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They weren't supposed to be cute, damn it. Scary or seductive or sleazy, that was OK, but they weren't supposed to wear patchwork suede jackets over baby-doll tops with silly little dancing giraffes appliqued along the collar. They weren't supposed to wear Raspberry Ice lipstick. They were supposed to smell like open graves and decay, not fresh-turned earth and strawberries, and they were definitely not allowed to look up at you with big glistening green eyes like a person. Because if vampires looked like that and smelled like that, you might hesitate for a second before plunging the stake between their ribs and into their silent, demonic hearts.

And if you hesitated that one moment, they'd get you. Or, in this case, something else would.

A panther-scream ripped the night. Kennedy's breath caught and her fingers tightened on the stake, and she whipped around to see another vampire charge out of the trees. No inexperienced fledge, this one; he was lean and mean and - shit, almost on top of her already. In the split second before she could decide to stake the redhead or go for the new threat, a small blonde whirlwind somersaulted over the mausoleum and rammed a three-inch heel into her elbow with the force and accuracy of a Mississippi mule, transforming every nerve in her arm into a strangling creeper of pain. The stake skidded from her limp fingers and buried itself point-first in the damp grass, and the redheaded cutie was out from under her with a squirm and a scrabble, prudently taking the opportunity to put the bulk of the mausoleum between herself and the combatants.

The whirlwind resolved into a girl in a peach-colored bolero jacket and slit-up-to-there skirt - small and curvaceous, with huge grey-green eyes and tawny waves of hair. Her chin was too small, her mouth was too wide, and her nose had a funny bump to it, but the sum of those imperfections was a quirky and strangely familiar beauty. The onrushing vampire gathered himself for a leap and soared over the blonde girl's head as she hit the grass and did a shoulder roll, a pas de deux out of Bob Fosse by Jackie Chan. The vamp came down on all fours between Kennedy and the rapidly retreating redhead, fangs bared, eyes like Japanese lanterns beneath a shock of scruffy moonlit curls. The blonde girl bounced to her feet with impossible resilience, and then both of them were circling Kennedy with the feral intensity of wolves defending their lair. The vampire held up both hands and crooked his fingers, almost dancing. His angular face was alight with a savage, tongue-curling grin. "Ready for a go, pet?"

"In your dreams, breeder boy." Kennedy lashed out with a vicious kick to the vampire's head. Her foot grazed his temple and the vamp caught her ankle - damn, but he was fast! - and heaved, flipping her over. Kennedy twisted in mid-air, coming to a shaky but upright landing.

"You're good. You may be able to take him," the little blonde observed, brushing a dead leaf off the shoulder of her jacket. Kennedy wasn't used to thinking of other people as small, but she could look down on this chick. "You might even be able to take me." Blondie swung. Kennedy dodged the punch, barely, and delivered a sharp right to the nose. Blondie rolled with it and came right back with a piledriver blow to Kennedy's solar plexus, knocking her back on her ass. Not quite as fast as the vampire, but Blondie was stronger - shit, shit, shit, this must be Buffy Summers! Her hair was a shade or two darker and her figure a shade or two lusher than the Council's outdated file photos, but that face was unmistakable. Which meant the platinum-haired vampire was Spike, and the redhead... who the hell was she? Kennedy scrambled to her feet and swallowed a curse. Summers wasn't even supposed to be back in Sunnydale until tomorrow.

The redhead shouted "Occulo ardent!"

Kennedy's vision dissolved into a Fourth-of-July explosion of red-white sparks, and Spike's fist tore through the glittering haze and cracked against her jaw. Before she could recover her balance, Buffy pounced, grabbed her arm, twisted it up behind her, and slammed her up against the mausoleum wall. "But I'll guarantee you can't take both of us, and if my brand new jacket stains, you are paying for the dry cleaning. Now, I'm going to assume that you're a mild-mannered model citizen, possibly with a secret identity and a butler, trying to rid the world of bad evil things, and the choice of stakee is a tragic accident. Willow's got a soul. She's a good vampire. Grasp the concept?"

"Bull!" Kennedy yelled. "The vamp with a soul is a big dark broody guy in L.A." This was all wrong. All she'd wanted from tonight was a quick slay to take the edge off, and now everything was fucked up. Well, she'd unfuck it, then. Too many lives were riding on her ability to pull this off. She could do this. She could do anything she set her mind to. No use in trying to convince them she was just your everyday schmoe now; no human being could have taken those punches and stayed conscious. The truth as far as it goes, then. She struggled for a second, muscles straining, but no joy. Well, that was why she was here, wasn't it? "You're Buffy Summers," she croaked. "I know all about you."

Buffy's hold on her wrist eased slightly, enough to restore circulation. "That's what's on the nametag. Willow's the other vampire with a soul. They come in multiples these days."

"Like Terminator III," Willow piped up from behind the relative safety of several tons of stone. She sounded absolutely wiped, and looked even paler than the marble. "Smaller, and with girl parts. Who are you?"

"You working for Cain?" Spike asked.

So there were other players on the scene. Great. The more the merrier. "Cain who? I don't work for anyone but the Council of Watchers. I'm Kennedy." She managed a scathing glare at Buffy despite her position, took a deep breath and bet the deed to the ranch on one throw. "The Vampire Slayer." She glanced at Spike and Willow. "With an 'S.'" The dig might cost her, but Jesus, Mary and Joseph, this was ridiculous.

Willow crept cautiously around the mausoleum, her movements slowed more by exhaustion than fear. "You're who got called when Faith... ?"

"Died? Yeah."

She felt Buffy shift position behind her, but the grip on her wrist didn't slacken any further, and Buffy's voice grew no more inviting. "'Kay, I'm not sure if you skipped orientation week or what," Buffy said, "but Council lackeys? Unwelcome. Extremely. I warned Travers what would happen if he sent you here."

"Who said Travers sent me?" Kennedy snapped. "I came here on my own, because I thought you could help me."

Buffy stilled, then, slowly, eased up on the choke-hold. "Talk."

Kennedy tamped down her relief and stepped away from the wall, shaking the numbness out of her arms and affecting insouciance. She wasn't home free yet. "I've been in training to be a Slayer since I was eight. The last year or two, my Watcher's been dropping hints: Kennedy, you know how rare it is for anyone to get called past the age of fifteen? Kennedy, you know how small the chances of Faith dying in prison are? Kept saying how great it would be if I started studying for a Council position... trying to let me down easy." She lifted her chin, meeting the older Slayer's eyes defiantly. "I didn't want to be let down, hard or easy. I decided - if I didn't get Called, I was gonna... do what I'd spent the last ten years training for, you know? And then one morning last winter I woke up." She took a deep breath and flexed her hands, unable to suppress a grin at the memory of that incredible realization. "And I had the power. I dusted my first vampire that night. It was the best damn day of my life." No need to fake the passion and sincerity in her voice; this was all gospel truth. "So now I'm a Slayer. Dream come true, right?"

Buffy crossed her arms over her chest and regarded her with inscrutable grey eyes. "If you say so."

"But there's a problem." Kennedy walked over to a nearby tombstone, knelt and braced her elbow against the top, holding her open hand up and beckoning to Willow. "C'mere. I won't do anything. Scout's honor."

Willow looked dubious, but at Kennedy's further encouraging noise, she left her safehold and walked over. She dropped to one knee, facing off on the opposite side of the tombstone, and set her hand to Kennedy's, palm to palm, pale cool fingers curling around warm brown ones. A strange frisson went down the back of Kennedy's neck at the impress of that alien flesh, something electric and a little frightening. She'd never touched a vampire she wasn't hitting before. She'd owned a king snake as a kid, slick and black and shiny, with a flickery little tongue and jet-button eyes. Willow's hand reminded her of the snake - not the black, scaly part, but the cool, supple inhuman aliveness of it. She jerked her hand away and wiped her palms on her jeans. Willow drew away with an unhappy little noise.

Screw that. She wasn't about to let something as remedial as touching a fledgling vamp wig her - was she eight again, and scared of cooties? "No, no, give me your hand back. It's OK. I won't bite if you won't." She grinned, and was rewarded with a small return smile. Was there something in Sunnydale's water that made you flirt with vampires? But it was a cute smile, you had to admit. She clasped Willow's hand firmly this time. "Ready? Go!"

Caught by surprise, Willow's arm dipped, but then she grimaced and threw her shoulders into it. Their hands wavered upright, Kennedy's knuckles whitening as she increased the pressure. For almost a minute they struggled, Kennedy forcing Willow's hand down, Willow forcing it back up again - Willow never able to gain an advantage, Kennedy never able to gain a decisive victory. Sweat started to bead on her brow and she relaxed, letting the startled Willow overbalance and shove her hand down into empty air. "See? I can't beat her. If I hadn't got the jump, she might have beat me. And she's just a little baby vamp."

Willow let go of her hand. "Toddler," she said a little huffily. "At least."

Kennedy tugged her blouse straight and faced the older Slayer. "I got the power, yeah, but not enough. Something stole part of what I should have. I want it back."

Buffy had watched the whole performance through eyes gone narrow and hard as olivine. Her expression was unreadable; she did stone-faced better than old Travers. "And you think I can help?"

Kennedy shrugged, not surrendering an inch of ground. "You did it, didn't you? You or that Faith chick, but she's dead and you're all the lead I've got left. I know all about you. How you quit the Council because of him." She indicated Spike. "They say you brainwashed your own Watcher and killed half a dozen Council ops, but... " Here it came; how well could she sell this? "I don't believe that. You've never stopped fighting for what's right." Yeah, sure. You may call yourself a Slayer, Summers, but you're sure as hell not getting the job done any longer. She didn't believe the crazy rumors - the Council would never have let Buffy Summers live if they were true - but the Hellmouth had been closed for a year, and Sunnydale was still crawling with vamps. Kennedy had sensed half a dozen nesting in this cemetery alone, way too many for her to tackle on her own. "I need that power. I can do my job - our job - without it, but I can do it a hell of a lot better with it. So I'm asking you - whatever you did to cut me off, undo it. People don't deserve to die 'cause you're pissed off at Travers."

"Me? Whatever I did?" Pure astonishment blossomed in Buffy's eyes. "I didn't do anything! For once."

"She couldn't," Willow said. "None of us could." She spread both hands. "Slayer power is deep magic from beyond the dawn of time. I helped tap into it once, and honestly? Not looking forward to an encore. It gets snappish, and it's got bigger teeth than I do. Maybe I could have figured out how to control it eventually, but I don't have that kind of power anymore. I don't know anyone who does - I mean, it's not just the magic you'd need, but the knowledge of what Slayer power is. If the Council doesn't know that, I don't know who does."

Kennedy didn't try to keep the desperation from her voice. "But... who else would want to mess up the Slayer succession?" They couldn't be telling the truth - if they were, if they really didn't know squat... she wasn't just screwed. She was wrenched, hammered, and nailed.

"You want a list?" Spike asked.

"Even if I can't cast spells at that level anymore, I know how they work," Willow broke in. "Tara and I, we can help, I'm sure of it! She's really good at auras and things, and if there's a blockage, or a curse or something, she can find it and I can figure out what's causing it and then you can go to someone who does have that kind of power and they can fix it." She turned eagerly to Buffy, who looked doubtful. Willow's face was aglow, her eyes importuning. "I know what it's like to - to lose something like that. I can help. Really help, this time. I know I can."

The plea in Willow's eyes, the worry in Buffy's, the watchfulness in Spike's, all of it hinted at a backstory a lot more complex than her own personal hill of beans. Kennedy didn't care; she couldn't have asked for a better turn of events. She pulled out the biggest, brightest Colgate smile she owned. "Could you? Really?"

Buffy worried her lower lip, and she exchanged a long, subtext-heavy look with Spike. "Um. It couldn't hurt to try, I guess. Where are you staying?"

Kennedy let her shoulders droop. "Around. I'm not sure yet. I just got into Sunnydale this morning. Is there a Motel 6? Or something, uh, cheaper?"

Willow was practically tugging on Buffy's sleeve, like a kid begging for a puppy. Kennedy did her best to look forlorn and abandoned, which was hard to do when three of her Dad's credit cards and a couple of thou in traveler's checks were burning a hole in her wallet. "Come on," Buffy said at last. "You can sleep on the couch till we find you someplace."

Score. Kennedy did her best to look grateful.

Spike scowled; he'd lost the game face some time back, but Kennedy was pretty sure she hadn't just become his very special friend. "Then she'd best mind where she flings her pointy sticks. Strangely enough, I don't fancy waking up a big pile of dust, nor finding one in Will's room." He made a sweeping dramatic turn on one heel, a move he'd obviously practiced with a billowy black cape in mind, and strode off towards Restfield's main gates. Buffy rolled her eyes and went after him; a second later they were trading heated glares and low whispers. Kennedy strained without success to catch a few words of the argument as she trotted after them.

Willow had retrieved her cell phone, and her conversation was far more audible. "I'm fine, honey. Yeah, Spike got here - no, really, I'm... I know. I'm sorry. Look, when I get home... OK." She hung up and pointed to the curb, where a Jeep Cherokee was nosed up to the beat-up black hulk of a DeSoto Fireflyte which had seen better decades. Possibly better centuries. "There's our ride."

Buffy, thwarted in her seeming desire to kick Spike's kneecaps in by the presence of outsiders, slid into the front seat of the Cherokee with a dagger-bright smile that promised mayhem at a later date. Spike, pissed off as he obviously was, stepped around to open the passenger door of the DeSoto with automatic courtesy - which appeared to piss him off even further when he realized what he was doing. Abandoning Kennedy to her own devices, he slouched behind the wheel and lit up a cigarette as ostentatiously as possible. Willow whispered, "Don't worry. They do that all the time."

"So the home life: Jerry Springer or Art Bell?"

"More like 'Tish! You spoke French!'" Willow, her hand on the door of the DeSoto, smiled up at her. "In the interests of informed passenger choice, I should tell you that Buffy runs things over by accident, and Spike runs things over on purpose."

"Yay," Kennedy muttered, sliding in beside her. "I'm reassured."

*******

Tara sat on the (new, non-sproingy) couch in the Summers' living room and stared bleary-eyed into the dregs of her coffee, cradling the cooling ceramic mug with both hands. She felt numb and jittery. Caffeine and exhaustion - not a good combination. She ought to get up and clear away the remains of the location spell, still scattered across the dining room table. It hadn't been much use; the version she was most familiar with was tuned to the living, and picked up vampires faintly or not at all. In the end it had been plain old deductive reasoning that let her pinpoint Willow's location: recent escapades with Spike and spotty cell phone reception pointed to Restfield.

She'd called in the cavalry instead of riding to the rescue. That was practical, right? Not avoidy. It only made sense to phone Spike, who was already on the spot. Tara set her mug on the coffee table with a thump, sloshing tepid black liquid over the rim, and pitched over sideways on the couch with a groan. She'd thought it would get better in time, that she'd be able to take Willow's new status in stride. And it had. Sort of. She lay at her dead love's side without flinching, pressed her lips to Willow's cold ones, tried to adjust her schedule to accommodate a partner who risked immolation every time she went outside before sundown. And Willow tried so hard to please her as well, to act as if nothing had changed...

The latch on the front door rattled, and Tara started to her feet, coffee forgotten, as the door flung open and a small stampede of people poured into the foyer.

As a rule, Tara wasn't big on epiphanies. The road to Damascus was fraught with suspicious characters handing out pamphlets, and most of the revelations in her life had come to her piecemeal, built up from one painfully acquired moment of "Oh!" after another. But sometimes all it took was one moment to remind you that the supply of moments was a finite thing. Willow's face framed in the doorway, a sight she'd seen every night for the last year, was its own revelation: Some night, Willow might not walk in that door, and she would never know why or wherefore. One pile of dust looked much like another.

Willow saw the stricken look on her face, and was in her arms between one heartbeat and the next - maybe vampire speed wasn't all bad, after all. So strong now, her Willow, that she could pick Tara up and spin her about like a toy, but all that terrible demon strength could come to nothing at the point of a number two pencil in the right spot. Her beloved was as invulnerable and as fragile as a St. Rupert's drop, and Tara held her tight and willed herself to ignore the faint tinfoil-on-fillings sensation screaming dead thing! in the back of her skull.

She had to stop thinking of Willow as dead. Willow was right here, real and... room temperature, and... life-challenged. "You're all right?" Tara asked.

"Fine," Willow said with the sweetest smile possible, cupping her palm to Tara's cheek. Her cold palm.

Spike, and to Tara's surprise Buffy, entered hard on Willow's heels, tossing one another glances as incendiary as any hand grenade. They were followed by a dark-haired girl Tara didn't recognize. "Buffy?" Tara exclaimed. "I thought you were in L.A. till tomorrow."

"The peace and quiet was starting to give me the wig," Buffy replied, tossing her jacket at the coat rack. "So I took the early retirement option, and got this Slayer-y feeling on the way into town that I should stop at the crypt." She waved the dark-haired girl forward. "Look what followed me home! Can we keep her?"

The newcomer paused in the archway leading to the living room, and looked around with the air of one expecting to find dead bodies in the window seat. "Kennedy," she said, sticking out a hand. "I'm the new Slayer. You're what, a witch or something? You're alive, right?"

"Uh... right," Tara stammered, taking the proffered hand. "There's extra sheets in the under-stairs closet, we can make up the couch - "

"Terrible rude to spring houseguests on Tara in the middle of the night, innit?" Spike drawled. "Guess we'll have to turn Dynagirl here out on the street."

"I have bags in the car, Spike," Buffy said, planting both fists on her hips with a pointed look in the direction of the driveway.

"Yeah?" Spike slouched in the doorway and produced another cigarette, conjuror-fashion. He flicked his lighter on and off a couple of times without lighting it, making the flame dance. "You lost the use of your limbs, then?"

Buffy held the keys out with a wordless glower, which Spike endured for a good fifteen seconds before snatching them out of her hand with an exaggerated growl and stalking off. There was much bustle entailed in fetching spare sheets and settling Kennedy on the couch, with accompanying pep talks from Buffy on contacting Giles and how they'd research her problem as soon as possible. Spike returned laden with suitcases and shopping bags, and provided color commentary on the unpleasant things that would happen to Kennedy if she attempted to stake the resident vampires, open the curtains on resident vampires, or drink the imported beer of the resident vampires, which was intimated to be a far more serious infraction of house rules than mere staking.

Willow sidled up as Tara was taping a note to the television, explaining the presence of the strange woman on the couch to Dawn, and captured one of her hands. She bought it up to trace idle circles around the knuckles with one finger. "Since Kennedy's having trouble accessing the Slayer power," she said, "I thought maybe you could take a look at her aura tomorrow, or maybe we could try it together? I cast a glamor tonight!" she added, practically bouncing up and down. "Just a little teeny one, and it pretty much trashed me for the next twenty-four, but, hey, me, doing magic!" She smiled, hesitant but hopeful. "We always worked better together, didn't we?"

Tara looked down at the pale hand enfolding her own. Together. It had always been her gift to see and hear things others could not - the illness behind her mother's worn face, the promise of blossoms in the winter-bare branch, the fragmented wrongness in Buffy's aura when Faith's spirit had possessed her body. Finding in Willow someone who could share that vision had been the greatest joy of her life. Willow's light had mingled with hers, once, and banished all the shadows from her heart, but when she looked at Willow now, she saw darkness. When she touched Willow now, she felt death, lurking just below the skin.

The world's song wasn't always pretty; Miss Kitty tormenting a mouse was as much part of the music as the unfurling of new leaves in spring. Death and pain were necessary counterpoints to joy and rebirth. All were part of the circle. But vampires weren't born. Vampires didn't die. They were destruction, pure and simple. Human corpses, animated by demonic spirits, an unholy fusion, an abomination to human and demonkind alike. But she is not an abomination to me, Tara thought fiercely, even as her father's voice in the back of her mind whispered Filthy demon, unclean thing. Even with a soul, Willow's very being, the magic that prevented her from falling to dust, was anathema to everything Tara had been taught.

And whose fault is it that she's standing here?

Tara stared at her lover's glowing, excited face. "Yes," she said, hoping her voice wasn't shaking too noticeably. "We do."

*******

Buffy heard the footsteps behind her as she rounded the newel post at the top of the stairs. He was taking them two at a time, as usual, with no attempt at stealth. It took all her resolution to keep her pace measured. Not to look back. Not to dash for the bedroom door. Running when a predator was behind you? Fatal. Back straight, eyes front, forward march.

The birthday weekend in L.A. had been three days of pure-grain, undiluted normality: shops, spas, and shoes, without a vampire in sight - once upon a time, her idea of heaven, and still pretty high on the not-too-shabby list. After a year spent crammed into one house with two roommates, a younger sister, and an increasingly live-in demon lover, Aunt Caroline's guest bedroom was a miracle of privacy and quiet. Visiting her aunt did bring the double dose of survivor's guilt, but it never lasted long when there were important matters of family gossip to attend to. Her new job, Dawn's college prospects, Hank Summers's girlfriend, all needed thorough dissection, and her own mysterious boyfriend needed careful introduction. She'd gotten as far as "He's English."

The first night had been total bliss. No icy toes nudging the backs of her calves just as she was drifting off, no cigarette smell working its way into her clothes, no milk jugs with two swallows of congealing pig's blood left in the bottom clogging up the refrigerator. The second night she'd walked into the bathroom and automatically moved to kick the damp towel on the floor across Spike's boots, a standard move in the silent and deadly battle of wills involved in getting him to pick up after himself, and felt unaccountably bereft when her toes encountered neither towel nor boots. The third night the bed felt out of kilter without the weight of another body balancing her own, and she realized there wasn't going to be a fourth night if she could help it.

The footsteps went silent on the hall carpet, but she didn't need to hear them to know how close he was. She could feel his presence, a cold fire up and down the column of her spine, centered on the exact spot where his eyes were burning into her shoulder blades.

It was almost four in the morning, and Dawn was sleeping only one thin wall away, so he wouldn't try anything in the hall. She tossed her head and put a little more sass into her walk. Behind her, just on the edge of hearing, a low, hungry rumble rose and fell with the taunting roll of her hips. He was close now; she could almost feel his breath on the back of her head. She put her hand on the doorknob. Cold brass turned under her fingers, and Buffy slapped the light switch and dashed into the bedroom, whirling to slam the door behind her. Not quite fast enough - Spike thrust a foot, then a shoulder between door and jamb. One blindingly swift lunge and he was inside, all brilliant blue eyes and manic Heeere's Johnny! grin.

His body collided with hers, and the fire blazed up joyful through all her bones as they careened into the bedroom together, knocking a chair askew and pinning her to the wall. "Are you out of your bleeding tree, letting her stay here?" Spike snarled. "God, I missed you!" His tongue flicked out, cleaning up the trickle of blood left from Kennedy's punch to her nose.

"You'd rather have her sneaking around town behind our backs with a crossbow full of Killer-of-the-Dead?" Buffy grabbed him and hauled him closer, relishing the lean hard weight of him against her breasts and belly. Oh, yeah, Spike was happy to see her. "Missed you too. And don't eat my nose blood, it's all crusty."

"I like it crusty. Don't trust... that little bint... farther than I can... toss her." Spike's teeth, still bluntly human, nibbled crescents of pain and pleasure down the line of her throat. "Council's got its claws in her or I'm a choirboy." He buried his nose in the cleft of her breasts and snuffled, nostrils flaring. It was completely gross that he preferred unadulterated Buffy, sweaty and ripe after a two-hour drive and a chick fight in a graveyard, to the product of an hour's worth of deodorizing and spritzing and douching. Gross, but primally sexy. Spike licked her nose again and made an obnoxious smacking noise. "Actually, I was a choirboy, but... "

"I want her where I can keep an eye on her till we can call Giles. If she's telling the truth - " His hair was finally starting to grow out again after last summer's rebellious shearing. Buffy tangled her fingers into the gel-stiff waves and tugged his face to meet hers, demanding access to his mouth. That mouth was her downfall, an addiction in itself, the upper lip so chiseled and firm, the lower so full and soft, the whole so eminently kissable, lickable, biteable. The heady taste of blood and nicotine surged through her - could you get addicted to cigarettes via kissage? Oxygen finally became a greater necessity than the cool virtuosity of his tongue, and Buffy broke away, gasping. "My fight's with Travers and the Council, not Kennedy. She didn't ask to be chosen any more than I did."

Spike combed his fingers through her hair, ignoring the mess she'd made of his. His eyes, though sparking gold with lust, were serious. "You made a threat, Slayer. If you're not willing to follow through... "

"Oh, there's follow-through. I follow all the way through. Kennedy's getting the whole Slayers-are-part-demon speech tomorrow, with twenty-five eight-by-ten color glossy photographs with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back. And if I find out Travers did send her... " The long cool fingers sliding up beneath her blouse derailed that thought faster than the Springfield monorail. There was t-shirt in the way of her hands when she wanted to be touching Spike, needed the ivory satin of his skin instead of cheap cotton blend against her own. Why did he have so many clothes on? Buffy gave the shirt an impatient yank, and the two of them tumbled to the bed - Spike's big, sturdy four-poster, transported from the crypt - together, shedding random items of clothing and kicking off shoes on the way. "... the mass-mailings will commence. Plus? I may fly to England and choke him with his old school tie."

Spike grinned. "And they wonder why I love you."

*******

The basement had been Xander's idea - part "You may be a bloodsucking creature of the night, but you're still my best friend," gift to Willow, part occupational therapy. It had probably kept him from going completely stir-crazy during the long weeks in the wheelchair and the longer months on crutches and canes. He'd planned the build-out, wrestled with the zoning variances, and put as much of his own labor into the construction as possible, even on days when three swings of a hammer sent him into an exhausted collapse. At the end of it all, the washer and dryer had been partitioned off into a separate, sound-baffled utility closet, a toilet and shower installed, and the basement converted into a vampire-safe studio apartment, complete with blackout curtains over the windows. The floor was saltillo tile in warm ochres and rusts; the walls were Navaho white, with Mission-style faux brick arches framing candle-niches. There were wicker chairs and hangings in bright Indian print and low-level lighting that wouldn't overstrain sensitive vampire eyes. There was a futon bed made exotic with bridal-veil canopies of mosquito netting, and a ritual space by the dresser. The room smelled of incense and beeswax and the herbs in their row of fat little clay pots high on the windowsill.

Tara loved it. Once the remodeling had been finished, she and Willow had spent several exciting days moving their furniture down from the master bedroom upstairs (when your partner could pick up an entire dresser one-handed it made moving day a lot easier) and redecorating. They'd thrown a basement-warming party, with tacos and salsa and chips and Dos Equis, and Willow had worn the gaudy yellow sombrero currently hanging on the side of the stairs. It had been the best of days, and the best of nights after, and Tara had been certain, then, that everything would be all right.

She lit the bank of pillar candles on the shelf by the foot of the stairs with a word and a gesture, and drew Willow down the last of the steps. Willow gave her a curious look; Tara wasn't usually so free with her magic. Tara returned a reckless smile. "It's a special occasion."

"It is?" Willow looked slightly panicked. "Did I miss a memo? Because our anniversary isn't till, you know, later, and your birthday's not - I mean, it's not now, not that it's not special - and St. Knut's Day was two weeks ago, and Candlemas? Not till the second - "

"It's International Vampire Appreciation Day," Tara said solemnly, slipping an arm around her shoulders and touching noses. Willow smiled - startled, guileless, at an utter loss. Tara felt a pang of guilt. How long had it been since she'd been the one to initiate a touch, a caress? "I thought maybe... if we're going to do a reading for Kennedy tomorrow... we should practice." She knelt down before the circle chalked out in red and blue and gold between bed and dresser, lit the small brazier in the center, and sprinkled a pinch of incense from the jar on the dresser over the coals. "It's a passive spell, a perception thing. It shouldn't... you know, wear you out."

"But... but... class tomorrow morning," Willow said, plaintive, holding out both arms as Tara stood and removed her coat.

"Shh." Tara pressed a finger to Willow's lips and trailed it down her chin. "I want - I want to see you." She knelt on the bed before Willow, who watched in breathless silence.

Once all they'd had to do was join hands to join power - to join souls. Every living thing had its own unique pattern of energy. It was that energy, connected at its heart to the whole vast web of life, which allowed a witch, aided by the proper words, the proper rituals, to reach out, pull a strand here and tie a cord there, and manipulate that web to her will. And what made doing so incredibly dangerous, because the smallest alteration in reality tugged on a thousand thousand invisible connections. The utmost precision and care were always necessary, and even so, for all but the simplest spells no one person could hope to foresee all the consequences. Major alterations of reality, such as the one which had created Dawn, required the participation of whole circles or covens, and layer upon intricately nested layer of ritual to safely channel the power where it must go.

And it was from this great web of life and living magic that Willow's death had severed her. No longer connected, she could no longer call upon power outside herself, and the power within her had been burnt away. Her undead body, so quick to heal merely physical damage, would never regenerate its own living energies. Vampires, like humans, could turn to elaborate ritual to compensate for the lack of innate ability - Spike had done magic, and fairly powerful magic, to heal Drusilla. But Willow's talent had never been for ritual; brilliant as she was at the theory, her execution tended to be slipshod and rushed. Her strength, and her danger, had always been in the raw power she could command, and that was gone.

Tara opened the eyes behind her eyes, and patterns of power sprang into being all around her. There were the intricately interwoven spells of warding and protection on the house, the gleaming scarlet threads of the cantrip she'd used to light the candles, the muddied remains of the location spell she'd cast upstairs. The pots of rosemary and basil in the window shone like miniature constellations. Even as the wooden beams overhead retained a ghostly signature of their parent tree, so did Willow's undead body retain the ghost of its living glory. Willow's aura was the dull, black-edged vermillion of banked coals, the light of her soul warped by the heat-mirage distortions of the demonic force animating her. Willow did not do magic. Willow was magic. If Tara could touch that power, could they somehow work as one again? Buffy had done it with Spike last year, and neither of them had had the slightest idea what they were about - but that had been in the middle of an unstable Hellmouth, under never-again-to-be-repeated circumstances.

Tara extended her arms, beckoning, and Willow swayed closer, trembling as Tara eased her shirt up and cupped hesitant hands about each small perfect breast. Her hands fell, fingertips gliding along the slim lines of Willow's torso, and undid the waistband of Willow's slacks with careful attention to each movement. The discarded clothing pooled about Willow's white, matchstick ankles, and she bent one leg flamingo-style, her toes curling as she kicked them aside.

Tara's breathing had fallen automatically into the deep slow rhythms of meditation, but this exercise was not in detachment from the world, but of absorption in it. Ropy blue coils of smoke corkscrewed towards the ceiling, collecting between the beams overhead. The pungent scent of sandalwood and sage pervaded the room, thick and sweet in the back of her throat. Her own blood surged and pounded in her ears. Willow stood before her, reed-slim and milky pale, her flawless porcelain skin stretched to translucence over delicate bones. Her hair was a firefall about her narrow shoulders, and hope and wonder sat upon her sharp-chinned pixie face and great-pupiled, jade-green eyes.

Rose-petal lips concealing tearing fangs. A vampire by Lladro. This is what you love.

Tara rose to her knees, took Willow's hands and pulled her through the Milky Way of netting, laying her down among the indigo sheets, in the heart of their private night. How Willow's shoulders trembled, and oh, the breath that fluttered like a trapped bird in her throat. It wasn't that they hadn't made love in the last year - they had, and sometimes it had even been good. But however close she lay, Tara was never easy with this body, or the thing which moved it. No more of that. She would face what Willow was, and love it.

Her hands glided over the sleek boyish frame, tracing the arch of hipbone and the curve of the ribcage, never quite touching the creamy skin. Energy rippled and eddied under her touch, crackling around her fingers like cat's fur in winter. Willow lay splayed upon the coverlet, her head thrown back and her lips parted in a quiet ecstasy as Tara's mouth descended to follow the sweet curves and tender valleys of her lover's flesh, never touching, but leaving letters of fire in its wake. Willow's fingers clutched the sheets, her limbs curling like the petals of some night-blooming orchid, milky white surrounding a heart of fire.

"Touch me," Tara demanded, and Willow looked up, her eyes dark with desire and confusion.

"I could hurt you," she whispered. It had been her fear all along, Tara knew. Buffy and Spike might occasionally appear at the breakfast table with sated grins and mysterious bruises, but Tara was human, Tara was fragile, and Tara's bruises would not heal and be forgotten in a night. Willow always took care, always let Tara set the pace. But there was no place for fear in this room tonight.

"Touch me!"

Willow obeyed. Eager puppy hands frisked over her, too long denied the freedom to romp. They were cold, but that was all right. Even good, when they touched the warm places, and little by little grew warmer. Willow's lips were soft against hers, alternating kisses with happy little whimpers. Willow's fingers fumbled with the buttons of her blouse and the billowing pleats of her skirt. An impatient little growl escaped her, and the numinous shadow surrounding her flared like magma in the earth's heart. Tara drew a sharp, involuntary breath and Willow's head came up immediately; anxious, guilty. "It's all right," Tara reassured her. "You - you can do that. I want you to."

Willow's brows knit, her face full of bewilderment. "I thought the growlies were a major turn-off." Tara ducked her head, not trusting words. Willow put her head to one side, a sparkle in her eyes that had been too long muted. "Maybe just a little Baby Bear grrr to start with? And work my way up to Mama Bear?"

Tara peered at her from behind a veil of hair. "Does that mean I get to be the Daddy Bear?"

"Ooh, who da butch?" Willow pounced, tickling, and Tara rolled over with a giddy shriek.

"Hey, I'm tough!" She gave Willow a mock-swat on the shoulder, and the demon-shadowed aura crackled with red and violet. Not anger. Something scarier than anger.

"You can be tougher than that." Willow's breath, when it came at all, was coming faster, and the hazel flecks in her eyes were rapidly kaleidescoping to gold. Her voice had gone husky, almost pleading. "Way tougher."

Buffy had told her, once, how big a rush it was, knowing that she could make a dead man gasp for air. Tara had never sought that kind of power, didn't know what she'd do if she had it. But this was what Willow was now, and if she couldn't accept it, couldn't satisfy the demon as well as the woman... Tara squeezed her eyes shut and quelled the flip-flops in her stomach by sheer force of will. "Sure I can, baby. Let's make some magic."

*******

"Still don't trust the bitch," Spike grumbled, rolling over and retrieving one of the pillows they'd kicked off the bed in their initial scuffle. "Will could've been dustman's leavings if one of us hadn't shown up in the nick."

Buffy rolled her eyes and allowed him to prop it under her shoulders. "You're so cute when you're all sire-y. In an Ed Gein kind of way."

Spike stretched himself out full-length, half on top of her, weight propped on one elbow. "Bugger, woman, that's nothing to do with it. Someone's got to be practical when you've gone all white-hat and idealistic, and don't change the subject." Knowing fingers trailed up her thigh, following the slit in her skirt. "Speaking of not staking people through the heart, Will and I picked up another lost lamb tonight. Bird name of Evie. I'll be giving her the Carrie Nation speech tomorrow evening if you want to drop by for a look-see." He insinuated his free hand up a little higher and squeezed her buttocks, kneading catlike. "Whose naughty little girl's lost her knickers?" he sing-songed.

"Now who's changing the subject? Evie, probation, review of troops tomorrow, check. I took them off in the car," Buffy whispered, flicking the tip of her tongue against his ear. "Because they were getting too... wet. Reached up through the slit in my nice new skirt and pulled 'em off and drove through downtown Sunnydale all nekkie underneath."

"You never," Spike growled, his pupils dilating, his body an overstrung crossbow in her grasp. "You don't have to worry about probation with this one. Chipped."

"I so did." Buffy ran lazy fingers up his arm and across the muscular arch of his chest. All those yummy biceps and deltoids and things were standing out in quivering relief. "I hid them, too." She tapped him on the end of his nose. "Finders keepers."

"Better start looking, then!"

With a lecherous grin Spike unleashed that vile, evil, sumptuous mouth on her, tonguing the now-damp silk of her blouse in decadent swirls around her aching nipples until she moaned and gasped and begged, "Don't... rip... eighty-dollar... blouse!"

Spike chuckled, low-down and dirty and had she mentioned evil? "I'm thinking someone scarpered off to L.A. without her birthday spanking, so she's due a forfeit." He vamped out, putting the brand new eggshell douppioni silk in immanent danger of fanging, and that, you realize, meant war. Buffy hooked bare toes into the waistband of his jeans and tugged. Spike yelped and jerked back as the already-tight denim constricted. He swatted her feet away, falling back on his knees to wrestle with the buttons of his fly as she (carefully!) wriggled out of her remaining clothes.

Then there was nothing between them at all, and Buffy wrapped her legs around his waist and let the full delicious weight of that neat, compact body sink into her. Oh, yes. This was homecoming. Slow and thorough, deep and strong, his cool body steel to her flint, stoking the sultry heat between her thighs to a wildfire blaze. Spike's face was a study in sublime concentration, and he was holding her with a force that'd leave bruises tomorrow. Rockets ignited within, huge multicolored bursts of pleasure building to a grand finale - Houston, we have lift-off! Buffy wailed in joy and raked her nails down his chest, leaving contrails of red across the flat planes of his belly. Spike's eyes flew open, as a man's who'd seen heaven might, and he went bow-taut, spending with a hoarse, wordless cry.

They rode out the aftershocks together, panting as the firecracker jolts of pleasure fizzed and sparkled through their bodies and finally faded away. Joint by joint, muscle by muscle, Spike relaxed, his body melting into her own. Buffy let go the breath she'd been holding in a long-drawn sigh, cradled his head to her breast and let her hands wander through his damp curls. His cornflower-blue eyes glazed over, and the growl throttled down to what would have been a raspy, ecstatic purr if vampires purred, which according to Spike they didn't, never, no way, nuh uh. "Birthday spanking, huh? You and what army of darkness?"

"Gimme a minute. Gathering my forces as we speak."

"A minute? You're slowing down in your old age."

"That's it, minx, you're over my knee. Soon as I can move."

They didn't talk about birthdays. Oh, they celebrated them, all right; Spike lost no opportunity to exercise his romantic streak on her behalf. But they never talked about what birthdays meant: that she was a year older, and he wasn't. She'd tried, once or twice, feeling duty-bound to bring the subject up - Angel had always fretted about it, after all. Spike had just shrugged. Any two people, love, one of them always dies first. We know not the day nor the hour.

It didn't mean they didn't both think about it, and treasure the time they had with a fervor that bordered on the scary. Yesterday she'd been trying on slingback pumps at Diavolina. Tonight a post-orgasmic vampire was lazily licking his own blood off her belly. Buffy Summers, this is your life.

Freaky, but her own.

"What the fuck?" Spike's head jerked up, his impromptu tongue-bath forgotten. Buffy wriggled out from beneath him, and then she heard it, too: in the basement, somebody was screaming.

*******

Willow whimpered, teeth clenching. Tears of frustration tracked her cheeks, and her eyes were flickering from green to gold and back again; she'd been hovering on the edge for what must have felt like hours. To Tara's eyes her aura was shot through with lightings, a savage lacework of rage and desire. "Harder," she hissed. "Harder. C'mon, baby, make it hurt."

Tara almost wept with frustration herself - this had been a mistake, a horrible mistake. She'd called up a demon she couldn't lay, in any sense of the word. She reached out, matching palm to palm, trying once more for that effortless connection they'd once possessed, and the lucent green of her own aura intersected the dark fire of Willow's. Willow's face contorted, fangs and ridges springing to prominence. The auras mingled like the lights of the Two Trees, and power hummed and sizzled between them. A moire pattern of green and black shivered through the aether. Tara struggled for balance, and then just for control as the building energies fought for dominance, reeling farther and farther out of alignment.

For a second she had it. Everything as perfectly balanced as a spinning top, the magic surging from her to Willow and back again in glorious harmony - and then the power wobbled and discharged with a whipcrack of searing blue-white light. Tara cried out, scorched but unconsumed, and dropped Willow's hand. Willow whiplashed forward and back with a strangled "Gnnngh!" and all the candles went out in an airless whoosh.

Tara lay back against the pillows, panting. One by one, half a dozen feeble candle-flames flickered back to life, lifting the canopy of darkness. Willow rolled over, dazed, her hair hanging in limp auburn hanks. Her thin chest was heaving, and a faint sheen of stress-induced sweat glimmered across the shallow curves of her breasts and belly. Tara could smell the earthy vampire-musk of her - not a human scent, but not unpleasant.

"It didn't work," Willow whispered.

"No." Tara shook her head. She felt scraped thin. This should have been a ritual that energized and renewed - where had things gone so wrong?

"And it's never going to work, is it? I'm sorry."

Tara scrubbed a hand across her nose; she felt uncomfortably tingly, as if a mystic sneeze were coming on. "No. No, it's not. But it's me, not you!" The tears that had been building for the last half-hour welled up in her eyes, threatening to spill over.

"Aw, baby, it's all right... " Willow crawled across the bed and gathered her into her arms. Tara looked up into eyes like moons aglow with reflected candlelight, and crescent fangs peeping from still-sweet lips. "It's the thought that counts, right? I mean... I can still do little spells. Glamors, floating pencils... " She managed a laugh. "I could put someone's eye out. And maybe rituals, if I don't try anything too big and ooky." She shook off her game face. "It's not like I'm... impotent, or anything."

"It's not all right! I want us to be together again. Really together." Tara's lips firmed. "I want you to bite me."

*******

Willow stiffened. She hadn't heard those words coming out of Tara's mouth. It had to be some other words, like How about a sandwich? or Go, Mariners! or Can I mambo dogface in the banana patch? "What?"

"I want you to bite me," Tara repeated. "Th-that's how vampires connect with life, right? By taking it. But I - I know it can be done without k-ki - you know. Those... girls Buffy wanted to hunt down a few years ago? That bit people for money? I can't - the magic won't work. So maybe this, instead."

Something huge and dark and terrible surged up inside her, crying Yes! Oh, YES! Willow fought it down, forgetting to breathe in her panic. Tara lay supine in her arms, that lovely neck exposed and vulnerable. The rich scent of her sweat and the richer perfume of her blood pulsing just beneath the surface - oh, she'd longed for these things ever since wakening to her new state. She'd dreamed of sinking her fangs into luscious sun-kissed skin, drinking down Tara's warmth and strength and sweetness, and woken wet and aching, the sheet an agony against her overwrought flesh. Hating herself and what she'd become, and wanting it so very badly. "But that would be... wrong?" she squeaked.

"Would it?" Tara asked. Her voice was shaking, and Willow tried not to think why. "Doesn't it seem like Spike's kind of peppy for a guy on the pig's blood diet?"

"Well, yeah, but... " Willow squirmed, the peculiar tingling sensation that meant she'd be beet red if she possessed the circulation for it rising in her cheeks. Spike licked the occasional cut or scrape clean on patrol, to only token protests from Buffy, but she wasn't sure that counted. Besides, from his few obscure comments on the subject, a little Slayer's blood went a long way. "Even if he does? Slayer healing. Which you don't have. Besides, I've, you know, gotten a taste. At, uh, certain times of the month."

"Not that way." Tara looked almost feverish, hectic spots of color rising in her cheeks. "The sex - that's just bodies."

Willow drew back, hurt. "It wasn't just bodies to me."

Tara's hands clenched in the rumpled sheets. "I didn't mean - it's just I - I feel like every day you're drifting farther away from me, and I don't know what else to do to keep you close. I need to touch you again, really touch you. It could work. And if it doesn't, you can just... stop." She brushed the tangled strands of hair away from her neck and tipped her head back, exposing her throat. "I trust you, sweetie."

Willow gnawed the inside of her lip, shaking in every limb and trying to keep her fangs from extending. She loves me, she trusts me, I've got a soul. Just like Angel had a soul when he almost drank Buffy dry. Oh, Tara, don't ask this of me... She didn't want to do this, but she did, oh, God, she did. And Tara wanted it. And if it would make things better between them... could it be so wrong? She could stop, right? Angel had been dying when he bit Buffy, and she was in perfect health. Closing her eyes, she lowered her head and ran her tongue along Tara's throat, feeling the muscles work beneath her lips as Tara swallowed. There: that was the place, where the carotid artery throbbed behind parchment-thin layers of muscle and skin. That was the place where for years Buffy had carried the scar of the Master's fangs, and Angel's, and Dracula's (but not Spike's; no, nowadays that scar had faded to almost nothing.) The thought of Tara's neck so marred was repulsive and arousing.

She bit.

Blood flowed into Willow's mouth, a salt-sweet flood of life. It warmed her, filled her, exalted her. She was aflame. The first living blood she'd tasted - God how had Spike given this up? There was nothing like it, better than sex, better than food, better than acing a calculus test you hadn't studied for. The universe was contained in Tara's body, and she was become one with it, spiraling into a black hole where pleasure and pain compressed into a single substance. There was no thought of gathering what little magic she still possessed, and no time to do so; Tara bucked and went rigid in her arms. Her lover's scream pierced straight through Willow's heart, sending it to dust. She tore herself away from Tara's throat and scrambled back, alternating between scrubbing the blood from her lips and licking it frantically off her fingers. "Oh, God, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, are you OK, can you talk, can I call a doctor or 911 or, oh, God, I've killed her, I've - "

"No, no," Tara gasped, pressing her fingers to her wounded neck. Two ragged, sanguine crescents showed through her spread fingers, and thin streams of crimson trickled down her throat and painted her breasts. Willow couldn't force herself out of game face. "It hurts, it really hurts!" She buried her face in her blood-smeared hands. "It hurts," she repeated in a small bewildered voice. "I can't do this. I can't - "

Willow knew with queasy certainty where the sentence was going, but before Tara could finish, there was a crash as someone kicked the basement door open, and a thunder of feet on the staircase. Willow grabbed the first thing to hand, which turned out to be Tara's skirt, and flung it wildly over her head before Tara had time to yank the sheet past her hips. A second later Buffy and Spike appeared in the stairwell, Spike attired in half-buttoned jeans and Buffy doing a Nefertiti in a tastefully wound sheet. "Willow!" she cried, eyes widening in shock.

"What the bloody hell - " Spike started.

"It's not what it looks like!" Tara interrupted. "I asked her to! I made her do it!"

Spike glanced from Tara's state of gory dishabille to the scratch marks on his own chest, and sucked in his cheeks. "Ah. Never mind, then. Carry on."

Buffy flushed all the way up to her hairline. "Oh, God. I'm - oh, God. I thought Kennedy had... do you have any paper bags? Because I'm going to need one for my head."

"It's OK," Willow said dully. With an effort of will she returned to human face, grabbed her robe and shrugged into it, then skinned out of the skirt. The fuzzy pink fleece was speckled with tiny drops of scarlet, already drying to a dull brown. "Tara's, um, very tired, and - and needs medical assistance. And I should sleep. Elsewhere. Not on the couch, because taken, but if I stay up till Dawn goes to school then - "

She wanted Tara to protest and insist she stay here. But Tara was still clutching her neck, stunned and shocky. Buffy knelt and examined her throat. "The skin's torn, but there's no serious muscle damage. Do you want me to wake Dawn up so she can - "

"No!" Tara shook her head wildly, winced, and hunched her shoulders. "I'd d-don't - she's t-too young for... "

"Hey, I'm too young for this." Buffy looked at Spike with the Meaningful eyes. "Maybe I should stay with Tara for a minute and make with the band-aids."

Spike looked at Buffy with the No One's Dead, Why Can't We Go Back And Shag? eyes and heaved a sigh. "Come on, Red. You look like you need a stiffener."

The trek up to the kitchen approached the difficulty of scaling K-2. Spike remained thankfully snark-free for the duration, and once at the top of the stairs, he produced a jelly-jar glass from the cupboard and a half-full bottle of JD from the liquor cabinet and poured her a generous helping. Willow took it sullenly and sat down at the dining room table. She should be the one down there cleaning Tara's (yummy, delicious) blood off the sheets and making soothing there-there noises. She wrinkled her nose at the astringent scent of the whiskey and took a sip, coughing as the dark amber liquid burned its way down her throat. It wiped away the lingering flavor of Tara, and she wasn't sure whether to be grateful or forlorn.

Spike plunked himself down opposite her, propped both feet on the table, and took a swig from the bottle. "Right. We appear to be venturing into don't-try-this-at-home-kids territory without a map. I didn't think the Camille Paglia bit was Glinda's gig."

"It's not." But it may be mine. "Things just got a little... intense." Willow took another sip. Maybe they should have gotten completely snockered first. Then they could have both passed out before doing something so completely stupid. She looked up. "How do you... deal with it when you want to bite Buffy?"

Her sire blinked at her over the top of the whiskey bottle. "I haven't wanted to bite Buffy for years, pet."

"Not even a little bit?"

"Not even a little bit. I want to strangle her sometimes, but show me someone who doesn't." His gaze sharpened. "Seeing your Kitten all tearful and bloody get you a bit hot?"

Willow banged her forehead against the table. "No! I don't know! I never wanted to hurt her! I'm a big ol' vampire freak."

Spike snorted. "Hardly." He glanced over at the couch to assure himself that Kennedy was asleep, or at least faking it reasonably well, and dropped his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "Here, you ever tried eating pussy with her monthlies? Safe and tasty."

"You can stake me any time, you know," Willow mumbled into the maple.

"Just sayin'. That sort of thing's got the womyn-power seal of approval, dunnit?"

Buffy appeared in the basement doorway, trailing her 260-count percale fashion statement behind her, marched over to the table and smacked Spike's feet off. Willow watched in dull envy as Spike's arm snaked around Buffy's hips, and her hand trailed possessively along his shoulder. "Tara would like you to go back down. If you want to. No pressure. Total de-compressure." She hesitated. "Look, normally? None of my business. I'm the last person to get all Church Lady about getting your kink on, because people who live in glass houses shouldn't practice Kama Sutra in the living room. But you could have really hurt her."

Willow contemplated another sip of whiskey and grimaced. "You think that's not constantly running through my head in an unending litany of self-recrimination?"

"I wouldn't have put in it words of that many syllables. Tara knows you didn't mean to hurt her, and she knows how colossally dumb it was to ask you to do that. God, Spike and I don't even do that. But if we did? Not on a major artery!" Her eyes softened. "We love you guys. Both of you. We don't want you hurting. Or hurting each other."

"I don't love you," Spike clarified. "I just don't fancy the trouble of putting out a 'To Let' sign for the basement if the next time we come down here there's a bloodless corpse and a remorseful pile of dust. So keep your fangs clean and go be good to Tara, eh?"

"Let's hope I still know how," Willow muttered, and turned towards the stairs.

Tara was lying on the bed in a flannel nightgown, the chasteness of which would have done Jane Eyre proud, her hands folded across her breast. Willow half expected a lily to be clutched in her fingers. Buffy had applied gauze and antiseptic with enthusiasm if not artistry, and the bandage looked very large and white and accusing against the indigo of the sheets. Willow walked over to the bed and sat down on the edge, crossing her arms and tucking her hands under her elbows. "So," she said after awhile, "Now what?"

Tara held out her arms. After a moment, Willow crawled into them and laid her head on Tara's shoulder. She could still smell the blood under the tang of the Mercurochrome. They lay there together as the last candles flickered and died out.

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