My Lazarus Stance

by ObliqueReference

Rating: R
Disclaimer: I own none of these characters, they are the sole property of Joss Whedon, UPN, FOX, and the rest. It is simply out of the grace of their hearts that I am allowed to even begin to write this. BUT the story is mine, so plagiarize and I will beat you to death with a halibut.
As long as I get the street cred, toss this baby anywhere.
Spoilers: Everything in the series. This takes place after my fics " Mirror,Mirror " and " The Thrill is Gone ", so while not necessary, it would help to read these.
Feedback: I would love to hear from any adoring fans I might have.. Anybody? Hello?
Author's Notes: But just when you thought it was safe to work out your problems like adults, here comes the Mexican Pro-Wrestling Demons, the vampire mafioso, and the weapon of mass destruction that looks suspiciously like an ill-tempered squirrel. A journey into darkness against the backdrop of a farcical crime caper.
Pairing: Willow/Kennedy

Summary: Somewhere in the dark of the Louisiana Bayous, someone wants something with a very special corpse. Kennedy and Willow head to investigate.

Page 1 of 5

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Part One

"Grave memorial
Hewn white stone
Like the comforting caress of a mother
Or a friend you've always known
It evokes such pain and significance
What was once is reduced to remembrence
And the generations pass without recompense
What pretension! Everlasting peace
Everything must cease."
-Bad Religion, "Cease"

Chapter 1
July 10 th , 2003

Thursday flowed smoothly into the room now all boxes and memories. Liquid shadows fell across the hotel room, seeping, blocking out a noonday sun come too soon. The eye of Ra bored through the curtains, drew a single luminescent stripe down the center of the bed, hugging the contours of rock-face bed sheets, crags and imaginary handholds for a tiny people. Tussled hair, black and red, mixed in wide sheets and shone in glittering waves where sunlight kissed the lovers.

She ran her porcelain-doll fingers across tanned skin, drug them across drying sweat, the scent of passion and catharsis in the air. Her smile was easy, unforced, fuzzy kitten contented. A kiss atop her head, a savoring in warmth. A long-standing agreement was being torn asunder. She swore never to take comfort without worry ever again, never to let her guard down, not for a second, because that's all it takes to end the world. Now seconds dragged on into each other, and were forgotten as soon as they passed, but the flesh remembered them.

The contours of her body she knew by now, and still she imprinted them again in her mind, restoration of an old film that had to be painstakingly studied. This was warm, and safe, and utterly terrifying. Her epiphany came in sharp breaths, desperately clawing for each second, the ones she had missed, the ones yet to come, and the ungraspable present. Every single second she didn't imprint on her memory was one that could be stolen, and the stolen memories could be used for foulness.

She didn't dare trek down that path, not just yet: that way laid monsters. She knew the monsters that set their ambush there, knew them as well as she knew her own skin, but they were still strong, and filled with base cunning. They were memories not to be trifled with, and memories that were currently diverting her attention.

She must have felt her breathing, for she wrapped her arms around the woman beneath her, and enveloped her, tried to protect her. They lay like that, synchronized their breathing, binding each to the other. Eventually their heartbeats synchronized as well, and she felt something new and altogether unexpected. This was a binding of two bodies, made of flesh and bone, blood and sinew. Mystical only in its significance, she surrendered to it, and forgot her seconds again.

"So," she brushed a sable strand of hair from her lover's cheek, "were you close with your family?"

Kennedy nestled in further. "Not so much. I used to be with my little half-sister, but I haven't heard from her in years."

"That must have been nice," Willow's melodic voice was thick with exhaustion. "Having a little sister. You know, someone to dress up, and give advice to. Not necessarily in that order."

"I don't know about all that," Kennedy stroked Willow's splayed out mane. "I used to tell her bedtime stories when she'd get scared. She was afraid of everything: lightning, the dark, shadows, everything. So, I'd sit down in her bed, and tell her fairy tales. 'Course, all of my good guys were good gals, so, you know. Warping the minds of children."

"Curse you and your homosexual agenda." Willow's lips curled in a mirthful smile. "That's so cool of you. Being the big sister."

"Well," Kennedy laid her head on Willow's freckled shoulder, "I can tell you a story." It was somewhere between a question and a request.

Willow went away for a moment, green eyes caught in the middle distance. The scar tissue on her heart twitched, a dull wave of sorrow pulsed through her in a heartbeat. Willow's smile fell from happiness to wistful remembrance, face slack for only a moment before the memory passed.

"Hmm," she mused, "Tara used to tell me stories. Well, only stories in the loosest possible sense. Many half and quarter animals abounded."

"Oh." Kennedy searched her lover's gaze. The protocol on these moments varied from moment to moment. But Willow didn't talk about Tara. It was verboten. "Hey, Will, sweetie, if you don't want me to, it's okay. If that was one of your things, I don't want to mess with that."

She withdrew into herself again, creating her secret stage where these questions were answered. In the theatre of her mind, she recreated Tara, molding her thoughts to her gentle features, her stunning blue eyes, her blonde hair done up in crazy Dawn-inspired braids, the cock of her hips when she was irritated, the askew smile when she was playful. She replayed her voice, forced new words out of it, words she had never spoken in life. And she asked her, then, what she should do, taking a second opinion that had more to do with Willow's own need for reassurance than any real simulation of Tara.

Willow wrapped her arms around Kennedy, pulled her into a kiss. She didn't press the kiss any deeper than necessary to convey her comfort. She withdrew, gazing into the confused and seeking chocolate eyes before her. Her hands made thin circles on tawny shoulders.


"No?" Kennedy asked, trying to hide her disappointment.

"No. I mean yes. But no to the other thing." Kennedy only grew more confused. Willow recouped.

"No, I don't think she would mind you telling me a story. And neither would I," she clarified.

Kennedy's smile was as radiant as the sunlight. She rolled onto her back, closed her eyes and constructed a tale in scant seconds. The maroon comforter found itself wrapped into a makeshift sari around the keenly muscled woman's bosom as she propped herself up on one elbow.

"Okay," she began, clearing her throat for effect, "Once upon a time, there was a beautiful princess."

"This princess, she fought against the evil sorcerer from the um, south. They did battle for many years, and the lovely maiden never gave up, not once. The sorcerer grew wroth-"

"Wroth?" Willow giggled.

"That's what I said. Wroth. Now can it, Red, I'm getting to the good part. So anyway, the sorcerer grew quite *angry*--" she stressed the word with a poke to Willow's ribs, making the woman squeal. "And he figured out how to finally bind the princess. He delved into the darkest spells, and cast an arrow out of iron from the nether realms, and a bow from the bones of the greatest demons."

"And with fell enchantments, he lured the princess to a mystical garden, where she would drop her guard. When she was at her weakest, he let loose with the arrow, and it struck the princess."

"This better have a happy ending," Willow solemnly noted.

"Can I finish?" Kennedy didn't wait for the answer. "Well, the princess fell ill, and the sorcerer knew he would never be strong enough to kill her. So he built the highest tower in the land, like you do, and trapped her in it, as is standard practice for fairy tale bad guys."

"She stayed up there for a long time, and the whole kingdom grew dark. Until one day, a wandering knight saw the tower from afar. This knight was lovely to see as well, and a bit impetuous."

"And also happened to look a lot like you, huh?" Willow asked with a warm smile.

"Taller. Everyone in fairy tale land is taller. So like I was saying, the knight saw this perfect, beautiful princess all alone in this tower, and said to herself, self, she said, there is no good reason she should be up there. So she started climbing the tower, hand over fist. But it was no good."

"The walls were too slippery?" Willow's voice regressed to a child-like timbre.

"No. The knight wore armor to protect herself, and it was too heavy. So at each foot, she had to shed more and more of her armor, and she grew lighter and lighter. But the tower was still very tall, and she grew tired. She almost gave up, but the princess dropped down her napkin-thingy-"


"Right. Well, the knight caught the handkerchief, and pushed ever upward. She finally got to the top of the tower. The princess was more beautiful than anything she had ever seen before. 'Come here,' the knight said, 'I can carry us down the tower and into the kingdom.' But the princess just shook her head."

"She was afraid to leave," Willow murmured, curling into a ball at Kennedy's side.

"The princess pointed at her bosom, a very nice bosom by the way. 'The sorcerer has killed my heart,' she said, 'and this tower is enspelled to keep it from regrowing.' This was a problem. The knight thought about it for a minute, them pulled out her dagger from her belt. She plunged it into her own chest, and spoke to the princess. 'If you haven't the heart to leave, then I will give you half of my heart. Then we can leave this place, and you can get better, and defeat the evil sorcerer once and for all.'"

"And they did leave the tower, but it was a long and treacherous climb down. When they re-entered the kingdom, they were both tired and weakened, but knew that they could be whole again. So they defeated the evil sorcerer together, for they shared half a heart, and as they healed, they lived happily ever after. The End."

"Yay," the redhead nuzzled Kennedy's chest like a kitten making a nest. "Just one thing."

"What is it, sweetie?" Kennedy was allayed by the contented creature in her lap.

"I don't think 'enspelled' is a real word."

Kennedy pulled the pillow from beneath her side, and swatted the offending redhead squarely in the rear. This was the normalcy they endured. They were playful in their affections, pushing, tickling and hugging each other at every opportunity. Much had changed between them in the past month, but more shocking was how much didn't change.

The dynamic between them had equalized: no longer did Kennedy have to feel wholly responsible for Willow's mental well-being. To be fair, that was not entirely accurate: Kennedy still shouldered whatever burden came their way, either mental or physical. Willow had come to accept this as a key feature of Kennedy's personality. Whatever the task, she wanted to go first, take the most responsibility, stand the tallest. There was no small amount of pride in her actions; one would have to be blind to ignore the glint of self-righteousness in her dark eyes. But her intentions were never less than honorable. If she was to take charge, it was only because she wanted to act as a bulwark against whatever forces were arrayed against her loved ones. Even so, there was an indefinable and subtle alteration between them. To whit, Kennedy no longer felt the need to stand in front of Willow in every situation. These days, she preferred to stand beside her.

Willow, too, knew she was changed by her love of the impetuous woman. Often she felt like she had to run just to keep up. Kennedy had a vivaciousness that Willow longed for, a simple pleasure in the everyday that Willow fell in love with from time to time. The woman was a constant challenge to live with, an ever frustrating test of her patience. They had broken down barriers between them, and talking came more easily than ever. Willow still knew that she dominated the conversations, simply by virtue of her chatterbox nature, but with each passing day the slayer opened up more and more.

Even so, they both knew the intrinsically physical nature of their relationship. It was one built on caresses and brief kisses, its foundation formed of pumping hearts, sweat, sex, and smooth skin. Willow, at times, found this shameful, brazen, but her guilt dissolved when she witnessed the devotion and love that Kennedy poured forth.

For all their love, there was one topic that neither broached: Tara.

April 30th, 2003
Two Months Ago

They were very much alike in a great many ways, and very much different in a great many more. Perhaps they could have been brothers, for they both shared the same broad forehead, narrow chin, and deep brown skin. Both had eyes the color of rust, huge and almond-shaped in their faces. If one were to inspect them closer, to watch them for any length of time, one would notice that they moved the same way, had the same deep, confident stride, devoid of posturing but broadcasting their importance all the same. Even the most keen-eyed observer would have to admit that the similarities ended there.

One of the pair was barrel chested, thick arms and shoulders barely contained by the white t-shirt her wore. His hands were almost absurdly delicate for his massive frame, thin, tapering fingers that looked like they belonged to a surgeon or taxidermist. He would be handsome, were it not for the extreme thickness of his neck and the slick sheen of sweat that clung to his bald scalp. He ran his palms across his head, then wiped them on his faded and stained blue jeans.

His friend, possible-brother, was a full head shorter, and while solidly built, lacked the impressive width that graced the larger man. His starched white shirt was creased along the edges to porcelain crispness. He pulled at his tie, the only shock of color on his black and white attire: a deep, royal blue that hinted at starless nights in the wilderness. Where his friend skirted around the edges of handsomeness, he was blessed with the strong features of an educated man, an image his exacting garb did nothing but enhance.

The two of them walked away from the dingy white van that had carried them so far. The larger man sunk uncomfortable into the moist earth, forcing him to yank his feet out of the mud with a wet slurp. He grinned apologetically with his big white teeth to his friend, who only pointed ahead. He studied the sign above the wrought iron gate.

"Eternal Rest Estates," he chuckled lightly, "Looks like this is the place."

Sunnydale cemeteries had a history and culture unto themselves. Necropoli all, nearly ten thousand mortified residents wondering what happened to their nice neighborhoods made of marble slabs and stricken angels. There were districts: the simple slab district, the ornate mausoleum district, the neo-classical district. The pair weaved their way through the densely populated inner districts, crunching gravel footsteps that alerted the dead to their presence.

"'S that ways," the large one rumbled, nodding towards a copse of weeping willow trees that bent and swayed silently on a hill. He craned his neck around like a tourist, nodding appreciatively at his surroundings, squinting in the warm California sunshine. "This 'a nice place, Mr. Creak, when the sun's out."

"That it is, Mr. Creak," he replied, a terse and polite smile cold on his lips. He took no haste in walking to the gravesite, enjoying the play of wind across his flesh, tasting the salt of his own sweat. He proceeded up the incline, stepping deeply yet slowly, hands in his pockets.

"Look at you," the big man said. "Walkin' up there as nice as you please. Not a care in the whole wide world."

The scholar stopped, turning to his brother with an amused glint. "Should I have one, Mr. Creak?" One of the diaphanous pale green strands whipped at him as the wind shifted.

"'S broad daylight, Mistah Creak," he hissed, "Some one gon' see us, an' we be in a whole world of trouble."

"Is that a fact?" he queried. The learned Creak brother sucked in a deep breath, then bellowed into the open air.

"Hello! My brothers and I are here to do illicit activities! Could someone please come and arrest us?"

He spun in a slow circle, arms outstretched, waiting patiently. Big Creak sighed his resignation, folding his meaty arms across his meaty chest and glowered.

"See?" Little Creak asked. "There's no one in Sunnydale. They've vacated. The only ones here are the Slayer and her pals, the preacher, and we. So stop standing there like you forgot something and get to work."

He remained unconvinced, but moved closer to the single plain black headstone that sat atop the verdant plain. "What if she comes," he asked, breathless with anxiety.

His brother just shook his head. "Our girl doesn't get too many visitors these days. Isn't it funny how a tiny little apocalypse makes everyone readjust their priorities?"

Little Creak kneeled down next to the simple marker, his precise hands caressing the edges of it. His fingertips buzzed. He narrowed his wide eyes, peeling past the layers of reality until it came into focus. A shimmering green sigil floated before his mage-eyes, rotating on it's axis.

"Mr. Creak," he said evenly, not taking his eyes off the ward, "go get the shovels."

"You want me to get Creak?" the big man asked apprehensively.

"No," he shot, almost turning to stare him down, "there's no need to wake him. Just get the shovels and come straight back."

Big Creak acknowledged the order, shuffling off back through the stone city. He ran his comically dainty hands across any mausoleums and tombstones that he passed. Cool stone greeted his touch, and he longed to linger and enjoy the moment, but Mr. Creak was in a terse mood, and when Mr. Creak was in a terse mood, it was better for everyone just to do what he says.

The white van's back door slid open noisily, the foul odors of a long road trip poured out, sweat and half-eaten fast food refuse. Something shifted in the darkness of the van, something that groaned lightly and rattled metallically.

"No, Creak," he whispered forcefully, "You sit y'self right on back down. Ain't nothin' for you to do here." Whatever it was caught the light, only a sliver of it, and was pale cloth wrapped in chain. Big Creak grabbed a pair of shovels, grimacing as they clanged off the metal walls of the van. He nodded once to the shifting form in the back of the van, then closed the door, leaving the lonely occupant to moan forlornly at the darkness.

He trekked back to his waiting brother, thoughts twisting and dark, perhaps influenced by his morbid surroundings. If one were to peer into his mind's eye, one could witness sights to render one speechless. There, the dead pulled themselves up from their resting places, resumed their lives, despite the decay. They laughed, and danced, and fucked, all with dry clacking of hipbones. Big Creak chuckled at his phantom fête. The dead were his passion.

He would have indulged that passion, and in truth, he was torn for a moment, but Mr. Creak was being contrary again. He sulked his way past the main cemetery grounds, shovels skipping off the gravel. Creak did not care that it made noise at this point; his mood had fallen dark.

He found Mr. Creak exactly where he had left him. The elegant man put some parcel in his pant's pocket, dour expression evident on his wide features as he surveyed the black tombstone. A wry smile cracked his mask and he turned to Big Creak with a twinkle of accomplishment in his eye. The large man tossed a shovel into his outstretched hand. He took a moment to roll up his sleeves to the elbow, ignoring the hovering Mr. Creak.

"Well," he sighed as he straightened the crease in his folded sleeves, "I suppose it's time to get to work."

Big Creak was the faster worker by far, the smaller brother taking far too much time in arranging his piles of dirt. Over time, the green grass was upturned, soft brown earth tumbling into moist heaps with each strike of the shovel. The wind slashed at them with impotently warm hands, turning the tree into its tool. The diggers were not phased by the lashing tree, but instead turned their attentions wholeheartedly towards the alacrity of their task.

"You seen that movie, Mr. Creak? Pulp Fiction?" Big Creak asked as he hefted another shovel full behind him.

"What?" Mr. Creak wiped his brow wit the back of his hand, squinting into the sunlight.

"That movie, you know, had Bruce Willis in it, and John Travolta."

"Ah. Uma Thurman," Mr. Creak snapped his fingers as the memory caught.

"Yeah," Big Creak grinned cordially, "Well, you remember that part with Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta in the car?"

"Was that the one with the robbery?"

"Naw," Creak huffed as his spade stabbed deeper into the earth, "the one with Tarantino. You know, 'dead nigger storage'."

Unexpected tendons strained across Mr. Creak's jaw in tension at that word. He bit back a comment, nodding towards his brother as he levered a particularly stubborn piece of detritus.

"Heh, I was jus' thinkin'," the big man continued, "this place is like dead cracker storage. Innit that funny?"

Mr. Creak raised an eyebrow at the utterly unfunny (at least in his eyes) joke. He jabbed again into the dirt, shovel bouncing off something wooden. With a look to his brother, the two went to work clearing the dirt off the casket, erasing the warm brown covering from the long lacquered box. They worked along the edges then, clearing a path around the brass handles. Mr. Creak stopped working to inspect the work. When he was happy with the earth they cleared away, he tossed his shovel out of the hole they stood in.

"How you wanna do this?" Big Creak asked, rubbing his hands against his pants.

Mr. Creak stopped the think for a long moment, lips pursed and brow furrowed. Honestly, he hadn't really considered this aspect. He walked to the opposite side, pointing down at the handles.

"If we could just get it over our heads, we could push it over to level ground."

His brother shrugged, squatting down to grab the bar on his side. He waited for his scholarly brother to get situated, then both made eye contact. At the count of three, they hoisted the casket up to their chests.

Little Creak had the hardest time of it, legs shaking in his dress pants and veins bulging from his neck. As he pulled it to his chest, he sucked in a breath through grit teeth. He nodded to his brother, and they both dropped under it, pressing the casket over their heads and onto the grass beside them. Big Creak pushed too hard, tipping the casket onto its front, something limply crumpling onto the lid. The two men pulled themselves out of the grave, panting in exhaustion.

"That dead cracker," the scholar wheezed, "weighs a fucking ton!"

"Steel," Big Creak explained, his expertise always quick to assert itself, "They line the coffins with it. Make sure no dead folk can git outta their graves. Prolly has a couple locks on the lid, too." He saw the inverted casket and slapped his forehead. "Damn, Mr. Creak! Silly girl got herself turned upside down." He twisted it back to its proper position, the same limp thumps accompanying this movement. He pet the mahogany casket with a single tapered finger.

"There y'go, Miss Maclay. You just relax an' let ole Big Creak take care of you."

"I'm sure she's quite relaxed enough as it is," Mr. Creak added dryly.

The process of getting the casket back to the van was another exercise in endurance and logistics. They eventually settled on Big Creak carrying the front half, with Mr. Creak carrying the rear, and demanding frequent rest breaks. The evening stretched thin by the time they maneuvered to the van. Big Creak opened the door, moving to the side of the casket as they slid it into the back. The shadowed occupant was silent, save for the occasional tinkle of chain links.

"C'mon," Mr. Creak said, "We have to get her back to Granny. It's a long drive, and I want to get as far from Sunnydale as possible."

"I hear that," his brother squeezed into the passenger side seat, "Granny's g'on' be shittin' kittens if we don't get her back to the home before Friday."

The van rumbled to life, brake lights reddening the wan pink light of the Sunnydale sunset.

July 13 th , 2003

"How the hell did we get so much crap?"

Kennedy slid the last of the cardboard boxes into the back of the Buick that Angel and team had been kind enough to give to them. The boxy sedan was not her thing in the slightest, and Willow looked nothing less than ridiculous in it, but it was hard to argue with 'free'. The trunk and most of the back seat were filled with boxes, neatly labeled with Willow's precise handwriting.

The division of labor in the packing phase caused a few slight road bumps. Kennedy went to work, a whirlwind of activity, tossing whatever was nearest at hand into the nearest boxes. Willow followed close behind, hovering like a shadow, unpacking the packed boxes and arranging the contents according to some bizarre standard only Willow knew, perhaps alphabetically or by star sign. Thus began a two-hour war.

Kennedy raced from spot to spot, impatience giving her wings, successfully boxing the entire hotel room in under fifteen minutes. Willow would repack everything, leaving piles of clothes, books and weapons on the floor. The slayer then circled back around, repacking that which had been unpacked and further infuriating the redhead.

In truth, infuriating her was half the reason she kept the cycle going for two hours. The more flustered Willow got, the more her wonderful green eyes sparkled and the harder she set her features into her tight lipped 'resolve-face.' In a word, it was adorable. In another word, it was a dangerous game to play. Kennedy knew she walked the fine line between irritating her lover and seriously offending her. Thankfully, Willow was intelligent enough to pick up on the cues, namely the madcap grin Kennedy hid whenever she thought Willow was looking.

This had lasted two hours. Willow began to think of it as a game, a challenge to her organizational skills. After the fifth pass, she created a cataloguing system that assured Kennedy's compliance to her standards. By observing her girlfriend's method of 'nearest in first' packing, she arranged her piles in concentric circles, guessing correctly that Kennedy would load with her right hand and work counter clockwise. As a result, her spiral of materiel was loaded exactly the way she wanted it. She couldn't let on that she was manipulating Kennedy, of course. She maintained her stern façade throughout the second half of their ordeal, grumbling loudly whenever Kennedy 'disrupted' all her hard work.

Now Kennedy had finished lugging down the heavier boxes of books that Willow managed to acquire in their month long pit stop in L.A. The slayer effortlessly placed them in the trunk, pressing them against the right side to avoid the long box filled with medieval weaponry; Willow was certain that the battle-pick would rupture the box and murder her hard won library.

The redhead tapped her chin, running through the hotel room in her mind, double and triple checking underneath all the blankets and around all the chairs to assure herself that she hadn't missed anything. Kennedy was right: they had managed to acquire a healthy collection of possessions in the last few weeks. She couldn't even pin it on Kennedy's gold card or Angel's never-ending generosity. Neither woman was really what could be called a 'shop-a-holic' in even the remotest sense. They both had their respective weaknesses, to be sure. Willow couldn't pass up going into a bookstore, nor could Kennedy walk by an Army Surplus shop without a detour, but overall, they never felt compelled to spend ungodly hours shopping at the mall. Still, the amount of clothing that accumulated bordered on impressive.

Kennedy slammed the trunk shut. She left her hands on the car, half her mouth smiling into the middle distance. Willow slid behind her, rested her head on her shoulder, and locked her fingers around Kennedy's waist.

"What's up?"

She gave herself over to the witch's embrace, Willow's breasts pressing into her back. "I think I'm gonna miss this place."

"Me too," Willow whispered into her ear, lingering long enough to brush her lips along the back of the slayer's tan neck. Kennedy felt the electric vibrations of the hairs across her neck rising. The witch's fingers tickled her taut belly through the thin material of her cotton t-shirt. The sun kissed her skin, warming it, hiding her flush. Willow smiled into the elegant arch of her throat.

"You wanna go say goodbye?"

Kennedy grinned. The woman behind her never failed to surprise her. Just when she had her figured out, Willow would go and go something totally out of character, and yet it somehow made sense. Kennedy relinquished her need to be in control around her, something that no one else in the entire world had ever made her do. It was hard coming, requiring no less than being pushed to the edge of her fragile sense of self. She still had nightmares about that demonic Willow sneering its hatred at her. Once upon a time, she had woken to find that she was terrified of what she could have done to the waifish woman who laid beside her. Now, as the dreams melted watercolor into nightmares, a cool hand would stroke her back, cradle her head, let her know that she wasn't alone. She let Willow do that for her. No one else.

"This won't disrupt your timetable?"

"I made allowances," Willow nipped at Kennedy's earlobe, sending shivers through her spine. She loved the reactions she was learning to elicit from her girlfriend, how she knew just what chords to press and what notes to play to make her sing. It was intoxicating to have this kind of connection with someone. Intoxicating and fresh, sometimes too fresh, sometimes so raw and primal it made her gasp, but it was better than the alternative.

"You made allowances for you getting frisky?" Kennedy chuckled deep in the back of her throat, hands moving to cover Willow's. Willow's hands overlapped hers, traced the vagaries of her knuckles. Kennedy's shoulders squeezed together as Willow's pale and delicate fingers felt the raised riverbed path of the white scar on the back of her hand, a physical reminder of her meeting with the Dark Willow. She let her thoughts be pulled away from that shadowed corner.

"Did you plan this?"

"Not exactly, no," Willow breathed into her ear, and Kennedy was in awe of how sexily she could say the word 'exactly', like a broken vow of chastity. "I just know that I can't keep my hands off you when you get all sweaty."

"You dog," Kennedy growled.

Willow led her by the hand, fingers locked and circling, through the hotel lobby, down the hallway so familiar she could count how many steps it took to get to the end, and into the elevator that smelled of Febreeze and old people. They had sex in that elevator, the other night, fast and direct and without preamble. Kennedy still only vaguely remembered it through the haze of red wine and passion.

They walked to the room that had been home for the past month, slid their well-worn keycard into the lock, and turned the doorknob, knowing the timing of the lock so well that it opened at the exact second the bolt clicked. The room was oddly anonymous without all of their miscellaneous belongings littering the floor.

Kennedy let her self be led to the bed, sheets and blankets all jumbled together at the foot, cloth tendrils that clung to it like the giant squid in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Willow was there, kisses and deft touches playing across her arms, her stomach, her lips. They pulled each other's clothes off, heads swimming with need.

Slayers heal well, but the results of thirty nights of violence still stood out on Kennedy's body. Willow kissed and stroked each scar, fascinated by the difference in her flesh. There, along her lower back, she grunted as a fire axe skipped over her spine. Here, along her shoulder, a friendly fire incident buried a crossbow bolt in her shoulder blade. Her soft tongue flicked across the dotted white line of talons too dull to gain purchase on her ribs.

She ran her light brown hands down a smooth alabaster back, pulled her lover's lips to her own, kissed her deeply, soft moan signaling her readiness. They joined, flowing like waves rolling into the shore with a black storm cloud rumbling overhead. Their rolling begat waves, their waves called the storm.

Kennedy and Willow thundered.

They drifted into a light rain, pattering down to earth with sighs and moans. Willow spooned around the slayer, luxuriating in the afterglow. Kennedy twirled scarlet locks between her fingers.

"Bye, room," she waved at the ceiling.

Later, they dressed themselves again. Willow double-checked the bathroom for any errant belongings that might have teleported from the boxes to escape certain accessorizing when it reached their new home.

"What's on your mind, sweetie?" Kennedy asked as Willow pondered her reflection.

"Evil Mirror Me," she murmured, dismissing herself from the bathroom with a wave of her hand. "Something about that whole 'big mojo backlash' theory just isn't sitting right."

"You want to run it by me?" Kennedy knew full well how utterly unhelpful she was when it came to anything magical, but she also knew that her girlfriend thought better when she could ramble on to organize her thoughts. Unless of course, she started tripping over her own words. Then she had to remind Willow that too much of a good thing could make her pass out from lack of oxygen.

"Okay, see, here's me: mega powerful Wicca with all the control of a thing with little control. Now, get that look off your face, I'm talking about me of a while ago. Past-me. So past-me does a spell that's a little past me, and poof! Enter slayers, as in plural in the big sense. So it's physics. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. But that's only true in space, or so I figured, so I root myself to something larger to not get past-me blown away."

"White Willow."

"You betcha. I made really darn sure that all that power would get buffered through the scythe. Now, hindsight being nice and all, there was just no way I could get hit with a backlash that powerful. And it gets better."

"You're being sarcastic."

"Never. It's just too perfect. Evil me, that is. She was exactly like I acted, every little detail. And she was just as powerful as me."

Kennedy nodded, keeping pace with Willow as they exited the hotel room for the last time. "You're right. It's all too neat. Bad guy shows up, we kick her ass, end of story."

"And since when have any of us ever gotten tidy endings?"

"I don't know," Kennedy teased, leaning back to peer at Willow's rear, "your end's pretty tidy."

"Pig," Willow bumped Kennedy into the wall with a sway of her hips.

"We gonna go say g'bye to the Fang Gang?"

Willow handed the receptionist her key card, smiling when she was informed that the expenses had been taken care of by Wolfram & Hart. A vampire heading a bunch of bloodsuckers. There was humor in that.

"That's what we're going to go do right now."

They walked out the revolving door into the balmy California sunshine, smog assaulting their nostrils with acrid fumes. Willow turned to wave good-bye to the hotel one last time. With that, they left, never to return.

May 8 th , 2003

Big Creak kicked the mud off his old work boots before he walked in the door. His brother held it open for the big man, letting him focus on the precious cargo in his arms. The door to the sprawling plantation house swung closed behind them.

The Creak brothers walked down the entryway, past the ornate Louis XIV tables set with silver vases holding wilted orchids, around the worn divan that smelled of mould, and to the tall, narrow door whose handle was too low. Mr. Creak gingerly stepped around his brother, pulling the wooden barrier open.

Mr. Creak mopped the sweat from his brow, the air so thick and humid that nothing evaporated, and dew clung to every surface. Big Creak held the small bundle of cloth closer to his chest, cradling it as he would a child. He walked into the kitchen of the house. White paint cracked and flecked off every conceivable surface. The ceiling showed its decades of neglect by slouching in the center, wood warped by the humidity of countless days. The room itself was unexpectedly narrow, bisected by a wood burning stove that rusted shut back in '23. Any other space was occupied by the cabinets and counters that lined the walls, creating noting more than a narrow track around the outside of the kitchen, slight openings for the dining room exit and a smaller door that rested opposite the entrance. Big Creak and his brother nudged past the kitchen cabinets, noting that most of them were permanently closed with square iron nails and smelled vaguely of decay. The floor groaned in agony as they approached the oddly squat door with grey wood showing underneath white finish.

It opened silently, a welcome wash of cool air easing their discomfort. Mr. Creak peered into the darkness, noticing the slight flicker of candlelight at the bottom a stairway that led into the very waterlogged earth itself. He took the first step with some trepidation, the stairs creaking and sagging ever so slightly as his brother's bulk shifted its weight. He felt along the wall, haggard wooden planks that pricked at his fingertips as he descended. The wood gave way to stone, slick with moisture that clung to his fingers. The light grew brighter, reflecting off the black layer of water that covered the entire floor. Mr. Creak grimaced in disgust as he tested the depth with the toe of his spit shined black shoe. It would have been more tolerable for Mr. Creak if the water was cold, but it was piss warm, made even more jarringly so by the chill breezes that suffused the room. He sighed, resigned himself to further discomfort, and stepped into the ankle deep water that teemed with slithering things.

The army of floating tea candles painted a thousand suns in miniature, lighting the cellar in wavering patches. A simple table sat in the center of the room, its legs disappearing into the black lake. The unmoving form of a woman, short and curved, was covered head to toe by a simple cotton sheet. A collection of metallic canisters and cylinders crowded around the foot of the table, tubes and wires snaking up under the white sheet. Mr. Creak sloshed through the lagoon, his movements the only sound save the lumbering footfalls of his brother close on his heels. They moved to the sides of the table, Big Creak smiling at the unwholesome scent of formaldehyde.

The mountain of a man unwrapped his parcel with all the delicacy of a newborn babe being swaddled. His soft brown hands peeled the leather leaves back, cradling his charge with the other hand. A small, white heart, no larger than a strawberry, sat in his outstretched hand, perfectly formed. He placed it at the left hand side of the table, next to a black earthenware bowl that sat beside the body's ankle. Big Creak licked the sweat off his upper lip, and moved to the foot of the makeshift slab, bending down on one knee, heedless of the water, to inspect the machinery there.

"'S wrong how they treats her," he griped in his bass filled voice as he adjusted a nozzle on one of the canisters, a thin greenish fluid flowing down the tube and dripping into the container. "Fillin' her with all sortsa foulness. Make a body sick."

His brother sighed and looked at the cellar ceiling, immediately regretting doing so: chicken bones and raven feathers swayed like a morbid child's mobile. "She's dead, Mr. Creak. I think she's a bit past being sick."

"I know that," Big Creak shot back as he stood, "but dead folks's got feelin's too." He huffed towards the head of the table, stopping to lean over to whisper conspiratorially to the corpse.

"Now you don't pay no mind to Mr. Creak, Miss Tara. We gon' take good care o' you." He grabbed the edge of the sheet, pulling it back ever so slowly. "Now, Miss Tara," he said soothingly, "I'm gonna have to take a look here if I'm gonna be o' any help. You jus' let ole Mr. Creak an' me know if you uncomfortable." He peeled the sheet off, past her face, and folded it just below her collarbone.

The mortician had done a good job. The luster she had worn in life was recreated by the make up artist's hand passably well, and had the body been only recently dead and not a year buried, she could have passed for sleeping. The deathly grey green pallor of her flesh tinted the pink of the oil-based makeup into a sickly mottled grey. She had plasticity to her visage, as if a rictus mask was simply placed atop her true face. Her prominent cheekbones rose even higher, marked by the shallowness of her cheeks. Her lips shone green and bloated, pinched together in the middle where the mortician had pinned them. Strands of dingy blonde hair framed her, oddly unchanged by her time in the earth. Big Creak gently brushed the hair from her mouth.

"Oh, Miss Tara, you a beauty!" He giggled wanly, clasping his hands together. "Ain't she a beauty, Mr. Creak?"

"Yeah, Mr. Creak, she's a fucking vision."

He ignored his brother, positioning himself over the corpse's face, one hand around the top of her head and the other along the bottom. "Now, this ain't gonna be pleasant none, but you just hold still an' it'll be all over in a second."

His tapered fingers pinched her eyelid, pulling up whilst the other hand slid a single straight pin from beneath her lid. His deft fingers plucked a spherical ball of wax from the socket, pressing it into the table beside her. The corpse's eyelid snapped halfway open, the flickering lights of the candle mercifully not bright enough to reveal the desiccated eyeball that rested there.

"Oh! Look who's awake. I just got one more to go, then we almost done for the day." With the same economy of motion, he repeated the process on her other eye, discarding the ball of mortician's wax used to disguise the withering of the eyes that occurred shortly after death. Mr. Creak, the scholar, turned his back to the spectacle in disgust.

"Jus' one last thing." The larger man reached into his pants pocket, pulling out something black and cylindrical. He popped the cap off, twisted the base, and inspected the bright pink lipstick keenly. Satisfied, he slowly, ever so slowly, drug the makeup across her full lips. The greenish pallor of her flesh set off the pink like a beacon, practically shining in the sickly light of the cellar.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?"

Big Creak jumped and shoved the lipstick in his pocket as his brother snarled at him in unbridled contempt.

"I wasn't doin' nothin'!" Big Creak feebly protested.

"What the hell did you-" Mr. Creak stormed over to the corpse, leaning close to squint out her somber visage in the rolling patchwork light. He noticed the obscenely loud lipstick with a jolt, rolling his head around to lock gazes with his brother.

"'Fuck's wrong with you?" he demanded.

"I ain't hurtin' her. I'm jus' makin' her pretty."

"She is fucking dead! She doesn't care if she looks pretty!"

"Show's how much you ain't been payin' attention! She tell me she wan' me to fix her up. She tell me all 'bout it."

Mr. Creak threw up his hands in frustration. "What's the point, Mr. Creak?"

"Don't talk to me like I's simple. Jus' 'cause you got that degree, that don't make me no fool."

"No, you're a fool for completely different reasons," Mr. Creak added darkly. "You didn't answer my question. What is the point? She's going to be sitting in this pit for at least another two months, and I'd bet good money that she'll look a might worse for the wear after that."

"I jus' want a pretty girl to look pretty," he pouted.

"God damn it," Mr. Creak pinched the bridge of his nose, "you're like a chi-"


Mr. Creak and his brother both jerked towards the shrill voice that cut through the silence like a knife.

She was short, seemingly even shorter as she hunched down. Her head poked turtle-like from the folds of a shawl draped over her drooping shoulders, her neck craned out as if to catch some passing bird. She was all wrinkles, with a wide mouth and narrow nose. A halo of silver hair framed her dusty black face, tied up in a tight bun atop her head. She stood in the corner of the room opposite the stairwell, and the water didn't ripple when she stepped.

"Granny," Mr. Creak choked, "I apologize. I didn't know you were here."

"Don't you be apologizin' to me young man," she jabbed a bony finger at him. "You need to apologize to the lord."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Now you two go on an' git," she shooed them to the stairway. "I got's need of you, an' it ain't gonna be served by you lollygaggin' around here."

The Creak brothers respectfully smiled, the larger of the two wringing his hands as he lead the way, taking the steps two at a time. The smaller man followed a few steps behind.

"Mr. Creak." He froze in his tracks, gulping loudly.

"Yes, ma'am?"

"You keep that brother of yours away from her, you hear me?"

"Yes, ma'am."

July 13 th , 2003

Angel was being difficult, in that really accommodating way of his. That wasn't entirely fair, as that he did carry a heavy guilt burden around with him on a day-to-day basis. He drug Kennedy and Willow around the offices of Wolfram & Hart, stopping at every single specialized department in the entire building, poking his head in each room and asking Willow if she needed a copy of the Librum Vasilis, or if Kennedy wanted another battleaxe for her ever increasing collection.

The answer was ever 'no', but Angel was never dissuaded. He just moved on to the next room, asked the pertinent questions, nodded at each refusal, and smiled brightly.

"Angel," Willow finally grabbed his arm, pulling him away from the Department of Transnormal Personnel, "You've done too much already. I mean, hello, no rent for a month and a free car? Pretty big 'my buddy is rich' perks."

"You think?" Angel blushed as well as a vampire could. "I'm not being.nah. I'm not being pushy, am I?"

"Little bit," Willow pinched her fingers together. "Seriously, you've been such a help with everything. You don't need to do anything else."

"I'm just figuring, hey, I'm rich; why not help out my favorite witch?" He paused, pondering. "Rich.witch.huh."

"And you with the chipper," Willow chuckled, "If I wasn't the better knowing type, I'd think you were sans soul."

Angel gestured towards the necrologically treated glass that allowed Sol's harmful rays to bathe the room. "Must be all this California sunshine."

Willow could only shake her head and smile. Angel was still Angel, and in the month that she had shared a city with him saw him indulge in more than one brood-a-thon. But his off brooding times, those were somehow lighter. She wasn't sure if it was the responsibility or the knowledge of his enemy's defeat, but in some level, he had assuaged his ever-present guilt. It was oddly guilt causing, being around him. Willow had a penance to pay, a terrible knowing of the hatred and death that she held in her heart, and a constant vigilance against its influence. But she had Kennedy, and being with her took her mind off the bad, and reminded her of the good. Angel had a thousand times, ten thousand times the pain and ghosts to haunt him. And the one person who could take away that hurt turned him into a monster. A cunning curse, a cruel trick to play. And so, Willow felt guilty feeling guilty around him. And so, they never talked about all they had in common. A shame, really.

Angel grinned. "You should go say goodbye to everyone. I think Kennedy and Gunn are trading axes down in the armory."

"No we're not," Kennedy called as she jogged next to the vampire. She smiled at her lover. "What's up?"

"There you are," Willow poked Kennedy in the belly. "I was afraid I'd have to pry you and Gunn apart with a crowbar. You make any good trades?"

"Well," Kennedy smiled her cutest smile, locking her thumbs under her belt, "I traded my fifteenth century French war hammer and my halberd for a Viking throwing axe. It's a magical axe." She beamed like a child who just got a Mickey Mantle rookie card for a stick of bubblegum.

"You say your g'byes?"

"Heh," Kennedy blushed, kicking at imaginary dirt, "I sort of, um, y'know, broke his ribs."

Willow raised her eyebrows and sighed. "Why am I not surprised? Lemme guess: sparring?"

"Sorry, Angel," Kennedy said, "I broke your employee."

"Ah, don't worry about it. They heal."

The three took the glass and brass elevator down to the bottom floor, Angel humming tunelessly to Barry Manilow and tapping his foot against the beat until the door chimed open. Kennedy found the vampire to be endearing, in a very odd sort of way. Like a really cool grandparent who knew all the best stories and was very liberal with the giving of gifts. She knew a little of his background, mostly from the stories that Willow told her about his stint as Angelus. Honestly, she wasn't afraid of him as Angelus. One, she decided that she could take him. It was a foolish assumption, he did have about three centuries on her, but it let her maintain her cocky demeanor around him. And two, she had Willow, who had ensouled Angel not once but twice, and if that failed, could just turn him into something nice and harmless, like a puppy.

Lorne was in the lobby when they entered, ordering the milling group of workers into some semblance of order as he referred to them by their singing range only. In between commanding "alto" and "tenor" to switch places, he pointed his prominent green nose in the direction of the trio advancing on him.

"Ken-cakes!" he extended his arms for a Hollywood style pretend kiss on the cheek. "Don't tell me you and the missus are leaving us already?"

"'Fraid so, mister." She threw a pretend jab at his silk encased shoulder. "I'm gonna miss not singing at your place."

"Now, don't sell yourself short, cupcake," he corrected. Lorne smiled at Willow. "Your sweetie here does a mean cover of 'I Love Rock 'n Roll'."

"I had a thing for Joan Jett," Kennedy confessed.

"Who didn't?" Angel added innocently.

"If you'll hang around for just one little second, I've got a surprise for you," Lorne turned back to his coterie of lawyers, all looking nothing less than terrified as they shuffled in place.

"Y'all goin' now?"

Willow looked at the floor as the waifish Fred swayed up to her. Willow's embarrassment over her little misunderstanding over Fred's sexuality welled up in her, and while the two girls had many hour-long conversations on everything from Pylean death-chants to applied quantum dynamics, Willow made sure to respect her personal space. Even if it meant leaping out of her way when she walked by. Kennedy, on the other hand took great joy in making poor tiny Winifred Burkle as uncomfortable as humanly possible. It was hard to *not* like Fred; she was an awful lot like her Willow, but the sheer visceral joy that she took in watching her squirm overrid her pity.

"That's us," Willow waved meekly, "hittin' the road again." Willow shrugged, enveloping Fred in a warm hug. "You take care of yourself, Fred."

"Yew too, Willow."

"See ya, Fred," Kennedy licked her lips wantonly, savoring the terrified look Fred got. It dawned on her that she was setting back gay/straight relations by at least fifty years, what with the predatory lesbo act, but sometimes P.C. had to take a back seat to fun.

That's when Lorne's Litigation Squad broke out in a chorus of "For They're a Jolly Good Couple".

Willow buried her face in Kennedy's chest in embarrassment, an action that caught Kennedy by surprise. She slowly, uncertainly wrapped her arms around Willow, her heart singing. As Kennedy lowered her lips to plant a kiss atop Willow's head, she spied the lean and chiseled features of Wesley making his way through the crowded lobby, a dour look driving all the joy from anyone within a thirty-foot radius of him. Kennedy tapped Willow on the shoulder, pointing at the approaching Watcher. He stopped a safe distance from the yodeling lawyers finishing their song, and gestured for Willow to come to him.

"This isn't good news, is it?" Willow asked as she closed the distance.

"I'm afraid not, no," Wesley scratched the stubble on his chin absently. "I've had my people look into your hunch on this, ahem, Keyrock fellow. You're right though. Our seers have confirmed a massive demonic migration since the collapse of the Hellmouth."

"Where's the migration um, migrating to?"

"As far as we can tell, somewhere in the Deep South. Louisiana, it appears."

"Louisiana?" Kennedy asked, "Like, New Orleans?"


"You go too much deeper and you're in the Atlantic," Kennedy wryly stated.

"Or the bayous," Willow pointed out. "We'll look into it more when we hit Cleveland."

"So you're leaving today?" Wesley asked like this was the first time he'd heard it.

"In fact, we were just walking out the door. Until, y'know, group goodbyes."

"Well, I'll hate to see you leave. Between you, Fred and I, there really isn't any puzzle we can't solve."

Willow nodded her acquiescence, then caught him in an unexpected embrace. He awkwardly returned the hug, then disentangled himself brusquely. Kennedy patted the former watcher on his shoulder, pulling back suddenly when she felt the tell tale crease of a leather holster for the twin .45s she knew he carried wherever he went. That didn't unnerve her as much as she thought it would, and in truth, she was far more worried that Willow would grow antsy if she ever found out Wesley was packing. But she didn't, or if she did, never mentioned it.

They took their leave of them then, Willow giving Angel one final hug, and promising to give Buffy his fondest the next time she saw her. With that, Lorne belted out a showy version of "On The Road Again" that drew the attention of the entire lobby as Willow and Kennedy beat a hasty retreat to their car.

They hopped on the interstate, rolled down the windows and let their arms cut through the air as the smog thinned and the road twisted north. Interstate 70 arced north and east, the big lights of L.A. dimming into deep blue skies.

They drove for hours without a word, nothing more than the occasional glance and smile graced the pair. Willow gazed at the pink horizon, the lights of Las Vegas banishing any true darkness even tens of miles outside of town. The faint yellow glow of the city set off the scattered clouds in light grays against an open sky that stretched for miles in each direction. The curvature of the earth made the panoramic sky cascade over the edge of terra firma like the delusions of sailors of yore. She breathed deep, taking the time to remind herself of the primal nature of the action. The vampires were wrong, it was not blood that fueled life, it was breath. Blood just carried air's gift. Breath was life, each inhalation a birth, each exhalation a death. Just like Tara's death was marked by one final expiration, just as Buffy's return came with a gasp, breath was the beginning and end of all life. Willow found her breath come easily, partly because of the lack of L.A.'s choking smog, but also because of the newness of this venture.

Willow was born, raised, and came of age in California. She was a Californian straight to the bone. Now she was moving far away from everything she had ever known, and instead of filling her with nervous tics and babbling dread, she found it oddly calming. The dotted lines of the highway melded into one yellow thread that pulled them to their new location. It would be a nice change, Willow decided.

Kennedy, for her part, couldn't believe just how fortunate she was. Here she was, nineteen years old, the survivor of the largest supernatural battle fought within recent memory, and she was in a Buick doing ninety with the windows down and the radio playing Elvis and holding her hand was the most amazing woman in the world. Surreal was too tame a word. Willow squeezed her hand, her pale flesh luminous in the green-light of the radio console. They never talked about what their plans for the future were, and that was fine with Kennedy. She had no doubt that she could spend the rest of her life with Willow, that she could watch Willow's moods shift gears NASCAR-fast and never grow tired of it. She didn't think about the future. She was a slayer, she faced death nightly. She had come dangerously close once, beaten and bloody at the feet of a trio of nigh-unstoppable demons, and her only thought was surviving long enough to go back home with Willow. So she sat in her seat, glancing occasionally to laugh at the tiny redhead piloting the massive car, her arms spread wide to hold the oversized steering wheel, and Kennedy couldn't help but imagine Willow steering an ancient pirate ship. If only she had Xander's eye patch.

The radio station began to crackle as they left the signal's range; Elvis's crooning mixing uncomfortably with hissing and popping gospel music. Kennedy leaned towards the dashboard that seemed impossibly long and began to scan the local stations. That's when she noticed Willow's breathing.

Willow's grasp on Kennedy's hand became iron-tight, her whole body violently spasming. The comically large steering wheel jerked to the left as the car fish-tailed into the other lane, the tires losing traction with guttural grinding noises. Kennedy's head slammed painfully into the dashboard as the car crashed through the thick brush that bordered the road, white spots and saltwater washing behind Kennedy's eyes. Willow was gasping for air, her dimunitive frame wracked with some kind of seizure.

It took a second for Kennedy to realize that the car had stopped, thick clouds of dust trailing behind it. Willow's unexpectedly strong hand crushed Kennedy's in a death-grip, the redhead's eyes wide like a person standing in front of an oncoming train. Her chest heaved, her free hand spastically clenching and unclenching as Kennedy's own vision blurred and stung from the blood that flowed freely into her eyes. She felt her lover's distress, her stunned mind racing to recall her First Aid training. Check the victim that was the first step in an emergency, ask her, and see if she responds.

"W-Willow? Baby, are you okay? Baby, please talk to me!"

Willow blinked for the first time, her breath finally catching. Her hand clutched her heart, a sensation nearly forgotten filling her chest.


July 13 th , 2003

The moon slid its shamed face briefly from behind the clouds, the swamp lovingly reflecting each silvered shard of light. Old roots snaked into the mud and stagnant water, twisting around their neighbors and resurfacing from time to time like a sea serpent. The trees formed little islands of life, wide trunks spraying out into overhanging branches that dipped their leaves into the water. Black chunks of detritus clung to the bases of the trees, tall green weeds taking root in the muck it formed. The trees seemed endless, a routed army in retreat of a superior and merciless foe. The wind shifted, a branch swayed and hid the moon, only pinpricks of light worming through the dense canopy.

The swamp sat still as the grave, unnaturally silent. No swamp rabbits paddled through the water, their heads held up like furry periscopes. No insects sang in the depths, no birds called from above. The shining red eyes of alligators never punctuated the night with their unblinking stares. The only motion, or illusion of motion, came from languid ripples in the water as a rickety skiff slid through the swamp.

The flat wooden raft clipped a stray root, spun slowly, then trapped itself further into a grove of weeds. A staff pressed into the mush, sunk into its blackness. With a wiggle and a slurp, the probe pulled out, then found a solid base to work from. The craft dipped as pressure was applied, a tide of gray water rising and shimmering atop the raft. It turned again, this time away from the tangle of roots, and silently continued along its path.

It went like that for a while, trees slipping past the skiff and the long pole occasionally correcting the course. Pale white hands wrapped gnarled fingers around the staff, maneuvering the vessel by touch alone, eyes and ears long rendered blind and deaf by the mob's justice. He piloted this route as long as he could remember, and past that, only hazy images of swirling cotton dresses and vast fields of hunched backs toiling under a relentless sun kept him company. His joints creaked as he shoved a dead log out his way; it tumbled along the side of the raft.

He knew that the two were on the raft with him, and guessed that the third was where they were headed. They had stolen his senses and set him to his task all those long decades ago. He distinctly recalled the smell of burning horsehair as the stables went up in smoke, the black faces twisting with repressed rage. He remembered the white-hot bite of the whip that he had so loved using, then being forced to his knees and then.

Two faces, one thick-necked and broad, the other genteel and cold, both seething with anger, glared down at him. He was held, the iron nails driven into his ears with two quick strokes, and the last sound he ever heard was the metallic ring of steel on iron. He prayed for death then, knew by the look of the mob that they were only beginning. The smaller one stood before him, lips moving in some sermon, then drew his dagger from his belt and cut out his eyes. The last thing he ever saw was not the blade coming for him. It was Granny, ancient and hunched, stern visage overseeing the slave rebellion.

The larger man bound him to his task, his mind hanging in shreds when he awoke. He knew his task then, knew it the same way one knows their breath. And since that day, he ferried his charges about, endlessly to and fro, never a moment to rest.

The skiff slid onto the banks of his destination. He steadied himself with the pole as the skiff rocked, his charges departing. He pushed back off into the swamp, silently slipping into the darkness until he was called again.

The two Creak brothers didn't watch their ferryman leave; he had no more impact on their mental landscape than a bus driver does to a commuter. They had their parcel, they had completed their task. Nothing Granny had asked of them in the past two months had been easy, least of all the collecting of her tithes. She rarely demanded much, but when she did, she was a ruthless taskmaster.

The walkway to the plantation house was overgrown with all manner of weeds, no caterpillars to feast on the out of control plant life. Ancient willow trees dotted the oasis of solid ground, their wispy fingers coaxing tall grasses from the moist earth. They strode to the porch of the house, the worn out old rocking chair drifting back and forth, impelled by some unseen hand.

The Creak brothers took their now familiar path to the basement, through the kitchen, down the stairs. The cavernous room flickered with harsh fire light. The scholarly third of the Creak brothers had successfully lobbied Granny for a small gas powered lamp to light the cellar. She finally acquiesced, grinning thinly as she warned him about the dangers of fires in these old houses. He took it from its hanging spot on the wall, very cognizant of the sensitivity to light that some spells had. They stepped into the liquid covered basement, searching for their master's aged face.

Granny stood beside the table, gray shawl wrapped around her neck despite the heat that seeped through the stone walls. Her spidery hands held crocheting needles that clicked irrhythmically as she compelled a ball of yarn to become a slender green net. She turned her stern gaze to Mr. Creak, scowling at the sudden dimness.

"You tryin' to make me go blind, Mr. Creak?" she asked.

The man just cringed, twisted the dial to lengthen the wick, and squinted as the glow became a blaze.

"My apologies, ma'am."

"Don't fret y'self none," she tossed the crochet work into the corner, "I know you ain't meant nothin' by it." She walked around to the head of the table, stepping as though she was walking on water, the inches deep layer of stagnant and disease-ridden fluid undisturbed by her movements. "Yous jus' lookin' out fo' my best interests. Ain't nothin' wrong with that."

"Granny," Big Creak wrung his hands, worrying an imaginary hat. "It's 'bout time."

"Hush up you ol' fool," Granny groused, "I's know what time it is."

"Yes ma'am. M'sorry, ma'am, s'just I'm awful excited." He turned his almond, rust-brown eyes to the table. "Miss Tara say she 'cited, too."

"Here we go," Mr. Creak rolled his eyes for the millionth time in the past two months.

Granny smiled gently. "I'm sure she is, ol' Big Creak." She looked over to the table, her dark brown eyes kind and accepting.

The white sheet had long since turned a mottled grey and black, the fluids staining it. The rose and tulip petals that floated in armadas around the table did nothing to disguise the spoiled milk scent of decay, intensified by the enclosed space. None of the three seemed to be bothered by it though, no more than they were by the occasional chunks of rotting matter that plopped into the water or the odd bits of viscera (be they from man or animal was a matter of some dispute) that surrounded the corpse in macabre geometric patterns. Granny gingerly pinched the top of the sheet between finger and thumb, effectively pulling it completely off of the body.

Tara had been buried in her burgundy dress, and that was the only thing that identified her as the woman she once was. Her desiccated flesh clung to the black skull in patches, lips retracted over yellow teeth that looked too big for her face. Her nose was long gone, as were her ears, and her hair had all fallen out in a clump beneath her head. She was little more than a skeleton, sinew and muscles degraded beneath black skin, the heat and humidity of the past two months going to work with grotesque efficiency.

Granny sighed in resignation as she shuffled towards the Creak brothers. The learned Mr. Creak handed her his parcel with the utmost care, not daring to speak or even move for fear of interrupting something vital. Granny opened the brown cardboard box without a thought, humming hymnals as she plucked the fist-sized human heart from the box. She nodded at it, and it began to beat, contracting in time with the pulsing bass beat the shook the room. Granny paid no mind to it, unceremoniously placing the heart atop Tara's withered bosom. It began to sink into her, melting through the dress until it vanished, leaving no trace behind. Granny curtly nodded her approval.

She leaned down next to the corpse's head, her lips pursed, pulling her face into a mass of wrinkles. A black, inky substance flowed over her eyes, blotting them out, and over her teeth and gums, turning them black as pitch. She whispered her authority to the corpse.

"Wake up, Tara Maclay. I gots need of you."

The heartbeat in the room stopped.

Thick, red blood forced itself through ruined veins and arteries, spilling into the hollow skull, filling it, congealing, forming wrinkles and valleys. Her eyes came next, blue orbs refilling the empty sockets like a melting candle in reverse. The changes stopped there.

Tara's eyes twitched once, then twice, and on the third time, a shrill hiccup of the intake of air arched her torso off the table. The breath died as soon as it was born, and for a painfully long time, it seemed that all activity had stopped. But then she sucked in another breath, and another, lungs unused to oxygen spasming, her limbs dancing erratically with each inhalation. She choked, gasped, sucked in another breath, lipless mouth chewing the air, eyes wildly jittering.

Then she screamed, a hoarse, inhuman scream, vocal cords long rotten desperately trying to create a sound, a call for a single name. Two syllables became two low moans, then another scream, this one of utter horror, for she heard her own voice.

"That's a girl," Granny crooned, "You just let it out, you let it all out."

Tara didn't stop screaming for hours.

Part Two

"What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord
Or to the dreadful summit of a cliff
That bettles o'er his base into the sea
And there assumes some other horrible form
What might deprive your sovereignty of reason,
And draw you into madness? Think of it:
[The very place puts toys of desperation
Without more motive, into every brain
That looks so many fathoms to the sea
And hears it roar beneath.]"
-Horatio, Hamlet, Act I, Scene IV

Chapter Seven

The door of the Buick exploded open, steel lock wrenching out of its frame and tumbling through the dirt. Willow followed it, expelling herself from the driver's seat, falling onto her hands and knees. She crawled a few feet from the stopped car, her tiny hands clawing at the dirt, tan earth embedding under her fingernails. Her breath came in hitching gasps, her frame shuddering like a tuberculosis patient. She collapsed, rolling onto her back and staring at the stars.

Kennedy was out of her seat even as Willow blasted the door open. She jogged around the swirling dust pierced by twin headlights, and she was certain that her heart stopped beating. There Willow was, gasping on her back, fistfuls of soil in her hands. She knelt beside her, reaching out, her hand shaking so badly she flexed her fingers to try to steady it. Kennedy, dark eyes wide with fear and confusion, touched her lover's bare arm. The contact jerked Willow's head around to face her.

"Sh-she's here," Willow choked, tears welling up in her soulful eyes, "She's here, and oh, god. Oh, god, Kennedy, she's *hurting*." Her voice shattered into a million pieces. "She hurts so b-bad. Oh, oh, Tara, no. No."

"Willow?" Kennedy found her voice meek and small, "Tara's dead, sweetie. No one can hurt her."

Willow squeezed her eyes shut, forcing the tears to run down her dust-stained cheeks. Her lips quivered as she sobbed out a strangled cry. Kennedy felt the strength leave her, the power of her limbs drain into her utter helplessness. She did the only thing that she could think of then: she pulled Willow into her lap, stroked her hair and face, and held her with all her soul. To her relief, Willow returned the embrace, filthy hands clutching her arm like a drowning man.

"Breathe, Willow," Kennedy soothed, her own tears starting to join her lover's. "You've got to breathe."

The witch responded, hissing breaths through her clenched teeth, her eyes clenching shut as she forced a modicum of control over herself. She sat herself up, bracing herself against the slayer, then folded her legs under her, indian-style. She breathed deep, and dove into herself.

There was her heartbeat, hummingbird fast with panic. She watched it as a disinterested observer for a moment, taking the time to focus her will. She urged her pulse rate to slow, steady. Her breathing followed behind, and her focus strengthened. There is no divide between the internal and external, between the mind and body. Where one goes, the other must follow, as inevitably as a chain drags its brother links. That's when she verified what she already knew. She thought on it for a long moment, her brain calculating all the possibilities, no matter how improbable, compared them to her observations, then came up with a theory.

She could not help but play out all the possibilities, act through every teary reunion, every final goodbye. Willow forced herself to stop, open her eyes, and look out at the wide sky, the lights of Vegas on the horizon.

Kennedy was on her knees across from her, her darkly arched eyebrows pinched with worry, her lower lip being chewed on. Willow tried to smile at her, just to reassure the woman, but her heart couldn't find the motivation. Kennedy brushed her fingertips across her face, her concern and fear sending little tingles of energy that tickled Willow's chin.

"Are you okay?" Kennedy whispered.

Willow laughed raggedly: "No, not really. In fact, if there is a point on the globe farthest from 'okay', I am at the point."

"I-I didn't mean-"

"-I know. I'm not trying to be a mega-bitch, Kenn; I'm just-God damn it, Kenn. God damn it."

"You said Tara was here, Will. What do you mean-I mean, y'know, in spirit, or."

"Spirit," Willow shook her head, as if the motion would unshuffle her thoughts. "Yeah-no. It's.complicated."

"Try me."

"Okay, right. Um. Me and Tara, or Tara and I, as is more grammatically correct-I think. Maybe they changed that rule? Anyway, we cast a lot of spells together, and not in the 'metaphor for sex' kind of way. I mean, we were (or are, if I'm right about this) connected."

Kennedy furrowed her brow in thought, cautiously edging around her own insecurities. "Like soul mates or something?"

"No," Willow smiled to herself, brushing a twig from her hair. "I mean, I thought so, back then. I was.young, y'know? But it's not like there is any one person for you in the world, or that you're guaranteed to meet that one person who completes you. It's like we fit. Maybe we were just in love, I don't know."

"Don't be so dismissive," the slayer grinned, picking another dendrous stowaway from Willow's hair. "Love's a powerful thing."

"Well, long story short, which is as always too late, we did magic together. We were magic. We could do things together that I didn't think I could ever do. It was amazing."

"Are we still talking about spells?" Kennedy wrapped her arms around Willow, her body blocking the chill desert wind.

"You dog," Willow gave herself over to the comfort of the embrace. "So where was I-oh yeah, connection. Tara sort of made herself the steering wheel when we did spells, and I was the power source. So we could let go, and do what we were best at. Looking back, it was probably a terrible way to learn magic, but we never thought twice about it. We spent so much time sort of inside each other-stop snickering-that we could feel each other even when we weren't close. All I'd have to do is close my eyes and I'd just know that she was okay."

"Yeah," Kennedy rested her head on the petite woman's shoulder, "I know the feeling."

"When she died," Willow said in one breath, "I felt that part of me die. It was like someone just pulled the plug. She's there-" she touched her chest- "and then she's not. She was just gone."

She spent a moment to slow her heartbeat again: even the most sedate version of the memory was sometimes too much to deal with. She felt Kennedy's strong arms wrapped around her, arms that so desperately wanted to protect her. She loved this girl, her respect for the woman rising as she realized that Kennedy wasn't pulling away, even though Willow was talking about Tara. This was a wonderful relief to her; she wanted to talk about Tara so much, to tell the world what she was like, but she always held her tongue around Kennedy. The last thing their nascent relationship needed was for Kennedy to feel like she had to measure up to the mythic ex-girlfriend. Willow rubbed her tired eyes.

"And now she's back. I don't know how, or why, but she is."

"How can you be sure? It could be a trick, or, or, some spell?"

"I know." And that was that.

Kennedy stood up, locked her thumbs into her belt, and stared out at the desert. She expected tumbleweeds, or even the occasional cacti, but there was nothing but the shrubs, the rocks, and the wind. Her hair tangled around her face. This was the test, then. Did she love Willow enough to risk this? It was obvious to her that there could be no good end from this. If Willow was right, and Tara was alive, then she would have to step aside. If not, then Willow would have to mourn her lover all over again, and Kennedy wasn't sure she could stand to see that again. A leaf from the shrubs spun by her, and that satiated her need of tumbleweeds.

"She's in pain?" Kennedy asked without turning.


"Do you know where she is?"

Willow concentrated for a second. "South. And east. That way's east, right?"

"Fuckin' foreshadowing," she muttered, recalling Wesley's intel on the demonic migrations. She turned to Willow, and nodded matter-of-factly.

"Then we should go get her."

Willow couldn't believe her ears. She found herself smiling, extending her hand. Kennedy lifted her to her feet easily.

"Don't look so surprised," the slayer joked. "If you're right, then she's an innocent in danger. We're good guys. Not really outside of our purview."

"Kennedy," Willow stopped her as she walked to her door, "you are so amazing." She paused, uncertainty tainting her voice. "Thank you," she blurted, shaking her head at the preposterousness of it.

"I'm not doing it for thanks," Kennedy solemnly said. "Now get in the car, it's cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey out here."

Willow slammed her door shut, fumbling for the handle when it rebounded, locking mechanism being ten feet away from the actual door. Kennedy opened the glove box, pulled out the roll of Emergency Duct Tape, and tore off a lengthy piece. Shooting a smirk to Willow, she reached across, wrapping the tape around the doorframe, sealing it closed.

"There you go," she tapped the taped door, "You're gonna have to pull a Dukes brothers to get in an out, but, hey, whaddya want for nothing?"

"Kennedy," Willow pulled the car back onto the street, facing the opposite direction, "you don't have to come with me. Y'know, if you're not wanting to."

"And where would I go?" Her voice was too harsh, so she moderated herself. "No way, Red. Where you go I go. So get with the goin'. We've got a full tank of gas."

"We don't smoke," Willow had to grin.

"It's night-"

"And we're wearing sunglasses," they said in unison. And despite themselves, they laughed.

Willow white-knuckled the wheel, her laughter crescendoing to a guffaw then dying in a desperate titter. She had to laugh. There were only two options, and the other was screaming. It was too much that she heard it whenever she focused on the link too hard. 'I'm coming, baby,' she thought, 'hold on, I'm coming.' The blacktop speeding away beneath her; the strobing flash of passing guardrails; the touch of Kennedy's hand: these things impelled her, grounded her. South, she was called. One step at a time, south.

Chapter Eight
July 14 th , 2003

Mr. Creak's laughter was like rolling thunder, like an avalanche, low and melodic. He wiped spittle from his lips, clutched his sides, whimpered and caught his breath. He pursed his full lips, fought a second wave, then succumbed to another rumbling chuckle as the joke caught in his brain yet again. He waved away the gurgling chuckles, tears of mirth rolling down his chestnut brown cheeks.

"Cre-" he swallowed the next laugh, choking it down like cough syrup, "Creak, you did not say that!"

Creak inclined his head, rustled his chains, and smiled his horrible lifeless grin. His chains and straightjacket spoke of the verisimilitude of brown; all shades reflected in the garb that his two brothers changed once every decade as a sign of fraternal fidelity.

Mr. Creak returned his expression, his white, white teeth shining like a beacon into his elder brother's room. No, not a room. Rooms don't have reinforced steel doors with six deadbolts and two mystical wards to boot. It was a cell, a well-fortified cell, with none of the amenities that even an Inquisition would give their victims. Stark white walls and a cement floor, no windows, no light of any kind entered the room when the door was shut. This was important: Mr. Creak learned that the hard way. The first three cells failed, all because Big Creak kept insisting on giving their brother a view of the outside. Sure enough, even though the window was no more than a dime in diameter, Creak escaped and ran amok. Mr. Creak considered it lucky that there were only thirty-three fatalities that night.

Everyone knew the rules, rules Granny had set herself. He was to be let out only when both brothers were in constant attendance, or when he had no chance of finding his core meal within six miles. If he was to be visited, only the peephole would be opened, and at no time would he be let out of sight. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, he was never to be fed after midnight. Mr. Creak was reasonably certain that that was Granny's humor; Creak was never, ever to be fed. They tried at first, putting every food they could think of in front of him, but he just stared at the plate until the victuals went sour.

"Oh," Mr. Creak sighed as his shoulders stopped shaking. "Tonight's a big night, you know that, right?"

Creak smiled impassively, as if his wretched face were carved of ebony. Creak was bald, his gaunt face all razor sharp angles, like his pitch black flesh was pulled over an iron-wrought skeleton. His teeth were too large for his mouth, jutting forward, crooked and green. His eyes, though, twinkled with life, a life that only his brothers knew hid a devious sense of humor. It was still a sure fire way to cheer either of the two up whenever they mentioned the first time he had escaped, when he left the string of animal carcasses that spelled the opening words to Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. So it was a dry and offbeat humor, but he had to admit that it was fairly brilliant.

"It's not every night that Granny calls up her tithes. In fact, I can't even remember the last time she did it."

Creak's neck groaned as he looked to the floor.

"That long?" the scholar asked incredulously. "Ah well," he said, looking at his wristwatch, "It's about time for me to get going. You take care now, you funny bastard."

Mr. Creak slammed the peephole shut, twin metallic shouts filling the air as he bolted it shut. He double then triple-checked the deadbolts, ran his hand over the door to taste the glyphs, and clenched his jaw in satisfaction.

The distance to his room was short, and he covered it quickly, whistling "Putting on the Ritz" as he went, even taking the time to twirl at the proper musical cues. His twirl landed him in front of his door, which he swung open by its brass knob. He stepped inside, inhaled the musky scent of herbs and dried blood as if it were a springtime glen, and shut the door behind him.

He tapped out a Buffalo Two-Step to his armoire, a black and white affair with clean lines and slight art deco overtones. Mr. Creak's wardrobe already tended toward the severe, not out of any need to impress, but out of a desire to imitate his idols. Mr. Creak loved musicals, especially Fred Astaire. If there was ever a man who could dance, sing, and act, it was Fred Astaire. Ginger Roberts was something to write home about, too. Mr. Creak still preferred Fred over Ginger, but it was really only because he didn't have the hips to pull off her dress. His hands would work fine for that, he thought with a chuckle.

Mr. Creak pulled out his tuxedo, fumbled past the vase with the mummified dog, and found his top hat and walking stick. Tonight was a night to pull out all the stops. As he began to dress himself, he pondered his speech and presentation. It had to be honorable, and impressive, but it wouldn't do to showboat too much. As much as his nature was piqued by the prospect, Granny was adamant that a tithe was a solemn affair. Mr. Creak wasn't sure exactly how that was, but he had to acquiesce in the face of his boss. Such is the fate of every working stiff, he thought as he buttoned his cufflinks made of children's teeth.

The cane spun in clumsy circles as he stepped to his desk, the sallow fluorescent light playing off his sheets of human parchment stacked in a neat pile. His blood ink was low, him having spent the whole night writing his latest treatise on the mad monk turned vampire Lucretitis, scourge of the eighth century Danes. Not an easy topic, but he had sources most people didn't. Like Lucretitis himself, who demanded his tales be written on 'the flesh of the forsaken enemy'. Mr. Creak hoped that the flesh of screaming hitchhikers would do, that being the best he could come up with on such short notice. He opened his desk drawer, sliding the parchment into its perfectly organized space. The drawer almost shut, then froze.

He slid it open again, scowling. Something was missing. Mr. Creak counted the individual items, noting which of them need to be thrown out for fear of spoiling. He slammed the drawer shut, growling his frustration. That's when the door opened.

"Hey, Mr. Creak," the towering brother said as he barged into his elder sibling's room, "I hear you goin' out tonight."

"Where's the morphine?" Mr. Creak shot.


"The morphine. Where is it?"

"I gave it back to you, after I gave some to Miss Tara, jus' like Granny said."

"You most certainly did not!"

"I did so give it to Miss Tara. I gave it to her, and she went all weepy on me."

"No, you fuckwit. You didn't give it back to me."

"Did so."

"Did not!"

"Did so, an' you put it right on top of your fancy dresser."

Mr. Creak craned his neck around to his armoire. Sure enough, there it was, the steel first aid box looking quite comfortable where it was. He peered at it for a second, then over to his desk, then to his brother.

"Oh. Right. Well, you should have said so in the first place."

"Y'shouldn'ta been sucha asshole," Big Creak folded his arms and pouted.

"So, how is our houseguest doing?" Mr. Creak asked as he pulled on his jacket, changing the subject to avoid more verbal fisticuffs, which was quite noble of him in his own opinion.

Big Creak's eyes lit up. "Oh, she a doll. Now, she took a little gettin' used to, bein' all strange an' whatnot, but once you get to know her, she a regular lady."

"She hasn't done anything but whimper and whine for the past day," Mr. Creak sardonically stated as he adjusted his top hat, "and you got all of that?"

"Some people just can't look past appearances," he replied, dismissively snorting at his brother's attire. "Lemme guess: Carey Grant?"

"Fred Astaire, you philistine," he reprimanded as he cocked his hat to one side. "I've got to look my best for tonight."

"Shoulda put a bag over y' head," Big Creak muttered, then spoke again, louder. "Granny had me set you up a procession. They's waitin' out back."

"God damn it!" Mr. Creak threw his hat onto the bed. "I might as wear a sheet and go 'oogy-boogy'!" He paused in the middle of his histrionics, raising an eyebrow to his brother. "How fresh are they?"

"Oh, no y'don't," Big Creak shook his round head emphatically, "Mr. Creak, you can't make them do that! It's rude, an' disrespectful!"

"What?" he choked. "Aren't you the one that had those two from the bus wreck screwing on the front lawn?"

"That was different," Big Creak insisted, "They was in love, an' I jus' helped them to get together. What you're doin', well, I don't think a one of them ever danced."

And that was how Mr. Creak gained a procession of dancing corpses, a macabre minstrel show that heralded his arrival in town. It took a little work, but he managed to arrange a fairly good routine, without it coming off as a Thriller rip off. The dead were in varying degrees of decay, all of them the murderers and rapists that Granny removed from her town. That was what she called the tiny demesne the clung to the outskirts of the swamp like a lesion of one-room wooden houses. Built by descendents of the slave rebellion that he and his brothers helped to organize, Granny always took a special interest in the comings and goings within the town.

Mr. Creak couldn't exactly understand her fascination with the inane lives of the tiny burg's inhabitants. They were rough, loud, simple people, like a couple thousand Big Creak clones. There wasn't a single worthwhile thought between the lot of them. In some idealized world, Mr. Creak had to admit it wasn't totally their fault. Granny did her best to enforce her vision on the lot of them, in a very deliciously dystopian way.

The dead bodies to his left and right crumbled and tore as they marched, gnarled hands clapping with each step. A ragged bunch, to be sure, flesh swollen and black with vile swamp water, some of them so bloated their faces hung from their skulls like wet towels on a hanger. While he didn't have the love of the dead that his brother so perversely held, he had to admit a certain poetry in their jangled steps. The legs uncurled like a hose under pressure, kicking forward, knee locking, then the other leg doing the same, propelling them forward in fits and starts. Any body part not immediately used lolled back, forgotten. That, the slosh of wet feet on pavement, and the clapping gave a near-carnival air to his trek towards the town.
The road bent, the big white steeple of the church poking over the tops of the cypress trees, a beacon to weary travelers, perhaps. Better it be painted black, Mr. Creak thought, to warn the wise to stay away. But there were none here that fit that description. No, that spire was the seat of everything false and tyrannical in Granny's nature. Her motives were never clear to him, but it was in his nature to question the wisdom of protecting such a large group of the ignorant. They would never produce anything of value to the world, so what good were they? Well, one of them at least would serve a purpose tonight.

He and his rigor mortised marching band passed the first outlying homes, dim streetlights playing off cracked white and red paint, heavy wooden shutters thrown to block out the unholy sight before them. Mr. Creak shuddered in disgust at the thought of stupid victim families huddling together to pray to their victim god and ride out another pointless day of their pointless existence. Lights went on and off in the houses before him, and his mood was improved somewhat by the almost Christmas light blinking of lights as foolish men poked their heads out windows, and went back to whimpering.

The church filled his vision as he turned a corner onto the main street, its malfunctioning sign glowing "Obedience to The Lord is the First Step to Righteousness" in alternating dim-bright intervals. That was the key, he knew: obedience. He followed Granny, true, but that was not the same as what these cattle followed. If it weren't for Granny, Mr. Creak knew he would have been stoned to death with all the other heretics on the sandy Galilee shores. What started as a debt of honor between he and Granny developed into a deep understanding. Granny's plans could take centuries to manifest, but when they did, they were always complete. No stone was ever left unturned, no enemy ever left alive. The old woman was as ruthless as a black mamba disturbed, and as far seeing as a god. Therefore, when she told him to do something, he would grumble and grouse, but it would get done, for who knew how it would come to fruition.

He took another alleyway, his corpses clapping sounding like a crippled horse clopping on cobblestones, ferrying a criminal to his execution. The houses pressed close to each other, huddled in tattered lines, clumps of vegetation wrapping around their bases, black telephone cables stretching across the chasm like massive spider strands. At the end of the alleyway lay an end cap of a house, single door and two windows shining into the gravel-filled street. Little silhouettes danced behind the drawn curtains, the green trim almost a shadow-puppet's stage.

Mr. Creak adjusted his top hat, tried to spin his cane, but dropped it after the first rotation. He tried at kicking it up into his hand, but only succeeded in dirtying his shined wingtips. With a furtive glance to make sure no one was watching he retrieved his black shafted cane.

"You didn't see nothin'," he whispered to the nearest corpse. It just rolled its hazel eyes, which went back to their twitching like a skipping high school projector. Mr. Creak loved their eyes; far too bright and alert for a body in their state of decay, the eyes of the bound corpses all did little dances of agony. Windows to the souls shoved into a rotting shell without the slightest hint of mercy, Mr. Creak knew that they all felt every second of their imprisonment. Some vestigial hint of empathy made Mr. Creak wish that whatever crime the committed justified their punishment.

He called a halt to the procession in front of the worn and tired door, his morbid marching band keeping rhythm with their ragged hands. Clapclap, clap, clapclap, clap, went the old hymnal beat, Mr. Creak taking his sweet time as he moseyed up the steps. He knocked once, hard, and waited. Silence, as he knew there would be. Hushed voices whispered to each other, the warbling strains of a baby's cry muffled by someone's hand. Whom did they think they were fooling?

Mr. Creak knocked a second time, as precise as the first time. Again, nothing, save the constant clapping of his minstrels. This was just tedious, and he hated tedium above all things, with the notable exception of tedious people.

His third knock was as polite as the others were, but its affect was a trifle more dramatic. The door became splinters, spraying inward like a torrential downpour. Mr. Creak surveyed the interior of the tiny hut as the dust settled.

Two men, one old and rotund, the other youthful and with a head full of braids stood guard over a heavyset woman rocking a swaddled infant. The woman and round man were dressed in K-mart blue-light special flannel pajamas, eyes wide in their dark faces. The youth was something else. His army surplus jacket was frayed around the edges; half laced combat boots and rumbled jeans revealing someone who wasn't accustomed to sleep during the wee hours. He wrung a baseball bat with black nailed fingers, jaw set in rigid defiance.

"Get the fuck outta here," he growled.

"Please," Mr. Creak waved him away with a swat at an imaginary bug, the baseball bat dissolving like ice. "I really wish I had time to explain all of this, and I had a very nice speech written about all that you owe Granny, and how this tithe is just a sign of your obedience and thankfulness, but I have a timetable to meet, so if you'll just hand me the baby, I'll refrain from having my people tear you to pieces and feast on your still living flesh, okay?"

The trio of adults gaped dumbly, their meager wits overwhelmed by what Mr. Creak thought was a very straightforward pitch. The zombies clapped robotically behind him.

The young one, obviously a bit quicker on the uptake than his fellows, stepped in front of Mr. Creak blocking the way. He was brave, Creak had to hand him that, and had a fire behind his gaze that was disquieting. It looked a little too much like rebellion, adolescent rebellion, to be sure, but nonetheless, a danger to the stability of Granny's little community. If it weren't for Granny's very strict rules about who can and cannot be killed in town, Mr. Creak would have eviscerated the little weasel right then and there, just to save himself the headache of future movements.

He satisfied himself with flinging him against the wall, the cheap drywall caving in around his body as he rolled to the floor, unconscious. The man went next; his flabby form rolling across the carpet as he collapsed from the lightest mental shove. He stepped in time to his rhythm section, looming over the crouching woman.

She tried to shield her child with her body, but it was a simple enough matter to spin her around, wrenching the infant from her grasp. She began a pathetic wail, falling on her knees and pulling at her hair, shrieking and moaning as she flailed about. Mr. Creak grew tired of the noise, cutting it off with another wave of his hand, her head bouncing off the radiator with a meaty impact.

He turned from the scene, eerily silent babe in his arms, his troupe applauding him in stuttering claps. He walked down the alleyway, through the town, and deep into the swamps.

"Shush now," he whispered to the curly-haired girl child, "It's okay. You're gonna make a fine meal for our little houseguest. That's right, she's going to get all better, and all it'll cost you is your soul. Shhh, shh shh shh. Don't cry, darlin'. It's just like nappy time."

Chapter Nine
July 14 th , 2003

Kennedy looked like death warmed over and served on rye with a side of mayonnaise. She had to admit, riding in a car for a day straight was much more tiring work than it seemed. Well, not difficult, but tedious and nerve-wracking in a way she hoped never to have to deal with again. The dark circles under her eyes spoke of the past fifteen hours spent in a Buick that felt less and less spacious with each passing minute. Fifteen hours of watching sweat bead on Willow's broad forehead, her frail hands wringing the steering wheel. Fifteen hours of knowing that the worst question to ask was "are you all right", and still wanting to.

Her reflection in the truck stop restroom mirror just outside of Santa Fe wearily stared back at her. Inhuman senses could be a serious detriment when one was reeking from too much time in one place. Willow's scent mixed with hers, but it was filled with apprehension and the tang of anxiety. Kennedy felt her heart skip for a second as she realized that she just smelled someone's emotional state. Did Buffy, Faith, or any one the others before them ever have such a keen sense of smell? They must have, but just never spoke of it.

Willow was out filling the gas tank, and she was the one Kennedy worried about more. If Kennedy looked like hell, Willow looked like every insomniac college student rolled into one big ball and shoved into a five-foot nothing redhead. She was swaying the last time Kennedy saw her, bracing herself against the car frame and nodding off as the gas pumped into the tank. Her red hair waved back and forth like a pendulum, her eyes were so weary, and a little dazed. Kennedy remembered when she got hit in the ribs with that fire axe a week or two ago, and how she staggered into the emergency room for stitches. She caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror, and her eyes looked exactly like Willow's: numb with pain. It made Kennedy nauseous to think her Willow would be in so much pain for such a long time. And the worst of it was she knew she was powerless to help, at least for now.

It took a small act of God to get Willow to stop. It was the last stop for another three or four hours until they hit Dallas. The pink sun rose and fell as Willow drove, the air thick with silence. Kennedy wasn't totally convinced that this wasn't a trap of some sort. Willow would hear none of it, she knew. The girl had gone beyond 'resolve face', her features were set in stone, the worry lines in her forehead a permanent landmark, her pale brows knit, her lower lip quivering from time to time, either from a passing thought or some affect of the link between her and-

Between her and Tara.

Oh. Oh, god, what was she doing? Was she just blithely following Willow, never mind the fact that if, and this was a big if, Tara was alive and still, y'know, Tara, then it was over between them? As in completely and totally over, and she would have to step aside and let them be together. Sure, Willow would have to make a big choice, but it really wasn't much of a choice now, was it? Oh, no, for Willow, it'd tear her apart. Willow loved her, but she loved Tara, too, and she'd changed a great deal since Tara, and these things would rend her beloved redhead apart inside. Kennedy couldn't, wouldn't allow that. If it came to that, she would make the choice for her, she would back off to arms length.

But then, but then she'd never hold her or kiss her or make love to her on a wet Friday night or watch reruns of The X-Files on a hotel bed or be able to look into her eyes and just let her know that she was loved and protected, and that she'd accept Willow's love in return, never, ever again. She'd give up on all the starlit nights they'd never share, on all the kisses goodnight, on the chance to see her grow up and become powerful and famous. She couldn't do it, not with it so real, not with it so close. In six hours, she'd know if she had a future or not. And she couldn't do it; she couldn't sacrifice herself for another, not like that. She wished she were that noble, she wished she was that pure, but she couldn't be that person. She was just the scared, lovesick girl who looked greasy from too much truck stop food and had her black hair pulled back in a lazy ponytail. She was just the coward who couldn't lose the only person she'd ever loved.

She wanted to cry, to let it all out, but if she started, she might not be able to stop. And besides, she was Kennedy the Vampire Slayer, she was one hundred twenty pounds of twisted steel and sex appeal, she didn't cry. Not when Willow might see her. Willow needed her now; she needed her to be strong. If she saw Kennedy weep, then Willow would weep, and then they'd never get anything done.

"Don't cry, Kennedy," she sniffed to her miserable reflection, "don't you dare fucking cry." But the emotions churned inside her, and sought release one way or another.

Kennedy vomited into the steel sink.

She wiped her mouth, washed it out half a dozen times, and dried her face with the paper towel dispenser that ground angrily when she pulled the handle. The dark haired, dark eyed woman pushed open the swinging door, moving into the rows of bad books on tape and beef jerky that shimmered under a battery of fluorescent lights, past the bleary eyed all-night clerk, and into the crisp desert night.

Willow crouched there beside the car, knees drawn up to her chest as the gas pump chugged ignorantly away. She plucked at a wayward thread in the jacket, wrapping it around her finger and listlessly tugging at it, not with any intention to remove it, but just for something to do. She stopped her fidgeting, hugging herself tightly, so tight she might ooze out between her arms. Her head dropped to her knees, her breath coming in deep, slow respirations.

"Hey, Willow," Kennedy found her voice soft and a little hoarse, her thumbs hooked in her belt as she rocked back on her heels.

"Hey, Kennedy," Willow replied, as weary as Kennedy, the corners of her mouth brushing a smile.

"You want me to drive?"

"I'm okay," -Kennedy gave her a sarcastic nod- "Okay, I'm not. I'm filling up the tank, and I'm using my credit card, so I just thought I'd sit here for a minute, and sort of, y'know, relax."

Kennedy sat next to Willow, mirroring her pose, wrapping herself in her coat. Willow scooted herself closer, leaning into the other woman's warmth, a warmth that never diminished. It was something she'd never noticed before, or noticed but never noted: before the spell, Kennedy had cold knees. Not her whole legs, just her knees. When they'd cuddle, those ice-chilled knees would brush the backs of Willow's legs. But now, every part of her was warm, hot at times. There was something disquieting about it, really. Willow didn't want to be bothered by it, not now. Now, she only wanted it to warm her, and she only wanted Kennedy to hold her and make her feel safe again.

Just a few hours ago, Willow thought she knew how to handle the world. It was simple, in that really complex way. She had a great girlfriend, a purpose in life, she was in control of herself and her magic (the same thing, she thought), and her world made a lot of sense. She didn't have to babble around Kennedy to make herself understood anymore, even though she did when she got excited. She didn't feel nervous about every little thing. Willow thought that at long last she was a grown-up. And then something like this comes out of the blue, and all she wanted to do was curl up in her girlfriend's lap and whimper for her mother.

"How are you holding up?" Kennedy asked as she wrapped her arm around Willow.

"Better, I think. It's not so bad, the pain, I mean. Sorta like a toothache. But-"

"But what?" Kennedy's heart melted to know she was still hurting.

"They've done something to her. It's like, they drugged her or something. It just feels.muted. Less."

"Why'd they, and for the sake of argument, let's assume it *is* a they, drug her?"

"I don't know, Kennedy, this is just a tad out of my experience. Maybe to keep her docile, or to influence her in some way."

"You said the pain was less.was that before or after someone hit the mute button?"

"Huh," Willow glanced at the gas nozzle as its handle clicked loudly. "We're full. 'Bout the same time, actually."

"So," Kennedy stood, helped Willow up, and replaced the nozzle in the gas pump's holster. "It sounds to me like someone was giving her really heavy painkillers."

Willow considered this as she tried to open the driver's door for the tenth time today, only to find it taped shut. "Maybe. Do you want to drive? I really don't want to climb through the window."

"I offered," Kennedy said, grabbing the keys off the roof. She slid into the driver's seat with a little hop and a body spear through the window. Willow practically collapsed into her seat, automatically fastening her seatbelt, a hold over from her mother's childhood training. Kennedy adjusted the mirrors, slid the seat back half a foot, and started the car up.

"Back on I-40?" she asked as she pulled onto the off-ramp. Willow nodded, strumming her fingers across the dashboard.

"Why don't you get some sleep?" Kennedy asked as the car picked up speed, the oasis of the truck stop receding in the distance. Nothing but flat, unending highway greeted them.

"No, sleep is a definite no-no. I'm filtering out the worst of it, but if I close my eyes or go to sleep-" she paused, shaking her head "-I don't know."

Kennedy tapped out the beginning drums to Korn on the steering wheel, her limbs heavy and liquid. "We're gonna have to get some sleep before we hit.where ever it is we hit."

"Sweetie," Willow rubbed her eyes, "I know you don't think this is your thing, but I have to try. I have to know."

"Willow, don't be so condescending. It's my fight. There's an innocent girl out there being put through who knows what by who knows who, and it's my job to help her. But I have this thing about wanting to win fights. I know, crazy Kennedy always with the competitiveness. But seriously, we're gonna totally need to crash before we do any heavy rescue mission."

Willow looked out the window into the desert, the royal blue glow of the horizon setting off the peaks and valleys in stark black. She ran her fingers through her hair, picking out tangles. "I'm sorry," she said, "I-Kennedy?"


"I never thought anything like this would happen, not in a million million years. Or, I hoped it would happen, but I never thought I had any right to actually say it out loud. And I just want you to know-"

"Don't," Kennedy cut her off, "Don't say anything right now. Please, just.don't."

Willow nodded, folding her arms and resting her head on them as she watched the rocks slowly drift by. It was impossible to judge speed that way. In the dark, everything looked the same distance. Those slow moving mounds could just be the car slowing down. A glance ahead proved the vehicle's speed: nearly ninety miles per hour.

They stayed like that for an hour and some change, both women trapped in their own worlds, the acids in their stomachs roiling for the same reason. They both new it in their bones: when they got where they were headed, their lives would change forever.

The headlights caught something walking along the side of the road; Kennedy's super-keen senses kicked into overdrive. A man, thick flannel jacket wrapped around him, overstuffed rucksack hanging off one shoulder, doggedly trudged along. Dust tinted his entire person a tan, his blue jeans almost solid brown around his boots. Kennedy slowed down as she passed him, peering through the night to get a look at him.

He was young, but a fine beard covered most of his face, wild blonde locks reaching skyward in all directions. Kennedy noticed his eyes most of all: there was a quiet intensity to them. He was also very short, with compact limbs that looked comical in the outsized flannel jacket. He met her gaze, and followed the car with his head.

"Stop the car!" Willow shouted tapping her finger at her window and giggling in excitement. Kennedy obliged instantly, red brake lights illuminating the approaching man behind them. He didn't hurry: in fact, he seemed incapable of hurrying. Willow was practically clapping her joy as he walked next to her window. She rolled it down, wide smile on her lips.

"You headed our way, stranger?"

"Looks like," came his terse reply.

"Um, Willow?" Kennedy leaned toward her, "Who the fuck is this guy?"

Willow rolled her eyes. "Thanks for killing my banter. Kennedy, this is Oz. Oz, Kennedy."

"A pleasure," he said with a soft smile.

"Oz.Oz as in, werewolf Oz?"

"The same."

"Well, don't stand out there all night, get in!" Willow unlocked the back door for him, twisting around to move one of the boxes that shifted in transit. "Oh my goddess, look at you, with the beard and everything! It looks very adult."

"I was going for a Clint Eastwood, David Carradine thing." He slid his rucksack beside him as he sat in the back seat. "How have you been?"

"Ha! To answer that in one breath! Let's see, since last you spoke with me I got back from England and fought off The First by activating all the potentials but not before I met this really great girl-"

"That's me."

"-Right, and then we got a hotel together and had some adventures with demons and then we decided to move up to Cleveland to continue the work and Buffy is retired but I just learned that Tara is alive so we changed plans and are on the way there." She sucked in a much-needed breath. "I think that about covers it."

"Okay," Oz nodded thoughtfully. "I guess I'll ride with you for a little while."

"Really?" Willow squeaked.

"Got business down south. Headed to New Orleans. Couldn't hurt, right?"

Kennedy shook her head, blinking away some sleep. "If you're riding with us, then you can take a driving shift. My ass is tired."

"Fair enough."

The slayer rubbed her eyes. Her girlfriend's ex-.what, friend? Boy friend? Willow was never too keen on the specifics, and she rarely talked about her past anyway. Not that Kennedy ever pressed, so she couldn't hold her at fault. But Willow dated boys? Actually, that wasn't that surprising. Lot's of gay chicks date boys first, especially the really oblivious ones. So that wasn't such a shocker. Actually, this was a goldmine, a once in a lifetime opportunity: someone who knew Willow before all the bad stuff. She would have to mine his brain for information if she got half the chance.

"Well," Kennedy said, making eye contact through the rearview mirror, "Welcome to this expedition up shit creek without a paddle."

"Kennedy!" Willow gaped, strangely aghast at what the slayer was certain she was used to.

Kennedy just sighed, looked out into the distance, and drove on.

"Where are we going, and what am I doing in this hand basket?" she muttered.

Chapter Ten

Pain. Light. Something burned her eyes. Like falling backwards into ice-cold water.

Pain. Darkness. Something swallowed her breath. Warmth, a warm bath.


She is four years old now, and momma has a birthday present for her. It's a rag doll, its face a patchwork of different cloths, as if Dr. Frankenstein shopped in New York City, and every race and ethnicity slammed together in one face. Black button eyes stare up at her. She gets scared and throws the doll into a corner, her blanket over its head, all to escape those inky eyes staring at her.

Is she growing or is the world getting smaller?

It's not supposed to be this bright! Momma said she shouldn't stare into the sun so long, or she might go blind.

It hurts, mommy, it hurts like a wooden cross on a hill in a tiny Louisiana town and that's the only way to remember she ever even existed!

She's old now, really old, her hands are wrinkled and tissue paper thin. She's knitting a shawl and handing it to a tiny blonde girl who wraps herself in it and sings a little song. She sings about starry nights.

She knows that song. She was the one singing it, when she was only eight. It was the last time Gramma was alive.

She didn't begin, she didn't end. She was smudged over history, her's, other people's.

Someone once explained it to her this way: at the quantum level, there are no solid objects, no points. Just blurry patterns that bumped into each other and swirled away like ripples in a flag. Everything that was her is a point, a quantum singularity.

The light was a point. The light was a needle under her fingernails.

She's talking to someone now, a frail woman lying in bed, skin gray and slick with sweat. The woman tells her something important, but the words won't solidify, they float around like candles in a pond. She gets up, goes to the window, and looks out into the yellow field beyond, straw the color of her hair. The sun drops a degree too low, and the shadows lengthen and distort. She turns around, and the woman is gone.

She turns again, and the sun is too bright. There's an old man with dark eyes screaming at her, lashing out. Her cheek splits and bleeds. He looks at his hand like a foreign intruder, mutters an apology, and runs off. The blood falls scarlet pure on the white linoleum floor. She cries, and begs-

Oh, mommy, they've hurt your baby again.

Time passes, abstracted into the unending cycle of day and night, summer and winter. She's with another woman, and she is happy. She is full, and all the places that hurt are filled up with more than despair. She is so beautiful. They are in love.

Her eyes are black, like the doll's.

Now pain. Shattering to a million pieces. A broken kalaidoscope mirror. The godhead falls into darkness.

She sees a shirt splattered with blood. She wonders why her vision is going dark so fast. She hears her name, and doesn't understand why. She falls back into warm water, and it's leaking from between her toes. There is light, and a tunnel of twisting neon tubes. And she dreams of warm bread in ovens and warm flesh between fingers. The warmth becomes cold, and a tiny voice tells her that she is dead. But the lights are beautiful, like dancing fairies. It's nothing to worry about. Nothing so pretty could be bad.

And then

She becomes


And everything.

She didn't know it could hurt so much. The light burns her eyes, and the air burns her lungs, and the weight in her limbs is terrible, like being buried in sand. And she tries to scream, but no sound comes out. So she keeps trying. Somewhere, there is someone for her. Someone who hears her.

And then something warm and liquid flows to her heart, scar tissue itching with each pump. The pain lessens. And she can only lie on her back and stare at a night sky filled with tiny animal bones and ravens and the wood beneath her scrapes into her back, each grain of wood is a jagged razorblade. She wants to sleep, to go to sleep, but she can't shut her eyes.

Mommy, what's happening to me? Am I dead? Is this what death is? Did dying hurt so bad for you?

Everyone wants to hurt her. Her father. Her lover.

'And because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me.'

Slowly, she begins to hear, and her neck moves in broken-glass increments. She sees her hair, thin and yellow, laid out like wheat fields. There are people standing next to her. Three of them, but she can't see anything but their legs, dim and staid. She can't focus; she can't stop the jagged bones breaking with every breath.

She knows they're speaking, and she hears a baby crying. She thought it was her, her screams taken on a life of their own. She sees something silver, whip quick, flash, and the crying stops.

Red blood drops into a bowl. Plop, plop, plop. The drops fall like old icons. Lenin gets pulled down, Buddha has his face blown off, the Challenger explodes. Nothing but the purest potential makes it into the bowl. Through death, all are purified and laid equal, a voice says.

Someone tilts the bowl over her face. It drizzles across her chin, into her neck, ice and quicklime. She can feel breath across her face, warm and humid like summers in Georgia.

Drink, drink deep, it says, drink and be well. She drinks.

She drank.

She drank the blood of a slain infant. She drank because something didn't want to die in her. She drank the blood of a slain infant because she chose to live. And so, it began.

Tendons thickened, flesh tightened. Piano chords played across her spine in C minor as vertebrae popped and straightened. Even through the sea of narcotics she thought that the timeless ache was better than this immediate barbed wire mummification.

Her nerves returned to her in their full glory. Tendrils snaked through her mending flesh, fibrous roots that hummed and danced with each suspiration. With the lightning rod shock of awakening sensations, she bucked uncontrollably against the searing air.

She begged, somewhere in her mind, she begged and prayed to a god she had never really held faith in. Her father's god, possessed with the same iron visage and tiny black eyes. Dolls-eyes, shark's eye, doll's eye crystal. Numbness spread across her ragged skin, merciful unconsciousness sliding over her in silky waves.

Tara Maclay slept. Words not spoken to her in nearly fifteen years drifted around her.

"Behold, I shew you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed."

Tara woke up to more pain, the pain of Icy-Hot left too long on exposed skin, a menthol rub over raw flesh. She welcomed it. She squeezed her eyes shut, something thick and sticky seeping out the corners. Tara reached up to wipe it away, opening her eyes to the candlelit room and inspecting her had.

"Nooo," she moaned, her voice warbling and gelatinous. A dry sob wracked her chest, her entire form twisting in pain at the motion. She forced herself to calm down, to look at her hand and confront what she hoped was some kind of fever dream.

No dream, the offending limb shook like a leaf on a tree. Her hand was warped and skeletal, her flesh a raw pink, thin and wrinkled. Long fingers Willow thought elegant tapered to yellow cracked fingernails. Her wrist bones looked like cheesecloth pulled over pebbles. Her arms felt lead heavy, and now she knew why: there was no muscle on her, just a tissue paper thin flesh, like a premature baby.

"Well, well, well," a voice called from the shadows behind her, "Look who's awake. You get enough sleep, there, little miss?"

Tara lolled her head around, trying to get a clear view of her captor. She was such a small and unassuming woman, big gray shawl wrapped around her shoulders, callused hands folded delicately across her stomach. She stepped up beside Tara, setting her hands on the table that served as her bed.

"Don't try to talk now, not just yet. You've been through a regular ordeal, you have. It's best f' all if you just relax an' let Granny take care of you."

"Wh-what.h-happened to m-m-meeeeee?" Tara keened. A great shudder ran up her spine, setting her teeth chattering.

"Oh, I think you 'member, if'n you try." Granny pulled her shawl off. She shook it out, then draped it across the girl beside her.

Tara concentrated, her brow crinkling in though. She remembered waking up with Willow, covered in sweat, sore and tired from a night of lovemaking. There was so much to work through, so much that was left unsaid, it hung over her head like a thundercloud. There would be time for that later, she though, time to tell her that she loved her, that she never stopped loving her, and that they could make things work. Then she listened to Dawn's overjoyed squealing, and she knew that it was time to come home. And then she heard a shot. And then the world went black.

She died. She died and it was the most unimaginable thing to be contemplating that simple fact. But odder still was what followed.

Tara never thought much about the afterlife. She assumed her energy would be recycled into the great circle of life, only to be reborn later. What that actually meant was another matter entirely. She became something.else.

But she knew. Tara knew what happened to her Willow after, knew it like you know your name, without thinking. She knew about that boy torn to pieces in a desolate forest, his pleads falling on deaf ears. She saw Willow collapsed on a bluff, screaming her heartache out. And she saw the shell that remained, staggering through the days, empty and morose. Then she saw the other one, the exotic young woman who never gave up on Willow, who pushed her way through and forced her to live again.

All this she saw, yet until now, it had no name, nor form. It was endless and omnipresent understanding, but no depth to it, no emotional ties to anything. It simply was. Now, though, she began to grasp exactly what it all meant.

She was dead.

Willow went mad.

Willow moved on.

Now she's not dead.

She could have laughed if it hadn't hurt too much.

Light footfalls trickled down the steps, followed by the splashing of water. Tara lost all desire to know who it was, and pulled the woolen shawl around her shoulders, ignoring the tiny fishhooks that seemed to be embedded in the material.

"Granny?" a voice asked, "Granny, you down there?"

"I'm right here, don't you go kickin' up a fuss."

"Yes, ma'am. Well-" Tara felt an empty gaze rest on her "-am I interrupting anything?"

"Oh, no, I'm just helpin' our house guest get adjusted to her situation," Granny replied without malice.

"Ah. Well, uh, Big Creak and I were on our way to the movie theater. He thought it polite to ask you if you wanted to come."

"Which movie you boys seein'?"

"Uh, that new Tomb Raider movie."

"I'll be up in just one second."

Mr. Creak nodded, sprinting up the stairs. Tara looked up to Granny, her bright blue eyes brimming with tears.


The old woman's features softened, a warm smile gracing her wizened features.

"Oh, you poor little thing. I reckon I do owe you an explanation. It's really all about-" Granny glanced up to the door. "Oh, dear, I don't wanna make my boys late now, do I? Have you ever know such considerate young men?"

Granny pulled her shawl away from Tara, wrapped it around her shoulders, and began to walk up the stairs. "I swear, I'd forget my head if it weren't screwed on my shoulders."

Tara lay back on the wooden pallet, alone and cold, and thought about what it was her mother said to her on her deathbed. Words that got her through the hardest times of her life.

"None of this can ever touch you. You are above all this."

She said those words, and thought about Willow.

Chapter Eleven
July 15 th , 2003

"Is she asleep?"

Oz glanced into the backseat, Willow curled into a little ball and sleeping soundly.


Kennedy dropped her head back to the neck rest, sighing loudly and rubbing her eyes. "Praise fuckin' Jesus."

"Interesting benediction," Oz said, raising an eyebrow as he flipped through Kennedy's CD collection.

"Sorry man, it's been a totally fucktastic few days. On the scale of shitty days, this ranks right up there. And it's just gotta get worse. I know it. It's totally gonna turn out in a horrible orgy of death."

Oz held up a Tori Amos disc. "Good stuff. You sound confident."

"Yeah, a girlfriend sorta turned me on to her in high school. And no, I'm really just talking out my ass."

"There is a certain blueness to the air," he commented, glancing through the mix of Operation Ivy, Misfits, and Bad Religion albums. "You're into punk."

"Yeah, that's me, swearing up a storm. Okay, not so much anymore." She thumbed to the sleeping woman in the back seat. "She's a good influence on me. And the punk, yeah, I dig it. Yuck it up. Rich brat likes anti-establishment stuff."

"A paper plate and a silver spoon," Oz quipped, shooting Kennedy a smile to assure her that he was only kidding. "So how long you two been an item?"

"And here it comes," Kennedy mock groaned, "the ruthless interrogation of the new love interest." She mimicked his earlier smile. "About five months."

"Okay." Oz pondered his next question, like he always did, and put it bluntly, as he always did. "Do you think that Tara's alive?"

Kennedy almost launched into her prepared spiel about her closeness to Willow, and how she is always there for her, and pretty much everything ideal in their relationship (even going so far as to say 'we loved a lifetime's worth'), but skid to a halt. The quiet werewolf beside her just accepted the brevity, and hit her with the most honest question she'd been hit with in weeks.

"Yes. No. I don't know. Willow seems to think so, and I'm sure you know the deal. Once she gets an idea in her head, it's pretty much time to make like a rollercoaster and just hang on."

Oz chuckled to himself. Some things just don't change. He glanced back to Willow again, her brow furrowed in some unconscious toil. He almost reached back to soothe her, but remembered. Some things do change. He turned back around, the chocolate gaze of the lithe woman beside him meeting his. They shared the same look of concern. He nodded to her, understanding and approval radiating from him. She nodded back, then returned her attention to the road.

"You still love her, don't you?" Kennedy flexed her shoulders, a primal territorial reaction she couldn't control. Oz's wolf nature always made him more open so such body language, and he worded his answer accordingly.

"Willow Rosenberg's not the kind of woman you ever forget." He waited a beat. "How-" his voice cracked, the first modulation Kennedy had heard all night-"How's she holding up? With everything, I mean."

"She's okay. She's.she'll get through it."

"You know, I talked to her when she was in England." Oz slid a Weezer CD into the player, adjusting the volume to a conversational level. Kennedy glanced over at him, biting her lip as she ran through all the horrible things that Oz could be about to mention.

"She told me something I'll never forget. She said that she almost killed herself, and would have, if she didn't have people who loved her around her."

"That was a long time ago," Kennedy felt her face flush, an odd defensiveness suffusing her.

"No, it wasn't." His breathing quickened for an instant, until he focused on his breath charka and calmed his aura with the Tibetan chants. "Kennedy, she needs people. I can't be that guy. Can you?"

Her full lips parted in a grin. "You dog," she laughed, "This was so the interrogation! You're not slick. But yes, I am that guy. I mean, not that 'guy', because I'm a chick, but I'm there for her. I'm always there for her. It's my calling."

"I admit to nothing."

Kennedy debated on her next question for a long minute in her mind, bobbing her head to the languid bass beat. There was something comforting about this guy, a sort of calmness that he brought with him. This was the complete opposite of her, of course, who incensed more than one person solely through her existence. What the hell, she thought, when's the next I'll get this chance.



"What was she like? I've only known her since all the bad stuff, with-" she gulped the name-"Tara, and, and end of the world, evil Willow, you know. Badness. But I never knew who she was before, and it's like there's this hole in my picture of her."

Oz smiled sadly at the memories that slowly ran across him like a cool stream. Him sitting in his van as she asked to make out with him, those big green eyes jealous and a little spiteful. Him waking up next to her flannel covered form, soft and innocent. The weird little smiles and animations her face would go through in the course of a sentence. He missed her, missed her so hard it hurt him. But he had learned that she was not his to miss any longer, and hadn't been in a long time. Nor would she ever be again. So he kept walking, and hoped he could finally have the courage never to call her back again, and open himself to that heartbreak yet again. But he could not deny her. Even if she was forever lost.

"Hey, hey," Kennedy soothed, noticing the distant look in his eye, "If you don't want to talk about it, that's cool. Actually, I don't wanna hear about it too much. I'm curious, but I'm afraid I'll hear that she was happy and never had any sadness and that all I got was the."


"Christ, I shouldn't even think that. That woman-she drives me fucking nuts! It's like, sometimes she doesn't want to tell me something, but I can just tell what's going on inside her head, just the cute little expressions she gets, but if I pry she just pretends that nothing's wrong!"

"That sounds familiar," Oz smiled. "Has she ever made up words for her emotions then expected you to know what they were?"

"Oh, god, don't get me started!" Kennedy's voice raised a handful of decibels, Oz's smile infectious. "I've pretty much figured out what half of her little words mean, I mean, an -y at the end usually means 'bad' in some way. Everything else is just context clues."

"Will's something else," Oz admitted with another almost chuckled.

"I'm actually pretty sure she's an alien. Like, somewhere there is this entire planet of super-brain adorable redheads, and from time to time they send one down to check the Earth's defenses."

"She still watches X-Files, huh?"

"Holy shit," Kennedy slapped the steering wheel, "You have no idea. It's like one of our rituals. After patrol, it's time to ogle Gillian Anderson."

"I always did wonder why she'd get so excited after each episode."

Kennedy's eyes went wide, her had reflexively clamping down over her mouth to stifle the laugh. The worst of it passed, she shared a huge, silent guffaw with Oz, who simply smiled that enigmatic smile of his. His eyes squinted, and he bit his knuckle in thought.

"You said patrol. Is that with Buffy?"

"No! Why, do I look like I need a Buffy-sitter? It's all solo, except when Will helps out."

"So you're a Slayer? Did.did Buffy?"

"What?" Kennedy swerved around an armadillo. "No, she's fine. On vacation, or something."

"Faith." Oz nodded, not particularly upset over the death of the delinquent.

"What about Faith?" Kennedy asked as she peered at the green interstate sign that read 'Dallas 48 miles'. "Faith's okay. She's a little insecure, but that's cool."

"Am I missing something?" Oz asked, genuinely confused.

"Oh," she sighed, "I can't believe she didn't tell you! Okay, Willow used her mojo to activate every potential slayer in the world. And one of them would be yours truly, that is, I! How cool is that?"

"So Willow." He pointed back at the grumbling witch. "She.huh." That was a new thing, the witchcraft. She'd only gotten into it seriously after the break up. He heard about her meltdown a year back, and wished he'd been able to tell himself that he hadn't seen it coming, but his powers of self-deception were never that strong. A part of himself was horribly angry at Tara, not for dying, but for encouraging her magic use for all those years. It was a feeling he had never really been able to shake, just subdue. He rustled through his backpack, once red but now a dusty rust, and grabbed a box of animal crackers to munch on. He pulled out the monkey, bit it's head off, then tossed the body down after it.

Kennedy eyed the box jealously. She hand darted out, snake-like, and begged for a morsel with open palm. Oz dropped a giraffe into her hand, which jerked back in as quick as it came, devouring the tiny creature with a gulp.

"Slayer: ancient Swahili for tiny girl who eats like horse," Oz joked around a mouthful of zoo animals.

"Whuddid I miss?"

A disheveled Willow poked her head over the seat, red hair jutting this way and that, rubbing her eyes with the backs of her hands. She yawned once, cat-like, stretching her arms over her head until they hit the roof, then looked up quizzically at the interruption to her morning wake-up routine.

"Space monkeys," Oz nonplussed. "They came and stole our brains."

"They replaced them with animal crackers," Kennedy nodded, then noticed the askance look Willow gave her. "What, it's a thing. A brain cracker thing."

"Space monkeys?" Willow whimpered, then gingerly probed the crown of her head. "No, no space monkeys. Space monkeys bad, very bad. Leave Willow-brain alone." She yawned again, shaking a bit of the awakening funk from her head, thankfully animal cracker free. "What time is it? Goddess, I'm all grooky."

Oz and Kennedy shot each other a conspiratorial wink.

"Sleep well?" Oz asked.

"No, not at all," Willow mumbled, scratching her back and wishing Kennedy could reach around and do the job for her. "It's like I haven't had any sleep in days. And plus I'm all crampy, and my head is sorta crooked, and I think I was dreaming something really bad, and what time was it?"

"Four-thirty," Kennedy pointed at the clock, "You've been asleep for about three hours. You sure you're okay?" her voice softened, compassion flowing into it. "If you want to doze off again, I can get Oz to drive."

"No," she halted, cleared her throat with a swig of lukewarm grape juice, and continued, "no, not a bit. I'm beginning to remember that dream, and, hah, I wish I didn't."

"Talk about it?" Oz asked.

"Hah!" Willow's laugh held the precipice of a cliff in it, as it had the last twenty-four hours. "No sir, I would not. Not right now."

Kennedy ruffled the dark greasy curls of her hair, widening her eyes to work all the sleep out of them. "Well, if you're gonna be up, do you mind if I hop on the snooze train?"

"That's gonna be kinda tough," Willow lilted the last two words playfully, "seein' as you're the one driving."

Kennedy snapped to awareness, the light blue and pink desert sky brightening at an almost glacial pace. It seemed like the process had started as soon as the sun dipped below the horizon, the celestial plane nothing more than a cunningly painted glass sphere, rotated around the Earth. The sphere seemed to stop rotating for a moment, and the Earth shuddered in its rotation. She blinked hard, the sleep deprivation twisting her senses like warm putty. She pulled over to the side of the road without preamble, slumping into the steering column like a shooting victim, and sighing out: "Oz, drive this thing before my ass passes out."

They switched seats, Willow and Oz in the front, Kennedy cramming more hotel refuse onto the floor and against the opposite door, burrowing herself out a respectable cot on the spacious rear bench. She curled herself into a loose ball, grumbled her disapproval (she was a woman used to sleeping spread out on a sizable bed, a luxury she guarded ruthlessly), and drifted silently into sleep.

Oz adjusted all the required objects to suit him. Kennedy was as short as he, but habitually dropped the seats back so that she was peering over the steering wheel like a white-haired old lady. He, however, still missed his van, gone now these two long years, a victim of a vengeful were bear in Alaska, it's insides torn out like a seal made of oil and wire. He sat high in the driver's chair, running his callused hands over his tawny beard. It was his one indulgence in a Napoleon complex.

Willow sat very proper and lady-like in her chair for all of three minutes, then slumped into it's engulfing folds as she passively surveyed the jagged line of distant hills. She tried very hard not to think about the dream, but it seemed that sleep was a buffer, and not a breach, the sensations transmitted across the aether jumping just under her skin. It was the burning of pine needles in fall, the scent fluttering across her skin, like some synasthesia patient forced to forever mix their sense inputs. Such was the indefinable nature of the fresh pain that washed her out, mixing with the growling spasms in her abdomen. All the sensation, she realized, filtered through Tara, her fear and panic a newfound and heart-rending component. That meant one thing: she was cogent, and knew what was happening to her. Willow slammed her fist down on the window, her impotence mutating in to a frustrated rage. Kennedy said something insensate, and Oz turned his head to her.

"Tara?" he asked as simple as ever.

Willow nodded, almost too enraged to speak clearly. That rage found itself in her helpless, deflated laugh, not the tinkling tones Oz had once savored, and in truth still did. She looked over to him, smiling in a desperate way, all teeth and gums and no mirth but trying to hide it, and felt the smile crumble beneath the force of his knowing and immobile gaze. That bastard, she thought, he still knows me.

"I think it's safe to say that my world had turned upside-down." Willow finished off her grape juice, dropped the plastic container into the swaying Hardees bag that served as a trash bag and doubled as a french fry grease covered reminder of their fare this past day. "It's just that for the first time in, like, forever, things are starting to really feel right between the two of us." Oz didn't need Willow's sideways glance to the backseat to guess her subject.

"We were really getting along, and we were really starting to connect. I feel comfortable with her, and with me being with her. We've started to carve out little interlocking parts from the soap of our lives, like in those old prison movies when the wrongly accused bad guy carves the gun out of soap? And I sort was actually looking forward to moving in with her in Cleveland. And then-blammo, welcome to Sucksville, population: me." She finished her rant with a huge intake of breath, her face actually visibly reddening as the words tumbled out.

"It's really Tara, then." Oz's habit of phrasing questions as statements always irked Willow, and this time was no different. She thought that a question should be questioning, with a 'what' or 'how' in it, but Oz just dropped those question bombs with no question mark guides.

"I know. It's like.okay, if you ever are playing a song, and you forget the tune or whatever right before you start playing, but the instant the drummer hits his crashy things you remember it all, and you just know how the song goes? It's like that." Willow expectantly watched Oz, who just furrowed his brow and nodded thoughtfully.

"A yes would have sufficed," he softy smiled.

"I'm worried about Kenn," Willow spoke after a moment's contemplation. "She's trying so hard to be there for me, and I'm trying really hard to figure out what's going to happen, but I just can't come up with a happy ending for everyone." She picked at the edge of her peasant blouse, a deep burgundy affair that was a little threadbare. "Tara's alive. And, just to make it harder, I know she's still her. But I'm not the her she remembers, not by a long shot. I mean, I've, I've *done* things, and not just bad things, but good, good things. Like, Kennedy-sized things." She added wryly, "Like Kennedy."

"I like her." Oz ignored the last comment.

"I gathered that," Willow noted, smiling truthfully, tongue between her teeth, "seein' as how you didn't try to eat this girlfriend." She caught his eye. "But seriously, that means a lot to me. Even if she is a royal pain in the-butt. A royal pain in the butt."

"Funny you mention that," Oz's latent mischievous streak showed itself, "She said the same thing."

"What?" Willow's jaw dropped, aghast. "She said what about me? Oh, no, she's not happy with me! I knew it, I knew this day was just gonna get worse. Goddess, how could I be so-"

"Willow," oz cut her off with his calming voice, "That girl loves you." He glanced over to Willow, the woman subdued by his tone, which never brooked argument. "And I'm coming with you."

"What? You are? Why?" Willow machine-gun fired out, the strumming of passing trees very obvious to her.

"I'm coming with you, I am, and because you need the backup. And I owe Tara an apology for trying to kill her the last time we met."

"Oz," Willow said in earnest, "Tell me there is some girl out there pining for your swift return."

"Not as of yet," he whispered.

They sped past the sign welcoming them into the state of Louisiana, the trees thicker and the change in altitude popping their ears. As the sun rose, it wasn't over empty desert, but over dense forests, interspersed with great rolling plains of cotton, like white and green clouds inverted and bursting from the ground. Willow and Oz stiffened. Oz was the first one to speak.

"Into the lion's den," he said, and meant it. But there was nothing he could deny Willow, spoken or unspoken.

July 16 th , 2003

It was very cold when Tara awoke. She pulled her spindly arms against herself, the light fabric of her floral print sun dress, tulips and daisies stained with a dingy yellow fluid, did nothing to sooth the chill in her bones. The action wore her out, the sensation of bony fingertips rubbing wrinkled skin pulling her from her lapse in cogency and grounded her situation in the hard, splintered table that served as her bed.

Tara's sleep had been fitful, staring and stopping at odd intervals. She would awake in spasms as some shard of wood found its way beneath her flesh, or wake shivering as a sourceless breeze wafted through the room. Nothing felt real, that first bout of sleep, and the dreams, they came and went as thieves in the night, snatching away bits of her blissful ignorance, laying out events past before her eyes, events she didn't want to see. She saw a winsome redhead sit in front of a grave and try to hard not to cry, fight it with whatever it was that fueled her then, and collapse mere seconds later, mourners walking by her and each one wanting to say the same thing ('It will get easier to bear', they would say) but none had the courage nor the temerity to approach the weeping Willow. She saw a lithe, quick, dark-haired, dark-complexioned woman, no more than a girl, ride the redhead past the point of exhaustion, calling each other's names and crumpling like drifting parachutes to the bed. Tara didn't want to see this, she wanted it to be a vague and shimmering 'known' resting somewhere outside her field of view, like the car crash she passed on the interstate, her view locked straight ahead, just pretending she didn't see the man surrounded by paramedics even though she knew that he feebly wailed and clutched at his spilled intestines. But sleep gave form to her knowing, gave it mass and weight, and taught her the difference between knowing and understanding. And so she slept, in between the tears and gasps.

She turned her head, the noisesome grinding and cracking of her neck a welcome distraction from the images that struck her. She needed to get her bearings, to learn the layout of the room. She would escape, of this she was certain. Either she would escape, or Willow would come to rescue her. So she needed to be prepared.

Her vision came into focus first, drawing out sharp lines to delineate object from one another, instead of the pencil smudges that greeted her before. She was in a basement, or a dungeon, that much was plain. She expected cobwebs, or maybe even manacles, something to mark her space as more than a simple cellar: as if being in some fairy tale tower would vindicate her recalcitrance to escape. The walls were rough-hewn stone, gray and brown in patches, mortar oozing out frozen between them. The ceiling was most likely the floor of something else, wooden beams crossing at regular intervals, rotund objects with a plastic sheen from centuries of wear. Tara has seen wood like that before, in her mother's room. Her baby bassinet, passed down from mother to daughter for the better part of a hundred years, bore the same smoothness that marked the support timbers.

Tara forced her head around the rest of the room, her cell. A creaky and warped staircase resting along the farthest wall lead up to what she assumed to be a door. The steps danced mockingly in the wavering yellow glow that seemed to seep from every surface in the room. Come, climb me, they called, take your flight and be free. Tara whimpered at the images, her, proud and climbing the stairs, sending her captors rolling like scattered coins with a simple spell, finding Willow and living happily ever after. A dream, an adolescent one at that. She couldn't even sit up.

It didn't stop her from trying, though. Her first attempt almost smashed her head against the table. She pushed herself up to her elbows, thin skin straining beneath the boney joints. With a deep inhalation, Tara squeezed her stomach muscles, pulling her torso up, up further, until it hit the apex. Then, her exhausted abdomen gave out like a suspension bridge failing, and she unceremoniously slapped the table with the flat of her back. Every inch of her wretched body ached. 'Of course it does,' Tara chided herself, 'your muscles have been rotting for a year.' She took a moment to rest, then, with three deep breaths, rolled herself over to her left with one heroic twist.

The table was not built for such movement, being both too tall and too narrow. Tara fell, the table tipping her out into empty space, hair trailing behind her like a tawny kite string. She landed with a splash, tepid water spraying around her in a halo that extinguished a handful of the floating tea candles. The rest were sent into wild undulations, warping the shadows of Tara jerking her head (morbidly ponderous at the end of her taffy thin neck) out of the water, coughing and shuddering. The liquid chilled her to the core even as she fought to expel the foreign material that tasted of ash from her throat.

Tara found her breath again, mother's hours and hours of singing lessons paying off with interest. Her head hovered just above the sloshing broth of dead leaves and thick, gray sludge. The lightest touch, no more forceful than a feather, brushed along her forearm, caressing her, then stopped at her wrist. It (for she had to assume some motive behind such intimate movement) bit into the vulnerable flesh there, latching on, pulling fluid from her already withered flesh. Tara lifted her arm, balancing precariously on her other elbow, and saw the black, slick tube-like creature jutting from her underarm, like some new growth, bloated with scarlet blood. Her hand trembled as she gripped the creature around its body, moisture seeping through her fingers. She squeezed her eyes shut, and yanked it away with a moist sucking sound: pulling a shoe from mud.

The lamprey held fast, and it was Tara's new skin that tore first, a thin strip from her forearm, bright red flesh underneath, then welling up with blood. She bit her lip to keep from crying out, or moved as she would to bite her lip, and found only the flimsiest flap of skin. The nerves danced along her arm, held above the fluid carpet like an offering. She fought it no longer, her voice forming a thin wail that lacked all but the most essential components of what Tara recognized as her own. She clamped up as soon as the cry escaped, her rational mind panicking, terrified of drawing her captors to her. The blood on her arm pooled, thick ruby drops painting the muck, driving the fouler denizens into a frenzy. Indistinct black shapes slithered around each other, churning the detritus at the bottom of the pond into a thick, brown soup.

Tara set her jaw. There was no way, none, that a little pain was going to stop her. One thought played itself in an endless loop in her mind: get out, find Willow, Willow will know what to do. Get out; Find Willow, Willow Will Know What to Do. Her mantra cycled again, grinding to a halt. Get out. Easier said than done, and in her condition, not that easily said. But. but her captors didn't even bother to post a guard. That was standard bad guy procedure around the Hellmouth. She puller herself a single body's length closer to the stairway, past a set of canisters filled with a greenish sour-smelling fluid that was disturbingly familiar. She didn't pause to consider this, for she was in Get Out mode, and couldn't flag or fail, even if her arm was on fire and leaving little bloody breadcrumbs for the invertebrates to follow.

They didn't leave a guard. This was a good thing, she told herself, it meant they were incompetent. A tiny voice in the back of her head spoke out in protest. No, it means they don't expect you to be able to walk up those stairs. Tara, that is, Positive Thinking Tara (who she always imagined dressed as a schoolmarm) told her to bolster her efforts, to catch them unawares and leave them scratching their heads when they found an empty basement. She allowed herself a Wicked Tara Smile at the thought. Or, she almost did. Pragmatic Tara sat atop her other shoulder, and calmly pointed out the one tiny, tiny problem with her plan: she had no idea where she was.

That's when the cellar door creaked open.

She deer-in-headlights froze. Some primitive part of her brain took over, told her to be very still and very quiet, and they might pass her by.

Heavy footsteps moved down the stairs, clomp, clomp clomp. A whine, a high-pitched, generator whine, slowly increased volume behind her ears. She hoped, prayed that it would break her paralysis, but it only seemed to enhance it: white noise to mirror her body's rebellion.

Thick, powerful legs descended the stairs, blue jeans caked in mud, and Tara knew in her guts that it was grave earth.

She slowly slid backward, her frail arms trembling with the exertion. Where she would go, she didn't know. She just felt like she had to run, to hide. The static in her ears thickened, roiled and overwhelmed her thoughts.

A massive, deeply brown arm slid down the railing, grey t-shirt taut across a broad chest.

Tara kicked a fleshy tendril out of the way as she squeezed herself into the corner, hard and sharp stone enfolding her in its loveless embrace. She was a little girl again, hiding in the kitchen, hoping that they'd ignore her today. If she just thought small thoughts.

Big Creak carried the thick, cotton comforter over his shoulder. It was his mother's, or someone's mothers', by the pastel patches that adorned it. She told him that she was buried with it, as a reminder to keep warm, but she wanted Miss Tara to have it. Come to think of it, it was unlikely that the gray corpse was his mother. Big Creak sometimes got confused about those sorts of things. It wasn't important, though. What was important was that poor little Miss Tara be nice and warm. Warm like a mother hen. Maybe Miss Tara was his mother? She'd make a fine mommy. She'd always know just the right songs to sing, and the right cookies to bake, and be filled with love and hugs for her baby boy.

But that wasn't right. He was older than Miss Tara, and he was fairly sure that you couldn't be older than your own mother. Still, it wouldn't pay to be rude to a houseguest. After all, what did the Bible say? Something about being all hospitable to guests, because some might be angels in disguise. Well, if Miss Tara was an angel, her disguise was thin. Big Creak chuckled to himself. He'd have to remember to tell her that. She took compliments like a fine lady.

He took the last few steps in one stride, splashing into the tepid water with nary a second thought.

"Miss Tara," he whispered, not wanting her to wake should she be sleeping, "I brought you some blankets." Big Creak's eyes adjusted to the dimness. He gasped like an old woman when he saw the overturned pallet. His heart beat that much faster when he saw the red blood in the murky water, like dye in sour milk.

"Oh, no," he rubbed his child-like hands together, licking the sweat off his upper lip. "Miss Tara?" he called out, searching the room in a panic. "Miss Tara, you okay?"

Tara didn't move. She just squeezed herself harder against the wall, her rent arm dripping little pools of lifeblood into the water, drawing more and more leeches, lampreys, and tin, black eels to her side. She blocked out the writing and slithering around her, hoping that the man-giant would ignore her, even though she was only three paces away from him. If she just focused on not being there, if she just wished herself away hard enough, maybe some deity would take pity on her.

None did.

The man's big, round head caught sight of her like a machine cog falling into place. He rushed over to her, his mass making great waves and bloody messes of the little animals in the water. He dropped to one knee before her, a comical suitor.

"Miss Tara!" His tone was that of one reproaching a simple child. "What in the name o' the good Lord are you doin' up an' about like this?" He reached out to her. His hand wavered for a moment above her, Tara's soft blue eyes following the hovering limb like a snake charmer watching its ward. Big Creak's expression rippled, conflict flowing across his open face. His hand drifted to Tara's hair, gingerly stroking one dirty blonde strand.

He ran his fingers through her brittle locks, his smile darkening, growing more laviscious. Tara felt her heart plummet into her stomach, splashing acid around her insides. It was an inopportune time to realize she was hungery. The mountian of flesh before her seemed to take her silence as an invitation, and dipped his head to her, lips puckered and dry.

Tara recoiled, whining like the cornered animal she was. The man's big, rust colored eyes registered confusion. He reached out again, slowly at first, then darting in to clamp an iron grasp on her ruined wrist. White-hot pain shot through her arm, Big Creak's fingers bruising even as she yanked her arm back. She let out a howl, thrashing about with as much wildness and ardor as she could manage. She dug her ragged fingernails into his arm, raking them across and growling.

It was Big Creak's turn to recoil, snatching his hand back like it touched a hot stove. He slapped a hand over his wound, brow knitting together and mouth gaping in shock. Tara imagined she saw a thin line of black liquid run from between his fingers.

Big Creak's features shifted slowly from simple surprise to anger, then to rage. He bore his teeth in a bestial snarl, wrapping a hand through Tara's filthy blonde locks. She kicked and screamed, her voice gelatinous and unrecognizable. Big Creak yanked her painfully from the safety of her corner.

"Punish you, gonna punish you!" he bellowed, the only comprehensible part of an unending string of words he uttered as he dragged the flailing woman across the floor. She tried to kick at him, but her ruined body could only flop around and upset the animals in the water. He only grew more enraged by her thrashings, flinging her bodily against the stairway, her teeth clacking together and a dull roar of pain pulsing from her spine.

Tara entered a blind panic, her sight literally darkening as the dim form of Big Creak pulled back a fist. She was certain that the blow would break her neck should it fall, and her newly renewed life would be forfeit all due to an unstable table. The hiss of static in her mind increases twofold, into a chorus of dentist drills grinding into her molars. She would die, and go into that paradoxical omnipresent nothingness, just another soul floating in the spiritual plane. She didn't want that, she wanted to live, she wanted to see Willow again, and eat pancakes, and hug Dawn, and all the other things that were stolen from her by an idiot child's stray bullet. For the first time in years, Tara became angry. The pain, the humiliation of years and years of torment came rushing back to her, and then that final joke, that random, pointless death, warped it all into a bitter, foul bile that settled in her stomach. It just wasn't fair. She stared at the dainty fist on the end of that thick arm, and dared it to end her again.

The blow came like a gunshot, thunder deafening her, sending that ever-present hiss into Doppler-like oscillations. It was the smell that dispelled her delusion: cordite, lingering and sweet, painted the air. Tara watched as the fist never moved, and she ridiculously thought that the blow had literally knocked her out of synch with time, only to be beaten again and again for all eternity. It occurred to her that the sound was in fact an actual firearm report, the sound sending waves of remembrance creeping into her mind. Big Creak simply stood there, hand flexing like a dying spider, eyes wide and furious. 'Please let it be Willow,' Tara prayed, ignoring the idiocy of her girl ever using a gun, 'Please, Diana, let my rescuer be Willow.'

"Creak," called a voice over Tara's shoulder that most definitely not Willow, "I think you'd best step outside right the fuck now."

Big Creak stared down the barrel of his brother's pistol, a titanic .50 caliber weapon that was more than capable of blowing a hole in him the size of an orange. Mr. Creak stared right back at his shaking brother, calmly pulling back the hammer with a silence-splitting 'click'. The sound was enough to rouse Big Creak from his stupor; he looked at the crisp and clean cut figure before him. He shifted his bulk slightly, uncertain as to why, only that he couldn't let his brother win this easily.

"Don't try to test me, boy," Mr. Creak steadied his aim with both hands, making himself so still he could have been made of stone. "I will cap your big ass right here and now. And that'll be me doing you a favor."

Tara watched as some recognition passed through Big Creak's eyes. He held up his wounded arm, the diffuse light from the floating candles disguising the nature of the ichor that flowed from his injury.

"You see what this little cunt did!" His voice was high-pitched with adrenaline.

"Looks to me like you shouldn't have laid your hands on her," Mr. Creak calmly reasoned.

"I was bein' nice!" Big Creak sounded genuinely hurt, even on the brink of hysterics. "I was bringin' her a nice warm blanket, and now it's all wet! An' she can keep it, the stupid-bitch!" He pointed at Tara, tears now flowing freely. He cradled his arm, whimpered pathetically, and headed up the stairs, shouldering past his brother.

Mr. Creak holstered his weapon in the simple black sheathe at his hip. He grunted as he stepped into the water, walking around the prone Tara, then righting the table.

"Th-thank y-y-y-" the rush of terror made her skip and stumble over her words.

He didn't respond, just walked to loom over her. His eyes, the same color as his brother's, scanned her from head to toe with no more passion than a man inspecting an apple for bruises. She searched those eyes for the slightest hint of compassion, of any human feeling towards her. She knew the answer even before she asked the question. She was only property, goods to be taken care of. With a single, sharp motion, he drew a white handkerchief from his pocket, then extended his other hand, palm up.

Tara stared at it for a second, then gave him her injured limb. He wrapped the cloth around the wound, pulling it tight to stop the blood.

"We'll get some antibiotics to make sure that doesn't get infected," he said dispassionately.

Tara's mind searched for questions. It was confounding how her capacity to reason escaped her at the moment.

"Wh-where am I?"

"Louisiana," He said, scooping her up in his arms. He turned his nose up at the stench of brine and formaldehyde. "About fifty miles south of Baton Rouge."

Tara nodded, absorbing the information as he set her down on the table. She didn't fight, didn't make a sound, all rebellion washed out of her for the day. She formed another question, and then found the courage to ask it. Tara knew how to read people, and unless she was sorely mistaken, this man held her in no contempt, but rather saw her as a mild burden.

"What did you do to me?"

Mr. Creak raised an eyebrow. "We brought you back to to speak."

"Why," she whispered, looking down at her skeletal form, "like this?"

"Beggars can't be choosers." He turned to leave, then froze. The noise in Tara's head intensified briefly, like locusts swarming in her mind. She tried to pinpoint the source of the noise, to narrow her range of awareness. It wasn't hard: the static shoved out the place in her mind that she dedicated to feeling the magical energies around her. Was she shut out? No, no, that wasn't right. It was more like she was sitting next to a speaker with a microphone. She was getting feedback. Magical feedback.

The bent and crooked form of Granny stepped out of the shadow, out of the very corner that Tara had crouched in not but two minutes ago. She stepped across the water, the gray shawl wrapped around her, tossed over her shoulder like a World War One fighter ace. She dismissed Mr. Creak with a nod of her head. The man stepped lively up the stairs, which groaned in a garbled musical scale.

The old woman hobbled over to the side of Tara, her hands smoothing out the girl's tangled hair. A sweet, but empty smile made the wrinkles on her face triple.

"Looks like you had quite an adventure today, young lady."

Tara just laughed bitterly. It was all she could do at the moment.

"You can' go gettin' y'self all busted up," Granny continued, gesturing to her bandaged arm. "I know you don't quite see it now, but the Lord got's a plan for you. Your purpose has yet to be served here."

Tara closed her eyes. She tried to block out this nightmare, just to go to sleep and dream these monsters away. She grabbed hold of her one hope, her one chance. Somewhere in the depths of her soul, she felt with absolute certainty her love's presence. She felt her fear, her anger, but most of all, her love. Her devotion so absolute that she would knock down the gates of hell to be together. Tara laughed loudly, making eye contact with the withered old woman.

"She's coming for me, you know," she croaked, her voice still unused to speech. "She's coming for me, and none of you can stop her. You might want to think about letting me go."

"Oh, Tara," Granny clucked. "Oh, Tara, Tara, Tara. I hope you're right. In fact, I'm counting on it."


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