The twin Willows faced each other across the room. They were identical in every conceivable way – the same outfit, the same features and the same backpack slung across the shoulder. Even the cuts and scrapes matched perfectly. The expressions, however, were a study in contradiction. An unassuming smile adorned the face of Guardian Willow, while the other seemed to flounder in utter confusion.
"Y...You're me," Willow said, unable to look away from her own face.
"I'm me," the Guardian corrected with Willow's voice.
"So," Willow attempted to sort out, "I'm you?"
The Guardian pointed to herself. "I'm me." Her finger jabbed at her counterpart. "You're you. 100-percent pure you goodness. No additives or preservatives." If that explanation was supposed to clear things up, it failed miserably. Willow was still entirely perplexed, much to the Guardian's amusement. "Not what you expected?"
Willow's mouth opened to form a 'yes'. "No."
"Sure about that?"
Willow shook her head. "Yes?"
Eyebrows knitting together in annoyance, Willow narrowed her eyes at her double. "You're not gonna spend the next hour being all cryptic, are you? Cuz, sort of in a rush."
As though she had all the time in the world, the Guardian wandered the perimeter of the bedroom. "Then you'd best get to thinkin', missy," she instructed, glancing at Willow with a challenging expression. "It's what you're good at, right?"
It was a challenge Willow accepted. "I didn't expect you like this," she said with certainty.
Coming to a halt once more, the Guardian turned to Willow. Her body naturally adopted an identical posture. "But you did expect me."
"Yeah, but ..." Willow's head tipped to one side as she thought it through. "You look different for everyone, don't you? You take your shape from- from whoever's trying to find you."
A bright smile spread across the Guardian's features. "See? You'll be done in no time. My shape, the shape of the world and everything in it – pretty much down to you." She glanced at herself and the surrounding room. "Interesting choices."
The immediate mystery solved, Willow's attention returned once more to the paradox standing before her. From head to toe, her gaze raked the Guardian curiously, mixed with a double-scoop of suspicion. The Guardian bore the examination without protest, content to simply watch Willow watching her.
"But'cha knew all that already, didn't you?" Willow's double prompted. "Way deep down in here—" A slender finger tapped against her temple. "—you had a hunch. So." She clasped her hands behind her back. "If you didn't expect a me in you-clothing, the million-dollar question is, what did you expect?"
"I thought you'd ..." But the question wasn't that easy, and Willow found she had to give it more consideration. "I thought I'd have to face my fear or something."
There was no other reaction, and Willow felt compelled to explain further. "You know, like a room full of frogs, o-or spiders. Maybe frogs and spiders. Not ..."
As though she'd just spotted something interesting, Willow stared at the Guardian intently and with renewed interest. As with before, the Guardian simply stared back. This time, however, there was a flicker. For the briefest of brief moments, the merest fraction of a second, the appearance of the Guardian changed. Her posture and position remained the same, but the visage did not. Although still Willow, for just that instant, she looked darker. Mocking. Evil. Still Willow – but more.
Willow started at the difference, but by the time she had registered it, it was gone. Alarmed, she looked into the Guardian's face, but there was no sign of anything amiss.
"You're not— You—" Willow peered into familiar eyes, trying desperately to see something that couldn't be named. "What are you?"
Patiently, the Guardian bore the interrogation. "For all intents, I'm you."
"But you changed," Willow insisted.
"And you didn't?" Seeing that Willow's suspicions were nowhere close to being allayed, the Guardian sighed and resumed pacing the room. "You're not listening. Everything you are, I am too. The good bits," she said, extending her left hand, "and the not-so-good bits." Her right hand joined its partner, and then they clasped together. "All wrapped up in this cuddly little redheaded package."
Passing the dresser, the Guardian leaned down to see herself in the mirror. Seemingly entranced by the sight, she ran Willow's face through the gamut of expressions: frowns, crossed eyes, all manner of contortions and more. Once satisfied, she turned back to Willow with a grin.
"I like it when we smile," she decided. "We're cute."
Willow wasn't so charmed. "Am I really that narcissistic?" she asked with some disgust.
The Guardian shrugged. "You've got worse faults."
"Gee, thanks, I—" Willow threw up her hands and mentally slammed on the brakes. "Not bantering with myself."
"Aw," her double muttered in disappointment.
"Whatever you are, whoever you are, it doesn't matter." Willow was all business now. "I'm here for the book."
Settling down on the edge of the bed, the Guardian's gaze swept the room. "Title? Author?" Her gesture encompassed the numerous bookcases that surrounded them. "There's an Alexandria-full of 'em in here."
Willow simply crossed her arms, unwilling to play along. "You know the one."
From behind her back, the Guardian produced a large paperback, which she offered to Willow. "The Essential Calvin and Hobbes?"
She didn't seem overly perturbed by the silent glare. The Guardian waved the book temptingly. "You know you love it."
For Willow, patience was a virtue she no longer possessed. "Stop joking around!" she demanded angrily. "If you really are everything I am, then you know what kind of danger we're in! If I don't help Amy, then Tara— "
The statement went uncompleted, but its meaning was nevertheless conveyed. The Guardian's teasing demeanor dropped, and she seemed serious for the first time.
Sensing a possible advantage, Willow hurried to press her point. "Please. Just ... Tell me what I have to do and I'll do it."
The Guardian looked at her with such sympathy that Willow seemed taken aback. The fact that she was receiving the expression from her own face only served to heighten the surreality of the situation. The persuasion, the pleading – it all stopped. Willow was at a loss for words.
Such was not true for the Guardian. "You poor thing," she commiserated in a soft voice. "You're so afraid. Every day, all the time. Afraid of what's coming next, if you'll be able to stop it ... Afraid of what will happen if you can't."
She pushed herself off of the bed and made her way to the desk that rested against one wall. Willow's eyes tracked the Guardian the entire time, but she couldn't seem to find her voice, and thus remained silent.
The desk possessed the sort of organized clutter that only the owner could ever truly understand, but the area by the small gathering of framed photographs remained clear enough so that their images could be seen easily. Most contained small groups, but the Guardian focused on one in particular. With utmost care, she lifted it from its neighbors for closer examination.
The picture showed Willow and Tara, taken at a moment when neither seemed to be aware of the photographer. They were sitting together on the porch swing with their eyes closed. Willow's head rested on Tara's shoulder, while Tara rested her head on Willow's. It had been taken on a beautiful, sunny day. Their fingers were lightly entwined.
Unconsciously, the Guardian touched the image of Tara in the photograph. "In a way," she said without taking her eyes from the picture, "she just makes it worse, doesn't she?"
The frame was replaced, next to one that showed all of the Scoobies beaming for the camera.
"They all do."
Willow hadn't yet answered, and the Guardian turned to face her once more. Their eyes met, and for a moment, it would have been impossible to tell them apart. Their expressions were completely identical. Pain. Loss. Fear.
"You understand," Willow stated.
The Guardian nodded sadly. "Yes."
"So you'll help me?"
The response was given reluctantly. "I'm not sure I can. You know that Amy isn't going to use her power for good." She chuckled without humor. "I mean, I know that, and I'm a conceptualized personification template of an abstract power trace."
Drained, Willow tossed her hands in the air. "What other choice do I have?"
"Only you can answer that question," the Guardian replied with regret.
The stress and exhaustion were beginning to take their toll, and Willow visibly drooped. "Great," she muttered sardonically. "Thanks a bundle."
"Yeah, I hear ya," her double acknowledged.
Willow shuffled to the bed and they both took a seat. Their postures slumped in unison, and they both wore identical half-pouts.
After a few seconds, Willow spoke again. "What does this book thingie even do? Is it evil?"
"It's a book," the Guardian responded wryly. "It doesn't exactly get to pick its place in the moral line-up."
"Do I actually talk to people like you're talking to me?" Willow snapped, irritation leading her to a second wind. "Because if so, then suddenly fifteen years with like one friend is makin' a whole lot more sense."
The Guardian rolled her eyes with a sigh. "Books aren't good and they aren't evil. Hello, not real. It's what you do with them that matters, that's it."
"And this thing Amy wants," Willow pressed, "she could- could do good with it?"
"If she really wanted to, sure."
"Or she could do evil."
Her doppelganger looked Willow in the eye. "Oh yes."
Willow chewed her bottom lip. "It's powerful?"
"It's not been locked away for over a thousand years just cuz," countered the Guardian.
With a deep breath, mirror-Willow took a moment to carefully consider her answer, but after a moment of contemplation, she was forced to shrug. "As powerful as you wanna make it. It's not like there's a table of contents or an index or something," she attempted to explain. "That's too immutable. What you're here for is ... so much more. It's as flexible as its prison." The Guardian gestured to indicate the entire room. "It can look like whatever you want. It can contain whatever you want. Any spell, any curse or enchantment – if it ever existed, then it's in there."
The silence that followed was calculated, and the Guardian studied Willow intently as the full meaning of her explanation began to sink in. Willow didn't meet the gaze, but it was clear that she was indeed absorbing what she was being told. When the Guardian continued, she spoke in even, measured words, ensuring that each and every one was fully understood.
"Any spell. Any purpose. If you can think it, you can cast it. Well," she admitted with a small chuckle, "if you have the power, of course. But that's all it takes. A little power. A little imagination." She shrugged and added, "Maybe a bit of desire, too."
Willow was now looking directly at the Guardian's face – her own face – but she said nothing.
Neither did the Guardian. She was content to remain silent, content to watch as the wheels turned, and Willow's eyes scanned the many, many books that surrounded them. A jumble of emotions crossed Willow's features, too mercurial to name, save one. At every turn, every feeling was replaced with pure, crippling doubt.
"I don't ..." Willow began, then turned her panicked expression to the Guardian. "What should I do? With something like that, Amy could ... But- But if I don't do anything, then—"
The sound of a loud crash from downstairs interrupted her thoughts, and Willow's head whirled to the bedroom entrance.
"Buffy," she whispered.
"Ooh, yeah," the Guardian said with a wince, "I think your little friends outside have about hit the limits of their patience."
Willow was incredulous. "My friends? That's your horde of ugly little carnivorous guardian sidekicks!"
The Guardian shook her head dismissively. "Oh they're not mine."
"So make with the calling off and—" Willow frowned. "Wait, what?"
"Those pointy-toothed things Buffy happens to be fighting as we speak? They're not mine." She shuddered at the mere thought. "Ugh. If I wanted sidekicks, I'd go for something furry and waggy and licky. Probably about that size, though," she conceded.
"They're not yours?" The Guardian shook her head, and Willow was back to being confused again. "But if they're not yours, then whose are they?"
Rather than reply, Willow's double simply looked at her expectantly.
Willow's eyebrows disappeared in her hairline. "Mine?" she squeaked in a tight voice.
With a long-suffering sigh, the Guardian waved her hand airily. "This world, everything in it, formed from you, blah blah blah."
It was information she was clearly ill prepared to receive, and Willow didn't seem to know exactly what she was supposed to do with it. "Well- Well what are they?"
Instead of an answer, Willow suddenly discovered the Calvin & Hobbes book shoved under her nose. "Sure you don't want it?" the Guardian attempted to persuade. "I think Rosalyn's in this one."
Eyes flashing angrily, Willow smacked her double's hand away. "I don't care! Buffy needs our help!"
"So help her," the Guardian said.
"I've tried!" protested Willow. She leapt to her feet and began to pace as her anxiety grew exponentially. "My magick, it doesn't ... I don't know what makes it work against them!"
The Guardian was unmoved by the outburst. "Try answering your own question: what are they?"
Willow let loose with an inarticulate cry of pure frustration. "I hate you!"
Rather than be offended, the Guardian seemed to find the comment amusing. She leaned forward and rested her elbows on her knees. "Think about it. When did they first appear?"
Rocking nervously in place, Willow tried to remember. "In, uh ... I-In the convenience store."
When another crash reverberated from downstairs, Willow nearly bolted from the room to join her friend, but the sound of her own voice held her fast.
"Hey," the Guardian demanded. "Focus front. You'll wanna follow me here." She waited patiently until she had regained Willow's attention, however fidgety that attention was. "What happened right before it appeared?" she calmly asked.
"Buffy and I were talking," Willow answered, bouncing on the balls of her feet. "We were talking, a-about what happened and where we were, and ..." She shook her head, trying to focus. "We were just talking."
"Uh-huh. And the next time?"
"More talking," Willow hurriedly responded. "That's really pretty much all we've done since we got here: talk and fight those things."
The Guardian would not be rushed, however impatiently Willow glared at her. "And what about you," she continued, placing her palms against the bed and leaning back. "What were you feeling right before they showed up and started gettin' munchy? What's the common link?"
Sucking in a short breath and quickly exhaling it, Willow rolled her shoulders and stared at the ceiling. "I was feeling ..." She flapped her hand, trying to pin down the emotions. "Confused, scared, guilty, unsure ..."
With an arched eyebrow, the Guardian watched and waited. A knowing smile began to spread across her lips.
Willow's eyes widened and she stopped moving restlessly. "That's it. That's it, isn't it? It's— When Buffy was talking about how I was weak on my own, o-or just a few seconds ago, when I didn't know what to do about Amy ... They're my insecurities. My self-doubt!"
"And Bingo was his name-o," congratulated the Guardian.
"My doubts," Willow repeated to herself in wonder. "They're ..." She blinked and wrinkled her nose. "Ugly, actually."
"And in danger of killing your friends," her double added with a chuckle. "How's that for metaphoric action? Gotta love it."
Her amusement was met with a level scowl. "Really don't."
"No?" The Guardian shrugged. "Well from this side, it's kinda funny."
But with answer now in hand, Willow had no more time for the Guardian, and without another word, she made to leave the room.
"Wait! What about the—?"
Hesitating, Willow slowly turned to face the Guardian, who watched Willow with equal intensity. Their gazes held for a moment, but then Willow took a further step backward and out into the hallway. As she disappeared from view, an expression of something like surprise invaded the Guardian's features. But there was more than surprise. Above all else, the Guardian seemed disappointed.
Downstairs, Buffy had been forced to move further into the foyer. About a half-dozen of the shadow-creatures had managed to get inside, and they were circling the Slayer, doing their best to keep her off-guard. Buffy's gaze constantly darted all around her – left, right, back, front – doing her best to keep all the monsters in sight. But it was only a matter of time before she slipped, and at some unknown signal, they all leapt at her.
"This!" Buffy grunted, landing a punch that knocked one of the creatures several feet back. "Is not!" A well-placed kick momentarily dispatched another. "My idea!" She ducked and one of the beasts sailed over her head. "Of hurrying!"
Spinning toward the stairwell, Buffy called out, "Willow, get your ass down—"
The statement went unfinished as a ripple of energy burst past Buffy. It struck all of the beasts in the immediate vicinity, blowing them off their feet and away from Buffy. They had disintegrated to nothing before they ever hit the ground.
"—here," Buffy concluded weakly as Willow bounded down the stairs.
"Buffy!" she greeted happily. "I worked it out! Well," she corrected with a shrug, "me and my doppelganger upstairs. But this one isn't evil. At least, I don't think she's evil. Sort of alignment-neutral mostly, but anyway—" Willow waved her hand, brushing off that line of thought, "after the world's single most annoying game of 20 questions ever, we—"
Another couple of the shadow-creatures had managed to get inside unnoticed, and with talons exposed and fangs at the ready, they leapt for Willow's back, eager to rend her to pieces. Buffy opened her mouth to shout a warning and crouched, ready to spring into action. But it wasn't necessary. Without even turning around, Willow flicked her fingers at the creatures, and they combusted immediately. Buffy could only gape in amazement.
"—worked it all out," Willow continued, as though she hadn't been interrupted. "The house, the town, they were all created when—"
"What did you do?" asked Buffy, watching the ashes flit through the air.
"That's what I'm trying to explain," Willow hastily replied. "Amy's spell must've—"
It wasn't what Buffy was interested in hearing about. "Just then. With the—" She flicked her fingers in an irritated imitation of Willow's gesture from moments ago. "What was that?"
"Oh, that." Willow didn't seem to find anything particularly strange in the action. "They were attacking, so I—"
"Where was that an hour ago?" Buffy suddenly demanded. "Hell, where was that ten minutes ago?" Surprised, Willow opened her mouth to reply, but didn't get the chance to answer; Buffy's tirade could not be stopped. "I thought the magick wasn't working right on these guys? You said it was sporadic and unreliable, and lots of other things that meant I had to stay down here getting my butt kicked by the shadow Muppets while you're upstairs chatting to yourself?"
The vitriol in Buffy's tone left Willow stunned. "But I didn't ... I didn't know what they were then," she tried to explain. "N-Now I do, so I can ..."
"Can what? Flick your magick Bic a couple times before you get scared and forget how to do anything again?"
Willow didn't know what to say. She could only stand in silence while Buffy took a deep breath to calm herself. The action soon turned to a sharp hiss, however, and Buffy clutched at her ribs painfully. By now, a fresh gash in her forehead was bleeding profusely, and Buffy ripped one of her bandages from a less critical wound to try and staunch the flow.
Willow watched all of this, simply staring at her battered, bleeding friend while she tried to find the right words.
"Buffy, I ... I'm sorry."
Wearily, Buffy regarded Willow with her least-swollen eye. "Don't be sorry, Will," she implored without a trace of her previous anger. "Be better."
And as she stood there, her breathing difficult and her blood staining the floor at her feet, Buffy watched as Willow's jaw set in determination. Her spine became straighter, and she nodded, just once.
It was a vow. Their eyes locked. Willow didn't look away.
Buffy smiled. "I know."
The sound of breaking glass attracted their attention elsewhere, and both women looked over to see more of the shadow-beasts pouring into their home. Lots more.
Buffy gave the gash in her forehead a final swipe before tossing the ruined bandage aside. "And, uh, now'd probably be a good time to start."
"Sorta gettin' that yeah," Willow replied.
And there, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, Buffy and Willow presented a united front against the impending onslaught.
An eruption of white quickly surrendered to a whirling eddy. The mouth of the vortex gaped wide as howling gusts of a powerful wind spiraled from its center. The noise was almost deafening as a body was hurled violently from the core. Having delivered its booty, the maelstrom imploded almost immediately and the rift sealed as though it had never been in existence.
"Is it—?" someone nervously asked.
Willow groaned and, very gingerly, begin to try and pull herself upright. She was a mess, with what looked to be far more cuts, bites and abrasions than she had skin, but she was thankfully lacking any grave injuries.
Upon seeing her, another voice called out, "She's okay!"
"Thank heavens," a third replied with a sigh of relief.
Before Willow could get her bearings and decipher exactly what was going on, she was hauled to her feet and enveloped in a gigantic bear hug, courtesy of Xander. His eye closed tightly as he held Willow as fiercely as he dared, and he planted a lingering kiss on the top of her head.
"Next time you go missing," he warned her in a voice that tried desperately not to waver, "all you're gettin' is your face on a milk carton. So my advice is: don't."
Off to one side, Willow noticed Tara and Dawn, each being respectively supported by Faith and Giles. Tara's fingers dug deeply into Dawn's shoulders, the knuckles standing white against her skin. It was only with supreme effort that Giles was able to pry loose Tara's desperate grip. Then, it seemed as though Tara's only desire was to reach Willow. Face pale and drawn, she took a faltering step and promptly stumbled, knees buckling. Faith was there to catch her, however, and she lent her support. Xander stepped back as Tara was guided toward Willow, who was waiting with open arms. As Faith handed Tara over, she fell gratefully into Willow's embrace and held on tight.
"I thought I lost you," she whispered.
Tears welled in Willow's eyes, and she gave a shaky laugh. "Tell ya the truth, the thought occurred to me too." She swallowed a lump in her throat. "How did...?"
Her strength returning by the second, Tara pulled back and stroked Willow's cheek, simply enjoying the sight of her. "It took some time," she explained, "but we were able to sort of piece together what happened." She looked over her shoulder, where Giles was tending to thoroughly taxed and exhausted but otherwise perfectly fine Dawn. "With Mr. Giles' help, Dawnie and I were able to, uhm, synch up? Using my link to you, she was able to track you down in that dimension and ..."
Tara gestured to where the vortex had appeared in the center of the Scoobies' living room. "I wasn't sure if it'd work though. W-We tried before, but when we didn't get you back, I was afraid that—"
Her voice broke and Tara's fears remained unspoken. A tear rolled down her cheek, and, gently, Willow kissed it away, heedless of her own being spilled.
"I'm here now," she swore.
"And we're gonna make sure it stays that way."
Surprised, Willow turned to see Buffy standing at her shoulder. But this wasn't a Buffy who had fought and barely survived several hours of brutal attacks. This Buffy didn't look to have been in any recent battles at all. She was certainly tired and more than a little relieved, but her clothes were clean and whole, and there was no sign of blood or injury on her anywhere.
"Next time someone tries to hijack my Willow," she announced to the world at large, "they get a Slayer as a bonus gift."
Willow still couldn't believe her eyes. "Buffy?"
Smiling, Tara stepped back and allowed Buffy to take her place – something Buffy was only too happy to do. She wrapped Willow in her arms, not noticing the expression of complete confusion on Willow's face.
"You scared the hell out of me," Buffy confessed. "I tried to grab you, but ... And when I woke up after Amy's little kablooey to an empty, Willow-free lab. I was afraid you were ..."
It was Buffy's turn to get choked up, and rather than finish that thought, she clutched Willow tighter still.
For Willow's part, she seemed uncertain of what to say. "I'm sorry?" she tentatively offered.
With a watery sniff, Buffy pulled away, holding Willow by the shoulders. "Don't be sorry, Will," she implored. "Be safe."
Buffy smiled and tugged Willow close for another hug as their friends and family gathered around them.
Willow sat at one of the wooden benches outside the student union at Penn State's Trillium branch. Deep in thought, she watched the breeze whip through the branches of a nearby tree and took an occasional sip from the mocha in front of her. Her cuts and abrasions were numerous but had been cleaned, and the healing process had begun. She sensed rather than saw a figure approaching.
"You're punctual," Amy observed. "I like that."
There was no acknowledgment or comment. Willow didn't, in fact, even glance in Amy's direction.
As though that had been an invitation, Amy claimed the seat across from her. She frowned disapprovingly. "Really, would it kill you to at least pretend to have a civil conversation?"
Her only response was an icy stare. Amy sighed at the lack of courtesy, but soon dismissed it and moved to more important matters.
"Where's my book?"
Willow didn't answer.
"Is it here?"
Willow didn't answer.
Amy frowned. "You did get it, didn't you?"
Willow didn't answer.
"Don't just sit there, say something," Amy demanded.
The expression didn't change, but Willow did at least respond this time. "It's not here."
"Okay, great start." Amy nodded, shifting to a more comfortable position in the chair. "Now say something else, like, I don't know," she shrugged, "maybe, 'But I'll go get that for you right now, Amy. Lemme get you an espresso while you wait.'"
Willow pursed her lips and shook her head. "Not so much."
Before Amy could formulate a retort, Willow had pinned her under an intense gaze. "You don't know what you're playing with, Amy," she cautioned. "I know what I'm talking about here. When you mess around with magick this far above you – and believe me when I tell you that this is the Mt. Everest to your Mariana Trench – then all you'll get for your trouble is pain and misery."
'Grateful' wasn't exactly a word that could be used to describe Amy's response. "Thanks for the one to grow on, but I'm a big girl and I'll make my own decisions." Her fist slammed down on the table, attracting a few curious glances from nearby students. "Now give me my book."
Willow sighed at Amy regretfully. "I don't have it."
"Then we'll try again," Amy told her, not dismayed by the news. "And again, and again until you get it."
"No," Willow said calmly. "I don't think so."
Amy was nothing short of utterly shocked by Willow's obstinance. Her jaw worked silently for several moments before she relocated her voice. "Are ... Are you joking? Aren't you forgetting something just a little bit important here?" Her finger jabbed at the tabletop. "You defy me, you break the pledge. You break the pledge, your sweetie's back to kissing dirt, and I think this time we can make it stick!"
The reminders entirely failed to impress Willow. She almost seemed bored by the whole affair. "Third strike, Amy. You're out. See, you're not gonna try and cash in on that debt again. Ever. You try and invoke the goddess? I'll know. You even think about it, I'll know. You come anywhere near me, or Tara, or any of my friends again?"
Without warning, Willow leaned across the table, her face and Amy's now mere inches apart. The move so shocked Amy that she seemed paralyzed as she took in Willow's expression. It wasn't just serious. It was deadly.
Willow stared her in the eye, and even if Amy wanted to, it was unclear if she would be able to look away. Willow's voice was low, but full of promise.
"You will be so very, very sorry."
They stayed that way for a long moment and then, slowly, Willow leaned back into her chair once more. Casually, she lifted her cup and peered at Amy over the top of it.
Amy stumbled to her feet, blindly pushing away from the chair, which crashed to the concrete with a loud clatter. Several people nearby paused to stare curiously, but Willow didn't react – not even the merest flicker of an eyelash; she simply regarded Amy with serious eyes. Taking a wary step backward, Amy promptly turned and began to flee the scene, at first walking as fast as dignity would allow, and then giving up dignity for a full-fledged run.
Willow watched Amy's hastily beaten retreat as the buzz of excited chatter around her increased. Her face betrayed no emotion and she remained still and silent, save to tilt the cup back for a sip.
Night saw Buffy, Xander and Dawn sitting in their living room, enjoying a quiet evening of watching television. At the sound of someone coming down the stairs, they turned to see Tara joining them.
"Sleeping Beauty all settled in for the night?" Xander asked from his chair.
Tara drew her feet underneath her and settled down next to Dawn on the couch. "She's finishing up some homework, but then yeah." She glanced toward the ceiling with a sympathetic expression. "She's still pretty wiped out."
"So not the surprise," Dawn empathized in the tone of one who could understand only too well. "I'm totally bushed, and all I had to do was make a door."
She was surprised to find the TV remote suddenly plucked from her hand. "Sounds like maybe someone needs to join Willow in early nighthood," said Buffy.
Dawn plucked it right back. "At like, 7?" She rolled her eyes and scoffed. "Please."
Clapping his hands together, Xander leaned toward Tara. "So what's the scoop on Minnie Mouse? Will said she scampered on outta town?" He made little energetic little scampering motions with his fingers.
"Please, please, please say she left a forwarding address," begged Buffy.
Tara gave Buffy a look of regret before she answered. "Apparently Willow met with her on campus today. They talked, and Willow said she convinced Amy to give up on the whole debt thing. When Will mentioned in passing how ... really not happy we all were with her, she ran off." Using her chin, Tara indicated upstairs. "We just did locator sweep through Trillium, and there's no sign of Amy." Despite the good news, Tara's eyebrows knitted together. "I think she really did go ..."
Twirling the remote, Dawn commented, "I sense unspoken 'but'."
"But," Tara obliged, "is that really the end of it? I mean, would Amy just ... give up like that?"
Upstairs, in the room she and Tara shared, Willow finished highlighting passages in her textbook and then closed it with a sharp snap. Retrieving her booksack from the floor, she packed everything away and then hesitated for a moment before extracting something from within. Another book. The Essential Calvin and Hobbes. She laid it on the desk in front of her and flipped it open. It was, as would be expected, a compilation of comic strips. Nothing unusual or out of the ordinary. She thumbed through the book and smiled a little at one of the cartoons. Then, as she ran her palm across the page, her smile widened.
"Maybe so," replied Xander. "Willow can be pretty darned persuasive when she wants to be."
The series of comic strips wavered and then faded completely to reveal a hand-written scrawl. The letters were archaic, tightly formed and somewhat spidery in appearance. It was a list of ingredients. Directions for a spell. Willow riffled through the remaining pages. Every one of them had been similarly transformed.
"And if not," Buffy assured her friends, "well ... we'll deal."
Willow glanced over her shoulder at the closed door. Her expression was an inscrutable mask.
Buffy nodded her complete confidence. "No doubt about it."
Slowly, Willow closed the book.