Disclaimer in part 1

Text enclosed in * * represents thoughts.

High Noon
by: Rebecca Carefoot

Part 6: Falling

The Anointed One winced as Buffy strode angrily out into the sun. A little embarrassed by his reaction, he quickly reminded himself that the sun's light could not hurt him through her; and that for some reason he still could not understand, it did not hurt her either. He assumed that it involved some ritual or the fact that Angel had sired her. Whatever the reason, it made her an even more valuable asset.

As she hurried toward her school, he thought back to the scene in Angel's apartment a moment earlier. It was disgusting how they treated each other, all lovey dovey, saccharine sweetness. The boy shuddered. Through the bond he could sense everything that Buffy did or felt. Although he could not see through her eyes, his sense of her surroundings was fairly accurate. It was accurate enough that he had thought he would vomit as they cuddled each other.

His lips curled up into a smile as he thought of how quickly their loving banter had turned to anger. He hadn't been sure how complete his control of the Slayer would be, but it seemed as though he had Buffy firmly in his grasp. In fact, he had been surprised at how easy it had been to separate her from her lover. *She must be more weakened than I realized by her bloodlust,* the Anointed concluded. She hadn't even seemed to know that he was influencing her; she accepted his thoughts as her own.

*Of course, she may become aware of my control,* Colin mused. *But by the time she does I will be rid of Spike...and I will have had a chance to tighten my hold on her.* He nodded slightly as Buffy entered the school, heading straight to her first class. *For now she offers almost no resistance...and soon enough even her resistance will accomplish nothing.*

* * * * * *
Buffy sat uncomfortably in her first class, anger still raging under her skin. She had barely made it to class on time. As the bell rang, her first feeling had been relief that she had made it without being tardy. Her second feeling was wondering why she was so relieved. Who cared about school when there were more important things going on? And she didn't even have her backpack, so she was pen and paperless. What was the point of being in class at all?

Through all of her classes she sat unable to take notes even if she had wanted to. It would have been easy enough to borrow someone else's pen and a sheet of paper. But she didn't care about notes or finals. Instead she simply sat, running over and over the fight with Angel in her mind.

*He IS all the things I said he was,* she told herself forcefully. *I had every right to say the things I did...and I was right to dump him. He is only worthy of contempt...and he proved that by siding against the Anointed.* Still, she felt the slightest twinge of guilt. She had seen the hurt in his eyes as her hate-filled words splashed over him. She hadn't really wanted to hurt him. She had never wanted to hurt him. *He deserves it,* she thought. *I was stupid to love him, but I don't anymore...and any pain he felt was no more than what he deserved.* A part of her felt sure it was a lie, but that part was swept away under the reassuring certainty that she had done the right thing.

Thinking of their fight, thinking of Angel, began to make her angry as she remembered his inability to see things her way. *He'll do whatever Spike tells him to,* she thought scornfully. *Angelus reduced to that sniveling wreck...and he had the audacity to question me, to criticize the Anointed One. He dared to insult Colin. How could he even argue that Spike would be a better ruler with a straight face?* Buffy shook her head in disbelief. *Why am I so sure?* she suddenly wondered. *Why am I siding with the Anointed when I know he's evil?* And the answer came, erasing all doubts. *Because he will lead the vampires well.*

She returned to contemplating Angel and found herself growing wild with hatred. Soon enough the bell released Buffy to lunch. She stalked toward the library, struggling to control the rising tide of loathing for everything that surrounded her.

She opened the door of the library forcefully, slamming it behind her as hard as she could in an attempt to take some of her anger out on the wood. Xander and Giles looked up from the books stacked on the table in the center of the room, startled by the loud clatter she created.

"Problem, Buff?" Xander asked calmly. She glowered at him, striding closer to the two guys. "Ok...you're the second female to put me under the silent treatment since yesterday," Xander continued, when he saw no answer was forthcoming. He looked a little forlornly at the empty seat beside him, the one that would normally be occupied by Willow. "Should I take that as a hint? Am I just too repulsive for words?"

"Is there news?" Giles asked cautiously, attempting to ignore Xander's moping. Buffy dropped unceremoniously into a seat, crossing her arms over her chest.

"I dumped Angel," Buffy finally retorted bluntly.

"Pardon?" Giles said, his eyes widening in disbelief.

"You did...you dumped...you..." Xander stammered, his heart skipping a beat at her words. Finally he managed to spit out something coherent. "Why?"

"He's pathetic, and I couldn't stand to look at his stupid, brooding face for one more minute," Buffy told them through clenched teeth.

"What do you mean?" Xander said, unconvinced. "I thought his brooding was sexy...I mean I thought that YOU thought that. I myself don't find him sexy..." He trailed off when no one came to his rescue.

"I hate him," Buffy said simply. "He's not worthy of me...or of anyone."

"Where on earth is this coming from?" Giles asked, shaking his head in confusion. "You two have come through so much, and you were so in love. Whatever fight you've had I'm sure can be mended."

"Well I'm not in love anymore," Buffy spat. "And I don't want to mend anything. It's over, and I'm glad." *Am I?* she wondered silently. *Why would I be glad?*

"Um...Buff. Much as I've dreamed of this moment, I have to agree with Giles here. I mean, you love Angel more than anybody. You have since the moment you first saw him."

"I do not," Buffy pouted sullenly. "He is a traitor to his people, and he chose Spike over the Anointed." She looked at Giles as if expecting him to understand her reasoning. The look of confusion in the librarian's eyes proved he did not.

"You dumped him because he kills vampires?" Xander asked in disbelief. "I hate to break this to you...but you kill vampires, Buffy. You kind of do it for a living."

"Quite so," Giles agreed. "And I cannot see why you would be so disturbed by his choice of villains. They are both our enemies, Buffy. We don't necessarily prefer one to the other."

"Why am I the only one that gets it?" Buffy asked angrily. "We KNOW the Anointed One. He's a good leader. And we know nothing about Spike. He could be much more of a threat to us than the Anointed is."

"But maybe Spike would be easier to handle," Xander interrupted. "You said yourself, we don't know anything about him. So how can you be so sure it would be better to keep the Annoying One in power?"

"Spike is an intruder," Buffy nearly shouted. "He doesn't belong here! He can't just come barging in and try to take over."

"We cannot afford fondness for either of our enemies," Giles interjected calmly. "We must attempt to defeat both of them."

"Everyone keeps saying that," Buffy sneered. "But no one has a clue how to do it."

"What would you suggest?" Giles asked, beginning to feel impatience at his Slayer's attitude. "Just barging in and fighting Spike, I suppose. Dying for the sake of keeping your sworn enemy in power. Wonderful."

"And that would be sarcasm," Xander informed the group. "Well used, Giles."

"Shut up, Xander," Buffy said, glaring. After roasting Xander for a second, she turned her glare on her Watcher. "As a matter of fact that doesn't sound like a bad plan at all. Only I don't expect to die. I'll be there when the two of them meet...and I'll make sure the better ruler wins."

"Why would you want the better leader to win, Buffy?" Giles asked. Buffy only stared at him silently. "We don't want someone who can organize the vampires and lead them well. We want no leader at all...or the worst possible leader we can find. The weaker the vampire who leads them is, the weaker the resistance the vampires offer you will be." Buffy refused to answer, her mouth set stubbornly, her mind closed against the possibility that Giles was right. She had nothing to counter his arguments with, but she refused to believe that she was wrong. After waiting a moment in silence, Giles realized she was not planning to answer his challenge. "How will you know when the confrontation will take place?" he asked, challenging Buffy's statement in another way.  This time she did answer him.

"I'll know," she replied simply. "Spike is the challenger; he'll come to the Anointed's lair. It's going to be soon. Everything is in place."

"Not to rain on your parade...er, plan...but how the heck are you going to get past two warring factions of vampires?" Xander asked.

"That's none of your concern," Buffy answered.

"I can't let you do this," Giles spoke firmly. "It's an extremely dangerous and fool-hardy course of action." Buffy stared at him, a challenge in her eyes as she advanced toward him. A growl escaped her throat, and he backed up a step cautiously. She brushed against him, knocking him back another step, on her way out of the library.

"Try and stop me, mortal," she hissed. Giles narrowed his eyes at that remark, exchanging a glance with Xander. The boy shrugged in puzzlement, and hurried through the library doors after his friend.

"Hey Buffy, wait up," he called after the retreating Slayer. She kept walking, offering no sign that she had heard him. Undaunted, he jogged after her, still calling her name. She walked a little faster, but he caught up with her, grabbing her arm to force her to face him. She turned slowly, then stared pointedly at his hand on her arm. Quickly he removed the offending hand.

"I don't know what's up with you today, Buffy," he began. "But you've got to help me."

"Why would I help you?" she asked.

"Because you're my bud," Xander answered, raising his eyebrows slightly to imply that she should know that one. "That's what buds do." She looked unconvinced, but he plunged determinedly onward. "And because Willow's mad at me. She's really upset about what happened between us in the graveyard, with the...you know...with the licking." He swallowed nervously, then continued. "I need you to talk to her...tell her it didn't mean anything. It was the bloodlust...tell her that."

"No," Buffy said, turning away.

"Buffy, I need her. I need Willow. You've got to help me get her back," Xander pleaded.

"No," Buffy said again. "I don't care about you and Willow. I don't care about your trivial human problems."

"Okay..." Xander began in disbelief. "Strangely enough, I find myself in the position of reminding you that you're a human too, Buff." Buffy hesitated, then spoke decisively.

"No," she denied. "I'm not."

"Being the Slayer doesn't mean you aren't human," Xander argued. "You bleed just the same as us, you go to school, you love, you hate...you die. You're human."

"I'll never die," Buffy said firmly. "But you will. And it will be soon if you don't get away from me." Xander watched angrily as she continued down the hallway.

"Where are you going?" he called.

"It doesn't matter," she replied. "Just away from here. This place stinks of weakness and humanity." She grimaced, as if the place offended her, and hurried out into the sunlight.

Xander watched her go, trying not to be angry or hurt by her total disregard for him. *That is not Buffy,* he told himself. *Buffy would never ditch me like that...or say that stuff about not being a human. Something bad is going on here...* He hurried back to the library and to Giles.

When he burst through the doors, he found that Giles had seated himself in one of the chairs and was nervously wiping his brow.

"I'm not alone on this, am I?" Xander asked, when the librarian looked up. "That wasn't Buffy was it?"

"It certainly did not s-seem like her. The things she said..." Giles looked up. "She is headstrong, but never this irrational. She was so angry...I've never seen her so enraged."

"And when did she become the president of the Anointed One's fan club?" Xander added.

"Hmmm...." Giles muttered thoughtfully. "Despite the less than technical phrasing, you may have hit on something, Xander."

"Hey, cool for me!" Xander exclaimed. "What was it that I figured out by the way?" Giles gave Xander an amused look, then clarified his statement.

"The explanation for Buffy's odd behavior may lie in the Anointed One," Giles began. "His power is in controlling...other vampires usually. I've never heard of him controlling a human by..." Suddenly Giles stopped speaking. He inhaled sharply and hit his forehead with the heel of his hand. "Of course," he said excitedly. "That's it!" He hurried over to a book which he knew contained several prophecies relating to the Anointed. Xander followed closely behind, trying to get the Watcher's attention.

"Wait a second there before you go all research guy in action on me..." Giles looked at Xander impatiently. "What's the big 'Eureka!' deal here, Giles?" he asked. "I'm still just smiling and nodding blankly."

"The Anointed can control vampires," Giles explained. "Buffy's recently become some sort of temporary vampire hybrid." Xander blinked as he registered the knowledge. "It's quite possible...in fact, it's quite likely...that the Anointed One has gained some measure of control over Buffy."

"That would definitely explain that 'you stupid mortals suck' attitude," Xander agreed. His eyes widened in sudden fear. "What if she can't break his hold on her? She won't be dead so no new Slayer will be called...but she won't be fighting the vampires."

"Worst case scenario...If we cannot..." Giles hesitated unhappily. "If we can find no way to free her from his thrall I will be forced to end her life." Xander shook his head, grabbing on to the Watcher's sleeve.

"Giles," he began, his voice panic stricken.

"I know," Giles answered. "I don't want it to happen any more than you do. We will first try to find a way to break his hold on her...and truth be told his hold should fade as her vampiric tendencies do." Xander released his hold on Giles' sleeve, beginning to feel calmer. "The problem will be making sure that the Anointed does not discover how temporary Buffy's condition is and try to make her a vampire permanently...although to do that he would have to kill her. A new Slayer would be called..."

"You're saying the Anointed doesn't know Buffy's not really a vamp?" Xander interrupted when Giles didn't seem to be coming to a stopping point. "How stupid is he?"

"He has no way of knowing," Giles answered. "He knows Buffy and Angel tricked him, but he probably thinks that Angel simply turned Buffy into a vampire before going down there to fight him."

"Yeah, okay, I can see that," Xander conceded. "But that wouldn't explain the stuff like how she can still get a suntan."

"Yes," Giles smiled weakly. "I'm sure that surprised him. He may not understand why yet, but it's clues like that which may lead him to discover the true nature of Buffy's vampire side." He paused for a second, then continued a little anxiously. "This is all assuming that he doesn't already know that Buffy's state is temporary, of course."

"So basically the feeling here is we have to do something fast," Xander suggested.

"That would be best," Giles agreed, turning back to his book. "But we must not forget about the upcoming confrontation between Spike and the Anointed."

"Great...and Buffy's kamikaze plan."

"We must discover where the Anointed's lair is, and if possible, when the confrontation will take place."

"So we're on a research mission," Xander nodded. He headed for the door.

"You're not going to help?" Giles asked incredulously.

"I figure I'm not that good at reasearch, and it's lunchtime, and a growing boy's gotta eat," Xander answered. He looked at Giles' stupified face for a moment, then grinned. "I'm going to try to find Willow, Giles," he explained. "I do think of more than just my stomach you know..."

"Right," Giles muttered. "I'll tell that to the next packet of twinkies I see." But Xander was already gone. The librarian sighed into the silence of the library, trying to keep the panic, which threatened to overwhelm him, under control. He needed to focus. She needed him to be on top of things. He was her Watcher; it was his job.

* * * * * * *
Spike drew his fingers slowly up Drusilla's arm, teasing the tender flesh with his light touch. She lay on her side, facing him, her eyes almost completely closed. He lay on his side as well, studying her, intently watching her face as his fingers roamed over her. He drank her in, startled by her beauty, as he always was. Looking at her sent a jolt through his body every time, despite the fact that he knew every inch of her by heart...or perhaps because of that fact.

She opened her eyes, reaching up to draw her hand down the side of his face. When she spoke, her voice was deep with passion.

"My Spike," she said in a voice that was barely louder than a sigh. He met her gaze, letting her eyes entrap him.

"What is it, pet?" he asked just as softly.

"Your touch feels like whispers on my skin," she informed him. "Soft whispers. I can't hear what they say."

"Shall we try to make the whispers louder?" Spike asked with a smile, sliding his hand up her neck to settle in her thick, dark hair.

Her answer was to lean closer to him until their lips met, her mouth open to allow him inside.

As they kissed, he moved his hand to her back and drew her closer until their bodies touched. She ran her hand up under his shirt, and Spike shuddered at her cold touch. Her hand rested over his heart, the heart she knew belonged to her. She drew back a little from the kiss, smiling into Spike's mouth.

"Can you hear them now, princess?" he asked.

"Almost," she replied. "Make them speak," she commanded, a hunger in her dark blue eyes. Spike's answered her with an equally hungry look. She snarled when he savagely captured her mouth again, his teeth nipping at her. She growled softly into his mouth as her fingernails raked down his back.

A slow chuckle assaulted both their ears. Spike ignored it for a moment, finishing the kiss he had begun. Then he broke away, rising languidly up onto his elbow to see the intruder.

A deep growl rumbled from his throat when he saw Angel leaning casually against the wall. In one fluid motion, Spike rose to his feet, standing on the bed. He stood for a moment, enjoying the elevated height, then he stepped down and advanced on his sire.

"Isn't anybody ever on watch here?" he shouted, loud enough for the minions in the tunnels to hear. "It's fairly simple...you're not supposed to bloody well let anybody in!"

"There was someone on watch," Angel answered with a smile. "I killed him."

"Well that's just great, mate," Spike said sarcastically. "They may be idiots, but I need all the followers I can get. You couldn't just break his arms or something like you did last time? I wouldn't have thought you unmanly...would you, Dru?" He glanced back at the bed where Dru knelt on all fours, crawling slowly toward the edge of the bed, her eyes watchful.

"When I told you to get the hell out before," Spike began, turning back to Angel. "I meant stay out." He slowly advanced another two steps toward Angel then, without warning, he flung a punch at Angel's head. Reacting purely on instinct, Angel blocked the punch with his arm and jabbed with his fist at Spike's stomach. Spike jumped back, barely avoiding the blow. Both vampires dropped into a half-crouch and began circling each other cautiously.

"The Slayer send you?" Spike asked. "She wasn't strong enough to do her own dirty work?" As he spoke, he sent an uppercut flying toward Angel's jaw. The punch landed, snapping the bigger vampire's head up. Angel tucked his foot behind Spike's leg and with a swift jerk sent Spike crashing to the floor.

"Nobody SENDS me anywhere," Angel hissed. He allowed Spike to scramble to his feet and prepared himself for another attack. Spike did not disappoint. He sent his sire staggering back with a hard kick to his chest. The blonde vampire pressed his advantage, jamming his elbow into Angel's face. He smiled at the crunch that rewarded him as he crushed Angel's nose.

"Then why the hell did you come back here?" Spike asked.

Angel's eyes narrowed at the smell of his own blood flooding his senses. He felt the vampiric ridges emerge on his face, and he snarled in anger at the pain. He came at Spike, grabbing the back of Spike's head and pushing it down into the knee he quickly raised. Spike grunted in pain as his face collided with his sire's knee. He felt his eyebrow split open, spilling blood into his eye and down his cheek. Enraged, he roared, allowing his face to slip into its true form.

"I'm through with the Slayer," Angel spat. "I want to help you get rid of the bitch."

Spike pulled himself out of Angel's grasp and knocked the larger vampire off balance with a sweeping roundhouse. He attempted to land another kick, but Angel had regained his balance and caught Spike's foot in his hand, using it to throw Spike away from him. Spike landed hard on the stone floor, feeling his bones jarred by his fall. Though he was down, he wasn't out. He attempted to blink away the film of blood obscuring his vision in one eye. Angel approached cautiously, and as soon as he was within reach of Spike's legs, the younger vampire sent a crippling kick towards his knee.

"You're a liar," Spike grunted as his foot connected with Angel's knee.

Angel staggered and fell, joining Spike on the floor. The blonde vampire tried to stand up, but Angel grabbed his leg, pulling it out from under him and sending him crashing down again. Spike rolled over and grabbed Angel's neck in his two hands. He began to squeeze and felt Angel's hands come up around his own neck. They were interrupted by the brush of silk as a white clad form stood beside their heads.

"What are you doing, Dru?" Spike gasped out. He didn't need to breathe to live, but Angel was choking off the air supply he used to talk. He maintained his tight hold on Angel, refusing to give the other vampire an advantage despite the distraction Dru presented.

"We're a family again," Dru said happily. "Families shouldn't spill each other's blood; save your anger for the Anointed and his Slayer." Spike looked at his lover in confusion. "It is our Angelus," she explained. Spike hesitated, not wanting to let his opponent go. Drusilla crouched down next to them and kissed the cut on Spike's eyebrow.

"You're sure?" he asked.

"I can feel it," she said, nodding happily. "I can feel him inside my mind...like hate...like red...so bright." She hummed a little, rocking slightly from side to side. Trusting Drusilla's instincts, as he had learned to do over the course of the years, Spike cautiously loosened his hold on Angel; then removed his hands completely from his sire's neck. Angel answered by releasing Spike in turn. Spike pushed himself up off the floor and offered a hand to Drusilla.

The beautiful vampiress rose to her feet and wrapped her arms around him, drawing her tongue over the blood that dripped from the cut on his face. He shivered as she tasted him and lifted her up off the ground. He twirled her around, causing her skirts to fly out into the air. She tightened her grip, moving from the blood to his mouth. Her lips hovered beside his for a second before she kissed him deeply, and he shuddered as he tasted the tinge of his own blood on her tongue.

As they danced, Angel rose to his own feet. He was sore, but he could feel the injuries already beginning to heal. He wiped at the blood below his broken nose, watching his children, waiting for them to return their attention to him. As if reading his sire's thoughts, Spike lowered Dru gently until her feet touched the floor. The two of them turned to Angel, Spike's hand firmly holding Drusilla's.

"It's true then?" Spike asked Angel. "You're back? You're joining us?" Angel nodded, a small smile playing on his lips.

"The Slayer is joining the Anointed," Angel told them, looking at his fingernails nonchalantly. "She was spouting something about him being the lesser of two evils."

"Together they are strong," Drusilla said softly. Spike stepped closer to Angel, his mouth suddenly stretching into a broad grin.

"We are stronger," he declared. He let go of Dru's hand to extend his own hand to his sire. Angel accepted the offered hand, shaking it firmly. Then Spike moved closer, enfolding the taller vampire in a strong hug. He pounded on Angel's back, laughing. Angel broke into a grin and returned the hug. Drusilla clapped happily at the sight of the men's reconciliation.

"Lovely," she chirped. "And after we kill the Slayer and the boy we'll have a party, won't we...to celebrate." Spike broke away from Angel and reclaimed Drusilla's hand again.

"We'll have a big party, pet," he agreed.

"With flowers," Drusilla suggested. "And cake. And death." Spike smiled at her, lifting their connected hands. Drusilla twirled under his uplifted arm, humming to herself.

"It'll be the biggest party this town has ever seen," Spike told her. He turned his head to face Angel. "But first we have to kill them." He judged Angel's reaction. If he was intending to betray them, if he still had feelings for the Slayer, Spike hoped to see some clue of those intentions in his sire's face. Angel nodded, seemingly unconcerned by the suggestion of killing the woman he had loved with all his heart just a few hours ago. *I still love her,* his soul screamed, struggling to deny Spike's plan. The demon side of Angel crushed the suggestion.

"I'll take care of the Slayer if you want," Spike began. "You can kill the Anointed...you've faced him before. I'm sure you can defeat his mind tricks." He looked at Angel sharply, waiting for the older vampire's answer.

"No," Angel said simply. "I want to kill the Slayer myself." Spike grinned. It was the answer he had wanted to hear. If Angelus still had a weakness for the Slayer, Spike wanted to know it. But so far it seemed he did not. *Angelus is back,* Spike thought. *Or so it seems.*

"There's no reason to wait," Angel continued. "We're as strong as we'll ever be." Spike rubbed absently at the bruised, split flesh over his eye, where he had been pummeled by Angel. Angel noticed the movement and rubbed at his own healing nose. "Or we will be as soon as these minor injuries heal. Lucky you weren't strong enough to do any worse damage," he teased Spike.

"Then tomorrow night," Spike began, "we win ourselves a war." He looked at Angel challengingly. "How's the knee?" he asked snidely, answering Angel's insult as an afterthought.

"Just fine," Angel answered smoothly. "Nothing broken."

"It could have been though," Spike told him with a grin. "I had you, old man. If Dru hadn't stopped me, I'd have killed you."

"In your dreams, Spike," Angel answered. "You had nothing. You barely held me to a stand still, and I wasn't even trying."

"Tell that to your nose," Spike muttered. Angel growled softly and grabbed Spike around the neck, putting him in a headlock. He rubbed the vampire's blonde head roughly with his knuckles before releasing him. Spike glared at him for a second, then they both broke out laughing, punching each other lightly in their biceps and chests.

"Angelus," Spike said when they had both settled down. Angel inclined his head, giving Spike a little mocking bow.

"Spike," he answered.

"It's nice to have you with us," Spike finished.

"The stars are singing," Drusilla added. "All silvery, like bells." Angel smiled at her, gently lifting her hand to his lips for a kiss. She shivered and dropped her eyes, peering out from under the curtain of her eyelashes. Spike watched them suspiciously, quickly claiming her hand as soon as Angel let it go.

"It's been too long," Angel snarled. "I want blood, real blood, not that stale, cold crap I've been drinking for the last 80 years."

"We'll hunt,' Spike agreed. "When the sun goes down, we'll reintroduce the world to Angelus."

* * * * * *
Willow stared glumly out the window of the computer lab. Outside the sun was shining, people were rambling the campus, eating lunch, celebrating the fact that it was Friday; but she wasn't part of the rest of the world. She felt separate, alone. She couldn't really blame the world for her isolation though; it was her own choice to sit inside with only a computer for company. *Hiding,* she told herself a little angrily. *You're a coward.*

*I should just go into the library, and act like everything's fine,* she told herself. She looked at her backpack, half ready to strap it on and hurry to catch the last few minutes of lunch with her friends. *We can talk about this stuff that's happened, and it'll all turn out okay.* She sighed heavily, sinking back into her chair. *I can't. I can't do it.* She loved Xander; she really did. And Buffy was the person she admired more than anyone, definitely the best girl friend she had. But she couldn't just go into the library like nothing had happened. It HAD happened, and things couldn't just be okay. And even though she wished she could simply forget it, she was still angry. Really angry.

Willow put her head down on her folded arms, closing her eyes, as if she could make all the bad things disappear. *When you're a kid and you cover your eyes, you think that makes the bad things go away. How come that never works when you get older?* She sighed again, shifting her head around to find a more comfortable position.

"Excuse me?" a voice said, interrupting her attempt to nap. She lifted her head from her arms, turning to face the source of the voice. A fairly short boy stood next to her computer monitor. He ran his hand through his reddish hair, giving her a slightly nervous smile. *Painted fingernails,* she noticed. She realized with a start that silence was stretching awkwardly between them, and she hurried to fill it.

"Can I help you?" she asked politely.

"I'm looking for Miss Calendar," the boy answered. "And you're not her." It wasn't said accusingly; it was just an observation.

"No, I'm Willow," she answered with a small smile. "Miss Calendar left for lunch. She should be back in fifteen minutes or so." The boy looked at her thoughtfully, then pulled out the chair next to her and sat down.

"I'll wait," he informed her. She looked at him with a bit of dread. *Does this mean I have to try to talk to him for fifteen minutes?* she wondered. *I was fine with moping to myself.* She tried to stop her rambling thoughts as he began to speak.

"Are you okay?" he asked, a concerned look on his face.

"What do you mean?" she said puzzled. "Of course I'm okay...why would I not be?"

"Oh. I'm sorry if I'm being too personal. It's just...you look like something's bothering you," he explained. "Forget it."

"No it's all right," Willow hurried to reassure him. "You're actually right. I was just thinking sort of mopey thoughts."

"Aww...mopey's not good," her companion answered. "You should think happy thoughts."

"No one can be happy all the time, " Willow pointed out.

"True," the boy answered. "But if you have a choice, it's always cooler to choose the non-mopeyness."

"I guess," Willow answered doubtfully.

"Do you want to talk about it?" he asked bluntly. The red-headed hacker studied him for a moment. She didn't think she had seen him around school. She didn't have any classes with him. He was a complete stranger, yet here he was asking her to tell him details of her life like they had known each other forever. And the weirdest thing was that she was actually considering telling him. *What do I have to lose?* she finally decided. *I probably won't even ever see him again."

"It's this guy," she began. The stranger nodded understandingly, settling himself more comfortably in his chair by folding his leg up against his chest and securing it with the arm he wrapped around it. Willow took a deep breath, then continued. "See he's my best friend. He has been for...well, forever basically. And I've had a crush on him for the past few years. But he never showed any interest."

"Ouch," Willow's companion interjected, making a sympathetic face.

"Yeah," Willow agreed. "So anyway we sort of started dating this past week. I can't really explain how that happened because it's kind of complicated. And now things are all screwed up."

"But you finally got what you wanted," the boy objected.

"Yeah...but there's this girl. She's my other best friend. And this guy has had a crush on her for a while now. And even though he was dating me...I could tell that he still has feelings for her."

"So you dumped him?"

"Sort of."

"Sounds complicated," the boy said, shaking his head. "And painful."

"I just...I don't want to lose the friendship. But I can't stay with him if he really wants her instead of me." Willow paused, trying to stop herself before she had an outburst. After a brief moment, she found herself continuing, her voice rising. "And I can't help asking myself why the heck he's dating me if he doesn't really want me...and I hate the fact that he still has feelings for her...and it just makes me really mad that he would use me that way." Willow looked into the guy's green eyes helplessly. "This is way more than you wanted to know isn't it?"

"No, I get what you're saying. The thing is...you need to realize that your friendship with this guy is strong enough to take some hard knocks. You can be mad at him, and tell him how you feel; and he'll just have to deal. You don't have to be all careful not to upset him all the time...a fight won't end the friendship. You know what I mean?" Willow nodded a little doubtfully at the stranger's question.

"But how can you be sure?" she asked.

"Well I can't be one hundred percent sure since I don't really know either of you," he grinned at her, and she couldn't help but smile back. "But you are a great girl, Willow, and if I can tell that from just talking to you for a couple minutes, then this guy you're almost dating MUST know that. He's known you forever...and believe me he won't want to lose you." Willow blushed a little, stealing a glance at the guy beside her. He seemed serious. She blushed again.

"You know what?" she asked.


"That actually helped," she answered.


"I mean I'm still mad at him...but now I don't feel quite so pressured."

"Right," the guy agreed. "Because you guys are allowed to have a fight or two or several, and still stay friends. And whether or not you date..."

"We'll still be friends," Willow finished. "I really hope you're right."

"Me too," the guy answered with another grin. "I would hate to have your first impression of me be 'that guy who gave me really crappy advice that time.'" Willow smothered a giggle.

"You're beautiful when you laugh," the guy said softly. Willow shot him a surprised glance, wondering if she had imagined what he said. He looked at the clock, and his next statement changed the direction of the conversation with no warning. "I've got to go," he said. "I'll catch Miss Calendar later." Willow found to her surprise that she was sorry to see the guy go. "It was nice meeting you, Willow," he told her sincerely.

"It was nice meeting you too...thanks for listening." Willow paused for a moment, and the boy got up from his seat. As he headed for the door, she stopped him. "Wait! You never even told me your name."

"It's Oz," he informed her.

"See you around, Oz," she said, her tone hopeful.

"Definitely," he answered over his shoulder as he exited the classroom.

* * * * * *
Xander headed toward the computer lab. He had already checked for Willow in the cafeteria and managed to snag a quick hot dog while he was there. He swallowed the last bite of it as he reached the door of the classroom. He was forced to jump back when the door suddenly swung open. Xander looked belligerently at the kid who had almost clobbered him with the door.

"Hey, man," the guy said. Xander motioned with his chin, then quickly slipped inside the room. He had a sudden moment of panic when he realized he had found the object of his search. Willow sat at one of the desks, staring at her computer screen with a slight smile on her face.

"Will," he said, getting her attention. She looked up, her smile disappearing when she saw who it was. Xander felt a stab of pain as he realized his presence made her uncomfortable and unhappy. He squared his shoulders determinedly and seated himself in the chair next to her.

"Look I know you don't want to see me, or talk about what happened. That's fine. That's not why I came actually," he answered.

"It's not?" she asked softly.

*Was that disappointment I heard?* Xander wondered hopefully. *Don't push it, Harris,* he told himself. "It's Buffy," he explained quickly. "There's something wrong with her. Giles says it's the Anointed One controlling her."

"Can he do that?" Willow asked, surprised.

"It comes with the whole 'Anointed' deal," Xander said with a shrug. "God...you should have seen her, Will. I was having a major wiggins. She kept calling us stuff like 'humans' and 'mortals' like it was a bad thing. Like to her mortal was right up there on the gross out scale with leper."

"Poor Buffy, " Willow muttered, her eyes wide.

"And she dumped Angel!" Xander exclaimed.

"What?" Willow gasped, more shocked by that fact than anything else. Somehow she had assumed that even under mind control Buffy would be madly in love with Angel. She stared at Xander for a second, wondering if the boy was glad Buffy had left the vampire. *Does he hope maybe he'll have a chance now?* She sighed, stopping herself from thinking those thoughts. *That's not what's important right now,* she told herself. *The important thing is Buffy and Angel.* "Oh God! Poor Angel!" she suddenly whispered. "He probably doesn't even know that it wasn't really Buffy who dumped him!"

"Someone's got to tell him," Xander agreed. "We can tell Giles to call him when we get back to the library. Personally I'm more worried about Buffy."

*Of course you are,* Willow thought a little angrily. "What can we do?" she asked out loud, trying to ignore her emotions and focus on the situation at hand.

"We're trying to figure out how to break Colin's hold on her. But the most important thing right now is we need to find out where the kid's headquarters are, so that we can try to stop Buffy from getting herself killed."

"So you just came to ask me to research?" Willow asked, a little coldly.

"Well, yeah," Xander agreed. "We need you, Will. We need your help. Research just isn't what I'm so great at. I mean I try...but you really know what you're doing." Willow piled her books into her backpack and stood up.

"So let's go," she said. *Is that all I am...just the research nerd?* she thought to herself bitterly. *Damn it, Willow,* she continued, trying to curb her anger. *Stop it. This isn't the time to worry about what he thinks of you.*

"Great," Xander answered, giving her a relieved smile. He headed toward the door, but she pulled him back.

"Let me make something perfectly clear." She raised her eyes from the button on his shirt which she had been studying, and looked him in the eye. "Things are not ok aybetween us," she said firmly. "I'm helping because I care about Buffy...that's it."

"I know," Xander answered. "I hate that we're in the middle of a crisis because I want so much to talk to you about last night. I need to. And as soon as this is over we'll deal with it."

"Yes, we will," Willow agreed.

The two of them headed for the library, both finding it impossible to speak. Willow stole an uncomfortable glance at her companion. *I should say something,* she thought. *But what?* They continued to walk in unbroken silence.

*Come on, Harris," Xander told himself. *What are you..a freaking mime? Say something. You're the master of babbling...so get the words flowing. It doesn't matter what you say...just speak.* He opened his mouth to begin a ramble, but found that he couldn't say a word. He was unable to shake the feeling that whatever he said might make or break his relationship with Willow. This was one time when he simply couldn't afford to put his foot in his mouth.

They reached the library just as the bell began to ring. Willow had a free period, so she slipped inside to find Giles and start surfing for any information they might find useful. She breathed a little sigh of relief as Xander turned and went to class. The silence between them had begun to make her feel claustrophobic, trapped.

Xander headed away from the library. He could have cut class to stay with the other two, but the truth was he always felt kind of useless when they started researching. He never felt like he was really up to the task. *Of course it's better to help in the tiniest way than to do nothing at all, or to sit in class.* But he wasn't sure if he could handle it...looking at Willow for an hour, trying to think of something to say.

Deep in thought, Xander didn't see that he was heading straight for a fellow Sunnydale High student. He collided with the girl, grabbing one of the lockers to keep himself from falling.

"Excuse you!" a shrill voice said. Xander groaned softly.

"Cordy, no don't say it, let me guess...extreme oafishness...five thousand dollar shoes...sorry." He turned, eager to escape the situation. Cordelia grabbed his arm in a surprisingly strong grip, effectively keeping him from leaving. "What?" he asked.

"Are you all right?" she asked. He looked at her with mild shock on his face, and she hurried to cover herself. "I mean...not that I really care. Because you're such a loser and all. But it um, I thought it might be funny to hear about your pathetic problems."

"Of course," Xander replied snidely. "I live to amuse you with my pathetic problems."

"Geez," the most popular girl in school said with a shrug. "Touchy much? I was just asking!" She let go of Xander's shirt, and he was once again free to head for his class. Instead of hurrying away, he found himself grabbing Cordelia's arm and dragging her into a nearby broom closet. He quickly shut the door, and turned on the light.

"Ewww," the May Queen whined, her lips curled in disgust. "There are cleaning supplies in here!"

"Um...yeah," Xander agreed. "This is where the cleaning supplies live, Cordelia." He berated himself soundly for what he considered his stupidest move since drinking an entire gallon of Gatorade without taking a breath. *What the hell am I doing?* he wondered. But he had to talk to someone, and neither of his best friends were speaking to him at the moment; so his best enemy would have to do. He looked at the pretty dark-haired girl in front of him, her face scrunched in distaste.

"You'll get pre-maturely wrinkled if you keep making that face," he warned. Cordelia gave him a disbelieving look, but he noticed that she smoothed out the frown lines by making her expression blank. "Look...I don't like you and you don't like me," he began. "But I gotta talk to somebody and you'll just have to do...after all you did help us save the world that time so you can't be all bad."

"Could you make it quick?" Cordelia answered impatiently. "I'm about to be late for class, and I doubt the teacher will accept the excuse that I was kidnapped by an imbecile and held hostage in a broom closet."

"Willow's mad at me because Buffy started licking my neck, and I didn't stop her," Xander blurted.

"Gross!" Cordelia exclaimed. "I knew you people were weird but...ugh!" Xander looked at her for a second, then reached for the doorknob.

"What the hell was I thinking?" he muttered. Cordy watched him as he prepared to leave. *Good! * she thought. *Now I can get out of this hell hole...right? But he seems really upset.* She debated a moment. Despite her better judgement, she found herself drawn to Buffy and the other losers. Whether it had to do with them being the only other ones besides the bad guys who knew what was really going on in Sunnydale, or whether it was just the freedom they had because they weren't popular, she didn't know. Her hand shot out and stopped Xander from turning the knob.

"So Willow's jealous?" she asked seriously. Xander hesitated a moment, looking for the trick.

"Not exactly," he finally answered. "She's pissed. She dumped me because she said she didn't want to be with me if I wanted someone else."

"Right...how could I forget your fixation on Buffy?" Cordelia said sarcastically.

"I do not fixate!" Xander protested.

"Please," Cordelia answered. "You obsess. Even I know this, and I barely even talk to you guys. Personally, I don't blame Willow. You can't expect her to sit around while you watch Buffy all the time."

"Is it that obvious?" Xander asked. Cordelia nodded in response. "So what do I do?"

"Decide whether you really want Willow and tell her the truth. If you're just dating her because she happens to be there, or you don't want to be alone, or some other lame reason, then you should let her go. She deserves better."

"She deserves the best," Xander muttered. "She's Willow."

"Well for some odd reason she wants YOU...so I'm thinking that she'd be happy with less than the best. If the less than best guy really loved her." Xander chewed on his lip for a moment thoughtfully.

"Thanks, Cordy," he finally said.

"Whatever," she answered nonchalantly. "Just don't tell anyone I was talking to you."

"No problem," he answered. They slipped out of the closet and headed for their separate classrooms. They were both a few minutes late, but somehow feeling better for having had their little chat.

* * * * * *
Buffy walked toward her house, her heels punishing the pavement. She couldn't remember ever being so angry, and she wasn't even sure where it was coming from. She couldn't think of one thing that was doing it. It was just...everything. Every little thing: the sun, the trees, the birds, the pavement, her house, all of it was driving her crazy.

She yanked the front door open, slamming it behind her. All she wanted was to go up to her room and hopefully sleep through whatever it was that she was feeling. When she reached the top of her stairs, she found herself facing her mother; her very angry mother. She thought about just pushing her mother out of the way, running into her room, and locking the door. *Nope, that wouldn't work...she'd probably break the door down or call the fire department to do it for her.*

She stopped walking, waiting for her mother to speak.

"Where the hell were you last night?"Joyce practically screamed. "You never called me! I waited and waited. I almost called the police! And don't even tell me that you just came home late. You didn't come home at all last night, and I want to know where you were."

"I was at Willow's," Buffy lied. Her mother's face tightened as she got even angrier, if that was possible.

"I called Willow's. You weren't there. Don't you dare lie to me, young lady!" Buffy tried to feel worried or care at all about the fact that her mother was going to kill her. She couldn't seem to give a damn. *Why should I listen to her anyway?* she wondered. *I could kill her with a flick of my wrist...so why should I let her order me around?* Her eyes narrowed. Her mom wanted the truth? Well, then Buffy would tell the truth and see how much her mother liked it.

"I was at Angel's," she said honestly.

"Buffy, you know it's against the rules for you to spend the night alone with a boy," Joyce began, her tone irate. "Especially without telling me first! Just what were you thinking?! Or were you thinking at all?!"

"Yeah well, I don't really care about the stupid rule," Buffy interrupted.

"Maybe you'll care if I ground you!" Joyce answered. She hesitated as a thought struck her, "Buffy, are you having sex?"

"I won't care," Buffy said, coldly answering the first question. Her voice lowered to a hiss as she answered the second. "And that's really none of your business, is it?" Hatred sang through her as she contemplated her mother's total lack of anything resembling a clue, despite the fact that she somehow thought she had the right to interrogate her daughter on every detail of her life. Her hand tightened into a fist, and the image of her own hand flying into her mother's face entered her mind with brilliant clarity. She could almost smell the blood that would spray from her mother's split lips, almost hear the smack of fist on flesh. She shuddered at the intensity of the mental image and forcibly uncurled her hand. *Just get to your room, before you kill your mother,* she told herself, panic raging against fury in her mind.

"I don't appreciate this attitude, Buffy," Joyce tried again, almost shaking with fury. "You are way out of line, and you are in big, big trouble."

"I don't appreciate this whole conversation!" Buffy yelled. "Get out of my way so I can go to my room dammit!"

"What the hell do you think you're doing?!" Joyce screamed. She clasped her hand to her chest, gasping for breath and trying to gain some measure of control. "You may not like my rules, but you are my daughter and you will do as I say. How dare you talk to me that way!?"

"I'll do whatever I want," Buffy countered. "You can't stop me." She brushed past her mother, forcing her to move aside. Joyce paused in dumbfounded shock, then turned to follow her daughter.

"You are not to see that Angel boy again!" she yelled at the top of her voice. Buffy continued walking toward her room. "Do you hear me? I forbid it!"

"It's your lucky day, mom," Buffy spat. "I broke up with him this morning." She opened the door to her room and hurried inside. Once there she quickly collapsed onto the bed, leaving her mother outside with her mouth opening and closing in inarticulate protest. Buffy ignored her mother's voice as she began to scream, ignored the pounding of her mother's fists against the door, ignored the sudden silence when her mother finally gave up and left. She didn't hear any of it. She had fallen asleep.