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"I've been thinking about it — all the time, it seems like. I can't join the Initiative, Riley."

"What do you mean?" He looked as confused as if she'd said she was no longer planning to breathe oxygen.

"It's just . . . all the resources you have, the secrecy — if this were the X-Files, you'd be the bad guys. I'm not really a high-tech girl, I haven't even been able to get into online shopping and for me that's saying something. I like Giles, I like having him read me the lore from books — don't ever tell him I said this, by the way. The Initiative is so organized that there's no magic in it. You all practically have bar codes on your foreheads. How would my prophetic dreams fit in? It's not like I can have them on schedule."

"We've considered all that, and of course there would be some exceptions made, and after a while you could have your own team."

She shook her head. "That's the point. I've been on my own, slay-wise, since I was fifteen. I'm not prepared to give up my freedom like that."

"You'll change your mind." He was as confident as when he'd insisted that they should date, and really he had reason to be, since she gave in every time he asked for something. She'd even told Professor Walsh about her so-called life while Riley smiled at her — a bit like a retriever bringing in a rabbit to show its master, now that she thought about it. Walsh's death hadn't gotten rid of the fundamental flaw of the Initiative, for all Riley's reassurances.

"I don't think I will. You've got a lot of housecleaning to do now that Walsh and Adam are gone, and I don't do windows."

"Just come and spend a few days with us –"

"Riley, this part of the evening is over. I'd like to move on to the hugging and kissing part."

Fortunately he was not hard to convince on that topic. A long, langourous time later, she watched him button his adorable plaid shirt over his sensible white tee, and thought how good it was to have a dependable boyfriend, one who really knew the meaning of loyalty. He only wanted what was best for her, and for the Initiative, and he thought it would be just great if those two things were the same.

"I'll think about the Initiative thing," she said generously as he rose to go.

He ducked his head, and when he spoke his voice was low, almost hoarse. "I want you to know, no matter what happens, I've never felt this way about anyone else, the way I feel about you." He shook his head, in response to what must have shown on her face. "You don't have to feel the same way, feelings like this aren't about reciprocity. I just wanted you to know." And he was gone, shutting the door with all the silence of a trained operative.

'Feelings like this aren't about reciprocity'? Buffy smiled to herself. Psych teaching assistant might be Riley's cover, but he was assimilating quite well. As for the underlying sentiment, it was sweet as cotton candy and probably about as lasting. Still, wasn't it pretty to think so? Willow would absolutely swoon. Underneath the freshman faux-cynicism, she was feeling a tad swoony herself.

****

"It's the essential violence of the fairytale that creeps me out," Willow tried to explain. "The underlying strangeness that a hundred years of post- Victorian sentimentality have tried to erase, so we go from Cinderella's stepsisters having their feet chopped off to them getting a humorous comeuppance in the Disney film. What we went through, that's the real fairytale, and little kids know it. Even when you make it pretty and add singing mice they can tell there's blood underneath. Developmentally, it all makes perfect sense, and are you even listening?"

"Mmm, what?" Buffy turned back from the window and wandered past Willow, pausing to tap Amy's cage so the rat leapt onto her wheel and began to spin. "I'm sorry, Will, I was trying to follow, but I got distracted by 'comeuppance.' Is that really a word?"

"I know this whole Riley thing has you down. But if you flunk out of college you may have to join the Army anyway, Buff. So let's go back to the fairytale as developmental myth, 'kay?"

"Blechh." Willow watched as Buffy examined her perfect skin in the mirror. I wonder if she'd be this comfortable if she knew how things are between me and Tara. Tara, like Gone With the Wind but really like the planet, serene and fair. Would Buffy feel betrayed if she knew? Buffy seems to share her heart with every attractive stranger who comes along, every attractive *male* stranger, and if it isn't betrayal why do I feel so ooky?

Focus, Rosenberg. "Come on, blackheads later, black magic now."

Buffy smiled and threw herself on her bed, crossing her legs at the ankles in perfect Teen Miss form. "At least I can slay black magic. With blackheads you have to rely on those disgusting pore strips. Give me a nice slimy demon any day." She examined her fingernails with the kind of care used by jewelers to sort diamonds and reached for the polish waiting on the bedside table.

That's what I admire about you, Willow thought. You're more scared of not having a date than of dying in combat. We all want to be the heroes of our own fairytales, but you really are.

****

Willow dreamt.

The tambourine was orange, and she was laughing at it because tambourines aren't orange, that's tangerines, though of course they'd probably prefer to be called tangerine. "Orange" was an assimilationist term used to merge the entire citro-American community into one undifferentiated pulpy mass — suddenly the tambourine was a flute, and it was poking her, in the shoulder which was not very Freudian but they were doing Jung anyway so why should it matter —

"Ow," she mumbled, and the poking eased off. This was the main disadvantage of being a Slayerette, the night-waking and sudden critical missions instead of sleep. It was like having a work-study job, only without pay and with a higher casualty rate.

"Willow?" She was falling back asleep, and she struggled for coherence. The person who was poking her was not, she realized, Buffy. Indeed, it was a male person, and she squeaked and pulled the covers up to her chin, not that he could see very much in the dark.

"What is it?"

"It's me, Riley. We have to talk — no, leave the light off," his hand on hers as she reflexively reached for the bedside lamp was cold, nearly as cold as Spike's. She couldn't figure out what she was hearing in his voice. It sounded like the adult voices she used to hear with bemusement and incomprehension, filled with emotions she didn't own and could barely imagine. Since Oz left she could sometimes hear those alien tones in her own voice, and now they were roiling in his. There were lions and tigers and bears in Riley's words, and she was afraid enough to pull her hand away from him.

"What's going on? Didn't you and Buffy have a date tonight? I mean, she, uh, she packed to spend the night somewhere and I thought that, you know, after the two of you staked some vamps you'd move to the nonlethal evening entertainment . . . um," she stumbled, and finished with a voice several fonts smaller than her original question, "where's Buffy?"

"I was just with her. I want you to listen to me very carefully, Willow."

This is it, she understood. Ever since she'd discovered what Buffy did for a living (for a dying, ha ha ha), she'd waited for the "we regret to inform you." She wasn't even first in line to know; that privilege was reserved for family, for lovers, no matter how much you loved someone if the world called it 'friend' your grief and fear was simply a bemusement. "She's dead, isn't she?"

His sharp shocked breath told her that she was wrong, but not far enough.

"You know what I do for a living."

"Yeah, you're Secret Agent Man, which is kinda cool, I mean it's not every day that you're graded by –" she stopped because her words were simply dwindling away in the darkness.

"And she told me what she was. She couldn't — I think it must be something about California, maybe it's like Professor Walsh always said and we live in a confessional culture gone out of control . . ."

Okay, now Riley had taken charge of rambling (if that wasn't an oxymoron); this couldn't be good.

". . . But none of you understand that sometimes secrets are for keeping. She just told me, Willow, she opened her mouth and out came this recitation of the things you'd seen and done, the Watchers, the vampires, the demons, the Master, Kendra and Faith and the rest of it. And I –" and now she could tell what was in his voice, it was disbelief, the way a man looks at the bleeding stump the moment after the chainsaw has slipped and taken off his hand; he was asking, what have I done?

"What have you done?"

Riley's eyes shone with the lamplight spilling in through the windows. "What have I done? I've taken an oath to serve and protect my country from all enemies, foreign and domestic. I've trained for years to fight creatures that most people don't even believe in. My parents and friends think I'm a total failure because I supposedly got a dishonorable discharge from the Army. My father, the perfect lieutenant, he disowned me for it. And I still did my job!" He was almost shouting by the end, and he paused to breathe, panting really.

Maybe he was just feeling insecure in his manhood, worried that he needed a five-foot-nothing girl to help out. Men could be strange, no doubt, and a midnight visit was not very far from Sunnydale-normal. "And to do your job, Buffy has to help you."

"Of course," without anger now. "You go around, you amateurs, fighting brushfires and you think you're saving the world. Let me tell you something, I've seen intelligence reports on the increase in paranormal activity over the past three years and it's terrifying. Willow, the Hellmouth isn't the half of it. There are exponential increases nationwide, probably worldwide, and we can't keep the lid on much longer. Every weapon we have, every avenue of defense, has to be carefully coordinated or America — humanity — is doomed. And whatever you or I may feel for Buffy, that means she has to put America first. She can't go on playing reindeer games in Sunnydale."

"So you drafted Buffy." Well, the Buffster hadn't exactly taken to college as her natural habitat anyway. As much as Willow hated to admit it, she'd probably do better with a group of young people whose interests overlapped with hers. And it would be better if Buffy had trained backup rather than whatever haphazard resources Willow and company could marshal.

Riley's face contorted. "Not precisely. She's going to . . . resist doing what we need her to do."

"Buffy's patriotic! I'm not saying she knows all the words to 'The Star- Spangled Banner' or anything, but I know all you need to do is ask and she'll be glad. . ."

"It's not like that, Willow." For some reason, all she could think of was the rainmaking spell she'd been trying to master, imagining a tiny black raincloud hovering over Riley's head to indicate her displeasure with that statement.

"What is it like, then?" She could feel her voice rising and wanted to control it, wanted to get all growly and Buffy, but it wasn't in her.

"Willow, if the world were coming to an end tomorrow and you needed an army of Slayers, what would you do, knowing what you do?"

"I don't know what you mean," she insisted, her hands tugging at the covers as if her mommy were going to come in and tuck her in, telling her that there aren't any monsters under the bed and certainly none beside it, that monsters don't have corn-fed faces and tousled hair.

"Knowing what you do about this girl Kendra, and Faith, what would you do, Willow?"

She must look like a fish, her mouth opening and closing, drowning in the thick foul air of the world Riley had thrown her into. "I can't . . ."

"We've been in negotiations with the Watcher's Council since the day after Buffy told us about them," he bulldozed through her confusion, and she wasn't so far gone in shock that she didn't notice the 'us.' "They were happy to give us Faith, though they were pretty embarrassed by how difficult it was, and especially after that they were happy to agree to an alliance that greatly expands their influence and resources. But the thing with Faith, she was unstable and her — her progeny are worse. They don't know if it's the effects of the coma or if it's that Faith herself is second-generation."

She didn't even realize that she was out of the bed, searching for a pair of jeans, until Riley's hand grabbed her arm with a grip that seemed as strong as a vamp's.

"Don't."

She tried the move she'd learned in self-defense class, where you twist and use the assailant's own strength against him, and all of a sudden she was breathing in a pile of Buffy's dirty laundry, blood of several kinds and grass and sweat and perfume, and her shoulder was screaming. "There's nothing you can do," he said and he actually sounded remorseful. She was beginning to think that being male was as much about self-delusion as it was about having testicles. "Willow, she was taken into federal custody two hours ago."

She was turning pages in her mind in the third volume on Giles's top shelf, one of the books he didn't think she'd read, to the section on spells of location and transfer. "I know you're thinking about rescuing her," Riley whispered in her ear. Willow had never actually felt flesh crawl before; she'd assumed it was a metaphor like 'eyes bugging out of their sockets,' but she felt like her skin was making a mad dash elsewhere and that Riley would be left holding a muscle-clad skeleton. She hoped he'd scream like a baby when he saw. "Shhh, I'm not here to hurt you, I want to help you."

"Fabulous job you're doing."

He released her and she sat up, shaking herself to regain some composure. "Look, I had to tell Them about Giles and Anya." Willow capitalized the term without knowing the exact referent. It seemed natural somehow. "Giles has agreed to work with Buffy, help her through the transitional period –"

"You mean, the period when she's dead and then you bring her back to life? I don't believe you."

"The alternative was someone from the Watcher's Council. Giles thinks he can protect her." It was clear from Riley's tone that he expected Giles to be less protection than the withdrawal method. "The important point is, Anya needs to be studied to see if we can replicate the demonic transformation into powerless humans, and Xander isn't anyone special, but then there's you."

Shamefully, the spike of terror that staked into her heart was greater than the fear she felt for Buffy.

"I told them you were just playing at being a witch, because you wanted to have special powers like Buffy, but you were really just a good researcher. They'll come for Amy, of course," he might have gestured into the darkness towards the cage where the rat was squeaking, unnerved by the night visitor. "Buffy told me about her because she didn't want to make out with Amy watching." His wistfulness made Willow want to puke. "They'll confiscate her as a health threat, under university rules. But if you keep quiet you'll be safe. And maybe you can find another way."

Another way to what? To help Buffy? To save the world? "So I'm the salve to your pathetic conscience."

"I took an oath, Willow –"

"Yeah, you said that."

"It means something to me!"

"It means something to me, too." Finally, finally, she felt the Power rise in her, readying her to be the conduit for some great force. "In fact, I'm making an oath right now. You were right about me, almost, you know. I'm just a hedge witch now, good for love charms and balls of light to hold in your hand and not much else. But I've got potential. And as soon as I'm ready, Riley — I'm coming for her. Because you warned me, I'll warn you. But when I call, there's something you need to do."

Riley was already at the door, getting ready to go, and she wondered if Buffy had seen him like that, leaving with things unfinished. The lamps outside were beginning to be overtaken by the first gray hints of dawn. A transitional time, for beginnings and endings. This was the first step of a wearying journey, and though she'd never felt more alone the Power thrummed through her like tidal waves, and she was the water and the sand and the swimmer daring God to give her more.

"What do you want me to do?" His guilt, she saw, would let her have the last word. She'd prefer to do it with rhetorical force, but this was manageable too.

"Run."

The explosion behind her eyes was not like orgasm; it was like being hit on the head and loving it, pain pleasurable. She'd been doing the reading for her linguistics class before she went to bed and there was this idea about performative language, words that were acts like "I thee wed," and the textbook writer didn't believe in spells but Willow knew that he was describing them, everyday spells that create the world. The spell conjured by her agony had created something bigger; her body was pulsing and it seemed like even her fingernails would wrench free of their beds, the power too great to be contained in one form.

And the spell was performative because Riley hadn't even bothered to close the door. It swung open into the hallway and she heard his footsteps pounding. The faster he ran, the closer his guilt would be. The thought gave her no comfort, but the flux of magic inside her did. It was woven in with her veins and nerve fibers now, part of her as never before. That was good, because she had a lot of work to do.

How many resurrections would it take before Buffy gave up? Even Jesus, she was told, gave up after the first time. Hold on, she whispered to the ghost inside her head, the fantasy-Buffy she consulted before every major decision. Hold on, because they're not going to see me coming.

Not as a sidekick this time. I will be the wind that raises the hairs on the back of the neck, the sound that makes men start from sleep and clutch their dreaming wives. I can see the future, Buffy, and it's made of blood.

"Run," she whispered, and she would have been surprised to see that she was smiling.

****

Allegiances 2/

"You've got a lot of fucking nerve to come here," Xander said as he slammed Riley up against the wall.

In lieu of a reply, Riley grunted, pulling Xander's hand away from his throat and twisting, feinting and using Xander's arm as a convenient carry-handle with which to bounce him off the wall. Paint drifted from the point of impact, but Xander twisted like a cat avoiding flea dip and faced him again. "Listen, man, I'm not here to fight."

"That's right, you're here to get beaten up." Riley dodged, noting that Xander looked like the new, improved GI Joe; his muscles had muscles. The only other people he'd seen like that were either very insecure or in prison with a lot of time on their hands. Xander's hand to hand wasn't bad, but Riley had been in combat situations more recently, and with a rush and a push he was kneeling on Xander's back, forcing the boy's arm up to prevent any sudden moves.

"Don't tell me Uncle Sam needs my services too. I heard recruitment was in trouble, but wouldn't that be scraping the underside of the barrel?"

"Enough with the macho posturing, Xander." Riley's words came out steady though he was panting. "I have a message for you."

"From Buffy?" Underneath him, Xander froze like Windows.

"She's okay, she doesn't know I'm here. Giles . . . had trouble adjusting. He's starting to be perceived as a liability."

"And you're telling me this because . . .?"

Riley sighed. "He's in the car outside. Drugged to the gills. He doesn't know where the Initiative is now or how long this trip took. He wouldn't have wanted to leave Buffy so I didn't give him a choice. I know you'll take care of him."

Xander's ragged breathing slowed as he considered this. "So she's all alone in there."

"She's got me," he offered.

"Like I said."

Riley supposed he deserved that, but it still hurt, coming from a civilian, someone who hadn't put his body and heart on the line for his country. "There are more important things at issue than friendship."

"You tell yourself that, I hope it keeps you warm at night." Then, twisting his head to get a better view of Riley's face, he asked, "Anya?"

Riley knew he didn't have a poker face; he didn't even have a Go Fish face. Xander made a noise, like a spring giving way inside. This isn't helping either of us, he thought, and, extracting a syringe from a pocket with his left hand, he jabbed Xander's shoulder through his clothes. Xander and Giles could keep each other company in dreamland while Riley made his escape.

****

"To be absolutely honest, Buffy held up better than I did. She's a survivor." He didn't add "quite literally," with that little English elision Willow always found so charming, but it hung in the air nonetheless.

"Tara and I have been working on spells of location and transport," Willow said seriously, waving generally at the books and printouts piled like construction debris all over the room. He suspected that a spell or two was necessary to keep them from toppling over. "But things aren't going so well at the moment. I was thinking that if you could describe where Buffy's being held, we might be able to find her more easily."

Giles felt a headache coming on, and he rubbed at his temples. "Of course, of course. I can draw maps, though of course I'm not much of a draughtsman –"

"Actually, I was hoping we could do some joint visualizing." Willow had the brisk efficient expression of a low-level bureaucrat. "I'll guide you through the memories, and that way I'll get the best possible picture without the distortion of words."

"You want to, er, rummage through my brain?"

"Well, I wouldn't say rummage, I'm sure your brain is very tidy, Giles."

And as usual against his better judgment, he found himself sitting on a very dingy rug in a circle of even more suspicious-looking dust, trying not to sneeze from all the herbs in the air, while Willow floated around trying to get everything perfect for her spell.

He teetered uncomfortably on an overstuffed pillow. When she held out her hands, he took them. Her skin was as cool and smooth as marble. While he'd been gone, she'd shaped herself on some lathe of her own making, so that now she was all points and curves, elegant in her focused deadliness, almost mathematical. Feeling the blood beat in her palms made him want to cry. He was glad, at first, when the material world fell away; he had a sudden image of Alice Liddell and Charles Dodgson imagining themselves down the rabbit hole, though Willow was not blonde and she was no longer a fey child.

A confused whirl of images, smeary like trees seen from underwater, Willow's firm young breasts under thick sweaters, that he had never allowed himself to look at directly, the uncomfortable resemblance of so many of her traits to Jenny's. The woman inside Willow emerging like smoke from fire, twisting around him, brushing against his skin. He is back in the dank Initiative hallways, sickly institutional yellow in Willow's mind, tracing circuit- patterns. Giles doesn't know what a printed circuit looks like, or didn't, but now the corridors map onto an image of gold trails on green plastic. He strains for breath, for tense and form, but his body is not-his, his body has taken a three-day weekend, just like a real American.

He remembers Drusilla, pretending to be Jenny, and this trick of Willow's is too much like, a red caul descending over his thoughts except where she wanted to see clearly. Witchcraft has always been anathema to men, disrespecting boundaries, his mind a conquered province under her banners bright. In the gloaming, the gray place between her thoughts and his, he feels her need to know what's been done to Buffy, what he saw, what he felt, as if knowing would make it easier.

Time stretched and flowed like honey, Willow's unheard voice like taffeta rustling in his mind. She was knocking things astray in her hurry to leave, her feet tangling in spiderweb-strands of his thoughts.

When he blinked himself awake, for a second he could see himself through her eyes, old and a bit creepy, and then the world shuddered, like a top losing momentum and falling down, and he was in the right place, on the damned uncomfortable pillow, staring at the young woman who'd made herself a stranger by learning him from the inside out.

"Don't ever do that again," he said, and he could see the tears in her eyes. She'd magicked something she couldn't back away from, and though Willow had always been a bit jealous of her friends' ability to mark themselves and the world with their choices, he thought she hadn't quite understood what it was to build a dam in the flow of a friendship. The stream diverted, and the turbines turned, and the work of the world got done. But it wasn't ever the same.

****

"Slayer." The voice drifted through the open doorway like snow, melting as it went.

The heavy security door began to slide shut. Buffy's hand shot out. The door groaned; Buffy was silent. The door slid back into its groove. She stepped into the cell.

Spike had been not unhandsome, if a bit effeminate. He still was, mostly, but twenty percent disfigured is like twenty pounds overweight — it affects the whole image. The sore eating at his cheek was black and crusted. Sticky patches of recycled blood dotted his face and the mattress where he was lying.

He sat up, shakily, gesturing her closer, and she joined him on the edge of the mattress, staring at her legs as they swung restlessly. If she stopped moving she couldn't answer for the consequences. "So what have they been doing to you, Spike?"

"Helping me maintain my healthy tan," he snarled, as if having a target for an insult gave him energy. "I told them I'd help out — killing demons is better than not killing at all — but they don't seem very trusting."

Buffy's hand went to her head, and she smoothed her hair as if that was her aim all along.

"Slayer," he said again, his tone as colorless as his hair, "I don't … heal anymore." He tugged at the collar of his shirt. There was a tearing sound, like newspaper. The sore stretched from his collarbone down past what she could see; from its curve it was at least the size of a grapefruit. "I don't know what they did but demons weren't designed to stand up to the full onslaught of modern science."

Buffy chortled. "Slayers neither."

"I know I've done you dirt. That's my nature. I won't apologize for it. But I've helped you too."

Buffy was losing patience and pity, and that generally preceded violence. "What do you want?"

His pulseless hand was cool and light as an autumn leaf on her chin as he turned her face to him. "I want *you* to follow your nature. Slayer." He'd said Drusilla's name with less tenderness.

She heard shouting in the distance. The army boys were coming to break up the party.

"Come on, love," the nagging, pleading words blew over her cheek, "give us a kiss."

Unlike Angel, he didn't close his eyes. She put her hand on his chest where someone else's blood filled his heart.

A flex of her fingers sent the wrist-mounted stake into his body. The world slowed down, advancing frame by frame. The vicious killer and the broken boy warred for dominion over this last moment of existence. Spike was surprised, angry, grateful, regretful. And then — he was not.

She breathed him in, blood turned dust sucked into her lungs like cigarette smoke, dizzy with it.

"Buffy!" Forrest pulled up short before crashing into the bed. "Where's Spike?"

She held out her gray-smeared palm.

"Did he attack you?"

Another twitch of her fingers and the stake retracted.

"Buffy?"

She'd have to remember to clean the stake. Dust buildup could jam the mechanism.

"Buffy?"

She looked up. "What?"

Whatever he was going to say, he changed his mind. "You're crying."

She smeared Spike-ashes like warpaint checking to see that he was right. She didn't understand why and she didn't stop.

****

Xander was pacing, as theatrically as he knew how, and after dating Cordelia for a while he could have done summer stock, at least. "When are we going to be ready, Will? I feel like fate's squeaky toy, waiting helplessly to be chewed up."

"Remember that little dog I tried the transportation spell on last week?"

"Remember? I'm *still* finding hairs on the . . . Oh, I get what you're saying. You don't know what you're doing yet."

"Don't be snide," she said, and began rummaging through the jars on her desk. "It's not like you have any witchly powers to contribute. Tara and I are working as hard as we can."

"And I'm useless, as usual." He loomed over her. When had she become so much smaller than he was?

She put down the small bird's skeleton she'd been dismembering. "You're not useless." Her hand on his arm was warm, and misleading.

"Right, my meager security-personnel income really helps keep us living in style."

"You're our conscience," she said. "I think you've always understood the world better than the rest of us. You hide it with the sarcastic remarks and the underachieving, but I think that comes because you see things too clearly. You were the one that got us to take up the slaying slack in Sunnydale, even though it takes time and energy. Buffy would have wanted that, and it's the right thing to do. You did that, Xander, when I wouldn't have. Of course we need you. I need you."

He believed her, but he knew it was only because he wanted to.

"Soon, Xander. We'll be ready soon."

****

She opened the door without asking who it was; in the bowels of the Initiative it was generally safe to do that, at least if the alarms were silent.

Riley barely recognized Buffy with the regulation haircut. Technically women could keep long hair if they pinned it up, but such things tended to fly loose and become distractions or dangers in combat. He approved in theory, but in practice Buffy looked as if something else had been cut off too, the feminine Samson. She looked disturbingly like a refugee.

"Do I have spinach stuck between my teeth or something?"

"Hunh? No, uh, I wanted — I thought — I'd like to talk to you."

She waved him into her room, single occupancy. It was a luxury they hadn't dared deny her, he'd heard, since sometimes there were procedures that would have inconvenienced a roommate. And he'd heard whispers about nightmares from one of the techs, though no one would ever tell him anything directly. Maybe they were afraid he'd reveal their secrets too.

Riley chose a corner of the bed and sat. He watched his hands crawl over his knees, searching for safety.

"This is so pleasant, really, but I have other uses for that bed, you know. Well of course you would know." She was leaning against the wall, arms crossed, her weight all on her right foot with her left tapping the wall behind her.

"I wanted to know how you were."

"You don't get the daily medical reports, Commander?"

"I wanted to know more than that. I know you may find this hard to believe, but I care about you. I've always cared about you."

"You lost your caring privileges with me the first time they had to crack my chest to restart my heart." She paced back and forth in front of him, like a tiger in a cage; he could only hope that the bars would hold. "That was really taking the 'break my heart' thing a bit too far."

"I miss you," he confessed.

That stopped her. Her pupils were too large as she stared at him, the faded blue of her irises thin and irrelevant around the black. "What am I supposed to say, all is forgiven? All is not forgiven, Riley."

"I'll do anything I can to make it up to you, to make things better."

She smirked and crossed in front of him, to a nightstand where pill bottles stood like sentries. Casually, rubbing his nose in it like a puppy who's made a mess, she shook out a few of the pills and dry-swallowed. "So are you the doctors' latest prescription? 'Cause I'll tell you right now, this is not decreasing my stress level one bit."

He was distracted by the smudge of red above her lip. "Your nose — it's bleeding."

She smiled. "Didn't they tell you?"

"Tell me what?"

"About the lingering side effects of the Slayer Generation program."

He shook his head. Her skin was vamp-white; he wondered if blood was flowing through her veins at all. "Well, you know they stopped killing me when they activated the ten-year-old. I think they were embarrassed." Riley remembered the scientists' dismay when they stopped getting quote-unquote usable Slayers. The ten-year-old was fast, but without the changes of puberty she just wasn't capable of real action. What nature had ordained, the US Army couldn't speed up. Not yet, anyway. There was talk of targeted steroid use, but there was no need to get Buffy worried about that.

"What does that have to do with your nosebleed?"

"Surprisingly, you can't actually stop someone's heart once a week without lingering negative consequences." Her tone was so light that she could have been discussing last week's episode of Friends. "I've got a pacemaker now, all plastic so it won't set off alarms at airports. And for the seizures I've got a nifty neural net in my head, sort of like the one you put in Spike's brain. They told me mine doesn't try to influence behavior but I haven't put it to the test by making an escape attempt. It just gives me electric shocks to damp down the brainstorms, and every once in a while there's a little blood to show me the system's working. Sort of like my period, only less reassuring."

"Buffy . . ."

"Can we not do this, Riley? I have a mission tomorrow, I still smell like a Ghorren demon, you slept with me and turned out to be evil and I am so not surprised, and now we're done, all right?"

"It's not all right!"

"Well, I'm with you there," she said, her face still as if she were truly dead and lying in state.

"I love you," he said, because he didn't have anything else to tell her.

"Did you get a Gold Star for bringing me in?"

It had been a distinguished service medal, but he wasn't about to tell her.

"The only thing I ever wanted was to do the right thing." She looked away. "Buffy — you look — you seem — I want things to be okay for you. If there's anything I can do –"

She nodded. "I guess I am your assignment for tonight. What, did the CO think that I was returning Private Estevez's lingering glances?" Riley winced, which she seemed to take as confirmation. "It's not his fault, locked up here with all those hormones and very few girls. And I still have a few girlish charms, you know." She crossed her arms at her waist and pulled off her T-shirt. She so pale that he could barely see the scars, but as he watched the lines began to stand out against her blushing skin.

"Come on, Riley," she said, fumbling with her combat pants, "let's go."

As he moved to take her in his arms, to still her awkward striptease, he thought about what the CO had actually said. Sure, go ahead and see her, he'd said, you deserve this.

And maybe, Riley thought before thought became impossible, he did deserve this.

****

Willow vomited into the trashcan at the side of Buffy's bed. "Wow," she said, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, "it worked," and then emptied her remaining stomach contents into the can.

Buffy blinked and her hands clenched empty air. "I wasn't sure if you were really sending me a dream with instructions on how to escape or if I was just making it up."

"Even when I defined the word 'antidisestablishmentarianism'?"

"Well, it was *possible* that I knew it subconsciously. . ." They hugged fiercely. Willow felt the bruises rise and welcomed them.

"You did a really good job with the salt circle," she said, trying not to stare at Buffy's thin, white face. "Okay, so the return spell is a little more complicated, so let's get started."

Five minutes later, Willow was cursing the worthless salt, and her curses were as ineffective as the other spells she'd tried.

"I don't understand, this should have worked!" She was embarrassed; it was humiliating to come all this way and then screw up right in front of Buffy.

"Maybe I should have mentioned, they've been trying to put on some magical insulation, like asbestos only not so pink. Maybe you got in because I made a magic hole but now that it's broken we can't get out that way."

Willow tried not to rant, though she did think Buffy might have mentioned 'magical insulation' at some point prior to her arrival. "Is there any way we can get outside the perimeter? We don't have to go far."

By way of an answer, Buffy bounded up onto her bed and reached for a grey metal mesh that looked like it covered a vent. "This will probably set off an alarm," she said over the rending noise as she wrenched it free, sending institutional white paint chips flying like confetti. "But I'm guessing that the magical mystery shield doesn't extend into the surrounding — get DOWN!"

Willow belly-flopped, barely managing to get her hands out to break the fall, rolling towards the wall to make herself a less inviting target. Buffy was off the bed and bounding towards the door just as Willow tried to call up the first of the spells she and Tara had so carefully prepared. She didn't even see the door open, it was so fast, and the soldiers were green-black blurs, which made it much easier to think of them as obstacles, unpeople.

Buffy's kick snapped the first one's head back and he stumbled into the ones behind him. The doorway was narrow enough that Buffy wasn't outnumbered; it would probably take a football squad to outnumber Buffy. But unarmed combat wasn't Willow's spectator sport of choice, and she drew war-knots in the air, calling the spirits. She didn't quite understand the ancient language of the spell, but she thought it said something like, "Come here! Good eating here!" If the Magic Shell the Initiative had installed was good against things other than transport spells, they were well and truly screwed, but de-magicking a place was much more difficult than enacting a specific prohibition, so she had to hope it would work.

The air grew thick and hot as more soldiers piled into the room, pushing the fallen ones before them. All they had to do was pin Buffy down physically, and then the drugs and the restraints would begin again. Willow knew; she'd seen. With a shudder, she made the last pass, and the spirit manifested, a black cloud necklaced by lightnings. It hesitated — she thought it was *sniffing* somehow — and lunged for the nearest soldier.

Buffy, always quick to react, turned from the fray and held out a hand to Willow. As their palms crossed, Willow remembered all the times before that Buffy had saved her. Aided by Buffy, Willow rose easily, careful to stay as far away from the hungry black cloud as possible. They both got onto the bed, as if it were some magic carpet come to take them away, and Buffy held out her interlinked hands for Willow to step on.

Buffy grunted and thrust Willow into the ventilation duct, then leapt up behind her as Willow scrabbled to get further away.

"I think I killed that soldier, the black one, I mean the one who was black before –"

"No, you didn't." There was no arguing with Buffy's tone; she'd seen death and she'd seen nonfatal wounds and she could tell the difference without needing to poll the audience. "Let's get about a hundred feet away and try that transport spell again."

****

Giles held out his arms, and Buffy came into them, a controlled fall, crying. He kissed the top of her head as if she were actually delicate, as if she might melt like sugar candy under their tears.

In the hallway outside, he could hear Willow and Xander talking in low voices, no doubt discussing what to do next, whether they needed to move again or whether this site was still secure. Willow's dot-com manipulations and occasional outright hacking ensured they had enough money to leave if need be, but Buffy deserved some stability.

"I don't know if I can ever forgive myself for letting this happen," he said, mumbling through the tears that choked him. He looked over her head, trying to see something other than his own failures.

"You didn't let this happen," she whispered.

"I should have killed Riley the first day I met him."

She chuckled. "One thing I learned in the Army, Giles, getting rid of one person doesn't destroy a command structure. The problem is the Initiative, not Riley or Walsh or any one of them."

"Still, it would have given me great personal satisfaction."

"That's your civilian mentality again," she said, almost wistfully, and he realized that he was not holding a girl in his arms, but a woman. He loosened his grip on her shoulders and she stepped a few inches away.

Buffy looked at her feet. Her cheeks were shiny with tears, but she glowed. It was freedom and, he flattered himself, being reunited with the people who loved her.

"I have to tell you something." She sounded as if she was about to admit to having broken his favorite biscuit jar.

"Yes?"

"So . . . um, basically, boys have always gotten me into big trouble."

"Yes, I'd say that's a reasonable historical summary." He tried to keep his voice neutral. He couldn't imagine what she was going to say next; she'd slept with one man who therefore turned into a demon and another who kidnapped and repeatedly killed her, not to mention the assorted boyfriends who'd only put her in mortal danger. What more could there be?

"Well, about six weeks ago, I talked to Riley — I mean, we talked, we fought, and . . ." She was bright pink now, even the line of scalp he could see through the part in her hair. "I think I'm pregnant, Giles," she whispered. She was still crying, and he embraced her without hesitation. She shuddered against him, suddenly a girl again, one always forced to grow up too fast.

Well, old boy, you should know by now never to ask yourself what more there could be, he thought, and looked up so that she wouldn't see his grim self- mocking smile.

He shushed her and rubbed her shoulders, turning pages in his mind. There weren't many Chronicles covering the phenomenon of pregnant Slayers. And for good reason. Most had been destroyed when their associated Watchers had been killed in magical battles. A Slayer's child was reputed to be the most magically potent being possible; one allied with dark forces could do anything with such a child. Demons could sense its presence in the womb, so there was no way to keep it secret.

"We'll take care of it," he reassured her. The first spell most witches learned, historically, was how to take care of an unwanted pregnancy; it was only in these enlightened, benighted times that a witch like Willow could start out with love and levitation. She'd certainly have the proper materials on hand.

Willow would help him. Buffy would never have to know. She'd had to make too many hard decisions already in her short life; he'd make this one for her and she'd live to make other choices. If God didn't like it, then bugger God. "Why don't you lie down for a bit?" He led her to the couch and eased her down. She blinked up at him, a sleepy child, indulging him by letting him care for her. "I'll just go and get you a cup of tea and you'll feel better. My very own blend, private stock, amazingly calming. Everything will be fine, you'll see."

She smiled vaguely, almost as if she believed him, and he took Xander's blanket from the back of the couch and covered her. Her eyes fluttered closed, fragile as paper moths. Buffy was back, and she needed him, and despite everything, he felt contentment budding inside him like spring leaves. Everything would be fine, he repeated to himself. They'd live happily ever after. No matter who he had to kill.

Giles smiled to himself and went to see about the tea.

END

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