now, he realized, he didn't need to love.
"I'll bet you're laying in your bed right now," Spike whispered to himself, "thinking that you've finally neutered me at last. Well, I got news for you. I'm back." He paced his crypt like a panther pacing his cave, anticipating the hunt. "This is your last night on Earth, Slayer! I'm going to tie you down and force you to watch, while I drain the blood from your sister and your friends! Yeah, baby, Spike is back!" He shouted to the walls of his crypt. "DO YOU HEAR ME, SLAYER? I'M BACK!"
He pushed aside the door of his crypt and ran out, violence in his heart, blood in his eyes…
And faced the first rays of the rising sun.
"Oh, shi—" he murmured his final words as his body converted to ash.