Whither Thou Goest... by Pink Rabbit Productions

Title: Whither Thou Goest...
Author: Pink Rabbit Productions
Archive:
Pink Rabbit, A Slayer/A Hacker
Disclaimer:
The characters and show all belong to Joss Whedon, Fox, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui, and God only knows who else. This particular arrangement of words in cyberspace belongs to me, however. Btw, it contains love between two women, so if such things offend you, are illegal where you live or somesuch, kindly don't read it and upset yourself, 'kay. It'll just make life easier on all of us.
Spoilers:
Some general 5th season stuff, but nothing major.
Rating:
soft R
Feedback: Always welcome at pinkrabbit@altfic.com
Author's Note: This is the latest story in the Spin Series (following Spin, Spinning, Spun Out; It All Depends on Your Timing; and Interludis Neanderthalensis.

Whither Thou Goest...

| Prologue-Ch. 1 | Ch.2-3 | Ch. 4-5 | Ch. 6-7 | Ch. 8-9 | 10-11 | 12-13 | 14-Epilogue |

And Ruth said, Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge, thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.

Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried the LORD do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.

Ruth: 1:16-17

Prologue

1615, Oxford, England

She was a slight figure, short of stature, slender, her once long blond hair hacked short like a new penitent, her gown ripped and torn by rough hands and the lash. Her arms had been twisted behind her and folded over a heavy wooden pike pole, her slender wrists chained together in front. Strangely, the heartrending sight softened no hearts amongst her captors. They understood the need to make certain this one small girl could not resist her torments if they were to have any hope at controlling her. Even bound and beaten, she faced them proudly, standing gracefully in the center of the pit, the bars overhead casting striped shadows across her slender frame. Despite her situation, pale green eyes blazed with raw rage and she showed no sign of fearing their control over her fate.

"You have been accused of betraying the Council, Slayer!" the senior Watcher serving as magistrate over the proceedings charged, his voice more than loud enough to be heard by the small crowd spread around the edges of the pit. His heavy garb was ecclesiastical in appearance as befitted his position within the ancient organization. The dark robes, trimmed in royal purple and thick fur moved with his broad gestures, making him seem larger than life.

The girl lunged forward, though there was nowhere for her to go. The pit and chains binding her wrists were more than enough to contain any efforts she might have made to escape. "I've betrayed no one!" she snarled. "It's your precious Watcher who betrayed me!"

"Lying bitch!" a heavyset man standing near the judge screamed. "She murdered Elizabeth! Tricked her--"

"LIAR!!" the girl screamed back. "I LOVED HER!!!"

"SILENCE!!!" the judge bellowed, then waved to the guards who stood on the edges of the pit. "Judgment has been passed." The sound of metal sliding on metal screamed through the caverns as metal barred doors were pulled up, opening the corridors to the cells hidden deep inside the caverns. "Your perversity and your treason will be punished!"

The vampires that began to flow from the newly opened corridors were half starved, bony and thin, their faces warped by the desperate demons that lived inside their dead flesh.

Had her situation not been so desperate, the girl might have felt some pity for them. Even for the undead she'd shown an oddly soft heart, but as it was, terror made her heart hammer in her chest as she saw doom careening toward her. There were more than a dozen of the creatures all driven to a frenzy by starvation.

She was a Slayer; inhumanly strong, unbelievably fast, trained to fight--and to kill--and she used every skill beaten into her in the four years since she'd learned of her perverse calling to the utmost of her ability. Of all her captors, only one--a guard only a year or two older than her twenty years--had done her even the smallest of favors. The pole used to brace her arms back was wood and not steel and she wielded the makeshift weapon with a skill borne of desperation.

Unfortunately, her abilities weren't likely to save her. Only God could do that--at least that was the idea of the trial by combat--and even he would have been hard pressed to rescue the desperately battling young woman.

Overhead, gasps could be heard amongst the assembled crowd, along with the odd sound of a bet being made. The odds were not in the prisoner's favor, especially when she was momentarily overwhelmed by the thick--but thinning--horde of her attackers.

But as they watched, more than a few council members could almost believe that God had smiled on this Slayer. Despite being chained, outnumbered, and beaten bloody, she fought like a lion, killing creature after creature as they came after her, using her skills, and the clumsy weapon to dispatch them back to hell.

Clouds of inhuman dust rose from the battle, obscuring their view and the audience leaned farther forward in their seats, peering through the bars, trying to find the slight figure of the young Slayer through the haze of vampire dust with only flickering torchlight to aid them. Screams echoed across the hall and more bets were made, the odds shifting with every passing moment.

And then it all fell silent.

Breaths caught and the sound of voices died away, until the only remaining noise was the occasional jingle of coins being readied to trade hands.

Thick vampire dust slowly settled, the torches casting unsteady light through the hanging haze, until finally a silhouetted figure could be seen.

A collective gasp went through the audience of Watchers as their victim was revealed to their avid eyes.

The Slayer stood alone, her head bowed as blood streamed from a dozen small wounds. Her wrists were slick with crimson, and as they watched, she slowly worked one free of a manacle, drawing more blood and scraping the flesh of her already battered hand. The chain fell away with a startling clank, but she only lifted her arm from its braced position where it had been wrapped around the pole, then slowly straightened it, working tortured fingers with careful precision.

From his place on the mezzanine, the magistrate gestured to the guards positioned around the pit and crossbows were raised, the bolts sighted on the slender figure below.

If she was aware of this latest form of stalking death, she showed no outward sign.

The members of the Watcher's Council all stared at the girl in mesmerized awe, hardly able to believe that the doomed Slayer had survived. Scarcely a one of them could even draw breath as they watched their prisoner pull the pole across her back free and drop it to the dirt before methodically beginning the process of removing the remaining manacle.

No one knew quite how to respond when she began to sing, the sweet sounds of a madrigal--a sad tale of lost love--slipping from her lips to float up through the chamber.

"She's mad," someone murmured somewhere in the crowd, and more than a few who overheard the comment nodded in agreement. Not surprising, really, considering what she'd been through. It would be a sad loss, they all agreed, but not unpredictable. Unfortunate as it was, she would have to be dealt with. The world could not do without a Slayer. At least this way she could be buried in consecrated ground.

And then her wrist slipped free of the rough-edged metal and the chains fell to the dirt with only the faintest jingle as the links tumbled into each other. For a long moment, she just stood there, her head still down. Of course, it was a wonder she was still on her feet at all.

As if driven by the very silence and stillness of the girl, her former Watcher suddenly lunged forward, his portly frame, ungraceful at the best of times, trembling with uncontrolled rage and something else--fear. She had passed the test. That possibility had never occurred to him. "Destroy her!" he screamed, his voice threatening to crack with panic. After all, he had brought the full weight of the Council's judgment down on her narrow shoulders, and it was no secret that an angry Slayer was a dangerous Slayer.

"Silence!" the Magistrate bellowed, still watching the girl with intense eyes. "Tell the Council, child, have you been adjudged innocent of the charges?"

She toed the wooden pole lying at her feet, flicking one end upward to catch it easily. Still singing, her voice clear and sweet, she slowly began to roll it between her fingers then over the back of her knuckles, her pace leisurely.

More voices mumbled about her obvious insanity.

And then pale green eyes lifted from under thick lashes and a smile lifted full lips. Narrow shoulders shook with soft laughter, and then suddenly the girl's chin slowly lifted, the song trailing off as she drew breath to respond. "Not exactly," she drawled as the blood running down the graceful arch of her throat was revealed to the watching crowd. In an instant, while her audience was paralyzed with shock, she hurled the pole like a javelin, sending it straight through the magistrate's heart in one fell swoop.

Crossbow bolts were fired, but none reached her heart as she plucked them out of the air with fine boned hands and flung them back at the guards, easily piercing the thin armored chestplates they wore and then the hearts beneath.

As panic reigned, she easily broke through the slatted wooden bars meant to keep her in the pit. They were designed to contain vampire strength, or Slayer strength, but not Vampire-Slayer strength.

And then the killing began in earnest....

The slaughter took no more than an hour as she moved through the caverns with demonic precision, leaving the hand hewn walls and carved stone floors drenched in blood and littered with body parts. She turned no one, instead tearing them to pieces with a brutally efficient ferocity borne of both training and inherent skill. The demon inside wanted nothing left of her earthly predecessor's tormentors.

At last, she stood in the storage room where the remnants of her life had been gathered and used as evidence against her during the trial, careless of the dead left in her wake, physically sated, but.... She stood before the paintings stacked against one wall, reached out, touched the top one, pulled it forward to study the ones behind it one at a time, and finally curved fine boned fingers to the entire stack. As she left the storage room, the paintings in hand, she spared a glance for her former Watcher where he hung impaled on the spikes of a large free-standing candelabra. His screams had provided the soundtrack for much of her killing spree, though he'd finally fallen silent. She paused when she stood before him, eyeing his florid, blood spattered face. "Poor Freddy," she drawled and reached out to trail a finger through the crimson streamers on his face. "Your nasty little bit of revenge didn't quite work out the way you planned, now did it." She tasted the blood on her fingertip and made a face. "You really should have cut back on the alcohol my friend." Then, laughing, she turned from her former tormentor and walked away into the night.

* * * * * *

Chapter One

Willow was crying again, not deep wrenching sobs, but soft, almost soundless tears that seemed to go on forever. Just in from patrol, Buffy silently peeled off her jacket and put away her weapons bag, painfully aware of the tiny sounds as she tried to tamp down a wave of nagging guilt. She knew she was doing a sucky job as a best friend. With camouflage commandos running around campus, Spike living in Gile's bathtub, plus school, semi-dating Riley or at least being pursued by and considering semi-dating Riley, and of course her usual vampire killing duties, she just hadn't had time for doing the sort of best-friend-helping-best-friend-get-over-guy-by-eating-too-much-chocolate-and-plotting-vengeance sorts of activities -- Buffy sighed softly -- and maybe there'd been a bit of avoidance mixed in there as well, she admitted in a darkness inspired flash of discomfiting honesty. That whole Cro-Magnon necking experience had thrown her equilibrium more than she cared to admit, not just because she'd enjoyed it, but because as much as she'd pursued Parker and now Riley during the day, it was Willow she seemed to be dreaming about at night--starting shortly after Angel's exit from Sunnydale, and seemingly growing in intensity with every passing night--strange dreams full of tenderness and sensuality that left her panting and painfully aware of her own body when she woke. It was all just a little too confusing--and now that Oz was gone from Willow's life --at least temporarily--maybe just a little too tempting.

Sniff.

The soft sound reminded Buffy of just where her line of thought had begun. That's good, Buffy, she castigated herself, can you get any more self-centered? Willow's hurting, and are you thinking about her? No, you're worrying about yourself. And after all the times she's done the sympathize-over-the-boyfriend thing for you. If you can manage to be just a little more sympathetic, maybe she won't turn down that whole Vengeance Demon gig next time.

Sniff.

"Hey, Will," the Slayer said very softly as she drew close to the bed. The sniffles instantly stopped and she could almost hear Willow trying not be heard crying. Buffy sighed softly again. Oh, she'd mouthed all the right platitudes, but it suddenly bothered her that she hadn't spent nearly enough time offering Willow the kind of unconditional support Willow had offered her under similar circumstances. Hell, Spike had been more in tune with the fact that she was walking on the edge. "I know you're awake," she added gently and heard another soft sniff that made her heart clench with guilt. No wonder Willow had nearly wound up bailing from the good guy's team.

"Maybe a little," a tiny voice admitted in the darkness.

Buffy silently took a seat on the edge of Willow's bed, startlingly aware of the warmth of her friend's body where it nudged up against her hip. "I just..." Buffy began hesitantly. "I wanted to talk to you." She reached out, resting her hand lightly on Willow's hip, moving her thumb in a gentle circular pattern.

"Oh," Willow exhaled in a tiny voice. "I guess you were out slaying tonight."

"Yeah," Buffy said, her tone brushing the subject aside. "Look, Will, I know things have been really difficult lately...and...well...I just...some apologies are in order--"

"Buffy, I'm sorry," Willow apologized instantly. "I mean I'm really sorry about that whole spell thing and causing you and Spike to...well...kiss...and all that...I mean I really didn't know--"

"Shhh," Buffy hushed while Willow kept apologizing until the Slayer laid her fingers lightly over her friend's lips. "That's not the apology I was referring to."

"Oh," Willow murmured, then drew a sharp breath. "I'm sorry if I haven't really been a lot of fun lately, and if the whole crying thing has been keeping you up--"

"Will, don't," Buffy interrupted the ongoing apology, feeling worse with every word Willow had said. God, she really hadn't been getting it right lately. "I meant the apology I owe you."

Willow went completely still. "You owe me?" she repeated doubtfully.

"Yeah," Buffy confirmed. "I haven't done a great job of being a friend...since...well...lately." Buffy sighed tiredly, leaning forward, her elbows braced on her knees, fingers loosely intertwined. "I dunno," she exhaled. "It's like I've been kind of out of control, not knowing whether I was coming or going...I should have realized what a hard time you were having...and been there for you..." She reached over and curved her fingers around Willow's hand and swallowed hard. "You're the best friend I've ever had...and I'm sorry I failed you. You shouldn't have been crying alone."

Willow sniffed back on her tears, blinked rapidly to clear her vision as she peered up at the Slayer's shadowed profile. Slowly, she pushed upright, sitting cross-legged, elbows braced on her knees. "Thanks," she whispered at last. She'd entered college so confident, feeling like someone totally different, but losing Oz had shaken her newfound collegiate composure. "I just didn't want to be a burden...I've tried to...tried to cover things up...but...."

"I know," Buffy sighed, remembering how that had turned out. "And the whole covering up thing--well, in light of that whole vengeance demon thing--maybe not such a good idea."

Willow turned her hand under Buffy's, clinging tightly and blinked rapidly, trying to clear the hot tears stinging her eyes. "It's just that everything seems wrong lately...not just Oz...everything...."

Buffy frowned ever so slightly. She knew the feeling. She 'd been feeling increasingly disconnected for months and nothing seemed to fix it. At first she'd attributed it to Angel's move to Los Angeles and tried to lose it in the pursuit of other men, but more recently that explanation had seemed less and less likely. Perhaps it was just the change from high school to college--or maybe it's those dreams you don't want to admit to, a tiny voice whispered in her ear, the ones where you can't seem to keep your hands off your best friend, where she's not just your best friend, but also your lover, your partner, and the best thing that's ever happened in your life. "That's not it," Buffy hissed at the recalcitrant voice only to get an odd look from Willow.

"Buff?"

"Sorry," the Slayer apologized hurriedly. "Just talking to myself."

Willow nodded understandingly. She'd always tended to talk to herself and lately that tendency had extended to long, unwanted conversations. She stared down at her hands, studying the complicated network of bones, tendons and veins as she avoided looking at the Slayer.

"Talk to me, Will," Buffy said after several long moments of silence.

There were so many thoughts running through Willow's head in disjointed, random pathways that she barely knew where to begin. "Do you think about them?" she asked at last.

The question left Buffy confused and she stared at her friend, nonplused. "Who?"

"The demons and vampires you've killed?" The hacker looked up, lost in thought as she stared at a random point somewhere in the distance.

"Sometimes," Buffy admitted hesitantly, not wanting to admit that sometimes she couldn't stop thinking about it. She knew they were demons, knew she had no choice in what she did, but they looked human enough, had personalities, sometimes even begged for their lives. Even knowing what she did, it bothered her more often than she cared to admit.

"Because I can't stop thinking about Veruca," Willow whispered, then shook her head, refocusing on Buffy. "I mean, she was our age....and she's dead...and I--"

"What happened wasn't your fault, Will. She was going to kill you. If Oz hadn't--"

"It's not just that," Willow cut her friend off, trying to find a way to explain what she was feeling, the thoughts that had been running through her head since that night. She took a deep breath, letting it out slowly in an effort to clear her head. "She was human, Buffy...not dead and not a demon--"

"She was a werewolf, Will," Buffy reminded her friend.

"And so's Oz, but he hasn't given way to the darkness. So why did she go the way she did? What made the difference in her life?"

Buffy started to answer, but held her words back. True, Oz hadn't given in to the wolf, but he was afraid of it, and she suspected there was a wildness there that was never going away and might just be getting stronger. Oz would never hurt any of them willingly, and she was quite certain that was one of the reasons he'd left. He was afraid he couldn't control it much longer. "No," she said at last.

"But he's afraid of it," Willow exhaled at last as if reading Buffy's thoughts. She released her hold on Buffy's hand to let her head fall forward into her palms.

"Will, if this is about Oz leaving--"

"It's not," the hacker denied and then looked up, her eyes damp with tears. "I'm afraid of it too," she whispered raggedly.

Buffy stared at her friend in confusion. "Afraid of Oz?" she questioned at last. Wolf or no wolf, she knew Oz would die before he'd hurt Willow.

Willow shook her head, frustrated by Buffy's inability to understand what she was saying. "No, of my own darkness."

The Slayer tensed, shaking her head in denial. "You don't have any--" she began instantly.

"For God's sake, Buffy, I just got offered a job as a vengeance demon. Clearly I have darkness issues."

Buffy opened her mouth to argue only to snap it shut again. Willow had a point. "Okay," she murmured after a long beat, not knowing what else to say.

Willow drew another deep breath and heaved a heavy sigh. "It's just that I have this need to know more...to learn more about what I can do...but...but, it's scary too sometimes...and sometimes..."

Buffy just kept listening to her friend, doing the one thing she hadn't had time for amid her own needs and emergencies. She'd been there for Willow that night--saving her life--but during the weeks since she'd been all too absent and it was obvious there was a lot more going on here than she'd suspected. This wasn't just the I-can't-get-over-the-boyfriend blues. It went a lot deeper. And Willow clearly needed to get it off her chest.

The silence that lay between them wasn't the comfortable, friendly studying together sort. It was more the uncomfortable, how-in-the-hell-am-I-supposed-to-say-what-I'm-really-trying-to-say kind of thing. Not simple even for the best of friends.

"I was casting a spell that night," Willow whispered at last, swallowing back harsh tears to continue. "I just wanted him to hurt as much as I did...I could feel it, Buffy--the power, the temptation. It was like it was calling to me." The hacker shook her head slowly, shivering as she remembered the sensation of dark energy coursing through her. "For a moment I could almost understand Faith."

Buffy shivered as though someone had walked over her grave. "You could never be like her, Will."

"Yes, I could," Willow disagreed. "I almost was...it was only at the last moment that I couldn't...and then Veruca got there...and Oz..." she trailed off, staring down at her hands with hypnotic intensity.

Buffy tried to find the words to offer comfort. "But you didn't do it...you pulled back. We're all tempted sometimes--"

"But what happens if I can't pull back some day? I could hurt someone, Buffy." She dragged slender fingers through sleep tousled hair. "I dunno. Maybe I should just leave too...just go away where I can't hurt anyone--"

"No!" Buffy snapped instantly, the very thought sending a bolt of terror through her. Willow couldn't leave. That simply wasn't an option. She caught Willow's hands in strong fingers, massaging them soothingly as she held on tightly. "Don't talk like that," she insisted more calmly. "You're not like Veruca or Faith...you have people who care for you...who'll help you." Buffy had to resist the urge to lift those slender hands and press soothing kisses across her knuckles the way she had in a half-remembered dream. "You just have to trust us...let us help you." And by that--that insistent part of brain clarified--you mean let me help you. "But you have to be honest...you have to tell us...tell me...when you need help." Buffy's gaze dropped to their twined hands to hide the guilt she was feeling. "And if that means a two by four to my thick skull...well...you do what you have to and play 'Whack a Slayer.'" The silence stretched out between them, while Buffy kept her head down, not quite confident enough to look up and see Willow's expression.

"Oh...great..." the hacker drawled at last, a touch of humor threading through her voice. "Are you trying to get me killed...'Whack the Slayer' indeed..."

Buffy risked a glance at her friend, relaxing as she glimpsed a watery smile lighting her gamine features.

"Though," the other girl continued, "as hard as your head is, I'm not sure you'd notice."

Buffy chuckled at that. "Yeah," she agreed on a relieved sigh. "It is pretty solid."

The mood broken, Willow reached out and mimed knocking her friend on the side of the head. "Solid wood," she teased.

"Hey, that's a plus when you're the Slayer. How do you think I take out all those vamps? I just head-butt 'em with my pointy, little, wooden head," Buffy defended with mock-indignation before turning serious once again. "I mean it though, Will, the only way any of us get through life in Sunnyhell is by sticking together--if it wasn't for you, Giles, and Xander, I'd have been dead a long time ago--so you've got to promise to come to us when things start closing in on you." Come to me when things start closing in on you, that inescapable inner commentator amended loudly enough that Buffy wondered if she'd spoken the words aloud for just a moment.

"Yeah," Willow exhaled and the two girls sat silently for a long moment.

Suddenly Buffy bounded to her feet. "Come on, up and at 'em," she commanded with a laugh as she spun away and began digging through Willow's closet, tugging out clothes with unusual abandon.

Willow blinked in sleepy confusion. "'Scuse me?" she questioned.

Buffy pivoted neatly to face her friend. "I've been remiss in the whole best-friend department," she explained. "We haven't done a chocolate and sympathy night yet."

"Buffy, it's two o'clock in the morning," Willow pointed out reasonably, but the Slayer was not to be deterred.

"Look, Will, at times like this, the only surefire cure is a total junkaholic pigout. Chocolate, chips, anything that's loaded with grease and bad for you."

Willow stared at her friend with a faintly perplexed smile. "I repeat, it's two o'clock in the morning. Where do you plan on getting this junkfeast? Besides, chocolate never solved anything."

"Answer to question one." Buffy held up a finger to keep count. "We're college students, where do we get any kind of food-type-stuff."

"Twenty-four/Seven," both girls chimed in at the same time, referring to the 24 hour quickie mart on the edge of campus, where the food was stale, the prices high, the beer domestic, and the help surly. It was, of course, where all the college students got most of their non-collegiate All Aboard Card approved survival provisions, like beer, circus peanuts, beer, Count Chokula, beer, Ding Dongs, and, of course, beer.

"And as for solving things," Buffy continued. "It's broccoli that never solved anything. Chocolate can solve everything."

"You've been watching Mary Tyler Moore reruns on Nick at Night again, haven't you?" Willow demanded, but allowed herself to be pulled from bed by her eager to bring good cheer roommate.

"Hey, she's gonna make it after all, doncha know?" Buffy thrust the clothes she'd chosen at Willow. "I find this a very inspiring message." She turned away at her friend's pointed look, trying not to listen too avidly as she heard clothes being removed and then put on. "I always thought Mary woulda made a good Slayer, y'know," Buffy continued, chatting in an effort not to think about Willow standing naked or near-naked just behind her. Those dreams really had been getting to her. She couldn't help but wonder what her friend would think if she knew about them. Be horrified probably, she concluded, though that taunting voice kept suggesting she ask and find out.

"Nah," Willow disagreed as she finished dressing. "Mary was too soft-hearted. She'd have let them go."

"Rhoda then?" Buffy mused aloud as she caught Willow's hand in her own, dragging her out into the hallway.

"Nah, the one who would have made a really killer Slayer was Ida."

"Ida?" the Slayer repeated as she drew a blank on the name.

"Y'know, Rhoda's mother. The little redhead."

"Oooo, you're right. She was mean. Must have been the hair. You know what they say about redheads."

"Hey!" the redhead yelped, but she clung tightly to her best friend's hand as they wandered away into the night.

* * * * * *

The Twenty-Four/Seven was like most such places; small, cramped, full of stale candy, overpriced sandwiches, canned beer, and underaged students trying to buy all of the above using parentally paid for credit cards and illegally altered I.D.s. Even as Buffy and Willow entered and began moving among the narrow aisles, plucking up an assortment of the nastiest candy and chips they could find, they were treated to the sounds of a pretty young blond arguing vociferously with the clerk at the counter, who was a hundred if he was a day.

"Dammit, all I want is one beer," she snarled in frustration, while the clerk peered at her ID through coke-bottle glasses.

"I'll admit, it's a good fake," he allowed grudgingly.

Buffy peered over the shelves just as he looked up at his youthful nemesis over the edge of his glasses. "But we both know it's a fake."

The young woman slapped a hand on the counter. "Look, just because I'm cursed with good genes--"

"That's nice," the clerk said smoothly and tossed the card somewhere under the counter. "But nobody has genes that good--"

"Now, wait one damn minute...."

Buffy ducked back behind the shelves, blushing with embarrassment as she was reminded of her own adventures in beer-drinking.

Willow looked over to meet Buffy's gaze, her own cheeks flushing with her own memories of that night--of being cuddled up against the warmth of Buffy's body, the feel of primitively eager lips on her own.

"Heh," Buffy half-laughed on a nervous quaver. "Beer...now there's something I'd just as soon go through the rest of my life not thinking about."

"I dunno, NeanderBuffy had her charms," Willow teased before she had a chance to think about it and squelch the impulse.

Buffy's eyes rounded, her mouth forming a perfect O as she stared at her friend in surprise. "Will," she croaked, because, while she supposedly didn't remember that night--though, in reality, it was clear as a bell, a frequently ringing bell in view of how often it seemed to replay in her head--Willow unquestionably remembered and didn't even have the protection of feigned forgetfulness. "I...uh..." Not for the first time, the Slayer wondered what her best friend thought of the whole experience. She certainly didn't sound repulsed by the memory.

By then Willow had realized what she'd said and tripped right into babble mode. "I...that is...I meant...."

Both girls fell silent, staring at each other, uncertain what to say or do, both remembering the heated intimacies they'd shared in the darkness, each wondering what the other was thinking.

"Look, will you at least kindly return my driver's license," the young customer's angry voice broke in on their unspoken conversation, saving both girls the necessity of a response.

Buffy straightened, peering over the edge of the shelves once again, automatically checking to make sure things weren't getting out of hand.

"Look, kid, look at it this way; I'm doing you a favor. A cop catch you with that thing and you'd be in real trouble," the clerk lectured, though Buffy noticed there was a certain malicious glee in his eyes. Working amid frat rats and sorority chicks, not to mention all those goddamn GDI's had not left him overly fond of the college age crowd.

The young woman leaned across the counter, her hands braced solidly on the top. "Dammit, I don't have time for this..." She started to reach across the counter.

Buffy tensed as she felt a familiar tingle of apprehension. "Will, stay here," she snapped, dropping the half dozen things she was already carrying and moving to round the end of the shelves. She slid her hand inside her jacket, checking on the familiar weight of Mister Pointy where he resided in an inner pocket.

The clerk reached out with a meaty fist, shoving the young woman back several paces with an angry snarl. "Don't pull that garbage with me, little girl!"

The tingle had become a raging shiver as Buffy moved forward, uncertain where the danger came from, but knowing it was there.

The blond customer took a half step forward, her body language broadcasting her anger as clearly as words and then suddenly pivoted, staring through the broad glass panes that fronted the tiny store.

Buffy's gaze followed the other woman's less than a second later as time shifted, slowing until it was measured in heartbeats instead of seconds.

The three men who came rushing through the double doors to the small store were all dressed in black from the tips of their steel-toed jackboots to the collars of their black dusters and the knit of their ski masks. The only trace of color was a tiny rim of red stitching around the eyeholes of the ski masks, Buffy noted with the perverse attention to detail that she'd learned as the Slayer. Each carried a pump action shotgun, held high and pointed at the tiny group of people.

Before Buffy could do more than draw a breath, the barrel of a shotgun was shoved in her face.

"I wouldn't move, little girl," her assailant snarled, his voice ragged with stress, his eyes both scared and excited where they gleamed behind the rough knit of the mask.

Near the counter, the young woman who'd been arguing with the clerk was receiving similar treatment, which meant Buffy didn't dare try anything. She was certain she could disarm her attacker without injury, but there was too much chance the others would get off a shot or two before she could do anything to stop them.

The clerk apparently wasn't so cautious, because he made a dash for something under the edge of the counter, only to crash headfirst into a shotgun butt. The force behind the blow knocked him backwards into the cigarette display, sending packs flying everywhere and upending a rack of adult magazines. He hit the floor hard and before he could even think of trying anything else, the third assailant vaulted the counter, slamming a hard kick into the man's chest.

"Man, that was stupid," the thief snarled as he heaved a final kick at his victim, then began hammering on the cash register in an apparent attempt to get at the money inside. Finally, he grabbed the clerk by the collar, hauling him to his feet as he ordered, "Open it!"

Buffy risked a sideways glance out of the corner of her eye, mentally willing Willow to stay down and quiet, as she tried to see if there was any sign of her friend.

Still hidden behind the shelves, Willow crouched down, trying to think of a way to help and coming up with absolutely nothing. Despite the generally deadly quality of Twinkies, she was comparatively certain that throwing them at someone wasn't likely to do much damage. Still crouched, she glanced up, noting the rounded security mirror in one corner of the store which let her see where the bad guys were positioned. Of course, if any of them looked up, they'd also see where she was positioned, but there wasn't really much she could do about that. She mentally calculated the distances, then eyed the shelves that formed her scant cover. They were light enough that she thought she could probably shove them over. If a couple of the thieves would just--

"You're pretty, little girl," the sneering leering voice broke into Willow's half-formed plans and she peered up into the mirror just as the one holding a shotgun on the would-be beerdrinker sidled up to the young woman near the counter, jamming the barrel of the weapon against the underside of her jaw. "Maybe we should just go in back and have a little party of our own."

She tensed, but didn't respond as he backed her against the counter, using his body to pin her in place.

The clerk had finally gotten the now-battered cash register open, and the thug behind the counter was merrily stripping the money out of the drawer and shoving it in his pockets. "Hey, go for it, man." He turned, leering at Buffy. "Maybe we should all have a party and..." And then he trailed off.

Willow felt her heart skip at least a half a dozen beats as she realized he was staring back at her reflection in the mirror.

"Shit, there's another one back there!" he shouted to his buddies as he vaulted the counter.

Willow scrambled, stumbling backwards, but had neither the time to escape, nor any available route. Somewhere in the distance, she heard Buffy call out her name, but knew there was nothing the Slayer could do to help since she was as vulnerable to a shotgun blast as anyone else. Her attacker was on her in a second, rough hands grabbing at her clothes, and slamming her this way and that, sending bags of chips and bottles of designer water flying. She tried to fight, but he was too strong and too fast and she never had a chance. Upended by her attacker, the world tumbled by at dizzying speed until suddenly she was hurled forward to go skidding across the floor, not stopping until she bodily slammed into a human barrier. Her ears ringing, Willow pushed up on one hand, leaning against the legs that had stopped her wild skid, momentarily thinking they were Buffy's until she realized the Slayer was in front of her, her head tipped back by the pressure of the a shotgun barrel, every muscle in her body tense with the barely leashed need to do something.

"Buffy, don't," Willow croaked, her voice sounding rough to her own ears.

A hard hand dug into crimson hair, dragging Willow's head back as the one who appeared to be the leader taunted, "Yeah, Buffy, don't."

She was shaking hard, dazed, tasting blood. God, they couldn't even go to a quickie mart without something bad happening.

"Well, this is a nice development," the leader continued as he leered down at her. "A dance partner for each of us."

A hand curved to Willow's shoulder, steadying her when she might have gone down and she risked a glance up at the would-be beerdrinker. She was ghostly pale, her hand cold and clammy where it was braced on Willow's shoulder. Willow recognized the look of disbelieving horror on her face all too easily. When she'd first known Buffy she'd felt that way on more than a few occasions. Of course, those had been supernatural villains, not garden variety thugs, but the terror wasn't so different. After all, most twenty year-olds consider themselves immortal whether they've ever met otherworldly dangers or not.

The clerk, bleeding from his nose and mouth, pushed unsteadily to his feet, an arm braced across his midsection. "Look, you've got the money you wanted. Just go."

Before anyone could move, the leader slammed the butt of his shotgun into the clerk's face, sending him crashing to the floor in an unmoving heap. "When I want your opinion, I'll ask for it, old man." The leader chuckled, enjoying his triumph.

Buffy's eyes gleamed with the promise of revenge. If she could just find a way to distract them and get those shotguns aimed away from Willow and the other woman, they'd learn that her Slaying skills weren't limited to vampires.

Somewhere in the distance, the pulsing wail of a siren could just barely be heard and three would-be thieves tensed. "Well, damn," their leader cursed. "Looks like we ought to take this show on the road." He grabbed for the blond where she was pressed against the counter, yanking her close and grinning when she flinched in distaste as his alcohol sour breath washed across her face. Emboldened by his actions, the other two started to do likewise.

"I don't think so," the Slayer's angry growl cut through the taut silence of the quickie mart, drawing the attention of all three of the would-be thieves as she yanked her arm back from her assailant.

Willow wondered if her mouth was hanging open. Didn't Buffy realize there was a shotgun-- actually, three shotguns, the hacker realized as she noted that all of them had swung their weapons toward the Slayer--pointed at her, and these people were nuts.

The leader was visibly startled by the refusal, his eyes narrowing through the holes in the ski-mask. "Excuse me?" he drawled, his tone thick with sarcastic rage.

The blond shook her head stiffly. "I'm not going anywhere with you," she said, her voice menacingly low. "If I'm going to die, I'd just as soon do it here...on camera." She nodded toward the security camera hanging inconspicuously in one corner. "And not out in the middle of nowhere after you and your friends have all had a couple of turns."

Willow saw the fury in his stance. He was going to kill her. She could feel it like a black cloud hanging around him. And then she felt the leader move, bringing his arm back as he raised the weapon to strike out with it the way he had before. No! She couldn't let that happen! The shotgun stocks were made of wood, and Willow reached out without even knowing she was doing it. As he slammed the butt end of the weapon forward with enough force to rend flesh and break bone, she grabbed it back with her mind. It was like solid wall went up between the gun stock and its intended target, stopping it several inches short of the Slayer's face even as she lifted her hands to block the weapon.

For a long moment, they all froze, each of the participants staring at the scene in shocked disbelief.

The thief stumbled back a half step, shaking the gun as though it had somehow malfunctioned. It was all the distraction Buffy needed as her own attacker looked away from his prey and toward his confused friend.

In that instant, time warped and slowed until each moment took an hour to pass. In the first second the Slayer brought her hand up, slapping her forearm into the gun barrel pressed against her throat and knocking it aside. Before he had a chance to respond, she turned her hand, wrapping inhumanly strong fingers around the barrel and wrenching the weapon away from her attacker. He barely had time to blink before she snapped it into his face, knocking him backwards into a rack of snack packs of chips where he lay unmoving.

As another second passed, Willow saw the two nearest attackers aim their weapons at the Slayer--they wouldn't be using them as clubs anymore--and gritted her teeth--mentally shoving them up and away from herself with panic driven force only an instant before they went off with deafening impact.

With ceiling tiles raining down on them, a third second ticked by. Buffy leapt at the men flanking Willow where she knelt, her back pressed tightly against the counter, her shoulder pressed into the blond beerdrinker's hip. The Slayer hit the nearest man hard, the impact throwing them both into Willow, the blond, then the confused leader of the trio like a trail of human dominoes.

As the fourth second passed, Willow lost all sense of what was happening in the scramble of bodies and limbs flailing randomly in desperate combat. A shotgun went skittering harmlessly across the floor as the Slayer disarmed one of the two men. Caught in the middle, the hacker was knocked about with little control over the situation until, suddenly, a hard hand dug into her shirt collar, hurling her aside.

Willow tumbled free of the fray just as the fifth second ticked away, twisted and looked back in horror as she saw the leader--at least she thought it was him--pull a long, slender stiletto from the back of his belt. The Slayer's back was to him as him as she blocked a roundhouse swing from his partner in crime. Willow heard the tortured sound of her own voice screaming in warning, "BUFFY!!" as she lunged forward, bounding to her feet and hurtling herself at her best friend's attacker with raw ferocity, determined that he would not harm her.

The sixth second saw the Slayer slam an elbow into the other thief's face, shattering his nose as she tore the shotgun away from him with her other hand. With only one of the attackers left, she spun toward her friend's call, horror twisting her features as she saw the knife turn toward Willow even as she was barreling straight toward it. There was no way Buffy could reach them in time and she didn't even get a chance as the downed thief behind her managed to get a hand around a free-standing shelf full of snack cakes and upended it into her back.

As the clock counted down the seventh second, Willow saw Buffy skid and fall forward while she was backpedaling wildly in an effort to escape the knife thrust toward her. Her feet slid on the slick tiles, sending her crashing backwards into a magazine rack. There was nowhere left to go and no time left to go there anyway. Pain rattling through her back where she'd hit the sharp edged metal rack, Willow's eyes instinctively snapped shut and she turned her head away, blindly trying to escape the sight of the silver blade aimed toward her.

As the eighth second fell away, Willow was startled to feel a body impact into her instead of the sharp blade of the stiletto. She blinked her eyes open as blond hair touched her cheek, automatically wrapping her arms around the slender figure that had somehow stumbled between her body and imminent doom. For the briefest moment, she thought the blond hair that dusted across her face was Buffy's, that somehow the Slayer had made it in time to put herself between Willow and death one more time, but then she realized it was too short, while the dead-weight figure in her arms was dressed all wrong. Unable to support the other woman's weight, she could only cushion her boneless collapse to the floor even as she heard her own voice screaming Buffy's name. Her eyes lifted to where the thief stood over her, staring down at his victim with a wide-eyed look.

By the time the ninth second passed what he thought or didn't think was irrelevant. Buffy took him down so quickly and so hard that it was unlikely he'd be moving again on his own for at least a week. She scrambled past their attacker, skidding to one knee beside Willow. "Will?" the Slayer panted, terror making her eyes glitter with wild lights. All she knew was that in one instant the knife had been headed for her friend, and then by the time she was done with the bastard, Willow was cradling another victim in her arms.

Time began to collapse again, gaining momentum as the tenth second counted off, the seconds moving by more quickly, tumbling away, never to be seen again. "She needs an ambulance" the hacker panted. The woman in her arms lay half on her side, shaking, her mouth working soundlessly as she instinctively coiled her body around the knife still stuck in her gut.

The eleventh and twelfth second slid by while Willow comforted the bleeding victim. "An ambulance?" the young woman croaked weakly, her body trembling violently while her blood continued to spill onto the speckled floor tiles. "Doctors...hospital...yeah...." She coughed heavily, blood spilling onto her lips.

The clock ticked down the thirteenth and fourteenth seconds as Willow promised, "It's going to be okay," trying to offer what scant comfort she could, her hands quickly drenched in the flow of dark blood she was trying in vain to staunch.

Another three seconds passed as the young woman struggled to speak. "Don't think so," the blond groaned, her expression twisted by the pain from her injury. "Gotta stop zigging when I oughta zag...." She looked up at Willow, meeting the hacker's frightened gaze with one that was oddly calm. "It's okay," she whispered weakly. Then she shuddered and went horrifyingly limp in an instant.

More seconds came and went as Buffy felt for a pulse, fingers searching the woman's slender throat. "Will," she whispered after a beat. "I think she's dead."

The hacker shook her head slowly, wanting to deny the obvious; that another human being had died in her place. "No...maybe there's a spell--"

Buffy kept searching, but there was no trace of a pulse and the skin beneath her fingers was already cooling. "Will, she's gone." Buffy slid an arm around Willow's shoulders, hugging her hard.

Less than thirty seconds and a woman lay dead.

And the frightening part for Buffy Summers was the fact that as angry and disgusted as she was, a part of her was profoundly grateful that it wasn't her best friend lying dead on the floor. Admit it, her inner voice pressed, you couldn't survive that.

In one of the odder coincidences that had long dominated Buffy Summers life, that was the moment the police chose to arrive, guns drawn, ready for action, and less than a half a minute too late. As the first officer burst through the door, barking a sharp order, "Hands in the air," Buffy barely contained the urge to laugh hysterically.

Soon enough they hauled the still-unconscious, handcuffed thieves out. Apparently, the clerk had managed to trip some kind of silent alarm to summon them, but they hadn't come quickly enough to do anything but clean up the mess and send the clerk to the hospital. The officers that took both girls' statements, were appropriately sympathetic, but there were a lot of details to go over, especially when a detective pulled Buffy's name and file from the police computer. As the questioning continued, in the background a forensics team carefully took pictures of the dead woman, then zipped her into a plastic body bag. It was going to be a long night.

* * * * * *

Continue to Chapters 2-3

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