The Kitten, the Witches and the Bad Wardrobe - Willow & Tara Forever

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 Post subject: Re: Time and Time Again
PostPosted: Wed Jun 10, 2020 9:01 pm 
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6. Sassy Eggs
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Greetings and a very heartfelt Happy Pride everyone! :pride :pride :pride

I meant to get this chapter done and posted months ago, but as I'm sure you all know the last four months have been utter chaos. Fortunately no one in my family or immediate circle of friends has gotten sick during this pandemic. Unfortunately, my sister is an Operating Room nurse in a level 1 trauma center, my mother is the HR hiring manager at a Kroger, and we all live in southern Michigan. So even though my family is fortunate enough to have stayed healthy and mostly employed, we've still had essential worker front row seats to the other effects of the pandemic, and the misfortune of seeing police do absolutely nothing as armed domestic terrorists and white nationalists seeking a white ethno-state point guns in the faces of elected officials, and then two weeks later they have the gall to break out the riot gear, billy clubs, rubber bullets, and tear gas as unarmed non-terrorists and non-bigots demand justice, equality, accountability, and basic fucking human decency.

Oddly enough, the world being on fire has impacted my ability to write this insane little love story. I'd normally make a crass joke about that being the real tragedy in all of this, but I've seen too many police brutality videos this week to find that joke in me.

No matter what else is happening, don't lose hope. Don't give up. Don't roll over for fascism. Fight for every single day, and fight to make tomorrow better than yesterday. Keep up the fight at least until November where our voices can be heard the loudest.

And please, for the love of all that is good and decent in this broken little hellhole of a planet, wear masks and gloves whenever you go outside! Always. Everywhere. Masks and gloves!

_________________
Time and Time Again


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 Post subject: Re: Time and Time Again
PostPosted: Wed Jun 10, 2020 9:09 pm 
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6. Sassy Eggs
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Joined: Sat May 17, 2014 7:19 pm
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Time and Time Again.

Author: Citanul

Feedback: Be kind, rewind? Seriously though all feedback is welcome.

Spoilers: Just about all of them. Go watch the show. And Angel too. Also Agents of Shield a little bit. You know what, if a name you don’t recognize pops up most of the time you can find dozens of pages of character bio if you type that name and the word comics into Wikipedia. It’s almost scary how much page space comic book fans have taken up on that site.

Rating: NC-17 = Smutty smut smut smut. Seriously though they make love quite often.

Pairings: W/T, B/F, G/J, D/J, F/G, A/?, X/A. Also D/C (Though not till they’re older and even then maybe not so much with the graphic detail.)

Disclaimer: You all know I don’t own the rights to characters you’ve seen on TV.

Summary: A story of reincarnation and interdimensional travel made possible through the power of love. What misfortunes will our two favorite love birds be able to prevent with the aid of experience from countless past lives?

Author’s Note: Finally we're at the end of Act 2. The one that was season 3 of the show. This one might be a downer, but I promise I had the major plot beats of this chapter outlined long before the world decided to set itself on fire. This is not the end. There will be a third act. Stay safe. Stay healthy. Don't let the fascists take any more from you than they already have. Every day we survive is a victory.

*****

Chapter 42: Graduation

“I hope this brief tour was to your liking, Mr. and Mrs. Rosenberg.”

The couple came to a stop beside the lawyer who had guided them through the Los Angeles headquarters of the notorious law firm. They looked upon the tall lawyer with mildly befuddled expressions. Before the tour, they could never have imagined what they had been shown. They could hardly believe the things their daughter was doing with the law firm. The ways she and her girlfriend were planning to change society, science, politics, the very shape of the world they inhabited. Before today they could not even imagine what Willow would do with all the power and influence she had taken for her own. Now they could hardly imagine a reason why their daughter bothered to finish out her last few high school years with her classmates and friends. With what they had been shown, even the prospect of Willow attending classes at the most prestigious university seemed like a waste of time. Let alone her adamant desire to attend undergraduate level classes on the hellmouth.

“Well… I must say, what we saw was most unexpected.” Ira paused as he found the words to answer the lawyer. “Thank you for showing us around, Ms. Morgan.”

“Think nothing of it, Mr. Rosenberg.” Lilah gave the older couple a practiced smile as she did her best to play host. “It’s always an honor to serve the Senior Partners. Especially when it reinforces the fact that I’m one of the few employees that can be trusted around their family.”

“Yes, I’m sure our Willow has gone to great lengths to wipe out any leftover influences from the previous management,” Sheila said as she took in the sight of the law firm’s massive entrance lobby. “Though that bioweapons research division might give some less informed people cause for concern.”

“Certainly, Mrs. Rosenberg,” Lilah said with a smile Ira could tell was long practiced and plastered on for their benefit. “Updating and installing moral guidelines in that branch of the company was one of Ms. Rosenberg and Ms. Maclay’s first directives after the hostile takeover. You’d hardly be able to recognize those labs if you had seen them before your daughter set us straight.”

“But not too straight.” Ira chimed in with a smirk that curled his bushy mustache. Sadly, neither woman bothered to laugh at the pun. Both too focused on sizing up and weighing the other. It was times like this that Ira regretted the fact that he didn’t get to spend more time with Willow’s friends. He knew Tara would have gotten the joke. Something told him Buffy would have also appreciated his “wit.”

Sheila was quick to move the conversation along. “Will you be in attendance at the graduation next week, Ms. Morgan?”

“Unfortunately, no.” Lilah kept her polite smile fixed and rigid as she noticed the almost smug expression forming on the face of her boss’ mother. “I’ve been given other duties to attend to in the coming weeks. Ms. Rosenberg and Ms. Maclay are adamant about the summer months being the best times to schedule employee downtime, whip the overseas branches into shape, and recoup losses from any demon related shenanigans their Slayers dealt with in recent months. I’ll be busy micromanaging my little corner of their empire. Though I’ve already congratulated them on their accomplishments. It’s funny. High school graduation seems like such a little thing compared to what those kids have already accomplished. Then again, my administrative partner is always saying some ridiculous cliche about how “the little things are the most important.”

Just as Sheila was about to reply, the main doors of the lobby were thrown open. A middle-aged man with a long coat, graying hair, and a permanent scowl etched into his face stomped his way into the middle of the open foyer of the Law Officers of Rosenberg and Maclay. He sneered as his eyes surveyed the room, taking in each and every person dressed in business attire more expensive than any garments from his own closet. Clothing that put even his “Sunday finest” to shame. His glare especially hardened as he noticed a large number of well-dressed women going about their workday.

“Alright! This ends here! Where is it?” Donald Maclay called out in an obscenely overconfident voice.

“I’m so sorry you two had to see this,” Lilah whispered to the Rosenbergs as two men from the lobby’s front desk stood and approached the outraged redneck.

“Sir…” The lead security guard began only to be interrupted by the intruder.

“Out of my way, boy!” Donald Maclay attempted to brush past the guards as his eyes focused on Lilah. “I demand to see the deed to this place! If my worthless daughter thinks she can hide behind this den of iniquity she has another thing coming to her!”

“Sir! You’re going to have to leave the premises.” The guards were calm but firm as they closed in on the redneck. No one was surprised when the old man lashed out at the men grabbing his arms.

“Get your goddamn hands off me!” Donald shouted as the men began to drag him towards the door. His eyes locked on Lilah as he continued to scream. “This ungodly place has my name on it! I demand what’s mine, and none of you piss ant lawyers are going to stop me!”

Lilah was about to offer a rebuttal until she saw two figures coming in through the lobby doors at Donald Maclay’s back. She smirked as one figure raised an arm with a familiar device clutched in his hands. Donald’s shouts were cut short as a sharp pain spread through his back and fire filled his central nervous system. The redneck let out a pained whimper as he slumped between the guards holding either of his arms.

“Oh!” Steve shouted as he pulled the trigger on the taser again. “Look at that redneck sizzle! How do ya like that? Boy!”

“Alright. Settle down there, Steve.” Bob said as he and his partner approached the guards holding the intruder. “We’ll take the package from here.”

The guards offered no resistance as they handed over Donald Maclay. The lawyers still watching the action around the lobby began to drift off and return to whatever duties their jobs required of them. Everyone froze with one command from a surprising source.

“Wait!” Sheila Rosenberg shouted. She turned to Lilah. “Is that who I think it is?”

Lilah seemed reluctant to answer. After a brief moment, she nodded. Sheila’s expression soured. Before anyone could stop her she marched right up to the redneck and the guards still propping him up. Donald sneered at the auburn-haired woman glaring at him. Before he could mutter another disparaging remark Sheila brought her knee up into his groin as hard as she could. Shocked gasps, pained winces, and a surprisingly high number of appreciative curses filled the room.

“That!” She said as the man began to slump to the floor. “Is for my daughter-in-law!” She let the words sink into his crumpled form before she brought her leg back and delivered a swift kick to Donald Maclay’s ribs. “And that is for my daughter!” All around the room lawyers stood in shocked silence. A silence that was almost immediately replaced with profane applause from one of their coworkers.

“Woo!” Steve cheered and began a slow clap in honor of the senior partner’s mother. “Way to go Mrs. R! That is some damn fine footwork!”

“Steve.” Bob hissed as his partner all but skipped up to Sheila.

“Say, you wanna give him a few volts?” Steve asked as he began to hand the taser over to Sheila. “Just squeeze the trigger and let go when his hair starts to smoke.”

“Damn it, Steve! What did I tell you about flirting with the bosses’ mothers?” Bob growled out as he pulled his partner away from Sheila. He turned to see both Lilah and Ira Rosenberg had walked up to join the indignant mother. “So sorry for my partner, Mr. and Mrs. Rosenberg. We’re still working on getting him house-broken.”

“Oh, think nothing of it.” Ira smiled politely as he put a hand at the base of his wife’s back. “Is that putz going to be a problem?” Though Ira’s question was directed at Lilah, everyone could hear the disgust aimed directly at Tara’s father.

“Bob, see to it Mr. Maclay is comfortable until charges can be pressed.” Lilah’s order was given with a polite smile that hid nothing of her true meaning from the law firm’s wetwork operatives.

“Of course, Ms. Morgan.” Bob all but saluted as he dragged both Donald Maclay and his partner to the staff door behind the lobby security desk.

“Well, that was an unexpected ending to this little tour.” Sheila smiled as she straightened her blouse and took Ira’s arm in her own. “Shall we stop at that restaurant you wanted to try while we’re in town, Dear?”

“That sounds delightful,” Ira said. He turned to Lilah one last time before his wife ushered him out the door. “It was a pleasure meeting you, Ms. Morgan.”

“Likewise, Mr. Rosenberg.” Lilah kept her grin up until the couple was out the lobby doors and vanishing into the sunlit streets of downtown L.A. Her gaze never left the retreating couple as she spoke to the guard at her side. “I want that piece of shit locked up in the basement cells with the other child abusers and the sex offender.”

The head security guard nodded as he looked at a tablet in his hand. “Already done, Ms. Morgan. Agents Bob and Steve are parading the “new fish” in front of the other captives as we speak.”

“Good. Call in McDonald. We’ll both need to contact the Senior Partners. We need their go-ahead on what to do with the putz as Ira put it before Steve can inflict any long term psychological damage.” Lilah didn’t like admitting the fact that she was an administrative equal to Lindsey, but she knew the fallout of dealing with Donald Maclay Sr. was the last place to start a pissing contest over who was and wasn’t calling the shots while the witches played house on the hellmouth.

The guard actually smirked at the mention of Steve’s cruel tactics. “I doubt he’ll receive any permanent damage, Ms. Morgan. Steve likes to focus all his attention on Chaulk as an example of just how crazy he is to break the spirits of the other prisoners.”

Lilah remained firm as she fought the urge to smile at the idea of the child molester being tortured several floors beneath her feet. “And the fact that Chaulk has it coming is the only reason the Senior Partners put up with any of Steve’s Bugs Bunny level antics. Don’t forget for one second who holds the real power in this company.”

“No, Ms. Morgan. Of course not.” The guard saluted her as she turned and walked off towards the elevator that would take her back up to her office on the building’s second-highest floor. She had work to do, and surprise visits from no less than three parents of the senior partners had thrown her schedule out the necro-tempered glass window.

Outside the law firm, a newly concerned Ira was beginning to question his wife’s uncharacteristic actions. “Sheila, are you sure that was wise? I mean you basically assaulted the man in a room full of witnesses. And there’s got to be at least a dozen security cameras in that lobby alone.”

“Oh, you worry too much, Ira.” Sheila dismissed her husband’s concerns as they hailed a taxi. “No one in that building would dare to testify against the mother of their boss’s boss’s boss. Plus, if that putz even dares to sue us our Willow will have one of those lawyers crucify him. She might even get that Faith girl or Bunny to literally crucify the man.”

“Of course, Dear.” Ira suppressed a morbid laugh as a taxi pulled up to the curb where they stood. He could only hope that the odd twist their day had taken would not come to haunt their daughter or her girlfriend.

*****

Teens flowed through the student lounge area of Sunnydale High. Chatting, embracing, smiling, crying, and most importantly of all, signing. Yearbooks and graduation apparel had come in, causing rivals and acquaintances to engage in rushed exchanges of social pleasantries and empty promises to stay in touch. All aware that life would soon drive them down diverging paths. Students mingled and meandered as they collected their books, caps, and gowns.

“Willow! Tara!” A cheery voice drew the attention of the redhead and the honey-blonde sitting on one of the loveseats clustered around one corner of the lounge. Harmony came running up to them, a bright smile plastered across her face. “Will you guys sign my yearbook?”

“Of course.” Willow smiled right back as she and Tara took Harmony’s book and handed over their own books.

“You know,” Harmony began as she signed Willow’s yearbook. “I really wish we would have gotten to know each other better.”

“Us too,” Willow said as Tara hid her amused smile in short red locks. The witches did their best to refrain from laughing as they each signed the cheerleader’s book.

Their amusement went unnoticed as Harmony finished signing one book and moved on to the next. “I mean, you’re so smart. I always wanted to be like that.”

Tara let a small chuckle slip-free as she took their yearbooks back and handed the cheerleader her own. Willow was only slightly better at keeping her amusement in check. “You have a way of landing on your feet, Harmony.”

The bottle blonde smiled brightly at what she thought was a compliment. She offered one last empty platitude before turning and heading off to find more signatures. “I hope we don’t lose touch.”

“We won’t!” Tara called out to the retreating cheerleader before openly laughing into Willow’s shoulder. Her laughter turned to a genuine smile as the Slayers walked up to the loveseat she and Willow occupied.

“I’m gonna miss her,” Willow said. Both Slayers perked up at the odd sentiment.

Buffy was the first to ask the obvious question as she and her girl sat down across from the witches. “Don’t you hate her?”

“Yes,” Willow replied, chipper as ever. “With a fiery vengeance. She picked on me for ten years. Vacuous tramp. She’ll be dead within a few days of graduation. A week tops.”

“What?” Buffy almost shouted as Faith tensed. “Crap, do we have to save her?”

“I mean you guys can try,” Willow said with a dismissive sigh as she leaned back into Tara. “We tried a bunch of times, but it always ended up the same. Right after graduation Harmony gets bitten and turned into a vampire.”

“So we stake her?” Faith asked as she recalled some of her earliest conversations with the witches about specific vampires. “Please don’t tell me she’s a vamp we gotta babysit for some endgame power play y’all are planning.”

“Oh no, nothing like that.” Willow laughed again as she and Tara shared knowing smirks. “Nine times out of ten she ends up dating Spike for a few weeks before she fails to start her own vampire gang, fails to make herself Buffy’s nemesis, fails to win Spike back after he becomes obsessed with Buffy, fails to rise through the ranks of a vampire pyramid scheme, fails to become anything other than a secretary at Wolfram & Hart, and fails to keep the supernatural world a secret when she gets caught on camera eating some strung out reality TV clown in a back alley.”

A long moment of silence passed as the Slayers took in Willow’s babbled list of Harmony’s failures. Neither wanted to contemplate dealing with an undead classmate for a long time, though they couldn’t help but find some amusement in the prospect of an airhead like Harmony trying to become a serious threat as a vampire. They both knew that neither of them could spend the next few weeks personally babysitting the vapid cheerleader on the off chance her fate was avoidable. It seemed the only feasible course was the strategy being employed by the witches. Wait and see.

A beeping chime came from Willow’s pocket before either Slayer could dwell further on the cheerleader’s fate. The redhead pulled out her gen-one star phone and pulled up the notification for whatever she had just been sent. A scowl covered Willow’s face just as Tara looked over and read the message on the phone screen. Both their expressions darkened.

The Slayer rolled her eyes. “How bad is it and what do we have to slay?”

Willow’s head shot up at Buffy’s question. She blinked away the beginnings of slight tears before schooling her expression and grasping Tara’s hand. “It’s nothing. Already settled.”

“What’s going on?” Xander asked as he came up and slumped into a nearby couch.

“My father showed up at our L.A. law firm,” Tara said. The silence that followed her admission was almost inconceivable considering the continuous flow of chatting teens around the tables of graduation gowns and yearbooks just across the room.

“It’s fine.” Willow finally forced the conversation back into motion. “It’s already handled. Bob and Steve tased him and put him in a cell next to Post, and Alonna’s girlfriend’s father. They’ll put on a big “scared straight” show and make him understand that he has no place in our life. Tara and I will go there and give him another chance to sign Jen’s divorce papers. It’ll all be fine. He’ll get knocked down a peg and then we’ll send him on his way. He’s not going to take anything from us ever again.” As Willow rambled on, Tara continued to stroke her back in her usual supportive way. Just as the barest hint of tears began to form in distraught emerald pools, Tara went into action.

“It’s okay, Sweetie.” The honey-blonde assured as she wrapped her arms around her everything. “No matter what happens we’ll be together. All of us.”

A relieved sigh escaped Willow as she sought comfort and reassurance in her always. Tara always knew exactly what to do to ease Willow’s troubled mind. Both knew the threat posed by Tara’s father looked nothing at all like the threat the man thought he posed. The real threat was more subtle compared to any tactic employed by this version of Donald Maclay Sr. More sinister. It was a threat they had faced before. A threat that created a maze they would have to carefully navigate in the next few days.

*****

The door was blessedly silent as Xander crept into the back of Mr. Miller’s history class. He was several minutes late, but there was little chance of him serving detention for tardiness. Xander closed the door slowly before turning to find Mr. Miller and half the class looking at him.

“Thank you for joining us, Mr. Harris.” The history teacher spoke in a dull resigned tone as he began to transition into the “lighter” curriculum he planned for the days leading up to graduation. “Look, I realize that you’ve all finished your finals and you’re ready to move on,” his voice rose as he turned to face the chalkboard. “But you haven’t graduated yet. This is still a class, and everyone will participate.” Mr. Miller turned back to the students to reveal the simple gallows and a series of short horizontal lines he had drawn on the board. “Mr. Harris, would you care to begin?”

“Umm.” Xander hemmed and hawed as he came up with a guess. “E?”

“No.” Mr. Miller smirked as he turned back to his board. “There’s no E. Heh, heh. They always go for E.” He drew a circle at the top of the gallows followed by a large capital E. Xander turned to the girl in the seat next to him and smiled as Mr. Miller called out another student’s name.

“Hey.” Anya sported an only partially forced smile as she batted her eyes in Xander’s direction.

Xander fought to maintain eye contact with the former demon. “Hey.”

A slight blush betrayed Anya as an unexpected smile spread across her face. The girl who spent the last thousand years hating men found it nearly impossible to resist this one dopey teenage boy’s grin. “Um, so I was wondering, uh, maybe if you were free this weekend, maybe we could do some… entertaining thing.”

Xander’s first impulse was to eagerly agree to whatever casual-date-thing Anya was suggesting. His second impulse was to flee in terror at the memory of their prom night banter. “Would that be along the lines of you telling me about all the men you destroyed back in your demon days?”

She paused before grasping for some way to push forward with her plans. “Well… We could do something else you like. We could, um… watch sports of some kind?”

“I’m not much of a sports guy, Ahn.”

His casual dismissal of the idea shocked the former demon.“Men like sports! I’m sure of it.” That was an incontrovertible fact she was absolutely certain of. Why was he lying to her?

He actually rolled his eyes before reaffirming her preconceptions. “Yes. Men like sports. Men watch the action movie. They eat of the beef, and enjoy to look at the bosoms.” Their eyes met and he asked her a question that had been burning in the back of his mind every time she commented on his gender. “A thousand years of avenging our wrongs, and that’s all you’ve learned?”

“I’m trying, okay? You don’t need to take my head off.” She began to pout, and Xander realized he had been unnecessarily harsh.

Xander did his best to sincerely apologize. “I’m sorry. You’re right.” She perked up at his admission of fault. “I’m just being a douche because I can’t help this feeling that the other shoe is going to drop any minute now.”

Anya perked up as his attitude shifted towards genuine concern and dread. “What other shoe?”

He eased back into his chair as he began to lament the pattern that had emerged in his life after meeting the Slayer. “Our usual end of the school year apocalypse. You know? End of spring. Right before summer. Some big bad living on the hellmouth decides they’re gonna be the change they want to see in the world, and they try to blow us all to hell. Literally, send us all to hell half the time.”

“That sucks.” Anya couldn’t help but sympathize with Xander about the needless excesses of some demons. Even with her thousand years of causing death and destruction, she had never come close to kicking off an apocalypse of her own. She even tended to avoid active hellmouths whenever it was possible, and multiple calls for vengeance came her way. Oddly enough Cordelia’s call came during one of her slow weeks. Kicking off a chain of events that led her to her current drama. Asking a teenage boy out on a pseudo-date.

“Tell me about it.” Xander went on, oblivious to her line of thinking. “And I know we’re probably good this time. Willow and Tara said they took care of the big doom and gloom scheduled for later this week when they “ousted” the last mayor, but this nagging little voice in the back of my head keeps wondering if there was another “ascension” planned besides the one that would have turned Wilkins into a giant snake.” Though Xander didn’t notice it, the very mention of the ascension hit Anya with all the force and devastation of a freight train. The young woman froze as her reluctant boyfriend paid little attention. He seemed to shake off the dour concerns which had festered in the back of his mind and tried to come up with a simple plan for an evening they could share. “Listen, Anya. Instead of torturing both of us by watching some random “sport thing” how about you come over to my place and get to know my friends? Jen’s been talking about wanting to meet the girl I took to prom, and both Willow and Tara have been vouching for you with Buffy. Faith has been practicing shovel speeches she wants to give you in case you go breaking my heart. How about you come to a family dinner with me and get to know everyone a little better. We could watch a movie afterward and… Ahn?” Xander’s long rambling dinner invitation ended as he looked back at the girl and saw the horrified look in her eyes. For a moment, Xander wondered just what he had said to kill the mood when his previous sarcastic barbs had done so little to offend the former demon.

*****

“Kids are here. Parents, off to the side there.” Principal Snyder pointed out obvious seating areas spread around the largest of the new high school’s open courtyards. He guided his guest towards the almost completed stage as he rattled off the key bullet points of the coming ceremony. “We’ll go up, they’ll play the processional, and then you’ll give the address.”

“It all looks wonderful.” Mayor Allan Finch said as he surveyed the rows of black folding chairs and the columns of red carpet rolled out all around the courtyard.

A slight grumble entered the principal's voice as he responded to the mayor’s generous compliment. “As long as nobody makes any trouble.”

Allan waved off Snyder’s concerns as he turned to face the man. “There’s hardly any need to worry. With the ceremony scheduled days from the eclipse, there won’t be any serious threats until after sunset when the normal threats come out for breakfast.” The mayor paused as he took in the principal’s reaction to the blatant reference to Sunnydale’s unique nightlife. “You’ve done a great job here, Snyder. I know things are um… well, different. We’ve both seen all sorts of things. This last year alone caused so many changes. So much thrown up in the air.”

The mayor’s gentle words did little to ease Snyder’s dour mood. His back straightened up and his shoulders squared as he addressed the politician with firm resolve and more authority than a mid-level bureaucrat of his position really deserved. “I believe in order.”

“I know,” Allan said. The mayor took a moment to look over the graduation preparations once more.

The almost picture-perfect tidiness and shining presentation was a long-established trademark of Sunnydale. Every little detail focused on showing the outside world a bright and hopeful facade. No effort was spared in the ongoing mission of the town to mask the darkness hiding just under the surface. A tradition of pretty lies that had caused the deaths of countless thousands of innocents ever since his predecessor had founded the town just over a century ago. A tradition that must be broken.

“Order has its benefits.” Allan Finch went on as Snyder looked at him with growing confusion. “Wilkins believed in order. He believed in striking bargains, making deals… Forming pacts. And he stuck to those pacts, no matter the cost to the people of this town. His order was a cancer that robbed the very soul from this town long before it was on the map.”

Snyder was growing more and more worried as Allan’s tone darkened with each sentence. “Mr. Mayor, Sir?”

Several worrisome moments passed before the mayor spoke again. “The old order is dying, Snyder. It has to. It was killing us all. There’s a new order. A new deal, cliche as it sounds. Wilkins thought himself a king destined to become a god. As far as the public is concerned, I’m the one who took his throne. That couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, I’m a figurehead sitting on a throne owned by two Queens. And believe me when I tell you that those Queens have big plans for the few years this town has left.”

“What’s going to happen to the town?” The awe and terror in Snyder’s voice were enough to draw an amused smirk from Allan. He couldn’t help but answer the question in the most cryptic way he was allowed.

“War.”

*****

“Ooh, right there…” Buffy’s head rolled back. Her eyes closed. A faint moan of pleasure escaped her lips. She was just a few pleasurable moments away from crying out her girlfriend's name. Her fingers gripped the armrests of her chair. Her feet spread wide and planted firmly on the tiled floor of her hidden training room. She was just about to arrive at the precipice she had been worked towards.

The door that led out to the main desk and general reading area of the high school library swung open with a bang. “Anya, I’m telling you everything is fine!” Xander pleaded with the former demon as the two of them stormed into the somewhat secret training room of the Slayers. “Willow and Tara already took care of the big bad. Buffy and Faith killed a bunch of the demons that were gonna help him do the thing. We’re all fine!”

Buffy yelped as she was so rudely interrupted. She practically jumped out of her chair. A loud thud came from under the large research table. Buffy looked down to the surface of the table and whispered something in a worried voice before looking up and locking her gaze on the arguing couple standing at the far end of the table.

“You don’t know that!” Anya cried as she worked herself up yet again. “You haven’t seen an Ascension! I have! We have to leave town and never come back! It’s the only way to survive.”

“Ahn, my friends already stopped it.” Xander tried to reason with the terrified young woman. In desperation, he looked around the room for any support. He eventually met the Slayer’s gaze and almost fainted at the waves of sheer outrage and annoyance the apex predator was sending his way. “Hey, Buff. Can you… um… Bad time?”

Buffy spoke through clenched teeth as she eyed the couple. “Little busy here, Xander.”

“I’d hope you’d be busy dealing with the Ascension, Slayer!” Anya snapped before Xander could try to calm her. “This town is doomed! The rest of us need to get as far away as possible before whatever idiot sorcerer or warlock trying to ascend goes and turns himself into a giant monster!”

Buffy blinked in surprise at the former demon’s words. “This is about the thing Willow and Tara already took care of?” Xander could only nod and Anya kept indignantly glaring at her. The Slayer let out an annoyed sigh, rolling her head back and forth to either side several times before letting out a groan. Both Xander and Anya stared at her with confused but expectant expressions before she began speaking in as calm a voice as she could manage. “Okay. Fine. We’ll just have to fill in Xander’s new evil girlfriend on all the stuff Willow and Tara told us they’d been doing to fix the back half of this school year.”

The young man smiled. It seemed like Buffy was going to help him deal with Anya’s terrified reaction to his casual talk of one averted apocalypse. His relief was short-lived.

“Why don’t you help me explain all this old mayor stuff, Honey?” Buffy wore a bright smile as she spoke, but her words were dripping with oddly vindictive glee. Xander stared at her, momentarily confused, only for his eyes to shoot towards the research table in shock. An annoyed groan and several harsh curses came from beneath the table. All the color drained from Xander’s face as he and Anya watched Faith climb out from under the table, muttering harsh expletives and threats the entire way.

“Oh shit,” Xander whispered as Buffy kept up a deceptive pleasant smile.

Finally, Faith stood beside the long research table and sent her own withering glare towards the couple who had interrupted her playtime. Even if the look of outrage and annoyance Buffy had sent them when they came in the room went unnoticed, there was no mistaking the fury and contempt Faith’s eyes were broadcasting. It was all Xander could do to remain standing as Faith locked her furious brown eyes with his terrified ones. She fished a handkerchief from her pocket. Faith took her time unfolding the square piece of cloth, never breaking eye contact with Xander as she revealed the monogrammed words “Pussy Slayer” stitched into the fabric. Anya raised an eyebrow at the personalized handkerchief as she went ignored by both the Slayer and the teenage boy. No one spoke as Faith took the handkerchief and began to rub it all over the bottom half of her face. All around her mouth and chin. Never breaking eye contact with Xander.

“Was this a bad time?” Anya asked. Buffy cackled in delight as she and Faith watched Xander faint.

*****
“Where are they taking us now?”

The other prisoners kept quiet and kept their heads down even as Donald Maclay furiously demanded answers. The disheveled man their captors had called “Rabbit” flinched in anticipation of the inevitable response.

“Boy! What did I tell you about givin’ me lip?” The guard who had called himself “The Keymaster” sneered as he spoke in an almost cartoonishly thick southern accent. “Don’t think you ain’t too old for me to tan your backside! Rabbit! Run-on out back and cut me switch!”

“Yes, sir.” Rabbit whimpered and went to move. “The Gatekeeper” yanked the leash attached to the collars around the necks of each prisoner in the chain gang, pulling him back in line and giving the others a harsh tug as they were marched down the long subterranean corridor.

Donald Maclay looked upon his fellow prisoners with disgust. He had been thrown in with them hours ago, and he could not understand why they chose to remain silent no matter what their tormentors did to the cowardly man named Rabbit. Neither could he fathom why “The Keymaster” stepped up his harassment and torment of Rabbit every time Donald demanded answers from anyone. The lone woman seemed just as useless as any other woman, but she at least seemed to be holding herself with some undeserved pride. Rabbit and the two men covered in garish tattoos seemed like nothing more than worn-out husks. If there was one thing Donald Maclay hated more than arrogant and foolish women who didn’t know their place it was cowardly sissified men too weak to hold their own place. He would be more put out by the weakness of the fools chained to him, but he was in California. Donald Maclay knew he could expect nothing from the worst of the limp-wristed, purple-haired, liberal hell holes run by nothing but queers, feminazis, and just about every breed of mongrel and mud race in the rainbow coalition the democrats were building to ruin his country.

“And we’re here!” The Keymaster called out as The Gatekeeper yanked the leash attached to the chain gang’s collars. They had stopped in front of an unremarkable door in the long dark hallway. “Now you kids be on your best behavior, or else the mistress will skin you alive and set you on fire.”

Before Donald could shout another outraged question he and the others were dragged into a brightly lit room. He blinked twice as his eyes adjusted to the glare reflected off the clean white porcelain tiles lining the walls and floor. Small drains were built into the tiled floor at regular distances. He let out an indignant cry as he and the others were pushed to their knees. Their collars were yanked back and to Donald’s shock, he was forced to face a familiar redhead smiling back at him.

“Well hello there.” Willow greeted her shocked prisoners with a smile.

Donald was about to shout the girl down when he heard the unmistakable cocking of a handgun and felt what could only be the muzzle of said handgun pressed to the back of his head. The room went quiet. None of the prisoners moved or spoke as the redhead smiled at them. As the quiet dread seeped into his mind, Donald finally took note of every person in the room with him and the redhead. He and the other prisoners sat on their knees. To his right, Rabbit and one of the tattooed men. To his left, another tattooed man and the woman. All chained and collared, their hands cuffed behind their backs. The redhead sat in a simple wooden chair with a low back. Legs crossed, hands resting on her knees, back straight as she stared him down. Two lawyers dressed in overpriced business attire stood to either side just behind her. It took him a moment but he soon realized they were the lawyers who had stood by as his ungrateful daughter and wife humiliated him in front of the other fools and degenerates this redhead hid them behind. Among the last to be noted were the half dozen armed men lining the walls of the room. None of them batted an eye as the redhead at the center of the room addressed him.

“Let’s see,” Willow spoke in a seemingly thoughtful tone as she looked over each prisoner kneeling before her. “Which one of you is expendable enough to use to prove our point?”

“Oh, god.” Rabbit whimpered as he tried his best to shrink into himself.

“No, not you, Mr. Chaulk.” Willow dismissed the man’s whimpering as her gaze seemed to hover just over Donald’s head. “He’d probably be the safest bet if any of our employees had a pool going, but we can’t kill off the child molester just yet. Confronting him and deciding his fate for herself is usually an important step in his daughter’s healing process. Hell, the outcome of her decision to take or spare his life is usually a pretty good indicator of the long term viability of the dimension we’re in. So no, we can’t take his life just yet.”

The rest of the prisoners shifted as her words sunk in. The woman’s head spun towards Rabbit or Chaulk, and a look of disgust came over her face. The smaller, more sniveling of the tattooed men averted his eyes downward as the other scowled at the whimpering man. “You did that? To your own daughter? That’s disgusting!”

Laughter filled the room before anyone else could voice their disgust at the quivering man. “Oh, you’re one to talk, Mr. Bryce!” Willow laughed as the annoyed prisoner faced her. “You tried to micromanage every second of your daughter’s life. Spent years trying to keep her a virgin. Just so you could feed her to the demon you worshiped. You’re just as bad as Donald here, and neither of you has any moral high ground when it comes to Rabbit.” Her laughter died down before she fixed Bryce with another scathing look. “But we can’t actually end you just yet. Your daughter knows we have you and there’s something like a twenty percent chance she might ask us to hand you over to her one day down the road.” She seemed to think on her words for a moment before adding offhandedly, “Probably after her wedding but before her first kid is born, if it happens at all.”

If Donald could balk any more he would. He was on his knees in a tile-lined room with a drain in the floor less than a foot from him, and he was chained to a pervert and a demon worshiper. The indignation of his current situation was almost too much to bear. Before he could voice his objection the redhead had moved on to glare at the woman kneeling at one end of the chain gang.

“As for Mrs. Post, well…” Willow nodded to the kneeling woman as she let out a sigh. “She walked into our home intending to steal away one of our Slayers. She had this big dumb plan to poison the mind of one of our family members. Turning her against us and all the people who love her! And for what? So she could steal some stupid magic glove that shoots lightning bolts when you let it eat your arm! I’ll admit it. Until Donald walked into our law firm making demands, you were the prisoner I hated the most, Gwen. I’d have no problem killing you after what you tried to pull with our family.”

The redhead’s tirade easily silenced any objection from both Donald and Mrs. Post. A long moment filled with dread passed before the indignation seemed to melt from the redhead. Willow looked to the air just over Donald’s head, eyes rolling as she seemed to share her exasperation with the far wall of the tiled room. She took a breath, then another, before returning her attention back to Gwendolyn Post. “But we promised the two best mothers we’ve ever known and a little girl we love like she’s our own daughter that we wouldn’t just up and kill you. We know it may not seem like much to you child abusers and manipulative predators, but we keep the promises we make to the people we love.”

Willow let her words sink in for a moment before her gaze slowly began to drift to the only member of the chain gang she had yet to mention. The tattooed man kneeling a hair’s breadth from Donald’s left shoulder. The balding man quivering between Donald Maclay and Gwendolyn Post. The man who had remained absolutely silent the entire time Donald had been imprisoned with him. The man now sweating as a powerful witch bore into his very soul with a cold, merciless glare.

“Professor Oliver Seidel. BS, MS, Ph.D., ranking tenured professor of theoretical physics at the California Physics Institute, and an amateur warlock.” Willow’s smile remained bright throughout the recitation of his academic titles, and accomplishments. Though everyone listening could tell her words dripped with contempt for the now terrified and violently shaking man. “One of the most accomplished physicists in the state. A man entrusted with educating and elevating the best and brightest scientific minds as they push the boundaries of scientific discovery in one of the most important fields of research explored by the scientific community. And what does this piece of shit do with each and every student with a mind and a thesis paper that threatens to outshine his work? He uses the one spell he knows to open portals to hell dimension so that his best and brightest students turn up missing years before they get a chance to publish anything of greater scientific value than he has ever dreamed of!” Willow’s voice rose in volume, filling with anger and hate as she explained Seidel’s contemptuous abuse of his own students. The other prisoners could tell the redhead’s ire only raised as she turned to question one of the lawyers at her side. “Lilah, how many of the professor’s students have gone missing throughout his career?”

“We found records of thirty dropouts and missing person reports, Ms. Rosenberg.” Lilah was quick to answer the senior partner as she kept a fixed mask of neutrality on her face. Never once did the tall woman betray her emotions in the presence of the doomed prisoners rounded up by the firm’s wetwork operatives. “Only three of those cases resulted in the student showing up either back at home or in some other city after the stress of college life caused them to drop out. The rest of the missing person cases remain open. Most have been relegated to various cold case files.”

“Huh…” Willow paused as she looked back at the kneeling professor. “That’s actually a lot higher than your average kill count. I’m beginning to wonder if the number of students you’ve shoved through portals to random hell dimensions is anywhere near the number of business rivals, spies, and human sacrifices Bryce has been responsible for killing throughout his career. What do you say, Magnus? You or Seidel? Which is the bigger murderer?”

Neither of the tattooed men kneeling before Willow answered her question. None of the prisoners said a word. It had already been clearly established that the redheaded senior partner wasn’t interested in anything they had to say. Another moment of tense quiet passed before Willow looked down from a point on the far wall behind Donald and spoke to the kneeling man directly. “Now you may assume that we need to keep Seidel alive because he’s the only chance of finding any of his victims or even giving closure to any that might have survived his attempt to murder them. You’d be wrong.”

Seidel’s head slowly rose as Willow drew out her explanation for Donald’s benefit. “You see, we’ve already found and saved the only one of his surviving victims. Most ended up in hell dimensions that looked like they were taken straight out of medieval biblical fan art and the pages of Dante’s Inferno. More or less instant death to the average absentminded undergrad. The student we found was lucky. The hell dimension they ended up stranded in was pretty much medieval Europe, but with minor demons running all the towns and humans being used as livestock. They survived. For over a year and a half that student lived through hell. Literally! We brought them back to this world and helped them get back on their feet. They’re even dating again. Unfortunately, their new partner is a lovesick fool and they’re both a little on the hopelessly idealistic side. They’ve both put each other up on these pedestals and they’re both certain their partner is incapable of exacting vengeance. The second they find out Seidel is the one who sent one of them to hell they both race to be the one to kill him so their partner doesn’t have to. And the second he dies their bubble bursts, their illusions shatter, and their pedestals come crumbling down. The relationship ends and no one is happy about any of it. So we’re going to skip all of that. Professor Oliver Seidel dies today so that he doesn’t end up getting killed by two of our friends a year and a half from now.”

Seidel’s eyes widened in terror. His head whipped back and forth as he tried to sputter some protest or plea for mercy. None escaped from his lips. A shot rang out before the middle-aged college professor could so much as beg for his life. Oliver Seidel’s body slumped to the tiled floor of the subterranean murder room. His blood began to seep out and flow towards the nearest drain. Donald Maclay blinked as he realized both his cheek and the collar of his shirt were covered in splattered droplets of blood from the body still chained to him. He barely noticed the redhead flinch, some unknown emotion rippling through her body in the wake of the execution.

“Good job, Steve,” Lilah said as she entered some notes into her tablet.

“I am the Keymaster,” Steve replied just as Chaulk began to howl in abject terror. The child molester was quickly silenced as Bob shot him in the back with a taser.

Several long moments passed before anyone spoke again. Moments of dense palpable dread stretching on until the almost profane quiet was finally broken by the redhead. When she spoke, Willow cleared her throat as another emotion Donald couldn’t identify threatened to escape. She looked to the air just above and behind Donald Maclay. At last, she spoke in calm even tones that did nothing to betray her emotional state as she issued orders. “I believe that will be all we need from the prisoners for the rest of the day. You two stay here to keep Donald in line. Guards, take Chaulk, Bryce, and Post back to their cells.”

The guards lining the room stepped forward. They worked in efficient silence as Donald Maclay’s and Oliver Seidel’s collars were unhooked from the chain gang. Strong uncaring hands grabbed Chaulk, Bryce, and Post by the shoulders. The three prisoners were hauled to their feet and quickly dragged out the door. What remained of the Professor was slumped over a slowly forming pool of red ichor. The pool spread out almost a foot until it caught on a shallow decline in the floor and veered away from the last prisoner in the room. Donald Maclay was left, kneeling as a thin stream of crimson leaked towards a drain three feet in front of him. The two armed men who had captured him and dragged him through the underground hallways remained standing at his back. The lawyers looked unconcerned as ever. The redhead fixed him with a less than hopeful frown.

“Do you believe in love, Donald?” Willow’s question shocked Donald Maclay for a moment. Though he couldn’t quite place it, there seemed to be a hint of pity in her voice. “I’m not just talking about the love a man has for his tractor, his car, his stash of expensive cigars, or the prize-winning pig he just sold and sent off to the slaughterhouse. I mean that real tangible connection one person makes with another person. The love a child has for their parents. The love a person has for the friend they’ve known all their lives and stood by them whenever needed, whether that’s fighting shoulder to shoulder in a warzone or just standing side by side at the front of a church as a bride walks down the aisle. The love of two people who have spent a lifetime together, building a home and a family. The love of two people forced to rely on each other as they run from one angry mob after another, never stopping, never resting, because the second they let their guard down they’ll be put down like animals. Heck, just the simple, stupid one-sided love of a teenage boy who bumps into the new girl on her first day at a new high school. The kind of love that fills your soul with purpose. Gives you clarity that lets you push aside all the distractions and meaningless nonsense. Makes you want to give everything you have just to see the smile form on the face of that one special person who makes perfect sense out of this whole senseless world. Have you ever experienced that feeling, Donald?”

Willow went on when it became clear the man was still too shocked to respond. “I have. I have felt that feeling every day for longer than you could possibly imagine. I have been guided by that love for centuries. I won’t bother explaining reincarnation of interdimensional travel to you, but I have lived through more than enough lifetimes to know that this little display of force is usually all it takes to keep a man like you in your place. It all started over a thousand lifetimes ago. The world was very similar to this one, with some major differences. You were less of a loudmouthed hatemonger, and you walked into a magic store where Tara and I spent most of our days helping the Slayer hunt demons. You gave almost exactly the same speech about blood kin, and keeping out of Tara’s affairs, and Buffy said her little line about Tara being our family. Then you left and we never saw you again. Then things fell apart. When that life was over I made sure I could find my Tara again, no matter what world I needed to live through to find her. I found her. I loved her. Then when our time was coming to an end we made sure we could always find each other. We found each other time and time again. One world after another. One life after another. Donald, if you take away nothing else from this day you should know that I, Willow Rosenberg, have loved Tara Maclay for one thousand, one hundred, and forty-two lifetimes. I have held her hand as we watched the sun rise and set over one thousand, one hundred, and forty-two different versions of Earth. I have been there for her in ways no other sentient being has ever or will ever be there for her. She has died in my arms one thousand, one hundred, and forty-one times and when we are done with this world and we die in each other’s arms for the one thousandth, one hundredth, and forty-second time our love will carry us to the one thousandth, one hundredth, and forty-third world where we will love each other for as long as we live.”

A smile played across Willow’s face and for a moment Donald saw the warmth of amusement in her eyes. “And do you want to know the funniest part? In all those one thousand, one hundred, and forty-two worlds, the number of versions of you we met that were honest, kind, decent human beings could be counted on one hand. This isn’t even the worst interaction I’ve had with a “Donald Maclay.” On the spectrum of “Tara’s parents freaking out over her sex life,” this falls somewhere in the middle.”

The man was speechless as the redhead went on explaining things he either couldn’t understand or didn’t believe. “There is literally nothing I wouldn’t do for Tara. There aren’t many things I haven’t done for her. I have died for her, and I have killed for her. I have slaughtered countless numbers of our enemies for no other reason than to make sure we could be together. I’ve even killed the people in this room when they stood in our way. Heck, I’ve killed everyone in this building just to make sure she wouldn’t have to worry about things like her small business insurance or her power of attorney being taken away from her. I have cut a swath of death and devastation across large chunks of the multiverse just so that she and I would have a quiet little place we could both come home to at the end of the day. And you should know that for all the destruction I’ve caused, she’s always been the stronger one of us. So now that all of that is laid out for you, what do you think are your chances of leaving this room alive?”

A sneer curled Donald’s lip as the witch dared to look down on him. “This is what I’ve been saying all along. Magic is evil. I only need to take one look at a heathen dyke like you and I know the corrupting influence you’ve had on my women. And you even admit your own murderous ways. Your countless sins and depravity.”

A smile filled Willow’s face as she let the bound man rant and rave. “That’s a lovely idea! Let’s compare sins for a minute while we have this brief time together. You betrayed your wife and daughter with years of lies and abuse. You tried to ruin the happiness they found once they finally got out from under your thumb. You barged into our home expecting us to give up everything we built so you could have your way, and you had the gall to come into our place of business and make demands of our loyal employees. Did I leave anything out?”

“No, Ms. Rosenberg.” Lilah said as matching smirks grew on her face and Lindsey’s “That sums up the key evidence should any of this go to trial. Even in the case of a posthumous ruling, I don’t foresee any judge in this state causing trouble for you.”

“That won’t be necessary. I think we’re about to make a breakthrough with Donald here.” Even with all the outlandish threats that had been made, some small piece of self-preservation triggered in Donald Maclay’s brain. Even as Willow went on, all the man could focus on was Lilah’s use of the word posthumous. “Did you honestly believe you could just walk into this law firm hooting and hollering like some pissed off backwoods yokel, and all these lawyers and security guards would just hand over the deed to the building? Did you really think you were going to take over what we’ve built here just because Tara isn’t going to change her last name until the wedding?” The mention of a wedding snapped Donald back into focus and rekindled the fire burning within him.

Willow ignored the contemptuous glare in his eyes and went on to lay out her own demands. “So here’s how it’s going to go. You, Donald Maclay, are going to sign your wife’s divorce papers. You are going to leave this state, go back to Alabama, and never bother any of us ever again. Now that all sounds very fair to me. I think I’m being more than reasonable, given all the trauma you’ve put Tara through. So just sign the divorce papers, and before you try to argue with me you should know what’s at stake. I nod to Steve standing behind you, and he’s going to put a bullet in your head.”

The full magnitude of the threat hit Donald Maclay in that instant. He had no illusions that they would send him back to the cells the three degenerates had been dragged back to. The lawyers standing at Willow’s back would no doubt lie to some weak-minded liberal judge and have him declared legally dead within a month or so. They might have already sent some thug or gang banger out to the desert to dig the shallow grave he’d later be dumped in by the two men standing behind him. Donald Maclay could see no way out of the situation. The witch had him backed into a corner. Then his mind fixed on the answer. The arrogant self-righteous child had spent so much time going on about fantasy worlds and her perverse obsession with his daughter that she didn’t even see what she had revealed to him. She didn’t see she had given up the exact knife he needed to twist to bring down the house of cards that was her sick little fantasy world.

Donald Maclay did his best to straighten his back and suppress the look of sheer hatred on his face as he locked eyes with Willow. He let out an annoyed breath while trying to look as shocked and horrified as the cowards and degenerates he had been chained to just moments ago. Eventually, he spoke in as reverent and serious a tone as he could manage. He almost smiled as he channeled the fatherly speech patterns of his local preacher back in Alabama. “You can’t possibly convince me that Tara would ever love a murderer. What would my daughter say if she saw you acting like such a monster?”

“Oh, I don’t know, Dad.” A familiar voice coming from directly behind Donald cut through any plans he had just made to manipulate and chastise the redheaded witch. “I’ll admit she’s laying it on a little thick, but then again you never did learn from your mistakes.” Tara walked forward to stand beside her kneeling father. She gave her tormentor an amused smile before she stepped over the corpse of Oliver Seidel. The honey-blonde walked up to the chair Willow was still perched in and brought a hand up to cup her girlfriend’s cheek. The couple shared a long and meaningful look as Tara’s fingers found themselves tangled in Willow’s crimson locks.

Time passed as the lawyers and special operations team members in the room ignored the display of intimacy by the senior partners. None, save for Tara’s own father, were phased by the looks of intense love and devotion that passed between the witches. None dared interrupt the power couple that had come to rule over their workplace. None save for Donald Maclay.

“Tara!” Donald growled out only to freeze as he felt the barrel of a handgun pressed to the back of his head. Though she took her time, Tara eventually tore her eyes away from her everything and turned to face her father for what might be the last time.

“We’re busy this week. Graduation ceremony. House party. Apartment hunting for friends. Planning launches for our new tech products. Figuring out ways to have certain government demon researchers and mad scientists killed without tracing their deaths back to any of our people.” Tara smiled for a moment before her expression soured. “Things that we really shouldn’t wait for a death certificate to clear before doing, and Mom has plans of her own. So here’s your last chance. Sign the fucking divorce papers.”

*****

“The fuck!” Faith grumbled as she rubbed the sleep from her eyes. Loud banging on the front door echoed through the Rosenberg Maclay house. If it weren’t for Red and Blondie running off to L.A., and all the soundproofing in Jennifer’s room someone else might have heard the noise. Whoever was making that racket was about to face off with one annoyed Slayer. “Yeah, yeah. I’m comin’!” Faith growled as she stomped up to the front door. She undid the locks and threw the door open with a snarled “What?” The woman on the other side of the door was one of the last people Faith expected.

“Where’s Xander?” Anya shouted as she struggled to get past the tired Slayer and into the house. The former demon’s hair was a wild mess, and it was clear she had barely enough time to throw on a long coat between leaping out of bed and driving over. One slipper was missing and that absence seemed to have completely slipped the young woman’s mind. “Where is he?”

Faith looked the frazzled girl in the eye and let out an exhausted sigh. “What are you doin’ here at three in the morning, demon?”

“I was worried about Xander. I need to see him.” Anya’s frantic pitch began to waver as she looked around and over Faith’s shoulders, trying to get a glimpse of any sign of the young man further in the home. “I had a nightmare about the ascension. You Slayers didn’t let some giant four-winged soul killer carry him off did you?”

Faith let out an annoyed huff and rolled her eyes. “There ain’t gonna be no ascension, demon. Red and Blondie took care of all that shit. They rounded up all the magic boxes of bugs and old ass books that some jackass was gonna use to become a giant snake. Hell, they had B and me along for a few of the handoffs. Like B told you today when you and X man interrupted my lunch, ain’t no asshole gonna make himself a giant penis metaphor and eat half the town on our watch.”

“Okay…” Anya seemed to relax only slightly before another worried frown creased her brow, “but I still need to make sure Xander is okay.”

Faith fought back the urge to scream at the former demon. She took a moment, closed her eyes, drew in a deep breath, slowly released it, before opening her eyes, and staring at the girl still trying in vain to force her way into Faith’s home. Faith took in the genuine fear coming from the former demon. She studied the way the woman’s eyes darted towards the staircase that led up to the bedrooms. She listened to the rapid hammering of Anya’s heart as she pleaded very poorly with the Slayer. All signs pointed to the girl’s sincerity. Her authentic concern. What might even be genuine love for Xander.

“You really want me to let you see X man right now?” Faith almost smiled at Anya’s quick series of nods. “What are you gonna do if I let you in? You gonna sleep with him?”

“What?” Anya actually backed away, shocked, and seemingly a little offended at the implication. “I would nev… We haven’t even… Xander’s different from other… Men!” Faith almost laughed at the venom dripping from the other girl’s lips as she uttered the word “men.” That alone told Faith she wasn’t going to get into any trouble with Jennifer for letting some girl storm into the bedroom of the only boy in the house in the middle of the night. Before the Slayer could respond, the former demon went on to poorly explain herself. “When I think that something could happen to him it feels bad inside. Like I might vomit. It’s horrible! No wonder I used to get so much work.” Anya waited with a pleading look in her eyes as the Slayer watched her fidget. When Faith spoke there was iron in her voice.

“I’m only gonna say this once, demon.” Faith waited until all of Anya’s focus was on her. The Slayer’s tone ensured that she didn’t have long to wait. “Xander is my brother. My family. Red and Blondie vouched for you. That means you get a pass, for now. You treat him right and keep him happy, we’ll get along fine. You hurt him, I slay you. Don’t matter to me if you’re a demon, human, or something in between. No one gets away with hurting my family. Understand?”

Anya’s blinding smile was the last reaction Faith expected to see. Though after giving the issue some thought, Faith would wonder if she should have known better. “Oh, thank the burning pits! I was worried that you were one of those “never kill a human” kind of Slayers. That’s good. There’s plenty of worthless humans out there who might hurt Xander. He needs someone strong like you to protect him and exact vengeance in his name.” There was an awkward pause as Anya seemed to be racking her brain for an appropriate human form of approval. Her eyes lit up again as just such a gesture came to her. She leaned closer to Faith and brought one hand up. Faith stood her ground, expecting a fight. She did not expect the gentle patting on the top of her head and a soothing, if condescending, line of encouragement. “That’s a very good Slayer. Who’s a good girl? You are! Yes, you are! Keep up the good work.”

The Slayer stood still, shocked, annoyed, and slightly amused at the vast gulf of knowledge Xander’s prom date still didn’t grasp when it came to being human. She let the former demon awkwardly pat her head for a few more moments before shaking her off. “Upstairs, second door on the right. Don’t put out until the fifth date. Make him work for it before you spread your legs.”

“That seems fair.” Anya smiled and slipped past the Slayer and up the stairs. In the former demon’s wake, Faith looked out the still open front door and saw the girl’s car pulled halfway up on the curb in front of their front lawn. The headlights were still on and the engine was still running. Faith suppressed the urge to curse Xander’s girlfriend. She made sure the door was unlocked, stepped outside, and closed it behind her. She walked across the front lawn and climbed into the driver’s seat of the abandoned car. She took the time to pull the car back onto the street and then parked it in their driveway. Faith shut off the engine, removed the keys, and placed them on one of the pegs by the front door once she was back inside and locking up the house. She walked up the stairs, laughing to herself as she saw Xander’s bedroom door wide open and Anya’s coat and lone slipper on the floor halfway to his bed. The girl was already under the covers and spooning a sleeping Xander from behind. Faith chuckled, knowing full well that her “brother” could deal with the fallout in the morning.

*****

The gut-wrenching sounds of misery and revulsion filled the small executive restroom attached to the office on the topmost floor of the law offices of Rosenberg and Maclay. One of the law firm’s senior partners was bent over the bowl of the toilet as she painfully emptied the contents of her stomach. The other senior partner hovered over her, gentle hands holding back red locks and massaging soothing circles into shivering back muscles.

“It’s okay, Sweetie,” Tara whispered as Willow’s suffering gradually came to an end. She sighed in relief as her always leaned back into her embrace before starting to curl in on herself. “I’ve got you.”

Moments passed before Willow could find it in herself to speak. When she did the pitiable tone in her voice almost brought tears to Tara’s eyes. “I’m sorry, Tara. I should be the one comforting you. You should never have to see that happen to anyone. I’m so, so, so, so sorry.”

Tara smiled as she held Willow to her chest and began to comb her fingers through messy crimson locks. “It’s not the first time I’ve seen someone die, Willow.” A smile curled her lip as she thought back to Willow’s earlier speech. “It’s not even the one thousandth, one hundredth, and forty-second time I’ve seen death. We’ve both fought too many wars. We’ve both taken lives. We’ve both caused much worse than the quick and arguably painless execution of some creep who was going to die no matter what we did. It’s sad, but Seidel’s death isn’t something I’ll lose sleep over.” To her surprise, Tara’s words seemed to renew the violent shaking of the redhead in her arms.

“But the way he died.” Willow whimpered as she clung to Tara. “We should have had them kill him some other way. I never wanted you to see… We shouldn’t have… You shouldn’t have had to watch that. Not after what happened…” Sobs of abject misery cut off Willow’s voice as tears continued to streak down her face.

In that moment, Tara connected the dots. She realized just what had caused such a violent and devastating reaction in her redheaded everything. She shouldn't have been surprised. Every trauma and nightmare that haunted Willow could be traced back to that one horrible day. Tara let out a weary sigh before she brought a hand up to Willow’s chin. She slowly raised her girlfriend’s head until their eyes met. “I love you, Willow. I’d do anything for you. I know what happened to me the first time still haunts you. I know how horrible it was for you to watch that happen. I know everyone in our family hates guns, but you know I’ve never blamed or been afraid of the guns themselves. There were even a few times when I asked you to make a gun so I’d have one to protect us with.”

The redhead’s shaking came to a gradual halt as she absorbed Tara’s soothing words. “I still can’t believe you asked me to invent guns and gunpowder in those primitive worlds.”

“It saved the day.” Tara laughed as she squeezed the redhead in her arms and brought her lips down in a gentle kiss upon Willow’s widow’s peak. “But you’re right. I shouldn’t ask you to sit still and watch as one of our footsoldiers kills someone. I especially shouldn’t ask you to hide all your emotions from seeing something so awful. Even if your acting skills are improving.”

Willow couldn’t help but perk up at the gentle encouragement in Tara’s voice. “You really think I’m getting better after all these lifetimes?”

“Of course, Sweetie. My father could hardly even tell how disgusted you were with the whole thing. He’s terrible at guessing what other people are thinking or planning, but you still didn’t give anything away.” Tara smiled as her words finally raised Willow’s spirits. Willow smiled right back at her and they shared another hug before Tara helped Willow up to her feet. The honey-blonde held the redhead all the while as she rinsed her mouth out. The couple brushed their teeth and soon made their way to their penthouse suite where they curled around each other in bed.

Though Tara’s father had come at them earlier than expected, they still made it through the worst crisis he was capable of inflicting on their lives. They had faced the minor threat he posed and made sure his shadow would no longer hang over the future they were building together.

*****

“Yo! X man! Get your ass in gear! We got…” Faith froze as she walked into the doorway of Xander’s bedroom. Her gaze focused on the young woman filing her nails as she sat on Xander’s desk. The young man in question stood a few feet away, buttoning up his shirt as he checked himself over in a floor-length mirror. “When did your demon get back in here?”

“Um…” The uncertain pause in Xander’s lack of response did little to settle the Slayer’s temper.

“You let me in.” Anya chirped happily as she set her nail file aside and got up to fetch Xander’s graduation gown. “Remember, Slayer? When I came over the other night.”

“That was five days ago!” Faith shouted. Shocked at the former demon’s carefree attitude. “Has she seriously not left?”

“I mean…” Xander searched for some plausible excuse to give the Slayer. “She’s been going to school with us.”

Faith actually paused at that answer. She couldn’t wrap her head around any good reason why a former demon would subject herself to as much loitering around a high school as Anya had. “What the hell are you even still going to school for? Aren’t you a thousand years old?”

“Eleven hundred actually.” Anya smiled happily as she answered the Slayer’s harsh questions. “When my demonic power source was destroyed I was stuck in the persona I had made for myself to get close to the girl who needed my help exacting her vengeance.” The overt cheer in Anya’s voice as she pulled the graduation gown over Xander’s head and shoulders was almost too much for Faith to take. “I have the body, paperwork, and credit record of a young human woman of high school age. If I’m going to maintain this persona and lifestyle a high school diploma will prove useful. I’m sure your witch friends have been keeping up with this whole pointless high school double life thing for the same reason.”

“Will has said they’ve been through high school graduation a whole bunch of times,” Xander added, only to draw an exasperated eye roll from Faith. “Is everyone else just about ready?”

Faith let out a sigh as she looked him over. She quickly came to the conclusion that, for all of the former demon’s many, many, many faults, at least she knew how to get Xander to dress like an adult and show up on time. “Just about. Half the L.A. crew is still hanging out in that house Red and Blondie bought across the street. Al, her brother, and Doyle are with Jen downstairs. The other two lead dumbasses and a few of the boys are over at the little guy’s house helpin’ him get ready. Pretty sure he’s getting initiated into the gang right after we all graduate. B and the rest should be coming over in a few minutes. Then we’ll all get on the bus and head over to the school.”

“Great!” Xander smiled at the Slayer before turning his attention back to his odd girlfriend. “Ahn, it’s probably time you got ready too.”

“Oh, I can’t wait. Your little friends Dawn and Cassie helped me pick out the traditional edible graduation underwear. I’ll go to the Slayer’s room to put everything on.” Anya beamed with pride as her words horrified both her boyfriend and the annoyed Slayer staring at her. She began to skip out of the bedroom, only to stop in front of Faith. She gave the Slayer a serious glare as she raised a single accusatory finger. “No peeking from you. I know how much you Slayers like nubile young women, but I’m only interested in future acts of sexual intercourse with Xander and his penis. I’m sure the Slayer line gave you all kinds of knowledge on how to give me plenty of orgasms, but Xander would get jealous and do some idiotic “man” thing if I were to get my orgasms from any of his lesbian friends.”

Anya smiled and continued to skip out of the bedroom before Faith could even think of a response, or react to the sheer amount of venom that accompanied the word “man.” The Slayer watched the former demon vanish. She then turned her head to stare at her lone male housemate. “What the hell is it with you and crazy chicks?”

“I know, right?” Xander smiled just as brightly and dopily as Anya had. “Isn’t she the best?”

*****

“So what are you planning for the prisoners next?”

Steve’s head shot up at his partner’s question. “What? What do you mean?”

Bob rolled his eyes as he prepped the gear for their next mission. Since the hostile takeover, their tiny weapons locker had been upgraded into a full-blown armory. The room was lined with more guns, armor, tactical gear, and non-lethal takedown gadgets than either man could use in their lifetimes. “Torturing the three idiots we’ve got locked up downstairs. You’re the one who was all gung ho about the senior partner’s orders to keep them scared and off-balance. Hell, they shocked just about everyone in the room when they first gave the order, but you jumped at the chance. You were grinning like a madman that day. I was worried for a minute, but when you didn’t have us do anything worse than throwing rocks at the two scumbag wizards or shooting the child molester with a cat piss filled super soaker I figured you were keeping the torture to PG levels until they gave you the go-ahead to step things up.”

“Oh, no, no, we’re pretty much done with those three.” Steve seemed to deflate before relaxing and brushing off his partner’s questions. “There’s not much left we can do to them.”

“What does that mean? There are literally thousands of torture methods you haven’t used. You haven’t even used any real weapons or even any kinky BDSM tools on them.” Bob couldn’t quite figure out the change in his partner’s attitude.

Steve looked at Bob with a confused expression. A moment passed in silence between the two men. Eventually, Steve nodded his head towards the door. “Come on.” He walked out of their armory, leaving his partner to stare in confusion. A minute later Bob hurried to catch up. They moved down the hallway, through a set of key card locked doors, down two flights of stairs, and through two more handprint and retina scanner doors. The dozens of prison cells lining the long hallway stood empty. All save for three towards the end.

“These three empty shells are done for,” Steve said with more than enough volume to have been heard by their prisoners as the two of them approached the cells at the end of the corridor. “They each know why they’re here and what they each did. They know they can never trust each other. They know they’ll never escape. They know they’ll never be set free. They know they’re all going to die down here. There’s no point in screwing with them anymore. They’re done.”

For a moment, Bob wondered why Steve was only addressing him and ignoring the three prisoners. Then, from the corner of his eye, he saw Bryce hang his head in defeat. He saw Post turn away from them, focusing all her indignant and pointless rage on the back wall of her cell. He heard Chaulk begin to sob uncontrollably as the degenerate curled into a fetal position.

“There’s nothing we can do to them that’s worse than leaving them to rot in this hole for the next few decades.” Steve let out an eerie laugh as he turned to face Bob for the first time since leading him down here. “And the best part, the most amazing little detail, is no one on the outside is ever going to miss them.” Steve continued to laugh as he walked back down the corridor and left the prison cells behind him.

Bob was left standing in the wake of his partner’s departure. It took a moment, but eventually, he recognized Steve’s taunting words of doom and despair for what they were. Steve was done keeping the prisoners in the dark. They knew everything. They knew they were trapped. Left to fester and rot in a dark basement that only a handful of living souls even knew existed. With nothing to do except dwell on the hopelessness of their confinement every minute of every day. Bob shuddered as he realized he couldn’t think of a worse fate. With great effort, the wet works operative managed to suppress the swell of disturbing and morbid emotions. He turned and walked out of the prison. In his wake, the child molester, the abusive father, and the manipulative traitor were left to wallow in their own despair.

*****

The sun shone brightly over the open courtyard of the new Sunnydale High School. A wide swath of bright red-carpeted walkway lay between two sections of folding chairs filled with students, each young man and woman dressed in matching burgundy robes and square mortarboard hats. Raised bleachers lined either side of the courtyard, filled with parents, siblings, and all manner of extended family and friends. One section of the bleachers drew more than a few confused looks. Over a dozen teens and early twenty-somethings, mostly of African descent, stood out amid the almost entirely middle-aged caucasian crowd. The questioning looks stopped when the young woman at the head of the group was greeted and hugged by four girls in the graduating class. More than enough parents and relatives knew not to question the blonde and brunette they had witnessed saving lives every other night. No one had the stones to dare question the redhead and honey-blonde who had begun to buy up property all over the town. In front of the rows of students was a small raised stage with a podium, a stand with a box of rolled-up diplomas waiting to be handed out, and a row of city officials and community organizers sitting in identical folding chairs as the students. One such official stood as the last of the students took their seats.

The crowd grew quiet as Principal Snyder took the podium. His ever-present scowl silencing some, and eliciting quiet laughter from many more. The diminutive bureaucrat spoke into the microphone once it seemed the crowd was as quiet as it was going to get. “Congratulations to the class of nineteen-ninety-nine. You all proved more or less adequate. This year has been full of struggles and setbacks, but through strong leadership, Sunnydale has overcome more than its share of hardships. With that strong leadership in mind, it is with great pride and honor that I introduce our guest speaker, Mayor Allan Finch.”

Mild applause filled the air as the Mayor stood and took Snyder’s place at the podium. He smiled at the families filling the bleachers on either side of the courtyard and the students arranged before him. “Thank you, Principal Snyder. I’ll try to keep this short so you all can go enjoy the celebrations I’m sure many of you have planned for tonight. Your principal is right. We have faced many hardships these last few years. Not the least of which is the fact that I was never intended to give this speech. It’s funny, I was sorting through my office and I came across my predecessor’s notes for this very speech. Apparently, he liked to plan these things well in advance. He had this whole spiel about civic pride and the history of this town. Completely glossed over the negative parts of that history. Parts where his ancestors played a significant role. Parts he was profiting off of right up to the day he passed.”

Confused looks passed through the crowd as the Mayor took a moment to pause and reflect. His eyes skimmed over the assembled students, pausing on specific young women and men who he had come to know in the almost two years since the death of Richard Wilkins. “It’s a poorly kept secret, but life in Sunnydale isn’t as peaceful and sunny as advertised. We have all faced the unimaginable. We have all lost someone dear to us. It’s safe to say everyone here remembers at least one person who isn’t here but should be.” He paused again as he let the audience digest his words. A few skeptical murmurings cropped up here and there, but for the most part, everyone knew exactly what he was talking about. “With that in mind, I would like to personally thank this graduating class. There’s about a dozen of you sitting before me, who have taken an active role in lessening the hardships faced by this community. You know who you are.” He smiled again as his eyes picked out the members of the Scooby Gang, several students who frequently assisted them, his intern Larry, and even the group of teens from L.A. who were all nodding along with his words of gratitude. “In the days after I became the mayor of Sunnydale I had the honor of meeting with some of your more “civic-minded” classmates. In the following months, I met others, and I was relieved to find that they were more than capable of meeting and overcoming the unique hardships faced by the people of Sunnydale. It has been an honor to get to know you, Sunnydale High’s class of ninety-nine. Wherever life’s journey takes you, whether it’s beyond this town, this state, or even this country, I know each of you will prove that the youth of Sunnydale are more capable than my predecessor ever thought you could be.”

Cheers and applause erupted from the gathered students and the guests filling the bleachers. The uproar went on as the Mayor reclaimed his seat. The principal and the superintendent began calling up names and handing out diplomas. Two hours later the last diploma was in the hands of the students and their gaudy mortarboard hats were flung skyward. The crowd broke up into clusters of family and friends, mingling and congratulating the students they were closest to. Few noticed the large group of people from L.A. leave with the Summers family, the members of the Rosenberg-Maclay household, the Rosenbergs, and several others. The odd assortment of friends and family had their own party to get to.

*****

A pained whimper was drowned out by voracious sucking, both sounds fighting to fill the humid air inside the stolen eighty-seven Yugo. The coppery scent of blood enveloping the sealed cabin, a macabre miasma foretelling the horrors yet to come. Pale, slender hands batted helplessly against black leather, their struggle eventually giving way to pitiful pawing before falling still. Eventually, the sucking sounds gave way to satisfied moans as the thirst of the undead beast was slaked. The demon threw back his head, blonde hair bleached of any natural color seemed to glow in the dim interior of the Yugo. His tongue ran out capturing a thin dribble of blood running down his cheek. His body shivered as he wallowed in the euphoric ecstasy of a fresh kill. After what seemed to be an eternity, his self-indulgence began to wane and the vampire’s gaze returned to his evening meal. The blonde high school student lay gasping, sprawled across the passenger seat of the stolen Yugo. Their eyes met once more. The vampire couldn’t help but smirk at the abject terror he saw in his helpless victim.

“You know something, Pet?” Spike asked as he loomed over the defenseless girl. “I’m starting to like you. Think I’ll keep you around a bit.” As he spoke he brought the sharp nail of his left thumb up to his right wrist. He didn’t even flinch as he dug into his own flesh, drawing out the thick crimson ichor within. “What did you say your name was again, Pet?”

“Ha… Har… Harm…” Harmony stuttered as she felt her life slipping away. “Harmon…” Words failed her as the vampire’s bleeding wrist was pressed into her lips. The thick red droplets seeped from the open wound, flowing past her lips and spreading across her tongue. Exhausted, drained, moments from death. Any effort to push the demon away and spit out the foul liquid was doomed to fail. Though it was in vain, Harmony still struggled.

“Now, now, Pet. None of that.” Spike almost laughed as he chastised the weakened girl and her failed attempts to bat him away. “You’ll thank me for making this quick. It won’t hurt a bit.”

Eventually, all the fight that was left in Harmony faded away. She fell still as more of the vampire's blood flowed between her lips, over her tongue, down her throat. The last glimmer of light and life faded from her eyes. As she lay dying, one final thought passed through Harmony’s mind. One final regret. She should not have bailed on her friends to check out the sketchy bar she had heard about.

A vicious grin stretched across Spike’s face as he felt his wound close and the last drops of his blood flow into his new Pet. She would rise within the next few nights, and then he could really begin to enjoy himself. He was about to indulge in a spot of cliched villainous laughter when a familiar figure appeared through the grime coating the windshield of his stolen eighty-seven Yugo. Spike watched as the brunette Slayer stepped out of a shop across the street and began to walk along the sidewalk back towards her home. She had a spring in her step as she slid a small jewelry box into the pocket of her leather jacket.

“Well, if it isn’t my lucky night.” Spike’s grin almost doubled as he started the Yugo. For once the engine came to life without backfiring and raising an awful racket that would surely alert the Slayer. Spike pulled out of the parking spot and onto the street, following the Slayer. He picked up speed as she skipped along in a blissful daze.

Faith’s head jerked up when she felt the presence of a vampire. She spun around just as the front grill of an ugly orange eighty-seven Yugo collided with her hip. She rolled over the hood, windshield, and roof of the car. The back of her head impacted with the pavement, and the last thing Faith heard before the darkness took her was maniacal laughter from a voice she swore she should recognize speeding off into the night.

*****

“Faith!”

All eyes were on Buffy as she leapt from her seat in the Rosenberg-Maclay living room and raced out the front door. The rest of the Scooby family watched in shock for a moment before they all realized that something horrible must have happened. They all moved to follow the Slayer before another moment could pass.

*****

“Abandon ship! Abandon ship!” The front door of Willie’s bar flew open as a haggard and terrified looking demon covered in bright green skin and purple quills burst into the room. His terrified shouts drew the eye of all but the largest and most intimidating demons in the bar. “Game over, man! Game over! We’re all fucked! Get out while you still can!”

“The hell are you yammering about?” One demon shouted over his shoulder. His skin matched the color and texture of the brick wall by the jukebox, where he was deliberating between Manilow and Bolton. “Hmm, Mandy? Or When a Man Loves a Woman?”

“It’s the Slayer! She’s gonna kill each and every one of us!” The quilled demon shouted as he raced to the center of the room. “Some fucking vampire hit the dark-haired one with a fucking car!”

All around the room demons fell silent. A dropped pin wouldn’t even dare to profane the moment by making a sound as it hit the floor. The vampires loitering around the bar were not so wise.

“Hell yeah!” One undead shouted as another cried out, “About damn time! Finally! Someone did something about the Slayers! We should throw a parade!”

Before any of the other vampires could cheer for the parade suggestion, one of the largest demons in the bar picked up the outspoken vampire, lifted the undead leech over his head, and ripped him in half. The explosion of ash did little to discolor the cement-gray-skinned demon who now stood to his full ten-foot stature. The massive demon looked out across the room at the other panicked demons and the now confused and angry vampires. When he spoke it was as if the soundwaves leaving his lips slapped every occupant of the bar across the face and filled both their skulls and chest cavities with his words.

“Stupid, good for nothing vampires always ruin a good thing! You worthless bloodsuckers don’t even know what you’ve done!” The demon’s words seemed to sap all motion from the undead in the room just as they seemed to galvanize many of the demons to action. “Haven’t any of you heard what happens when a Slayer loses a mate? They go on a rampage and wipe out everything within a hundred miles! You fucking vampires just made this hellmouth uninhabitable!”

“We’ve gotta get out of town before she comes after us!” The quilled demon shouted as the massive gray demon took a moment to breathe. Other demons all around the room began to rush for the exits. A few seemed to be eyeing the vampires present to exact vengeance for the trouble one of their kind had caused until the quilled demon spoke up again. “Leave the vampires! The Slayer will go after them first! They’ll buy the rest of us time to run!”

That morbid prospect drew smiles from the demons still debating fight or flight, as well as a few worried looks from the vampires. There were no more doubts or uncertainties. With the fear of utter annihilation at the hands of the remaining Slayer, everyone began to take what steps they could to survive. The bar emptied out within moments, leaving only two remaining. Willie and Clem looked at each other. Both sighed. Both knew the next few hours would most likely decide the fate of the hellmouth. Clem took a deep breath. Then another. Then a third. He stood from the bar and began to walk to the door. He knew what he must do. He knew he might be the only one who could do what he must do. He just didn’t know if he would survive doing what he must do.

*****

“I’m sorry, Miss.” The woman sitting behind the emergency room receiving desk spoke in a flat and uninterested tone. “We can’t give patient information out to anyone but family.”

“I am Faith’s family!” Buffy shouted as the nearby orderlies closed in behind her. “I know she was brought here after some accident! Tell me where she is!”

“Miss, unless you can provide some evidence or notice from a legal guardian or family member you are going to have to leave.” The nurse clearly didn’t notice or care about the heated glare she was receiving from the Slayer. She almost smirked as the two on-duty police officers came around the corner. The smirk faded as she noticed the terror in the eyes of the two cops once they saw the petite blonde fuming before her. She was about to wave them over when the two armed men made desperate attempts to pull all the orderlies away from the girl. Sadly, one orderly slipped their grasp.

“Miss…” The man began to speak as he put one hand on Buffy’s shoulder. He did not get to finish the statement. The entirety of the emergency room receiving hall watched in silence as a barely five-foot, one-hundred-pound slip of a girl reached back without looking at the six and a half-foot, three-hundred and change pound man. She grabbed him by the belt and lifted him above her head with one hand, never once taking her eyes off the receptionist barring her way. No one could find the words to describe, or stave off, the imminent disaster.

“Buffy, put the nice man down. You, behind the desk, tell me where my daughter is!”

“And you are?” The nurse prepared to repeat everything she had told the petite blonde. She was growing confused as she saw the on-duty officers breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of the third woman.

“I’m Jennifer Maclay. Faith Lehane’s legal guardian.” Jennifer eyed the E.R. nurse who was still proving too obstinate for her own good. “My lawyers have spent the last week fast-tracking my divorce and the adoption. Now, are you going to tell us where my daughter is? Or am I going to have to get my other daughter’s pet lawyers involved in this?”

The two middle-aged women stared each other down for what seemed an eternity. The tension between them could be felt by everyone, including the two cops holding back most of the orderlies and the one heavyset man still being held aloft by a tiny high school graduate. Just as it seemed the mother and the nurse would come to blows a new challenger entered the field.

“What seems to be the problem here?”

The reception desk nurse smirked before turning to the hospital’s donor relations director. “Ms. Clark, I was just telling these people…”

“Stop!” Ms. Clark held up one hand to the nurse and turned to face Buffy and Jennifer with a smile. “Ms. Summers. Ms. Maclay. My secretary just informed me of Ms. Lahane’s case. She’s still in surgery. I’ve already set aside a private recovery room. If you follow me the rest of your family can wait there while the three of us go to wait for word from the chief surgeon.”

With that much-needed reassurance from the hospital’s main financial administrator, Buffy let out a sigh of relief and set the orderly back on his feet. The shocked and confused man immediately fell on his ass. He and the reception desk nurse watched in shock as the three women turned and walked deeper into the hospital. Neither one of them could miss the glare Ms. Clark sent their way just before she vanished through a set of double doors at the end of the E.R. receiving area.

*****

“She’s going to recover.”

Buffy muttered to herself over and over as she stood at Faith’s bedside. Jennifer and Joyce did what they could to comfort and reassure the devastated Slayer. Willow, Tara, Xander, Anya, and Alonna stood clustered in one corner of Faith’s oversized hospital room. Giles did what he could to reassure a distraught Dawn and a seemingly numb Cassie.

“She’s strong. She’s the strongest Slayer there ever was. She’ll get through this.”

As the Slayer continued to mutter assurances of her love’s recovery, the rest of the Scooby gang shared concerned looks. Their silence was eventually broken by a hushed question from Xander. “Where’s Gunn and Doyle? Shouldn’t they be here?”

Willow cast an annoyed glare at the young man, only to turn in surprise as the question was answered by the other conscious Slayer in the room. “Gunn is downstairs watching the perimeter, with Willow’s parents and a few of our guys. Doyle is at the docks with Angel and most of the crew. If things look like they’ll go sideways Gunn will warn them and the two of them will be on the next cargo ship heading to China, Australia, Guam, who knows.” Alonna rolled her eyes to show what she thought of the boys’ plan.

“They’re sailing to the other side of the planet?” Xander’s shocked yelp drew more annoyed looks from everyone in the room, save for Buffy. He had the good sense to look suitably chastised before speaking again in a much quieter voice. “Why?”

A smirk flitted its way across Alonna’s face. She schooled her emotions before answering in a more somber tone. “Doyle’s hobby the last few months has been filling the boys’ heads with all sorts of horror stories about Slayers. Things the watchers know and things they apparently have no clue about. It hasn’t helped that our vampire has been backing up each and every story with anecdotes he’s heard in demon bars and nests over the last two-hundred years. Between them, they’ve heard enough rumors and war stories about Slayers to fill about half of a watcher’s library. Their favorite horror story is what happens when we Slayers go through the five stages of grief over a girlfriend.”

Xander’s head tilted to one side as he tried to make sense of Alonna’s answer. “Slayers get caught up on one of the stages?”

Anya spoke up for the first time since walking into the hospital. She clutched Xander’s hand as she answered his question. “About four-hundred years ago, I was granting the wish of a Cossack girl living in the Wild Fields north of the Black Sea. The local headman had been negotiating with her father to marry her to one of his sons after one of his other sons killed the boy she was going to marry in a duel. She wished for hungry ghosts to come in the night and devour the headman’s horses, livestock, and sons. While that was going on, a vampire was chased into the village by the Slayer. She was ruthless. Cutting off piece by piece as the vampire was begging and pleading about not knowing some girl was claimed by the Slayer. The Slayer took her time dusting the vampire, and when that was done she turned on the demons I had summoned with the wish. Once I was the only demon left she came for me. I wasn’t too worried since vengeance demons are immortal and invincible so long as we have our power centers, but that girl was relentless. She just kept attacking. After the seventh saber she took from the dead Cossacks was buried in my chest, I cut my losses and teleported out of the region. You hear about these things in demon circles, but you never expect to be caught in the aftermath of a grieving Slayer.” A somber and somewhat unsettling moment passed after Anya finished her story.

“To the casual observer, Slayers go through the “Anger” stage five times,” Tara said as the gravity of Buffy’s fragile emotional state dawned on Xander. Her eyes came to rest on Buffy’s almost vibrating frame. Another wave of tears was about to wash over the petite blonde. “And each stage involves the slaying of more and more demons.”

“There might not be anyone left on the hellmouth when she’s done,” Willow added with a solemn nod from where she was all but burrowed into Tara’s side.

“What’s going on in here?” The dreadful quiet hanging over the room was once again broken. This time by a nurse standing in the doorway with a scowl. “Visiting hours are over. Everyone who isn’t a real family member is going to have to leave.”

The occupants of the room looked at the nurse with varying expressions. The men’s eyes held perplexed wonder at the woman’s inability to read the mood. The witches were summarily unimpressed. The mothers cast glares of pure indignant outrage at the intrusion of the latest outsider to question their definition of family. As for the Slayer, the tears flowing down her cheeks slowed to a trickle. She raised her head, tearing her gaze away from her love for the first time in over an hour. The look she gave the nurse was lethal. If only the woman could understand that she had placed her very life in jeopardy. The Slayer’s body tensed, an apex predator readying itself to leap upon its natural prey, ready to rend flesh from bone with nothing more than tooth and claw. Before the Slayer could take a single step towards ending the life of her prey, another interloper stepped into the room.

“Nurse!” Ms. Clark hissed as she stormed into Faith’s hospital room and stood directly between the nurse and the perturbed Slayer. “I need to speak with you in the hall.” The donor relations director raised her voice as it became clear the nurse was more than willing to ignore her. “Now!”

With a huff, the nurse turned and both women walked out into the hall. For a brief moment, all was quiet. Then the Scoobies heard the raised voices of two hospital workers coming to procedural and administrative blows.

“I can’t believe you’re going to let a bunch of little dykes break all the rules in this hospital! How can you let those freaks do whatever they…”

“That’s enough!” Ms. Clark shouted down the irate nurse. “I don’t care about your opinions, or how many “little dykes” are in that room! The only thing I care about is the fact that two of those “little dykes” paid to upgrade all the equipment in this building, and then they paid the construction cost of the new emergency care building that opens next month! Now if you care about keeping your job, I suggest you not bother anyone in that room for the rest of your shift!”

Amused smiles passed back and forth between most of the Scoobies. More than a few proud and appreciative glances came to rest on the pair of witches the donations coordinator was obviously referring to. The Slayer did not smile. The tightly coiled predatory tension slowly melted from her body as she heard hasty footsteps retreating down the hallway. By the time Ms. Clark had reentered the room Buffy’s gaze was once again locked on Faith’s still and silent form.

“I’m so sorry you had to hear that, Ms. Summers.” Once it was obvious she wasn’t going to get a response from Buffy, Ms. Clark turned all her focus on Willow and Tara. “Ms. Rosenberg. Ms. Maclay. I can assure you that incidents like that won’t happen again while Ms. Lehane is staying with us. I’ll be stopping by the nurses’ station for this floor in a few moments to make it clear your family is not to be disturbed during Ms. Lehane’s recovery.”

“She won’t be here much longer.” Willow’s response drew a surprised look from Ms. Clark. “She’s stable now. Make sure she’s ready to be transported home tomorrow afternoon.”

“Ms. Rosenberg…” Ms. Clark’s confused response was soon swept aside by Willow’s adamant resolve face.

“All the necessary equipment will be in our home by tomorrow morning. Jennifer is a trained nurse and both Tara and myself have extensive physical therapy training. Faith will be cared for in her home. She won’t end up in the coma ward downstairs.” As Willow spoke she stared down the donor relations director. There was no question about the veracity of her claims. Nor was there any doubt that the young couple who could easily buy the entire hospital would get their way.

Ms. Clark swallowed any objections or platitudes she could have made. She schooled her expression and gave the young redhead a deferential nod. “I’ll make sure it gets done, Ms. Rosenberg.” Ms. Clark was quick to turn and flee the room, closing the door behind her. Moments passed before the Scoobies heard surprised gasps and a certain administrator’s orders shouted from down the hall.

More than a few amused smiles were shared between the family members in Faith’s hospital room. Eventually, most eyes were drawn to the honey-blonde and redhead trying to ignore everyone else’s scrutiny. “Girls, please tell me you didn’t buy this hospital.”

Jennifer’s question broke the sense of unease and dread hanging over the room as it caused Willow to babble a shocked and almost affronted reply. “What? No! We didn’t buy the hospital. We just invested in new technologies and facilities the hospital was interested in and made sure that the place an ambulance is likely to take most of us has all the best tools. It’s not like it was even that much money, with the cost of construction and real estate in Sunnydale being so ridiculously low. It was a bargain when you look at it from a business and tax write off perspective.”

Before Willow could go on Tara stepped in with a not so subtle reminder of the hurdles many of the young women in the room could eventually face. “Nothing is more infuriating than being denied access to each other during a medical emergency. By this time next year, we’ll both have de facto seats on the hospital’s board of directors. Once that happens we’ll be able to force changes to hospital policy and stop discrimination against same-sex couples. It just, well, sucks that Faith proved it was necessary to buy Ms. Clark’s loyalty before all that.”

The adults looked to each other with worried expressions before letting the subject go and returning most of their attention to Faith. Their vigil was interrupted almost immediately. Buffy and Alonna’s heads both shot up at once. The Slayers focused their glares on one spot on the wall, both tracking slowly in the direction of the door. As if they were watching something unseen on the wall. Or perhaps something just beyond the wall.

“Oh dear lord,” Giles whispered as he recognized the sight of two Slayers homing in on the presence of a demon with their supernatural senses. He moved to put himself between the door and both Dawn and Cassie just as Anya let out a terrified yelp and moved to put Xander between herself and Buffy. All the others held their breaths as Buffy let out a predatory growl. Some foolish demon was about to set off a chain of events they could not possibly foresee. The Scoobies were certain the next few moments could only end in disaster.

A knock on the recovery room door drew another growl from the petite blonde. The Slayer moved with furious purpose as her eyes flickered with rage, and for an instant, the embers of a faint orange glow. Buffy grasped the door handle and threw it open, nearly ripping the entire door off its hinges in the process. A startled shriek came from the other side as all those within the hospital room stared at the new arrival in shock and annoyance.

“Buffy!” Clem let out another terrified shriek as he cowered before the irate Slayer. The loose-skinned demon shivered in terror, his more obvious demonic features covered by a trench coat, black fedora, and large black sunglasses. Wholly inadequate to cover the sagging folds around his face, neck, and chin. The disguise was still enough that he had safely slipped by the hospital security downstairs. That safety was now in jeopardy as he quaked in terror before the Slayer.

“Dem…” Buffy began to hiss before her eyes landed on something in the demon’s hands. The pallid wrinkled folds around Clem’s fingers clutched a simple bouquet of cheap yellow flowers. “Clem? You brought flowers?”

“I heard about…” Clem faltered as he noticed the number of people in Faith’s room. All staring at him in varying degrees of incredulous shock. “Well. You know. With Fai… Someone came into the bar talking about a car accident. They said the driver was a vampire. Everyone is fleeing town because you’re going to… well… I just… I thought… Is Faith going to be okay?”

In an instant all the predatory tension and will to kill drained from the Slayer. Buffy’s entire body shook as the tears began to fall. Before he or anyone could react, Clem found himself pulled into Buffy’s arms. The young woman sobbed as the demon looked around the room in sheer terrified horror. For a brief moment, Xander and Alonna shared a look of morbid amusement at the sight of a field mouse clutched in the mouth of a sobbing lioness.

“Why can’t more demons be like you?” Buffy asked as she continued to wail her grief into the timid demon’s chest.

Clem, not knowing what else might set off the grief-stricken Slayer, answered as best he could. “You know I ask myself that all the time. Every few weeks some new big shot comes to town with these wild ideas and plans and I just look at them and think, “Well that just looks like way more trouble than it’s worth.”

Buffy laughed. For the first time since feeling Faith’s accident she laughed. Sobbing turned to near-hysterical laughter and then back to sobbing. The others in the room noticed at least three separate fluctuations back and forth between the waves of hysteria and gut-wrenching tears. They had hoped Buffy would show emotion other than the tense but resolute dread and aggression that had been pouring off her since she entered the building. They could not have anticipated this outpouring of the petite blonde’s pent up emotions. What happened next took them by complete surprise.

Without any warning or notice, Buffy pulled away from the demon. Clem almost caught his breath from the vise-like hug, only to wince as he was dragged into the room by a hand still clenched in the Slayer’s iron grip. To everyone’s shock, including Clem himself, the demon was dragged forcibly over to Faith’s bedside. Buffy resumed her vigil, only with one noticeable change. She was speaking. She spoke more in the span of a few minutes than she had in the last few hours. Clem nodded along as he was told everything the doctors had said to Buffy and Jennifer. He was brought up to speed on Faith’s condition and the possibility that the coma might persist for some time. Clem did his best to absorb the information and dutifully respond with a comforting word each time Buffy paused for breath. Still unsure if he would survive the night, Clem stood by the Slayer’s side. He could not have foreseen the impact his actions would have in the months to come. He would never truly know how many lives he had saved with his clumsy act of kindness.

End of Act 2

_________________
Time and Time Again


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